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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter at U.S. Central Command Headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida

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Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; General Lloyd J. Austin III, CENTCOM commander; General Joseph Votel, SOCOM commander
Jan. 14, 2016
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Good afternoon, everyone.

It's great to be here at CENTCOM and I want to start off by thanking all of the people who work here for their hard work around the clock to keep us safe.

That work includes delivering ISIL a lasting defeat, about which I'll say more in a moment.  But also building a more secure future in Afghanistan, countering Iran's malign influence, maintaining security and freedom of navigation, and much more.

Chairman Dunford and I are here for discussions with two of our nation's finest leaders -- General Austin and General Votel -- to discuss our accelerating military campaign to defeat ISIL and how to accelerate it yet further.  The military actions that General Austin, Chairman Dunford and I recommended to the president and that he approved in the fall have allowed the campaign to gather further momentum and to apply pressure to ISIL in Iraq and Syria on more fronts than at any other point in the campaign.

This pressure is having an effect against ISIL.  It's also generating additional opportunities to further accelerate the implementation of the campaign.  Yesterday at Fort Campbell, I described to our troopers there, who are about to deploy, the three key objectives of our campaign.

First, to destroy the ISIL parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and collapse its two power centers in Raqqa and Mosul.  Second, to combat the metastasis of the ISIL tumor worldwide.  And third, to protect the homeland.

I also laid out the operational concept behind our campaign to enable local, motivated forces to defeat ISIL and sustain the defeat, and to do that enabling by providing on our part a clear plan of American leadership, a global coalition, and the wielding of the incredible suite of capabilities that we have, ranging from air power, special forces, cyber tools, intelligence, equipment, mobility, logistics, training, advise and assistance.

I described the coalition military campaign plan at some length yesterday, but also the fact that it must be accompanied by equally strong and integrated efforts from the diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security and other parts of our government.  These, too, are necessary.

Now, I and the rest of the national security team will be updating the president soon on the progress of the overall strategy to deal ISIL a lasting defeat.

I also described yesterday the need for members of the global coalition to do more.  And I'll be traveling to Paris next week to discuss that with my counterparts from France, Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. 

Now, today we're together discussing the details of the implementation of the campaign, and specifically how we can accelerate it yet further.  It's gathering momentum, and we're taking advantage of every opportunity we can. 

I want to thank each of these commanders for their dedication to this mission.  And I particularly want to thank General Austin for his exemplary work as CENTCOM commander, and throughout a long and remarkable career, much of which has been spent defeating threats and developing solutions in CENTCOM's area of responsibility, the epicenter for much of the world's conflicts and tensions.

He has spearheaded our military efforts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, at sea, in the air, on the ground, in the cyber domain, all with incredible skill, vision, and talent.  In 2003, General Austin led the invasion of Iraq and the capture of Baghdad, earning the Silver Star for his personal valor.

He showed extraordinary skill during the later surge in Iraq and in managing security in Iraq during his years as overall commander there.  He commanded at multiple levels in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and commanded the 10th Mountain Division, all with honor and distinction.

Just listen to that.  Listen to that roster of accomplishment.  Few have brought that kind of depth and breadth of experience to this critical command, a level of experience that helped him lead CENTCOM with distinction, skill and the confidence of the nation's leadership during an extraordinary and complex period.

It is this depth and breadth of experience that allowed Joe and me to always safe -- I meant Joe Dunford in that case; I'll get to Joe Votel in a moment -- and I -- to always safely rely on Lloyd, including now when we face an enemy such as ISIL.

The opportunities and challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the region are always changing.  But one thing hasn't changed -- General Austin's limitless commitment to his troops and to his country.

Now, General Austin's long tour in this job will soon come to an end.  The good news is I'm supremely confident that the man the president will nominate to take General Austin's place when his work here at CENTCOM is completed -- very confident in that man, and that is General Joe Votel.  He has done a superb job as the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

But that's only one part of the reason why he was my only recommendation to the president to succeed Lloyd.  In addition to his purely military experience, General Votel has a wealth of in-depth politico-military experience, that is, working with foreign governments and militaries, and is therefore well equipped to handle the complex challenges of CENTCOM.

Additionally, his experience in the Middle East region will serve him well, and that is extensive also.  And his background of every domain of warfare -- air, land and sea -- as well as special operations, give him the perspective and knowledge to lead the many soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen operating within this crucial command.

So with that, I want to turn it over to General Austin for his additional thoughts on the campaign.

Lloyd?

