GEORGE LITTLE: Well, good afternoon, and thanks for braving the heat today. It is a scorcher.
Before I take questions, I'd like to go over Secretary Panetta's schedule for the next several days. Tonight at 7:00 p.m., upon his return from Saudi Arabia, the secretary will be awarded the Center for National Policy 2012 Edmund S. Muskie Distinguished Public Service Award and give remarks to address the full range of America's most urgent challenges while reflecting on his own service to the nation.
This event is at the National Press Club and is, of course, open to the press.
Tomorrow the secretary will speak at the annual DOD Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference at the Renaissance Hotel downtown at 10 a.m. The three-day conference focuses on improving suicide prevention training for leadership at all levels in order to better support the force and enhance the quality of life for service members, veterans and their families.
Next Wednesday the secretary will travel to Grapevine, Texas, to deliver remarks to the Military Child Education Coalition national seminar at 9 a.m. Central Time. He will reiterate his commitment to the education needs of our military children and reaffirm his commitment to the programs that support them. The event will be open to local press. If my memory serves correctly, there are over 1.9 million military children.
During the same visit, he will travel to San Antonio to visit the Brooke Army Medical Center and meet with wounded warriors and personally thank them for their personal sacrifice and service to our nation.
On a different topic, many of you have had recent interest in V- 22 deployments to the Asia-Pacific region. The Department of Defense tomorrow will brief a Japanese delegation here at the Pentagon on the recent events involving the MV and CV-22 Osprey aircraft. This is a tangible demonstration of how seriously the Department of Defense takes the issue and inquiries made by the government of Japan on this matter.
The briefing will be led by senior DOD military and civilian officials. It will provide information surrounding the June 13 mishap of an Air Force CV-22 in Florida, as well as a status update on the investigation process, which the department has committed to completing in a comprehensive and timely manner. Representatives from Eglin Air Force base will participate in this briefing.
The briefing will also summarize the results of the initial investigation into the Marine Corps MV-22 mishap in April, which determined the incident was not caused by a mechanical failure.
The Osprey is a highly capable aircraft with an excellent operational safety record and over 140,000 flight hours logged, about one-third of which were flown during the last two years. The United States Air Force and the United States Marine Corps are continuing flight operations with the CV-22 -- MV-22 fleet around the world, including transporting American troops in the United States and in combat operations in Afghanistan.
And I've had the opportunity to fly personally with many of you on our V-22s.
That's it for an opener. With that, I'll take your questions.
Q: George, can you tell me, the agreement with New Zealand -- is that going to signal any change in New Zealand's prohibition on Navy -- most Navy ships in their ports?
MR. LITTLE: I think what we've seen with this Washington declaration with our New Zealand partners is the continuation of -- over the last decade of deepening military-to-military ties with our partners. I think that it's too early to tell precisely where the process will go. But clearly, this is a capstone moment in our relationship with New Zealand and signals that defense cooperation with that country is continuing in a robust manner.
Q: About tomorrow's meeting with Japanese delegation, who will be the Japanese delegation? And also, that report about the accident -- is it like a mid-tern report or final one, final result?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know that we have a final report yet. But we do want to provide updates along the way to the government of Japan. I don't have the roster of Japanese representatives. But I do know that Assistant Secretary Mark Lippert will participate in some of the meetings with our Japanese counterparts.
Q: David Cloud had a big story this morning --
MR. LITTLE: Who's he?
Q: Sort of a big deal around here.
Q: He reported about the U.S. military's plan to send cargo aircraft to Yemen -- military cargo aircraft to Yemen. Do you have any confirmation of those plans or anything to say on that?
MR. LITTLE: Well, thank you for the question. Wouldn't be appropriate for me to get into pre-decisional discussion that may or may not be taking place inside the U.S. government with respect to operations in Yemen. As you know, we do have a presence here. We work closely with the Yemenis. That's important.
