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Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Harrigian via Teleconference

Press Operations

Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command; Captain Jeff Davis, Director, Defense Press Office
May 24, 2017
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CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

We're pleased to be joined today by Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian. He's the CFAC commander, the Combined Forces Air Component commander, coming to us live from the region today.

And General, we want to make sure we can hear you and you can hear us.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JEFFREY HARRIGIAN: I've got you loud and clear. Thanks.

CAPT. DAVIS: Yes, sir. We will turn it over to you for your opening remarks, and we'll take questions from here.

GEN. HARRIGIAN: All right, thanks, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to chat with you this morning.

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to update you today about what the coalition is doing across United States Central Command's area of responsibility. Every day, over 24,000 professionals from 20 nations operating in 18 countries at 74 locations, spanning a little over 3,700 miles, deliver air power, develop relationships, and defend the region.

In the past month alone, throughout the U.S. Central Command AOR, their teamwork, expertise and professionalism are responsible for the following: flying over 580 kinetic sorties; employing 4,800 weapons; flying 1,800 airlift sorties to move over 13,000 tons of cargo and nearly 18,000 passengers; and conducting 1,300 refueling sorties delivering 68 million pounds of fuel to keep strike and ISR aircraft over our partners on the ground.

Before I take your questions, I have a few comments I'd like to make.

Operation Inherent Resolve is a complex, dynamic environment for air operations, with multiple groups fighting in close proximity in the congested airspace over Syria. As we focus on destroying ISIS, I'm ever-cognizant of the need to avoid an action that could result in a strategic miscalculation by any of the actors operating in this battle space.

My team here at the Combined Air Operations Center continues to leverage our de-confliction mechanisms with the Russians to prevent such a misunderstanding. We saw such an incident unfold last week where pro-regime forces were seen advancing on a garrison at At-Tanf, at which we train partner ground forces. These forces were given multiple opportunities to retreat before we struck them, including using our de-confliction line to get them to withdraw.

Following repeated requests, coalition aircraft conducted a show of force and fired warning shots prior to executing the strike that destroyed a military threat consisting of a tank, armored vehicles, artillery and technical vehicles. This strike should make it clear to all that coalition air power will be used when our ground forces are threatened.

Coalition air power has been a decisive factor in our ongoing efforts to defeat and destroy ISIS. When the Syrian Democratic Forces launched their offensive to liberate the Tabqa Dam in Syria from ISIS, coalition air power was there to support them. Our SDF partners rolled back ISIS's territorial gain to the east, north and west of Tabqa, capturing territory about twice the size of Long Island along the way.

Coalition air power supported them around the clock in this effort as they pressed forward to successfully seize Tabqa and the nearby dam earlier this month.

Supporting the Iraqis in the fight to liberate Mosul, though, remains our priority and we have maintained an around-the-clock presence of aircraft to protect and support our partner forces on the ground. These aircraft provide a myriad of missions, including close-air support, situational awareness, command and control, refueling and kinetic strikes.

Our persistent ISR capabilities provide the coalition a keen edge on enemy activity and allow us to identify, vet and validate legitimate targets through a refined process. This process ensures we hit the desired target with the intended effects and minimal collateral damage.

Complementing the coalition has been an increasing, capable and lethal Iraqi air force that has made tremendous progress in its growth and development. This continuous presence of Iraqi and coalition aircraft continues to severely restrict ISIS's freedom of movement and their fighting capacity.

The offensive to recapture west Mosul is progressing well, with the vast majority of the city back in the hands of the Iraqi people. In support of this effort, the coalition employed over 6,000 weapons on targets including ISIS fighting positions, VBIED factories, weapon caches, and boats. And I can't remember a time when we didn't use a precision weapon to support them there.

As we target the remaining ISIS holdouts in the old city, I'll echo what Secretary Mattis said last week. Our strategy going forward is not to allow the remaining ISIS force to escape to fight another day, but to annihilate them with precision.

The precision of our strikes is imperative in this dense urban -- urban terrain of places like Mosul and Raqqa.

As you may know, we have two categories of targets and target development. That would be deliberate and dynamic.

Deliberate targeting involves an extensive development process to ensure each one is legitimate and meets established strike criteria. This process can take from days to weeks to develop, depending on the target and the time needed to observe daily patterns of life and behavior.

Dynamic targeting is much more responsive to emerging threats, taking anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the type of target and environment. These are frequently discovered by ground forces or overhead aircraft.

