GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon.
We'll open up just with a quick preview of the secretary's trip to El Paso. As you all know, he'll be headed there tomorrow, we’ll spend part of the day on Friday in El Paso also, visiting Fort Bliss. He's looking forward to meeting with troops at Bliss and their families. He looks forward to thanking local community leaders for their support of the military and thanking them for their efforts to reintegrate returning veterans into the community.
With that, we'll -- we'll take your questions. Bob.
Q: George, on the matter of the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist, the U.S. government today has denied having anything to do with that. I'm wondering whether there's any anticipation of escalating tensions in the Gulf as a result of this. And has there been any added U.S. -- or any U.S. forces being added in the Gulf?
MR. LITTLE: The United States played no role whatsoever in the killing of this scientist.
And as to the broader question of tensions, we have been very clear that we seek to lower the temperature on tensions with Iran, and we think that things have calmed down a bit in recent days.
CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY: There's been no change to force posture in the Gulf region as a result of this incident.
Q: Can you say how many carriers are in the Gulf region at the moment? And are there any in the Gulf presently?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, there's -- the Stennis, as you know, just recently left the -- actually the Arabian Gulf proper. She's still in the 5th Fleet AOR, as well as her -- the ships of her strike group.
Q: And are there other carrier strike groups in the AOR?
CAPT. KIRBY: There is a -- there is an -- what's that?
Q: (Off mic.)
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, there's another strike group inside the 5th Fleet AOR, the USS Carl Vinson, yeah.
Q: One other, then?
CAPT. KIRBY: One other strike group, yeah, but not in the Gulf proper.
Q: Is this going to lead to a buildup in the region?
CAPT. KIRBY: That's -- no, I mean, there are -- there are -- the numbers of carrier strike groups that are attached to the 5th Fleet and to the CENTCOM AOR changes all the time. But right now -- and it's been consistently that way. They've been -- they've had a two- carrier presence for quite a while. This is not -- the fact that there are two carriers in that AOR is not an indication of anything specific with respect to Iran.
Q: But isn't it -- isn't it an increase from just recently?
CAPT. KIRBY: It does fluctuate from time to time, yeah.
Q: The Stennis was there by itself for some time, wasn't it?
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, there's always times when -- I mean, it's not like -- it's not like there's always a given number there. As you know, carriers rotate and come and go. And so you'll have a time when -- if, for instance, you're trying to keep two carriers around in that region, where you might get down to one just because one has to go home, and it may take a little while before the next one comes in to relieve it. So it does go up and down, but it's based on overall broad requirements in the region that the Central Command commander sets and establishes, not necessarily, you know, driven by a specific incident.
Q: A goal of two? Is that --
CAPT. KIRBY: Right now there -- right now there are two assigned to the CENTCOM AOR.
MR. LITTLE: Tom.
Q: Yeah, if I could follow on that, you know, you say that the tensions have calmed down a bit, which is great. But the Iranians have made threats about what they would do with if the carrier again transited the Strait of Hormuz, which is an international waterway. Has a decision been made, and if so, when a carrier will transit that just to assert the free right of passage?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, you know, we don't -- we don't get ahead of ship schedules with respect to that, so I'm not going to get into speculating or commenting about when the next passage through the strait will be by a U.S. aircraft carrier. That said, Tom, as you know, it's an international waterway. It's a key choke point, particularly for the flow of oil in and out of that region. And the United States Navy has and will continue to remain a force in that region to help protect the free flow of commerce in international waters.
MR. LITTLE: (Name inaudible.)
Q: To clarify, when was the Vinson ordered to the CENTCOM AOR -- (inaudible)?
CAPT. KIRBY: It's a long-standing deployment. I couldn't give you the exact date. But, I mean, this is routine. Her deployment to the area is routine, long planned. She worked up and prepared for it. There's nothing unusual about this.
Q: So it predates the recent tensions --
CAPT. KIRBY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Q: But is having two carriers in the 5th Fleet AOR now a sort of requirement since the drawdown from Iraq? Is that a new requirement or --
CAPT. KIRBY: No.
Q: So there's -- I guess maybe the question is, is it a requirement? I mean, are there going to be two carriers in the region sort of permanently now, you know, for the indeterminate future?
CAPT. KIRBY: That's what we're operating -- that's the posture we're operating under right now. But it can and probably will change over time. It does frequently. I mean, I've been -- I've seen us have a one-carrier presence for lengthy periods, and then it will go up to one and a half or -- and, you know, now we've got two. But, I mean, it's not -- it's based on requirements set by the combatant commander and what he believes the needs are.
