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DOD News Briefing with George Little

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little
April 03, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  I have no announcements to make today, so I will go straight to your questions. 

            Yes, sir.   

            Q:  Yes.  Thank you. 

            Or, Bob -- 

            Q:  No, no, please. 

            Q:  OK.  Thank you.   

            MR. LITTLE:  You all can vie for your place, if you want. 

            Q:  My question is as far as opening the doors of Pakistan's -- the supply route to Afghanistan for the U.S., Secretary Panetta also spoke very clearly about this, that Pakistan is now sending a mixed signal rather than a clear policy or clear -- what they want.   

            But what Pakistan is saying -- that really that if the civilian government opens the route for the U.S. for supply and they have threats from the religious organizations and terrorist organizations that if they -- if the civilian government opens the route, then they will march to Islamabad -- and so what's happening?  What's going on?  

            And also, ongoing violence in Karachi also is a threat to the stability in Pakistan. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, let me break apart that question into a couple of answers, if I may.  First, with respect to the ground supply routes into Afghanistan, we remain hopeful that those routes will be reopened in the near future, and discussions with the Pakistanis continue on a range of issues.  General Allen and General Mattis had a very good session with General Kayani and other Pakistani officials recently, and we look forward to future discussions.   

            As I've said on repeated occasion to all of you, the relationship with Pakistan remains very important to the United States and we're always looking for ways to explore further cooperation.  And it's important to recognize that cooperation does continue on a variety of fronts, and that includes the issue of counterterrorism and also coordination along the border with Afghanistan. 

            So we think that we are -- the relationship is settling and, even though we've been through a rocky period, we can get through it. 

            On the issue of terrorism, the Pakistanis have been the victims of very devastating violence inflicted by terrorists, so we share a common cause in thwarting al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that are operating in the region, and we're going to continue to try to work closely with our Pakistani counterparts to prevent terrorist attacks against Pakistani interests, against American interests and those of our allies. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- quickly, that if Secretary Panetta has said that Pakistan think or Pakistanis told him that India's a threat to Pakistan.  That's why maybe this problem is going on. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not quite sure -- 

            Q:  If Secretary Panetta has said in his interviews or in his remarks, I believe, that Pakistanis told him that India is a threat to Pakistan. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into private discussions that the secretary may or may not have had at various points.  But everyone recognizes that there have been tensions in that region for some time. We recognize those, and we believe that -- and to the extent that we can do so, we will -- we'll try to forge our greater cooperation to prevent unintended consequences of historic tensions from creating greater conflict. 

            Barbara. 

            Q:  George, why -- can you walk us through why the coalition and the United States is negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government right now governing how night raids are conducted in the war in Afghanistan?  Why are you doing it?  Why is it important?  And then I want to ask you a follow-up, since you brought up the Allen-Mattis meeting. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.  Well, first, on the issue of night raids, this has been a concern of the Afghan government for some time.  We recognize that.  We recognize the effectiveness as well that night operations have had over time.  And that's why we're working through an agreement with our Afghan partners.  We believe we're making progress in heading toward an agreement on this and a broad range of other issues. 

            It's important to recognize too, Barbara that at this point in time we're working hand in hand -- ISAF forces are working hand in hand with our Afghan partners on night operations, and they are highly effective.  And many of them don't take place with a shot being fired. 

            So we're working closely with our Afghan partners.  We're making progress.  And that's reflective, I think, of the progress we're making overall. 

            Q:  Right, but what I don't understand, and maybe you can explain, is why do you -- if they're working and they're effective, why do you need an agreement?  What is the -- if you can't say what's in it, which I'm assuming you can't, what is the scope of it? 

            What it is intended to address? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I wouldn't get into the scope of a prospective agreement and get out ahead of what actually may come out on paper at the end of the day.   

            But there are agreements that we make with our Afghan partners and our -- and other partners around the world all the time when there are concerns expressed, when they want to determine how particular operations are going to move forward into the future.  And it's important to realize that this will be, at the end of the day, something that they're responsible for -- when we move toward an enduring presence as part of our -- the transition process, and codifying that, we think, could benefit Afghanistan, the United States and our coalition partners. 

            Q:  I'm sorry -- (inaudible). 

            MR. LITTLE:  It makes sense. 

