REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Since Russia began its intervention in Crimea and its aggressive actions along the border with Ukraine, Secretary Hagel has stepped up his engagements and consultation with the European counterparts. This morning, Secretary Hagel had a very productive meeting with the Estonian minister of defense, Sven Mikser. The two leaders discussed tensions in Eastern Europe, as well as their shared commitment to both NATO and Baltic security. The minister thanked the secretary for the United States' response to events in Ukraine, to include strengthening our -- the NATO-Baltic air policing rotation and sending soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to Estonia to conduct bilateral training and exercises, and those troops arrived yesterday and just began exercises.
Secretary Hagel assured the minister that the U.S. continues to consider additional ways to maintain presence in the region and spoke specifically about plans for upcoming exercises, two in particular, BALTOPS and an exercise called Saber Strike, which are happening both in June in the Baltic region. These exercises will involve troops from about a dozen NATO allies and partners.
Later today, in just a couple of hours, the secretary will meet with the Czech Republic's top defense official, Minister of Defense Stropnicky, to discuss the impact of the situation in Ukraine on European security, our collective defense efforts under NATO, and to thank the minister for the Czech Republic's contributions to our efforts in Afghanistan.
The United States remains committed to the defense of our NATO allies. Secretary Hagel strongly supports this policy and continuing efforts to strengthen the alliance and to assure -- and to ensure its readiness to meet any and all contingencies.
As you know, the department has implemented a number of steps to reinforce our Central and Eastern European allies. Secretary Hagel has also directed General Breedlove in consultation with our allies to continue to update defense plans as the security situation in Europe evolves.
And I think you're going to hear more from the secretary about the NATO alliance, the future of the alliance, our commitment to the alliance when he speaks later this week on Friday.
Finally, I have an update for those of you who have been covering congressional -- concerns from congressional members about grooming regulations for African-American females. And if you'll allow me to put my spectacles on, I'll read this. He just sent a letter to the Hill just today...
Q: Who did?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Secretary Hagel, sorry, sent a letter to the Hill today directing the deputy secretary of defense to work with the service secretaries and the military chiefs to review their respective policies, to address the issues raised by members of Congress about grooming standards, particularly for African-American females.
So within the next 30 days, each service will review the definitions of authorized and prohibited hairstyles contained in each of their respective policies and revise any offensive language.
Number two, during the next three months, each service will review their hairstyle policies as they pertain to African-American women to ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force, while also meeting our military service's requirements.
And he said, after -- after he gets these reviews, after a thorough review of the service recommendations, he will make whatever appropriate adjustments to DOD policy are necessary.
So with that, I'll take questions. Bob?
Q: Rear Admiral, taking you back for a second to your initial comments about Russia and Ukraine, I think you said that the secretary had said he's considering additional ways. Can you elaborate on what he's considering, in addition -- in addition to those two exercises you mentioned?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You mean the BALTOPS and Saber Strike? So these are exercises that have been -- I know where you're going, let me just back up a little bit -- those two exercises have been long-scheduled. They are routine exercises. I participated in BALTOPS when I was an ensign back in 1987. So it's something we've been doing for a long time.
What we're looking at trying to do is ways in which we can make these preset exercises more robust, using additional assets that are already in Europe, perhaps more aircraft, maybe more ships. No decisions have been made yet, but the secretary expressed to the Estonian minister this morning that he's interested in ways we can make those two exercises more robust than they already are. And they're already pretty good-sized NATO exercises.
As you know, we now have exercises going on in the three Baltic nations, as well as Poland, company-sized exercises, infantry exercises, with soldiers from the 173rd out of Italy. And they just now started. As I said, the troops just got to Estonia yesterday, so they've really just started. They'll last about 30 days, and then we're looking for ways -- and we're looking for General Breedlove's recommendations on how he wants to do this -- to keep that presence rotational and persistent throughout the end of this calendar year.
There's been no final decisions on what that's going to look like. I can't tell you definitively today that it's going to be -- you know, each exercise will be 30 days in length and they're going to start on every other month. We don't have that level of fidelity, but he is looking for some recommendations on how to keep that rotational presence going throughout the end of the year.
And then, more broadly -- and I think this gets to your question -- he's certainly interested in General Breedlove's thoughts and recommendations, as well as those from the chairman and the Joint Staff, about what other measures that we haven't thought of yet that we could think of or that we could do to try to reassure, bolster our NATO allies as they go through this difficult time. So no final decisions.
