Overnight Defense: Afghanistan tops foreign policy issues at Dem debate | Erdogan says he'll discuss missile sale with Trump | US again challenges Beijing's claim to South China Sea
Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces
Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your guide this week to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
Programming note: Overnight Defense will be only be publishing on Wednesdays for the remainder of the August recess.
THE TOPLINE: Tensions between the United States and Russia remained high this week in part thanks to boasts from both countries about a burgeoning arms race and an incident between NATO and Russian aircraft.
Russia on Tuesday claimed that it was winning the race to develop new, far-flying nuclear weapons despite a rocket explosion in the country that forced the government to temporarily evacuate a nearby village.
Moscow's state nuclear agency Rosatom said the accident in northern Russia happened Thursday during a rocket test on a sea platform in the White Sea, killing five people and injuring three others from the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, according to multiple news outlets.
Russia pledged to keep developing new weapons despite the explosion and said Moscow is ahead of other nations in developing such arms.
"Our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.
Trump's response: Trump on Monday claimed that the United States has "similar, though more advanced, technology," than Russia, which last year announced a new missile - called 9M730 Burevestnik, or Stormy Petrel - that it claimed would have "unlimited range."
He also said his administration is "learning much" from the mysterious explosion.
Timing of threats: Earlier this month the United States formally left the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia.
The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, was meant to prevent the U.S. and Russia from developing and having nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that have ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The U.S. has said the Kremlin was violating the treaty for years, claims Russia denies.
Explosion fallout: Russia's rocket explosion last week could have serious implications in the race to develop a longer-range missile.
Local authorities have advised residents of the nearby village of Nyonoksa to evacuate while they do clean-up work in the area.
About 450 people reportedly live in the village, which is next to a military testing range and where radiation levels spiked following the accident.
And Russian weather agency Rosgidromet on Tuesday reported that radiation levels in the city of nearby Severodvinsk were as much as 16 times higher than normal after an accident.
Also this week: Russian fighter jets on Tuesday forced away a NATO F-18 fighter jet that came near a plane carrying the Kremlin's defense minister, according to Moscow's state-run TASS news agency.
The NATO jet reportedly tried to approach Sergei Shoigu's plane over international airspace over the Baltic Sea en route to Moscow before two Russian Sukhoi-27 fighters that were escorting the official's aircraft chased off the F-18.
NATO says Russian jets acted unsafely: A NATO official said Wednesday that a Russian fighter jet acted in an "unsafe" manner on Tuesday when it forced a NATO aircraft to maneuver to avoid any danger.
The official told CNN that two Russian aircraft had been flying with their transponders off and were without contact with local air traffic control.
A third aircraft, which the jets were escorting and reportedly carried Shoigu, traveled normally and responded to requests for identification, the official said.
The aircraft the Russians forced away was one of two F-18 fighter jets assigned to a NATO policing mission in Lithuania. The jets were scrambled "in order to assess the situation," the official told the network.
TRUMP STAYS NEUTRAL AMID HONG KONG PROTESTS: Violent clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police in the Hong Kong airport prompted an outpouring of support this week from U.S. lawmakers for the demonstrators.
President Trump for his part expressed hope the escalating clashes can be resolved but offered no direct warning to China -- leading to criticism from some Democrats that he should have more forcefully backed the protesters.
Footage of startling scenes in the world's eighth busiest airport dominated U.S. media coverage Tuesday.
Trump's response: The State Department urged China to "allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy," but Trump himself took a more neutral tone.
"It's a very tricky situation," Trump told reporters. "I think it'll work out. And I hope it works out for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurts. I hope nobody gets killed."
Later on Twitter, he urged "everyone" to "be calm and safe" as he claimed U.S. intelligence showed Chinese troops moving toward Hong Kong.
"Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!" Trump tweeted.
Lawmaker responses: Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) responded to that tweet with his own saying "this is not foreign policy."