GENERAL LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for those kind words.  And thanks to you and the chairman for coming here to CENTCOM to spend a little time with the team at the headquarters.

And Joe, it's always good to see my neighbor.  I often joke that Joe and I see more of each other in foreign lands than we do at home, although we live next door to each other.

Let me quickly say how proud I am to lead and work alongside the outstanding men and women of Central Command.  They deal with tough challenges on a daily basis.  In fact, there isn't a tougher set of challenges in the inventory, in my opinion.  And over the past almost three years, we've been focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan and Egypt, Iran and Lebanon, Yemen and, of course, Iraq and Syria, and a host of other countries that make up the central region.

And the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen and civilians of this command, along with our coalition partners have done and continue to do an absolutely outstanding job.  And again, I could not be more proud of them.

There's a lot going on in the central region, and as the secretary just talked about, foremost on all of our minds is the fight against ISIL and the crisis in Iraq and Syria. 

It is an incredibly complex situation, arguably the most complex situation that any of us have ever witnessed, and what I would tell you, and what you just heard the secretary say -- and not only here but certainly as he spoke in -- at Fort Campbell yesterday -- what you heard him say is that as you look across the battle space you see real progress being made by the coalition, and principally the forces on the ground, in locations that include places like Tikrit and Baiji and Sinjar and Ramadi and al-Hawl in Syria and the Tishrin Dam and along the Mara line north of the city of Aleppo in northern Syria and in a number of other locations. 

We are, in fact, doing what we set out to do, and that is to put increased pressure on the enemy throughout the depth of the battle space, and he is feeling the affects of those efforts, there's no doubt about it. 

A few days ago, we conducted a strike on bulk cash storage facility in Mosul.  It was a good strike.  And we estimate that it served to deprive ISIL of millions of dollars.  And it was not the first strike on a cash storage site.  We struck several other cash storage sites in recent months, and we will continue to go after the enemy's finances.  And combined with all of the other strikes that we've done on ISIL's gas and oil production and distribution capabilities and strikes against his economic infrastructure and the various sources of revenue, you can bet that he is feeling the strain on his checkbook. 

You see, ISIL needs those funds to pay their fighters, to recruit new fighters and to conduct their various maligned activities.  You know, we said from the outset of this campaign that to defeat ISIL, we're going to have to take away his ability to resource himself and we're going to have to curb the flow of foreign fighters coming into the theater.  In addition to attacking and attriting his fielded forces and taking back ground that he once held in Iraq and Syria.

And together, with our coalition partners and in support of the indigenous forces operating on the ground in both countries, we have done and we continue to do all of these things, and we're doing them with increasingly good effects.

The momentum against this enemy continues to build.  And again, you heard the secretary talk about that yesterday as he spoke in Fort Campbell.  More and more opportunities have developed over time and we have actively pursued each and every one of these opportunities.  And these opportunities are the result of increased movement on the ground, a better understanding of the battle space and a better developed human intelligence network.

And as we gather more information and as we continuously refine our approach based upon that information and based upon lessons learned, we were able to conduct more effective operations against this enemy.  Altogether, our different efforts targeting ISIL's forces, targeting his leadership, targeting his infrastructure, his gas and oil production and distribution capabilities, his economic infrastructure, and the various sources of revenue.

All together, these efforts translate into devastating effects on the enemy.

Indeed, ISIL has assumed a defensive posture in Iraq and Syria.  And going forward, we can expect to see him rely increasingly on acts of terrorism such as we saw this week in Baghdad and in Turkey, and most recently in Jakarta.

We can expect to see more of this type of activity, in part because ISIL wants to draw attention away from the growing number of setbacks that he is experiencing.  However, it is important to understand that these terrorist acts don't necessarily mean that ISIL is getting stronger.  ISIL, by its nature, is a terrorist organization.  And by conducting these attacks, he's attempting to produce an image of invincibility in the wake of setbacks.

And so overall, we are making progress.  That said, the fight against ISIL is far from over.  And as I tell my troops often, we've got to keep our dukes up and we will.  We're going to continue to do what we've been doing over the course of the campaign.  We're going to continue to work closely with our coalition partners, and support and enable the forces -- the efforts of the forces on the ground.  We're going to continue to pursue opportunities across the battle space, and I am confident that as we do this, we will be successful, and we will defeat these -- this enemy.

And Mr. Secretary, thanks for the opportunity to provide a couple of comments.

STAFF:  Do we have time for a few questions, Mr. Secretary?

SEC. CARTER:  I’d be happy (Inaudible)

STAFF:  We'll start with Lita Baldor of the A.P.

