DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thank you all for adjusting your schedule to be here a little earlier than originally planned today. I'm juggling a few appointments myself, and this was really the only available time for us to get together. So I appreciate your flexibility.
Secretary Gates traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, on Friday to see SPAWAR for the first time. Those of you who accompanied us know the secretary came away from that visit enormously impressed with how quickly and efficiently the crews down there are equipping mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles with all the gear necessary to protect our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. By working 24 hours a day, six days a week, the men and women of SPAWAR have gone from outfitting a handful of MRAPs a day back in May to more than 60 a day this month.
As production has shot up, quality has not in any way dropped off. In fact, it has dramatically improved. In July, inspectors were finding an average of six defects per vehicle. Now they are discovering less than one per vehicle. Because of that extraordinary progress, we now have more than 2,225 MRAPs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And as the secretary noted on Friday, those vehicles are a proven life-saver in the battlefield. Of course, they are not, as we have pointed out for months now, fail safe. And over the weekend, just south of Baghdad we lost our first soldier in an IED attack on an MRAP.
However, that attack has not, as reported in the headline of a leading newspaper today, caused anyone to question the vehicles’ lifesaving capacity. To the contrary, the attack reaffirmed their survivability. The vehicle involved in this attack ran over a very powerful, deep-buried IED. The powerful blast did not penetrate the crew compartment, but the force of the explosion blew the MRAP into the air and caused it to overturn.
Regrettably, the gunner, who had less protection atop the vehicle, died either in the roll-over or from the explosion. Three other soldiers inside the MRAP escaped the attack without life- threatening injuries. Commanders on the ground estimate they would not have been so fortunate had they been traveling in a less-armored vehicle.
After learning of this attack, Secretary Gates is not questioning the protection provided by MRAPs.
He is, in fact, more convinced than ever that these vehicles do indeed save lives.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
Q A question for you on Afghanistan. Last month the secretary said that there would be an effort to develop what he called an integrated plan for the way ahead in Afghanistan three to five years out. I was wondering if you could put a little bit of detail on that as to what exactly that entails. Does it include things such as considering a reconfiguring of a command structure or anything of that nature? And is it being done strictly by the Pentagon or is this an NSC sort of operation?
MR. MORRELL: This is a project, which for those of you who traveled with us to Scotland the secretary laid out pretty well for all of you, and that is it is a U.S.-led effort in terms of crafting this statement of purpose, sort of the vision of the way ahead in Afghanistan. And that paper, once it is constructed, will then be shared with our allies who are contributing forces and others who are providing other support to Afghanistan. When we meet next -- I think we'll go over it in Vilnius, and then I think it'll finally be taken up in April when we get to the NATO meeting in Bucharest. I think that's the time schedule we're on. But it is a U.S-crafted document.
In terms of what other parts of the government it involved, it's coming out of this building, but of course it'll be -- it'll -- the State Department will have input on it, the NSC will have input into it. And so it's an interagency effort because we are trying, obviously, to bring the resources of this entire government to bear in Afghanistan, not just the military. And of course, it's not just this nation's resources, but all of our allies' resources.
So the hope is that by crafting a vision statement we can all stand behind, it will help European countries or other countries around the world, for that matter, sell this effort in a more effective way to their publics. It'll impress upon them the importance that we all need to gather together and work this problem collectively.
Q Broad -- it's goals and that sort of thing?
MR. MORRELL: It is goals.
Q It's not reviewing whether --
MR. MORRELL: No, this is a forward-looking document that tries to establish goals for the coming years in Afghanistan, on the military side, on the humanitarian side, on the development side, on the governance side. We want to lay out benchmarks so that we all can collectively work towards achieving them over the next three to five years.
Q Just one more follow-up. Is there maybe in parallel -- is there some review of whether the military command structure, broadly speaking, should be reconfigured or changed in some way?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not aware of any sort of review of a command structure, at least as associated with this document. It's not what this document is designed to do. There may separately be an effort under way of that nature. I'm not aware of it if it is under way.
But with regards to the three-to-five-year visions strategic document the secretary has commissioned, that deals with the issues I've outlined.
Q You had mentioned this attack on Saturday on an MRAP. Do you have any more information on exactly what type of MRAP was attacked?