"It's hard to overstate how meaningful support or backing from the U.S. is to the work of human rights and democracy activists overseas," Murphy wrote in another tweet. "It's also hard to overstate how devastating it is when they risk it all to speak up for these 'American' values, and America is silent."
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) tweeted his support for the people of Hong Kong, which contrasted with Trump's messages arguing both sides should be calm.
"Protests in Hong Kong are further exposing China's relentless campaign of repression, censorship, and the imprisonment of millions," Romney wrote. "I support the people of Hong Kong in their quest for freedom and autonomy. The Chinese Communist Party and the military should stay in Beijing."
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), meanwhile, wrote that the U.S. had a "responsibility to speak up in defense of democracy and make clear that a violent crackdown by the Hong Kong or Chinese governments against this protest would be unacceptable."
Timing: The airport violence came the same day Trump announced planned tariffs on $300 billion in goods would be delayed until mid-December for many major products, including cellphones, laptops and other popular Christmas gifts.
Trump also said in a tweet that he and the United States are being blamed for the ongoing unrest, adding that he "can't imagine why."
The Chinese government has attempted to dismiss the widespread demonstrations as a "creation" of the United States.
The background: Protests in Hong Kong started in June over a proposed law that would allow extradition of criminal suspects from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's leader, suspended the bill, but did not withdraw it. As the demonstrations have endured, protesters' demands have grown into wider calls for Lam to step down, for investigations into police brutality and for more democracy. Violence has also escalated, with Sunday seeing police firing tear gas into a train station.
Authorities, in turn, have accused protesters of attacking officers with bricks and gasoline bombs.
The United Nations human rights office on Tuesday urged authorities in Hong Kong to "immediately" investigate the use of force by police against protesters, saying that there is "credible evidence of law enforcement officials employing less-lethal weapons in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards."
ESPER RETURNS FROM FIRST MAJOR TRIP: Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday returned from his first major international trip as Pentagon chief -- a seven-day whirlwind tour of five countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Esper stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea, stressing alliances and the importance of combating Chinese aggression in meetings with military counterparts and heads of state.
The discussions touched on a range of regional and global issues, including Iran's aggression in the Persian Gulf, North Korean missile launches and patching up relations between major allies Japan and South Korea.
North Korean missile tests likely won't stop: Esper's trip was essentially bookended by North Korean missile launches, with one on Aug. 5 as he left Australia and another that was reported on Aug. 9, just after he touched down on U.S. soil.
The tests were the fourth and fifth in the past month, and there's no sign North Korea is letting up.
Esper's remarks while on the trip indicated the Trump administration has no plans to admonish Pyongyang.
"While we take these launchings seriously, we monitor them, we try to understand what they're doing and why," Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan. "We also need to be careful not to overreact and not to get ourselves in a situation where diplomacy is closed off."
President Trump has insisted the tests are "very standard" and not in violation of an earlier denuclearization agreement.
U.S.-South Korean exercises to stay: The U.S.-South Korean joint military drills, which are expected to last for two weeks, are the root cause of North Korea's recent missile launches.
Pyongyang insists the joint exercises are in violation of an agreement between Trump and Kim from their first meeting, in June 2018.
Asked last week whether there are plans to change future military exercises with Seoul, Esper replied, "Not at this point."
"We've made some adjustments after the presidents' meeting last year and we're still abiding by those," he said. "But at the same time we need to maintain our readiness and making sure that we're prepared."
Allies like Esper: At each stop along the way, Esper emphasized the U.S. commitment to its alliances, a message that was welcomed by allies and partners.
The defense chief's trip was "very well received," according to Pat Buchan, an Indo-Pacific security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Esper's credentials and his message played well with foreign leaders who see the new secretary "as a very strongly committed alliance manager," Buchan told The Hill.
Commitments to policing Persian Gulf might be tricky: Esper's tour came as the Trump administration hopes to press allies and partner countries to form a coalition that would police shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.
The effort, known as Operation Sentinel, is meant to deter Iranian aggression at a time when tensions between Washington and Tehran are near an all-time high.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Sydney along with Esper, said in late July that the U.S. has asked Australia, Japan, France, Germany and South Korea to contribute to the American-led operation to monitor the strait.
