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Brig. Gen. PATRICK RYDER takes the podium as the new Pentagon press secretary this week, and some critics are already spun up about the optics of having an active-duty military officer serve in the position for only the second time in history.
Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN picked Ryder, most recently the Air Force’s top spokesperson, for the job over a number of qualified candidates because of his deep public affairs experience and knowledge of military operations. Ryder also has a personal connection to the Pentagon chief: he was Austin’s spokesperson from 2013 to 2016 when he led U.S. Central Command.
The problem, critics say, is that having a military officer as the top spokesperson for the Defense Department sends the wrong message about who develops and implements defense policy, and could inappropriately politicize the military.
The concern is “if there is a perception that the civilians who are making policy think that it is useful to have the military as a front to stand behind, because it makes the policy seem more credible or harder to question,” said JESSICA BLANKSHAIN, an associate professor at the Naval War College, speaking in her personal capacity.
Having a uniformed Pentagon press secretary can work if that person is paired with a civilian leading public affairs, said BRENT COLBURN, who served as assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs from 2014 to 2015. The department still has not filled the civilian position: GORDON TROWBRIDGE is currently serving in the role in an acting capacity.
“Having someone with such deep military knowledge [as Ryder] at the podium often proves to be an asset,” Colburn said, but “that partnership is crucial.”
Tapping a military officer to be the Pentagon’s top spokesperson is particularly controversial right now because the norms for civilian control of the military have eroded at the highest levels. Former President DONALD TRUMP repeatedly attempted to use the military as a tool for political ends, naming a number of retired generals to top national security positions and trying to use troops to quash racial justice protests.
The problem extended into the E-Ring: both Austin and former Defense Secretary JIM MATTIS had to get waivers to lead the Pentagon because they had not been out of uniform for the requisite seven years.
There is precedent to Ryder’s promotion/appointment, however. As a Navy officer, JOHN KIRBY, who moved to the White House in May, served as the Pentagon spokesperson under former Defense Secretary LEON PANETTA during the Obama administration. At the time, GEORGE LITTLE was Pentagon press secretary, and the two often briefed side-by-side. Little handled policy and politics questions, while Kirby addressed the operational issues.
Kirby later became the first active-duty military officer to serve as Pentagon press secretary, under then-Defense Secretary CHUCK HAGEL. As a military officer, Kirby was limited in what he could say about politics and policy. But “there is a difference between defending policy decisions, which is tough for an active-duty officer, and explaining how we are executing them,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
Ryder was a surprise pick in many ways. A number of qualified civilians were considered for the job, including Kirby’s deputy J. TODD BREASSEALE and MARIE HARF, the former acting State Department spokesperson who is now a liberal commentator on Fox News. Army Col. DAVID BUTLER, who is serving as chief spokesperson for Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. MARK MILLEY, was also a contender.
Austin chose Ryder because he wanted a “capable, competent person” in the role who is not new to defense issues and has experience handling crises, said one former defense official familiar with the discussions.
For his part, Ryder said he does not foresee any problems with communicating the facts of Pentagon policy and programs.
“If there are topics that are inherently political, certainly we have a whole host of leaders within the department that can address those,” Ryder told NatSec Daily, adding that he plans to provide regular press briefings and to bring in top civilian officials if necessary.
But others anticipate that in today’s polarized climate, Ryder will be pulled into political discussions — and that’s not a good look for a military that is supposed to be apolitical.
“It is a mistake to have our Pentagon press spokesperson be active-duty military,” said PRICE FLOYD, the former head of public affairs at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “This is antithetical to civilian oversight of the military.”
THE TOLL OF 6 MONTHS OF WAR: The New York Times’ ALAN YUHAS has some sobering statistics, showing the devastation that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has wrought.
— 5,587 confirmed civilian deaths, including 149 girls, 175 boys and 38 children whose sex is unknown. At least 7,890 civilians have been injured. “The actual toll is probably tens of thousands of civilians. That is the estimate Ukrainian officials have arrived at after months of recovering bodies,” Yuhas wrote.