We face a common threat in AQAP, and we're going to continue to find ways of deepening our cooperation against that threat. We have seen in recent years that threat from AQAP increase, the Christmas Day plot, the printer cartridge plot and more recently a disrupted plot. So this is worth our attention, obviously, and is a top priority for this government and for this department. So I wouldn't be able to get into the specifics of David's story.
Q: OK. But by calling in pre-decisional, that would imply that you're working towards making a decision, so that would mean that you're discussing it at least.
MR. LITTLE: I think -- no, I'm not confirming anything specifically about the pre-decisional discussions that may or may not be taking place, Justin, inside our government. But we routinely look at ways of -- broadly speaking, of deepening our relationship with the Yemenis. And that relationship has strengthened, particularly as the political crisis in Yemen has settled down. And our cooperation at the military level, I think, is extremely good at this stage.
Q: Do you have any reaction to the Syrian pilot who defected to Jordan? And will the U.S. have access to him?
MR. LITTLE: We very much welcome the pilot's decision to do the right thing.
We've long called for members of the Syrian armed forces and members of the Syrian regime to defect and to abandon their positions rather than be complicit in the regime's atrocities. This is just one of countless instances where Syrians, including members of the security forces, have rejected the abysmal actions of the Assad regime, and it certainly will not be the last.
Q: Does the U.S. have access to him?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know at this stage.
Q: This morning Congressman Buck McKeon told reporters during a breakfast meeting that he thought Pentagon and military officials were telling him something of a fib about not planning for sequestration. What's your reaction to that and can you understand why, for a professional planning organization, it seems a little bit hard to believe that you're not taking into account something that may come to pass, that the secretary said would mean a huge revamp of strategic plans for the department?
MR. LITTLE: Thank you for the question, Spence, and thank you for drawing my attention to Chairman McKeon's comments, which I frankly have not seen, on sequestration. But we're working closely with Congress to try to avoid sequestration. This is the whole point of the sequestration mechanism -- is to try to avoid the devastating cuts that we would see if it actually takes effect.
The reason that we're not planning for sequestration at this time is because we haven't been directed to do so, for starters. And if we start the planning for sequestration, then that puts us in a very tough position with respect to a very sound defense strategy that we outlined in January. And if we move toward sequestration -- and that's something that we hope we can avoid, again -- then we may very well have to relook the strategy. We would -- and that's not helpful to our strong attempts to preserve the strongest military fighting force the world has ever seen and to avoid hollowing out the force.
Q: Late last year/earlier this year Iran made threats about closing the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions. With further sanctions in oil possible oil embargoes going into effect now and peace talk seeming to not continue -- or talks, rather -- not continue, is there any change in U.S. posture in the Persian Gulf? Are the positions being reinforced with any additional ships?
MR. LITTLE: The P-5 plus one process does continue, that's an important step. Iran has to realize that they are isolating themselves by potentially pursuing a nuclear weapon if they decide to move in that direction. Let's be very clear about this, this is not just the United States trying to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian regime; this is the international community. So we do hope the P-5 plus one talks do yield progress. And we want to see progress made with respect to Iran's own decisions in the nuclear realm.
With respect to our posture, we maintain a constant presence in the Middle East, with forces and equipment. As to the specific lay down, I wouldn't get into that, but I wouldn't suggest in any way, shape or form that that presence is significantly ratcheted up in recent days or weeks. But you know, we stand ready for any contingency around the world. Iran needs to do the right thing. They need to abide by their international obligations. There is a way out of this for Iran, and that is to agree not to produce a nuclear weapon. It's as simple as that.
Q: The (USS) Ponce has just arrived in that region, hasn't it? It was reoutfitted and deployed. Do you have anything to say about its mission and if it's actually there yet?
MR. LITTLE: We'll need to get an update for you on the specific parameters of that mission and would refer you to the Navy, Justin, on that point.
Q: George, recently General Thurman has requested additional U.S. military assets for the Korean Peninsula, and also there are two very high-profile U.S.-ROK training exercises going on this week, including one which I believe is the biggest live-fire exercise the two countries have conducted in recent years. What is the reason for these developments? Is it a change in the security situation on the peninsula?
