REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, I'm just gonna open up with a few comments about the omnibus spending bill that is now before Congress.
The bipartisan appropriations bill provides our department with necessary funding for critical investments and modernization, an increase in pay and benefits for our 3 million servicemembers and civilians continued training, equipment maintenance and funding that supports military operations in Afghanistan.
As Congress has debated the defense budget, Secretary Hagel has worked to provide members hard facts and analysis about sequestration's impact on the department and our ability to carry out missions around the world. Preserving our readiness has been his number one priority.
The additional funds in the omnibus bill above sequestration levels will certainly help us ensure that our troops can do what they joined the force to do. It doesn't solve every problem, but it does give us a measure of stability.
Last week, Secretary Hagel visited Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas to visit with our wounded warriors. There he met Victor Rivera, a medically retired Army sergeant wounded in Iraq in 2007 who continues to receive rehabilitation care there at the Center for the Intrepid.
Sergeant Rivera is one of the young medically retired servicemembers who would have been subject to the so called cola minus-one provision within the bipartisan budget act.
The Secretary is pleased that the bipartisan spending package includes a fix that will exempt medically retired personnel like Sergeant Rivera from a slower rate of growth of pension payments during their working years.
Secretary Hagel personally met with many members of Congress to ensure that this fix was implemented as soon as possible and he's grateful for the result. He's looking forward to working with Congress on a comprehensive approach to pay in benefits that addresses growing imbalances in our military, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Defense Department will continue to face some tough decisions about the future of our force. We are still absorbing nearly $30 billion over the next 10 years that were not accounted for in the presidential budget submission.
While the bipartisan budget act provides funding for fiscal year '15 above sequestration levels it will still be $40 billion less than projected last year and without further compromise, sequestration will remain the law of the land for the next decade.
Today, Secretary Hagel met with the combatant commanders, service chiefs, service secretaries and senior leaders of the department to continue discussions on the fiscal year '15 budget submission the department is preparing to submit later this year.
The meeting also included a healthy discussion of the quadrennial defense review that's currently underway. This is the fifth time over the past year that Secretary Hagel has gathered the full senior leadership team.
He relies on this format to seek views of both defense policymakers and commanders in the field and the toughest issues that are facing our future.
Secretary was also pleased to welcome Secretary Kerry as well this morning who came to speak to the group and offered his perspectives on the global challenges confronting both the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
With this leadership council behind them, Secretary Hagel and the service secretaries will now turn to finalizing the DOD budget plan for fiscal year '15. We'll continue to keep you up to speed on that process as it develops.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
Oh, wait a minute. I'm sorry. Before I do that, I did have some updates for you.
I know you all were tracking the Air Force issue yesterday. We had the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff of the Air Force in here to talk about an issue with cheating on a proficiency exam that they were giving -- or that they were dealing with yesterday. And, as you know, they briefed that they were retesting the whole ICBM crew force.
As of, I can give -- so I can give you some stats, as of 7:30 last night, so completing yesterday's testing, so as of last night, 277 out of the total of 497 ICBM crew had taken the test. That equates to just over 55 percent of the force; 96 percent of them passed. There were a total of 11 failures. This pass-fail rate is in line with historical averages.
For those 11 who failed, they'll be retrained and returned to duty following a second re-test. One-hundred-eighty-six are still scheduled to complete their test by the end of business today. So we don't have the results from today's testing. And those remaining 34 that were implicated in this investigation in to the cheating, are on leave or temporary duty and they'll be tested on their return.
So with that, I'm sorry. I'll take your questions now.
Q: Actually, on that same subject, I was going to ask if there were any -- is there any additional discovery, any additional people involved? Has the secretary spoken to anybody else in the Air Force about fixing the problem or addressing the problem? Or is he going to have any personal involvement?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I've not heard of any changes in the numbers, Bob, from yesterday. I would refer you to the Air Force for any more -- any more developments on that. The secretary did meet personally with Secretary James yesterday morning before she came out and talked to you. And we put a statement out after that.
