SEC. GATES: I promise to be very brief because what I’d like to do is take a few questions. I might or might not be able to answer them, but you can ask them. And then the main thing I want to do when we’re done here is thank each and every one of you personally, shake your hand, give photographs, give you a coin, just tell you how much I appreciate you and your families for supporting you here. I thank you for coming, but I suspect that not all of you are volunteers here, so anyway, thanks for being out here.
I always look forward to getting out of Washington. In fact, any good day is a day out of Washington. And simply to come here and say thanks and again, I know that your families are sacrificing with you being so far away as well.
I’m back in Korea again this week for a unique event. A few months ago, President Obama and President Lee agreed for the first time to have a meeting here in Seoul, in Seoul of the two countries’ foreign ministers and defense ministers. And so we will have the first Two-plus-Two meeting tomorrow, dealing with a whole range of issues affecting our relationship and figuring out how to take this relationship further in the future.
We’ll cover a bunch of issues, including how to implement the recent decision to adjust OPCON transition to 2015, what we know will call “strategic alliance 2015.” We were scheduled to transfer in April of 2012, but at the request of the Korean government, we agreed to slide the date to 2015 and also make the relationship more robust in terms of exercises, command and control, capabilities, and so on.
I continue to believe that the Koreans are fully capable and a professional military ready to lead the combined defense. But I think this additional time will allow us to make the eventual transfer more wide-ranging and more synchronized and ultimately better for the alliance.
Although these changes and meetings were scheduled long before the Cheonan tragedy, that attack and our collective efforts to prevent another one will certainly also be a part of our bilateral discussions this week. And in fact, I’ll go from here to a meeting in Seoul with Defense Minister Kim, where we will continue our close coordination on a series of military exercises that we’ve scheduled over the next several months. These exercises, above all in the East and West seas - what we would call Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea - some of you may well be participating in and are designed to enhance our interoperability and readiness. But it’s also a strong sign of deterrence or signal of deterrence to the North.
And then tomorrow, Secretary Clinton and I, along with our Korean counterparts, will visit the DMZ to highlight how important operations are there to the security of the peninsula as well as the region, and demonstrate our steadfast commitment to the ROK.
As you probably know, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the ROK-U.S. relationship. The incredible prosperity, freedom, and vitality you see outside the gates of this camp and throughout the South are the result of a steep price paid in blood and treasure by both the United States and Korea and our other allies.
And although you’re far from home and not as much in the headline as what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, I just want you to know we do appreciate your sacrifice here, but also to tell you your vigilance is exceptionally important in one of the most volatile parts of the world.
So on behalf of the president and the American people, I want to look you in the eye and thank you for your continued service. I’ll stop there, take a few questions. If there’re any intrepid souls willing to put their hand up, and then we’ll get on with some pictures and some coins.
So who’s going to be the brave soul that first starts - into the face of the enemy? (Laughter.) Yes.
Q Yes, I’m PFC (inaudible). Sir, I was wondering about the rumors of extending the - sorry - the time you’re spending for your tour to two years. If that’s just a rumor or if it’s true and also if it’s true, are they planning to change - (off mike) - along the lines of vehicles - (off mike) - you can only have one - (off mike).
SEC. GATES: Yes, there is - I approved a couple of years ago - I have to get the specifics from General Sharp, but approved a couple of years ago the idea of tour normalization here in the South. And Skip, if I get this wrong, correct me, but what we’re looking at is a two-year tour for single members of the service and three-year for families. We’re proceeding with the first phase in terms of families.
It’s - this is a long term project, in part because of the infrastructure that’s going to have to be built to support the families at Humphreys and the cost and so on. But that is our plan and as we go to tour normalization with families, I think issues like you’re raising in terms of vehicles and so on will all be raised - addressed, but the idea is - this forever has been a remote assignment in terms of not having families. And we think the circumstances are such, even after events like the Cheonan and so on that this is a place where American families would be comfortable and would be safe and make the service of our men and women in uniform more bearable and easier on the families.
GEN SHARP: Sir, to that point, the change that you made two years ago has brought us from about 1,600 families here in Korea to today we have over 4,200 families. And in fact, sir, even up here in Second Infantry Division, they have about 600 families that are command sponsored right now. But to be able to address the issues that you’re talking about, we’re looking at that and making sure that we build the infrastructure in order to be able to have even more families come to the point where we can eventually allow all families to come to get to about 14,000 families here.
