Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert

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It's Monday, 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 Pentagon is readying up to 8,500 U.S. troops to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe as Russia ratchets up its aggression towards Ukraine.

We'll share the details of that and other efforts to deter Russia from an attack plus, how the U.S. helped deflect ballistic missiles over the UAE and the latest Defense official to test positive for COVID-19.

For The Hill, I'm Ellen Mitchell. Write me with tips at emitchell@thehill.com.

Let's get to it.

Troops notified over Russia-Ukraine tensions

At the direction of President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday "placed a range of units in the United States on a heightened preparedness to deploy, which increases our readiness to provide forces if NATO should activate the [NATO Response Force] or if other situations develop," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters.

"All told, the number of forces that the secretary has placed on heightened alert comes up to about 8,500 personnel," Kirby said.

The threat: The Pentagon's prepare to deploy orders follow warnings from Western officials that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent as the Kremlin has amassed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine.

Moscow has also placed an unidentified number of its forces in Belarus under the claim of war games.

Biden's earlier warnings: Biden has already threatened high economic costs on Russia if troops cross the border and said that an invasion of Ukraine could result in troops being sent to bolster NATO's defenses.

The commander-in-chief was set to meet virtually with European leaders on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation, which has grown more dire in recent days and prompted the State Department to reduced staffing at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

No decision yet: Kirby stressed that there has been no decision made to deploy and there's no intent to send troops to Ukraine. He said the heightened alert was "about getting troops ready" and reassuring NATO allies.

What would troops do?: He noted that the "vast majority" U.S. troops placed on alert would help the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational force comprised of around 40,000 land, air, maritime and special operations forces the alliance can deploy on short notice as needed.

Austin also wants to be "postured to be ready for any other contingencies as well," he added.

"We're going to be ready, we're going to be prepared to help bolster our allies with capabilities they might need," Kirby said. "We're going to do this in lockstep with them ... This is really about reassuring the Eastern flank of NATO."

Giving notice: The Defense Department on Monday was still notifying military units it would send to Eastern Europe, but they would include "additional brigade combat teams, logistics, medical, aviation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transportation and additional capabilities" in the event of "NATO's activation of the NRF or a deteriorating security environment," Kirby said.

To add to the sense of urgency, Austin's order would also speed up military units' deployment preparation. In some cases, units time to prepare to move would go from 10 days down to five days

Other efforts: Washington earlier this month sent two weapons shipments to Ukraine as part of a lethal aid package approved in December, and NATO countries are also sending ships, fighter jets and weapons to locations in Eastern Europe.

Read the full story here.

BIDEN TOUTS 'TOTAL UNANIMITY'

Biden on Monday said he and European leaders are in agreement following a call to discuss strategy in response to Russia's military build-up along the Ukrainian border.

"I had a very, very, very good meeting. Total unanimity with all the European leaders. We'll talk about it later," Biden said after a previously planned meeting with administration officials to discuss lowering prices.

On the call: Biden met for 80 minutes earlier Monday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The call was arranged to discuss coordination among allies on how to approach the mounting tensions with Russia as it takes an aggressive posture toward Ukraine.

Read more here.

And read more coverage on the topic here:

US helped intercept missiles over UAE

The details: U.S. Central Command Spokesman Captain Bill Urban said in a statement that "U.S. forces at Al Dhafra Air Base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), engaged two inbound missile threats with multiple Patriot interceptors coincident to efforts by the armed forces of the UAE in the early morning hours of Jan. 24, 2022."

He added that the combined efforts successfully prevented both missiles from impacting the U.S. base, where over 2,000 troops are stationed. Al Dhafra is home to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and has both U.S. and U.K. forces stationed there, according to The Associated Press.

No casualties: "There were no U.S. casualties," Urban added. "U.S. forces at Al Dhafra remain vigilant and ready to respond in case of any follow-on attacks."

Urban added that U.S. troops took shelter in bunkers during the attack.

From the Pentagon: Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday "it would be foolish not to assume that there that there was a threat to our people. And as you saw from the results, we took that threat seriously."

"We are certainly going to be looking into the possibility that this was directed at our forces, we obviously take that seriously. We responded to this ballistic missile attack and we'll be in close coordination with our Emirati partners as we continue to assess what happened and what we might need to do going forward," he added.

Tensions ongoing: The recent attack comes as tensions are heightened in the UAE after the Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a drone attack in Abu Dhabi that killed three people and left six others wounded. A day after the first attack, a Saudi-led coalition targeted Houthi rebels in Yemen in a strike that killed at least 70 people, The New York Times reported.

Read more here

TOP GENERAL TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID-19

The head of U.S. Special Operations Command tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, making him the latest senior defense official to contract the virus this month.

Gen. Richard D. Clarke has "very mild symptoms" and will be working remotely to isolate himself from others, command spokesman Col. Curt Kellogg said in an emailed statement.

Clarke is fully vaccinated and has received his booster shot, Kellogg said. He has not been in the physical presence of other senior civilian defense officials or members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this month.

Earlier cases: News of Clarke's test comes a week after Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, both tested positive for COVID-19.

Spokesman for Milley and Berger both said at the time that the officials were still able to perform their duties remotely.

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tested positive for COVID-19, and worked from home for about a week before returning to the office.

Read the full story here.

US aircraft carriers enter South China Sea

U.S. aircraft carriers on Sunday entered the South China Sea to begin operations amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan.

The U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Groups Carl Vinson and Abraham Lincoln will engage in operations aimed at strengthening maritime integrated-at-sea operations and combat readiness, according to a statement from the Navy.

The training will be conducted in accordance with international laws, the statement said.

What they'll do: The operations include enhanced maritime communication operations, anti-submarine warfare operations, replenishments-at-sea and maritime interdiction operations, the statement said.

Timing: The announcement from the Navy came the same day that Taiwan reported warding off 39 Chinese aircraft - 34 fighters, four electronic warfare craft and one bomber - flying in its air defense identification zone, the largest incursion of China's air forces in that zone since October.

U.S. warships frequently transit areas of the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, drawing anger from Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan.

Read the full story here.

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

WHAT WE'RE READING

That's it for today! Check out The Hill's defense and national security pages for latest coverage. See you on Tuesday.

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