REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: I just have a brief announcement about Secretary Hagel's upcoming travel and then we'll take some questions.
Next week Secretary Hagel will begin his fourth official visit to the Asia Pacific which, as you all know, is a region of growing importance and emphasis across U.S. foreign policy and for our defense strategy as well.
His first stop will be Hawaii, where he will convene the first-ever U.S. hosted meeting of the ASEAN [Association of South Asian Nations] defense ministers. As some of you may remember, the secretary extended this invitation to ASEAN ministers in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue last June. He also participated in the ASEAN defense ministers plus last August. So increased and expanding DOD's engagement with ASEAN members has been a priority for him and working with the Pacific Command commander Admiral Locklear, the secretary has been very focused on making this upcoming gathering, which is itself historic, a success.
In addition to identifying ways to strengthen multilateral security cooperation in the region, the meeting will also focus on building more robust partnerships between military and civilian agencies to improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.
For that reason, Secretary Hagel has invited leaders from NOAA and from USAID to join and he's very pleased that they will be able to do so.
The recently released quadrennial defense review states that we expect the frequency, scale and complexity of future humanitarian assistance in disaster relief missions to increase. Secretary Hagel believes that the United States and our partners must be prepared for that reality.
From Hawaii, Secretary Hagel will next travel to Japan for his second trip there as defense secretary. When he traveled there in October with Secretary Kerry, he announced that the United States and Japan will begin the process of revising the defense guidelines that underpin our bilateral military-to-military relationship. This upcoming trip is an opportunity to discuss those ongoing efforts and as well as other regional security matters.
As you know, Prime Minister Abe, President Park of the Republic of Korea and President Obama met this week in the Netherlands. So Secretary Hagel's trip to Japan is an opportunity to build off those recent discussions.
After Japan, Secretary Hagel will then travel to China for his first trip there as secretary of defense. He's very much looking forward to this visit, having hosted his Chinese counterpart here at the Pentagon. He has longstanding ties to China, beginning when he traveled there for business in the early 1980s. He's also built strong relationships with senior Chinese leaders while serving as a United States Senator.
In China, the secretary will have a full complement of bilateral engagements focusing on our military-to-military relationship and on regional security issues. Secretary views this relationship as crucial to our rebalance and he will emphasize the importance of building trust, increasing openness and transparency and upholding international norms throughout his trip.
The secretary's final stop will be in Mongolia. This will be the first visit by a defense secretary there in nearly 10 years. Mongolia is becoming a more important security partner for the United States, having deployed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan and in peacekeeping operations worldwide.
This visit is an opportunity for the secretary to thank Mongolia for their contributions and to talk about ways to enhance our cooperation moving forward.
As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Mongolia also has a growing stake in stability across the Asia Pacific. So I expect Secretary Hagel will discuss regional security matters as well.
Now before I go to questions, I would like to emphasize that this trip to Asia, his fourth in less than a year, is further evidence of the secretary's personal commitment to the president's rebalance to the Asia Pacific region. This strategy is fully support in the QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review] and is resourced in the president's budget. One of the most important things this strategy and budget do is shift the military from a focus on protracted counterinsurgency operations, seeking instead to regain full-spectrum capabilities that are relevant not only to Asia but to the challenges that we see across the Middle East and potentially even in Europe.
The priority of this budget places on high-end capabilities and readiness is exactly what we believe is most relevant in a volatile and threatening world where America's global commitments are and will remain sacrosanct.
And with that, I'll take questions.
Q: (inaudible) the other side.
Ukraine, do you have any updates specifically on some of the chatter about increased U.S. military exercises and other increases U.S. military support to Ukraine and/or in the region?
Is anything getting sort of pinned down about that?
And is there any suggestion that the risk there is actually increasing now?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The risk in Ukraine?
Q: (inaudible) additional (inaudible).
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, let me take that part first.
As Secretary Hagel said we continue to see the Russian military reinforce units that -- on the -- on their side of the border with Ukraine to the south and to the east of Ukraine.
