GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon.
This weekend the secretary will be traveling once again to the Asia-Pacific. This will be his fourth trip to the region and his third since June. He looks forward to this opportunity to further advance our long-term strategy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific.
The first stop on the secretary's trip will be Perth, Australia, where he will be joined by Secretary Clinton, Chairman Dempsey and Admiral Locklear for the annual U.S.-Australia Ministerial (AUSMIN).
This is -- this is Secretary Panetta's first trip to Australia as Secretary of Defense and will provide him with an opportunity to express to the Australians his gratitude for their contribution to our efforts in Afghanistan.
This year's AUSMIN will also provide an opportunity to review the alliance's progress on successful Marine Corps and Air Force deployments to northern Australia and to discuss the next steps in this important cooperation.
From Australia, Secretary Panetta will travel on to Thailand. This will be the first visit by a Secretary of Defense to Thailand since 2008. The important U.S.-Thailand alliance has served both our countries well for nearly 60 years, and our two governments are eager to establish a forward-looking strategic vision for this alliance that builds on our already-close cooperation.
The final stop will be Cambodia, where the secretary will join 10 of his Association for Southeast Asian Defense (ASEAN) counterparts at their annual retreat in Siem Reap. Secretary Panetta will emphasize the importance of ASEAN unity for regional stability and will communicate U.S. support for ASEAN-led defense cooperation.
The secretary's visit to the region, along with that of Secretary Clinton, reflect the commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific rebalance. Secretary Panetta has made this one of his highest priorities because he believes that it is the right strategy for the future security and prosperity of the United States and the Asia- Pacific region.
Thanks. Take your questions.
Q: George, do you have anything on these new reports that the Iranians fired at a U.S. drone operating -- a predator drone operating over Iran?
MR. LITTLE: Be happy to take the question.
I can confirm that on November 1st, at approximately 4:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, an unarmed, unmanned MQ-1 U.S. military aircraft, conducting routine surveillance over the Arabian Gulf, was intercepted by Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot Aircraft and was fired upon with guns.
The incident occurred over international waters approximately 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coastline. The MQ-1 was not hit and returned to its base safely.
We have briefed relevant members of Congress on the incident.
The United States has communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters over the Arabian Gulf, consistent with longstanding practice and our commitment to the security of the region.
We have a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect our military assets and our forces in the region and will do so when necessary.
Q: I don't have a map of the region, but is 16 miles -- you said 16 miles off the coast. Is that not Iranian airspace per se as it would be 16 miles off our own coast here? And can you say definitively that the drone was never over Iran?
MR. LITTLE: Our aircraft was never in Iranian airspace. It was always flying in international airspace. The internationally recognized territorial limit is 12 nautical miles off the coast, and we never entered the 12-nautical-mile limit.
Q: George, first, can you address whether or not Secretary Panetta has decided when or if he will leave his office as Secretary of Defense and, you know, what his plans may be for the future?
And secondly, there are ongoing discussions with General Allen about the troop drawdown in Afghanistan. Can you update us on where those stand and whether there are discussions about an acceleration?
MR. LITTLE: Thanks, Lita .
There's always a temptation shortly after an election to engage in what I call Washington parlor games and to speculate about personnel changes that may or may not occur in the future.
Secretary Panetta is focused squarely on his job today. He's focused on the missions of the Department of Defense, and he's not focused on his personal future.
With respect to Afghanistan, we continue to work closely to analyze what the requirements might be between now and the end of 2014, in concert with the Lisbon strategy. We have not submitted to the White House our formal analysis on that drawdown. We will do so in the near future.
Q: But has it come to the Defense Department yet? Has General Allen's recommendations come to Secretary Panetta or the Pentagon yet?
MR. LITTLE: There are regular discussions with ISAF, including General Allen, on the scope and pace of the drawdown. I don't have anything to announce today.
And I'm not sure that I would put too much stock in a formal presentation to the Pentagon. This is really a conversation that's occurring, and we'll obviously work through the formal process inside the department and with the White House -- (inaudible).