Q: On that last part...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes. Yes. Now, as you know, General Breedlove has -- is already -- in his NATO hat, already working with the secretary general of NATO for those kinds of things, how to bolster air, maritime and ground readiness in Europe, but under his European Command hat, he's also talking to Secretary Hagel about the same sort of thing. And Secretary Hagel is looking forward to his recommendations and thoughts about what other things we can do, what additional things we can do, or, as I said, with these two exercises, what existing exercises or operations do we have that we can simply add to or make more robust? Does that help?
Q: Thank you. Yeah.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yep. Missy?
Q: Rear Admiral Kirby, Senator Leahy said on the floor of the Senate this morning that he may or will try to block aid to Egypt, military aid to Egypt. I know that technically the military aid goes through the State Department. But generally speaking, what's your view of continuing military assistance, given the criticism from some members of Congress about the Egyptian government's handling of the democratic process, judicial sentences, and human rights?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we certainly understand and appreciate the concerns of Senator Leahy and other members of Congress about this. And I would just tell you that the secretary, as is the commander-in-chief, following a very measured, balanced, deliberate approach here on how we assess and pursue military assistance to Egypt.
As you know, just recently, we announced additional measures of assistance to include helicopters. That will help them in their security requirements in the Sinai. Secretary Hagel welcomed that decision, thought it was exactly the right move. And what we can ensure members of Congress is that we will continue to consult with them and keep them informed as much as possible as we move forward. But as you said, rightly, this is a State Department responsibility, not for the Defense Department, necessarily, to take the lead.
Again, the main point that I'd like to leave you with is that we are pursuing and supporting the State Department through a measured, balanced, deliberate approach of how we review progress in Egypt and the decisions that stem from that into military aid and assistance. This is a relationship that -- from a military-to-military perspective that matters. It's important. And we want to see it continue.
Q: Okay, thanks.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, Phil?
Q: Rear Admiral, do you know if the sanctions announced yesterday on Russia affect the Defense Department's support for the Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan national security forces?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The best I understand the sanctions that were announced yesterday, they do not affect the Defense Department specifically, and specifically through the contracts for Mi-17s.
Q: Can you help us understand how, on the one hand, Washington can be imposing these sanctions and restrictions on Moscow, but on the other hand, you guys continue to support this purchase of these armed -- or these military helicopters from Russia, at the same time you're trying to put pressure on the government there?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, Phil, make no mistake. The secretary fully supports the diplomatic and economic pressure that the president continues to place on Moscow. There's no gap there.
And he has said many times that he believes that is the right way to apply pressure on Moscow. And he agrees with the president that there's not going to be a U.S. military solution to the issue in Ukraine. And so separate and apart from that, this particular contract, as you know, provides Mi-17 helicopters and supplies and spare parts for the Afghan national security forces. That is the helicopter that they fly. That is what they're used to flying. That is a helicopter that meets their security needs, and so we continue to -- we continue to support it through that contract.
But there's no -- there's certainly no gap in expectations, and there's no -- there's no desire to do anything other than support the diplomatic and economic pressure that the president keeps applying.
Q: On Afghanistan, how is the developments in Ukraine and your relationship with Russia now having any influence on your policy in Afghanistan, especially the security forces, and, secondly, if there is impact on your northern routes?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There's been no -- I mean, I would -- before I answer, I mean, I would certainly refer you to General Dunford and his staff. I mean, he can speak with a whole lot more specificity about operations in Afghanistan. I'm loath to do that. But I'm not aware of any change to our military efforts or policies or pursuits in Afghanistan as a result of what's going on in Ukraine. And there are no impacts on our retrograde ability through both ground or air routes as we speak today.
Q: I have one other question related to Sikhs. Last month, around 105 congressmen wrote a letter to secretary of defense about urging him to let the Sikhs join the U.S. military with their religious symbols intact. And, again on April 24, 15 senators wrote a similar letter to the secretary. And a day later, around (inaudible) fundraisers for the Democratic Party wrote a similar letter to the secretary on letting the Sikhs join the U.S. military with their religious symbols intact. What is the secretary's response to that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The secretary's aware of the concerns expressed, and he'll respond appropriately in kind to members of Congress. I'm not going to get ahead of correspondence that he hasn't yet responded to.
What I would tell you -- and I'd go back to when we announced these new religious accommodation policies, that we're trying to be as broad-based and as fair and as equitable as possible. And it's a balance we have to strike between operational readiness of units and being able to accommodate one's religious beliefs. We think we did that pretty well with that policy, and it doesn't preclude Sikhs from serving in the military at all. But it does -- but it does, under the current policy -- just like any other religious accommodation request has to be presented up to one's commanding officer.