Thank you, sir.
SEC. GATES: Yes, sir?
Q (Inaudible) - counterparts would like to ask, is there any revelation about - (inaudible).
SEC GATES: I’m sorry?
Q Is there any revelation about our Marines going to patrol caps, or berets?
SEC. GATES: First I’ve heard of it. (Laughter.) They don’t tell me these things. (Laughter.)
Got some in the back here.
Q My name is Private Rogers and my - (inaudible) - article in USA Today with General Casey basically speaking about the possibility of going to a nine-month deployment in a combat zone, that way when soldiers return home that they’re able to spend more time with their families based on a 24 or 36-month rest period. What’s the possibility of that happening?
SEC. GATES: Well, that certainly is General Casey’s goal. His goal is to have one year deployed and three years at home for the Army. We have a ways to go to get there. Our first goal is to get the one to two. And one of the reasons that the Army has had 12 months tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in contrast to the Marine Corps and the Navy and the Air Force and so on, among other things it’s just been the logistics, trying to move as many forces as the Army had in Iraq and Afghanistan on nine-month centers has just been beyond our capability.
I think that what General Casey is hoping for is that stress on the force comes down with the drawdowns in Iraq - and we will be down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of August. And as we put a limit - as we reach the authorized strength in Afghanistan, that then let’s get to one to two and then move toward one to three. And I know that it is his goal that once we’re not involved in these two wars simultaneously to be able to get to nine-month deployments, which would obviously be a lot easier on troops and their families.
I would say the first goal is to get to one-year deployed, two years at home, and then we can probably look at moving to nine-month tours. But I won’t kid you. I think it’s still - I think it’s still a ways away. The first thing is to get everybody two years at home first.
Yes, right over here.
SEC. GATES: That’s a very good question and I think you would have to ask most of the state legislators that. I’ve often - the question in Vietnam was how come at 18 you’re old enough - actually during Vietnam, you were old enough to be sent to war and you were old enough to drink, but you couldn’t vote. And now, you can vote at 18 and you can enlist at 17 or 18, but you can’t drink. And those are basically the rules that the states and Congress have imposed on us. And frankly I don’t see much prospect that they’re going to change. I understand the frustration.
Yes, ma’am, right here.
Q I was wondering about your views on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and what’s the progress of that being relieved?
SEC. GATES: Well, the president has said that he wants the policy changed. It is the law, and so it requires an act of Congress to change the law. It has passed the Senate at this point, but it remains to be seen. In the meantime, we are carrying out this review of the entire military because I think as we - if we move down this road, if the law changes and we’re told to implement it, and we will if the law changes, then how do we do this in a way that makes sense? How do we identify beforehand the problems, the issues, the challenges that we’re going to face, the kind of training requirements we’re going to need, the kinds of changes in regulations, the impact on benefits, all these things need to be addressed in advance. And that’s where we want to hear from you all.
And just statistically some of you have to have gotten the questionnaire we sent out, since we sent it to 200,000 members of the active force and 200,000 members of the reserve component. But it’s very important for us to hear from you your views on this and particularly the challenges and issues, or your support or your opposition for that matter, because we just need - we need a better understanding of how to do this smart.
I’ve told the Congress - I’ve been pretty blunt with them - there’re two ways to carry out change. There’s a smart way and there’s a stupid way. And I’m determined that if we’re going to - if a law changes and we carry out this change, I’m determined that we do it smart and in a way that has the least possible impact on our force, on our families, and on unit cohesion.
I would also say that my hope had been that the Congress would wait on legislation until after we’d heard from you all, in the hope that it might actually help shape the legislation. They haven’t - they didn’t - the House and Senate didn’t do that, but they also have put in the law in such a way that we will be able to complete this review and do all the things necessary for smart implementation if the law changes without constraints of time. So I think the compromise that they came up with was not my preferred option, but it is an option I think we can work with because it won’t rush us to do something stupid.
Maybe one more? Yes, sir.
Q Can you tell us more about the exercise?
SEC. GATES: Well, the general was just briefing me on that on the way up here in helicopter. It’s going to be a pretty big exercise. I think altogether about 18 ships, 10 U.S., eight South Korean, a lot of aircraft, and there’re going to be anti-submarine warfare operations. There’ll be aircraft operations using the Air Force training range. So it’s going to be a large exercise and a pretty broad-ranged exercise.
Okay, let’s get some pictures.