REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I just have a few announcements and then we'll get started.
First, as you know, Secretary Hagel testified today before the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed, classified hearing on developments in Iraq and Afghanistan and our budget request for overseas contingency operations. It was a good session. The secretary appreciated the opportunity to brief the members of the committee, and it was -- again, I think it was very productive. He was joined by Chairman Dempsey in that.
While the secretary remains focused on these ongoing challenges, he also wants to ensure that the department doesn't lose sight of our long-term priorities and that we remain ahead of emerging threats and challenges to our interests and allies in Asia, Europe and around the world. So that's why the secretary is leaving tomorrow on a two-day domestic trip to bases in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
Throughout this trip, the secretary will highlight and see firsthand some of the core capabilities that he prioritized in our budget submission earlier this year to ensure that our force is ready, agile, modern, and effective to confront the full range of challenges that we'll face in the future.
The first up tomorrow will be Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, home to some of the Navy's Ohio-class ballistic and guided missile submarines. The secretary has made a longstanding personal commitment to the health of our nuclear force and has made it one of his highest priorities to ensure that the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrence force.
He looks forward to touring the ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee and to looking at the Trident Refit Facility there at Kings Bay. He'll also meet with both submarine officers and junior and senior enlisted submariners. This visit will help inform the secretary's ongoing review of our nuclear enterprise and continuing his tour with -- following on from his tour of the ICBM fleet, which was begun earlier this year.
The secretary's second stop on Thursday will be to Eglin Air Force Base, where Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps pilots and maintainers are being trained to fly and support the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Eglin is home to the first full Air Force squadron of F-35As, which was completed out just last month.
The secretary's visit particularly at this time sends a strong message to our international partners that the United States remains fully committed to the F-35 program. I don't want to get ahead of the investigation that you all know is ongoing with respect to the fire that occurred recently, but I can say that Secretary Hagel was confident that the investigation will help the F-35 return to flight, and he's looking forward to hearing more firsthand from the folks on the ground there at Eglin.
The secretary's third stop also on Thursday will be to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where the Army trains all its helicopter pilots, crews, and maintainers for both the active-duty force and the National Guard. Over the past 13 years of war, Army Aviation has endured extremely high op tempo to provide some of the most in-demand enablers for our troops, including lift, close-air support, and, of course, casualty evacuation. So the secretary is looking forward to thanking them for their hard work. He'll also have a chance to highlight the Army's aviation restructure initiative.
My final announcement is that on Friday, Secretary Hagel will welcome back to the Pentagon Japanese Defense Minister Onodera. The secretary has met with Minister Onodera several times, most recently at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He looks forward to discussing several issues important to the U.S.-Japan alliance, including Japan's recent announcement on collective self-defense, the current process of reviewing and revising our defense guidelines, and ongoing efforts to strengthen our alliance, including trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Australia, as the region confronts an evolving range of security challenges, such as threats from North Korea.
We are also, as you know, monitoring the super-typhoon currently heading -- or bearing down on Okinawa and the rest of Japan, and we'll work closely with our Japanese allies to deal with any damage from the storm. With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: John, can you say whether or not the F-35 will be going to the Farnborough Air Show in Europe?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There has not been a decision made on that yet.
Q: (OFF-MIC) when that decision will be made?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No -- they're certainly mindful that the air show is beginning, but I don't think that we want to rush to a decision here, too. So I think a decision will be coming pretty soon, but I wouldn't -- I couldn't give you, you know, an exact timeline on that.
Q: How much of a blow to it is the program if -- if it doesn't go, in terms of the momentum it's had of late? It's been doing better in testing.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah. Well, I think certainly we'd be disappointed if we weren't able to -- to take it to Farnborough. I mean, this is something that we're looking forward to, as well. That said, safety's got to be priority number one, and it is. And nobody wants to rush these aircraft back into the air before we know exactly what happened, investigators have a chance to do their work.
But I would add, also, that, you know, casualties like this are not atypical for new programs. This is not the first time that it has happened, and certainly it won't be the last. And -- but it absolutely doesn't do anything to shake our confidence in the F-35 program and the progress, as you pointed out, that has been made both from an engineering and from a financial perspective, so, again, that's one of the messages the secretary will send when he goes down to Eglin, is that we are 100 percent still committed to the JSF.