And to the degree possible, we'd like those decisions made at the unit level by the CO who is responsible for the unit readiness of his or her unit. And I think we tried to strike a fair balance there. That said, again, we understand the concerns, and the secretary will consider those and respond in kind.
Q: But to rule out any change in the January policy?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to rule anything in or out right now. We have a religious accommodation policy that the secretary just signed. We talked about this just a couple of months ago. We believe it strikes a fair balance. We are aware of those concerns, and we'll address those concerns.
Q: Thank you.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yep, Jen?
Q: Rear Admiral Kirby, there are multiple reports in Libya that one of the bases that special forces had been using to train Libyan forces has now been overtaken by a pretty well-known Al Qaida group, Ibrahim Ali Abu Bakr Tantoush. Can you comment on those reports? Are they true? If so, is there concern? And is anything going to be done about it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't have anything to comment about that, to be honest, Jen. That's really a question better put to the Libyan government. We don't have any U.S. bases in Libya, and I would refer you to the Libyan government for that.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the phone call between Secretary Hagel and his Russian counterpart. The readouts were very different, as you probably know. The Russian...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I can only speak for the one that I wrote.
Q: The Russians' said that he complained about NATO activity along Russia's borders and wanted Washington to tone down the rhetoric. I wonder if, with the very different readout that we've got of the calls, if you could tell us a little bit about what the tone of the conversation was and if the secretary, Secretary Hagel, had any indication from the Russians that they may be changing their minds or making any sort of moves to do what the U.S. and its allies are asking them to do, which is pull away from the borders?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. I mean, it was -- look, it was -- the secretary always appreciates these opportunities to have these calls. And this call was fairly lengthy, 45 minutes in length. Of course, some of that's taken up by a translation, of course. But it was a good, substantive call. I think both men had an opportunity to present their views and perspectives and to listen to one another. And though it was at times terse, it was never uncivil between the two of them. And both agreed at the end of the call to continue to have those discussions.
So I don't want to get into every nuance and detail of the call, because we want those conversations to continue. That said, I mean, I can't speak for Minister Shoygu, but I can speak for Secretary Hagel. I mean, he was very clear about a couple of things. One, we needed a better understanding of Russian intentions. That was the first thing that he -- when he spoke, the first thing he did was ask Minister Shoygu for a better understanding of his intentions. The minister said not once, but twice that they have no aggressive designs on Ukraine and had no intention to cross that border.
They also talked about the force levels along that border, and Secretary Hagel was very clear that the force levels, as they are, are not doing anything to reduce tension in Ukraine -- in fact, quite the opposite -- because they have been there for so long and in such great number that it's simply making things more tense.
And then I think, lastly, they just talked about -- both of them agreed that -- that it's time for the tension to decrease and it's time for good, solid, diplomatic solutions.
I think the difference, though, is on how do you -- you know, how do you get at that? For us, for the secretary, it's about Russia pulling its troops back, removing their influence of irregular forces that are clearly in eastern Ukraine stirring up trouble, and to stop fomenting the violence that has resulted from that. Did that answer your question?
Q: You take them at their word when they say they won't cross the border? Or is there some deep mistrust there?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's our expectation that Minister Shoygu and his forces will live up to their word, yes.
Q: But they haven't in the past already, when they told you they were just going there to exercises and that they would pull back. I mean, they've said this before. Why...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Actions speak louder than words. You're absolutely right. Our expectation is that their actions are going to meet their words and their promises. Yeah.
Q: Just a follow-up on that. The Russian readout said that they informed the secretary that Russian troops had returned to their barracks after conducting some of these exercises. Has the U.S. side seen this at all, even in small numbers?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We've seen no indication that they have removed their troops from the border and moved back into garrison. That said, I can't deny the possibility that maybe in very small numbers they've done that. But in terms of the numbers that matter, that have -- that have weight and gravity and influence in that part of the world, no, we've not seen a major pullback.
Q: And separately, on North Korea, does the DOD have a reaction to the live-fire drills conducted this morning?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I mean, look -- I mean, you're talking about North Korea live-fire drills? All I'll say is, nothing's changed about our call that North Korea needs to stop provocative actions, regardless of what they are, that do nothing but inflame tensions there on the peninsula. They have international obligations to meet. They have people that they should be worried about feeding. And they need to stop doing anything provocative on that peninsula; that just raises tensions.
