SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Many of you know that I'm going to leave tomorrow morning for a ten-day trip to Asia Pacific. Some of you will be accompanying me on that trip. And I think you've seen the itinerary of where we're going. And some of the more important part of that -- of the trip and the focus starting with ASEAN defense ministers' meeting in Hawaii for two and a half days and then on to Japan and China and Mongolia.
It's to, again, reemphasize the rebalance strategic interests of our country, to reassure our allies, to, again, make very clear of our commitment to our allies in the Asia Pacific. This will be my fourth trip since becoming Secretary of Defense to Asia Pacific. The meeting in Hawaii and the full agenda of this trip, again, underscores the importance of this rebalance. And it's going to give us an opportunity to talk specifically about some of the issues that we're dealing with in the Asia Pacific, all of our partners, the security challenges, the issues that are of concern to peace, prosperity, the future of that region. And as you all know, we have been, the United States of America, a Pacific power for many years. We've looked forward to a continuation of building those relationships and those partnerships as we go forward.
Security and stability are key anchors for prosperity, for economic development and we rebalance to the Asia Pacific with all of those different responsibilities and dimensions as our focus. And it's pretty clear the tremendous progress that's been made in the Asia Pacific the last few years has been much the result of a secure area, an area that has worked through many of its differences peacefully. There are still issues. There are still questions.
But it's a region that has prospered because they have worked through many of these -- these differences.
And the ASEAN institution itself, that organization is a critically important part of that. So to have the 10 ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii, on United States soil, is important. And I'm looking forward to that meeting with my ASEAN counterparts.
Let me now turn to another matter before taking your questions, and that is the finding and recovering and identifying the remains of America's missing from past conflicts. This effort is not just a top priority for the Department of Defense; it's our responsibility and our obligation.
In February, I directed the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, Mike Lumpkin, to provide me with recommendations on how to reorganize the Joint Prisoner of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command or otherwise known as JPAC, so that DOD could more effectively account for our missing personnel and ensure their families receive timely and accurate information.
Based on his recommendations, I've directed the department to undertake the following steps to reorganize this effort into a single, accountable organization that has complete oversight of personnel accounting resources, research and operations.
First, we will establish a new Defense agency that combines the Defense Prisoners of War, Missing Personnel Office, or otherwise known as DPMO, the JPAC office, and select functions of the U.S. Air Force's Life Scientists Equipment Laboratory. This agency will be overseen by the undersecretary of defense for policy.
By consolidating functions, we will resolve issues of duplication and inefficiency, and build a stronger, more transparent and more responsive organization.
All communications with family members of the missing from past conflicts will be managed and will be organized by this new agency.
Second, to streamline the identification process, an armed forces medical examiner, working for the new agency, will be single -- will be the single DOD identification authority. They will oversee the scientific operations of the central identification laboratory in Hawaii and other laboratories in Omaha and Dayton.
Third, to centralize budgetary resources for this important mission, we will work with Congress to realign its appropriations into a single budget.
Fourth, to improve the search, recovery and identification process, the department will implement a centralized database and case management system, containing all missing service members’ information.
Fifth, I've directed the department to develop proposals for expanding public/private partnerships in identifying our missing. The goal is to leverage the capabilities and the efforts of organizations outside of government that responsible work to account for our missing.
These steps will help improve the accounting mission, increase the number of identifications of our missing, provide greater transparency for their families, and expand our case file system to include all missing personnel.
We will continue to do everything we can to account for and bring as many of our missing and fallen service personnel as possible home here to the United States.
We've been listening to and consulting with veterans' service organizations about how to improve the department's MIA operations. And I appreciate, we all appreciate, their input and their support to ensure the full accounting of all of our country's missing service members. And we will continue to work closely together as we go forward.
I want to particularly thank Mike Lumpkin and his team for their efforts.
And I also want to thank the veterans' organizations who have been so important over so many years to this effort.
And in particularly – in particular, I want to thank Ann Mills Griffin of the National League of Families, for her many, many years of service and leadership on this project.
Ann came to see me last December. I've known Ann and worked with her for over 30 years on many projects. And she presented to me a five-page, single-spaced, well thought through, first, identification of the issues; a framing of the problems; and I thought some very, very solid recommendations on how we go forward.
