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Media Availability with Secretary Carter en route to Fort Wainwright, Alaska

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
Oct. 30, 2015
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Okay, let's see. I'll start off with – geez this is loud-- two things that I know are on your mind, and then take questions on anything else.

First, with respect to the president's announcement today. That is consistent with and adds some important detail to what General Dunford and I were saying on the Hill the other day about taking efforts to gather momentum and mass in our counter-ISIL strategy, both in Iraq and in Syria.

And, by the way, as the president's statement also mentioned, foreign fighter flow, counter-financing, counter-messaging, and as our coalition reflects, this is a global campaign. But the center of gravity is in Syria and Iraq, and the steps he announced focused on those.

I can answer any questions about them. But, it -- just taking -- mentioning some of them with respect to aircraft at Incirlik. This is A-10s, F-15s, that's thickening our air campaign, and this gives us the additional air assets that will permit that.

With respect to SOF in Syria, I know that's a great interest to everyone. Those forces, it's a small number, I think that -- the number's been indicated as less than 50 -- it's a small number.

And their purpose is, if you remember what we were saying about Raqqa and that our effort in Syria as -- throughout the counter-ISIL campaign to identify and then enable capable and motivated local forces, because that's fundamentally the strategy. Because only they can defeat ISIL and make defeat stick.

So that's the purpose. And the forces that we are seeking to support and enable there, are some Syrian Kurdish forces and the Syrian Arab Coalition, which we also have provided with equipment some days ago.

So, that's the SOF in Syria, and I can come back and say more about that if you'd like. The special forces -- another special forces ingredient had to do with one of the other Rs, which is Ramadi. It takes us to Iraq, where we've had a long standing partnership with the Iraqi special forces.

They have been exceedingly effective. That is, both capable and motivated. And so doing more with them is suggested and recommended by the promise they have shown in the counter-ISIL campaign.

So if you remember Raqqa, Ramadi and raids -- my three Rs -- in each of those categories we -- these -- our recommendations and the president's decisions reflect our continuing -- and this will go on, this will continue. Our effort to innovate, adjust, learn, gather mass, gather momentum in the counter-ISIL fight.

Let's see. Now, second subject I'll say something about is the trip that we're on now -- very important because it is to the part of the world that, more than any other single region, is consequential for America's future.

It's where half of humanity resides, and half the world's economy. And that's the reason for the rebalance, and the defense portion of the rebalance was just a portion. Is really a reflection of the decades and decades-long pivotal role of the U.S. military in ensuring that there's peace and stability there, because that's been the key to prosperity.

And the -- the economic miracle that has -- that country after country has enjoyed over the last 50 or 60 years, and most recently India and China -- we think that's a good thing, but we think that can only take place in an environment of security.

We will go first to Korea, which is as ever a place where -- as we remind ourselves every single day, and I do every single day -- as we say, there's a real possibility of a fight tonight. And that's the slogan of USFK, and of course nobody wants that, but we have to be prepared to deter that. That's what we do.

[edited]

[T]hen [we’ll] have what is a periodic, very important, ministerial between the defense ministers of the United States and South Korea. They've been going on for a long time. We can talk more about this specific issue -- I'm happy to answer any questions about it as we go on.

Then on to Malaysia for something different, but related, which -- also a meeting of defense ministers, but quite a number of them associated with the ASEAN defense ministers, and a few additionals. I expect there that the -- there will be considerable attention to South China Sea security matters. And I'm happy to talk about that as well, I'll just remind you of our policy and resolve with respect to the South China Sea.

Which is, first of all, I've been saying for many months now to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.

Second, that the United States doesn't take a position on disputing land claims, but we do take the position that they should be resolved peacefully, without militarization, and in that connection, have called for a permanent halt -- by all claimants who are doing this -- to further dredging and militarization in the South China Sea.

And then, lastly, a determination to continue working in the maritime domain with the great number of allies and partners who are asking for more security cooperation in recent years with the United States. The demand is up. We're trying to meet that demand.

[edited]

So those are the two principal subjects. Let me just see if I've -- sorry. I left out Alaska entirely. First, and I also neglected to mention TPP.

But I should have when I said that the rebalance is very broad. You know what I believe and why I'm so pleased the TPP has -- has progressed is that I -- it has strategic significance for the United States.

And it was important that as part of our being a leader and supporter of a rules-based order in the region -- that's not just security, it's for trade, and the conduct of commerce, as well, and that's what TPP stands for. So that's a good thing.

I'm sorry. Alaska. Alaska -- very important for two reasons.

One is that, as our flight indicates, it is on the way from the lower 48 to the Asia-Pacific. And since the Asia-Pacific, as I was just saying, is a place that's central to our security future, Alaska and its proximity, which is most easily appreciated by looking at a globe rather than a flat map, is important.

And second, of course, it's -- it's proximate to the Arctic. And that's -- we're paying more attention to the Arctic, as are many nations around the world, and appropriately so.

