Overnight Defense: Top military officers quarantine after positive COVID case | Distracted pilot, tech issues led to F-35 crash

Overnight Defense: Top military officers quarantine after positive COVID case | Distracted pilot, tech issues led to F-35 crash
© Greg Nash

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: Most of the top military officers in the United States are quarantining after the Coast Guard’s second-in-command tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday.

Coast Guard vice commandant Adm. Charles Ray tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday after experiencing mild symptoms over the weekend, the Coast Guard announced Tuesday.

Ray was at the Pentagon on Friday, according to the Coast Guard. Some of his meetings included other service chiefs, top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in his own statement.

“Out of an abundance of caution, all potential close contacts from these meetings are self-quarantining and have been tested this morning,” Hoffman said. “No Pentagon contacts have exhibited symptoms and we have no additional positive tests to report at this time.”

Who is quarantining now: Hoffman did not elaborate on who is quarantining, but a senior defense official later specified who met with Ray.

The list includes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and all but one of the other Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In addition to Milley, Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown; Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond; National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Daniel Hokanson; and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency are also quarantining, the official said.

Members of the Joint Staff were also in the meetings, the official added.

“All have been tested with no positive results to report and none are exhibiting any symptoms,” the official said.

An Air Force spokesperson confirmed to The Hill that Ray met with Brown and Raymond.

Both officials are quarantining and have tested negative, the spokesperson said. They referred questions on the date of their meeting back to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Who was spared: Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Major Russia weapons test stokes tensions Three key behind-the-scenes figures in Jan. 6 probe Trump Defense chief blocked idea to send 250,000 troops to border: report MORE and Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger were traveling last week and so did not meet with Ray.

On Tuesday afternoon, after news broke of the military quarantines, Esper met with Bulgarian Minister of Defense Krasimir Karakachanov at Pentagon and later spoke in person at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

How it might have spread: Ray was at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star family event in which several other top defense officials, including Milley and Esper, were also in attendance.

Where the outbreak started: Ray’s diagnosis comes amid a growing coronavirus outbreak centered on the White House, including President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE contracting the virus. 

Several attendees at Trump's White House announcement nominating Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, which happened the day before the Gold Star families event, have since tested positive for the virus.

In addition to Trump, first lady Melania TrumpMelania TrumpRNC pushes back against call for chair's resignation over LGBT outreach Trump Tower bar selling presidential cocktail with side of Diet Coke, beef sliders Cheney knocks Ted Cruz: 'A real man would be defending his wife' MORE, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, close aide Hope HicksHope HicksWhite House orders release of Trump records to Jan. 6 committee Grisham calls Kushner 'Rasputin in a slim-fitting suit' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan MORE, campaign manager Bill Stepien, three Republican senators, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDanielRonna Romney McDanielRNC pushes back against call for chair's resignation over LGBT outreach Conservatives praise Rittenhouse jury verdict RNC chair contradicts Trump: 'Biden won the election' MORE and former White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne ConwayChristie says he was unable to reach Trump on Jan. 6 Watchdog cites 13 Trump officials who violated Hatch Act before 2020 election Ethics watchdog accuses Psaki of violating Hatch Act MORE have tested positive, among others.

HASC head bashes Trump: After the military quarantines were announced Tuesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOn steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency Schumer strikes deal with House, dropping push to link China, defense bills MORE (D-Wash.) ripped Trump for “antics” since his COVID-19 diagnosis that “have been downright reckless and harmful.”

“While our military can still operate while leadership is quarantined, the national security implications of the president’s recklessness cannot be overstated,” Smith said in a statement. “Our adversaries are always looking for any weakness to exploit. President Trump’s pathetic attempts to exude strength aren’t fooling anyone – Americans know he is weak and so do those who wish us harm.”

Smith also accused Trump of “willfully jeopardiz[ing] the safety and security of the American people and our military apparatus.” 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged our nation. How can we ever recover if we can’t even count on our commander in chief to follow the most basic guidelines established by his own government?” Smith said.

Pentagon downplays: The Pentagon has sought to downplay national security concerns about the growing outbreak hitting top U.S. leadership, saying the military remains ready to defend the country.

“There is no change to the operational readiness or mission capability of the U.S. Armed Forces,” Hoffman said Tuesday. “Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location. [Department of Defense] has been following CDC guidelines since April with respect to temperature testing, social distancing and the wearing of masks to the greatest extent when social distancing is not possible and will continue to do so.”

More on Milley’s status: Milley, the top U.S. general, is quarantining at home after Ray tested positive for the coronavirus.