As with deliberate targets, we still carefully validate them and secure approval from the appropriate authority as we do with deliberate strikes.

Bottom line, whether it's a deliberate or dynamic strike, the coalition strives to mitigate impacts to civilians throughout the targeting process, from identification, to validation, to the moment we release the weapon.

While many of our strikes are dynamic, we remain focused on the deep fight -- deliberate targets because of the tremendous impact they have had on the enemies' fighting capacity.

A force without money can't fight, and ISIS key revenue source, the illicit sale of oil, remains a top priority. To date, coalition airstrikes and ground operations have struck approximately 2,600 ISIS-held gas and oil targets, including over 1,500 tanker trucks.

Our deliberate targeting process allows us to focus on high-impact targets while keeping a wary eye on any enemy capabilities that may emerge.

For instance, in early May, coalition aircraft put 26 weapons into ISIS' most productive natural gas facility in Syria. Estimating it, denying them approximately $1.2 million per month in revenue. Strikes like these have resulted in ISIS' lowest revenue income and inflow at any point since 2014.

Our refined targeting process has also been instrumental in avoiding civilian casualties like those ISIS intentionally inflicts. On a daily basis, we go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate collateral damage and civilian casualties.

In the 10 months I've served as the CFACC, I've seen ISIS grow increasingly brutal against the people in the -- in a -- in the areas it controls. ISIS has become so desperate that they have baited us to strike targets that will purposefully cause civilian casualties. Our eyes and ears in the sky and on the ground keep the coalition abreast of ISIS' increasingly desperate tactics, allowing us to refine our targeting process so we avoid hurting those we're trying to liberate.

Throughout this fight, every target goes through our refined process to ensure it's not only a legitimate target under the law of armed conflict, but that it meets a threshold of proportionality and necessity.

Even when we strike a legitimate target, we're always watching for civilians walking in the field of view to avoid hitting unknown people in the area. When this happens, our first response is to abort the strike if possible.

In the event this occurs after a weapon is released, we can redirect it toward an unpopulated area. In the past year alone, the coalition has aborted many strikes when an unknown person has appeared in the target area.

One example I'd like to share with you on the disparity between ISIS and the coalition when it comes to avoiding human suffering was a dynamic strike we conducted in Syria to stop a public execution.

An unmanned aircraft flying overhead observed a group of ISIS fighters rounding up locals to witness a public execution on a street. Knowing we might hurt some of the bystanders if we attempted to target the ISIS fighters in the street, we quickly decided to target an ISIS sentry on a rooftop for crowd control and intimidation. Needless to say, the execution was averted. The sentry was the only known casualty. And ISIS's image of invincibility was squashed.

As we look to the east, we remain committed to the ongoing missions in Afghanistan. As part of Operation Resolute Support, we have coalition air advisers working side by side with the Afghans from certifying aircraft maintainers to providing training on various air crew duties. In the past, the Afghan army relied on the coalition for air support. Now, they are increasingly relying on their own countrymen overhead.

A great example of this is the A-29, which recently celebrated its first full year of combat ops at the hands of the Afghan air force. The A-29, in concert with their MD-530 helicopters, have become game-changers because now Afghan pilots can provide air attack capability across their country. The Taliban and other insurgents know that as well.

Afghan forces have been doing this with just 12 A-29s in country, four of which just arrived in Afghanistan in April, and they're planning to acquire 12 more. The Afghans have clearly gained the confidence of their ground forces and continue to expand their operations. My assessment is that their contributions are having a positive effect on the outcome of the mission. The Afghan air force improvement is a testament to our partnership and advising efforts, but more prominently to the Afghans' hard work, dedication and professionalism.

Looking to Operation Freedom Sentinel, our focus to provide air support to counterterrorism continues. In the last nine months alone, Afghan and U.S. counterterrorism forces have killed the ISIS-K commander, his replacement, and more than a dozen of their top leaders. Since early March, we have removed more than two-thirds of their fighting strength from the battlefield, and territory under their control has been reduced by two-thirds.

Our counterterrorism and train, advise and assist missions are concurrent and complementary. While we continue to attack the remnants of Al Qaida, we are building the Afghan national defense and security force so that they can instill peace and contribute to stability throughout the region.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with these three assurances. The first being we're aggressively continuing to prosecute the fight, leveraging the coalition's air power to work by, with and through our partner forces on the ground to annihilate ISIS.

Two, our detailed, disciplined targeting process has enabled us to effectively deliver air power superiority against ISIS, while mitigating civilian casualties.