And we remain concerned about that. We're monitoring it closely. And as he also said, the Defense Minister Shoigu assured him that this was for exercise purposes only and that they had no intention of crossing the border. They need to keep up -- they need to keep their word on that. But we're watching it very, very closely.
It does nothing, regardless of the intent and I'd say we don't have a full knowledge of their intent. But regardless of the intent, it does nothing to deescalate the tension in Ukraine. It does nothing to improve the stability in that part of the world. And so in that regard, you know, it's certainly a matter of deep concern to us.
On your other question about training, you know we've added to the aviation detachment in Poland. We've added to the Baltic air police mission and I would tell you that the staff here in the Pentagon, both the civilian and uniformed, are constantly looking at other ways that we can -- that we can further reassure our allies and partners in Europe to potentially look at either adding to or reinforcing existing operations or exercises or even adding on additional opportunities. But we're looking at that very closely right now.
I don't have anything to announce today on anything specific, no.
Q: Congressman Mike Turner sent a letter to Secretary Hagel yesterday and today put out a statement saying that over the past week we've seen a buildup of up to 80,000 additional Russian troops along the -- along the border.
Is there any credibility to that number?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into estimating specific numbers of Russian forces. As I said earlier this week, the Russian minister of defense should be answering those questions about exactly what they've got and, frankly, what they intend to do with them.
As I said earlier in the week, it's clearly in the thousands. There's no question about that. And as I said also, we're watching this very, very closely. It does nothing to help deescalate the tension.
Q: But 80,000?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm simply not going to get into a debate over the exact number. They continue to reinforce and it continues to be unclear exactly what the intent there is.
Q: Have you seen any evidence that they're doing the exercises that they claim they're doing?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I've seen -- we've seen no specific indications that these -- that exercises are taking place. The way it was explained was that these were springtime exercises. But, again, I would point you to the Russian ministry of defense to speak to, you know, what they've -- what they've got those troops there and what they're going to do with them.
Q: But if you see -- if the minister, the defense minister of Russia told Hagel we're doing springtime exercises and you guys see no evidence of springtime exercises, does this not add to your concern?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think we're concerned enough as it is, Barb. But you know, I mean, just because we haven't seen an indication of exercises now doesn't mean that one won't occur. I just -- again, the intent -- certainly have -- they have amassed troops along that border. They have them in quite -- in quite a number and in a composition that provides a lot -- lots of capability.
They’ve made it clear that their intent was to do exercises and not to cross the border. Our expectation is they're going to live up to that word.
Q: So just very quickly, also ask you, then, given what you see, given the array and the capabilities, what are your concerns that they could move with no warning time for the U.S. and NATO?
How fast could they do it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals and try to -- and try to --
Q: Do you not have concerns again that you'll be faced with a zero warning time situation?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Our concern is for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people and their nation. It's a -- it's integrity and sovereignty that the -- that Moscow has violated. The forces they have in Crimea and the forces they have along the border with Ukraine are doing nothing to deescalate the tension. And that's the concern.
I am not going to get into speculating about how fast they could move or where they would go or what they would do.
They made clear that their intention was exercises and they had no intention to cross that border. That's our expectation.
Q: On that, admiral, given -- I guess the basic question is: Does the government and the military assess that Russia is more likely now to invade Ukraine than it has been before?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into issues of intelligence or assessments, Justin. I think I've gone about as far as I can go. It's certainly no secret that they've got troops along that border. And -- and we have been as transparent with all of you as we can about what we've been told about their intent. They need to answer for what their real intent is.
Q: (inaudible). I mean, you keep talking about their word. Well, what is that worth to you, given the actions that they have (inaudible) over the past (inaudible) months?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Look, the minister said it was exercises, no intent to cross the border. They need to -- they need to -- they need to live up to that word. And -- but I'll -- but I would tell you again what I said before. I mean, even if -- even if this is exercises, it's doing nothing to help deescalate the tension in Ukraine. It's doing nothing to assist in the stability of that part of Europe.
