The seven biggest military stories of 2021

 

The Pentagon had a lot to handle in the first year of the Biden administration. In a busy 12 months, here are some of the biggest challenges they faced.

Jan. 6 Capitol riot

Thousands of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, hoping to stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s electoral victory with dozens of veterans on hand.

Five people died the day of the attack, including Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to climb inside through a broken window. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, an Air National Guard veteran, died of natural causes a day later, and two other police officers committed suicide shortly after the riot.

More than 650 arrests have been made in the ensuing month, and the Pentagon announced it would change its guidelines to prevent extremism from the military.

Afghanistan withdrawal

The U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of August, effectively ending the war that began two decades earlier with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. With the impending withdrawal date known publicly, the Taliban launched a military offensive at the beginning of August, overthrowing the U.S.-backed Ghani government.

With the Taliban’s swift rise to power, the U.S. military began a noncombatant evacuation operation to provide refuge to U.S. citizens, third-country nationals, and Afghan allies who believed they’d be at risk under the new regime. In total, the United States and its allies evacuated roughly 125,000 people out of Afghanistan during their final month.

The final days were marred by tragedy. U.S. military lost 13 service members at the Hamid Karzai International Airport when an ISIS-K terrorist detonated a suicide vest, killing them and roughly 170 civilians. Days later, in what they thought was a measure to prevent a secondary attack, the Department of Defense launched a drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including the target, who was an aid worker.

Defense officials have warned about the possibility of a resurgence in terror organizations in Afghanistan, with estimates saying ISIS-K, the affiliate in Afghanistan, could gain the capability to launch an attack in a foreign country within six months to a year.

China’s hypersonic missile test and Russia’s missile test

China tested “a nuclear-capable hypersonic” missile that “circled the globe before speeding towards its target” over the summer. At the same time, Russia intentionally used a missile to destroy a satellite that scattered more than a thousand pieces of debris across space in November.

Both tests were the first of their kind for the countries, though neither demonstrated new technology altogether. Hypersonic missile technology dates back decades, but the new developments China showed tracing and intercepting would be much more difficult. Russia’s test, a repeat of a Chinese operation in 2007, was the first time Russia demonstrated the ability to strike a satellite using a missile from Earth, per the Washington Post.

China’s test represents its military’s growth and its acceleration of its nuclear expansion program to the point where it could “have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads” within roughly five years, according to DOD’s Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China report released at the beginning of November.

Additionally, the military appears to plan on having at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DOD projected in 2020, per the report.

In the days before his retirement last month, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged the Chinese military has conducted “hundreds” of hypersonic tests in the last five years, while the U.S. conducted only nine such tests. He also called the pace of China’s military development “stunning.”

Taiwan

The Chinese government has long maintained that the 24 million people who live in Taiwan are subject to the regime in mainland China, whereas those on the island have proclaimed their independence. The U.S. provides defense support to Taiwan but has not recognized the country as being independent since formalizing relations with the people’s republic.

The Chinese military has increased aggressive actions around Taiwan in 2021 as the U.S. put military forces in Taiwan for training purposes, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen confirmed this fall. However, she conceded the number of U.S. forces there “is not as many as people thought.”

On two different occasions, Biden made headlines for what appeared to be policy changes on Taiwan, though the White House later walked back those remarks to note there had been no alterations to the current strategy.

During an October town hall, Biden said the U.S. has a “commitment” to come to Taiwan’s defense should China attack, though White House spokesperson Jen Psaki later clarified, “There has been no shift. The president was not announcing any change in our policy. Nor has he made a decision to change our policy.”

Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine

Russia has amassed a significant military presence on its border with Ukraine, which in turn has ratcheted up both rhetoric and fears of a possible invasion.

While Biden administration officials have said it’s unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this month he had seen “evidence that Russia made plans for significant aggressive moves against Ukraine.”

Biden, who previously explained that sending combat troops to Ukraine should Russia invade is “not on the table” at the moment, and Putin spoke on Thursday at the request of the Kremlin.

“[Biden] made clear that the United States and its allies and partners will respond decisively if Russia further invades Ukraine,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement released after the call ended.

An official said that the president “laid out two paths, two aspects for the U.S. approach that will depend on Russia’s actions in the path ahead,” and one is the “path of diplomacy leading to deescalation” while the other “is a path more focused on deterrents.”

COVID-19 vaccination mandate

Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated the coronavirus vaccine for all DOD personnel in August, though he allowed each service branch to determine how to implement the policy. Every active-duty service member has already had their deadline come and go, and an overwhelming majority complied.

Each of the service branches had some discharges for those who refused the order, while others sought exemptions. No branch granted any religious exemptions, even though more than 12,000 service members applied. However, thousands of medical and administrative requests were granted.

More than 200 Marines have been discharged, and the Army relieved six active-duty leaders, two battalion commanders included, and issued 2,767 general officer written reprimands. The Air Force reported that 27 out of the roughly 5,000 active-duty airmen and guardians who refused the vaccine were discharged.

While thousands will likely be discharged over the mandate, the number is a tiny percentage of the armed forces, which has roughly 1.3 million service members.

Claims of politicization of the military

Conservatives have accused DOD officials and the military in general of promoting liberal viewpoints, arguing the changes are detrimental to the readiness and effectiveness of the military.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave an impassioned plea as to the importance of teaching recruits about things such as critical race theory, which dates back to the 1970s and provides an alternative perspective on U.S. history regarding race. Its inclusion in public school curricula has become a major controversy nationwide.

The theory posits that U.S. institutions are implicitly designed to keep white people ahead of minorities, so the only way to achieve a just society is to dismantle the current system.

“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” Milley told the House Armed Services Committee in June. “I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military general officers are commissioned [and] noncommissioned officers of being ‘woke,’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there. I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin, that doesn’t make me a communist.”

 

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