MR. MORRELL: I don't.
Q On the MRAP, is this in fact the first time U.S. military personnel has been killed in an IED attack in an MRAP do we know, do you know that?
MR. MORRELL: This is -- since the program was created, since the secretary made this the number one acquisition priority of this department early last year, this is indeed the first U.S. service member who has died in an attack on an MRAP. We have had -- we have lost, I think -- the precise number -- I'll try to recall this. I think that we may have lost two to three previous to this program, and that was vehicles that are MRAP-like but are not officially MRAP vehicles. And that would have predated the programs commencing early last year.
Q Okay. Did I see somewhere that Secretary Gates had authorized or there had been a request for an additional amount of MRAPs to go to Afghanistan? Are you familiar with that?
MR. MORRELL: No, this came up on Friday as we were traveling, and we were sort of talking about several aspects of the program. And one of the ones that John Young, as undersecretary of AT&L, who is charged with this program, with responsibility for this program, he was talking about how things had sort of -- in this program had worked out to everyone's benefit, including the fact that initially there was one category of MRAPs which the Army and the Marine Corps, I believe, were not wild about buying. And at a meeting early on there was a conversation about their reluctance to invest in this vehicle, and the secretary's point was we don't have the luxury of making those choices at this point. That vehicle, whether you like every aspect of it or not, is still superior to everything else we have now on the roads in Iraq and Afghanistan. So until we get another vehicle that meets all of your standards, this is still better than what we've got, so we got to buy it now.
It turns out that was the right choice because that vehicle, because it's slightly lighter, commanders in Afghanistan think it would be ideally suited for the terrain they say is there.
So right now, John Young and the commanders are looking into determining how many of those vehicles can be moved to Afghanistan. I think there's roughly 500 such vehicles in question.
Q It is the smallest, lightest class of MRAPs?
MR. MORRELL: I believe -- and I want to confirm this -- I think it's the RG-31, but we'll -- I want to confirm that for you, but I believe it's the RG-31. It's lighter than some of the other vehicles, and commanders in Afghanistan believe it could be ideally suited for the terrain there -- they face there. And so now the discussion is, how many of those that we bought can be moved to Afghanistan to meet the commanders' needs there? But I don't believe we have settled on a precise figure yet to move.
Q An MRAP question. The IED that went off over the weekend -- I think it was reported that it was a homemade explosive. Do you have any details on the actual IED? Are the MRAPs more vulnerable to this kind of fertilizer bomb, as opposed to a more sophisticated-style bomb, or --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I wouldn't want to ever tell you what MRAPs are more or less vulnerable to from this podium. I don't want to give away any operational information that would help the enemy, of course. But I would say this: We're still in our preliminary stages of reviewing this particular attack. As I described it before, this was a very large, deep-buried IED. This MRAP -- and again, I don't know which model it was precisely -- ran over that bomb, and the force of the explosion caused the MRAP to literally lift in the air and overturn. But we're now reviewing what exactly was involved, what the explosive was, what the size of it is, and I'm not going to give you details of those things from up here.
But I think what's remarkable about the attack is the fact that the crew compartment, despite how large the bomb was, was not compromised by the IED and that the three crew members inside walked away with, I believe, cuts and some broken bones in their feet.
Regrettably, of course, we lost the gunner. He was positioned atop the vehicle, outside the vehicle or partially exposed on top, and we're trying to determine now whether or not the force of the blast is what claimed his life, whether he was -- whether the rollover itself took his life.
But I think everybody is still amazed at the fact that despite the size of this bomb, these vehicles are proving to be every bit as strong and as lifesaving as we hoped they would be.
Q May I just follow up and ask how it is that the Pentagon -- just help us understand that you do precisely know the cab is still intact. In other words, was a forensic team set -- sent? From where? Who was it? And do you have their initial report back now that tells you this?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I'm sure you can call our friends in Baghdad and MNF-I, and they could probably give you some more particulars on sort of what they've done as a follow-up. I can tell you this: I have not seen them, but I know there to be photographs of the aftermath of this particular attack, and we obviously have the accounts of the people who were there. And hull of the vehicle was not penetrated by the blast, and as a result, the three crew members walked away -- or pardon me -- I don't know if they walked away, but they survived the blast and are living to talk about it.
