Daily on Defense: US failing to deter Houthis, fate of Ukraine aid in Johnson’s hands, senators blast DOD review of Austin’s secret medical care

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BY JAMIE MCINTYRE

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DEGRADING BUT NOT DETERRING: Right about the time a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on "Yemen and Red Sea Security Issues" being gaveling into session yesterday afternoon, half a world away, U.S. aircraft and a coalition warship were busy shooting down the latest salvo of attack drones fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. Five "one-way attack (OWA) unmanned aerial vehicles" were shot down over the course of an hour, according to the U.S. Central Command.

The day before, the U.S. military took out three seaborne drones, two mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, and one aerial drone. It is an almost daily exercise in whack-a-mole that has so far been unable to ease the threat against international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

"Since Nov. 19, the Houthis have conducted at least 48 attacks against commercial shipping and naval vessels in and around the Red Sea, through which 15% of all global trade flows," testified Daniel Shapiro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. "These attacks have prompted more than a dozen major shipping operators to suspend transits to the Red Sea, causing a spike in insurance rates for vessels in the region and, most importantly, putting the lives of innocent mariners and our service members at risk."

But despite the Pentagon's estimate that U.S. and coalition strikes have destroyed more than 150 missiles and launchers in Yemen, Shapiro admitted the U.S. does not know how much firepower the Houthis have left or what is their breaking point.

"I can’t tell you that we know that there’s a moment when they will decide that they’ve had enough," Shapiro told the senators. "We know that they still have capability. We sort of have a good sense of the numerator, what we have been able to eliminate and what they’ve used, but we don’t fully know the denominator."

'WHAT THEY’RE DOING IS PIRACY': While the Iranian-backed Houthis launched their campaign to disrupt shipping through the Red Sea chokepoint of the Bab el Mandeb Strait with the claim they were supporting Hamas and in protest of Palestinian deaths in Gaza, over the months the attacks have been shown to be more about whipping up Islamist fever among Yemen's population.

"These attacks on commercial vessels are acts of terrorism. The Houthis are not even adhering to their stated goals," testified Timothy Lenderking, the State Department's special envoy for Yemen. "They are mostly striking ships with no connection whatsoever to Israel and driving up the difficulty and cost of delivering humanitarian aid to people around the world, including of course to Yemenis themselves."

"Since they hijacked the Galaxy Leader on Nov. 19, they’ve held hostage 25 innocent sailors from five countries," Lenderking said. "What they’re doing is piracy."

"The Houthis’ attacks are also driving up prices and causing delivery delays and critical humanitarian items, such as food and medicine in places where they’re needed most. This is adversely affecting those in need of assistance around the world, including in Sudan, Ethiopia, and indeed in Yemen itself," Shapiro testified. 

"Iran doesn’t control the Houthis in the way it does Iran-aligned militia groups in Iraq and Syria. But it certainly has the choice to provide or withhold support to the Houthis, without which the Houthis would struggle to effectively track and strike vehicles in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden," Shapiro said. "We’ve made it very clear to Iran that we hold it accountable for attacks by its partners and proxies and believe the Iranian leaders are aware of the consequences should these attacks result in U.S. casualties."

VIDEO: CARGO VESSEL PARTIALLY SUBMERGED OFF YEMEN AFTER BEING HIT BY HOUTHI ATTACK

CHINA SITTING ON THE SIDELINES: With the running battle with the Houthis showing no sign of stopping anytime soon, the U.S. is seeking to expand the loose coalition of nations willing to maintain it. "This is a multifaceted responsibility. It should not be all on the U.S. and U.K.," Lenderking said, prompting Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) to ask about China.

"Why isn’t China putting pressure on the Houthis? Why aren’t they putting pressure on Iran?" Romney asked. "I mean, we’re out there, you know, with our flag flying and our men and women in harm’s way. China is the nation that I would presume is most impacted by closing off trade to the Red Sea. And yet, they’re sitting on the sidelines, pretending like they’re everybody’s friend."

"I couldn’t agree more with you, senator," replied Lenderking. "I think the burden has to be shared because the pain is being felt in multiple realms and multiple regions. If you look at where the impact is, you look at a country like Egypt where Suez Canal fees are down 50%, it’s impacting the currency, it’s impacting the ability of their economy to function. You look at the movement of humanitarian supplies into Sudan, desperately poor situation, violence prevailing there."

