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Overnight Defense: US deploys low-yield nukes on submarines | Watchdog warns Iraq withdrawal 'likely' means ISIS resurgence | What to watch in Trump's State of the Union

Overnight Defense: US deploys low-yield nukes on submarines | Watchdog warns Iraq withdrawal 'likely' means ISIS resurgence | What to watch in Trump's State of the Union
© Dave Fliesen/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

Programming note: Check back at TheHill.com tonight for our live coverage of President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE's State of the Union.

 

THE TOPLINE: The Trump administration has deployed its controversial submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warhead, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday, marking the first new weapon added to the U.S. nuclear arsenal in decades.

"The U.S. Navy has fielded the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead," John Rood, the under secretary of Defense for policy, said in a statement.

"This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario," he added.

The lead up: The Trump administration called for the low-yield warhead as part of its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The administration argues the warhead is necessary to deter Russia.

Moscow, the argument goes, might have miscalculated that the United States was unwilling to use its nuclear weapons in response to a Russian low-yield nuclear strike because the existing U.S. weapons were too powerful.

"In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the department identified the requirement to 'modify a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads' to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners," Rood said in his statement.

The push back: Critics, including arms control advocates and congressional Democrats, argue the new low-yield warhead is dangerous and unnecessary. They fear the threshold for the United States' willingness to use nuclear weapons will be lowered. They also argue that the United States already had a lower-yield option in its air-launched nuclear weapons.

In their initial version of last year's defense policy bill, House Democrats included a ban on deploying the submarine-launched low-yield warhead, but the prohibition was taken out of the final bill signed into law during negotiations with the Senate.

Unknown deployments: In his statement, Rood did not say when and where the new warhead was deployed. In an interview with The Associated Press about the deployment, Rood declined to provide those details, saying they were classified.

The Federation of American Scientists, which first reported the deployment last week citing anonymous sources, said the warhead was believed to be on the USS Tennessee when it left from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia at the end of 2019 for a patrol in the Atlantic Ocean.

 

WATCHDOG SAYS WITHDRAWAL FROM IRAQ WOULD 'LIKELY' MEAN ISIS RESURGENCE: A U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would "likely" lead to an ISIS resurgence, according to an intelligence assessment revealed in an inspector general report Tuesday.

"The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)'s analysis for the DoD OIG [Department of Defense Office of Inspector General] indicates that without a U.S. troop presence in Iraq, ISIS would likely resurge in Iraq," Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote in an introduction to the report.

The timing: The latest quarterly report from the lead inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve comes as U.S.-Iraqi relations are reeling from the fallout over the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani at the Baghdad International Airport.

Following the strike, Iraq's parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the removal of U.S. military forces from the country, where about 5,000 U.S. troops are leading the coalition fighting ISIS.

Still, Iraq has not initiated a formal process to kick U.S. troops out, and Trump administration officials have said they have no plans to leave Iraq.

Unknown fallout: Meanwhile, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations against ISIS paused after the Soleimani strike. Iraq announced last week the joint operations had resumed.

Tuesday's report, which was largely completed before the Soleimani strike, said it remains unclear whether the pause has affected ISIS's ability to regroup in Iraq.

"The Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) stated to the DoD OIG that it was too soon to be able to assess the effects of the pause in operations and that due to operational priorities it declined to answer questions from the DoD Office of Inspector General (DoD OIG) about the late-breaking developments in January 2020," the report said.

Details from the quarter: During the quarter, Iraqi forces conducted "many operations" against ISIS independently, while some other operations were "minimally enabled" the U.S.-led coalition's air support and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the report said. "Large-scale operations" were conducted by coalition forces in conjunction with Iraqi forces, the report added.

Disagreements over Turkey's move: Meanwhile, in Syria, officials disputed the extent to which ISIS took advantage of Turkey's offensive against the Kurds.

The Defense Intelligence Agency, citing claims on ISIS websites, said the terrorist group "probably increased its attacks in northeast Syria by at least 20 percent" after the Turkish invasion in northeast Syria, according to the report.

But the anti-ISIS coalition disputed that finding, telling the inspector general that "ISIS-claimed attacks are 'most likely propaganda,' and that CJTF-OIR's determination that the Turkish incursion did not result in any significant ISIS resurgence is based on 'known facts.' "

One point of agreement was that the October death of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a U.S. raid in Syria has not affected the group's capabilities.

