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Overnight Defense: Austin directs classified initiatives to counter China | Biden emphasizes alliances in speech to troops | Lockdown lifted at Texas base after reported shooting

Overnight Defense: Austin directs classified initiatives to counter China | Biden emphasizes alliances in speech to troops | Lockdown lifted at Texas base after reported shooting
© Greg Nash

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: The Pentagon is doing … something about China.

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBiden congratulates newly-formed Israeli government Netanyahu ousted as Israeli lawmakers approve new government Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans MORE signed a directive Wednesday to start several counter-China initiatives, but the programs are largely classified, so it’s unclear exactly what they are or how they differ from existing counter-China efforts.

Senior defense officials told reporters that the internal directive will “address the challenge from China,” mainly through better cooperation with U.S. allies and partners, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

“This directive from the secretary is ultimately about getting the department's house in order and ensuring that the department lives up to the stated prioritization of China as the No. 1 pacing challenge,” one official said.

In a statement, Austin said his directive is intended to “improve the department’s ability to revitalize our network of allies and partners, bolster deterrence, and accelerate the development of new operational concepts, emerging capabilities, future force posture, and a modernized civilian and military workforce.”

Background: Wednesday’s directive was the result of the China Task Force that was announced by President BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE in February.

The 23-member task force was led by Ely Ratner, an adviser to Austin who has been nominated to be assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

At the time the task force was set up, the Pentagon said it would study the U.S. military’s strategy and operations in Asia, technology, force posture, intelligence, the role of allies and partnerships in the region, and defense relations with China, among other areas.

Context: The United States for the last several years has named countering China as a top national security priority, but successive administrations have found it difficult to actually pivot to China amid the U.S. wars in the Middle East and crises.

Both Austin and Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenTop nuclear watchdog: Lack of Iran deal leaves agency 'flying blind' Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Biden meets with foreign leaders as ambassadorships sit vacant MORE in recent months have criticized China for what they describe as aggressive, coercive and destabilizing behavior in the region, particularly its military activities in the disputed South China Sea.

In the most recent such example, the Chinese military reportedly conducted an amphibious landing exercise in the waters near Taiwan after three U.S. senators visited Taipei on Sunday.

 

BIDEN DEPARTS FOR FIRST FOREIGN TRIP

President Biden left Wednesday for his first trip abroad since taking office, and in his first stop, emphasized a commitment to alliances during a speech to U.S. troops in England.

“At every point along the way, we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future,” Biden said in the speech at Royal Air Force Mildenhall. 

“That we’re committed to leading with strength, defending our values and delivering for our people. America's better positioned to advance our national security and our economic prosperity when we bring together like-minded nations to stand with us,” he added.

Compare and contrast: Biden’s trip to Europe will largely focus on attempting to shift away from former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s “America first” agenda and convincing allies that his administration wants to be a partner.

The trip includes a Group of Seven meeting in England, a NATO summit in Brussels and Biden’s first face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE in Geneva.

Trump’s meetings with the G-7 regularly involved attacks on other world leaders and notably, a one-time refusal to endorse a joint communique from the organization.

During a trip to NATO in 2017, Trump refused to commit to upholding Article 5, the alliance's common defense principle. He later did make clear his commitment to Article 5.

“I’m going to be clear that the transatlantic alliance will remain vital, a vital source of strength for the U.K., Europe and the United States,” Biden told troops Wednesday.

On Putin: Biden also previewed his highly anticipated meeting with Putin. 

He told troops he’s going “to meet with Mr. Putin to let him know what I want him to know,” to applause from the audience.

“I’ve been clear. The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities. We’ve already demonstrated that. I’m going to communicate there are consequences for violating the sovereignty of democracies in the United States, and Europe, and elsewhere,” he said.

Domestic enemy: While Biden was at Joint Base Andrews getting ready to leave Wednesday morning, he faced a different kind of enemy: the dastardly cicada.

While standing on the tarmac, Biden swatted one of the bugs off his neck and then gave reporters a warning.

“Watch out for the cicadas,” Biden said. “I just got one. It got me.”

 

REPORTED SHOOTING LOCKS DOWN LACKLAND

Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas lifted a lockdown Wednesday after a reported shooting near the main gate caused no injuries, officials said.

Possible shots were first heard outside the base’s Valley Hi Gate around 11:50 a.m. local time, though responders did not "determine anything up front.” 

The base had issued an active shooter warning on Twitter, advising its personnel to “implement LOCKDOWN procedures immediately and take cover.”

An update, issued just before 1:30 p.m. local time, said the shooting was suspected to have happened outside the Valley Hi Gate and there were no suspected injuries.

Security forces and local police were investigating a “couple of leads right now to confirm gunshots did take place," 802nd Security Forces head Lt. Col. Brian Loveless told reporters.

No one reported seeing a shooting, Loveless said.

 

PENTAGON MARKS PRIDE MONTH

Austin spoke Wednesday at the Pentagon’s annual Pride Month event, the first Defense secretary to do so since then-Secretary Ash Carter in 2015.

“We know that we have more work to do, but thanks to your courage, your advocacy and your dedication, the Department of Defense has been able to do more to secure LGBTQ+ rights than at any other time in our history,” Austin said at the event, which was the first since 2019 since last year’s was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know that you are especially proud this month. And rightfully so,” Austin added. “Well, I’m proud, too. Proud every month and every day to call you my teammates and to serve alongside you. Because your lives, your careers, your service and your stories are living proof that we are stronger and more effective together.”

Context: The Biden administration lifted the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members, but has kept in place the Trump administration’s policy that bans most flags, including the Pride flag, from Defense Department installations.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyConcerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Pentagon chief: Military has already started 'over-the-horizon' operations in Afghanistan MORE and Pentagon comptroller Michael McCord will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee at 9:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/3wazRCA

A House Armed Services Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on the budget request for nuclear forces with testimony from defense officials at 11 a.m. https://bit.ly/3w5Lv1s

 

ICYMI

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-- Military Times: Anonymous senator blocks confirmation of four top VA leaders

-- Associated Press: Military relieves general of duties, cites tank sinking

-- Military.com: Air Force's last POW retires after more than 30 years of service