READ MORE: SENATE SKEPTICAL OF BIDEN ADMINISTRATION'S APPROACH TO HOUTHI ATTACKS

Good Wednesday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre's Daily on Defense, written and compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre) and edited by Stacey Dec. Email here with tips, suggestions, calendar items, and anything else. Sign up or read current and back issues at DailyonDefense.com. If signing up doesn't work, shoot us an email and we'll add you to our list. And be sure to follow me on Threads and/or on X @jamiejmcintyre

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HAPPENING TODAY: 'IT'S IN HIS HANDS': The House reconvenes today after a two-week vacation with the pressure on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to find a way to avert a partial government shutdown at week's end and provide desperately needed aid to Ukraine, which is suffering a crippling shortage of ammunition and losing ground in its two-year war with Russia.

Johnson emerged from what was described as an "intense" Oval Office meeting with President Joe Biden yesterday, sounding resolute but giving no hint of his plans to overcome opposition to both issues from his hard-right flank, which has threatened his speakership.

"We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown. And that’s our first responsibility," Johnson told reporters outside the White House. "You also heard, I’m sure, that there was discussion about the supplemental spending package. And I was very clear with the president and all those in the room that the House is actively pursuing and investigating all the various options on that. And we will address that in a timely manner."

"The speaker said unequivocally he wants to avoid a government shutdown. We made it clear that that means not letting any of the government appropriations bills lapse, which means you need some [continuing resolutions] to get that done, but we’re making good progress, and we’re hopeful we can get this done really quickly," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said after the session with Biden.

As for aid to Ukraine, Schumer said he told Johnson history is looking over his shoulder and that if he doesn't do the right thing, he will regret it. "Because, really it’s in his hands. It’s in his hands."

JOHNSON VOWS TO TACKLE UKRAINE AID IN 'TIMELY MANNER' AFTER WHITE HOUSE MEETING

THE BORDER BUGABOO: Johnson continues to insist that border security measures must take priority over all other legislation, but after rejecting the bipartisan Senate compromise, he seemed to be open to some sort of unilateral action by Biden.

"I believe the president can take executive authority right now, today, to change that. And I told him that again today in person, as I have said to him many times publicly and privately over the last several weeks," Johnson said. "It’s time for action. It is a catastrophe. And it must stop. And we will get the government funded and we will keep working on that." 

"The overwhelming sentiment in that meeting is, we have got to do Ukraine now. There are other issues, including border, which we should address, but not now," Schumer said. "And there was a discussion in the room that, could you do border just by administrative action? I think Biden won that argument because he said you can’t do it, we all said, without personnel. And you need legislation for personnel."

"So it was clear, it was clear that we want to fix the border, but it was also clear the speaker did not give a reason why you had to do one before you did the other." 

DEMOCRATIC LEADERS 'HOPEFUL' FOR UKRAINE FUNDING AFTER MEETING WITH BIDEN

McCONNELL PUSHES UKRAINE AID PACKAGE: By several accounts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) sided with Democrats Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to pressure Johnson on the need to pass Ukraine aid now, with McConnell reported telling Johnson the $95 billion aid bill that's already passed the Senate is the only practical way to get it done.

"The meeting on Ukraine was one of the most intense I have ever encountered in my many meetings in the Oval Office," Schumer related. "The five of us, the president, the vice president, Leader McConnell, Leader Jeffries, and myself, made it so clear how vital this was to the United States. This was so, so important and that we couldn't afford to wait a month or two months or three months because we would in all likelihood lose the war, NATO would be fractured at best, allies would turn away from the United States."

Johnson called the discussions "frank and honest,” adding, "I think we need more frank and honest conversations on Capitol Hill, so I was happy to participate in this."

MCCONNELL JOINS BIDEN AND DEMOCRATIC LEADERS TO CORNER JOHNSON ON UKRAINE AID IN 'INTENSE' MEETING

AUSTIN REMAINS UNDER FIRE: Ahead of tomorrow's scheduled public testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on the handling of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's prostate cancer treatment, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee received a private briefing on the classified version of the Pentagon’s internal investigation of the attempted coverup.

"It is clear that many members of the committee left the briefing frustrated by questions that went unanswered," Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member on the committee, said in a statement. "Regrettably, this report does not appear to hold the secretary or anyone else accountable.'

"The Department needlessly classified the report — a move made with the clear intent to circumvent public scrutiny and individual accountability," Wicker said. "I remain concerned that the Department has yet to account for its failure to comply with federal law and notify Congress or the White House that the Secretary was incapacitated."

"Today's briefing should never have been classified," Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) said in a statement blasting the review. "The American public deserves to know details about this breakdown in command at DOD. The Pentagon finding itself blameless is irresponsibly dismissive. At a minimum, DOD must consider how to inform Congress about future gaps in command — as required by current law."

"Maintaining effective military chain of command at all times is paramount, as is appropriate and effective communication with the White House, Congress, and senior leaders within the department when the nondelegable functions of the secretary must be transferred for even the shortest period of time," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI). "The department's 30-day review and its recommendations serve as a starting point for ensuring this lapse never occurs again."

'LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY' IN LLOYD AUSTIN HOSPITALIZATION RAISES BIPARTISAN EYEBROWS

THE RUNDOWN: 

Washington Examiner: Biden says there's 'work to do' in meeting to avert government shutdown

Washington Examiner: Democratic leaders 'hopeful' for Ukraine funding after meeting with Biden

Washington Examiner: McConnell joins Biden and Democratic leaders to corner Johnson on Ukraine aid in 'intense' meeting

Washington Examiner: Johnson vows to tackle Ukraine aid in 'timely manner' after White House meeting

Washington Examiner: 'Lack of accountability' in Lloyd Austin hospitalization raises bipartisan eyebrows

Washington Examiner: Senate skeptical of Biden administration's approach to Houthi attacks

Washington Examiner: North Korea barters artillery for food from Russia

Washington Examiner: NATO allies push back after Macron floats idea of sending troops to Ukraine

Washington Examiner: Senate GOP leaders call for full Mayorkas impeachment trial as Schumer weighs dismissal

Washington Examiner: Sinema's stand on the border tested with resolution to acquit Mayorkas

Washington Examiner: Israel and Qatar skeptical of Biden's optimistic Hamas ceasefire comments

Washington Examiner: White House laments 'horrible tragedy' of Aaron Bushnell's self-immolation outside Israeli Embassy

Washington Examiner: Pentagon is panicking over Biden's proposal that would increase water costs by $10,000 per household

Washington Examiner: Opinion: Europe gives China a free pass in supporting war on Ukraine

New York Times: Russian Forces Are Inching Forward In Ukraine At A Very Steep Cost

AP: US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars

AP: Services Prepare to Brief Secretary Austin on a Plan to Get Ospreys Flying Again

New York Times: Hamas Rejects Cease-Fire Proposal, Dashing Biden's Hopes of Near Term Deal

Washington Post: Airman Who Set Self on Fire Grew Up on Religious Compound, Had Anarchist Past

Air & Space Forces Magazine: Space Force Leaders Sound Alarm on Budget

Air & Space Forces Magazine: SDA Director: Launching a Nuclear Weapon in Space Would Be 'Attack on the World'

Breaking Defense: New Space Force Ops Head Pushing 'Aggressive' Moves toward Mission 'Integration'

SpaceNews: Space Force to Lean on Private Sector for Space Tracking Data

CNN: U.S. Expected To Reduce Forces Near Middle East By Removing Marine Rapid Response Force From Mediterranean Sea

Reuters: Houthis Say They Can Reassess Red Sea Attacks If Israeli ‘Aggression’ Stops

AP: Rocket Fire Reported Off Yemen In Red Sea In A New Suspected Attack By Houthi Rebels

Breaking Defense: Navy Seeking to Rapidly Prototype New Air-Launched, Stand-Off Missile

The War Zone: A-4 Aggressor Now Boasts Infrared Search and Track System

Military.com: 'Millions' of Veterans Exposed to Environmental Hazards Will Be Eligible for VA Health Care on March 5

Air & Space Forces Magazine: B-52 Makes Emergency Landing After Engine Fire, No Crew Injured

THE CALENDAR: 

WEDNESDAY | FEBRUARY 28

9 a.m. 1201 Pennsylvania Ave. NW — Hudson Institute discussion: “Taking Stock of Ukraine in 2024,” with Lt. Gen. Karel Rehka, chief, Czech General Staff; Lt. Gen. Leonard Kosinski, director of logistics for the Air Force Joint Staff; Jan Jires, director general for defense policy and planning, Czech Ministry of Defense; Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova; Mark Newton, defense minister counselor, British Embassy; Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov; and Maria Tomak, head, Crimea Platform Department, Mission, President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea https://www.hudson.org/events/taking-stock-ukraine-2024

9 a.m. — Counter Extremism Project webinar: "CEP Webinar: Violent Extremism And Terrorism In The Sahel," with Riza Kumar, research analyst, Counter Extremism Project; Anna Wasserfall, policy adviser for West Africa at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung; Delina Goxho, associate fellow at EGMONT, Royal Institute for International Relations; and Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior Director, Counter Extremism Project https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register 

9:30 a.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW — Brookings Institution discussion: “Optimizing Air Power,” with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin https://www.brookings.edu/events/optimizing-air-power

9:30 a.m. 216 Hart — Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: "Evolving workforce dynamics and the challenges for defense acquisition and defense industrial base personnel" http://www.armed-services.senate.gov