SEC. CARTER:  Lita?

Q:  Thank you. Um, General Austin, if you could talk a little bit about the effects against the enemy and I’m wondering if you could be a little bit more specific about what quantitative effects do you think you have seen (inaudible) or their numbers. Because we keep hearing that 20,000 or 30,000 number (inaudible) have you seen any effects on that by virtue of their cash (inaudible) particularly in regards to their recruiting. And I actually have a question for Gen. Votel

GEN. AUSTIN:  Yeah, so -- so we do know that because we have greater activity along the Syria-Turkish border, by the Turks and by our forces, the forces that are supporting us, that we've been able to slow down the flow of foreign fighter -- foreign terrorist fighters coming into the theater. 

At the same time, we've been able to increase the amount of pressure that we're putting on -- on the enemy with great effect.  And we've done that through increasing the -- the activity of the maneuver forces.  So, you see what -- what just happened in Ramadi.  Prior to that, near simultaneously, you saw what the Peshmerga were doing in northern Iraq to take back the town of Sinjar.

You see up in the northeastern part of Syria the activity of the Syrian Democratic Forces that have continued to push down from north to south, and really placing a lot of pressure on ISIL's capital, Raqqa.

We also see a change in -- in techniques in terms of what the enemy's doing on the ground.  His ability to counterattack is diminished and he is -- he is much, much less effective in those counterattacks than he would have been several months back.  And I hope I answered your question.

STAFF:  And Lita, you wanted to ask Joe?  Joe? 

Q:  General Votel, the secretary talked a bit about the expeditionary force that's now on the ground, and there's obviously been a lot more emphasis on a lot of the work that they're doing in Iraq and Syria of late.  I'm wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about how you proceed in the next year and the role that your forces will play over time and whether or not the need for additional special operations forces from other nations is -- (inaudible).

GENERAL JOSEPH VOTEL:  Well, thanks.  Thanks for the question.  I think special operations forces provide a very unique capability and approach to the way we do things, and I think that's what you see us trying to leverage there. 

That said, I would just tell you that special operations forces, U.S. or otherwise, aren't in this by ourselves.  We are very dependent on our conventional forces, and in fact, we couldn't do anything without the convention force support that we get from General Austin and the rest of his components there that is absolutely vital to the things we do. 

So we don't go out and do anything by ourselves, we're one part of a -- of a bigger team.  We're glad to bring our capabilities. 

To the second part of your question, I think, yeah, we -- I think I would anticipate, as we've -- as we tried to do in the past, we would continue to look to our partners and try to bring their capabilities to bear as well. 

SEC. CARTER:  Let me just add to that, to foot-stomp the last point that Joe made, which is this special operations forces and the things that they bring is one of the capabilities that we're asking others to bring to the fight.  And that's not just traditional SOF partners, the United Kingdom, Australia and so forth that I mentioned earlier, but this is an area where we've asked some of the states that are in the region to become more active.

And then with respect to the expeditionary targeting force, which is a very important tool, but I want to emphasize one of many tools, but we were just talking about that together, and the four of us will be talking about that in a -- among other things in the coming hours.  But that -- that's a very flexible tool -- I've spoken about that before.  We won't be able to talk about everything that it's doing, but has a very wide range of capabilities.  That's one of the things that makes it so powerful. 

STAFF:  Next question, Phil Stewart of Reuters. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, would you elaborate a little bit upon what exactly (inaudible) a navigational mistake. Can you say how a navigational mistake happens? We heard there might have been some mechanical failure but that does not seem to be the cause here.

SEC. CARTER:  Sure, yeah.  Well, I think -- I think what I -- that this much is clear.  There was a navigational error of some kind.  All the contributing factors to that, we don't know yet and we're still talking to those folks and we'll find out more what combination of factors led to that navigational error. 

They were -- they were clearly out of the position that they intended to be in.  We're very glad to have them back, I'll just add that.  That, you know, this is the kind of thing that -- for all of us standing here we want -- we're very, very glad to have our sailors back.

And we're still talking to them, we're still learning about exactly what happened, but this much we do know.  And as I said -- I said before, there was a navigational error, but what combination factors Phil we just don't know yet and we'll continue to inform you as we learn more.

STAFF:  Question.