He intends to follow this issue very, very closely. He considers this absolutely critical; the vitality, the health, and the -- the security and effectiveness of the nuclear mission is absolutely vital to him and he's going to follow this very, very closely. And he made that clear. And he expects -- told Secretary James that he's going to expect regular updates.
Q: Just to clarify. Did you say that the 34 officers involved in the cheating scandal will be allowed to rejoin the force after retraining?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: They'll be tested upon their return. They're on leave now, pending the investigation.
[Editor's note for correction of the record: There are 34 members of the ICBM force, currently on leave or on temporary duty, who will be tested upon their return. These personnel are not the 34 missile launch officers being investigated.]
Q: Different topic -- on Egypt? Could you tell us how the Pentagon assessed the referendum over the last two days in Egypt? Does Secretary Hagel still consider -- consider the referendum as transparent? As you may know, the Muslim Brotherhood has boycotted the process and more than 400 have been arrested. So...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're still assessing the result of the referendum, as are our colleagues in the State Department. So, I wouldn't have a -- I couldn't give you an assessment right now. I mean, we're still looking at how it went. We know that -- that there was significant voter turnout. But, I mean, it's really difficult to tell right now. It just finished.
But you're right. He has -- he has talked to his counterpart in Egypt, Minister al-Sisi, upwards of 30 times. And on this last phone conversation they had just over the weekend -- and again, you saw my readout statement -- he -- he stressed our strong desire that this be inclusive, transparent, free, fair. But again, I don't have an assessment for you today.
Q: Admiral Kirby, can you give us an update on Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? What is his condition, based on this new video? And what has the department done in the last five years to try and rescue him?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, as you know, there have been media reports that there has been a new proof-of-life video. I can confirm that that is, in fact, the case. We are aware of a new proof-of-life video. We believe it was shot recently.
And without getting into too much detail, I mean, clearly, Bowe Bergdahl, having been in captivity for so long, I mean, I'm told that it -- that he does look frail and probably not in the best health he's ever known.
But -- and I can also, to your second question, without getting into details, I can tell you, across the spectrum, diplomatically, militarily, even from an intelligence perspective, we've never lost focus on Bowe Bergdahl and on -- and on trying to get him home.
I want to also take a moment just to commend his family for their bravery and their courage, their stoicism. I've seen their statements yesterday, incredibly brave family, one of the first things Secretary Hagel did when he took office was to talk to them within his first month of being here.
And I would just tell you, Bowe's not just part of the Bergdahl family; he's part of the military family. And we've just never -- we've never lost focus on trying to get him back.
Q: What, in fact, if you don't get a bilateral security agreement with the Afghans, will it have on your ability to eventually bring him home alive?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know that I can answer that. I don't think we're looking at the (inaudible) in the bilateral security agreement to our desire to get Bowe Bergdahl home. That's never going to change.
But on the BSA, we clearly want one and we want one as soon as possible.
Q: On the BSA, do you worry that the Gates book and particularly his words about Obama's relationship with Karzai, not particularly liking Karzai, will complicate your efforts to get a BSA signed?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think our focus on the BSA is simply getting it signed as soon as possible. And we made that clear. We need it signed promptly or planning will have to begin for a complete withdrawal by the end of 2014.
I'm not going to speculate about what language is in Mr. Gates' book and what effect that might have on the bilateral security agreement. We've been very open and transparent and clear with the Karzai administration about the contents of it. We've worked together very hard there in Kabul with him and his team on this.
And we really urge him to sign it as soon as possible.
Q: Do you want to offer the Pentagon's official review of the book? (inaudible) the basement, signing copies right now. So obviously there's some acceptance of the book.
What do you -- ?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The fact that he's signing the book in the Pentagon isn't --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: -- doesn't connote endorsement of the content of the book.