Q: And South Korea has -- they've made statements. They believe that the North will conduct a fourth nuclear test soon. Do you share this assessment?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments here from the podium. I'll go back to what I said before. The North Koreans have obligations, international obligations to contribute to stability and security on the peninsula, which is exactly what they're not doing. And I would leave it at that.
Q: Last Friday, the Pentagon stated that Russian aircraft crossed into Ukrainian airspace. Have you witnessed any other occurrence of such actions since?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any additional incursions into Ukrainian airspace since last week. No.
Q: The Afghan government has concluded that there were -- that there are, I think, seven U.S.- or U.K.-run what they are calling illegal detention centers that continue to hold detainees in different parts of Afghanistan. Do you have any confirmation that the United States, possibly in conjunction with the British government, continues to hold detainees outside of the Parwan third country national facility?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I have nothing for you on that, no. No.
Q: I want to go back to Egypt. As you may know, CENTCOM, AFRICOM, SOCOM commanders are visiting Cairo this week. Do you have any update on their meetings with Egyptian military commanders?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I don't. I'd refer you to their staffs for the specifics or their agenda, but you're right. They are -- they are in Egypt. This gets to my answer to Missy. This is a relationship that matters to us from a military perspective, and any chance that we have to continue the dialogue and work -- look to ways to cooperate better in the future is always helpful, but I don't have a readout. As far as I know, the meetings are still going on or, if not, they're just recently wrapped up. And, again, I'd refer you to their staffs for that kind of discussion.
Q: On the new agreement with the -- with the Philippines, it's early, but is there a timeline for when joint exercises might begin? And in the agreement, are there limits being placed on the number of U.S. troops that will participate?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think your question gets to an issue of detail. And right now, those kinds of details, Richard, are being worked out military-to-military. We in the Department of Defense welcome and appreciate the work that was done to achieve this agreement, that the president signed when he was over there, and it does help us continue to pursue and realize the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region.
The Philippines is not only a treaty ally, but a long and good friend for the United States military. And we look forward to deepening that relationship going forward through the use of Philippine bases to help us pursue a rotational presence. This is not about U.S. bases on Philippine soil, as you know.
But there's no -- I don't have any specifics right now to announce. I mean, this is work now. The spadework of developing those kinds of details is just now beginning.
Q: Can I follow on that briefly?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: Is there any plans -- the agreement allows for U.S. investment in infrastructure over there. Can you talk at all about whether the department would at this point be planning to spend money on construction and infrastructure in the Philippines?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Again, we're just now at the beginning of this, so I just don't have anything to announce on that. But you're right. It does include the possibility for some infrastructure improvement, not ownership. And again, we're looking forward to working with the Philippine government and the armed forces there to realize all that.
In the back there?
Q: Rear Admiral, as a follow-up to the question on NDN, as much as 40 percent of non-combat material goes to Afghanistan through Azerbaijan. With the developments in Ukraine, do you think that the importance of the southern route of NDN is rising? And do you foresee any increasing traffic through the southern route?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would really refer you to General Dunford about the specifics on their logistics and resupply. I don't -- as we sit here today, I don't envision any -- we certainly are not aware of any major changes to the flow of logistics in and out of Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network as a result of the tension that's in Ukraine.
That's something we're monitoring very, very closely, as you would expect that we would, especially as we continue to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But there is no changes that I'm aware of.
Q: Following the news yesterday that CIO Teri Takai would resign this week, I was wondering if the department had any timeline for replacing her and if -- how many candidates there were.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, let me first say that the secretary appreciates her long and distinguished service and appreciates the work that she did as chief information officer. It's a critical part of this department and a critical capability that we've got to continue to improve.
There's been no decisions yet made about her replacement. Obviously, we want to get somebody permanently installed as soon as possible, but I don't have any announcements for that right now today, and I don't have a specific timeline I can give you.
Q: Where does that leave the department's technology -- outreach with the defense industry, with the resignation of Takai and with her deputy, Rob Carey, last month, and a series of other departures?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think we're -- I mean, I don't foresee there's going to be any drop-off or degradation of our coordination and relationship with industry as a result of this. Ms. Takai has done a great job in that regard, and the real measure of a leader's success is -- is how well the organization goes on when you're not there. And I think she's worked very hard to make sure that that kind of collaboration can continue, and we look forward to that. I don't see any degradation as a result.
