Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, 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 famed Doomsday Clock has been set at 100 seconds to midnight this year, the closest it’s ever been to the metaphorical point of the Earth’s destruction.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists unveiled this year’s setting for the clock at a news conference Wednesday morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“Speaking of danger and destruction is never easy. If you speak the truth, people will not want to listen because it’s too awful. It makes you sound like a crackpot,” said former California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), executive chairman of the Bulletin.
“Today we live in a world of vast, deep and pervasive complacency,” Brown added. “Even if there is a one-in-100 chance that these men and women before you are correct and we are truly in a dangerous moment, you would never know that from the president, from Republican leadership and from Democratic leadership.”
About the clock: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the clock in 1947 to represent how close the planet was to annihilation by nuclear weapons. In more recent years, the journal has also weighed the effects of climate change in setting the clock.
Last year, the Bulletin set the clock at two minutes to midnight, choosing to leave the clock at the same time as the previous year.
This year: This year, the Bulletin’s panel of scientists and other experts decided to move the clock 20 seconds forward and for the first time express the time in seconds rather than minutes because the “moment demands attention,” said Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin.
On nuclear issues, the Bulletin cited the erosion of the Iran nuclear deal, the faltering of nuclear negotiations with North Korea, the downfall of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia and next year’s expiration of the New START treaty, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads Washington and Moscow are allowed.
The Bulletin chose this year’s time before the recent spike in U.S.-Iran tensions, but those events “only confirm our view,” said Sharon Squassoni, a member of the group’s Science and Security Board.
Climate change adds to issue: On climate change, the scientists cited both continued warming of the planet displayed in devastating hurricanes and wildfires and international governments’ lack of urgency in addressing the issue.
“If the Earth warms by what we tend to think of as just a few degrees … we have no reason to be confident that such a world will remain hospitable to human civilization,” said Sivan Kartha, another member of the Science and Security Board.
Despite governments’ increasing use of the phrase “climate emergency,” he added, “their policies are far from commensurate.”
Compounding the threats of nuclear war and climate change, the Bulletin also warned about online disinformation campaigns, a particular worry in the U.S. ahead of this year’s elections in November.
NEW DETAILS ON KENYAN BASE ATTACK: The U.S. military on Thursday released new details of the Jan. 5 attack on a Kenyan airbase used by U.S. troops following a New York Times report that described the scene as chaotic.
U.S. Africa Command (Africom) in a statement pushed back on the Times report, which noted that American forces were surprised by an al-Shabaab attack on the Kenyan Defense Force Military Base in Manda Bay, Kenya, taking roughly an hour to respond and even longer to evacuate wounded Pentagon personnel.
U.S. Army Spc. Henry Mayfield and two U.S. contractors, Bruce Triplett and Dustin Harrison, were killed, and six contractor-operated civilian aircraft were damaged in the incident.
“The tragic loss of these brave Americans and the damage and destruction to aircraft demonstrates the enemy achieved a degree of success in its attack,” according to the statement from Africom.
“However, despite public reports, an initial assessment indicates that a timely and effective response to the attack reduced the number of casualties and eliminated the potential for further damage.”
The timing: The attack on the base, situated on the coast and near the Somali border, was largely overshadowed at the time as it came two days after the U.S. drone strike ordered by President Trump that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
But the incident marks the most U.S. military-related deaths in Africa since the October 2017 ambush in Niger where four soldiers were killed.
It also puts the spotlight on Defense Secretary Mark Esper‘s plan to draw down U.S. forces in Africa in an effort to shift the Pentagon’s focus to better counter Russian and Chinese aggression. No decisions have yet been made on a possible force reduction on the continent, Esper said on Wednesday.
The details: Africom notes that in the early morning hours of Jan. 5, al-Shabaab hit the Kenyan installation and Camp Simba — where U.S. Marines are based — with mortar fire while simultaneously assaulting the airfield.
Shortly after, U.S. forces at Camp Simba “quickly responded and actively counterattacked the enemy at the airfield.”
The command said that U.S. and Kenyan Defense forces repelled the attack, killing five al-Shabaab terrorists.
“While numbers are still being verified, it is estimated that several dozen al-Shabaab fighters were repelled. Because of the size of the Kenyan base, clearance and security operations continued for several more hours to ensure the entire base was secure.”