            Q:  This is -- this is post-2014, or would it go into effect -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into timing at this stage.  I'm merely pointing out the fact that creating a template for giving the Afghans more responsibility for their own security, to include in certain operations, is, we think, something that is a sign of progress.  And again, without getting into timing, that cooperation is essential, and we're going to work with them to try to help move the transition process forward. 

            Q:  Do you expect U.S. forces to maintain a role in night operations? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get out ahead of what may or may not be in an agreement. 

            Jim. 

            Q:  You mentioned early on that you're doing these night operations -- (inaudible) -- with the Afghan allies.  Do you have a percentage?  Do you happen to know how many of these operations are done with Afghans participating? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Jim, it's not an insignificant number.  I don't have the precise number for you, but I can definitely assure you that we’re working hand in hand with our Afghan partners on this and a wide range of other operations, and they are having an effect. 

            Q:  Do you think it's more than half?

            MR. LITTLE:  We'll get back to you on that since I don't have a precise number, but I think it's in the ballpark. 

            Q:  OK.  Great.  Thanks. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.)  Regarding North Korean planned missile launch, what do you assess could be the worst-case scenario?  And what can the Pentagon do to prevent that worst- case scenario? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I'm not going to get into speculation on scenarios. The important thing, we believe, is to emphasize with our partners around the world that the North Koreans should not violate their international obligations by conducting a missile launch, which they have announced they might do.  So the focus at this point is on reinforcing to the North Koreans that this is something that the international community objects to. 

            Q:  Can I follow on that, George?  There's reports out of South Korea that the North Koreans are working on an even bigger missile than the Taepo Dong II, there are suggestions that there's satellite imagery out there, and that this bigger missile could have a range that could reach the U.S.   

            Do you have any evidence that they're working on such a missile, and any comment no that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'll have to take a look at those press reports coming out of the region, but I would just merely say that this is something we're working with our partners on.  The secretary had a very good phone call with his Japanese counterpart this morning.  And this is, you know, an issue of importance, we realize, to the United States, to our partners in the region.  And the main point, again, is to try to emphasize very clearly to the North Koreans that they have international obligations that they must uphold. 

            Q:  At this point, what is your assessment of their longest range in terms of their missile? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah, so I'm not going to get into those specifics, Justin.  But you know, again, we're monitoring all of this very closely. 

            Q:  Quick follow-up? 

            Q:  What specifically is the U.S. military doing to prepare for this rocket launch?  Are you moving any assets into the region? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into specifics.  But we, along with our partners in the region, are monitoring developments very closely.  And that's where I'll leave it. 

            Q:  And does the U.S. -- (inaudible) -- provide food aid to the North Korea even if the missile launching? 

            MR. LITTLE:  On the issue of food aid, I would ask that you touch base with the State Department.  But without commenting specifically on food aid, I would say that, you know, North Korea, you know, must do the right thing.  And that's what we're calling on them to do.  And we are asking that they not move forward with a violation of their international obligations.  And that's something that we just -- we can't countenance. 

            Q:  (Off mic.) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes, ma'am. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.) 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.    

            Q:  Yeah, South Korean long-range missile went 1,000 kilometers. U.S. and South Korea do compromise -- did that issue? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm sorry.  Say that again. 

            Q:  The Koreans with the missile -- long-range missile distance, 1,000 kilometers, upgraded to South Korean missile range. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Uh-huh.  Well, we're -- I'm not going to get into the -- into specifics on that.  But obviously, we are, you know, in constant dialogue with our Republic of Korea allies on ways of shoring up their capabilities.  And we continue to work closely with them.  We have an unwavering commitment to the defense of South Korea, and we are going to continue to work closely with our allies. 

            Yeah.  OK, yeah. 

            Q:  Yeah, I'd -- George, I wanted to see if you could comment on reports coming out of Canada regarding the Joint Strike Fighter program. 

            Apparently, there was an audit general report saying that costs were basically under assumed, I guess, and there is now reconsideration of the country's participation in the effort.  One, yeah, can you comment on the report?  And two, what would the effect be if Canada would have if it were to leave the program? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary had a very positive meeting recently in Ottawa, as you know, trilateral discussions with our Canadian allies and the government of Mexico as well.  And you probably saw Minister MacKay speak publicly to this issue and represent the government of Canada's views on the F-35. 

