DoD Operational Update Briefing with Maj. Gen. Sherlock from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington Va
GEN. SHERLOCK: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here today. I have a few opening comments and then I would like to take your questions.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Felix and in response to requests from the government of Nicaragua via the State Department, the U.S. Southern Command has dispatched an assessment team from Honduras to assist the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance Office with assessing damage from the storm and with evaluating the relief efforts in the areas affected by the storm. Additionally, SOUTHCOM has a variety of assets in the region which are available and standing by to assist if needed.
As you know, the president came to the Pentagon last week to meet with the secretary, the chairman and the joint chiefs to hear their assessments on Iraq and other current operations. He then went to Iraq with his national security team to visit our armed forces there and to hear from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus. Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus will provide their assessments next week.
In Iraq, as we've previously announced, force rotations are continuing, and we have approximately 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq that are conducting operations alongside Iraqi security forces, conducting reliefs in place and transfers of authority, and training Iraqi security forces. Those troops, along with approximately 25,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, are coalition partners throughout the region, and Iraqi security forces and Afghan national security forces are making enormous sacrifices every day to defeat and deter terrorists and those who threaten freedom and the right to self-determination.
Before I take your questions, I'd like to correct an item from last week's briefing. I received a question regarding the number of provinces under provincial Iraqi control, and I answered there are about 14 of 18 provinces, which was incorrect.
In fact, there are currently seven provinces under provisional Iraqi control, and there are two others projected to transfer in the next few months.
And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions. Yes.
Q General, on the terrorist threat in Germany, I was wondering if you can provide us any additional information or details on U.S. involvement in the investigation, and also whether or not it was U.S. forces or U.S. personnel who made the initial finding that someone was observing a base and whether or not Ramstein is indeed one of the suspected, if not known, targets?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, first, this is a good chance to point out that the war on terror isn't just a military war on terror. There are other avenues that we need to pursue in the war on terror, which includes legal, law enforcement, information and diplomatic.
I'd like to congratulate Germany and Denmark on the arrests they've made last week. We coordinate and we're in close coordination with law enforcement officials in whatever country we have our forces stationed to maintain force protection, antiterrorism measures and a variety of means. So we're in coordination with them, but that's about all I have on that subject.
Q You can't say whether or not Ramstein was even one of the potential or suspected targets, if not something that's exactly known?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't know if Ramstein was the target, one of several targets or not a target. It's a variety of things that the terrorists said, that they wanted to inflict massive U.S. casualties. I'd also say that we coordinate with the German government -- and again, everywhere we have forces stationed -- to make sure that all of the appropriate measures are in effect.
Q Well, General, if I could follow up on that. Reports out of Germany said that these suspects were first detected surveilling Ramstein Air Base, that they were casing Ramstein Air Base, and that's how authorities in Germany were turned on to them. Was it the U.S. force protection measures around the base that detected that, or do you know -- or was it the Germans who first did that or not?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I've seen that same report that says they were first detected around Ramstein, but they've cased several locations. They were looking for several targets, anywhere where they could see the potential to try to inflict a large number of casualties.
Again, as that investigation and as the results of that investigation are still ongoing and Germany's conducting several different investigations as they go, I'd rather not comment on that right now.
Q General, I've talked to industry, and they say that the sooner the Defense Department says how many MRAPs they need next year the more vehicles they can deliver to the government. Can you say when the Defense Department, JROC intend on coming on a decision on how many more MRAPs they need?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, the secretary's MRAP task force is better positioned to answer that question than I am. However, what I will say is that we are committed to producing as many MRAPs as quickly as we can and getting them deployed overseas into the hands of our soldiers as quickly as we can. We're looking at ways to try to reduce the amount of time from the 50-55 days it takes to install government- furnished equipment on those vehicles after they've produced to get them into the shipment pipeline.
Q Can you say whether the JROC is expected to meet this month to take a look at future MRAP needs?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't know what the JROC's agenda for this month is. I'll have to get that back to you.
Q General Sherlock?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Yes.
Q Last week, you gave a description of how overall stability in Iraq is assessed, and I'm wondering if this week you could provide as much detail as possible about how the joint staff assesses what constitutes an act of sectarian violence in Iraq.