I've not read the book. I've just seen the press reporting of it.
Look, I mean, we all have great respect and admiration for Secretary Gates. I got to watch him up close, as Adm. Mullen's spokesman, all of us have great regard for him and his leadership here.
And we're glad to welcome him here in the Pentagon to sign copies of it for the folks that work here.
Q: What's Secretary Hagel's response to the book?
Should he have been revealing conversations with the sitting president?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The secretary's not taking a position on the content of Secretary Gates' book. He had a chance to meet with Secretary Gates this morning -- I'm sorry; early this afternoon before the book signing. Secretary Gates came in and had a nice chat. But he's not going to take a position on the opinions that are expressed in the book or make a statement about whether the book should have been or not. I think he said it very well, I think, to a question that John asked him last week, and his answer was he's not going to -- he doesn't second guess the motivations of others.
Q: What did they talk about?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I didn't -- I didn't get a full readout from him. He honestly just hit me up in the - in the hallway and said, hey, I just met with him; it was a great conversation. But we didn't have a chance to talk.
Q: On budget QDR, was the senior leader session the secretary hosted on the work in progress? Or are both of those things more or less done, and so it was a senior leader sort of coming to grips with -- with both QDR and budget?
And, if it is done, is QDR going to be SCMR (Strategic Choices and Management Review)-plus or is there some fresh thinking in it?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not done. Either -- neither document is completely done yet, Tom. So this was very much a working discussion about the contents both of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the fiscal year '15 budget and the secretary -- in fact, one of the reasons, you know, he holds those senior leadership councils is to get those opinions to have a frank and honest discussion and having just come from the meeting myself, I can tell you it was -- it was very frank and honest and open and he values those opinions.
But -- but no, neither document is done.
Q: There was a report this morning -- back on the omnibus bill -- about a secret annex that governs the authority over the use of drones moving from the CIA to the Defense Department. Is that your understanding that it would prohibit that move? And can you give us an update generally about the president's wish from last year at his National Defense University speech to move more of that authority to this department from the CIA?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Without talking about specific provisions that may or may not be in the omnibus bill on an issue like that, I think the president when he spoke at NDU was very clear about his desire to be as transparency as possible with respect to those operations. And that's a message that we got loud and clear here in the Pentagon.
I'm not going to get into the details in that story, just to tell you that we are with most of our operations, or as many operations as possible we try to be as transparent as we can.
Q: On Somalia, U.S. personnel there. Can you discuss what their role is? Their numbers? What -- do you expect that number to grow? And, what you're doing to ensure their security?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You're talking about the coordination center. Small numbers, I'm not going to give in to specifics. Very small number of -- of U.S. personnel. They'll be there on a rotational basis, right now, I think just a few months at a time. They're being detailed there from the combined joint task force there in the horn of Africa, in Djibouti.
I think that rotational arrangement will be the one that persists for quite some time. And they're doing -- they're helping with logistical planning, some operational planning maybe some communications assistance, that kind of thing.
But, this is something that is important to General Rodriguez and the joint task force commander there in Djibouti. And I think it -- I think it -- it's a good thing, and it -- and it helps us contribute to what is a growing international commitment in Somalia.
Q: What can you tell us about security arrangements for them?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we don't talk about the specifics on force protection, I can just tell you we're -- we're comfortable that -- and we're always watching that wherever our troops are, but we're comfortable that they're operating in as secure an environment as possible.
Q: Can I ask you about that Cape Ray -- now that the Italians have named a port for the transfer, is there -- has the captain of the Cape Ray gotten his orders yet? Does he know where he's going? Does he know when he's leaving?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, progress on getting the Cape Ray on her way is on schedule. She's completed two successful sea trials. They were able to test the hydrolysis machines in various sea-states so we have a pretty good idea that -- that even under some heightened sea conditions they'll be able to operate the machinery.