Q: Can we talk for a minute about the issue of the unaccompanied minor children coming across the border...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: ... and going to U.S. military bases? A couple of questions. What can you -- three things. What can you tell us about the request for -- from HHS [Department of Health & Human Services] for 5,000 additional spaces? How far is the Pentagon and the Defense Department willing to go to assist in this whole matter? At what point is it just too much?
And my third question is, even though this is an HHS program, it is happening at U.S. military installations. So what responsibilities does the military have to ensure that these children are looked after, are safe, and are being properly cared for? Because even though it's legally an HHS program, it is on your installations.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We are currently processing requests right now from HHS for -- to house more children. It's -- and I wouldn't put an exact number on it, because that's still in discussion. But we are -- we are processing requests by the Health and Human Services for that.
To your question, how much is enough, I mean, you know, it's -- you remember that the use of our facilities is being done on -- it's not just a demand basis, but a supply basis. In other words, we're providing access to certain facilities that were already vacant and not being used and are, therefore, available and in the first three cases are relatively close to the border itself.
The secretary is supportive of the mission. He wouldn't have signed up to this if he wasn't. He understands the importance of making sure that these children get the care that they need once they get inside the country.
It is, as you said at the outset, a mission conducted by and owned by Health and Human Services. We're proud to be able to support them in this regard, but it is a temporary mission, and it's not something that we see an enduring arrangement, and I don't think HHS would say that they would think it's an enduring arrangement, either.
The responsibility for the children lies with Health and Human Services. We are providing the facilities, the physical infrastructure, the places for them to sleep and to bathe and to eat, but we are not responsible for the children themselves. It is an HHS -- HHS mission.
Q: And as you know, at least one congressman tried to visit Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was not able to see the children, or he says he was not able to see children when he made that request of military personnel at Fort Sill. Are you -- can you describe it all what your role is, in terms of access, again, responsibility, anything besides -- do you have any responsibilities besides simply turning over space to HHS?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Right now, that's the limit of the -- of our -- of our commitment, is the physical space. And, again, we're in discussions with them about trying to find additional space for additional children. My understanding was that the -- that the member of Congress was -- was able to get on base. We don't turn members of Congress away from visiting our bases, but that -- that he wasn't able to gain access to the facility on base in which the children were being held. And, again, access to the children is controlled by Health and Human Services, not DOD.
Q: So whose decision was it to hold a media day where no recording devices are allowed, no questions will be allowed, no interaction with the staff and children, and all these -- it's like a media day with (OFF-MIC)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure. Sure. The media -- media access, just like anybody's access to the children, is being -- it's controlled by Health and Human Services, not by DOD. So I don't know the answer to your question and who made those determinations. It wasn't -- it's not a -- it wasn't a DOD media day.
But I also think, you know, we need to take a couple of steps back here and to remember, these are -- these are young kids, and they're from foreign lands. They're not American kids. Pretty safe to say they don't speak our language, and they're probably pretty scared. And I think giving HHS just a little bit of leash here to mind the access that people have to them I think is probably a fair thing to consider.
Q: How much space do you have for additional children? And is there 120-day cap on how long you'll hold them? We'd heard that number, 120 days.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The original agreement and arrangement was for 120 days at each of the three facilities. There are three bases, Fort Sill, Ventura County, the Navy base there, and Lackland Air Force Base that are being used right now. And each of them is on a different clock, but it's 120 days long. And we're -- the first one was, I think, Lackland, and they've had kids for about two months now, so I wouldn't speculate now whether or not that is going to be extended. It's certainly something that could be discussed, but I wouldn't speculate that it's absolutely going to be.
Q: And I think you answered this already, but this doesn't affect military readiness in any way, using -- diverting resources to these children?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. As I said to Barbara, I mean, the facilities that we're using for the children are already vacant facilities that are not being used for any other purpose. And I can assure you and the American people that American military operations are not being curtailed or degraded in any way by us doing this very limited, temporary support mission to Health and Human Services.
Q: Last one for me. Do you have a cost estimate for this? And do you know of any health concerns right now? There have been reports of scabies or some other issues. Do you know of any health issues with the children now?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would point you to Health and Human Services for the health issues of the children. That's really their responsibility, and it wouldn't be good for me to get into that. As for cost, it is a -- it is -- and I should have said this at the outset -- it's a reimbursable mission.
In other words, the expectation is that HHS will reimburse our accounts for the costs. The costs are being figured out by the facilities themselves. As I said, the -- we're only -- on one case, we're only halfway through this, the 120 days. So I don't have a bill for you right now, but they are keeping track of costs and we'll make that, you know -- obviously make that known to Health and Human Services at the appropriate time.