— More than 6.6 million refugees, though some have come back
— About 9,000 killed Ukrainian troops and 25,000 killed Russian troops
— A reconstruction bill that currently totals at least $113.5 billion
These grim numbers are set to grow as Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY said today that a Russian strike on a railway station in central Kyiv killed 15 people and injured another 50.
$2.98B FOR UKRAINE: It’s official: President JOE BIDEN announced that nearly $3 billion in security assistance is headed to Ukraine.
“This will allow Ukraine to acquire air defense systems, artillery systems and munitions, counter-unmanned aerial systems, and radars to ensure it can continue to defend itself over the long term,” he said in a statement.
The $2.98 billion comes from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which means the weapons won’t come from existing U.S. military stockpiles but rather will be made by industry. That will delay their arrival on the battlefield — it could take anywhere from months to years.
Two people detailed what was in the package ahead of news briefings. It includes a significant amount of ammunition for Ukraine’s artillery and mortars: more than 250,000 rounds, according to a U.S. official. It also includes six National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS); a new counter-drone capability called Vampire; and additional RQ-20 Puma drones, the person said. Another person familiar said the package will include counter-battery radars.
The Pentagon announcement included other items: Laser-guided rocket systems and funding for training, maintenance, and sustainment.
NSC spokesperson JOHN KIRBY said Biden would speak with Zelenskyy tomorrow about America’s commitment to Kyiv’s resistance.
COLIN KAHL, the Pentagon’s No. 3, said the package is for Ukraine’s “medium- to long-term” military needs.
BOJO IN UKRAINE: Outgoing British Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON arrived in Kyiv Wednesday for Independence Day celebrations, his third trip since the war began six months ago.
“His message: Ukraine can and will win this war,” the prime minister’s office said in a tweet. The U.K. also announced that it would be sending $63.5 million in new weapons, including 2,000 drones — 850 Black Hornets, 1,000 loitering munitions and 150 long-range reconnaissance drones — as well as mine-hunting vehicles and munitions.
Johnson’s visit revived a question we keep hearing around town: Why hasn’t Biden gone to Ukraine yet?
Yes, the logistics are hard and it’s easier for European leaders to make the trek. The American president has a lot more security concerns than others do. Still, American lawmakers have made the journey along with a parade of other world leaders. It’s reasonable to wonder why Biden can’t meet with Zelenskyy at this point.
We also asked Kirby about this today. Short answer: He’s not going anytime soon. Longer answer: “We have good connectivity with our Ukrainian counterparts. And look, if and when a trip by the President makes the most sense, then clearly we’ll appropriately consider that.”
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U.S. STRIKES IN SYRIA: U.S. Central Command announced that it conducted precision airstrikes in northeast Syria on Tuesday in response to an Aug. 15 attack by Iran-backed groups against American forces at the al-Tanf garrison.
The U.S. response “demonstrates our resolve to defend US forces and equipment,” Gen. MICHAEL “ERIK” KURILLA, the CENTCOM chief, said in a statement.
The Wall Street Journal’s GORDON LUBOLD reported some more context, saying the U.S. sent two F-15E and two F16E fighter planes to drop nine bombs on nine bunkers where those groups operate in Deir-ez-Zor. Biden approved of the mission.
“The strikes were determined over hundreds of hours of observation, officials said. Two bombs were held back when military officials saw people walking near the bunkers, officials said,” Lubold reported.
U.S. AND ISRAEL SIGN CYBER DEAL: The U.S. and Israel on Tuesday inked a deal that aims to strengthen cyber-financial security between both countries.
The partnership, part of a memorandum of understanding between Israel’s Ministry of Finance and the U.S. Treasury Department, will allow both countries’ financial sectors to share information and train individuals to promote joint cybersecurity efforts.
Israel is one of the world’s largest cybersecurity hotbeds, accounting for 12 percent of the world’s 500 largest cybersecurity firms, the National Interest reported.