They're still certifying the ship and the equipment, but again that's all working right on schedule. We expect the certifications to be complete, if not today then certainly by tomorrow.
On sailing dates, I can't give you an exact date right now, but we know we're drawing close. Probably within the next week or so and I did see the Italian announcement on the port for transshipment. We're grateful for the Italians in being able to offer that up. But, as for exact locations, as to where the hydrolysis will occur, we haven't made those decisions right now.
Well, let me go to Phil.
Q: I just want to bring you back to the Air Force announcement yesterday for a second. The secretary in his statement, the secretary's statement said this was a top priority, but I didn't get the sense that he was maybe thinking about hanging the threat of job security over anyone over this incident or over the -- over recent incidents.
Q: The (inaudible) going to be treated in isolation. There's another incident involving General Carey just very recently.
So, is the about a single -- is the secretary aware that this as part of a trend, this is part of a bigger issue? And it may be a time to send a message about accountability?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think the secretary shares Secretary James' concern, as well as General Walsh's, about the scope and the size of this and -- and that there could be something larger afoot here.
And I think they made it clear yesterday, he made it clear in his discussion with her, that he wants this taken very, very seriously.
And on accountability, I mean, this department traditionally holds people accountable when there is a need to hold them accountable. And I think Secretary Hagel will do that.
But I don't think we're at that point right now. This just got kicked -- we just -- we just, literally, got briefed -- he got briefed on it yesterday. He came to the podium. I mean, this just got started. We need to let it go where it's gonna go.
And I think that was the other point that he also made, was let the investigation take you where it may, let the facts take you where they may. And then we'll deal with accountability on the backside of it.
Q: On the same topic, was the secretary ever told how the drug part of this got started, which led to the other investigation. How did it begin?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not an expert on this, so I'd really refer you to the Air Force.
But he had been made aware while he was at F.E. Warren (Air Force Base, Wy.) last week, that -- that two officers, at the time it was two, had been implicated in a narcotics investigation. I think that was -- that was pretty much the extent of his knowledge that day.
Secretary James briefed him up on the extent of that investigation and how that investigation led to this investigation. I think General Walsh mentioned that to you yesterday that some of it had to do with electronic communication between -- between Air Force members that kind of opened up a lid on this -- on this cheating problem.
So he's aware of all that. He's aware of all that.
Q: Was he told anything between the time he first learned about it on Thursday, when he was at Warren, that there was a drug investigation, and apparently Sunday when Secretary James said they became -- apparently became aware that there was a cheating problem? Those few days, was the secretary ever told that there was anything else afoot?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: My understanding is he was first briefed about the broadening and the second, broader investigation on the cheating when he met with Secretary James yesterday.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's my understanding.
Q: On the same subject. Would the secretary and would the leadership of the Pentagon also look at the need to perhaps pay their missile crews more to somehow -- there's always this question about morale problems. Does there need to be some kind of compensation looked at to somehow address the morale problems? And then I have a second question.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The secretary actually, when we were there in a launch control center, and we were talking to two young officers there, missiliers. And he asked them that question. You know, how much would incentives, one way or the other, whether its educational incentives or financial incentives, affect your ability to be recruited into this force or to stay in this force?
And they acknowledged that it's something that they talk about in the force -- the value, the potential value of -- of incentives. But they also said that they take great pride in what they do and they're not -- they weren't sure whether incentives would -- would make that much of a difference.
I think what he indicated, though, is that he's willing to think about that. He didn't make any decisions. He didn't make any promises. But he expressed that he's willing to look at that. He considers the ICBM force that important -- that leg of the triad, that vital. And he's not going to close any doors. He's going to try to keep as many options open as he can as he looks at the future of the force and to keeping it -- to keeping it vital and strong.
So he's opening to considering the potential for some incentives.
Q: And then would he also review even the necessity of the entire triad as it stands? Because there are people who say it's unnecessary to have such a large land-based ICBM force in this day and age, given the capabilities of submarines and so on and so forth.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Secretary Hagel is committed to the nuclear triad.
