Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don’t default

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

It’s Wednesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

The current and former Pentagon chiefs have a message for Congress: Don’t default on the debt limit or U.S. national security is in jeopardy. 

We’ll break down their message to Congress, what what’s at stake, and where negotiations are in Congress

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.

Austin, former Defense secretaries send message to lawmakers 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, along with seven former Pentagon chiefs, on Wednesday warned Congress that a debt default would damage U.S. national security and harm military families.

“If the United States defaults, it would undermine the economic strength on which our national security rests,” Austin said in a statement. “It would also seriously harm our service members and their families because, as Secretary, I would have no authority or ability to ensure that our service members, civilians, or contractors would be paid in full or on time.”

Another effort: In a separate letter sent to Congress on Wednesday, six former Defense secretaries make the same plea, beseeching lawmakers “to work together to raise the statutory debt limit and avoid catastrophic consequences for the Defense Department, our military families, and our position of leadership in the world.”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, William Perry, William Cohen, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Aston Carter and James Mattis signed the letter.

What’s the issue?: The U.S. reached its federal borrowing limit in July, with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warning leadership that they need to raise it by Oct. 18 or risk a historic default. 

Republicans have vowed to not provide votes to raise the debt ceiling, leaving Senate Democrats scrambling to come up with a backup plan.

Though the debt limit covers spending Congress has already approved, Austin cites several risks related to a default, including risking the benefits “earned by and owed to 2.4 million military retirees and 400,000 survivors.”

Other risks: In addition, “federal contractors, including large firms and thousands of small businesses, that provide our military with world-class services, technology, and equipment could have their payments delayed, jeopardizing their operations and many American jobs.”

Austin also said a default “risks undermining the international reputation of the United States as a reliable and trustworthy economic and national security partner,” as well as the “stature of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency of choice.”

A reputation at risk?: The former officials, meanwhile, also argue that a default on the will send a signal to allies and adversaries “that America does not keep its word to our military forces. We can hardly think of a more damaging message in an era of global instability and the rise of great power competition.” 

“It would be tragic to allow partisanship to now deny those critical resources essential to protecting our national security,” they add.

Read the full story here.


Even with all the warnings, the Senate appears poised to stave off a debt ceiling crisis of its own making after Democrats said they could accept a surprise offer from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to raise the debt limit for two months.

McConnell made the offer shortly before the Senate was prepared to hold another vote on extending the nation’s borrowing limit just more than a week before a possible debt default. Republicans had been set to reject the measure.

The vote was quickly canceled after Democrats emerged from a meeting saying they could agree to the McConnell offer.

A temporary victory: “In terms of a temporary lifting of the debt ceiling, we view that as a victory, a temporary victory with more work to do,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told CNN’s Jake Tapper after the meeting.

A key GOP centrist, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), also embraced the proposal, saying it was “going to give us a way out of the woods, which is what we want.”

Read more about that here.

NATO expels 8 ‘undeclared’ intel officers from Russian delegation 

NATO on Wednesday expelled eight “undeclared” Russian intelligence officers from the country’s mission to the military alliance.

Further cuts: In addition, the alliance halved the size of Moscow’s team allowed to work at NATO headquarters in Brussels from 20 to 10, a NATO official confirmed to The Hill.

“We can confirm that we have withdrawn the accreditation of eight members of the Russian Mission to NATO, who were undeclared Russian intelligence officers,” the official said.

“We can also confirm that we have reduced the number of positions which the Russian Federation can accredit to NATO to 10.”

Growing tensions: NATO-Russia relations have grown tense since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

Since then, Russian military drills near its borders with other European countries; alleged cyber espionage and attacks; nuclear missile development; and military flights into NATO airspace and near allied ships, have increasingly strained its ties with the alliance.

“NATO’s policy towards Russia remains consistent. We have strengthened our deterrence and defense in response to Russia’s aggressive actions, while at the same time we remain open for a meaningful dialogue,” the official said.

Russia’s threat: In response to the action, senior Russian politician Leonid Slutsky told the Interfax news agency that Moscow could retaliate with “asymmetric” measures.

Read the full story here.

Navy IDs sailor who dies of COVID-19

A Navy sailor who died of coronavirus-related complications earlier this week has been identified as Aviation Electrician’s Mate (Mechanical) 1st Class Cory Weber.

Weber, 51, died Sunday at Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 17 and was hospitalized on Sept. 20, the Navy said in a Wednesday statement.

He had been assigned to the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Command in Fallon, Nev.

Deadlines and date: The release did not say whether Weber had received any COVID-19 vaccines, which active-duty Navy sailors are required to have done in full by Nov. 28. Reserve sailors, meanwhile, have until Dec. 28.

Nearly 90 percent of active-duty sailors are fully vaccinated, while 68 percent of reserve sailors are fully immunized.

As of Wednesday, there have been 246,720 reported cases of coronavirus among service members and 62 have died as a result of the virus, according to Pentagon data.

Read the full story here.



That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Thursday.

Tags Chuck Hagel Jake Tapper James Mattis Janet Yellen Lisa Murkowski Lloyd Austin Mitch McConnell Tammy Baldwin

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