The Pentagon immediately after the Kenya incident sent about 100 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to establish base security.
The Times reported that Army Green Berets from Germany were also sent to Djibouti in the case that al-Shabaab, an East Africa-based al Qaeda affiliate, attempted to take over the base.
Africom continues to investigate the attack.
AMAZON ASKS COURT TO HALT WORK ON ‘WAR CLOUD’: Amazon on Wednesday asked a U.S. federal court to stop Microsoft from working with the Pentagon to implement a $10 billion cloud-computing contract, arguing that the project should be put on hold until the courts work out whether Microsoft deserved to receive the lucrative deal.
Amazon is suing the Department of Defense (DOD) over allegations that it allowed President Trump to exert “improper influence” over the contract process, ultimately steering the cloud-computing project away from the online retail giant and towards Microsoft. Amazon was the clear front-runner in the competition before Trump began intervening in the process over the summer.
Even as Amazon sues in federal court, Microsoft and the Pentagon have been forging ahead to lay the groundwork for the enormous cloud-computing project. But Amazon says it’s improper for the deal to move forward until the U.S. Court of Federal Claims makes the final call.
“It is common practice to stay contract performance while a protest is pending and it’s important that the numerous evaluation errors and blatant political interference that impacted the JEDI award decision be reviewed,” an Amazon Web Services spokesperson said late Wednesday night, adding the company “is absolutely committed to supporting the DoD’s modernization efforts and to an expeditious legal process that resolves this matter as quickly as possible.”
About the contract: The cloud-computing contract, dubbed the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract — or JEDI — is worth up to $10 billion and will enable one company to develop the cloud infrastructure across the Defense Department. The contract will allow Microsoft to develop cloud-computing infrastructure for the U.S. military for up to 10 years, ending in October 2029.
Amazon sued the Pentagon in the Court of Federal Claims when it lost to Microsoft last year, alleging the JEDI contract was not awarded legally and displayed clear bias against Amazon. The company is asking the court to overhaul the Pentagon’s decision.
But since that initial filing, Microsoft and the Pentagon have taken a few first steps toward implementing the new cloud-computing system. Microsoft and Pentagon officials met in Washington, D.C., in mid-December.
What Amazon is demanding now: Now, Amazon says the company should not move forward until the court battle is resolved.
Amazon’s case in the Court of Federal Claims is unprecedented as one of the largest companies in the country takes on the president himself over allegations of improper intervention and personal animus.
In a court filing last year, Amazon alleged that Trump engaged in “public and behind-the-scenes attacks” to steer the contract away from Amazon Web Services out of spite for his “perceived political enemy,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.
“The publicly available record of President Trump‘s statements and actions demonstrates that he repeatedly attacked and vilified his perceived political enemy — Mr. Bezos, the founder and CEO of AWS’s parent company, Amazon, and who separately owns the Washington Post and then intervened in this procurement process to thwart the fair administration of DoD’s procurement of technology and services critical to the modernization of the U.S. military,” Amazon wrote in the filing.
The Pentagon’s stance: The Pentagon has insisted that the contract went to the more deserving company.
In a statement, the Pentagon said it “remains confident in the JEDI award.”
“The Department of Defense will continue to fight to put this urgently-needed capability into the hands of our men and women in uniform as quickly and efficiently as possible,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly will speak on priorities for the department at 8 a.m. at the National Defense Industrial Association in Arlington, Va.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Security Forum on “Emerging Technologies Governance,” along with other current and former defense officials at 9:00 a.m. in Washington, D.C.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will speak at the Aspen Institute discussion on “The Struggle for Power: U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century,” at 12 p.m. in Washington, D.C.
— The Hill: House Democrat presses Pentagon after Trump downplays severity of US troop injuries in Iran attack
— The Hill: Senators question DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter
— The Hill: Trump says he expects to release Middle East peace plan by Tuesday
— The Hill: Top intel office fails to meet deadline to give Khashoggi report to Congress: report
— The Hill: Turkey: Russian air defense system no NATO threat
— The Hill: Bezos phone breach escalates fears over Saudi hacking
— The Hill: Opinion: The US can never forge a ‘friendship’ with Iran the way it did with Vietnam
— The Hill: Opinion: Where ‘spacepower’ is incubated