Q: In its current size?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: He's committed to the nuclear triad, but he's also said, and I think he said this last week, that it's -- we -- we're entering an era of declining budgets. So the force is going -- the entire military force is going to have to get smaller in some ways.
He's also been, long before he was secretary of defense, an advocate of nuclear stockpile reductions. And he made specific mention of the New START treaty when he was out there and his support for that which, of course, is espousing reductions.
So he's in favor of reductions across the nuclear enterprise. But he's also very much in favor of modernizing and making sure that we stay superior from a technological standpoint. So, to that degree, he believes in a very healthy, strong nuclear triad. But healthy and strong doesn't mean it has to be the exact same size it is today.
Does that answer your question?
Q: (inaudible) what was the rationale behind the guidance of the Navy to reduce the littoral combat ship program from 52 to 32? Did it have much to do with budget or concern about the configuration mission and the survivability of the vessel?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, Tony, you know the secretary visited U.S.S. Freedom when it was out in Singapore. He understands the importance of the value, the capabilities that small combatants can bring to the United States Navy and to the Navy of the future. But I'm not going to speculate about a budget that hasn't been submitted or decisions that haven't been made about a budget that hasn't been submitted. So I'm just -- I've seen the press reports that you're referring to and I'm simply not going to speculate.
Q: (inaudible) exists, it's not speculation.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about a budget that hasn't been submitted or decisions, quite frankly, that haven't been finally made.
Q: (inaudible) last December, last month, the Pentagon's test office said to Mr. Hagel in a memo saying that it's unlikely that the (CBN-78 ), the most expensive warship ever built, it's unlikely to meet its sortie generation rate or the rate at which it launches and lands airplanes.
What was his reaction to that start, that conclusion?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think he's grateful to the work that DOT&E (Operational Test and Evaluation) did on looking at the capabilities of the forward class. He's also well aware that, like every first ship in a class, there are issues you have to work through. This is hard stuff. And this is the first new class of aircraft carrier we built in decades.
It's also -- it's a stunning ship that will espouse great capabilities for the Navy that we just don't have right now. He's aware that there are challenges with that. He's grateful for the work that they did. And he's confident; he's talked to Secretary Mabus about this, and he's confident that the Navy's going to work through those challenges and that we're going to deliver a great ship.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes. I already got you.
Q: On Okinawa, there's a luncheon coming up this weekend. Are you worried the results of the election might be by all the agreement (inaudible) in Japan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to venture into politics on Okinawa. What I'll tell you is we're grateful that the -- that the governor was able to sign that landfill permit there over the holidays and that we can start to, you know, to actually move dirt here on this new facility. We're grateful for that support and we look forward to working with them as we continue to build it.
Q: Back to the budget, you mentioned earlier the meeting, is there -- what type of timeframe is the department looking at right now in terms of a budget release? It's pretty late in the process and you mentioned the budget's still not finalized.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we're in much better shape than we were last year in terms of timing. I mean, OMB determines the schedule here and I'm not going to get ahead of OMB. We're working very, very hard on that.
To Tom's question, it's not complete but it's certainly near complete. We're closing in on it very, very soon -- weeks. But I wouldn't get into specifics. That's really for OMB to talk about. And they -- they're the ones that submit it.
Q: How likely is it going to be released on the day after the Super Bowl?
February 3rd or 2nd, I think (inaudible)?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not -- again, I'm not going to speculate on the exact dates here, Tony. OMB determines the schedule for the submission of the budget. And I think I'd refer you to OMB on this.
Q: I'd like to go back to videos.
What was the secretary's response to the Marine video of burning the corpses?
Is there any alternate explanation for what those Marines were doing to those corpses, any excuse for why they were burning corpses and any indication that the pictures or video are -- is fake?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, it's photographs as far as I know, not video.