            I'm not going to speak for our Canadian allies, obviously, but what I can say is that we are strongly committed to the F-35.  We believe the design is showing great potential and that it can deliver the needed advanced capability for the U.S. and for our international partners.  We remain focused on completing development and testing so that we can put the aircraft in service, and for a long time. 

            We believe we're making significant strides on the F-35.  Yes, there have been issues in the past with respect to development and testing and with respect to cost.  And it's been a priority of this secretary and his leadership team to advance development and testing as well as control costs.  And we believe that we're doing that. 

            I would also say that we're pleased with the emerging appearance of stability in the manufacturing flow at Lockheed-Martin, Pratt & Whitney and in their supplier teams.  Building test aircraft has given way now to beginning deliveries of a low-rate initial production jets. And that's a sign of progress. 

            Q:  George -- 

            Q:  That said -- but with the trouble that Canadians are having, the British are considering dropping their buys of the program.  What does that say to the international partners for the program?  I mean, it seems like they're running into a lot of difficulties, aside from the difficulties that have been going on: on the U.S. side. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, without speaking to or about or for other countries, we realize that there are certain pressures right now, including budget pressures, in certain parts of the world.  But the important issue remains that this is a fifth-generation advanced strike fighter.  And it's important, we believe, not only to the security of the United States, but to the capabilities of our partners as well.  And we are committed to this program. 

            And we have made progress.  It has had issues from time to time. But we are -- believe that we will get over the goal line with F-35. We're moving into production, and this is a clear sign that even though there have been issues in the past, that we can move beyond them. 

            Tony . 

            Q:  Just to follow up, the program office -- (inaudible) -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  You would never have an F-35 question.   

            Q:  I might have a Kentucky question. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.  All right.    I'll go for that one. 

            Q:  Yeah.  (Inaudible) -- almost didn't cover the spread, but --   On the F-35, the program manager on Friday acknowledged that there is about 9 percent growth in the overall program from 1.3 trillion (dollars), which is a hell of a lot, to 1.51 trillion (dollars), which is a lot.  Nine percent, in relative terms, that's a lot of money for that program.  But is it -- are you -- is the DOD concerned at that amount of growth at this point?  Or are you looking at that as, hey, it could have been worse, and this is -- this shows some signs of stability? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We do believe that we're achieving stability over time with respect to development and testing and with respect to cost. 

            We continue to address the issue of the large overlap of testing and production, and -- you know, and the concurrency issue.  And making critical changes to aircraft after accepting the cost burden -- you know, for instance, that is challenging. 

            As you know, there's a new lot, Lot 5, that begins a business arrangement that shares this burden with industry in future years -- will continue until discovery from testing recedes.  So I think this is something that we have to get our arms around, where we're serious about cost control.  The secretary has asked very emphatically that we try to tighten up, especially as we look to a constrained defense budget going forward.  And he believes that we're settling down, I think. 

            Q:  This recent cost increase of 9 percent, while not great -- you're not seeing it -- there's not -- that's not cause for alarm within OSD? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think that -- look, we don't like to see cost increases.  But no, we're committed to this program.  And we're committed to cost controls.  And we are not -- we are not running to the exits on F-35.  On the contrary, we are running with enthusiasm toward the prospect of putting this airplane into full production, again, for us and for our partners. 

            Q:  You're not saying this is a slam dunk, though, at this point, are you? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I am -- I'm a very happy man these days.  If you're going to use a basketball analogy, given that my team won last night -- a great game, for all you Kansas fans -- don't want to cause problems in the ranks. 

            Q:  George, Ambassador Crocker recently made some comments that suggested there was a greater danger of al-Qaida using Afghanistan to launch 9/11-style attacks on other Western cities.  Have you seen a rise in the number of al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, or has it remained relatively steady? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into specific numbers, Chris, on fighters associated with al-Qaida.  I mean, the important thing to remember about al-Qaida is that even they may -- even though they may be smaller than some other groups in the region, it's about their objectives.  And one of their objectives -- even though they are damaged from serious pressure that's been brought to bear against them, one of their objectives remains to attack the United States and our allies.  So we have to keep the pressure up.  We have to make sure that they don't have the ability to strike us again. 

            And look, if you take their raw numbers, whatever that number may be, they're part of a bad stew of militant groups in the region, and they continue to try to forge relationships with those groups.  Now, some of those relationships have been disrupted, and that's a good thing, obviously.  So we have to -- but we have to keep our eye on the ball.  And we can't continue to -- or we can't let up the pressure. 