So she deserves a lot of credit. Her organization deserves credit, as well as the institutions and veterans organizations that have been key to this effort for many years.
Thank you. I'd be glad to respond to questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on that -- on that last issue, how does all this address the basic demand of the families of the missing that you provide faster and more reliable accounting? And if I may throw in a second question, if you don't mind, could you confirm the reports that the Russians have begun pulling forces back from the border with Ukraine?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, on the first question, Bob, I think if you really break this down as to what we've done here, as to how it relates to the families, we're streamlining everything. We're streamlining the organization, the process and the resources. And what that means to families is, first, they will be communicated with clearly, directly, and it will be communications from one central location. That has not been the case.
They'll have a place where they can go to identify updates, questions, concerns. And it won't be a one-way street. It will be a two-way street. We'll communicate with them.
I think another reason the families will strongly support what we're doing is it helps us do the job. It helps us get the mission accomplished. We've got tens of thousands of missing all over the world. And it's a difficult -- it's a very difficult mission. And if we put together a better institution, organization, better management, better structure, better use of our resources, then I hope we'll be far more effective in being able to accomplish the mission of identifying these missing remains and getting these missing remains brought home to the families.
So, I'm much encouraged, and I again want to say how much we all appreciate the good work that's been done here. There's -- there's not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today, and you all know this, than you take care of the people who gave their lives to this country, and you take care of their families. And that has been a critical component of who we are as Americans from -- from beginning -- from the beginning of this republic.
Your second question, I cannot confirm, Bob, one way or the other whether the Russians are pulling troops back from the Ukrainian-Russian border. As you know, President Obama made it very clear to President Putin in their conversation that that is going to be required, necessary in order for us to have any -- any further meaningful conversation about how we resolve and deescalate this crisis.
I think it was also made pretty clear by Secretary Kerry yesterday in his conversations with Minister Lavrov.
Q: If I could follow up on what Bob said. Is it your understanding that there was an agreement by the Russians to pull back those 40,000-plus troops in those conversations with the president or with Secretary Kerry?
SEC. HAGEL: No, I didn't say that. What I said was, what the president told President Putin and what Secretary Kerry told Minister Lavrov, as I told Minister Shoigu when Minister Shoigu and I spoke last week. Minister Shoigu, I think as we reported out, assured me that those troops were there for exercises. And he assured me they were not going to cross the border and I think Mr. Lavrov has said the same thing, as has President Putin.
But that said, there's still a tremendous buildup of Russian forces on that border.
Q: What do you mean by "tremendous buildup? Can you give us a sense of how many troops are...
SEC. HAGEL: Tens of thousands.
Q: Mr. Secretary, why do you think -- why do you think President Putin amassed those troops on the border? Do you think that there was really any intent to actually enter Ukraine with those forces? Or that he simply did that as a bargaining chip so that the rest of the world would forget the fact that they took over Crimea and think, well, as long as they're not going in the Ukraine, they can keep Crimea?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, you're not going to like the answer, but I don't know, Jim, what the -- his intentions were.
Q: Sir, could I ask you about North Korea?
The artillery firings that we saw by the North Koreans into the Western Sea earlier today plus the Nodong medium-range missile firings and their statements on a nuclear test, number one, do you worry or what evidence do you have we might be entering a new provocation cycle with North Korea?
And a very quick follow-up on a different subject, the Malaysian minister early today, his press conference talked about traveling to ASEAN and meeting with you and said that he would be asking you for additional capabilities or equipment to help search for the plane, but he wasn't specific and I was wondering if there's any -- you can think of any additional assistance that the U.S. might realistically, practically be able to give to that effort, but North Korea first.
SEC. HAGEL: On North Korea, I'm in touch with our commander there, the U.N. commander, briefing, Commander General Scaparrotti. He had a report about two hours ago this morning on briefing me on what was going on. I think you all have the latest. There has been artillery exchanges. As you know, the fishing vessel was released. So the provocation that the North Koreans have, once again, engaged in, is dangerous and it -- and it needs to stop.