Q: I think General Allen has acknowledged that he -- in November, he was going to present his -- his way forward. So -- so, beyond just the conversations, the ongoing conversations, the question is, has he presented his way forward? And if not, when? I think it was expected mid-November, which we're approaching.
MR. LITTLE: Okay. I'm not aware that it's been formally presented, but I will circle back with you if I learn differently.
Q: Secretary Panetta's probably not focusing on his future, but he's being asked by the Army to look at the grade -- retirement and grade determination of Generals Riley and Ward.
Where do those -- where does the Army input stand? Does the secretary have the input yet?
MR. LITTLE: The process is being finalized, and the Army is done what it needs to do in the process. So I think we'll reach resolution relatively quickly.
Q: Will you publicly acknowledge what the decision is since it's a -- it's a -- whether they're going to retire at the four-star level versus two-star levels?
MR. LITTLE: I will let you know once the process is finalized.
Q: A separate topic?
MR. LITTLE: Sure.
Q: The Pentagon this week in two separate notifications to Congress said that they were -- they plan to sell up to $16 billion of air defense equipment to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates of THAAD missiles and PAC-3 missiles. It's a lot of money.
What's the underlying rationale for the proposed sale? It comes as this Austere Challenge air defense exercise in the Middle East is wrapping up, so one would think it's aimed at Iraq -- on Iran, excuse me.
MR. LITTLE: We have a range of interests and relationships in the region. We look to support the capabilities of our allies and partners throughout the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. And naturally, we are going to continue to develop our relationships
So, I wouldn't draw any causal connections, Tony, between any particular country and any particular arm sale.
Q: $16 billion is a lot though, George, of those particularly types of missiles. And it's --
MR. LITTLE: You know better than anybody, Tony, that this kind of equipment costs a lot of money.
Q: (off mic) sometimes.
MR. LITTLE: Mike?
Q: George, as far as you know, is this the first time that the Iranians have shot at an American drone over the Gulf? We know about the one that was actually in -- over Iranian territory, but is this the first time as far as you know?
And secondly, the famous Benghazi time line, are we going to get that today or tomorrow?
MR. LITTLE: We look forward to finalizing the Benghazi time line as quickly as possible and to releasing it as soon as possible.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Not today.
The incident that occurred last week, we believe this is the first time that an unmanned aircraft has been shot at over international waters in the Arabian Gulf.
Q: Is that an act of war?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into legal labels. The reality is that we have a wide range of options, as I said before, to protect our assets and our forces in the region and we'll do so when necessary.
We have communicated to the Iranians that we will continue to conduct surveillance flights over international waters, over the Arabian Gulf, consistent with longstanding practice.
Q: Besides communicating, is there any other military response being discussed?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to speculate on what we may or may not do in the future. We have communicated our very strong concerns.
Q: How did you communicate that to Iran?
MR. LITTLE: Through the Swiss protective power.
Q: And what -- can you give us a little bit more of an idea of the surveillance that those UAVs are doing? What specifically are they -- (inaudible)
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on classified surveillance missions.
Q: Oh, so it's a classified mission? They're not just doing surveillance over the --
MR. LITTLE: Routine -- routine surveillance. But we don't typically advertise what our surveillance missions are.
Q: In June, Secretary Panetta announced a system-wide review of PTSD screening procedures. Senator Murray recently asked why that was taking so long and when it would be finished. Do you know when it will be?
MR. LITTLE: That's a good question. I don't know the precise time line, but we'll get back to you on that. The secretary has made this a top priority. Health-of-the-force issues, from PTS to TBI, wounded warrior care, the problem of sexual assault; these are all things that are at the top of his priority list. And I'll get back to you on the specifics.
Q: In terms of the report about China's sub capabilities, do you agree that within two years China will have three ways of deploying nuclear weapons, not only bombers and intercontinental missiles, but also launch from submarines, as well?
MR. LITTLE: Which report are you referring to?
Q: (inaudible) -- coming out soon.
MR. LITTLE: U.S.-China Commission. I haven't seen the report, so once I review it let me come back to you.
MR. LITTLE: Repeating what DOD said. Okay, let me come back to you on the specifics of that report.
Q: (inaudible) -- on China?
MR. LITTLE: Okay.