And, that's fine, and the only thing that we -- interest we have in the Department of Defense is to make sure that American security, but more importantly, the peaceful nature of the Arctic, is upheld.

The -- we're gonna see a Stryker brigade. That's our first stop -- just a little -- I have soft spot for Strykers because of time in Afghanistan, and I spent a lot of effort on the Stryker vehicle, including the double-V hull, back years ago, which was an innovative design to protect the underbody of a Stryker, which, of course, is a very broad vehicle.

And when an IED went off underneath, the blast had nowhere to go. And so it was -- it had greater impact on the bottom if the bottom was flat. We saw that happening, so a double V allows the blast wave to get deflected, provides a very critical little piece of protection.

So that's just one reason why they're important, and we're going to see those guys.

And the last thing I'll say is, they're part of the pacific pathways -- that's what they've been doing. And this is an interesting, and I think innovative, Army effort over the last -- thank you -- the last year and a half, maybe couple years, to do more exercising and partnering with -- and get this, armies in the Asia-Pacific, and I only say that in a sort of inquiring way, because we tend to the of the Asia-Pacific as a maritime and air environment.

But they're -- but most militaries there are traditionally army-led, and so our Army, since we -- partnering -- partners and allies are -- are -- you know, our approach to building security there, working with armies is important.

I just -- I think the Army's been incredibly creative. And these people right here have been doing it. So I think you'll find it interesting, and we should congratulate them all on what they've been doing.

So, Peter, I don't know whether I've left anything out, but --

MR. COOK: Just a couple questions, then give them some time to file.

SEC. CARTER: Yeah. Yeah, sure. No, go right ahead.

Q: (off mic)

SEC. CARTER: Yep. Yeah, sure.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Okay. Mr. Secretary, with regard to the U.S. special operations forces going to Syria, you mentioned their purpose is to identify and enable local partner forces. But if you could talk a little bit more about their specific activities that they'll be undertaking?

And -- and secondly, could you say whether you have or will talk to the Russians about having them steer clear of the area where those U.S. forces will be?

SEC. CARTER: With respect to the first part, their mission is, Bob, exactly as you say: to advise, assist and enable local forces there. And --

Q: (off mic)

SEC. CARTER: -- well, yes, they'll be there. That's the reason to have them in there in the first place, is to have the -- the -- the proximity and the closeness to the forces that they're supporting. That's the value of doing that.

So it'll enhance our ability to support these forces, which, as we've discovered, and I -- I've indicated, are -- have proven themselves to be capable and motivated.

And with respect to Russia, the Russians have not -- you know, to our disappointment, the Russians have not, in fact, been engaging ISIL, and therefore are not operating in the areas where the counter-ISIL forces are.

And, just to go back to the beginning, you remember that the Russians began their actions in Syria by saying that they were going after ISIL, and that was a -- that's obviously a common purpose.

But it's not what they're doing, and that's the reason why we haven't been able to align ourselves with their actions.

Q: (inaudible) -- you're not going to discuss that aspect of the question -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I -- I think that Secretary Kerry is discussing the overall Syria situation. But I -- we don't intend to discuss that with -- I -- this particular kind of activity, and again, they're operating in an entirely different part of the country.

MR. COOK: Gordon?

SEC. CARTER: Gordon?

Q: Do you -- right. Could you leave the door open, or would you leave the door open, for more deployments of more SOF in Syria if it seems to go well, one?

Two, if Syria -- if in Syria, then why not do the same thing in Iraq? And then the third part, which is a segue to -- or to -- related to that is -- clearly, the raid showed last week in Iraq that there was -- these forces accompanied and then ultimately got involved in -- in the raid. So can you rule that out for what we're talking about now in Syria?

SEC. CARTER: Okay. Let's see. With respect to the first part --

Q: (off mic)

SEC. CARTER: Okay. My problem is I can never remember all of them.

MR. COOK: All right. I can help.

SEC. CARTER: I understand. With respect to the first part, I mean, I've -- we are going to continue to innovate, to build on what works. That is the -- our approach, and -- bearing in mind that our fundamental strategy, which is very important, is to enable capable and motivated local forces on the ground, rather than to attempt to substitute for them.

We've discovered that doesn't lead to sustainable results. So that's the strategic framework. But as I indicated at the hearing, and the president has indicated his through these approvals, his willingness to do, as we think of new ways and really it's not so much of thinking new things, it's that we develop new opportunities to support capable and motivated forces -- we will consider those.

We'll make recommendations to the president. He's given every indication of his willingness to consider recommendations. Just provided they're consistent with the strategy of achieving a victory that sticks.

The second part, Gordon, was -- I see, no, about the raid. They -- well, no, I think that -- sir, what I just said, -- the same applies in Iraq as does in Syria.