Q Can you take the question whether there is any unclassified imagery, pictures, whatever --
MR. MORRELL: I think that's -- I don't -- I think that's a question you can put to Baghdad. Our friends at MNF-I, I'm sure, would be helpful, if they can be.
Q Back to the Afghanistan review thing. Can you just clarify? So is there a parallel effort by Central Command to do a similar strategy review? And then I thought -- is there a third one as well that you're aware of?
MR. MORRELL: I think you should talk to Central Command and see what they're doing by means of review. I know what the secretary of Defense has commissioned this department to do, and that's to come up with a three- to five-year vision for the way ahead in Afghanistan that we can then take to our allies who are on the ground with us there and determine whether this is what they need, what we all need, to convince our publics, to convince our populations that this is a vitally important mission for all of our safety, and we've got to do what it takes to win there.
Q And that -- but that is -- the Joint Staff would be part of that one, as far as you understand?
MR. MORRELL: This is a department --
Q There's only one coming out of -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: Yes. Yes. Exactly.
Q A bunch questions on that. February 4th is the rollout. Will the '09 war bill be part of the baseline budget that's released that day?
MR. MORRELL: Will the -- will we send the supplemental up at the same time?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know, Tony, that decision has been made. If it has been, I haven't learned of it yet. I know that was an internal discussion going on. If it does go up there, it could, ironically, go to the Hill before we've received our '08 war funding --
MR. MORRELL: -- which would be particularly thorny. I think we -- although that may end up what happens.
Obviously, we've urged the Hill to go ahead and give us the rest of our funding for 2008 so that we can continue our missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with the monies we need to make sure they are successful. As it is right now, as you know, we're fighting thanks to bridge funds that the Congress provided before they went away for Christmas. But we need the rest of our funding in order to effectively meet the challenges ahead.
It may turn out, Tony, that timing-wise we end up sending both the GWOT up with the base budget next month, in which case the Congress will be faced with not only dealing with our '08 request, but our '09 war request as well.
Q Well, it's to be determined --
MR. MORRELL: As far as I know, it's to be determined. There may have been a determination that hasn't been shared with me yet.
Q On the F-22 fighter, last week you told myself and a couple others that the decision had been made to keep the line open, albeit not a lot of new fighters. What impact has the F-15 groundings had on Mr. Gates's and Mr. Inglewood's (sp) decisions to keep that line open, albeit in smaller numbers?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know, Tony, that the F-15 groundings have had any impact.
Q You don't -- okay.
MR. MORRELL: I don't know.
Q You don't know.
MR. MORRELL: I don't know that they have had any impact on that decision. I think that decision was made on the merits of that decision, and I don't know that the groundings had influenced their decision to buy a very small number of replacement aircraft and to keep the line open at least for now.
Q Advocates of the program shouldn't read this as the Pentagon's capitulating to congressional pressure to keep that line open after 2011.
MR. MORRELL: I wouldn't say that it -- we're not capitulating on this or any other issues. But I'm not going to discuss any more of the F-22 or any other budget items, I think, Tony, until the president's budget is sent to the Hill. It's for the president and the OMB to talk about. But this one, obviously, there was a letter sent up to the Hill by Secretary England, outlining the way ahead with regards to this particular program. I think you're aware of the details. And I think that's where we want to leave it on the F-22 for right now.
Q Has there been any more fallout from the secretary's published comments last week about the capability of NATO forces in the south? Has uh Are the allies -- particularly Canada, the Netherlands, and Great Britain -- have they been assuaged? Is the secretary confident that any misunderstanding that was created by that report has been cleared up now? Have you put that behind you?
MR. MORRELL: Well, you know, Jamie, I can't speak for our friends in Canada or Great Britain or in the Netherlands, with regards to whether or not they feel as though this matter is settled. I can tell you that we have made the calls we feel are necessary to clarify what precisely the secretary was saying. I know I did this a number of times with you all last week but I think it's worth reiterating that the secretary's criticism was not directed at any particular ally but at NATO as a whole. And when he called, for example, his counterparts in Canada and in Holland, he did so not to apologize for anything he said; he did so to clarify what exactly he meant by his criticism. And that is, it wasn't directed at Canada, Holland or any other nation that has troops on the ground in Afghanistan. It was directed at the fact that the alliance was, and still to a large degree is, constructed to take on a conventional threat from trying to invade Eastern Europe. And we have to adjust to the new reality, which is that we're facing an asymmetric insurgency far away from Europe.
