Overnight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified

Overnight Defense: Congress recommends nuclear arms treaty be extended | Dems warn Turkey | Military's eighth COVID death identified
© 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.

THE TOPLINE: bipartisan congressional task force is recommending the extension of a nuclear arms treaty between the United States and Russia that is set to expire in February.

The recommendation to extend the New START treaty was one of several in the final report of the Future of Defense Task Force, a panel of eight House Armed Services Committee members from both parties tasked with examining long-term strategy to meet emerging threats.

“With a rapidly approaching expiration date, the United States and Russia should extend the highly successful Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) while negotiating a follow-on agreement,” the task force wrote in its 87-page report released Tuesday after a year of work.

Why this recommendation matters: The recommendation comes as the Trump administration has been ramping up pressure on Russia to meet its demands on conditions for extending the treaty.

The New START treaty caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia can have at 1,550 a piece. It also places limits on weapons capable of delivering the warheads and establishes a verification regime.

The treaty is set to expire in February, but has the option of a five-year extension without needing new approval from either country’s legislature.

What the White House is doing: President Trump’s arms control envoy, Marshall Billingslea, has said he would recommend extending the pact if Moscow also agrees to a separate political framework that pledges China’s participation in future arms control talks and an expansion of the treaty to include more classes of weapons. Billingslea recently said U.S. demands would increase after the November presidential election.

Arms control advocates fear the Trump administration is making unreasonable demands to run out the clock, warning their real intention is to scrap the treaty.

What the report says: In the task force report, lawmakers noted that New START remains the last treaty constraining the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals after the Trump administration withdrew from the separate Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019.

“Its lapse at a time when China and North Korea (and potentially Iran) are increasing their nuclear capabilities and arsenals would send a harmful message to adversaries and partners alike while further undermining the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” the report added.

The recommendation on New START came in a broader call for strengthening existing alliance and security agreements while forging “new and creative partnerships,” such as increasing cooperation with nontraditional allies in Asia and Africa.

Who was on the task force: The task force was co-chaired by Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.), and consisted of Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) and Michael Waltz (R-Fla.).

“America needs a plan to confront the dual threats of Russia's aggression and China's rise,” Moulton said in a statement. “This is it. For the first time, there is agreement among both parties in Congress about the path forward, we can take it no matter the outcome of the November election.”

In a separate statement, Banks said the report “details a vision of the future of defense --specifically a smart, whole-of-nation strategy addressing the rise of China -- and I will be dedicating the rest of my career on the House Armed Services Committee to making sure it comes to fruition.”

Read more about the report here.


DEMS WARN TURKEY: Congressional Democrats are warning Turkey against getting involved in the contested southern caucus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens a wider regional conflict.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that “the influence of external actors such as Turkey recklessly meddling in the conflict is troubling” and called for all sides to end hostilities and resume negotiations.

What’s happening in Nagorno-Karabakh: Long-simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated into open conflict on Sunday in the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh, with some of the fiercest fighting the region has seen in years and reports of dozens killed and hundreds wounded, including civilians.

The contested status of the territory, claimed by Azerbaijan but administered and occupied by ethnic Armenians, had been under a decades-long mediation process by the Minsk Group, part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and co-chaired by the United States, France and Russia.

The co-chairs issued a statement Sunday to cease fighting and return to negotiations.

But the violence has already drawn a response from Turkey, with Ankara throwing its support behind Azerbaijan and deploying Syrian fighters to help its regional ally, Reuters reported on Monday.

A tangled web of support: Turkey's actions were followed by pledges of support from Russia and Greece for Armenia — increasing the risk of armed conflict between Ankara and Moscow in addition to increased tensions and possible fighting among NATO allies.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are NATO partners, while Turkey is a NATO member.

What lawmakers are calling for: Engel said the international community must remain committed to the peace process. 

“As a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, the United States should not tolerate Turkey disrupting the peace process and exacerbating a conflict already careening toward drastic escalation,” Engel added.

Two days earlier, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer says Senate will vote on repealing 2002 war authorization The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a cease-fire.

“I strongly condemn Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno Karabakh, yet another act of aggression supported by Turkey,” Menendez tweeted on Sunday. “The Trump Administration should suspend security assistance to Azerbaijan and engage through the OSCE Minsk Group to bring about a ceasefire.”

Other Democrats in Congress who have called for a de-escalation of tensions include Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), the second most senior Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who blamed Azerbaijan for instigating the attacks and Turkey for inflaming the fighting.

“At this sacred time for my family and co-religionists, I’m troubled by the recent Azeri attacks on [Nagorno-Karabakh],” Sherman wrote on Twitter over the weekend.

The White House’s responsePresident Trump said on Sunday that his administration was looking at the situation “very strongly” given that the U.S. has relations with both Baku and Yerevan. 

“We have a lot of good relationships in that area. We’ll see if we can stop it,” he said. 

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said the same day that Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun had spoken with the foreign ministers of both Azerbaijan and Armenia in an effort to de-escalate tensions.


8TH MILITARY COVID DEATH IDENTIFIED: The Army Reserve has identified the military’s eighth COVID-19 death, a 48-year-old reservist from Kentucky.

Sgt. 1st Class Mike A. Markins, of Vine Grove, died Thursday at the Baptist Health Hardin Hospital in Elizabethtown, Ky., from complications related to COVID-19, Army Reserve spokesman Lt. Col. Simon Flake said in a statement Tuesday.

Markins’s death was first noted in the Pentagon’s Monday update of its online chart of COVID-19 cases connected to the department, but his identity was not released until Tuesday.

Markins first served in the Air Force on active-duty from 1990 to 1997 and then joined the Army Reserve in 2000, Flake said.

The other deaths: Markins is the fifth member of the Army Reserve to die from COVID-19. Two Guardsmen have also been killed by the virus.

So far, the Pentagon has only reported one coronavirus death from someone on active duty. Navy Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., a 41-year-old aviation ordnanceman, died in April after being one of more than 1,000 sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier who contracted the virus.

The numbers now: As of Monday, the Pentagon reported a total of 65,657 cases of COVID-19 connected to the department.

That includes 45,246 cases among service members, 30,450 of whom have recovered and 613 of whom have been hospitalized over the course of the pandemic.

There have also been 10,109 cases among civilians, 6,034 cases among dependents and 4,268 cases among contractors. There have been 59 civilian deaths, seven dependent deaths and 22 contractor deaths, according to Monday’s figures.



Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Va.) and Diana Maurer, director of defense capabilities and management team for the Government Accountability Office, will speak at a Heritage Foundation virtual event, “U.S. Navy Shipyards Are In Crisis – Understanding the Issue and Next Steps,” at 10 a.m. 

The Center for Strategic and International Studies will hold a webcast on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the U.S. Navy,” with Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell at 10 a.m.

The Defense Department’s Chief Information Dana Deasy will speak at the George Washington University’s Project on Media and National Security Defense Writers Group at 11 a.m.

Matt Pottinger, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser, will speak at a Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library conversation at 4 p.m. 



– The Hill: Biden says Turkey must stay out of Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict

– The Hill: Opinion: America's presence in Cam Ranh Bay should be more than occasional

– The Associated Press: US ‘outraged’ by rocket attack that killed women, children

– Defense News: New COVID bill dampens hopes for defense industry aid

– The New York Times: U.S. Will Base Mammoth Ship in Greece, Near Disputed Territory