Q: Have you reached any conclusions on aid for Ukraine, non-lethal aid? And does this continuing buildup cause this building, this administration to reassess whether it ought to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, as I said before, we -- we have received requests for material from the defense ministry in Ukraine for issues that we would consider -- what we would consider in the Pentagon lethal assistance and non-lethal assistance. Our focus is on reviewing the non-lethal items. That's where the interagency discussion is -- is occurring, on those issues.
I can tell you that the rations, the meals ready-to-eat, they are on the way. We expect them to arrive in Ukraine probably by the weekend is the best estimate. They're going overland. And so that's -- that's on the way. The other types of assistance they have requested in terms of in the non-lethal category are still being reviewed.
Q: Why -- why is lethal assistance off the table?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, these are policy discussions that are ongoing right now. I can tell you what the focus is on -- is on non-lethal. That's -- that's where the focus of the interagency discussion is right now.
Q: If the focus is on non-lethal, then isn't it urgent to make a decision either way on something like intelligence sharing, given the concerns about Russian forces on the border?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think we all -- I think everybody shares a sense of urgency about what is happening in Ukraine. The whole international community does. The president has made it very clear that we are going to pursue diplomatic and economic pressure. He has ordered sanctions. He has -- he has imposed those costs. The international community is likewise imposing those costs. That's the focus of the effort right now.
But in terms of a -- a shared sense of urgency about what's happening, I think it's fair to say we all have that. And it's not just in the military, the Pentagon or even the United States, but across the international community.
Q: Yesterday, the U.K. defense minister suggested that Minister Shoigu might not actually be the final word on this, and President Putin really is the one that's -- that's making the final decisions. Is that -- is that a concern shared by the Pentagon that when Minister Shoigu speaks, that maybe it doesn't really mean much?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think -- I don't think there's any gap between Minister Hammond's concerns and Secretary Hagel's in that regard.
Q: Admiral, up until a few weeks ago, the department was basically signaling that its plans for the European Command region were to continue shrinking infrastructure and maybe bring troop levels below the current 67,000. I'm wondering if you could say to what extent are those kind of permanent, long-term plans under reconsideration.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, you're right. We have 67,000 troops in Europe. And General Breedlove has been going through a review of infrastructure, not necessarily of manpower in Europe. I won't speak for the general, but I believe that he's continuing to conduct that review.
But we -- I think force posture all around the world is something we're always looking at. I'm not aware of any changes that are in the offing for force posture in Europe from a permanent basing perspective or from a permanent manpower perspective.
But as the president has said and Secretary Hagel said, we're certainly looking at -- and to lead this question, we're certainly looking at other opportunities in Europe that we might be able to take advantage of to reassure our allies and partners, and they may be on a more rotational basis, you know, than a permanent basis.
Q: If the current government in Ukraine is a U.S. ally, so could you just clarify -- I didn’t understand -- is the United States sharing with this ally what it knows about Russian troop movements?
Are you -- are you telling that government what you know?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into intelligence issues here from the podium, Barb. What I -- what I'll go back to is our assistance to Ukraine is through diplomatic and economic approach right now. And as I said, we're looking at non-lethal -- we're reviewing requests for non-lethal aid that could potentially go, as I -- and we've already, as I said, we're sending rations. I'm not going to talk about intelligence issues here, just not.
Q: Getting to two questions. Getting back to the issue of Congress, I mean, there was a -- there was a series of communiques and letters that were sent out yesterday saying that the Pentagon needed to be more transparent, the administration needed to be more transparent about what it knows, given the potential for Russian action in Ukraine, additional Russian action in Ukraine.
I mean, what's the Pentagon's response to that issue, whether or not there needs to be more transparency?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we've seen the correspondence work and I'll respond to the -- we're going to respond to those letters and the secretary is certainly mindful of the oversight responsibilities of Congress. And he will work very hard with the Congress to be as forthcoming as we can possibly be about our understanding of the situation in Ukraine.
I also think it's important to note that there's a limit to the amount of knowledge you can possess, particularly on events going on the other border, on the Russian side of the border.
I mean, I think there's this expectation that we know exactly not only how many but what their names are and what units they're attached to. And we simply, you know, you're -- there's -- you're not going to have perfect knowledge in that case.
