Overnight Defense: Air Force general officially becomes first African American service chief | Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure | State Department’s special envoy for Iran is departing the Trump administration
Happy Thursday 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: Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown has taken the reins of the Air Force, officially becoming the first African American general to lead a branch of the U.S. military.
Brown was officially sworn in as Air Force chief of staff in a ceremony Thursday at Joint Base Andrews, Md., where the oath was administered by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett.
“This is a very historic day for our nation, and I do not take this moment lightly,” Brown said at Thursday’s ceremony. “Today’s possible due to the perseverance of those who went before me, serving as an inspiration to me and so many others. Those like the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., Chappie James, Charles McGee, African American leaders across our Air Force and our military, past and present, including today’s special guest, Mr. Ed Dwight, America’s first African American astronaut candidate.”
“It is due to their trials and tribulations in breaking barriers that I can address you today as the Air Force chief of staff,” Brown added.
Goldfein heads out: The ceremony also marked the retirement of outgoing Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein after a 37-year career that included getting shot down in Serbia in 1999, and was capped by President Trump’s surprise decision to pass him over for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in favor of Gen. Mark Milley.
In his parting speech, Goldfein recounted all the responsibilities that walking the halls of the Pentagon each day reminded him of, including the need for an apolitical military.
“As Chairman Milley reminded us all last month, military members swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Goldfein said. “We, the U.S. military, hold dear the Constitution and the principle of an apolitical military that is so deeply rooted in the very essence of our republic.”
Earlier: The Air Force chief of staff transition ceremony comes two days after Trump held a ceremonial swearing-in for Brown in the Oval Office, a rarity for a service chief. Trump, who was not initially expected to participate in Tuesday’s ceremony, moved the event at the last minute from the vice president’s ceremonial office because, Trump said, “this is the big leagues.”
Why it’s significant: Brown is becoming the nation’s first Black military service chief at a time of significant unrest throughout the United States over racial injustices and police violence.
The Trump administration has faced criticism for its handling of the protests as it cracks down on demonstrators using federal law enforcement officers clad in military-style camouflage uniforms.
The Pentagon, after its leaders faced initial criticism for their role in Trump’s response to the protests, has been working to address racism in its ranks with listening sessions and other initiatives.
During the height of unrest in June, Brown spoke starkly about his experiences as a Black member of the military and his feelings on the death of George Floyd that sparked the protests.
“I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope, but also comes with a heavy burden. I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country, nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force,” said Brown, who also spoke about navigating “two worlds.”
In addition to being the first African American service chief, Brown is the first African American to sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff since Colin Powell was chairman from 1989 to 1993.
SENATORS INTRODUCE BILL TO BLOCK TRUMP ARMED DRONE SALE MEASURE: A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Thursday introduced a bill that would ban the sale of large armed drones to all nations other than close U.S. allies.
The legislation was crafted in response to the Trump administration’s move last month to circumvent a 33-year-old arms treaty and sell more large armed drones to foreign militaries.
President Trump signed a measure to allow U.S. defense contractors to sidestep one part of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a 1987 agreement between 35 countries, to allow U.S. firms to sell the drones to foreign governments previously banned from purchasing such products.
Countries that may now purchase the advanced drones include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have used U.S.-produced weapons in Yemen’s deadly civil war.
Lawmakers up in arms: Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle criticized Trump’s decision, worried that the shift could cause a dangerous increase in ballistic missiles and give rise to other countries choosing to undermine agreements.
“If we allow Trump to start selling drones, we set a dangerous precedent that allows and encourages other countries to sell missile technology and advanced drones to our adversaries,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
“In addition, the president’s action will only further enable the Saudis to continue killing more innocent civilians in Yemen by supplying them with advanced US-made drones.”
Other arguments: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), another sponsor, argued for the end of U.S. participation in Yemen’s war.
“I am concerned that making it easier for the United States to export weapon-capable UAS systems to Saudi Arabia and the UAE further entrenches the U.S. role in the war in Yemen and perpetuates an incentive structure for keeping rather than drawing down U.S. presence in the Middle East,” Lee said in a statement.
What the bill would do: The new bill would work by making some of the limits of the MTCR legally binding through amending the Arms Export Control Act.
Under the legislation, drones that can carry more than 1,100 pounds of weapons over roughly 186 miles – including the General Atomics-built MQ-9 Reaper and the Northrop Grumman-made RQ-4 Global Hawk – would be once again subject to pact’s strict rules.
The bill’s exceptions to the sales ban would include NATO members in addition to Australia, Israel., Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
STATE DEPARTMENT’S IRAN ENVOY LEAVING TRUMP ADMINISTRATION: Brian Hook, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, is resigning from the State Department, the agency announced Thursday.
“He has been a trusted advisor to me and a good friend. I thank him for his service,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. He added that Hook will be succeeded by Elliott Abrams, U.S. special envoy for Venezuela.
Diplomacy with Iran slim before election: Hook’s departure, which comes during a period of increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, casts doubt on the possibility of a diplomatic initiative with Iran before the end of President Trump’s term.
“There is never a good time to leave,” Hook told The New York Times, noting the confrontation with Iran had become a constant series of provocations and responses, and moves geared toward changing Tehran’s behavior.
Pompeo’s response: In his statement Pompeo said that Hook “achieved historic results countering the Iranian regime,” highlighting him winning the release of two American captives held by Iran, Michael White and Xiyue Wang.
Obstacles remain: One of the biggest obstacles the U.S. still faces in Iran is the nation’s alleged violations of the Iran nuclear deal, which the U.S. pulled out of in 2018.
“Sometimes it’s the journey and sometimes it’s the destination,’’ Hook told the Times. “In the case of our Iran strategy, it’s both. We would like a new deal with the regime. But in the meantime, our pressure has collapsed their finances.”
Hook added that “By almost every metric, the regime and its terrorist proxies are weaker than three and a half years ago. Deal or no deal, we have been very successful.”
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