GERMANY HELPS SLOVAKIA ARM UKRAINE: Slovakia will send infantry vehicles to arm Ukraine as part of a deal with Germany, Defense News’ SEBASTIAN SPRENGER reported.
Germany sent Leopard 2 tanks to Slovakia to help alleviate the latter’s defense gap from donating weapons to Ukraine. The package from Berlin also includes munitions and spare parts for military equipment.
Kyiv has received arms donations from Slovakia throughout the conflict with Russia including helicopters and rocket launchers.
GOP CONTINUES ATTACKING IRAN DEAL: Sen. TED CRUZ (R-Texas) criticized continued efforts by the Biden administration to enter a new nuclear deal with Iran.
“A year ago, Joe Biden gave Afghanistan to the Taliban,” wrote Cruz’s office. “Now he intends to give a nuclear arsenal to Iran. The details of this deal are only now emerging, but we already know they will be catastrophic to the national security of America and our allies, and to the safety of Americans.”
The senator is part of a growing chorus of congressional Republicans tying negotiations to the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan a year ago. Negotiations also come as reports have emerged that Iran has attempted to target senior U.S. national security officials, including former national security adviser JOHN BOLTON.
Discussions in Vienna have chugged along despite growing concerns from Israel, which has urged Washington to back away from a deal with Tehran.
Read the latest on the deal’s progress from our own STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN and NAHAL TOOSI.
MCCOLLUM TO FINLAND AND NORWAY: Rep. BETTY McCOLLUM (D-Minn.) is visiting Norway and Finland to discuss regional security efforts in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This will be an opportunity to strengthen those bonds as our countries remain united in a shared commitment to protecting our democratic values from Russian aggression,” she wrote in a statement.
McCollum, who serves as co-chair of the congressional Friends of Norway caucus, makes her visit after the Senate voted to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO in early August.
ISRAELI PM SLAMS NUCLEAR DEAL: Israeli Prime Minister YAIR LAPID criticized U.S. efforts to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Lapid argued any economic support Tehran receives as part of the deal would be used to undermine regional stability through attacks on U.S. military bases and funding extremist groups.
“This money will fund the Revolutionary Guards,” Lapid said. “It will fund the Basij who oppress the Iranian people. It will fund more attacks on American bases in the Middle East. It will be used to strengthen Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.”
Despite the opposition to a new deal, Lapid stressed that U.S.-Israeli relations remain strong.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: CHRIS DÍAZ is now chief of staff for the secretary of the Navy. He most recently was deputy chief of staff and White House liaison at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
— NED RAUCH-MANNINO is now a non-resident senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a Trump Commerce and USAID alum.
— KYLE BIBBY is now deputy political director of government affairs at Common Defense after serving as their national campaigns manager.
— PAUL SONNE, ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN, SERHIY MORGUNOV and KOSTIANTYN KHUDOV, The Washington Post: Battle for Kyiv: Ukrainian valor, Russian blunders combined to save the capital
— LIZ TRUSS, The Telegraph: Britain will expose Putin’s lies to the world
— U.S. State Department: Russia’s War on Ukraine: Six Months of Lies, Implemented
— The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, 8:15 a.m.:“The Future of Cybersecurity”
— The Institute of World Politics 10 a.m.: “Internal Conflicts in the MENA Region.”
— The National Council of Resistance of Iran, 10:30 a.m.:“Federal Complaint Against Ebrahim Raisi”
— The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 10 a.m.: “Distinguished Speakers Series: Anja Manuel on International Order and Disorder”
— The Potomac Officers Club, 11 a.m.:“Space Intelligence Forum”
— The Intelligence National Security Alliance, 2 p.m:“Implementation of the Intelligence Community’s Commercial Space Strategy.”
— The Heritage Foundation, 5:15 p.m.:“Navigating the Navy’s Future.”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot me an email at [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who also says he would clearly appropriately consider going to Kyiv.