10 a.m. 419 Dirksen — Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: “Tehran’s Shadow Army: Addressing Iran’s Proxy Network in the Middle East,” with testimony from Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy, Brookings Institution, and Brian Hook, vice chairman of Cerberus Global Investments, Cerberus Capital Management https://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings

11 a.m. — Wilson Center Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies virtual discussion: “The Political Landscape in Russia,” with Maria Lipman, visiting scholar, George Washington University’s Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, and Michael Kimmage, professor of history, Catholic University of America https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/kennan-long-view-series-political-landscape-russia

3:30 p.m. 222 Russell — Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing: "Traumatic brain injury and blast exposure care" http://www.armed-services.senate.gov

3:30 p.m. 418 Russell — Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing: “Sacred Mission: Honoring America’s Veterans and their Families at VA Cemeteries" http://veterans.senate.gov

5 p.m. 1521 16th St. NW —  Institute of World Politics lecture: “Wagner Group: The Privatization, Instruments of National Power,” with John McCarthy, senior program adviser to the Navy’s Technical Exploitation Command https://www.iwp.edu/events/wagner-group

THURSDAY | FEBRUARY 29

9:30 a.m. — Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies virtual discussion: “Diplomacy and Iran,” with former U.K. Ambassador to Iran Nicholas Hopton https://sais.jhu.edu/campus-events

10 a.m. —  Carnegie Endowment for International Peace virtual discussion: “Governing Gaza After the War,” with Jonathan Rynhold, professor at Bar-Ilan University; Nathan Brown, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University; Muriel Asseburg, senior fellow, German Institute for International and Security Affairs; Amr Hamzawy; director, Carnegie Middle East Program; Zaha Hassan, CEIP fellow; and Yasmine Farouk, nonresident scholar, CEIP Middle East Program https://carnegieendowment.org/2024/02/29/governing-gaza-after-war

10 a.m. — German Marshall Fund of the U.S. virtual discussion: “Black Sea Security: Bulgaria’s Role and the Need for a Regional Strategy,” with Bulgarian Ambassador to Turkey Nadezhda Neynsky; Yordan Bozhilov, founder and president, Sofia Security Forum; Richard Hooker, professor of national security strategy, National War College; and Asya Metodieva, visiting fellow of GMFUS’s Engaging Central Europe Initiative https://www.gmfus.org/event/black-sea-security

10 a.m. 2118 Rayburn — House Armed Services Committee hearing: "A Review of Defense Secretary Austin's Unannounced Absence," with testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin https://armedservices.house.gov/hearings

10 a.m. 310 Cannon — House Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee hearing: “Port Cybersecurity: The Insidious Threat to U.S. Maritime Ports” http://homeland.house.gov

11:30 a.m. — Center for Strategic and International Studies "Smart Women, Smart Power" virtual discussion: "Navigating the Seas," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti and Kathleen McInnis, director, CSIS Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative https://www.csis.org/events/navigating-seas-admiral-lisa-franchetti

11:50 a.m. 1700 Army Navy Dr., Arlington, Virginia — Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association discussion: “The Critical Importance of Data in Contested Environments," with Gen. James “Jim” Slife, vice chief of staff, Air Force; Army Chief Master Sgt. Kenneth Bruce, senior enlisted leader, U.S. Cyber Command; Space Force Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Lerch, senior enlisted leader, Space Systems Command’s Intelligence Directorate; and retired Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sgt. Scott Stalker, founder of Stalker Solutions and former command senior enlisted leader, U.S. Space Command https://afceadc.swoogo.com/contested24

1 p.m. 1211 Connecticut Ave. NW —  Henry Stimson Center discussion: “Examining Implementation, Child Soldiers Prevention Act,” with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL); Daniel Ohlstein, senior adviser for children and armed conflict, State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Jo Becker, advocacy director, Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division; and Rachel Stohl, director, Stimson Conventional Defense Program https://www.stimson.org/event/taking-stock

1:30 p.m. 291 Wood Rd., Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland — Center for Strategic and International Studies International Security Program and U.S. Naval Institute Maritime Security Dialogue in-person and virtual discussion: "DoD's Warfighting Concept" with Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Adm. Christopher Grady and retired Rear Adm. Raymond Spicer, CEO and publisher, U.S. Naval Institute https://www.csis.org/events/dods-warfighting-concept

QUOTE OF THE DAY
"If Europe and especially I would say if each member of our states, including France, are sovereign, then our future — if we consider that this war determines our future, which I deeply believe because our security as Europeans is at stake — should we give over our future to the American electorate? My answer is no. No matter how they vote. So we don't need to wait for the result. … Let's not wait for what the outcome will be. Let's decide now because the facts are clear. It's our future. It's Europe's that's at stake. It's up to Europeans to decide."
French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting of European leaders in Paris Monday
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