GEN. SHERLOCK: I think the people that can answer that best are those that live with it every day, which is MNF-I, MNC-I and the government of Iraq. MNF-I and MNC-I have been very consistent in the way they've measured instances of violence. I also think it's instructive to note that you should look at trends, and we should look back here from 8,000 miles away at trends. Comparing yesterday to today or last week to this week doesn't necessarily indicate a trend. But when you look back over a period of time and can say that for eight of the last 11 weeks over all instances of violence have decreased, I think that indicates a trend.
That's another reason why we don't like to necessarily give statistics from the podium because you can get into a variety of arguments about which statistics from which group should be viewed in which context. And so I'd like to, first of all, let General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker make their presentations next week and see where that develops.
Q So when we hear that sectarian violence is down sharply, and I'm just wondering, what -- I mean how is it determined? How -- what -- what is a sectarian act of violence and what isn't?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Again, I'd refer you to MNF-I for that because they make the determination. They look at what the statistics are of instances of violence.
You know, it's also hard to know what occurs everywhere throughout Iraq. We know what occurs where we are and where the coalition forces are and where the Iraqi security forces are, but we are not everywhere in Iraq, and so it's hard to determine what happens in some areas where we're not present. And so, again, I'd refer those questions to MNF-I.
Q General, with the British pulling out of the center of Basra, does mean that the United States is going to have to provide additional forces should the British continue to draw down their forces there; or in a perfect world, would you prefer that the British forces remain down there in that part of the country?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, the first thing I'd like to note is that MND-Southeast still exists.
There are still 5,000-plus U.K. forces in Basra, in MND-Southeast. This actually is the fruition of a statement made by the British prime minister in February, where he said they were going to turn over responsibility to Iraqi security forces as they were able to accept it, and that they were looking to close three forward operating bases in that province. This in fact is the third base being closed.
There are still a robust presence of the U.K. in Basra. Again I'd like to let the U.K. discuss the disposition of their own forces. And as I've said before, every time you look to reposition forces, MNC-I and MNF-I look at the battlefield geometry within the region and the whole country so that we make sure we don't give up gains which we've already made as we go along.
Q Will this increase the responsibility for overwatch for U.S. forces for that part of the country?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, I think we have to wait and see. I think we have to look at the ability of the Iraqi security forces and the 10th Iraqi Army Division to accept that responsibility. I think we have to wait and see what the levels of violence are, and I think we have to see the reaction from the Iraqi people to that readjustment.
Q Hasn't there been an increase in the levels of violence in the South as the British have pulled back?
GEN. SHERLOCK: There has been different reactions in different areas. Again, the British are just moving out of the palace in Basra City back to the airfield. It's not that they've pulled out of Basra. And so violence does ebb and flow in different regions.
As I said earlier, you know, overall levels of violence have dropped. But that doesn't mean there aren't hard neighborhoods and hard places in Iraq. As we make changes on the battlefield, so does the enemy. And they -- if they see an opportunity to move, they'll make an attempt to try to move into that area. And we have to wait and see what happens as those forces reposition and the 10th Iraqi Army now takes responsibility for that area.
Q What's the level of concern that the violence in the South is increasing as the British pull in? And how are you going to respond to that?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, the British are still operating in that area. I mean, it's not as though they have relinquished responsibility for Basra City. They're still working with the 10th Iraqi Army Division; they're still working with the security forces throughout the province and throughout MND-Southeast. So they haven't ceded ground. And again we have to take a look at what occurs as we transfer that responsibility to the Iraqi security forces.
Q Something else: Could I understand you correctly that there are now 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Yes, but that's a function of the changeover of a number of brigades. As you start to have brigades prepare to leave, the unit that comes in to replace them has to go into the same battlespace they occupy. They have to go through an orientation period and they have to go through a train-up in the battlespace that they'll occupy before the previous brigade can leave. And so, temporarily -- and as we said a couple of weeks ago, as General Ham mentioned -- what you'll have is you'll have a temporary increase to about 172,000 at its peak, and then that will come back down to about 160(,000), 162,000 as that turnover finishes.
Q And how long will that take?
GEN. SHERLOCK: That should last sometime till around the November-December timeframe as different brigades turn over.
Q It will be as high as 170,000?