 

TRUMP'S ADDRESS TONIGHT: Trump will deliver his third State of the Union address on Tuesday night, giving him an opportunity to tout his policies and accomplishments while pushing for action on legislative priorities.

But the prime-time address will come under the cloud of impeachment, just a day before the GOP-controlled Senate is widely expected to acquit the president of allegations he abused his power and obstructed Congress.

The speech will also provide Trump a national platform to make his case for a second term, nine months before Election Day.

Here are five things to watch as Trump delivers his third State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Does he mention impeachment? This year's speech stands apart for Trump, not only because it comes during an election year but also because he will address members of the legislative body that impeached him less than two months ago.

Trump's allies on Capitol Hill and his advisers have recommended he not talk about impeachment and instead focus on his administration's accomplishments.

The White House has previewed Trump's address as focusing on the economy, health care and other top issues of concern to working Americans, saying it will strike an optimistic tone.

White House principal deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters Tuesday that he had read the speech and that it didn't explicitly mention "impeachment." But he did not rule out the possibility of Trump referencing it in some capacity.

What's his message to Democrats? Trump and U.S. presidents before him have used the annual speech to press for bipartisan cooperation on areas of mutual concern, while laying out a vision for their administration's agenda.

Still, Tuesday's address comes at an unusually high point of tension between Trump and the Democratic-controlled House. There is also decidedly less promise for bipartisan cooperation in Congress during a presidential election year.

That backdrop has observers wondering whether Trump will focus on areas where his administration can work with Democrats or if he will strike a combative tone amid impeachment.

Does he roll out any major legislative proposals or surprises? White House officials have been guarded about the specifics of Trump's speech, leaving open the possibility he could deliver an unexpected announcement.

Trump could look to make a renewed push on pursuing an infrastructure package, lowering prescription drug costs or another area that has bipartisan support.

One area where Trump may make news is foreign policy. The official gave few specifics about what Trump would cover in discussing national security and military efforts, but the president has spoken frequently about wanting to bring U.S. troops home from overseas.

How much does Trump focus on the 2020 election? The November presidential election will loom large over Tuesday's speech.

Trump will use his address to make the case to voters that his accomplishments and vision for moving forward warrant a second term. That message will be delivered in the presence of a handful of lawmakers vying for the Democratic presidential nomination and the chance to challenge Trump in November.

Others, however, will be on the campaign trail. Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersClyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts Prepare for buyers' remorse when Biden/Harris nationalize health care Biden: 'Difficult decision' to staff administration with House, Senate members MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach No, the government cannot seize, break or 'bypass' pharmaceutical patents — even for COVID-19 MORE (D-Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE (D-Minn.) are expected to skip the address to campaign in New Hampshire ahead of that state's Feb. 11 primary.

How will the speech be received? The partisan split in Washington means the reaction to Trump's speech will largely fall along party lines, with Democrats picking out points of criticism and Republicans praising the highlights.

Trump is expected to mention some of his more controversial policy positions, such as his crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities -- those that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities -- and will draw a "sharp contrast" with health care proposals put forth by Democrats, according to the senior administration official.

Still, a more tempered address that makes a pitch for bipartisanship and does not include attacks on political foes may earn Trump some credit among Democrats -- even amid soaring tensions and impeachment.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The House Armed Services Committee will hear from defense industry experts on "Supercharging the Innovation Base," at 9 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2118. 

Rep. Michael WaltzMichael WaltzFlorida GOP Rep. Mike Waltz tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches Americans want to serve — it's up to us to give them the chance MORE (R-Fla.) will speak on "Making the Case for Sustained U.S. Engagement in a Transitioning Afghanistan," at 9:30 a.m. at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert WilkieRobert Leon WilkieOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Senate Democrats press VA for vaccine distribution plan Overnight Defense: Pentagon faces leadership shakeup after Trump fires Esper | Trump approves UAE weapons package | Senate panel proposes 6B spending bill MORE will hold a news conference on the Trump administration's plan to prevent veteran suicide at 10 a.m. at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. 

Two House Armed Services subcommittees will hold a joint hearing titled "Update on Navy and Marine Corps Readiness in the Pacific in the Aftermath of Recent Mishaps," with Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander, Naval Surface Forces U.S. Pacific Fleet; and Marine Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, at 2:30 p.m. in Rayburn 2118. 

 

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