So, I mean, I'm not going to get -- I wouldn't speculate about, you know, how long we're going to have that kind of a presence and, you know -- because it could -- it could change within months or it could not.
Q: Now are there any plans to go to three-carrier -- (off mic)?
CAPT. KIRBY: None that I'm aware of.
Q: (Off mic.)
CAPT. KIRBY: None that I'm aware of.
Q: Just another follow-up. You said that the Vinson is going to replace the Stennis. But given the recent tensions, will -- the John Stennis Carrier Group will stay longer in the AOR than previously planned?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know of any changes to her deployment schedule, no.
Q: Captain Kirby, isn't actually in fact two carriers in the Gulf? And you say it's the requirement, but it -- wasn't it something like, to be bureaucratic, 1.5 to 1.7, and that was the requirement, and now it has been upped? When did General Mattis get approval to go to two carriers?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know. I don't -- I don't have that.
Q: (Off mic.)
CAPT. KIRBY: No. I don't -- again, I don't know when that decision was made. We'll try to get you some better clarity on that. But you know, I think it's -- look, it's important for everybody to understand that we have -- we have long maintained a naval presence in that part of the world, and --
Q: But you --
CAPT. KIRBY: No, wait. Let me finish.
And that presence changes all the time. It fluctuates based on needs and requirements set by the combatant commander and approved by the Joint Staff and the secretary of defense.
And as you all know, I mean, to get an aircraft carrier strike group anywhere in the world takes time. It takes a lot of planning and training. Months of advance work is done. It's not -- I don't want to leave anybody with the impression that, you know, we're somehow zorching two carriers over there because we're concerned about what happened, you know, today in Iran. It's just not the case. This is -- this is just prudent force posture requirements set by the combatant commander.
Q: But in fact it's sporadic, at best, when you're able to put two carriers there. We are told that rather than the question being when did -- is the Vinson coming in, to use your word, scorching, I -- or zorching or whatever --
CAPT. KIRBY: "Zorching,” I think, is what I said --
Q: Zorching, you said. (Laughter.)
MR. LITTLE: It’s a technical term -- (inaudible) -- learning.
Q: -- Mr. Secretary, I need to get back to that -- (laughs) -- it is that the Stennis is going to stay, and these will not turn over perhaps for many, many weeks to come.
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into the individual ships' schedules. I don't -- I think you can understand why it wouldn't be prudent for us to do that. And again, these ships are available to the Central Command commander for his entire area of responsibility. Ok, it doesn't mean that -- that doesn't mean that they're going to be parked inside the Arabian Gulf for the entire time that they're deployed.
Q: And just to be clear, does the United States have a commitment to send a carrier back into the -- through the Strait of Hormuz at some point? Will you do that? Will the U.S. military --
CAPT. KIRBY: We routinely operate our ships, all of our ships -- or all of our types of ships inside the Arabian Gulf, and that will continue.
MR. LITTLE: John.
Q: Yesterday at a think tank event, Admiral Greenert said that the U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific wouldn't increase, which seems to contradict the latest strategic guidance. And then this morning Admiral Locklear said that the U.S. naval presence in Europe and the Med would actually increase over the next decade. So one, are their assertions correct in terms of the force posture? And two, how do you reconcile that with the strategic guidance if what they said is accurate?
MR. LITTLE: I haven't seen Admiral Locklear's comments. And we're not here to make any announcements on force posture elsewhere in the world. But I -- what I will say is that we will maintain a commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. We've said repeatedly that we're a Pacific nation and we're a Pacific power. We intend to project U.S. military leadership in the region. We have an arc of interests and alliances that stretches from Japan to India, and we will protect those interests and alliances.
We don't have any specific announcements to make today about force posture. But you know, that's, you know, something we'll do in the -- in the coming weeks perhaps as the decisions get rolled down.
CAPT. KIRBY: And I think, you know, a focus on an area doesn't have to rely simply on force -- fixed force posture at a number of bases or a number of troops. I mean, all of our forces are expeditionary and rotational, and I -- and I would fully expect that you're going to -- you know, we're going to shift the focus to the Asia-Pacific region, and you're going to see -- you'll see that borne out in rotational deployments and exercises and routine operations.
That doesn't mean that you can -- you can still meet that requirement that the president made very clear without necessarily adding to your bottom line of troops with -- that are actually living in the region.
Does that make sense?