Q: As secretary visit to Asia-Pacific, China has a new leader. If he had any chance to meet or talk to some -- this new leader there in China?
MR. LITTLE: Well, the leadership transition process has not been completed as of yet. As you know, he did recently meet in Beijing with Vice President Xi Jinping.
Q: With Congress returning next week and all focus turned on the fiscal cliff, there's a lot of talk of a six-month deal to replace the sequestration cuts. Is that something that the Pentagon could live with?
And related to that, how is the Pentagon building its 2014 budget with these enormous question marks about future funding?
MR. LITTLE: You're absolutely right; there are a lot of question marks out there.
Speaking of parlor games, a lot of those are attached to sequestration right now.
I don't have a precise answer for you. This is really the Congress of the United States that needs to answer the question of when sequestration will be ended. And we've made our views known loudly, clearly and regularly.
We hope to avoid sequestration altogether. It kicks in, in January, and we hope to be able to avert it before that.
Q: I know you're not going to get into parlor games about -- about when the secretary's stepping down, but your recent -- your last comment made me wonder whether or not the secretary might want to stay around until the matter of sequestration's resolved and the budget is resolved.
MR. LITTLE: I'm simply not going to speculate on the secretary's future intentions. As I said, he is absolutely committed to his job inside the Defense Department, and that's what he's coming every day to the Pentagon to do.
Q: Back on Afghanistan and what recommendations are expected, I thought I understood Dempsey to say the last time they were down here that what they were going to get from Allen by the end of the month was post-2014 troop levels and not a drawdown plan from 68 to whatever in 2014.
So which is it? Or is it both?
MR. LITTLE: Let me get back to you, Dave, on this question of timing. I think that we're obviously analyzing our between now and end of 2014 presence and what we need to do to effectively complete our mission and fulfill the strategy that we've laid out with our international partners.
And then there is the question of post-2014 presence and our enduring relationship with Afghanistan. We've made it clear that we want to maintain a strong, enduring relationship with our Afghan allies. On the specifics, I'll come back to you.
Q: On Burma, when secretary travels to Cambodia for the -- (inaudible) -- meeting, does he plan to meet his Burmese counterpart, the Burmese defense minister?
MR. LITTLE: We do expect the Burmese to be at the meeting.
Q: And secondly, this is his third or fourth trip of Asia -- (inaudible). From his point of view, what kind of role he sees for India -- (inaudible) -- and U.S.-India relations in that part of the world?
MR. LITTLE: With respect to India, he believes that India is a very important player. As you know, he recently visited the country and had very productive discussions in Delhi with his Indian counterparts.
India plays a very important role, and we're looking to deepen our relationship with the government of India, including Deputy Secretary Carter's efforts to look at streamlining sales between the two countries.
So India, bottom line, is a key player in the region and we look forward to continuing to build an even stronger defense relationship.
Q: And if I can follow up, you know, as you said, Deputy Secretary Carter is looking to -- -- to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles in increasing defense sales between India and U.S. Has he submitted any reports so far -- (inaudible) -- three, four months on that issue?
MR. LITTLE: He's been very active and engaged on this issue. I'm not aware of a specific report per se, but let me assure you that he's working this matter very hard.
Q: A quick follow-up, India?
MR. LITTLE: Let me get to Luis.
MR. LITTLE: Okay. All right.
Go ahead, Goyal.
Q: Sorry. Thank you.
India recently has been shopping for civil nuclear agreements or deals with a number of countries like Australia or France, Russia, and now Prime Minister India was in Canada for the same deal.
Since the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement has not gone through and Indians are still waiting when they will get their energy through this U.S.-India deal signed in 2006, my question is now is secretary putting or pushing for this deal really? Now we are in the second term also of the administration.
MR. LITTLE: Which specific deal?
Q: Civil nuclear deal.
MR. LITTLE: We're looking to the entire U.S.-Indian defense relationship to see how we can help India build its own capabilities. And I would -- I would leave it there for now.
Q: And finally, are we expecting soon any visit by the secretary to India?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not aware of any planned visit in the near future, but if that changes I'll let you know.