Milley and the others who met with Ray “all have been tested with no positive results to report and none are exhibiting any symptoms,” a senior defense official said.

In addition to the Pentagon meetings, Milley and Ray were also both at the White House on Sept. 27 for a Gold Star families event.

 

DISTRACTED PILOT, TECH ISSUES LED TO F-35 CRASH: A distracted and tired pilot combined with a technical issue led to the May 19 crash of an F-35 fighter jet at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, according to a new service report.

The Air Force's Accident Investigation Board (AIB) found that the F-35 pilot — who successfully ejected before the crash and did not sustain life-threatening injuries — landed the aircraft too fast and at too shallow of an angle.

The $176 million F-35, meanwhile, rolled, caught fire and was completely destroyed, according to the report released last week.

Context: The crash came after an F-22 fighter jet crashed only days earlier at Eglin's test and training range, prompting leadership to temporarily halt flights over safety concerns.

What happened: The report lays out a scene-by-scene picture of the crash, which began shortly before 9:30 p.m. as the pilot was landing for the evening after an air combat training mission.

The report found that a misaligned display “distracted the [pilot] during a critical phase of flight” and that he had “cognitive degradation due to fatigue,” which all contributed to the mishap.

The pilot — a qualified instructor pilot — was not identified in the document but was from the 58th Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin and had almost 138 hours of flight time experience in the aircraft before the incident.

As the pilot approached the runway, the plane’s nose was pitched down more than normal, which he tried to correct. But when he tried to adjust, the move threw off the readings on their misaligned display.

When the F-35 touched down, it began to bounce, causing “the nose of the aircraft to rise rapidly and excessively.” The pilot attempted to fix this but it only caused “a series of multiple and increasingly violent pitch oscillations.”

The pilot then attempted to get the aircraft off the runway and try another landing but was unable to, so he ejected.

Other factors: Adding to the crash was the nighttime setting of the landing, which the pilot described as “having to point into the black abyss, referring to how the area in front of the runway appeared at night.”

The “green glow” from the pilot’s display, which was worse than normal due to the Florida humidity, was also a distraction, the report states.

In addition, the pilot was fatigued and told investigators he had frequently been sleeping poorly and that he felt fatigued more often in the F-35 than in his previous aircraft, the F-15E, according to the report.

“It is known amongst the F-35 flying community that the oxygen delivery system is very different than legacy oxygen delivery systems, such as the one used in the F-15E,” the report notes.

This can “cause many pilots across the F-35 platform to report feeling more fatigued than normal, when compared to their prior legacy aircraft.”

Also adding to the pilot’s stress at the time was the news that a contact of a contact had tested positive for the coronavirus, and the individual who he had interacted with was awaiting their test result.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyFormer DC Guard commander calls for retraction of Pentagon watchdog's Jan. 6 report Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — US mulls Afghan evacuees' future Pentagon watchdog raises questions over retired DC Guard commander's account of Jan. 6 MORE will speak at a Hudson Institute webinar on “The U.S. Army's Project Convergence, the Army's priorities for new weapons systems and readiness, and the implications of looming budget constraints,” at 9 a.m. 

Acting Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Space Policy Justin Johnson will speak at a Heritage Foundation webinar on “The New Race for Space: Success and Challenges in the Final Frontier,” at 10 a.m. 

Former national security advisor retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster will speak about his book Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, at an Arizona State University McCain Institute for International Leadership discussion  at 2 p.m. 

The Center for Security Policy will hold a webinar on “Building the U.S. Strategic Relationship with African Nations.” with House Armed Services Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); retired Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, former commander of U.S. Africa Command; and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, at 3 p.m.

The University of Utah will host the 2020 vice presidential debate, with Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceTrump endorses challenger to Hogan ally in Maryland governor's race Pence to headline New Hampshire event focused on Biden spending plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Arbery case, Biden spending bill each test views of justice MORE; and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPoll: Biden's job approval gains two points Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE (D-Calif.) at 9 p.m. in Salt Lake City.

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Supreme Court hears Trump appeal over Muslims put on 'no-fly list' for refusing to spy
 
-- The Hill: House panel urges intelligence community to step up science and technology efforts
 
-- The Hill: DHS points to Russia as key disinformation threat ahead of election

-- The Washington Post: White House event for families of deceased U.S. troops thrust into new light after admiral’s coronavirus diagnosis

-- The New York Times: ‘Then I Heard a Boom’: Heavy Weapons Take Toll on Civilians in Armenia-Azerbaijan Clash

-- The Associated Press: US sees “important progress” in Helsinki nuclear arms talks