CAPT. KIRBY: Their rotational presence.
Q: (Off mic) -- on this Strait of Hormuz issue, do you take Iran's warning to close the Strait of Hormuz seriously? I know the United States Navy has the capability to open or reopen the Strait of Hormuz; do you know if Iran has the capability to close it?
CAPT. KIRBY: I think -- I think Chairman Dempsey said it well on "Face the Nation" Sunday. They certainly have that ability to do it for limited amounts of time. It is a -- you know, you look at a map and you can see: It's not a very wide waterway; it's a narrow chokepoint, which is why it's so vital. And so using access denial capabilities, yes, it could be -- it could be closed temporarily, but only temporarily.
And we're very comfortable with the capabilities that we have and we maintain and the partnerships and the commitments we have in the region. We're very comfortable that we will be able to meet those requirements and those commitments.
Q: That means do you think they are serious in what they are saying? They're not bluffing?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I think you need to talk to the Iranian leadership about the seriousness of their intent. We take all threats to our partners and our relationships and our commitments in the region seriously.
Q: Can I ask you about -- two questions about Pakistan and Egypt separately. On Pakistan, do you have any comment about the firing of the defense secretary, the second in command in the military there, and the military's comment, apparently in a statement on their website, that this would lead to grievous -- quote/unquote, "grievous consequences?"
And on Egypt, have there been any further interactions with the military there since the NGO raids earlier this month? Apparently, that issue is still not resolved. And has there been further contact at the high levels here in the building with Egypt?
MR. LITTLE: First, on Pakistan, I wouldn't comment on what's happening inside, you know, the Pakistani political system with respect to jobs that are being left or taken.
In terms of Egypt, I'm unaware of any further contacts beyond those that occurred recently between, for instance, the secretary and Field Marshal Tantawi on the NGO issue. But we continue to monitor the situation, and it's a very important one to get right. And we hope that the Egyptians, of course, do the right thing. We understand that they have taken steps to improve the situation with respect to NGOs, and that's something of importance to the United States.
Q: On Pakistan, has there been any call -- any further calls since that first week from this building to -- I mean -- I'm sorry. Have there been any calls related to the latest developments there in Pakistan? And how concerned are you about the stability of the military structure there?
MR. LITTLE: My understanding is that Chairman Dempsey has been in contact with General Kayani.
It was a productive and professional conversation. I'm not going to get into the details. But that call has taken place.
Q: When was that?
MR. LITTLE: Within recent days. You'd have to check with the chairman's spokesman on that for specifics. But that is a call that happened recently.
The important thing with Pakistan is for us to continue that dialogue at all levels. We have an important military-to-military relationship with Pakistan, and we know that we've hit bumps in the road over the past several months. We hope to improve the relationship and get back to a place where we can cooperate vigorously on a range of matters. There are a number of issues of common concern that we share, and to include counterterrorism. So -- and a range of other issues. So we look forward to improving the state of our relationship with our Pakistani partners.
Q: (Off mic) -- doesn't this -- isn't this another bump in the road? Does this mean more delay in repairing that relationship, this sacking of this defense minister?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to speculate on how this internal Pakistani political development may or may not impact the relationship with the United States. We have relationships, you know, in many places inside the Pakistani government. So I wouldn't want to suggest that one data point makes a trend.
CAPT. KIRBY: I would just say -- I would just add to that, one thing I can tell you it doesn't do is it doesn't change our commitment to try to move the relationship forward.
Q: Could I follow up on that briefly? Have you sought or received any assurances from the Pakistani military or Pakistani military leaders that they're not interested in staging a coup? Do you have assurances? Have you sought any assurances?
CAPT. KIRBY: I'm not aware that we've sought any assurances, and I couldn't -- and I -- and I don't think we're aware that we've been -- we've been given any. This is a matter for Pakistani officials and the -- and government leaders there, military and civilian, to work out.
MR. LITTLE: Mike.
Q: In a comparatively short time, I think about 18 months, two young U.S. Army soldiers, both of them intelligence analysts, both highly secured -- a high security clearance -- have been charged with very serious offenses, one, you know, with virtually disclosing thousands of classified documents, and the other with -- of planning to join a terrorist organization. I wonder whether, one, the Pentagon is concerned about that fact, and two, whether there is any particular concern within the U.S. Army, within the Pentagon, about the age of these particular people in such a responsible job.
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't -- I don't really have anything on that.