Q So you don’t anticipate that when he arrives at the NATO ministries meeting that there will be any hard feelings.
MR. MORRELL: Well, that's a few weeks away, and I would hope that everybody would understand perfectly well what the secretary was saying. And they should remember that he said the very same thing to them when we met last in Scotland. He shared nothing different in that report than he shared in a meeting of our allies, at least those countries in RC South, when we met in December in Scotland. They're all perfectly aware of what the secretary thinks of how the alliance is currently constructed, and what work needs to be done.
Q Geoff, the secretary also said that he would like some of the allies to take more advantage of the U.S. counterinsurgency academy, or whatever it's called, in Kabul. Have any of them since then suggested they would like to do that? Has there been any movement on that front?
MR. MORRELL: I have not heard, Dmitri, if indeed people are taking advantage of Hohenfels, for example, our Army facility in Germany, or the academy that's been set up in Kabul. I think that was sort of the whole point of the secretary's criticism. We're not trained for counterinsurgency to the degree that we all should be, so let's take advantage of the resources that are out there. Let's take advantage of the facility at Hohenfels. Let's take advantage of the academy in Kabul, so that the trainers we send to train the Afghan national police and Afghan national army are in fact trained themselves, and are equipped to do the training necessary to stand up the Afghan national security forces to the degree we need them to be to take on the enemy.
Q Why would some of the countries not avail of that training? I mean, is it a question of who pays for it? Or --
MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to ask them. I mean obviously there's cost, there's money and time involved, and those are always thorny issues. But I think, Dmitri, those are questions best put to our allies, or those who seemingly are reluctant to take advantage of that training.
Q How much does the secretary then think the instability in RC South is a factor of those NATO forces not being trained in counterinsurgency? And how much of it does he think is because of a lack of enough troops in the South?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we're obviously trying to help alleviate the shortage in troops by sending an additional 2,200 Marines to RC South. So they'll have 2,200 additional fighters that will be able -- the Canadian commanders, come February, and they arrive then, our forces do, in March, will be able to maneuver as they see fit to take on the enemy.
So we've gone an awful long way to try to alleviate the shortage of fighters in the South.
As you heard the secretary, he is not so much looking for our allies to sort of match our troop commitment, although that would certainly be nice. I think he's looking for them to backfill when the Marines leave come the end of this year. But we're trying to alleviate at least some of the shortage in the South with the additional Marines, and we're trying to make sure that all those fighters who are there are trained for counterinsurgency. And that's why he's been publicly urging and privately urging the other nations that are contributing to RC South to make sure the forces they send are up to speed on COIN.
Q But I mean it's been pretty unstable in the South so far. How much of that does he think is a factor of this lack of counterinsurgency training. Like, how much does he attribute --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think, Nancy, it's probably a combination of a number of factors. It's a very difficult part of the country. I mean, that is -- it has been a stronghold of the Taliban. It has been the largest opium -- poppy-producing region of the nation. You have a very difficult terrain there. It had been to some degree neglected initially. And so the combination of factors obviously make it a difficult place to operate.
And the secretary appreciates how tough our allies who are in RC South have it. That said, we can do things which can increase our capabilities for success. Among those things is making sure the people we send there are trained in counterinsurgency.
Okay, a couple more and then I got to run. Sorry. Andrew. Yes?
Q Just to follow on, a NATO question. Does the secretary expect General Craddock to serve the standard three-year term as Supreme Allied Commander Europe?
MR. MORRELL: I think I've said before from up here, and I understand where the question comes from, but Andrew, I'm really not going to get sucked into personnel matters prior to the point where we have something official to announce. As it stands right now, the secretary is very pleased with the leadership that's being provided by General Craddock in his current role. He's very pleased, obviously, with the leadership that's being provided by General Petraeus in his current role. And until the secretary recommends to the president otherwise and the president approves otherwise, those two commanders will continue in the roles that they now have. But he greatly respects them both and appreciates their service.