Q: (OFF-MIC) on the security side, we had -- last week, General Kelly saying -- raising concerns about his ability in SOUTHCOM to stem drugs, weapons, and people and children coming up through Mexico to -- to the border. And so I guess the question then is, does the secretary share the concerns that SOUTHCOM or the military writ large is underequipped to protect the border from those threats, which Kelly (OFF-MIC)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: He certainly -- he certainly shares General Kelly's concerns about the -- the threats emanating from the south, particularly from transnational criminal networks, which are causing a lot of the instability, which is -- which is encouraging these young children and their families to -- to flee. So he absolutely shares that concern.
Q: (OFF-MIC) is the military underequipped to protect the southern flank?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We -- the -- it's not about being under resourced to protect the southern flank. I mean, this is not a military operation. He -- General Kelly has and the secretary shares general concerns about the southern region and -- and the threat posed by transnational criminal networks, not just to -- not just eventually to our shores, but to our partners south of us. And I think you know, General Kelly's on a trip down there with Secretary Johnson right now to take a look at things we can do better in collaboration with our partners down there to try to get at that very real threat.
But -- but -- and one of the things I think General Kelly said -- and, again, I would -- I know Secretary Hagel would echo it -- is that, you know, with sequestration looming over, it's not going to help us deal with those threats any better, so, you know, we really do need to get the funding bill passed and we need to get the yoke of sequestration thrown off of us so that we can continue to resource ourselves properly, not just in the southern hemisphere, but all around the world.
Q: Two questions. One on Afghanistan and Pakistan. One, what is the future of Afghanistan now still in limbo, no formal government or still (OFF-MIC) and all other things. It must be impacting the relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan and also, of course, the NATO and global community is also watching.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Everybody's watching the events in Afghanistan very closely. I disagree that it's affecting our relationship. I mean, this is -- it's the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan's history. It's historic on an epic scale. And, yes, there's complications. We're certainly monitoring that and watching that and encouraging both candidates to let the process continue. It doesn't do anybody any good to threaten violence. We -- and I think the State Department made this clear -- that we want to get a complete audit of -- of the votes, the second round returns before any kind of formal announcement is made one way or the other.
We're not picking sides here. The only side that we're on is the side of the Afghan people. And I think we just need to keep focused on that. And there's absolutely no change in our commitment to the peaceful, stable future of Afghanistan.
Q: (OFF-MIC) Afghanistan, appreciating U.S. help and support by bringing democracy and free and fair elections in Afghanistan in the past and they are still hoping that U.S. will be the last resort for the stable Afghanistan.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We -- nothing's changed about our commitment to a stable Afghanistan. And we share the aspirations of the Afghan people for that kind of a future. But ultimately, who is -- who is the executive in -- in that government is chosen by -- should be chosen by the Afghan people. There's a process going on right now that we -- some of these returns are obviously in dispute. We need to let that process continue. And the United States -- certainly the United States military -- is not going to get in the middle of that.
Q: And, sir, finally, as far as Pakistan is concerned, Pakistani prime minister has ordered army throughout Pakistan, because there is a danger from within Pakistan from the Taliban, Al Qaida, and extremism and all that. Is there any role that U.S. is playing or any Pakistan has asked any help from this building?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of. And we talked about this before. I mean, the operations that the Pakistani military are conducting are theirs to conduct. We've seen some success as a result of that, but I'm not aware of any specific requests.
Q: (OFF-MIC) Pakistan prime minister has put whole Pakistan on alert and major cities now being secured by the army, Pakistani army.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean, Pakistan has the -- their military has the right and responsibility, just like we do in this country, to defend our people, to defend their people, to defend their borders. And, you know, I'm not going to prejudge how they're doing that in this particular case, so they've -- they've been taking the fight to the enemy inside their country. As I've said before, this is a shared threat. It's a shared challenge. We continue to want to pursue a constructive relationship with Pakistan, but the individual decisions they're making, I mean, for their -- they should speak to those, not -- not me.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q: OK, could you -- could you give us -- are you able to give us an assessment on the role and the size of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force inside Iraq? As you may know, Admiral Kirby, there are many Iranian officials and operatives working, embedded with the Iraqi forces on the ground and at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. How would you address that? Do you see any conflict of interest -- of interest to the U.S. mission in Iraq, while having Iranian officials on the ground?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I will say what I've said before. We do not -- we have no indications that there are Iranian ground troops inside Iraq. What I've said before remains true today, that we know that there are some Iranian operatives, Quds Force operatives inside Iraq that are training and advising some Iraqi security forces, but more -- more critically, Shia militia. And we also know that Iran has flowed in some supplies, arms and ammunition, and even some aircraft for Iraq -- for Iraq's armed forces.