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't comment on any particular case or instance, Mike. But broadly speaking, you know, we do take very seriously the concerns about security and, you know, the potential of insider threats coming from within. That's something that we have taken -- there are policies in place. There are procedures to try and prevent these kinds of things from happening. And you know, we'll continue to try to improve our ability to prevent security breaches and to prevent behavior that's inconsistent with behavior that should occur inside the U.S. military.
Q: The age factor -- is that also being raised as a possible -- both of them 24 at the time, I think?
MR. LITTLE: I don't think that I can diagnose anything based on age from this podium.
MR. LITTLE: Yes.
Q: (Off mic) -- follow up -- (off mic) -- the follow up is, with the start of these drone flights, do you see an improvement in relationship with Pakistan? Any updates on NATO supply routes? And the second, the question is that, in the recent review presented by President Obama and the defense secretary, it was highlighted that you are going to help India and cooperate to -- for it to become a provider of security in the Indian Ocean and the region; what exactly is happening on that? Like, is it a financial cooperation, military cooperation? If you can give some details about that.
MR. LITTLE: First, we're not going to comment on reports of specific counterterrorism operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. What I can say is that the United States remains very committed to continuing efforts to damage al-Qaida and its militant allies. That remains a top national security priority for the United States. Al-Qaida and its militant allies threaten the United States, they threaten our allies, and they threaten Pakistan as well.
When it comes to the ground lines of communication, the G-LOCs, those have not been reopened, but we do believe that we have sufficient stores in place, inside Afghanistan, to provide for a very successful war fighting effort in Afghanistan.
As you know, General Allen has done a terrific job working with his team to manage the levels of supplies and, of course, we have the Northern Distribution Network to use as well.
Anything you can put down on that?
CAPT. KIRBY: No, not at all.
On your question on India, I mean, we have and certainly hope to continue a very strong relationship with the Indian military. They are -- they are -- they are contributing to issues in Afghanistan in a very constructive way, whether it's training or economic assistance, and we certainly want to see that continue.
And I think we -- broadly across the U.S. government, we want to continue to pursue a close relationship with India. I mean, they're a major economic power, not only in the region but in the world. And as I said, they have -- they have interests in what's going on there in South and Central Asia, and we respect those interests and we want to continue that close cooperation.
Q: It was very prominently mentioned in the review about this, that -- so is there any -- and it said the provider of security, so what exactly was behind that sentence?
CAPT. KIRBY: I think it's referring to, as I said, the role that India continues to play in the region, economically and from a security perspective, but also, in particular, inside Afghanistan.
MR. LITTLE: We have time for one or two more questions. Jennifer?
Q: What are you going to do with the Somali pirates who are onboard the Stennis right now?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know. I think they're working through that right now.
Q: What does the law say you have to do? Or is there any law or is it unwritten? Or --
CAPT. KIRBY: They're working through the process right now. I mean, as you know, it's not the first time that we've detained them temporarily aboard ship. You -- that's not, obviously, a long-term solution. In the past, we have looked for and found some third-party country willing to take them. And so they're -- again, they're working through that right now. I just don't have a good answer for you.
MR. LITTLE: And --
Q: Is it possible they could be turned over to Iran? Is that even under consideration?
CAPT. KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of, Mik . Not that I'm aware of.
MR. LITTLE: And the final question goes to Louie. And I would remind everyone that we also have an Army, Marine Corps -- (chuckles) -- Air Force and the Coast Guard. A lot of Navy today.
Q: I just want to ask you about the White House planning to send officers to South Sudan. Can you tell us what will be the expectation of them? And are there plans to send more than this initial team?
MR. LITTLE: I'm unaware of any plans to send more than this additional team at this point, but these U.S. military officers have been assigned to a U.N. mission in the South Sudan and they're going to work in concert with international partners to try to engage in peace operations in that new country.
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, I mean the initiative's really to help -- as South Sudan begins, you know, to stand itself up -- to help with governance, rule of law and civil affairs. And that's what these five individuals are experts at, those kinds of things -- logistics, civil affairs -- those kinds of things. And that's -- you know, right now that's the limit of the involvement of these -- these five individuals.
It may change over time. We contribute to U.N. missions in several other places all over the world, so this is not unusual.
Q: Was the action as the result of a request from South Sudan to --
CAPT. KIRBY: It's part of the -- it's part of the -- well, it's our -- meeting our commitments and responsibilities to the U.N., is what this is. And again, this is not a combat mission whatsoever. These five individuals are there to help with this new country as they stand up.
MR. LITTLE: All right. Thank you, everyone. Appreciate it.