And three, I can't think of a more complex, congested battle space that we're sending our coalition airmen to face every day. I'm honored to work with these professionals as they pummel our enemies every day.

With that, Jeff, I'm ready to take questions from the audience. Thanks for this opportunity.

CAPT. DAVIS: We'll start with Lita Baldor from the Associated Press.

Q: Hi, General. It's Lolita Baldor with A.P.

You talked a bit about the de-confliction with the Russians. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit more about these de-confliction zones, about how many there are in and around Syria. And has the de-confliction with Russia increased in recent weeks as you get ready to do more in Raqqa and -- and that surrounding area?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay, thanks for that.

Well, first, I think it's important to delineate between the de-confliction that we execute with the Russians and the de-escalation zones that may have been talked at during the Astana talks. Those are separate from the operations that we're executing.

And what I would offer to you to help clarify the situation is that we do not have specific zones that we are de-conflicting with them. Rather, it's a operation that we discuss with the Russians to ensure that as we prosecute different portions of the different areas that we are working across Syria, that we have appropriately de-conflicted with the Russians.

So, we continue to communicate with them to ensure they are clear on our intentions. And we don't recognize any specific zone in itself that we preclude ourselves from operating in.

In other words, if we know where we've got to operate to prosecute the fight against the enemy, we're going to let the Russians know we're operating there and then work to ensure that we can execute that.

Wherever the enemy's at, wherever they present themselves, we're going to get after them.

Q: But has this de-confliction with the Russians increased as there's greater fight around Raqqa? And are you saying that these -- there's no limits on U.S. air power around these de-escalation zones?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, again, the -- the de-escalation zones are a -- a -- a separate topic.

But to answer the first part of your question, yes, we -- we have to -- have had to increase the amount of de-confliction work we're doing with the Russians given the tighter airspace that we're now working ourselves through.

So, as you look at the geography of the airspace up -- particularly up near Raqqa, we ensure that as we prosecute the fight against the enemy, the Russians -- while we don't give them specifics, we make sure we note where we're going to operate so that we can portray that to them in a manner that allows us to -- to continue our attack on the enemy, and gives us the freedom of movement we need to ensure that where the enemy presents itself we're able to get after them.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Michael Gordon of the New York Times.

Q: General, due to the nature of its terrain, Old Mosul presents a -- a challenge for Iraqi forces on the ground and also for the air power that needs to support them with respect to avoiding civilian casualties. And obviously, there's great sensitivity to that issue following the March 17th episode.

Can you use airpower in Old Mosul? Have you used airpower in the older parts of Mosul? And what specific things are you doing in this environment to reduce the risk of civilian causalities while you try to destroy ISIS?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Hey, thanks, Michael. I appreciate that question.

And clearly, Old Mosul provides a -- a significant challenge.

What I would tell you is that, first off, we have had the opportunity to characterize and study that area for a significant period of time. And as you alluded to, we are doing everything possible to, number one, understand the area.

And then number two, as we work with our team on the ground, have ourselves situated in a manner that allows us to, one understand that we've got the right weapons available to us; number two, understand that as we select those specific weapons, we select the appropriate types of fusing to ensure that we minimize any collateral damage; and then three, what I would offer to you as we operate in this area, we have found, without talking to specific tactics, that we have some capabilities, in particular with our -- our RPAs that provide us several opportunities when the enemy presents themselves to target them.

You know, I would offer that we learned a lot from operations in Sirte in Libya that we've been able to carry into this environment. That's been very effective as we've tried to understand how to best employ airpower in -- in Old Mosul.

Q: Just quickly to clarify, so you have been able to use air power and ordinance of some kind in Old Mosul? You've already done that?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. We have used air power there.

And as I highlighted there, it's been a combination of specific platforms we put over the top, combined with the tactics, techniques and procedures, leveraging, quite frankly, some of the experience we gained in Libya along with the use of our precision weapons in that area.

CAPT. DAVIS: Paul Shinkman, U.S. News and World Report.

Q: General, thanks for doing this.

A couple more questions to follow up on Lita's.

And again, just to be clear, these are about the de-escalation zones that the Russians announced out of the Astana talks.

Has the Russian government or the Syrian government communicated to U.S. anything about those zones, particularly what it expects about U.S. behavior around them?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay. Jeff, I might need a little help on hearing what he said.

As I understood it, it was about the de-escalation zones from Astana. Can -- can you restate the question for me? I just had trouble hearing him in this connection.