GEN. SHERLOCK: For a very short period of time, until the brigade that's coming in to replace a brigade in that area leaves, and then that will drop back down.
Q Sir, can you shed any light on the Thursday B-52 flight that we've been talking about, with the munitions that were carried between North Dakota and Louisiana, and tell us if -- what the initial indications from the investigation have shown about how his occurred?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, safety and security are paramount in any activity involving munitions. There are designed-in safety features as well as specific handling measures and transportation measures, all of which serve to minimize risk, especially to the general public. The Air Force maintains very high standards of safety and precision, and so any deviation from those standards is taken very seriously.
There was an error which occurred during a regularly scheduled transfer of weapons between two bases, and the commander of Air Combat Command has directed an investigation to review operational procedures connected with that. Again, at no time was there a threat to public safety, and it's important to note that no munitions were ever outside of Air Force control and custody. And the error was discovered by an airman who was conducting internal Air Force checks. And again, that investigation is ongoing, and so I'd like to let that investigation run its course. I believe it's scheduled to be complete by the 14th of September, but no effort is going to be spared to make sure that that investigation is conducted thoroughly and completely.
Q Well, do you know if the pilot thought he was just flying with missiles without the warheads?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't know what the pilot thought.
Q Could I go back to Basra for a second? Looking at the disposition of that city, where a good portion of it is controlled by various militias, are you -- or not you specifically, but is the military looking at that city as a snapshot of what Baghdad or greater Iraq could be in the future if the U.S. does pull out? And if that's the case, is it also being studied or being put into General Petraeus's recommendations at all of what could be happening?
GEN. SHERLOCK: What specifically goes into General Petraeus's assessment or recommendations, I'm not aware. I don't know.
But what I will say is that this is something that I think should happen. I mean, this is something that, as we get ready to have the Iraqi security forces take responsibility for different provinces in different areas, and as areas start to transfer to provincial Iraqi control, we should be able to turn over responsibility for both forward operating bases and areas to Iraqi security forces. That's what's going on now in Basra.
Again, if the situation changes, the battlefield geometry will change, and the Corps and Multinational Force Iraq will make adjustments to that. That's something that's constantly reviewed and constantly adjusted by Multinational Corps and Multinational Force Iraq.
Q General, originally Defense Secretary Gates said the surge did not have funding past September 30th. Recently General Ham said that planners had planned to maintain that level of 20 brigade combat teams unless political decisions are made otherwise. What funding is available to extend the surge to April, if necessary?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I am not aware of the funding issues. What I think General Ham said and what I've said before is that the U.S. military will meet whatever requirements are laid on it by the secretary of Defense and the president, and that whatever decisions are made as a result of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus's report will then be taken into account. We'll make some decisions and recommendations about what has to happen in order to sustain or not sustain or adjust forces. And so we need to really wait until Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus make those recommendations next week before we can discuss that.
Q But is it safe to say there is funding available, should they decide that -- and should the president ultimately decide to extend the surge until spring?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I think those are policy issues and those are issues of funding with regard to OSD and Congress, and I'd rather let them answer those questions.
Q Sir, is there a concern about these Russian bombers that have entered British airspace or neared British airspace in the last 24 hours? There were eight of them, and this is the third incident in the last month. Is there concern on your part? Some bombers have also approached U.S. airspace in the last couple months.
GEN. SHERLOCK: There have been some instances of Russian bombers approaching U.S. airspace.
As I've said before, different militaries around the world conduct different training and different operations over the course of the year. We've seen the Russians flying more in recent weeks than they have over several months or several years previously. They've been very professional in the conduct of those flights. They've followed international flight rules. They've respected our air sovereignty levels and our intercepts, and we're not concerned.
Q A follow-up on that. What has been the increase since Putin made the announcement probably a month ago now that he was going to start these long range bomb-- (inaudible)?
GEN. SHERLOCK: There have been a number of flights. There have been some flights against our air defense zones. There's been, as reported, some flights against Great Britain and other countries. Again, these flights are a part of normal military operations that different countries conduct, conduct different types of operations. This is not something new. This is something that the former Soviet Union did all the time. As Russia starts to conduct these flights again, the important thing to note is, is that they've been very professional, they've respected all of our air sovereignty levels, they've followed all of the international flight rules, and that's not something that we're concerned about right now.