MR. LITTLE: Part of our defense strategy is to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and to strengthen alliances and partnerships in that region. We've had long-standing alliances, as you know, with both the Republic of Korea and Japan. We routinely exercise with our allies in the region, to include the Republic of Korea and Japan.
On June 22nd we are conducting a live-fire exercise with the Republic of Korea, and this exercise marks the first time that USFK assets have participated in the annual ROK-led event. About 2,100 personnel, I think, in total, both Korean -- South Korean and American, will be involved. I think the fraction of American personnel is relatively small compared to the ROK footprint. For more information, I certainly would refer you to USFK and the South Korean Ministry of Defense, but it's important to exercise with our allies and partners.
On the other exercise you mentioned -- this is the trilateral exercise with the Japanese, and we're, I think, in the midst of that right now -- it's a two-day trilateral exercise in the waters in the Korean Peninsula, and again, the focus here is on enabling each other to work better with one another.
Interoperability, communications -- these are all important factors when we're talking about bringing allies together to try to face and prepare for potential threats in the future.
Q: This is part of the rebalancing and not due to any changes in the North Korean defense posture?
MR. LITTLE: This is, A, something we have done in the past, exercises with our allies and partners in the region; 2, it is certainly consistent with our defense strategy; and 3, this is not, in my opinion and to my knowledge, in any way connected to actions undertaken by the government of North Korea.
Q: Can we go back to Syria for a second?
MR. LITTLE: Of course.
Q: How -- a couple of questions: How sure is the Pentagon and the administration that this was in fact a legitimate defection and this possibly was not the Syrians trying to ping Jordanian air defenses? And even if it was a legitimate defection, how concerning is to you that Syrian military assets are now able -- are able to fly outside their own air space? This has, I would think, be unsettling to Israel, to Jordan, to Turkey, because they need to determine if Syria's flying in their airspace, what's really going on.
MR. LITTLE: At this point, we're taking the defection as a defection and nothing more. If that changes, we'll certainly let you know. But this does appear to be a defection by a Syrian pilot. I'm not quite sure how this was handled in the context of moving into Jordanian airspace. So this is probably something for the Jordanians to respond to in some respects, just because I don't have the sequencing of air traffic control patterns. And I don't mean to be facetious --
Q: No, no -- (pause) -- yeah -- (inaudible) --
MR. LITTLE: -- but it's just something I don't know at this stage.
Q: What we have seen in recent weeks at least is the opposition certainly at minimum seems to be holding on, if not making some progress in certain areas. Do you have an assessment of how it is that they're doing that? How are they making that happen right now?
MR. LITTLE: Well, that's a good question, Barbara. And I guess one way to explain this, I think, is to look at the physics of a brutal authoritarian regime. Brutal authoritarian regimes like the Assad regime tend to be quite rigid. And if I remember my physics lessons correctly from high school -- admittedly, didn't do all that well -- but it's my understanding that rigidity often breeds brittleness. So at a certain point, we may be looking at a very brittle Assad regime. And that helps the opposition. So that's one side of the physics equation.
On the other side, we have an opposition -- a set of opposition groups that is finding ways -- they're not totally coalesced, but they are finding ways of organizing themselves more effectively. Their resolve seems to be strengthening over time, even in the wake of despicable acts perpetrated by the Assad regime. So they are standing up in the face of coercion and in the face of profound violence perpetrated by Damascus.
So I think you have some complex dynamics at work in Syria. It's too early to tell where all of this is going. But there are movements on both sides that I think are very important. And day by day by day, in the eyes of the Syrian people, and certainly in the eyes of the international community, the Assad regime is losing its legitimacy. And that's an important pillar for any regime, even the most authoritarian of regimes.
Q: George, what kind of weapons do you think they're able to get their hands on now inside Syria?