The secretary has seen the -- has seen the images. He's deeply troubled by what he saw, no question about that.
He's supportive of what the Marine Corps is doing in terms of investigating that. I can't sit here today and tell you with great certainty that they -- that they have confirmed the veracity of the images, in other words, that the authenticity of them, but certainly they're disturbing images. They're not indicative, regardless, of the kind of conduct and professionalism that the men and women of this department espouse and live every day.
And if -- if they're proven to be accurate and authentic, and we'll then march down the road of what we -- you know -- what needs to be done from an accountability perspective.
Both, you know, the desecration of a corpse and photographing corpses are both violations of -- of General Order 1-D. But, again, we have -- we have to let the investigation the Marine Corps just started get underway and authenticate these before we can make any accountability decisions.
But he's been very clear with the Navy Department in that he wants this taken seriously, he believes they are taking seriously, and he expects them to keep him updated.
Q: Admiral, on that point, the TMZ who broke the story, are they cooperating with the investigation? Because they provided the blur in faces which is obviously a big part of the investigation, they would know where they got them from. Is this organization cooperating?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know. You should talk to the Marine Corps about that.
I don't know.
Q: I thought the burning of corpses was permissible, given the -- depending on the situation in which you come into a compound which is filled with, you know, bodies that have been there for some time, and you're occupying the compound then you have to get rid of the corpses somehow.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Desecration is a violation of General Order 1-D.
On your specific question on burning, I think we need to let the investigation determine what happened here. And if it is true that Marines burned a corpse, why they burned that corpse. We've got to let the investigation work that out.
Q: (inaudible) for burning a corpse.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: My understanding is desecration of a corpse is a violation of General (Order) 1-D. I'm not an expert on...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'll get back to you on that.
I don't -- I don't have the -- I don't have the exact chapter and verse on burning of corpses.
But -- but look, let's lose sight of the big issue here. I mean, that's not -- aside from the burning, there were other images in that collection which are troubling for other reasons. So we need to let the Marine Corps take a look at this, authenticate it, see if it's real, if it happened and then take it from there.
Q: The Air Force recently announced that another dozen F- 22s are going to deploy to Japan this month. Is that at all directly related to the tensions in that East China Sea?
And, when was this deployment decision made?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'd have to refer you to the Air Force on the decision timing. I don't have that for you today. But the movements that you're seeing towards the Asia-Pacific to include this are really more a focus of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. We've been saying a long -- for a long time we're going to flow more resources and more capabilities to that part of the world, and I think that's what this is about.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) airlift operations to the Central African Republic?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I do actually.
If you just give me a second here.
(UNKNOWN): While you're flipping that, we have time for one after this one.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: OK.
So, we began today passenger movements for Rwandan forces from Kigali, Rwanda to Bangui. Two C-17s -- Air Force C-17s transported about 70 Rwandan forces with some vehicles and 11 pallets of equipment. We expect the whole effort to move this Rwandan infantry battalion to take about three weeks totaling roughly 800 soldiers, about 70 vehicles and a number of containers of life support supplies personnel equipment.
And that -- that started today, take about three weeks to work it all out. I think total flights is like 35. I think that's 35 total C-17 flights is what they're talking about for this mission.
Think I got time for one more.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) the number of military aircraft crashes just in the last several days, including one today I believe. And there was one -- a real bad one off the U.K. a couple days ago.
Tell me whether you see any connection between any of them? Is there any concern about a trend or they're just...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're always worried about aircraft mishaps and certainly folks losing their lives and limbs to these things. Our hearts go out to the -- hearts and thoughts -- thoughts and prayers go out to the families.
No, I don't think we're seeing any trends between these. These are just tragic mishaps, but they're all investigated and certainly if there are trends there are strings you can pull between them. I mean, those will be pretty self evident. I'm not aware of any right now.
Thanks everybody, appreciate it.