            Q:  Well, just -- NATO officials put the number at about a hundred.  But I wasn't asking you for a specific number.  I was saying, has the number remained relatively steady, or have you seen a rise in the number of suspected al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I would probably, you know, ask that you touch base with my colleagues in Afghanistan.  I'm unaware of a steep rise in the number of al-Qaida.  But again, this is about a group that has attacked the United States, and we need to continue to do everything we can to keep up the pressure.  This is -- this is a continuing problem, and again, not just because of al-Qaida, but because of their relationships.  

            And that's why on the Afghan side of the border, we need to continue to put pressure on them and their militant allies, and on the Pakistani side of the border we need to work closely with the Pakistanis to ramp up efforts against them. 

            Q:  George, have ISAF and the Afghans come to an agreement on a number for the ANSF post the 352,000 surge?  And if not, when do you expect an announcement on that number?  And what -- you know, obviously it's going to be lower.  Can you give us a range of anything -- or a specific number? 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's a good question.  I don't have a specific number to provide today.  We are in discussions with our Afghan partners about what the enduring number of ANSF personnel will be and what the funding will be.  I don't have any announcements to make today. 

            What I would say about the ANSF more broadly is that, you know, there's been a lot of discussion recently, and rightfully so, about some tragic and recent incidents, but this is one of the untold success stories, I think, or it's a story that hasn't been told enough, and that's the success of the ANSF.  They are now in the 330,000 range, maybe even higher now, in number, and they're doing great work, on their own and with us and with our allies. 

            And I think that's -- you know, even though we have seen recent incidents that have been problematic, there's an arc of -- over- arching progress that continues to expand.  And this is a testament to our Afghan allies' commitment to taking the fight on themselves, providing for their own security, and we're going to continue to stick with them to try to enhance their capabilities.  This is important. 

            Now, to your question, Justin, will the number be lower at some point?  Maybe.  But that's something for us to work out with the Afghans.  Again, I'm not going to get into the -- into specifics.  We need to have an enduring and sustainable ANSF that can again provide for the security of the Afghan people.  This is about giving the Afghan people responsibility for governing their own country and for providing security for their own citizens. 

            Q:  Do commanders in the field dictate that number?  Or does funding ultimately dictate that final number? 

            MR. LITTLE:  There are a number of factors that go into discussions of this sort.  I'm not going to get into what's part of the calculus, but the important thing is to be able to ensure that the Afghans have a number of ANSF personnel, army and local police, that can sustain the gains that they have made working closely with ISAF forces.  And that's going to be the -- that's going to be the key factor, I think. 

            Are there resource discussions to be had?  Of course.  You can't field a force of hundreds of thousands, potentially, and not look at the resource equation.  So that's going to have to be part of the discussion. 

            But the important principle here is to get the ANSF to where it needs to be, and we think they're moving in absolutely the right direction.  They have worked closely with us, even in the aftermath of recent incidents, and that's something that we're very grateful for and is a sign of the progress they're making. 

            Yes, in the back. 

            Q:  George, is it the position of the department that the aid that was agreed on Syria, the aid that was agreed to last week, that is totally a State Department function? 

            Because it appears that some of the equipment that the opposition will be getting is night-vision equipment, military night-vision equipment. Does the U.S. military have any involvement in that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is a State Department-led effort.  The, I think, $25 million in humanitarian assistance is something that the State Department is managing.  The secretary of state, I believe yesterday, spoke at some length about the nature of this assistance and, I believe, used the word "nonmilitary" at one point.  So I would refer you to her comments. 

            On Syria writ large, we remain very concerned about continuing violence in that country.  We're working closely with our partners in the region to try to determine what can be done.  And again, we believe that -- I would just reiterate the policy of this administration, and that is that President Assad needs to step aside. 

            Yes. 

            Q:  George, the recent commitment of President Obama, President Calderon and Prime Minister Harper in regards to fighting the organized crime implies a new strategy or more resources or training for Mexico and all the countries affected by this tragedy ? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not sure that I have any specific agreements or accords or other instruments of international law to point to.  But what I can say, that it was a remarkably productive discussion, a historic dialogue, the first of its kind to discuss hemispheric security issues, to include narco-trafficking, trafficking in illicit goods and a range of other issues.  So we hope that this dialogue can continue in the future.  We look forward to working with our Canadian and Mexican counterparts to try to set up future forums such as this. 

