Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Biden talks China, diversity in first visit to Pentagon | Army leaders call out extremism | Former Navy head defends handling of Roosevelt COVID-19 outbreak

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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: President Biden made his first visit to the Pentagon as commander-in-chief Wednesday.

He was accompanied by Vice President Harris. During the visit, he and Harris met with Pentagon officials including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and also took of the African Americans in Service corridor of the Pentagon along with Austin, who is the first African American man to lead the Defense Department.

Biden also gave a speech in which he made clear his top national security concern is China and sought to turn the page from the turmoil at the department during the Trump administration.

On politicization: During his speech, Biden promised never to politicize the military, drawing a contrast to the controversies of the Trump administration without naming his predecessor.

“You are incredible heroes and incredible patriots. I will never, ever dishonor you, I will never disrespect you. I will never politicize the work you do,” Biden said. “This is personal for me. The Biden family is a military family. We learned firsthand some of what your families experienced.” 

On diversity: Harris and Biden each paid tribute to Black History Month, noting the sacrifices of Black service members. Biden said that the contributions of Black service members throughout history had helped America move toward “greater equality.” 

“Right now, more than 40 percent of our active duty forces are people of color. It’s long past time that the full diversity and full strength of our force is reflected at every level in this department,” Biden said.

Biden also pledged to ensure all service members are treated with “dignity and respect,” pointing to his order to reverse the Trump administration’s transgender military ban.

“Every single person, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race or religious background, deserves to feel safe in the ranks and to have their contributions valued,” he said. “It’s on all of us to stand up, to speak out when you see someone being abused. This is an organization that has defeated American enemies on land, sea and air, and been defined by the way we treat others. So I know this is not beyond us. Not if each of us makes this a priority as well.”

On China: Biden also used the speech to announce a Defense Department review of its China strategy as part of a larger push to decide how his administration will counter Beijing.

“We need to meet the growing challenges posed by China to keep peace and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally,” Biden said.

The newly formed Department of Defense China task force will study the U.S. military’s strategy and operation in Asia, technology, force posture, intelligence, the role of allies and partnerships in the region, and defense relations with China, among other areas, according to a fact sheet released Wednesday.

Biden, who was briefed on the task force prior to his remarks, said that over the next few months, the group will provide recommendations to Austin on “key priorities and decision points so that we can chart a strong path forward on China related matters.”

Austin’s top assistant on China, Ely Ratner, will lead the task force.

What about the Middle East wars?: The Pentagon is in the midst of a review ordered by Biden of global U.S. force posture and participating in the administration’s review of the U.S.-Taliban deal, including whether to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by May.

Biden did not comment directly on troops levels Wednesday, but said he will work with Austin and “leaders around the world to bring a responsible end to wars that have dragged on for far too long.”

Still, he pledged to “continue to ensure that terrorist threats cannot endanger the security of the American people.”

ARMY CALLS OUT EXTREMISM: Coming on the heels of Tuesday night’s Navy message against extremism, Army leaders on Wednesday called on the force to combat “corrosive behavior” including discrimination, extremist views and sexual harassment.

“Corrosive behavior such as discrimination, extremism and sexual harassment or assault have no place in our formations and tear at the fabric of the Army,” acting Army Secretary John Whitley said in a prerecorded message to the service.

Whitley added that combating these corrosives “can’t be a one-time spot check,” likely referring to the recently ordered Pentagon-wide “stand-down,” during which commanders must take a day to address extremism with their units.

“To maintain our combat effectiveness and remain the best Army in the world, we must live the Army values each and every day,” he added.

Top enlisted weighs in: Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, the most senior enlisted member of the service, released his own statement on Wednesday calling on leaders to broach the topic with those under them.

“Have you talked to your teams about extremism? My goal is that everyone trusts their leaders and teammates enough to have these difficult conversations and confront these issues together,” Grinston tweeted.

NO REGRETS: Former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly resigned under pressure last year amid outrage over the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, but he has few regrets about his decisions during that time.

Modly wrote a “lessons learned” piece for the February edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s “Proceedings” magazine in which he defended his decision to fire the ship’s popular commander and lashed out at those who questioned his actions.

“I know he believed he was making the best decisions he could at the time. In my view, he made a big mistake,” Modly wrote.

“Ultimately, that was my judgment to make as his most senior boss in the Department of the Navy,” he continued. “It was my call. Not the media’s. Not Congress’s. Not the retired generals or admirals who seem very comfortable enhancing their personal brands by second guessing people in public office—a role they resented when they were on active duty and grappling with life-and-death decisions.”

Flashback: Modly resigned in April after firing Crozier and then flying to Guam to give a profanity-laced speech aboard the Roosevelt in which he berated the captain as “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this” if he thought his letter wouldn’t leak.

After Modly’s speech leaked, he at first stood by it, but then apologized for his language and resigned as calls from lawmakers for his removal mounted.

In June, the Navy upheld Crozier’s firing, reversing a preliminary recommendation in April to reinstate him, after an internal investigation concluded he did not act quickly enough to protect sailors.

One regret?: Modly allowed that he made mistakes in the “execution” of his decisions, specifically saying he has learned to “avoid using profanity, particularly when your audience might be global.”

But he said he still thinks he was right to fire Crozier, go to Guam and give a “tough” speech to the Roosevelt crew. He also said he was right to resign after his speech leaked.

“In the end, the biggest casualty of the decisions I made regarding the Theodore Roosevelt was my tenure as acting Secretary,” he wrote. “From my perspective, that was a small price to pay if the broader message I tried to convey to the crew about love, duty and courage sinks in with our entire Navy over time.”

Casualties other than his job: More than 1,000 sailors were sickened during the COVID-19 outbreak on the Roosevelt, and one sailor, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., died.


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