Q So we've heard about a couple flights by Alaska and then the flight by Guam. Have there been more than that? I mean, I think that there were two incidents in Alaska that we know about and one in Guam.
GEN. SHERLOCK: There have been a few of those flights. As far as the specific number of flights, I would have to get back to you. I don't have that right in front of me.
Q You mentioned intercepts. Could you describe the intercepts, how many aircraft, what sort of aircraft were they? Was there pilot-to-pilot contact, was it just visual contact? Was there any warning given to the Russian bombers not to violate U.S. airspace -- just what happened in these intercepts?
GEN. SHERLOCK: As far as the specific procedure for an intercept, I don't know. I would have to get back to you on that. As far as the types of aircraft, I know that there have been some F-15s and some F-18s that have been dispatched to fly alongside the aircraft and conduct the intercept. As far as any pilot-to-pilot contacts or any specific warnings, those are operational, and I don't want to go into that.
Q And oftentimes, so as not to give a -- or not to be misinterpreted, friendly nations will announce beforehand that they're going to be conducting some kind of exercise. Have any of these Russian bomber flights -- has the U.S. been informed in advance of any of these Russian bomber flights?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, the Russian president made a statement a little over a month ago that they were going to start conducting these flights. They have started conducting these flights. Again, they've been very professionally conducted. They've respected all of our air defense zones. They've followed all the international flight rules. And so really that's all I have on this subject. I really don't have anything else to add.
Q In Afghanistan earlier this year, there was a need for about 3,500 additional trainers. Has that requirement now been met, and has a brigade been identified to provide those trainers for the police in Afghanistan?
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, there are a variety of different requirements that the joint staff and the COCOMs review. As they go through this specific requirement, I don't have the data as far as whether this specific one has been met. I know they work to try to fill those requirements. I'd have to get back to you on specifics of that.
Q Yeah, if I could follow up on the bomber flights. You said they were professionally conducted, and there was the one statement by Putin. Were there follow-on statements shortly before a mission that you could tell us about or is that -- it was one overall statement and the rest have been surprises to us?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't know that I'd characterize any of them as surprises to us, but I really don't have anything else to add on this subject as far as specific messages or specific statements.
Q General, you mentioned overall levels of violence and sectarian violence with regard to Iraq; what other statistical indicators are you looking at in order to make an assessment in terms of progress?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I think that we ought to wait for Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus to present their assessments next week. I think they will bring in a variety of different factors into that assessment. Rather than try to cover that or make any comment on that in advance, let's wait till they make their assessment, and then we can look at the different factors that went into that.
Q General, I know it's only been a few days, but I wonder if MNF-I or the Iraqis have taken any steps to solidify the contacts that were made during President Bush's visit to -- in order to ensure that the local, provincial and national level Iraqi leaders continue to communicate with each other.
GEN. SHERLOCK: Well, I think, as General Bergner said yesterday in his press briefing, they were going to have a visit to Al Anbar province sometime this week with Iraqi government officials. I think that all of our advisers and all of our folks in MNF-I are working very hard to try to make sure that there's progress along those fronts. Again, that's something that MNF-I is much better positioned to answer than I am.
Q There were reports this morning about an explosion in a Baghdad neighborhood that left at least 14 Iraqi civilians dead. There were initial reports suggesting that it was a U.S. bomb from a plane and also mortars being fired. Do you have any more information about what exactly caused that incident?
GEN. SHERLOCK: No. I've seen open press reports on that, and there is still some information I need to gather on that, and I'd have to get back with you on that.
Q Several officials have praised the progress in Anbar province. Is there now a timeframe of when the coalition expects to transfer it to provincial Iraqi control?
GEN. SHERLOCK: I don't have that data in front of me. I know that different factors go into a decision to try to progress to provincial Iraqi control. I know that there has been, as I've said before, I think a truly transformational event happening in Anbar and other provinces of Iraq, including what's beginning in Diyala and different neighborhoods of Baghdad. The folks that are really best positioned to answer that are MNF-I. I mean, they are the folks on the ground that can make that kind of an assessment.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you.
GEN. SHERLOCK: Thank you all very much.
Q Thank you, General.
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