Q: Can you shed any further light on why she stepped down or comment on any...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, this is a personal decision. And I think she made it very clear in -- you know, in her e-mail that, you know, this is -- you know, she wants to pursue other opportunities. She's been grateful for the time. We've been grateful for her and for her leadership, and I would just leave it at that. That's something for Ms. Takai to speak to. And again, I think she already -- she already did quite eloquently in her e-mail to her staff.
Q: But do you expect to fill the role within a week or so, or...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Again, I've got no timeline on this. I mean, we -- obviously, we'd like somebody in the job as soon as possible. The secretary knows it's an important job, wants to fill it, wants to fill it with the right person. It's more important that we get, you know, the right talent in there than we do it quickly. So there's no timeline. But the secretary will fill it just as soon as possible.
Q: (OFF-MIC) there were reports out that the United States has evidence -- recordings, I guess it is -- of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine being managed by officials from Moscow. I'm wondering if you're able to either confirm that or comment on your understanding of Russian involvement inside Ukraine.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, again, I'm loath to get into any kind of intelligence issues here from the podium. But regardless of what you call them, what uniforms they're wearing, clearly, there are what we would consider irregular elements that are influenced -- at the very least influenced by -- by Moscow inside Ukraine.
And that's one of the issues that Secretary Hagel raised with Minister Shoygu yesterday. It's an influence we'd like to see stop. It's an influence that is only further fomenting the pro-Russian separatists that were already in Ukraine, fomenting and fostering the violence that they're committing. And again, Secretary Hagel was pretty clear that we expect that behavior to stop.
Q: What was the response to that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think minister -- I think it's safe to say that Minister Shoygu held a different view about -- about who those individuals are and who they're working for.
Q: Well, he disputed the characterization?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think he held a different view than -- than what -- than what we do, but -- but, look, I mean, I grew up in Florida. If it looks like an alligator, it's an alligator. So -- yeah?
Q: Just to follow up on that, on these irregular forces, could -- are these Russian special forces -- they're so-called, their Spetsnaz?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to, you know -- I can't define exactly what units they're from or who they are. And I think General Breedlove was pretty clear about that. I mean, they -- regardless of who they are, let's just put that aside for a minute. I mean, they certainly don't behave like anything other than well- trained professional individuals. They move and they act, they communicate very much like armed forces or military members would.
So call them what you will. Put them in whatever uniform you want. It's clear that they are having a dangerous, violent influence inside eastern Ukraine, and the indications are that they are influenced -- at the very least, influenced by Moscow. And, again, we've been very clear that that -- that behavior needs to stop. It's not doing anything to destabilize [SIC: de-escalate] the situation inside Ukraine, and it does nothing to preserve the territorial integrity or the sovereignty of that country and that country's people.
Q: Two quick questions. This summer's exercises, will the United States Army be sending its NATO response force, the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry divisions?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any plans to do that, Tony. I'm not aware of any specific plans to do that. I've got nothing to announce on that right now. But we have talked about making sure that we look at ways to improve and sustain the readiness of the NATO response force.
Q: The RD-180 engine, the -- from Russia with engine issue, what's the status of the Air Force's review...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The -- what'd you call it?
Q: From Russia with rocket engine issue.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: From Russia -- (Laughter.) -- I'm aware that the Air Force has completed a 45-day review of that program. That review is working its way through the chain of command. It has not reached the secretary's desk. He's looking forward to getting that and to receiving Air Force recommendations about how to move forward with the program, and I think I'd leave it at that.
Q: Can you -- are there any emerging, broad conclusions that the United States is really -- dependent, too dependent on this engine, given the geopolitical...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I think that's part of -- I think that's part of the Air Force's review. And, again, the secretary looks forward to seeing that. I'm not going to prejudge what it says. It hasn't gotten up to him yet. And the Air Force is still adjudicating the review that they've completed. So let's let the review work its way through the chain, give the secretary time to digest it, and then, you know, if we have something new to announce about the program, we will.
Q: One quick follow-up. Any indications that the Russians are thinking of retaliating by cutting off the supply of those engines in light of the sanctions?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think that's a question you'd need to ask Moscow. I'm not aware of anything, but that's not a question for us to answer.
Q: Fair enough.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah?
Q: Rear Admiral Kirby, I just wanted to clarify something about the hair policy review that you announced. Is that a broad review? Or is it narrowly focused on hairstyles for African-American women?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I believe -- let me go back and look at the memo so that I'm not guessing here. Yeah, it's specifically about appropriate servicemember hairstyles and, in particular, about hairstyles worn by African-American women in the military.
Okay, thanks, everybody.