MR. LITTLE: The opposition? There are some indications -- and I don't have an inventory list for you of equipment, but they have acquired some equipment, and I don't know how, that appears to be from the Syrian military, that they're able to use to their benefit. That's something that we've seen some indication of happening. I'm not sure that I can call it a trend at this stage, but there have been instances of that.
Q: George, can you rule out that the U.S. government is supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition?
MR. LITTLE: Pardon me?
Q: Can you rule out that the U.S. government is providing weapons to the Syrian opposition?
MR. LITTLE: We are not providing lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. I think we've said that on repeated occasions.
Q: Is anybody from the U.S. government helping coordinate lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition?
MR. LITTLE: The focus of the United States remains on diplomatic and economic pressure and on the humanitarian assistance programs that are driven through the State Department.
Q: Is that a no?
MR. LITTLE: Pardon me?
Q: Is that a no?
MR. LITTLE: I said what I said, and that is that there is no lethal assistance being provided by the United States to the Syrian opposition.
Q: Is there any coordination, was the question, with U.S. or U.S. military to figure out who gets those weapons on a --
MR. LITTLE: This is a State Department-led effort in Syria to move humanitarian assistance to the right people inside that country. I wouldn't think in terms of the U.S. military.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. LITTLE: I saw your hand earlier.
Q: Well, OK, because I want to follow up on what --
MR. LITTLE: OK.
Q: There's a lot of --
MR. LITTLE: I'm a (Nationals fan, by the way, just in case you're wondering.
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. LITTLE: All right. (Laughs.)
Q: But there has been a certain amount of reporting that there are Salafists and other types of jihadi groups involved in the opposition.
Is that a -- and they're perpetrating violence themselves against -- things like ethnic cleansing and terrorist bombings. Is that element of the opposition a concern?
MR. LITTLE: Any time there's extremism anywhere inside an opposition group, that's problematic. I don't know how to precisely define the scale of extremist activity that purports to support the opposition in Syria. We have seen indications that some extremists are trying to take advantage of the situation in Syria, but I'm not sure that I would call it widespread.
So the eye on the prize here is allowing the Syrian people to determine their own future absent an environment of extreme hostility and violence.
Q: Two questions. Isn't it incumbent on someone -- the CIA, according to one of the papers this morning -- to actually make sure that none of these weapons go to the people that Carl was talking about, that they go to the right people, if anyone knows who the right people are? So is there anyone involved in that particular kind of, say, distinguishing between the groups?
MR. LITTLE: I think I said all I would say on U.S. involvement. Again, the focus is on diplomatic and economic pressure. Look, any time that weapons fall into the wrong hands anywhere around the world is a problem.
Q: OK. The other question was -- and you won't like this, because it's also about pre-positioning --
MR. LITTLE: OK. All right.
Q: -- which you dealt with with Julian. But there was quite an interesting House Armed Services Committee meeting yesterday where the experts being questioned all seemed to think that although President Obama and the U.S. administration had made it quite clear the military option was on the table and that force would be used if, et cetera, et cetera, that that wasn't sufficient credibility in the eyes of the Iranians and that therefore it would be sensible to -- for the American government to pre-position such as B-52s or B-2s at Diego Garcia or they called for adding weapons systems to the fleet in the region -- whether that is a sound argument, in your view?
MR. LITTLE: With respect to potential contingencies on Iran, Mike, I think that I could get into the realm of hypotheticals and speculation, and we could probably have a full-day seminar to work through that kind of speculation and hypotheticals. I really wouldn't want to go down that path. I understand that a lot of people have concerns about what's happening with respect to Iranian behavior, and those are understandable concerns. And how to address that threat has elicited a range of ideas from inside and outside of this government. But our focus remains on, once again, trying to get the Iranians to do the right thing.
Q: If you want to hold an all day seminar on military options in Iran -- (laughter)
MR. LITTLE: You should probably, before offering that, talk to some of my former students at Georgetown. (Laughs.)
