Overnight Defense: Pentagon memo warns pandemic could go until summer 2021 | Watchdog finds Taliban violence is high despite US deal | Progressive Dems demand defense cuts

Overnight Defense: Pentagon memo warns pandemic could go until summer 2021 | Watchdog finds Taliban violence is high despite US deal | Progressive Dems demand defense cuts
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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.

THE TOPLINE: A leaked Pentagon memo on Tuesday revealed that top Defense Department officials have been planning for the possibility that the military could be dealing with a “globally-persistent” coronavirus pandemic well into 2021.

The memo, obtained by Task and Purpose, also warns of the “real possibility” that a vaccine for COVID-19 won’t be available until “at least the summer of 2021.”

“We have a long path ahead, with the real possibility of a resurgence of COVID-19. Therefore, we must now re-focus our attention on resuming critical missions, increasing levels of activity, and making necessary preparations should a significant resurgence of COVID-19 occur later this year,” it reads. 

The Pentagon’s response: When reached by The Hill, a Pentagon official said they could not find a version of the memo as reported in the Task & Purpose article and could not confirm it specifically. 

They did confirm that the department “continues to develop plans that address operating in the COVID-19 environment,” and some versions of such plans had similar language as the reported memo, but none have been approved.

“Senior DoD officials have discussed the development of a plan to reduce Health Protection Conditions around the world and continue the 2020 summer move cycle safely,” they said. “The plans have not been approved by senior DoD leaders yet, and we’re not going to discuss what might be in the final version of those plans.” 

A lofty vaccine goal: President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE on Friday unveiled a federal task force in charge of what he hopes will produce a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, a presentation that Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Trump reportedly considering replacing Esper after election | FBI, Air Force investigating after helicopter shot at in Virginia | Watchdog says UK envoy made inappropriate comments on religion, race, sex Trump eyes replacing Esper after election: reports Overnight Defense: Esper confirms plans to drop below 5,000 troops in Afghanistan | State Department says it's cleared of wrongdoing in emergency arms sales before investigation's release MORE spoke at.

“We will deliver, by the end of this year a vaccine, at scale, to treat the American people and our partners abroad,” Esper said at the White House.

The Pentagon later clarified that Esper was merely announcing a set goal and was not promising a vaccine by the end of 2020.

Doubts persist: The administration’s push for a vaccine in such short time has been met with skepticism from health experts, who have said the development of a new vaccine can take 12 to 18 months at the soonest.

Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House's coronavirus task force, has said it’s possible a vaccine will be ready in January. He has cautioned, however, that there was “no guarantee” a given vaccine would actually be effective. 

What’s in the memo: The new memo — which was unsigned but reportedly prepared by Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security — adds to the skepticism that a coronavirus vaccine would be ready by early next year. 

“All indications suggest we will be operating in a globally-persistent COVID-19 environment in the months ahead,” according to the memo. “This will likely continue until there is wide-scale immunity, through immunization, and some immunity post-recovery from the virus.”

The document calls for increased testing as well as a registry “to track and closely monitor outcomes of those infected with COVID-19.”

Earlier: Defense officials have said the coronavirus will be an obstacle to the military at least until a vaccine is developed, with Esper earlier this month acknowledging that the Pentagon is “preparing for a second wave and maybe more,” of the illness. 

“We don't know what the trajectory of this virus will be. So my view has been that we’ll be at this for a number of months, at least until we get a vaccine,” Esper said during a visit to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, adding that he doesn’t see social distancing “easing anytime soon.”

 

WATCHDOG: TALIBAN VIOLENCE HIGH DESPITE DEAL WITH US: Taliban attacks on Afghan forces were high in the first three months of the year even with a one-week reduction in violence ahead of the Trump administration signing a withdrawal deal with the insurgents, a U.S. government watchdog said Tuesday.

“The United States and Taliban agreed to a one-week reduction in violence prior to the signing of the agreement, but Taliban violence during the quarter overall was high,” acting Pentagon Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in the introduction to the latest quarterly lead inspector general report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

“According to senior U.S. officials, the Taliban significantly decreased its attacks during the negotiated week of reduced violence that preceded the signing of the agreement,” the report added. “However, both during the reduction in violence and after the signing of the agreement, the Taliban continued attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”

Citing media reports, the inspector general said the Taliban launched attacks more than 300 times in the last two weeks of March alone.

An unmet deal: The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban at the end of February that committed the U.S. military to drawing down to 8,600 troops by mid-July. The agreement also lays out a full U.S. withdrawal within 14 months after its signing if the Taliban honors its counterterrorism commitments.

As a confidence-building measure, all sides agreed to a reduction in violence in the week leading up to the deal's signing. U.S. officials deemed that week largely successful.

Days after the deal was signed, the Taliban announced it would no longer adhere to the reduction in violence and picked up attacks against Afghan forces.

Tuesday’s report is the latest evidence of increasing violence in Afghanistan despite the U.S.-Taliban deal. U.S. officials have said they expect the Taliban to reduce violence, but the deal does not explicitly commit the insurgents to ending attacks on Afghan forces.