But we understand our -- the oversight responsibilities. We respect that. The secretary will be as forthcoming as he possibly can be with members of Congress.
Q: On Malaysia we've seen the Chinese, Thai and others release all the satellite imagery with the pictures of the debris and all that and the question's being asked why we haven't seen the same from the U.S. side.
Can you talk at all about what type of satellite help you might be giving them and whether there will be any kind of decision to release any of this imagery publicly?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: On your first question, no; we're not going to talk about the specifics of the support we're giving with respect to satellite imagery. That you haven't see, satellite imagery from the United States on cable and network TV doesn't mean that we aren't sharing imagery as appropriate. We are. But we're, as I said Monday, we're just -- we're not going to get into discussions specifically about where that -- where that -- what that imagery is and where it's coming from.
Q: And we're back on Congress. There are members up there, especially appropriators, who are frustrated about the lack of an operations contingency account budget because of the problems with the Afghan BSA. And there's talk now about what they're calling a three-month bridge fund that would go from the end of the fiscal year to the end of the calendar year.
Is the Defense Department going to submit a bridge fund like that? And do you have any idea when you might make that decision or how much it would be included in it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Phil, I don't know. Yes, I'm going to have to take that one for the record for you. I'm going to have to get back to you on that.
I just don't have a good answer for you today.
Q: About the secretary's trip to Asia, why is it important for U.S. to have this U.S. meeting in Hawaii? I mean, every year security has chanced to meet all those ministers in Southeast Asia. So why, you know, in Hawaii in the U.S.?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, ASEAN has a forum. It's a very -- a very powerful setting and a very -- a very important institution to have these discussions across a broad range of issues. The secretary's committed to not only the defense ministers and the leaders, military leaders in that country but to ASEAN as a whole.
And he wanted to take on the responsibility of hosting one of these himself. There's a lot going on in the Asia Pacific region, economically from a security perspective, across -- just across the spectrum of engagements between nations and he believes it's important to host this himself. And Hawaii makes sense from a geographic perspective to do it. And I said, we're really -- we're looking forward to it. We're looking forward to the dialogue and you know, one of the -- one of the themes, one of the things that he's going to constantly come back to throughout this trip -- and certainly at the conference -- is the link between economic security and national security, that they are inextricable.
And that there are even across military-to-military engagements, many things short of conflict that militaries routinely participate in together, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. And so I think -- I think he's keen to get into a broader, deeper discussion about how we can improve those capabilities as well and interoperability between partners and friends.
I mean, just look at what's going on with the search for the Flight 370. You -- it's a multinational effort in a very hostile environment at sea. And people are contributing to the degree that they can for as long as they can. There was, you know, there's -- there was no task order to do that. There's no chain of command specifically for that. I mean, everybody's coming together to try to do the best they can and it's in times like that when disaster strikes, that you want to be able to put aside whatever differences you might have and work together and -- but that doesn’t mean you shouldn't look for ways to try to work together better and more efficiently. And I think that's what he's trying to get after here in this -- in this summit.
Q: The P-8 and the P-3 have been on station there for quite a while.
Are there any plans to augment these aircraft as part of the search down for the Malaysia Airlines?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes, what I can tell is there's been some developments today. The P-3 will be returning to Kadena air base there in Japan. And we will augment the search with a second P-8 Poseidon aircraft. That'll be -- that'll be flown to Perth. So we'll have two P-8s now out of Perth. The P-3 will go back to its base in Japan.
Q: If I could follow up, other navies are sending warships to the particular search area.
Are there any plans or any consideration of sending American warships down there?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There's no plans that I'm aware of right now to send American warships to the search area right now. We believe -- and just as importantly, the Malaysian government believes that the most important asset that we have that we can help them with are these long-range maritime patrol aircraft.
Q: The other day you told us your budget was $4 million for this search mission.
Has that changed? Or have you exceeded that? What --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any change on that, Justin. But if I get anything on that, I'll follow up with you. Yes.
Okay. Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.