Q: General, can you hear me better now?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yes, I got you loud and clear now.

Q: Okay.

So my question was about specifically the de-escalation zones that the Russian government announced out of the Astana talks.

Has any element -- have -- has the Russian government or any of their partners communicated to the U.S. and the coalition about how it expects coalition aircraft to -- to behave, to operate around these zones?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, hey, thanks for that.

So given we were not -- we, the U.S. government were not a party to that agreement, we have not had any discussions at -- at my level about those the de-escalation zones.

What I would tell you, though, is as we've been working with the Russians, there is a -- a constant drive to ensure that we understand where each other are operating, so that we preclude that strategic miscalculation I highlighted earlier.

So, that's why I was trying to delineate that the de-escalation zones are different from what we do every day with the Russians to ensure we have our freedom of maneuver.

Q: Just to be clear, have you decided now on how you plan to abide by these zones, or whether you plan to ignore them as de facto no-fly zones?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, we have not done anything specifically to plan for those or to accept those as areas that we would de-conflict in. So, at this point, it remains something that, as we continue to go forward, we do not talk about those de-escalation zones with the Russians. We continue to just work our de-confliction to get after the enemy.

Q: And then just a couple of questions about these areas themselves. The Russian government has indicated that they plan to start actually enforcing the zones within a matter of days. I've seen some reports that they've already begun rotating in new aircraft, rotating out older aircraft, setting up more advanced anti-aircraft weaponry.

And also that they've shifted their air campaign more toward the east of Syria. I wonder if any of those things are things that you've also observed, sir.

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, thanks for that.

So, just to be clear, going back to those de-escalation zones, again those are different. And at our level, when we've talked to the Russians, we do not talk about those de-escalation zones. We just talk de-confliction in our operations.

Now, relative to Russian activity in Syria, yes, we are closely watching their rotation of aircraft. We have very high situational awareness on when they rotate their airplanes. Additionally, we watch very closely their integration and rotation, if any occurs, of their integrated air defense systems, primarily their surface-to-air missiles.

So that is something that we consistently review, keep an eye on, because again for airmen in particular, I need to be able to make my assessment on how they're responding to our activities such that I'm able to mitigate risk for our airmen so that as we continue to prosecute the attack against ISIS, we understand where the Russians are, what they have for capabilities, and how they're integrating those with the Syrians.

CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Next to Thomas Watkins with Agence France-Press.

Q: General, thank you for doing this.

A couple of reports out this week, one from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one from Airwars. The -- the Syrian Observatory said that there were 225 civilians killed in Syria in U.S.-led strikes. And the Airwars one, I'm sure you saw that, that -- they said a higher number of 300 and something in Iraq and Syria.

Given -- given the remarks you've already made on this issue -- actually, sorry, Airwars also said that this -- this appears to indicate that you guys are scaling back your protections for civilians. And they say that these data show that the Trump presidency has a much higher tolerance for CIVCAS.

So, let me ask you this question: Are you -- are you, the coalition, killing more civilians under President Trump?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: My direct answer to that is no.

The rules of engagement and the targeting process that we continue and have used is very deliberate, very thorough and. I would offer to you, quite effective.

I will also highlight to you that our process to review and determine credibility is a very robust process, one that any time there's an accusation, whether it be from someone that sees it on the ground, it may be in fact an -- a -- an aircrew member sees it, we're going to go back, determine the credibility, determine if there needs to be an investigation, and -- and we will go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we understand what happened on the back side of it.

On the front side, from a targeting perspective, as I highlighted to you earlier, our execution, in terms of validating, vetting and understanding the necessity of a specific target, is -- is very robust. And that could be for a target that we plan for several weeks or, as I said, could be in a -- a dynamic situation where we're protecting our forces on the ground.

With respect to the administration's guidance to us, the rules of engagement have not changed. So, we are executing those in accordance with the -- the training that we've had and -- and the -- the deliberate process that we use to target military-appropriate targets.

Having said that, you probably have read a bit about what we've done to be more responsive to support our forces on the ground. And we've ensured that authorities are at the appropriate level to support our forces on the ground. And that has facilitated what I would offer to you has been opportunities to get after the enemy when they presented themselves, particularly in support of our forces on the ground.

So, a combination of those factors has allowed us to be effective in supporting our forces in the ground while adhering to the same exact ROE that we had previous and has maintained itself under President Trump's administration.

Q: Thank you.