Q: Just going back to the drone incident, can you -- can you specify which service this was? Was this Navy or Air Force that this vehicle belonged to?
MR. LITTLE: Not going to comment on who it belonged to. As you know, we have a very strong joint force in that part of the world.
Q: And you said it was 4 a.m. what kind of time?
MR. LITTLE: Four-fifty a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.
Q: Eastern Daylight Time. So was Secretary Panetta awoken or advised of this incident when it occurred?
MR. LITTLE: He was advised very early in the morning of the incident.
Q: Did it go up as well to the president?
MR. LITTLE: The White House was informed very quickly as well.
Q: This incident having occurred over international waters, was the drone itself struck by bullets -- because you said it was hit by gunfire -- was it struck by bullets or could this be characterized as a warning shot?
MR. LITTLE: It was -- based on our assessment, it was not hit. It did not receive any damage.
Q: Did it return to base?
MR. LITTLE: It returned to base.
Q: What base was that?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to say specifically, but in that region.
Q: But on his question about the warning shot?
Q: Yeah, the warning shot?
Q: Was it a warning shot or an attempt to take it down?
MR. LITTLE: Well, our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You'll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action.
Q: How long were they trailing this vehicle?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have the precise time line.
Q: The fact that it never crossed into their territory, so it was international waters. So there has to be at some point where they intersected -- intersected with each other and may have had visual at which point to determine what it was -- (inaudible). So do you have an estimation of how long it was being tracked for in the air by these --
MR. LITTLE: I do not have that. You know, we are -- we were not warned in advance that they were going to fire on this aircraft. They intercepted the aircraft and fired multiple rounds.
Q: Multiple rounds were like just one burst? Or it just stopped after that one and then the UAV was left to continue on?
MR. LITTLE: I think it was multiple rounds.
Q: And did the drone -- (inaudible)
MR. LITTLE: They appear to have missed.
Q: Did the UAV take any evasive maneuvers? Do they not do that kind of thing? Was it just keeping a steady course and -- (inaudible)?
MR. LITTLE: Well, the aircraft, once it came under fire at approximately the 16 nautical mile range, moved further out. And the Iranian aircraft continued to pursue the MQ-1 for some period of time before letting it return to base.
Q: But you think that the gunfire came from the aircraft -- or from an aircraft as opposed to from the ground?
MR. LITTLE: There is absolutely no question that aircraft fired on this U.S. military asset.
Q: Do you happen to know what kind of rounds they were firing or what -- (inaudible)?
MR. LITTLE: I'll have to get back to you on that, Courtney.
Q: What kind of aircraft, George?
MR. LITTLE: What kind of Iranian aircraft? The Iranian Su-25 Frogfoot Aircraft.
Q: Did the Iranians respond to the U.S. concern or --
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any personal knowledge of their response.
Q: And that was communicated through State or DOD? Or through the Swiss via State, you said?
MR. LITTLE: State did help communicate our concerns.
Q: (inaudible) -- U.S. aircraft attempt to recover the drone, get rid of -- try and move the drone away from Iranian -- (inaudible) -- or seek to dissuade the Iranian aircraft from doing anything else?
MR. LITTLE: Well, this is an unmanned aircraft, so it flew further away from Iranian airspace. Again, it was in international airspace when it was intercepted; never entered Iranian airspace whatsoever. There were no other aircraft that were deployed to respond.
Q: You said that the aircraft was followed -- (inaudible) -- I forgot the (inaudible) -- more time -- (inaudible). Did the Iranian escort, if you will, cease once the UAV entered territorial waters -- territorial limits of another country?
MR. LITTLE: This unmanned aircraft was always flying in international airspace.
Q: Right, but when it's landing, it's no longer in international airspace.
MR. LITTLE: They did not pursue it all the way back to base or close to the base.
Q: Did it stop once it --
MR. LITTLE: I don't have the precise -- it stopped -- I don't have the precise -- I don't have the -- I don't know how many minutes, I don't know how many miles, but it was, I think, several miles at a minimum that they continued to pursue our MQ-1.
Q: But did they leave their airspace? Did the Iranian aircraft leave its airspace -- Iranian airspace?