            And we're always looking for ways to explore deeper cooperation with our allies to the north and south. 

            Courtney. 

            Q:  On the Quran burning incident, has -- there obviously hasn't been a investigation publicly released.  Has Secretary Panetta been briefed on any findings yet?  Or can you update us on where the U.S. and/or the U.S. joint Afghan investigation stands? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The -- this is an incident that we obviously have taken very seriously and have undertaken a deliberate process to investigate.  As I understand it, the investigation is not yet complete, but we're working toward completion.  And beyond that, I don't have anything to report at this stage.  But I'll certainly keep you posted. 

            Q:  So Secretary Panetta has not been updated at all on the progress or any findings or anything like that on this investigation after all this time still? 

            MR. LITTLE:  He has taken, for obvious reasons, a strong interest in the progress of the investigation and where it stands.  I'm not going to get out ahead, though, of what the investigation might yield. Again, this is something that needs to come from Afghanistan first, from our commanders, General Allen there, and then we'll move forward. The -- we understand the concerns that this issue or incident raised, and we're committed to addressing it, and General Allen has in Afghanistan. 

            Q:  But just to be clear, when you say that the investigation is not yet complete, do you mean, though, the U.S.-Afghan joint one, or do you mean the U.S. -- wasn't there a U.S. one -- as well like at 15-6 investigation? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're obviously taking a look at this ourselves. And to my knowledge, that investigation has not been completed.  The -- as far as the joint investigation goes, I'll have to get back to you on that. 

            All right, couple more questions, and then I'll take -- I'll take leave. 

            Q:  Can I follow up on Pakistan? 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  The U.S. had a 10 million (dollar) bounty on Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed.  And Hafiz Saeed is blamed for having some sort of support from Pakistani intelligence.  Don't you think it will affect those ongoing efforts being made by intelligence officials from both sides to improve the strained relationship? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment on reported ties between the -- elements of the Pakistani government and certain groups inside Pakistan.  The LET, from the U.S. perspective, is a very dangerous group that has mounted operations externally and continues to plot attacks.  This is a very serious issue for us, and I think that's why you saw this announcement.  You know, we believe that this group remains a threat, remains a threat to people in the region and to us. 

            Q:  Can I follow up on this quickly? 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  The U.S. military says that it has good contacts with the Pakistani military.  The generals were here a couple -- a few days ago.  So what is the feedback that you are getting from the Pakistani military on this issue?  Because this man, who has killed dozens of Indians and six American citizens, is roaming free in Pakistan.  So what is the feedback that you are getting from your military counterparts? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into the specifics of our discussions with our foreign counterparts.  The focus with the military in Pakistan right now is continuing to look for ways to cooperate. 

            That's an essential part of the relationship, to cooperate on a number of levels, political being one and of course military being another, and there are other means of cooperation as well. 

            So I think the government of Pakistan understands our long- standing concerns about LET and I'll -- I think I'll leave it there. 

            Final question.  Yes. 

            Q:  Your briefing already mentioned about that this morning for Secretary Panetta and the Japanese defense minister's meeting -- I mean the telephone conference.  Could you just give us a little more detailed information about that?  And did they talk anything about other than North Korea missile launch? 

            MR. LITTLE:  As you know -- well, I'm not going to get into specifics of their conversation, but they did address the prospect of a North Korean missile launch and both expressed concern about the possibility of that occurring in the near future.  And of course we both hope that it doesn't. 

            The United States has regular dialogue and the secretary thoroughly enjoys speaking on a relatively frequent basis with his Japanese counterparts.  And so they discuss a wide range of issues. 

            We understand the concerns that our Japanese allies have about this prospective launch, the potential impact on the security of the region, and this was a call to share common concerns over the North Korean missile launch, among other reasons. 

            Q:  George -- I mean, the reality is, while everyone's concerned, what does the U.S. do about it, other than sit back and take it when it happens, to see what -- where it all lands? I mean, isn't that really the reality here? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think I said "last question," but I'll make this one -- the last. 

            MR. LITTLE:  And I'm really not going to get into speculation on it, Barbara.  I mean, this is something that we take very seriously, the prospect of a North Korean missile launch.  What we may or may not do is something that I'll leave to others to hypothesize on. 

            All right?  Thank you, everyone.