Overnight Defense: Esper suggests USS Kidd coronavirus outbreak came from counter-drug operation | US Navy enters Barents Sea for first time since Cold War | Purple Hearts approved for soldiers injured in Iran attack

Overnight Defense: Esper suggests USS Kidd coronavirus outbreak came from counter-drug operation | US Navy enters Barents Sea for first time since Cold War | Purple Hearts approved for soldiers injured in Iran attack
© Greg Nash

Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, 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.

THE TOPLINE: The coronavirus outbreak aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer may have been picked up through a counter-narcotics operation, Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperThe paradox of US-India relations Overnight Defense: Trump-era land mine policy unchanged amid review | Biden spending outline coming Friday | First lady sets priorities for relaunched military families initiative Biden to keep Trump-era land mine policy in place during review MORE said Monday.

“We're not sure where she picked it up, it may have been through a counter-drug operation,” Esper said of the USS Kidd during a webinar hosted by the Brookings Institution.

The Kidd — originally deployed near Central America but now in port in San Diego to be cleaned — was the second U.S. warship to be hit with a coronavirus outbreak after the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier.

The Navy became aware of the outbreak aboard the Kidd last month after a sailor needed to be medically evacuated to a treatment facility in San Antonio, Texas.

Asked about the risks of being sequestered aboard a vessel during the COVID-19 pandemic, Esper said that “statistics show the safest place to be is on a deployed Navy ship as compared to one that’s in port.”

“Of the 90-plus ships we have at sea we only have two that have been affected,” he said. “Two ships out of I think 94 is a pretty good record.”

In other coronavirus news…

Latest numbers: The number of coronavirus cases reported by the Pentagon ticked up to 7,434 on Monday.

That includes 4,912 service members, including 99 who have been hospitalized and 1,806 who have recovered.

There were no new deaths reported Monday.

Adapting to the ‘new normal’: During Monday’s Brookings Institution appearance, Esper also underlined what other defense officials have been saying in recent weeks: The military is preparing to live with the pandemic long-term.

“What do we do over the next six, 12, 18 months?” Esper asked. “My view, the view of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of our commanders, civilian leaders is there will be a new normal that we will have to adapt to for an extended period of time at least until we have a vaccine that we are confident in.”

As far as reopening the Pentagon and other offices in the D.C. area, Esper said officials are looking to do so in phases.

“For the past few weeks, our chief management officer has been developing plans to reopen the Pentagon and other buildings at least in the Washington, D.C., area,” he said. “It'll be based on the president's plan that was in the guidelines given to him by our public sector experts. So we can, over a period of time in phases, open up the Pentagon and other office buildings like that so we can, again, get back to normal, but at the same time, protect our people.”

Budget brawl looming: Over the weekend, we took a look at what the pandemic could mean for future defense budgets.

Cuts could be on the horizon after the pandemic as the defense budget takes pressure on multiple fronts.

The Pentagon had already been expecting relatively flat budgets for the next few years due to economic constraints.

But with the pandemic, the deficit is projected to explode after Congress passed trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief packages, with more aid bills expected. Defense budget analysts are predicting that will mean cuts to defense spending down the line.

Meanwhile, Democrats say the crisis should result in a rethinking of national security that gives less money to the Pentagon and more to areas including public health.

Esper on Monday expressed concern about the possibility of budget cuts.

“We all recognize that the United States has an enormous debt and we have to deal with that too,” Esper said. “And so there is a concern there that that may lead to a smaller defense budget in the future.”

MEANWHILE … IN THE ARCTIC: The U.S. Navy has sent four ships into the Barents Sea off of Russia’s Arctic coast for the first time since the Cold War, the Navy said Monday.

Three U.S. destroyers — the USS Donald Cook, USS Porter and USS Roosevelt — and one U.S. support ship, the USNS Supply, entered the Barents Sea on Monday with a British Royal Navy frigate for the first time since the mid-1980s “to assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies,” the Navy said in a news release.