MR. LITTLE: This incident occurred in international airspace.
Q: George, I'm having trouble understanding the dynamics of this. A jet fighter doesn't pursue a drone; I mean -- the speed difference is -- is --
MR. LITTLE: Well --
Q: So what --
MR. LITTLE: It continued to follow the unmanned aircraft.
Q: (inaudible) -- make just one -- did they make just one firing pass, and then the rest of the time they were just orbiting around it, or what?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have the precise number yet, but we believe that they fired at least twice and -- and made at least two passes.
Q: George, why, if this happen on November 1st, are we just hearing about this today?
MR. LITTLE: We don't typically comment on classified surveillance missions.
Q: It -- it -- but it's not uncommon when a U.S. asset in international waters, for instance a Navy asset or something, when there's some sort of an incident with an Iranian plane it's generally released, we’re generally told about it. We've even gotten -- have gotten video at times. But -- but this is what, eight days later, and we're just finding out now because of, it seems like, press reports.
MR. LITTLE: There is absolutely no precedence for this. So this was the first time that a UAV has been fired upon, to our knowledge, by Iranian aircraft, so I wouldn't draw any parallels between this and past incidents.
We routinely do not advertise our classified surveillance missions.
Q: About the Haqqani network in Pakistan. As you know, their name has put on the list of terrorist organization. There is any new plan to fight against the network in Pakistan?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on our counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, but we continue to deal very aggressively with the Haqqani militant network that is funneling fighters and threatens American, Afghan and ISAF partner lives in Afghanistan.
Q: Do you have any estimate on how long this incident lasted, from the time they first fired until the time they dropped pursuit?
MR. LITTLE: These are very fair questions on tick-tocks and so forth. I don't have the precise time line for you at this stage.
Q: Just going back to the stealth drone that crashed inside Iran, for the record, can you just refresh us on what the Defense Department's final ruling was there on the cause of that crash?
And you said this was the first time --
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on that incident.
Q: That was -- that was the official ruling, right, that there would be no discussion of that?
MR. LITTLE: I'm simply not going to comment on what was reported at the time. I think I've said as much.
Q: It's going to come up here that the White House might have asked you to muzzle this incident because of -- before the election. Did the White House give you any guidance in terms of whether to release the information on the incident or not?
MR. LITTLE: I think I've said this at least two, three, four, five times now: We don't typically comment on classified surveillance missions, and I'm not going to get into discussions at the classified level that occurred between this department and the White House.
They were informed early on.
Q: The MQ-1's not a classified platform.
MR. LITTLE: The MQ-1 is not a classified platform, but missions typically are classified.
Q: George, can I ask you why you're speaking today about a classified mission?
MR. LITTLE: I wish I weren't talking about a classified mission. Someone apparently disclosed this in an unauthorized manner, and that's unfortunate. We take these kinds of disclosures very seriously.
We've had robust discussion amongst ourselves about this very issue. This is an unauthorized disclosure of classified information. I'm not going to get into whether or not we're going to. I don't have an answer for you today. The disclosure became known to us very recently, so I don't know if we're going to -- I'm not going to speculate on what action we might take.
Q: But a top-down review of national media to see if there's classified -- unauthorized disclosures, and this seems to fall in a category --
MR. LITTLE: I agree with you.
Q: You going to unleash your plumbers on it?
MR. LITTLE: Now that we're getting into plumbing, I think it's about time to wrap up.
Q: Thank you.
MR. LITTLE: All right.
Q: (inaudible) -- clarification.
MR. LITTLE: Okay, clarification. One last clarification and then we'll move off stage.
Q: The international airspace/international waters over which this -- this took, did you say that was 60 miles --
MR. LITTLE: Sixteen, 1-6, 1-6.
Q: Could I ask one more Ward question? Just to be clear from what you were saying earlier. So at this point it rests on Secretary Panetta's shoulders, what happens with General Ward and General Riley, right? It's passed everyone else's review. It's on his desk awaiting for his declaration --
MR. LITTLE: We'll have a final answer soon. The secretary is the final decision maker in matters like this.
Q: And it's just him at this point, right? He's got everything?
MR. LITTLE: That's right.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you.