But I mean, you do see the -- you do see the discrepancy or the disconnect between what you just said. You’re saying, "Well, on the one hand, there's a lot more of -- you know, the people on the ground have more authority to -- to strike." And then we're seeing this massive increase in numbers.

Like what's the -- what do you attribute -- how do you reconcile those two things? What do you attribute it to?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Well, first, I would say those numbers that Airwars and the -- the Observatory -- they -- I'm not going to agree to those numbers. I think you've read that we have different numbers that we had garnered through our assessments and our analysis of it. And clearly, there's going to be some discrepancies based on how people gather that information, who they're talking to.

And from our perspective, we are doing everything that we can to investigate it, take any lessons from those and -- and improve on how we do our business. And -- and I would offer to you, that's something that we're consistently and -- and constantly working to get after.

But the -- the numbers that come out of these other organizations are garnered from areas that I would argue may not have a full picture of what we're seeing as well either. So, hence you're going to find these discrepancies that I would say are unrelated to the way that we do business.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Tony Capaccio from Bloomberg.

Q: (Off mic) along those lines, the munitions that the Air Force has dropped since January has been exponentially more than the first three years of the war. March you dropped 3,800 munitions; that was an all-time high.

Do I -- what do you attribute the increased munitions drops to? Along with Tom's question, I mean, is this part of the Trump administration allowing the military more latitude to fire at will, so to speak, when they know they have an appropriate target?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, hey, thanks, Tony, for that question.

So, a couple things.

First off, what I would offer to you in -- particularly over the last couple months here, we've had simultaneity in our action with respect to what's been happening in Mosul and Raqqa.

And as our ground forces maneuver, we're finding that's when the enemy is going to present themselves. And with the assets that we've had overhead, we've been able to be very effective any time the enemy shows themselves, that we've been able to target them and leverage our -- our precision munitions.

Having said that, I also would offer to you that we have refined our targeting process and -- and become more efficient in layering our ISR to uncover targets that have made themselves available to us, which also has facilitated the number of weapons we've been able to deliver.

So I think it's a combination of those two specific points that have facilitated and allowed us to be more aggressive with getting after the enemy, and at the same time, remain true to the precision targeting and target development that we've used over time.

Q: So equating more -- reports of more civilian casualties with more munitions being dropped would be a false comparison in your world, in your eyes.

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, sorry. Okay. I got to beg forgiveness. That -- it was -- it was hard to hear you. Can you say that one more time?

Q: Correlating the increase in munitions since January by month with reports of increased civilian casualties would be a false comparison in your estimation?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay. I'm having trouble copying that.

So, increased munitions -- and I'm just reading back to you now what you said -- would be -- if we -- given that we've delivered more munitions, that has resulted in increased civilian casualties. If that's the correlation people are attempting to draw, yes, I would agree with you: That's a false analysis of the situation.

Q: That wasn't my assessment but I was positing to you as a question.

One other issue: The F-22 stealth fighter, the pricey airplane you have over there, the Air Force wants a billion dollars in the F.Y. '18 budget to upgrade that plane. What kind of missions is it doing over there? And is it justifying its existence with -- over in your theater anyway?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Right. Thanks, Tony.

I think you know I'm -- I'm -- I'm flying that over here, and I got a little bit of experience. So I've been able to leverage -- and, quite frankly, I've been very fortunate to have it over here, because it's given me a capability that's been incredibly important to my ability to get back into the airspace, particularly in Syria, as we've needed to gain a better understanding of what the Syrian and Russian IADS were doing.

Perfect example is, after the TLAM strikes, we had to work our way back into the air -- airspace. And I used the F-22 to help take the initial steps to get me in a position that would allow other assets then to come into the airspace.

So, while I was doing that, the airplane was -- was flying in a defensive counter-air role. But simultaneously, given that the airplane can carry small-diameter bombs, using the partnered force we had on the ground, I could fly defensive counter-air while simultaneously providing the capability to support our -- our -- our partners on the ground.

The other capability that has been very helpful for me is, while we'd like to leverage our AWACS and our ground radars for air domain awareness, the F-22 gives me a capability in real time to support those efforts in ensuring I have the ability to de-conflict in real time, should the Russians or the -- the Syrian air force decide to present themselves in a manner that's a conflict for us in the air.

And so, in those -- in that environment, the F-22's ability to fuse information, understand where our friendly forces are, what the Syrian air force or the Russian air force are executing, and then provide that information to the joint force -- it's frankly been unmatched.