“In these challenging times, it is more important than ever that we maintain our steady drumbeat of operations across the European theater, while taking prudent measures to protect the health of our force,” Vice Adm. Lisa Franchetti, commander of the U.S. 6th Fleet, said in a statement. “We remain committed to promoting regional security and stability, while building trust and reinforcing a foundation of Arctic readiness.”

The Navy notified the Russian Defense Ministry about the planned operation Friday in an effort to “avoid misperceptions, reduce risk and prevent inadvertent escalation,” the release added.

PURPLE HEARTS AWARDED FOR IRAN ATTACK: Twenty-nine U.S. soldiers have been approved for Purple Hearts after suffering traumatic brain injuries (TBI) from Iran’s January missile strike on an Iraqi military base, with the first six awarded Sunday and Monday, U.S. Central Command (Centcom) said Monday.

“The first six Purple Hearts approved for injuries sustained during a Jan. 8, 2020, Iranian ballistic missile attack on Al Asad Air Base in Iraq were awarded to U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait on May 3 and 4, respectively,” Centcom spokesman Cmdr. Zachary Harrell said in a statement.

The remaining 23 awards are expected to be presented this week, Harrell added.

Background: On Jan. 8, Iran launched a ballistic missile strike on Iraq’s al Asad Air Base in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani while he was at the Baghdad airport earlier that month.

U.S. officials initially said Iran’s attack caused no injuries, but later revealed dozens of troops were suffering from TBI. Officials attributed the delay in reporting the injuries to the fact that symptoms from TBI can sometimes take time to present themselves.

Eventually, 110 U.S. service members were diagnosed with TBI.

When brain injuries from the attack were first revealed, President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to move ahead with billion UAE weapons sale approved by Trump Fox News hires high-profile defense team in Dominion defamation lawsuit Associate indicted in Gaetz scandal cooperating with DOJ: report MORE elicited criticism by downplaying their severity. Trump said in January that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” calling the injuries “not very serious.”

In other Iran news: Hundreds of House lawmakers in both parties are calling on Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBiden faces day of reckoning on China and Taiwan Nikki Haley says if Trump runs for president in 2024 then she won't Blinken: China 'didn't do what it needed to do' in early stages of pandemic MORE to take “increased diplomatic action” to renew a United Nations arms embargo on Iran set to expire in October.

“We write to urge increased diplomatic action by the United States to renew the expiring United Nations arms embargo against Iran and United Nations travel restrictions on those Iranian individuals involved with dangerous proliferation activities,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Pompeo obtained by The Hill ahead of its release.

“America must continue its longstanding, bipartisan leadership in order to limit Iran's destabilizing activities throughout the world,” they added. “We look forward to working with you to reauthorize these expiring U.N. restrictions, which are essential to protecting our national security and the American people.”

The letter was organized by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance Engel Progressives fight for leverage amid ever-slimming majority Progressives target Manchin, Sinema with new PAC State Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies MORE (D-N.Y.) and committee ranking member Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulOvernight Defense: Biden makes his Afghanistan decision Biden sparks bipartisan backlash on Afghanistan withdrawal  Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 MORE (R-Texas). The letter had 387 signatures.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host an online event on recent developments on the Korean peninsula, featuring deputy assistant secretary of State for Korea and Japan Marc Knapper, at 8 a.m. https://bit.ly/2z9ywDk

The American Enterprise Institute will hold a webinar on Russian and Chinese information campaigns during the coronavirus pandemic at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/35DhFFi

The Atlantic Council will host an online event with Defense Security Cooperation Agency director Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper at 10:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/2Wvq756

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a webinar with NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineBill Nelson's nomination as NASA administrator is replete with irony Biden to nominate Bill Nelson to head NASA: reports The Biden administration endorses NASA's Artemis, the Space Force MORE at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/3fngNJ9


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