Q:  (inaudible) the Islamic State is claiming responsibility for this attack in Jakarta. What does that say to you about the metastases (inaudible) that you mentioned here. Gen. Austin makes in his remarks that (inaudible)

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I -- I don't know the particular circumstances.  We're still learning this from the Indonesian law enforcements, so we don't know exactly what the conditions of it are, but to -- to me, the fact that we're even talking about this shows that the metastases of ISIL is a global concern.  And -- the countries including Indonesia have expressed that to me personally, and that tells us a couple of things about our campaign that are -- that are essential.  One is that we have to go after the metastases and that means working with governments like that of Indonesia, but it also tells you that job one has to be to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  That's not sufficient, but it is necessary because it's necessary to show that this movement has no future and this movement is not something that should be attractive to somebody far away who has a cause or -- or somehow wants to link up with it.  So that -- both of those are important, and that's why our campaign encompasses both.  But to this specific event, I just can't add anything.  You'll have to wait and see what the Indonesian law enforcement people conclude about that, and -- to know. 

STAFF:  Next question, from the local press.  Howard, if you could, I've been remiss in telling you all to hit the microphone button. 

Q:  Sure, thanks. 

Mr. Secretary, couple of questions about intelligence -- some local, some downrange.  Are you confident, at this point, that you're receiving unvarnished intelligence from CENTCOM?  That's just one piece. 

And then, with the expeditionary targeting force, are you looking at what some of the successes were back in -- in -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, '06, '07 and in 2010?  We had the -- the -- the flying fix finish -- that kind of high-tempo -- you know, movement, where you -- you melded operational and intelligence cycles. 

SEC. CARTER:  Let me do the second part first.  That -- that -- absolutely.  We -- what we learned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been of operational value.  So some of that tradecraft in -- you were talking about strikes and -- and a rapid turn of the intelligence-execution cycle. 

Absolutely.  We have forces that are extremely good at that, and one of the reasons for that is they had some practice, some of them -- that practice over time. 

And -- and to -- to intelligence, I -- I'm very demanding of intelligence.  I demand that we get it straight, and I know that everybody standing behind me is -- is an -- we can't win without good intelligence. 

I'm not satisfied that I have all the intelligence I'd like.  You're never satisfied that you have all the intelligence you'd like.  But I'd like to have more in Iraq and Syria. 

And you know some of the issues associated with that.  This is a group that's very clever about using social media and hiding technologically.  And -- and so forth.  So we're constantly pursuing that, and the intelligence community is all in with trying to get to the bottom of this so we're not surprised by ISIL, which we've been on a number of occasions and so forth.

But -- and I should say that, you know, for me in this, and I'm sure it's true of the -- the -- the officer standing behind me as well, I count on intelligence -- I get lots of other kind of information.  We have -- we have, you know, forces on the ground there.  They provide incredibly valuable information.

We have diplomatic presence.  And remember, a lot of this involved dealing with governments and the complex politico/military aspects of what's going on in Iraq and Syria.  And then in today's world the media is out there, so you -- so you learn things, so -- I -- I make sure I listen to all sources of information that might give me insight into how to conduct this campaign.  I'm sure what I'm saying is true of the folks behind me as well.

STAFF:  Try and get to at least two more.  Dan ?.  Question then we'll --

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time today.  I wanted to ask you I guess on a messaging standpoint with the incident in the Persian Gulf with the -- with the sailors.  You've got video of sailors kneeling down on boats with their hands behind their head.  That's been played over and over again over the last 36/48 hours.  From a messaging standpoint, from a propaganda standpoint on the Iranian side, what's your reaction to that and -- and I guess from a U.S. point of view, how -- how should we respond?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, obviously I don't like to see our people in -- being detained by a foreign military.  I'm very glad they're released, I'm very glad they're safe.  What we don't know is the full context. 

What you're looking through in those -- is a -- is -- the lens of the Iranian media.  So I think we need to give these guys the opportunity to tell us what was really going on and what the overall context is before we can really know.

STAFF:  There.

Q:  Mr. Secretary --

STAFF:  You can introduce yourself, please sir.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, Evan Axelbank from Fox 13 in Tampa.  Thanks for being here.  One follow-up to his question, is there anyway of saying -- I mean, are you able to say whether this is propaganda and whether that violates the Geneva Convention against that sort of propaganda?

And I do have one other question, but just a follow-up.

SEC. CARTER:  I -- I have said and I'll see if General Austin want to add anything.  Again, we don't know everything that was going on in the circumstance.  And we have every reason to learn it because we have our guys back and we want to talk to them, but I want to give them the chance to describe what the overall circumstances are.  Lloyd, you want to add anything?