And, having flown in the airplane in both of those roles, I'm going to tell you there's no better platform to do that. And it's done an -- an incredible job at providing me, as the CFACC, that capability for not only air domain awareness, but also supporting our folks on the ground.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Dan Lamothe from the Washington Post.

Q: General, thanks for your time today. Dan -- Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

When we visited Iraq in February and -- and sat with you then, you talked about your desire and the desire of others to increase de-confliction with a possible higher level -- probably a senior officer of some kind -- two -- two-star, three-star. It's been called a couple different things.

Has that happened? And if not, is that something you still want? And if so, how is it working so far?

Thanks.

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, hey, thanks, Dan. And great to talk with you.

I do remember that conversation. And so, as you've probably read, there have been three-star conversations at the -- the joint -- joint staff level. I would also highlight to you that we've had other conversations, not at my level, but my -- my two-star deputy exchanged some conversations with the Russians as we were working through the myriad of issues that have occurred over here.

So, we have had the ability to increase the dialogue at the appropriate level. My expectation is that will be helpful as we move forward, in particular, as -- as the airspace continues to become more congested and with the -- I think one of the questions earlier had to do with the Russians and -- and the regime continuing to move farther to the east.

I think it'll be important that we decrease ambiguity. And that decrease in ambiguity allows us to understand where they're -- they're going, where possible areas of conflict could occur.

And this gives us a mechanism, both at the colonel level and -- and at a slightly higher level, to make sure that we're able to continue, at least from my perspective, the attack on ISIS, and -- and hunt them down wherever they're maneuvering inside the battlespace.

Q: As far as your own deputy, the -- the two stars in theater, how recent have those conversations occurred, and when did they begin?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So it was -- it was -- it was pretty close to after you and I had talked. We -- we work through -- I'm trying to think back to the specific situation, and -- and it's not coming to my -- my head right now, and when that occurred.

But as we've worked through some of the -- and it's been in -- in the Syrian -- Raqqa area -- as we try to ensure that we understood their intentions and, at the same time, could convey to them where we needed to maneuver, and, like I highlighted, decrement that ambiguity to the max extent possible, recognizing that in -- in many of these situations, what I would share with you is I'm putting coalition airmen in what can be very complex and dynamic situations, that my job is to provide them as clear and unambiguous intent as possible.

So, as we've worked through these situations, I think that the colonel-to-colonel communication has -- has worked quite well. But in those situations where we've needed to be a little bit more clear, we've leveraged it -- and -- and I'll -- I'll offer it up to you.

It's only been a couple of times. This has not been a regular discussion at the -- the two to three-star level. Over.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Courtney Kube, from NBC News.

Q: Thanks, General.

One -- one follow up to one of your answers from -- to Lita's question earlier. You said that there's been an increase in the amount of deconfliction with the Russians. Are you able to quantify that at all? And -- and what exactly do you mean?

Are you -- are you talking about, like, physical number of calls have increased every day? Or is more about these sort of newer lines of communication that you were just talking about?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So it -- it largely ebbs and flows based on the situation in the battlespace. I know many of you are tracking what has occurred over the last couple of days in At-Tanf and the situation there.

And you can be sure that, in the pure quantity of phone calls, it increased because, again, what we're trying to do is drive down the ambiguity and make sure we're clear on our intent and portray it in -- in a manner that says, "hey, here's where we're at. If we feel threatened, we're going to take action."

So, to answer your question specifically, I would say it would be pure numbers of phone calls in -- in the -- in a manner that allows us to be more clear, or get clarity from them if we're not clear on their intentions.

Q: You mentioned a couple of months ago -- you talked about how there were semi-regular, frequent interactions with the Russians in the air, whether it would be sort of a -- a close encounter, even if it wasn't unsafe, and that they happened every week or 10 days or so.

Are you still seeing that? And can you give us any recent examples? Are you seeing with this -- as you're operating sort of in closer proximity with the Russians in the air, have those increased?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: In short, no. I will share with you we had one incident where there was intercept they ran that I would categorize as unprofessional. And we called them on it, and expressed our concern. And they came back, quite frankly, and apologized for that particular intercept.

But beyond that, I would tell you that they have adhered to what we've asked them to do. And in general, have been responsive to our requests where we've worked through the specific nuances of what they were trying to do, versus what we needed to do. And so, largely, and I'll come back to kind of the situation we've been working through over the last couple of days, they've been responsive and been receptive to what we've wanted them to do in a manner that has allowed us to continue to prosecute our fight.