These are interstate decisions. I mean, we understand that Iraq is a sovereign nation, has that right to -- to reach out to a neighbor, if they see fit to ask for that support. What we've said -- and nothing's changed about what we've said -- we're not going to coordinate our military activities with Tehran, number one. Number two, that whoever is getting involved in the situation in Iraq, we would like them to take the same approach that we've taken, which is don't do anything to further inflame the sectarian tensions.
Q: Just a quick follow-up, today after Senator McCain, after meeting -- after the closed meeting with Secretary Hagel and Chairman Dempsey, Senator McCain said that there is no strategy to defeat ISIS or ISIL or IS in Iraq. What's your response on that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to talk about what was discussed in a classified briefing on the Hill. What I -- what I would tell you is that we're taking a very measured, deliberate approach here to a very complicated problem inside Iraq. And right now, there are two missions for the U.S. military -- providing some static security for our diplomats so that they can continue to do their very important work, the embassy, and our facilities there at the airport. And the second mission is to advise -- I'm sorry, to assess -- to have six assessment teams on the ground, mostly in and around Baghdad, to assess the cohesiveness of the Iraqi security forces, the situation on the ground, and, again, the follow-on advisory mission.
We also have a small number of people that are working in two joint operations centers, one in Baghdad and one up in Erbil, all designed to help us get a better sense of what's going on, on the ground before any follow-on military decisions are made. That's the mission that we've been given; that's the strategy that we're pursuing. And I won't -- I won't go into...
Q: (OFF-MIC) timeline to assess -- to finish the assessment that the U.S....
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, as I said at the outset, it was going to -- we expected the assessment teams to take about two to three weeks. We think that they're nearing the end of -- of that initial assessment phase.
Q: What have they found so far?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, the reports that we've been -- we've been staying in touch with them. I'm not going to prejudge or get ahead of the assessments as they -- as they come in through more official channels. But -- but they have done most of the work, completed most of the work, assessed most of the units that -- that we asked them to go look at.
Q: Can you characterize what they found?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I'm not going to do that from here. No, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to get ahead of a decision-making process that -- that hasn't even started yet. So we need to let the work finish. It's almost done. The assessments will come up and then leadership will get a chance to take a look, and we'll go from there.
Q: Will it be done this week?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think it'll be done very soon, Justin, very soon.
Q: Has the level of ISR effort that you guys are providing over Iraq, is that maintained about where it has been when you've talked about it? And then on Afghanistan, John Kerry said, you know, that security and financial assistance could be withdrawn if somebody kind of illegally takes the leadership -- you know, takes over the government in Afghanistan. Is the Pentagon prepared to accelerate the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan? Or what -- from your side of it, what is DOD prepared to do?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: On your first question, the -- we continue to intensify the ISR support that we provide Iraq. So right now, I think last week I said we were between 30 and 35 sorties a day. It's up around 50 right now. And it's stayed there for a good many days. And, you know, these things are going to fluctuate from time to time, but that's about where we are right now.
Q: Manned and unmanned?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's correct, still manned and unmanned. And then on Afghanistan, there are -- we -- the electoral process needs to continue. We want both candidates to observe the process that's in place. We want the audit to be finished. There are no plans to change our military plans in Afghanistan as a result of the election issues today.
Q: Admiral, quickly on Iraq. Any update on the number of troops on the ground? Or have all 300 authorized by the president -- are they there now?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, they're not. I can give you an update. As of today, out of the 775 that are authorized under those three War Powers Resolution letters, there are 640 in country. And that's split between the two mission sets that I talked about.
Q: Admiral, another thing. The -- can you give us an update on the status of Deputy Secretary Work's review of the military health care system? A lot has emerged heard out of here that there is no dispute with the New York Times reports on longstanding problems with the military health system. Does the secretary share that -- share that view? And does he agree with Dr. Woodson that the way this is heading it looks like there's a major need for overhaul of the military health care system?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The secretary fully supports this review process going forward. They just finished the last site visit today.