 

PROGRESSIVES DEMAND DEFENSE CUTS AMID COVID-19: Nearly 30 Democrats are demanding that leaders of the House Armed Services Committee cut the defense budget amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Trump pushed to restore full National Guard funding | Watchdog faults Pompeo on civilian risk of Saudi arms sales Lawmakers push Trump to restore full funding for National Guards responding to pandemic Overnight Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response MORE (D-Wash.) and ranking member Rep. Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryBottom line Overnight Defense: US to pull 11,900 troops from Germany | Troop shuffle to cost 'several billion' dollars | Lawmakers pan drawdown plan | Trump says he hasn't discussed alleged bounties with Putin Lawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany MORE (R-Texas), the Democrats, most of whom are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, urged the panel's top lawmakers to authorize a smaller defense budget in this year’s policy bill compared to last year’s.

“These are unparalleled times. We encourage you to constrain defense spending during this pandemic so that we can defeat the greatest threat to our nation – the coronavirus,” the Democrats wrote in the letter released Tuesday.

Who signed on: Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanProgressive Caucus co-chair: Reported oversight change in intelligence office 'seems a bit...fascist' House approves amendments to rein in federal forces in cities House Democrats backtrack, will pull Homeland Security bill MORE (Wis.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeIt's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Democrats introduce bill to repeal funding ban on abortions abroad Democrats hope clash resonates with key bloc: Women MORE (Calif.) organized the letter. It was signed by 27 other Democrats, including firebrand “squad” members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez's 2nd grade teacher tells her 'you've got this' ahead of DNC speech New poll shows Markey with wide lead over Kennedy in Massachusetts Ocasio-Cortez celebrates 'squad' primary victories: 'The people triumphed' MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarOcasio-Cortez celebrates 'squad' primary victories: 'The people triumphed' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence Omar fends off primary challenge in Minnesota MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyOcasio-Cortez celebrates 'squad' primary victories: 'The people triumphed' It's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Minneapolis Star Tribune endorses Ilhan Omar's primary challenger MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibOcasio-Cortez celebrates 'squad' primary victories: 'The people triumphed' Omar fends off primary challenge in Minnesota Centrists, progressives rally around Harris pick for VP MORE (Mich.).

Their argument: “America needs a coronavirus cure, not more war,” the letter said. “We need more testing, not more bombs. In order to reopen our nation in a data-driven, safe manner, we need to focus our spending efforts on the millions of additional coronavirus tests and tens of thousands of additional contract tracers we will need, as well as covering treatment costs, developing therapeutics, and distributing future vaccines.”

 

Why this matters: Twenty-nine Democrats withholding their support for the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could complicate efforts to pass the bill in the House later this year if Republicans were to vote against it.

In 2019, Republicans voted against the initial House version of the bill, meaning it had to pass on Democratic support alone. After a compromise version of the NDAA emerged from negotiations with the Republican-controlled Senate that led to the removal of several progressive priorities, House Republicans supported the measure and it easily passed despite a handful of progressives voting against it.

A reminder: Defense budget analysts have predicted cuts once the coronavirus pandemic ends because of fiscal pressures such as rising federal deficits.

Smith has suggested lawmakers will need to “reevaluate” the entire federal budget, including defense allocations, after the pandemic subsides.

But this year’s NDAA is expected to follow a two-year budget deal Congress approved in 2019 that set the fiscal 2021 defense budget at about $740 billion. Last year’s NDAA was about $738 billion.

Defense hawks’ views: And while progressives are arguing the pandemic should prompt the United States to reassess its priorities and spend less on defense and more on areas such as public health, defense hawks argue the security threats that drove spending at the Department of Defense (DOD) before the pandemic have not changed.

“I bristle a little bit at the notion that, well of course DOD’s got to get their budget cut,” Thornberry told reporters on a call earlier this month. “The world's not going to be any safer on the other side of COVID[-19].”

Thornberry has also said he expects the initial House version of the bill to be more bipartisan than the 2019 version.

The numbers today: In total, the number of Pentagon-connected cases of the virus were 8,697 on Tuesday. That includes 5,765 members of the military, including 127 hospitalizations and 2,860 recoveries.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Brookings Institution will hold a webinar on “Tunnels, Missiles, Reactors — Understanding North Korea's Role in the Middle East,” at 9:30 a.m. 

Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin will speak during a Washington Space Business Roundtable video event at 9:30 a.m. 

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies will hold an “Aerospace Nation” webcast with Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson, and retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula at 10 a.m. 

The Atlantic Council will hold a webinar on “Will COVID-19 Exacerbate or Defuse Conflicts in the Middle East?” with U.N. Undersecretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo at 10 a.m. 

The Henry Stimson Center will hold a webinar on “U.S. Arms Sales in a Time of COVID-19,” at 1:30 p.m. 

The Commonwealth Club will hold a webcast on “Reducing Nuclear Weapons: Stopping the War that No One Wants,” with U.N. Undersecretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu; former Secretary of Defense William Perry; former Secretary of State George Shultz; former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller; and former Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.); at 5 p.m. 

 

ICYMI

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-- The Hill: Navy fires top enlisted recruiter for 'loss of confidence' after investigation

-- The Hill: Top Democrat to introduce bill to limit Trump's ability to fire IGs

-- The Hill: Opinion: How to confront China's threats once the pandemic passes 

-- The Hill: Opinion: Will coronavirus help ISIS?