While Germany deferred, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace told reporters on Aug. 5 that the U.K. will work alongside the U.S. and other countries to "find an international solution to the problems in the Strait of Hormuz."
But securing the other agreements is not guaranteed.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Esper reportedly did not discuss the maritime operation, and a senior U.S. defense official said the topic was only talked about in broad terms during meetings with other Japanese leaders.
Esper's Australian counterpart, meanwhile, would not give an answer as to whether Sydney has agreed to commit naval and air forces or funding to Operation Sentinel.
New military, economic possibilities taking shape in Mongolia: Esper's visit to Mongolia as the fourth stopover on his trip marked the first time a U.S. Defense secretary has visited the landlocked country since Chuck Hagel was there in 2014.
Situated between China and Russia -- the top two threats named in the Trump administration's National Defense Strategy -- Mongolia has been a U.S. military partner since 1996 but has only recently been eyed by Washington as having more potential for defense and economic inroads.
Esper's stop, along with a string of recent high-level meetings between U.S. and Mongolian leaders, seems to reflect this thinking.
Mongolia, which calls the U.S. its "third neighbor," has previously partnered with the Pentagon on military endeavors.
Here's more stories from The Hill on Esper's trip:
-- Pentagon chief stresses alliances; back home, Trump tears at them
-- Esper given horse in Mongolia as US looks for new inroads against China
-- Esper: US won't 'overreact' to North Korean missile launches
-- Pentagon chief: US would prevent 'unacceptable' Turkish invasion of Syria
-- New Pentagon chief says China's 'destabilizing behavior' is 'disturbing'
-- Pentagon chief says US looking to put intermediate-range missiles in Asia
-- Pentagon chief denies White House hand in 'war cloud' contract probe
-- Trump's defense chief sees rising support for US plan to counter Iran
REVIEW OF SPECIAL FORCES ORDERED FOLLOWING SCANDALS: Gen. Richard Clarke, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, has ordered a comprehensive review of the ethics and culture of special operations forces following a series of scandals.
"Recent incidents have called our culture and ethics into question and threaten the trust placed in us," Clarke wrote in a memo.
"As a result, I am initiating a comprehensive review of Special Operations Forces (SOF) culture and ethics. The review will gather insights and observations from across our force and will draw upon the unique perspectives of leaders from internal and external entities," he added.
What the review will look at: The probe, Clarke said, will assess aspects of special operations culture ranging from recruiting, training and selection to ethics education and how ethical lapses are handled.
"Most importantly, recognize this review as an opportunity to strengthen our values and reinforce trust," he said, according to ABC.
A refresher: Clarke's announcement follows a series of public relations black eyes involving special operations personnel, including two members of SEAL Team 6 and two special operations Marines who were charged with Army Green Beret Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar's 2017 death, as well as the trial of Navy Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder charges earlier this year.
In late July, an entire SEAL team was ordered home following reports of drinking on the Fourth of July and later allegations of sexual assault.
"I don't know yet if we have a culture problem, I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately," Rear Adm. Collin Green, the head of the U.S. Navy SEALs, wrote in a letter to top commanders earlier this month.
-- The Hill: US team in Turkey begins work on Syrian safe zone
-- The Hill: Defense officials say Marine may have been killed by friendly fire in Iraq: report
-- The Hill: Taliban: Latest round of talks with US end
-- The Hill: New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria
-- The Hill: Top Pence aide Alyssa Farah to become Pentagon press secretary
-- The Hill: North Korean media: New US missiles in South Korea would trigger 'new Cold War'
-- The Hill: GOP senator eyes closing loophole to make domestic terrorism a federal crime
-- The Hill: Hoekstra emerges as favorite for top intelligence post
-- The Hill: Opinion: China must reduce its nuclear arms to reassure the world
-- The Hill: Opinion: China's growing threat to national security and the nation's health