GEN. AUSTIN:  That's exactly the point that I was going to make, Mr. Secretary.  I think it's -- it would not be a good thing to speculate on which on what may have happened or not happened at this point.  We'll know a lot more after we finish debriefing our sailors.  And we're in the process of doing that now, so again, this is going to take a bit more time, but I think it's the right thing to do to get the full context of -- of the situation.

Q:  Okay, thanks.  And then I have one question just about the general kind of effort here.  You see, you know, 500 troops next month headed to Iraq and Kuwait.  Another thousand or maybe more headed this spring.  You know, they're a lot of people just kind of, you know, in military towns like this who wonder whether this is the sign of kind of a -- a steady drip of a larger ground operation that's coming down the line.  If -- if this isn't taken care of right away.  So how do you respond to people who would just wonder whether we're kind of in this?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I was just with folks at Fort Campbell yesterday who -- who are deploying to this theater.  Let me just remind you that, from post, camp, stations, bases, air, naval, around the world, all the time, we've got people deploying in the hundreds of thousands. 

I -- General Dunford at a previous assignment, commanding our troops in Afghanistan -- let's not forget we have troops there, in Afghanistan, all throughout the Middle East.  Europe, where we're putting more forces in because of the kinds of threats that Russia has posed to -- as you saw in the -- the issues with respect to Ukraine. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, we're deploying more, because of our -- what we call the rebalance, which is really a strengthening of our role in a region that, obviously, isn't this headquarters' responsibility, but you have to remember has half of the world's people and half the world's economy. 

So people are deploying all the time.  With respect to particularly CENTCOM and particularly the counter-ISIL campaign, we are going to be doing more. 

Now, our operational approach is not to try to substitute for local forces, but to enable them to win.  And the reason for that is quite simple, which is that somebody has to keep the victory after the victory is won, and that has to be people who live there. 

So part of the process of getting a sustainable victory has to be to work with them, and that's our overall strategic approach. 

STAFF:  Quick last question here.  Michael, of the New York Times. 

Q:  You guys know that there was a navigational issue.  Can you provide us with any sort of timeline about what happened with the sailors, about -- you know, sort of what we do know up until this point? 

SEC. CARTER:  I -- I -- I think that we'll know a lot more when we're finished talking to -- through with them.  So no, I'm not -- I -- I'm not prepared. 

I want to give them the chance to tell us what they saw and make sure that we're able to -- to absorb that and to understand all the factors and all the information we have. 

Of course, the lion's share will come from them, because they were there and they'll tell us what -- what happened.  But there are other sources of information, too. 

We have the two vessels, and we're looking at them, and -- and so forth.  Let me ask General Austin anything he wants to add on. 

GEN. AUSTIN:  I -- I absolutely agree, what the secretary said.  I think in order to get that detailed information, we really do need to talk to -- or debrief all ten sailors, and then lay out the sequence of events as they -- as -- as things transpired. 

And -- and then I think we'll have a much better, much clearer picture once we've done that.  It would be ill-advised for us to publish a timeline prior to having completed that -- that process. 

Q:  Was anything removed from the boats? 

GEN. AUSTIN:  Again, they're going through inventories right now, too, but for the most part, you know, we have -- we -- the gear that we -- we deployed with was -- was largely there, when we -- when we -- when the -- we got the boats back. 

So whether or not there was singular pieces of equipment missing, we'll determine that once we've completed the inventory. 

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary, generals. 

SEC. CARTER:  (inaudible)  Okay, good.  Thank -- thank you all very much.  I can't do it if the teacher doesn't let me. 

STAFF:  Yeah. 

Q:  One more quick question from the local media, please?  Just about the refuelers?  Thank you. 

KC-46, we're on the shortlist for that here at MacDill.  Eric Glasser, 10 News, WTSP in Tampa, sorry.  Can you add any insight as to where we stand with that in our area, and the importance of the refueler mission to the current mission? 

SEC. CARTER:  Sure.  I can't say much more about the first part.  That will be an Air Force decision and they're looking actually nationwide for what the optimal locations are for the KC-46.  And obviously, this is one of the candidates for that.

I certainly can speak to the importance of the KC-46.  That is our -- our replenishment -- I'm sorry -- our replacement tanker for the venerable KC-135 that you see out on the -- on the ramp here, the workhorse of our -- of our refueling fleet.  And that is the way -- one of the ways that America has the tremendous global reach that we have.

We alone can get anywhere within hours.  And the reason is that we can carry ourselves through those -- those tankers.  So it's a very important program.  It's generally proceeding very well.  I'm pleased about -- about that.  So, it's a -- it's a very important program.

STAFF:  Thanks, everyone.