Namely -- and of course, we have special forces in Iraq now, just to be clear. But in terms of the nature of their enabling and their advising and assisting, that is something that we will continue to consider as opportunities arise.

I -- obviously we hope that the place where Iraqi Security Forces are next successful in taking action is Ramadi, the second of my Rs. And with respect to the third part, the -- the -- I -- our role, as I said, fundamentally, and the strategy, is to enable local forces.

And -- but does that put U.S. forces in harm's way? It does. No question about it. We saw that during the raid a week and a half ago. We see that every day in the air, of course, and so that is something that can occur in the course of accomplishing this mission.

MR. COOK: Tara?

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Adding the F-15s seems to be thickening the air campaign over Syria. Over -- however, over the last several days, we've seen the opposite. We've seen several days of no strikes, a couple days of one strike.

Were there air defenses on the ground that were unexpected? Is that why there were no strikes before the F-15s?

And then, an Alaska question. While the Alaska is important to Arctic security strategy, the 4-25 is being cut under the Army's drawdown to -- 40,000-cut plan. It's the only extreme cold weather airborne brigade in PACOM. What's the thinking behind this, and is it under review?

SEC. CARTER: Let's see, just with this -- with respect to the second one, first.

That is the Army's plan currently. That's, by the way, not the unit that we're visiting, but your question is still germane. That's a decision the Army made as part of its overall global posture adjustments to accommodate the budget that it has.

It's set priorities. They're have obviously been reductions elsewhere in the Army force structure, and this is the way the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff of the Army have prioritized things.

And so that -- we've -- and they have described that -- you know, obviously none of us likes to be reducing force structure, but it is part of the budget circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And just to show you, I can't remember -- what was the first part again?

Q: On the air campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, no, no. I -- I think the answer to your question, no, is -- it -- the question was why -- what determines, essentially, the tempo of air operations.

It really is determined by targets, and the identification and location of targets. So we strike targets as we identify targets, and some of those are identified in advance -- so-called deliberate targets.

An example of that is the oil infrastructure that we -- I made note of in front of the Congress earlier this week. We were taking strikes, again. That would be something where you know it's there, and you can plan the strike, but you still have to develop those targets and identify their nature and understand what the collateral damage consequence of striking them will be, and so forth.

And then the others are the targets that are on the move, or that pop up, and so the ones that we strike are determined by -- essentially -- the intelligence. And that's -- that's the pacing item.

But we obviously want to service all the targets that we identify, and that's why we're putting more aircraft in, so that we'll -- we'll essentially always be able to service all of the targets that we find.

MR. COOK: We've got time for one last -- Thomas.

Q: Thank you.

Sorry, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Can you speak to the Kurdish component? You mentioned it earlier. Specifically, are they interacting with the Syrian Arab Coalition in northern Syria?

And then, just to bring you back to Alaska and the Arctic, Senator Sullivan has said that the current arctic strategy is -- is a joke -- his words. Is that under review? Is that going to be changed in the future?

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, I think -- it is under review. I think that Senator Sullivan -- who's very knowledgeable, by the way, about this -- pointed out it was time to take another look at our Arctic strategy.

So there is an operational requirements process underway. He had something to do with inspiring that. I think that's a good thing. Okay. And the other part was?

Q: If you could speak to the Kurds -- the Kurdish.

SEC. CARTER: Oh, Kurds, yeah. Well -- yeah. The -- the -- we are certainly interacting with the Syrian Kurds, and with the Syrian Arab Coalition.

But the important thing is that -- I think, that we came to understand the motivation and capabilities of the Syrian Arab Coalition by working with the Syrian Kurds.

Q: But is the SAC working directly with the Kurds?

SEC. CARTER: Yes, they are.

Q: And so they -- so they might benefit from some of this ammunition -- these munitions that have been dropped?

SEC. CARTER: The -- the YPG might? No. Not -- they are -- that was provided -- the stuff we have provided, it was provided to the Syrian Arab Coalition. So it was specifically delivered to them.

Q: Right, but --

SEC. CARTER: But they do work -- you know, they do work together.

Q: (off mic). Both the Kurds and the Syrian Arabs?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I don't want to go into too much detail about where they're going to be located, but they're going to be in the area. They're going to be in -- in Kurdish territory in Syria.

However, the -- the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Arab Coalition are essentially working together to counter ISIL. So they do go back and forth, and really, that's the whole point, because the -- both we and the Syrian Kurds see the great value of the Syrian Arab Coalition as the fact that they are Sunni Arabs, and therefore have an interest in driving ISIL from Raqqa.

And moreover, will be the kind of force that is more likely to be accepted by the population in Raqqa. And that's important, because -- one -- they're the people one is trying to liberate, and ultimately need to have sustain the victory.

So that's the reason for the Syrian Arab Coalition. We understand that. But I think, more importantly, those two parties understand that as well.

MR. COOK: All right. We're going to let -- we're going to hold off here.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you, guys.