Q: What's your understanding today on the Russian ships, the Russian military ships in -- heading maybe towards Tartus? Have they left?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any information to suggest that they have left. It's our understanding, Courtney, that Russian vessels may head toward their base in Syria at some point -- and you would of course have to check with the Russian government on this to confirm -- to resupply their base and to provide for force protection.
Q: And do you have any -- are you still under the impression that it's three Russian ships? The numbers have sort of been flukey lately.
MR. LITTLE: Floating Around? I would stick by what we said the other day.
Q: On the same topic, Sergey Lavrov said today that the cargo in which there were three helicopters would be sent back to Syria under a Russian flagship, and that this cargo transports as well anti-aircraft systems. How do you, the U.S., view such an aid to the regime of anti-aircraft systems?
MR. LITTLE: I don't think we have a characterization at this stage. What is done with Russian military equipment and Russian ships is really something for the Russians to speak to. I think as we've indicated before, much and separate and apart from Russian ships and the Russian government itself, we're concerned about any lethal aid that's bound for the Syrian regime, because we are concerned that that equipment or other resources could be used against the people in a brutal way.
All right. I don't see any other hands up, so -- oh, Marcus.
Q: A sequestration one.
MR. LITTLE: Sequestration -- all right. Did anyone ever think that sequestration would ever enter the popular lexicon? (Chuckles.)
Q: (Off mic.)
MR. LITTLE: The inside-the-Beltway lexicon, even. (Chuckles.)
Q: Is the threat of sequestration impacting any of the Pentagon's day-to-day activities, such as awarding contracts?
MR. LITTLE: That's a good question, Marcus. And to my knowledge, not to this -- not to this point.
Look, this sequestration cloud needs to -- needs to dissipate and dissipate soon. It's not something that's good for this department. It's not something that's good for any other part of our government. We really do need to have a genuine national conversation about not just the DOD budget, but about the entire federal budget. And we really haven't gotten to where we need to be as a government in Congress and the executive branch to work through this.
Congress instituted this mechanism upon itself. It has not followed through. We hope that it follows through in the very near future so that we avoid all these scenarios of having to experience sequestration, having to plan for it, and having to even talk about. It would be nice to put this behind us.
Q: One more question --
MR. LITTLE: All right.
Q: -- let's go back to the AFP on Moscow. I mean, earlier, you know, the idea of lethal aid to the Assad regime being provided by anyone was unacceptable, intolerable. If the Russian government is going around the EU arms blockade to get anti-aircraft or air defense or these refurbished helicopters to the Assad regime, I mean, is it -- you know, isn't that, under U.S. policy, unacceptable? Isn't that something that should, from that podium, be, you know, clearly said is intolerable or unacceptable?
MR. LITTLE: Well, first of all, I can't confirm that any of these ship movements are tied to lethal support for the Syrian regime. And I would note that your question, I think, started off the word "if," which suggests to me that we're heading down the hypothetical route again. Not going to get into hypotheticals, but what I will reiterate again is that it is the policy of this government to encourage, very strongly, other nations not to provide lethal support to the Assad regime. The Syrian people have suffered enough, and it's time for the Syrian government to stop.
And one more question, David.
All right, I sensed a pause, and exit stage right. But, alas, I was wrong.
Q: Another sequestration question: Senator Levin has opened the possibility of maybe another 100 billion (dollars) in defense cuts over 10 years as a -- as part of a deal to get away from sequestration, but come up with some agreement that would yield the cuts that they need.
Would the DOD be able to absorb that kind of additional cut and still meet its obligations under the new strategy?
MR. LITTLE: It would need to look at the terms and specifics of that analysis to see how that would impact our budget going forward. I mean, our view at this stage is to try to hold at what Congress held us to last year in the Budget Control Act, and that's roughly 487 billion (dollars). At a certain point, we believe that we are going to have to relook the strategy if we're saddled with cuts beyond a certain threshold. But it would take more analysis, David.
All right, thank you, everyone. Have a good day.