So, in general, I'd say there have been -- like I said, I can only think of one instance since you and I last talked that we've had any issues with them.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.

Q: Hi, General. Can you tell us when that incident occurred? And what type of aircraft both on the Russian and coalition sides?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Let's see. It was -- I know there was a fighter aircraft involved with one of our tankers. If you recall, I think when I saw Dan and Courtney out here back in the fall, we had had an incident at night with our AWACS. This particular one had to do with -- I can't remember if it was a SU-35 or a SU-30 involved with one of our KC-10s.

And, you know, basically there was again another intercept that I would put in the not-professional category. And we discussed it with them, and they came back and acknowledged it.

Q: And General, how concerned are you about these Iranian-backed fighters operating in Syria? How much of a threat are they to U.S. coalition forces on the ground, particularly down south?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Hey, thanks for that.

So, first thing I would say is I'm concerned about any threat to our forces on the ground. And, you know, I'm just going to reiterate the fact that we will protect our force. We'll do what it takes to ensure that our ground forces, if they're threatened, we're going to take the necessary action.

This is clearly an area with the Iranians that we're going to watch -- watch it closely. As indicated, we're -- we continue to communicate with the Russians and provide them our intent. That is directly aligned with that declaration that we're going to protect our force. And there should be no doubt in anybody's mind that if we're threatened, we're going to defend our folks.

CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible) -- CNN.

Q: Hello, General. Thank you for doing this.

I just had one quick follow up on At-Tanf, and then another question just generally about de-confliction. So, these -- these forces were considered a threat and they were struck as they approached At-Tanf. But they've also kind of settled in the area. And I know you said they were -- the de-confliction zones are kind of not necessarily as concrete as some reporting has been made. But are these forces -- you've continued to do shows of force. I believe there was one over the weekend.

Are they headed in the right direction generally? Or are they kind of just sitting in place? And are they kind of being constantly observed?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: We're watching them closely. And as I highlighted earlier, we're continuing to ensure that via the Russians, they understand our intent is for them not to threaten us. And clearly, we're watching them 24/7. And maintain a -- the ability from our side to position our forces such that we can defend them.

So we'll continue to do that. We'll clearly keep a close eye on them. And hopefully, over time, they'll recognize that it's not in their best interest to move towards us and move a different direction.

Q: And -- and just generally on de-confliction, so has there ever been an instance where the U.S. or the Russians have communicated via the channel in advance of a strike, and that the U.S. has said to Russia "no, you cannot strike in that area," or vice versa? I mean, has there ever been a proposed air operation by either Russia or the coalition and either side kind of being able to in effect exercise a veto on that operation?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Generally, no. In most situations, we have in essence a common enemy, ISIS. And so we have found ways to appropriately de-conflict to allow us to continue our mission, which has been my focus, while trying to ensure that I'm able to mitigate situations that would put my airmen, my coalition airmen in a precarious situation.

So, to use the word "veto" would be inappropriate. There have been times we've had to work through mitigation strategies to ensure we could continue our mission and vice versa. And I think that's important to highlight in that the Russians are -- are understanding of what we're trying to do.

I'm not going to say that it's always easy and it often takes several phone calls to work our way through it. But I would say that we have found ways to ensure that we have our freedom of maneuver to get after ISIS and kill them when they present themselves.

Q: Thank you, General.

CAPT. DAVIS: Luis Martinez from ABC News.

General, I want to make sure you're doing okay on time. We had promised to cut you off right about now. We still have several people in the queue, if you -- are you -- do you have more time for a few more?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yes, I have time for a couple more.

CAPT. DAVIS: Luis?

Q: General, thank you again for doing this briefing.

Earlier, you mentioned the higher level of air drops for Mosul and elsewhere. How would you categorize the ordnance amounts that you drop in terms of your supply levels? Have they dipped significantly? Do you have a shortfall that's approaching a critical level? Have you had to replenish from other commands? And how -- do you think you're going to have to maintain this level of OPTEMPO as you go through Raqqa and into the Euphrates River Valley?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Hey, thanks, Lou.

So, every day we're -- we're tracking our weapons and monitoring where we're at.

What I would tell you what -- the way we manage this was, as we prepared for Mosul, we took a look at what would be the appropriate standard configuration loads -- or standard -- standard combat loads on our airplanes, to make sure that as -- as we loaded weapons on our particular aircraft, we had what we needed to support that particular point of the fight.

