Overnight Defense: Biden administration pausing UAE, Saudi arms sales | Pentagon making climate change national security priority | VA secretary nominee sails through hearing
Happy Wednesday 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: Former President Trump’s last-minute arms sales to the Saudis and Emirates are getting put on ice while the Biden administration reviews those and other pending sales.
The State Department confirmed a pause in “some” pending arms transfers Wednesday, a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s confirmation, framing the move as a routine practice for a new administration.
“The department is temporarily pausing the implementation of some pending U.S. defense transfers and sales under Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales to allow incoming leadership an opportunity to review,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“This is a routine administrative action typical to most any transition, and demonstrates the administration’s commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring U.S. arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partners,” the spokesperson added.
The spokesperson did not specify which sales are being paused, but The Wall Street Journal reported the UAE and Saudi sales were among those under review.
Asked at a briefing later Wednesday about reviewing sales to the Saudis and UAE, Blinken similarly framed the move as routine.
“Generally speaking, when it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy, so that’s what we’re doing at this moment,” he said.
Background: Recall that the Trump administration approved Abu Dhabi’s longstanding request to buy 50 F-35 fighter jets worth $10.4 billion as part of a side deal to the UAE’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel. In addition to the jets, the arms package included 18 MQ-9B drones worth $2.97 billion and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions worth $10 billion.
Democrats tried to block the sale, citing concerns about the UAE’s conduct in Yemen and Libya and relations with China and Russia, as well as concerns about maintaining Israel’s military superiority in the region. But a Senate resolution to block the sale ultimately fell short.
Meanwhile, last month, the Trump administration approved selling the kingdom 3,000 Boeing-made GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb I (SDB I) munitions and related equipment worth $290 million and 7,500 Raytheon-made Paveway air-to-ground “smart” bombs at an estimated value of $478 million.
Those deals were approved even as lawmakers in both parties have been increasingly opposed to selling the Saudis weapons after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and thousands of civilian deaths in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
UAE reaction: In a series of tweets, UAE ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba said his country anticipated a review as a normal part of a change in administration.
“Specifically, the F-35 package is much more [than] selling military hardware to a partner,” he tweeted. “Like the US, it allows the UAE to maintain a strong deterrent to aggression. In parallel with new dialogue and security cooperation, it helps to reassure regional partners.”
Dems, advocates cheer: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the news Wednesday of the Biden administration’s review, saying the sales were “inexplicably rushed without thorough review of implications for U.S. national security and protection of innocent lives in Yemen.”
“I encourage the Biden administration to carefully consider the broader regional security implications of these sales and to consult with Congress as it continues its due diligence on these and other arms sales,” Menendez tweeted.
“This marks the end of US ambivalence in the face of unconscionable human suffering in Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna said in his own tweet about the news. No longer will we placate brutal dictators for political or personal gain. Outstanding news from Biden. Senator Sanders & I are eager to end arms sales and US military support once and for all.”
The New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, which filed a lawsuit seeking to block the UAE arms deal, said it will still pursue its lawsuit to ensure the sale is permanently stopped. But the organization’s principal director, Justin Russell, also said the group is “ecstatic” about the freeze.
Win Without War policy director Kate Kizer called the freeze a “massive victory” and urged the Biden administration to make the ban “permanent for the foreseeable future.”
“Simply freezing these sales and later resuming them would only be a slap in the face to the victims of these two monarchies’ actions in these conflicts,” she said in a statement. “This must be a first step towards real accountability, not only for the repeated violations of international and domestic law, but also for the U.S. alliances with these monarchies that have, thus far, been a blank check for impunity. To fully fulfill his campaign promises, the Biden administration must stop arming unaccountable authoritarian governments for good.”
CLIMATE CHANGES AT PENTAGON: The Pentagon will now consider climate change when planning war games and will incorporate the issue into its future National Defense Strategy, according to a Wednesday announcement.
“The department will immediately take appropriate policy actions to prioritize climate change considerations in our activities and risk assessments, to mitigate this driver of insecurity,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
“There is little about what the department does to defend the American people that is not affected by climate change. It is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such,” he added.
Austin announced the change after President Biden earlier on Wednesday signed a series of executive orders aimed at addressing the climate crisis.
How it’s new: The Pentagon since 2010 has acknowledged that climate change could pose a threat to where the military operates and its roles and missions.
But under Trump, who repeatedly indicated he thought climate change is a “hoax,” Pentagon officials had to tiptoe around the issue as the president routinely dismissed the scientific consensus that the phenomenon is real and caused by human activity.
While a 2019 report called the effects of a changing climate “a national security issue,” the public version of the National Defense Strategy did not mention it as a concern.
Biden’s new push creates a shift in how the White House has traditionally thought of climate change, expanding the call from environmental agencies to those dealing with national security.
His new orders establish “climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security,” the White House said.
VA NOMINEE GLIDES TOWARD CONFIRMATION: Biden’s pick to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, Denis McDonough, sailed through his confirmation hearing Wednesday.
At the hearing, he identified his top priority if confirmed as getting the nation’s veterans through the coronavirus pandemic.
“The president directed me to focus on getting out veterans through this pandemic,” McDonough said in his opening statement to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The task is a daunting one as, if confirmed, McDonough would be responsible for the massive undertaking of administering COVID-19 vaccines to millions of veterans and VA employees across the country.
McDonough, a former White House chief of staff under President Obama, also vowed he would have a “relentless focus” on providing timely, top health care to veterans; ensuring they have access to VA benefits; reducing veteran suicide and homelessness; making the agency more inclusive for women, minority and LGBTQ veterans; and building trust.
To secure such commitments, he pledged to “bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government” from his time in the Obama administration to the agency, which has struggled with numerous controversies in the last 10 years.
“This won’t be easy. The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges, challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans,” he said.
McDonough was an unexpected nominee who would become only the second non-veteran to lead the VA, but he fielded largely uncontentious queries from lawmakers Wednesday. He is expected to easily be confirmed in early February.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Maj. Gen. Chad Franks, commander of the 15th Air Force, will participate in an online interview with the Space Force Association at noon. https://bit.ly/36kY5Pz
The Office of Strategic Services Society will host a discussion with former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former under secretary of Defense for intelligence Michael Vickers at 6 p.m. https://bit.ly/3pr5c0v
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