Q: Where was that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: In England. And so -- so that one finished today. I think they're going to go back to San Diego later in the week for one more go at that one. And then we'll let them get their work done, and they'll come back and process what they've learned, and the review will keep pressing forward.
The -- the reason he launched a review was as -- as he watched what was happening at the V.A., wanted to make sure that -- that if we have similar problems that we know about it, we find them, and we fix them. And if there's things that we're doing really well that we can capitalize on or share across the force, that we do that, as well. So he wants a broad-based look at this thing, and that's why he gave him 90 days to do it. And like I said, the work is -- it's progressing. All the site visits are over, and he looks forward to -- you know, to getting interim reports as we go forward.
Q: On the F-35, is there any discussion of the Marines getting a waiver to go to Farnborough? Or will it take a lifting of the whole grounding in order for them to fly there?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any pursuit of a waiver. Again, we're not going to make this decision quickly or -- or in an unsafe way. There's no pressure on the Marines either way on this. I mean, this is a decision they have to make, but -- but clearly it'll be informed by the work of this -- of the investigating team.
Q: Admiral, can you -- to the degree that you can tell us, how much did Syria and the request on Syria training come up today with the secretary, General Dempsey at the Senate? And more broadly, can you tell us about the political case they and other leaders from this department need to make to Congress on that effort, given that last year the president went to Congress to ask for authorization about striking Syria and ultimately didn't happen, in part because it was a very tough lift for a lot of members to support that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not going to talk about the details inside a closed hearing. Yes, the Syria training mission came up, as you might expect that it would, but I won't talk about -- I won't go into any more detail than that.
The -- we're very grateful for the OCO [Overseas Contingency Operations] request that includes that $500 million for a train and equip mission for a moderate Syria opposition. The secretary has directed the staff to go about the detailed planning of how that money would be apportioned, where would that training occur, how long would it take to do it, and more importantly, just as importantly, how we would vet those that would undertake that training.
That work is ongoing right now. And I suspect we'll begin to have some initial reporting into him very, very soon. It is -- as you know, it's a fiscal year '15 request. So best case, we wouldn't be able to have access to that funding until early October. So there's a little of time here to go.
Q: Do you need Congress to pass the bill and authorize that money or the OCO budget overall before you can finish these planning (OFF-MIC)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. No, not at all. No, I mean, he's got the staff and he's working with the Central Command planners, as well, to do the necessary spadework to develop the options. That -- that needs to be done now. And he's been very clear to the staff that he wants a sense of urgency applied to it, in the hope and the expectation that the Congress will appropriate the money and that we can get started on it.
Joe, I've already got you. In the back, yeah?
Q: Thank you. Two questions about Japan (inaudible) an agreement over defense cooperation. One, your reaction to the agreement?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: To the what?
Q: Your reaction to this agreement, defense cooperation agreement in Japan (inaudible)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm sorry. I didn't understand. You mean -- you mean the -- the constitutional changes that they're trying to...
Q: No, no, no, I'm talking about Japan (inaudible) reaching an agreement over defense cooperation. They are going to try...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Oh, South Korea?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Australia. I'm sorry.
Q: I'm sorry about...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, no, it's my bad. Well, as I said in my opening statement, we encourage trilateral cooperation between Japan and Australia and the United States. And we also encourage cooperation -- military cooperation, you know, between Japan, South Korea and other neighbors. So, I mean, very much encourage those kinds of -- those kinds of moves forward.
Q: And in your view, how this new agreement will impact the U.S. effort to get, for example, Japan and South Korea closer or, for example, easing tension between Japan and China?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Our approach is -- has -- remains, I think, to be one of -- of seeking and trying to support more collaboration, more communication between all our allies and partners in that part of the world. There's -- there's enough water, there's enough air, there's enough challenges in that part of the world to warrant more dialogue and more cooperation by everybody. And that's been our whole approach to the rebalance from the very beginning.
I got time for one more. Yes (OFF-MIC)
Q: (OFF-MIC) tomorrow, any update on the reviews that the secretary ordered with the Air Force nuclear mission (OFF-MIC)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Both are ongoing. They are also nearing completion. I don't have a readout for you now on that. But, you know, as you know, he ordered an internal one and an external one. And the -- the bulk of the work is done, and now those reports are being -- they're being staffed and reviewed. And, you know, when we have something that we can talk about, we will.