Q Is it fair to say there are deliberations going on about their future role at the moment?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, this building has made contingency plans for virtually everything in the world. It would be neglectful of us if we didn't think long term about how our commanders should be functioning and where they are best utilized and when.
So -- but I wouldn't read too much into the fact that there are discussions ongoing in this building about the way ahead in Iraq or Afghanistan or Europe or any other command that we have. And those are the kind of routine planning that goes on, you know, all the time in order for us to sort of responsibly execute all that we have to do here.
Q The Canadian government also commissioned a report on their future in Afghanistan, and one of the findings was that NATO's allies are not stepping up in the south. What is the secretary's response to that? Does he feel vindicated by this report? Is he going to look to Canada to put more troops in? Does he have any official response?
MR. MORRELL: I have not talked to him since -- is the Manley report? Is that out now?
Q I don't know what it's called. The federal government commissioned it. It's like a panel --
MR. MORRELL: Okay. I have not talked to him since that's come out, if that's the case, if it is indeed the Manley report. You know, I think his statements and my statements really do speak for where he is right now, and that is that clearly, there have been deficiencies in how the alliance has fielded troops to deal with an insurgency in Afghanistan. And the alliance as a whole needs to do a better job of training for counterinsurgency, whether it be in the south or any other region of the country.
Q But it specifically said they needed more troops in the south. I mean, does that acknowledgement give the Pentagon, the secretary, confidence that Canada's going to step up, bring more troops in? It also mentioned needing more helicopters in the area, which the secretary's also spoken about. Is there any sense that this is going to move things forward again, that NATO's going to step up quickly?
MR. MORRELL: Courtney, we would certainly welcome any and all countries in Afghanistan, the Canadians or anybody else, if they see it within their capacity to provide more fighting forces to Afghanistan. That would clearly be a help to the effort. As you know, the secretary -- even before the announced Marine deployment -- had shared with you all that commanders there believed that we were about 7,500 troops short of what we needed in Afghanistan. Obviously, the 3,200 Marines we're sending will help, you know, close that gap a little bit, but we're still short. And so if other countries see it within their means to send additional forces, that would certainly help the effort.
Dmitri, last one.
Q Geoff, missile defense seems to have slipped below the radar a little bit. Have you made any progress with the Russians in terms of cooperation or the ideas that Secretary Gates raised in Moscow last year, A? And B, have you made any progress with the new Polish government?
MR. MORRELL: Well, if you were here last week, we -- obviously we met with the -- the secretary met with the Polish minister of Defense, and I talked at length about how those discussions had gone. I mean, simultaneous to all that is we continue to talk with the Poles. We are still working with the Czech Republic on the notion of placing the radar that would be necessary for European missile defense there.
So those talks, I'm told, continue to go very, very well. We are moving ever closer to an agreement with the Czech Republic. Hopefully, we'll have something to announce within a matter of weeks, hopefully not much longer than that. And as we have progress with the Czech Republic and we continue our talks with the new Polish government, hopefully we'll come to an agreement that will allow us to begin building this defense for our friends in Europe and for us, and that hopefully will help the Russians better understand that this is not a system that should be viewed in any way as a threat to them, but it's something that they should hopefully cooperate with and perhaps gain some benefits from as well.
Q On the kind of specifics, has there been any movement forward between the U.S. and the Russians on the -- (off mike) -- that Secretary Gates met?
MR. MORRELL: I think -- we continue our talks with the Russians. We've had meetings not too long ago. We're going to have another 2-plus-2 coming up here in the new year, and we continue to hope and work towards a better understanding with them on the purpose of missile defense in Europe.
But I don't have anything, Dmitri, to announce from this podium today with regards to any sort of concrete breakthroughs with regards to our discussions with the Russians. I think the secretary, as we've said before, has put on the table a number of proposals, and it's time for the Russians to respond to those proposals. But I don't think any additional proposals will be forthcoming from us.
Q (Off mike) -- the Russians have said several times they actually haven't got a concrete proposal. Since Secretary Gates made his comments, they haven't received anything.
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think -- I don't think that's accurate. I think they've had expert-level talks, in which case they would talk about not just the general proposal that the secretary made along with Secretary Rice, but in a more concrete, tangible fashion what it is that we're proposing to the Russians.
Thanks so much, guys.
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