As to the Malaysian acting transportation minister, defense minister, I've spoken with him twice in the last week. In both instances, when he's requested assistance, we have provided that assistance, some of the latest equipment being the pinger locator, which I think, as you know, has left Australian -- on an Australian ship headed toward this vast area, where we all think we may have identified something. But just a reminder, that area is the size of New Mexico. And this very sophisticated equipment that we have provided and we have provided, as far as I know, everything the Malaysian government has requested of us, is really reliant totally on defined search areas. It's got tremendous capability but we've -- we're going to have to narrow the search area.
I don't know what additional requests he will make of me. I certainly will listen carefully to whatever those are. I think the Australians, as you all know, now are in the lead on this and they've been doing a tremendous job. We're providing everything we can provide as are other countries. But the Australians have this now and are really doing quite a good job with it, too.
Q: On North Korea, North Korea foreign minister announced yesterday North Korea were going to look for nuclear tests soon. How did you respond toward this North Korea's putting statement?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I've said, the North Koreans have to stop these provocative actions. And we have been very clear on that. And obviously when I'm in China, that will be a subject that I will discuss with my counterpart in China.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Ukraine has asked that the United States for weapons and for other military supplies, as they feel vulnerable, in light of what's happened in recent weeks, can you bring us up to speed on how those deliberations are working through the U.S. government, whether there's any new thinking about what type of aid would be -- would be a good idea that -- to render?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as you know, the Ukrainians have asked for different kinds of materiel and their requests for assistance. You also know that the MREs have now been delivered. The interagency is going through the last cuts of decision-making on what additional assistance the United States would provide. As you all know, Secretary Kerry is in Brussels today, will be there for NATO meetings the next two days. I suspect these are gonna be issues that our NATO partners and the United States will be discussing as well.
I'll come back to you...
Q: Mr. Secretary, General Breedlove was scheduled to testify in front of the Armed Services Committees this week, but he was recalled to Europe because of the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
In light of what's happening with North Korea, is there any thought being given to having General Scaparrotti stay there, rather than testify this week, as he's scheduled to do?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, certainly, the kind of world that we live in is not a prescribed week-long schedule kind of world. Depending on issues and challenges that occur, we have the flexibility of always adjusting our military commanders, depending on where they're required.
In General Breedlove's case, I think it was the smart thing to do to have him go back in light of his importance to NATO, especially with the NATO foreign ministers meeting the next two days. The supreme allied commander is going to be an integral part of that -- of that session over the next two days.
So we're flexible in depending on where we need our commanders, where the focus is the most important is the way we'll do it.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to get your thoughts on this March 14th memo from your department about the banning of tobacco sales on military bases and in the Navy in particular.
You were in Vietnam. You know how cigarettes are often used by forces in combat. It's a morale issue.
Where do you stand on the issue of banning tobacco sales and possibly smoking on bases and ships?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as you know, the Navy already has taken some action on this over the years.
I think you start with, like any of these issues, you look at the health of your force. I don't know if there's anybody in America who still thinks that tobacco's good for you. Maybe there are some.
The surgeon general 50 years ago made that statement pretty clear.
We don't allow smoking in any of our government buildings, restaurants, states and municipalities have pretty clear regulations on this.
I think in reviewing any options that we have as to whether we in the military through commissaries, PXs, sell or continue to sell tobacco is something we need to look at. And we are looking at it. And I think we owe it to -- our people.
The costs, health care costs, are astounding. Well over a billion dollars, just in the Department of Defense, on tobacco-related illness and health care.
Now, the dollars are one thing, but the health of your -- of your people, I don't know if you put a price tag on that.
So I think it does need to be looked at and reviewed.
Q: In regards to Mexico, Mexico and U.S. military forces have developed recently a very close relationship, and they have achieved agreements to support each other in case of natural disasters or other common threats.
But recently, there have not been any meetings between both secretaries.
Do you plan to go to Mexico or the secretaries will come over here? And what is the current -- current level of cooperation? Is there any training -- training to Mexican troops, or are they participating in military exercise with the U.S.?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I think you probably know that our secretary of homeland security, Secretary Johnson, was just recently in Mexico and met with all the senior leaders, including the president.
I will be going to Mexico. I'm not sure we were going to announce that today, but -- (Laughter.) -- I get nervous when Kirby gets too close to me here, and I -- tells me not to say something.
But I will be going to Mexico. Mexico is a very important partner, and we'll continue to strengthen that relationship.
Thank you very much. I'll see you on -- some of you on the plane.