So, as we're beginning to go into Mosul, we didn't need to use maybe as many of our small-diameter bombs. Maybe we could use 500 to 1,000 pounders. Bottom line is we were managing it on a daily basis to ensure that we had the right weapons available, and when required, i.e. we got into the -- the really urban and dense portions of the -- of the fight, we had the low-collateral weapons that I think like Michael had -- had asked me earlier.

At the end of the day, as we have managed this, I've worked with the leadership at the Air Force to ensure that as we moved weapons around, we had the appropriate supplies to support our force here.

I want to be clear, though, and tell you that we have managed it through our tactics, our techniques, procedures. But at the same time, if anyone has needed a specific weapon to support the fight, I have told them, "Use the appropriate weapon for where you're at in the fight."

In other words, I've not slowed anybody down. I have not metered them. I've said, "Use what you need to use to destroy the enemy."

And as we have worked through that, I have been resupplied by the Air Force. Sometimes we've had to go to the Joint Staff and -- and had to ask for support. But that's been a Joint Staff-level decision on where they went and got those weapons.

But we have not been in a position where I've had to slow anything down to support our partners as they moved forward.

Q: And just a quick follow-up: Do you anticipate maintaining this op tempo as you go on further into those other campaigns that I mentioned, Raqqa and the -- the river valley?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, I think time will tell.

As we get through Mosul, the Iraqis will drive our timeline, in terms of how quickly they want to move on to other portions of -- of the fight in their country.

My sense is as we work our way through the -- the -- the back side of Mosul, Raqqa will pick up. And it -- it will be kinetic there. But -- but it will depend on where the Iraqis go on, if there's simultaneity involved with that.

So, I'm not going to comment on the specific timeline there, other than to say we've been able to maintain a high intensity of -- of weapons delivery inside of Mosul and Raqqa at the same time and sustain it over time.

So, I think as we look to the future, the Iraqis will drive their timing and tempo, and we'll be there prepared to support them.

CAPT. DAVIS: We have David Martin from CBS News. And then Joe Tabet from Al Hurra after that.

Q: General, I hate to admit I'm still confused about the de-confliction zones.

I thought I heard you say that there are no specific de-confliction zones. But the way this incident or series of incidents -- outside at-Tanf has been described to us here at the Pentagon, it is that those militias were inside the exclusion zone, inside I think it was 55 kilometers from at-Tanf. So, that sounds like a specific exclusion zone.

Is it that you set them up temporarily depending on the operational situation? How does it work?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, so -- thanks, David.

So, I've been trying to make it clear, but I guess I haven't said it good enough. So the de-escalation zones that someone previously asked me about, those de-escalation zones that were decided at Astana, we are not a party to that. That's a separate agreement.

The de-confliction that we've been working through, yes, there has occasionally been, as you alluded to, de-confliction areas that we work with the Russians to ensure if they're going to come in there, that they talk to us about what they're going to do. And you appropriately identified that 55-kilometer one that we're working right now. Whereas if the Russians are going to come in there, they're going to call us to give us information about what they would like to do, and we're going to have a discussion about it.

And that's the way that is specifically working right now. Does that clear that up?

Q: That does. Can you tell us where else there are de-confliction zones?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: I think all the -- you know, to go into those specifics really is kind of outside of how we're operating right now. And like I said kind of up front, they're largely temporary and there's no other specific ones that I'd want to get into at this particular point.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. And next to Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.

Q: Thank you very much, sir.

My question is on Afghanistan. Would you be able to give us an update about your operations against I.S. Khorasan province? And also, we have seen a sharp increase in the use of air power in the last two months. Have you seen also any evidence that Daesh -- I mean ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq have joined the Khorasan Province in Afghanistan lately?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yeah, thanks for that.

So first off, I agree with you. You have seen an increase in the number of strikes in Afghanistan. And I would attribute that first to the fact that we've gotten into the fighting season. And yes, ISIS-K has presented themselves as a target that we've been effectively targeting over the course of the last several months.

As I kind of mentioned up front, we took out a couple of their leaders. Two-thirds of their forces have now been decimated and two-thirds of the territory taken back. I think, as you've probably read about, this brutal entity has dragged out elders from their homes, beheaded people in front of their families. And hence, we have put ourselves in a position to be able to aggressively target them and we will continue to do that.

At this point, we will continue to -- to work closely with our Afghan partners on the ground to -- to characterize and understand where they're at, and then, as quickly as possible, work with that -- with them and in coordination with the Afghan air force to -- to target them and take them off the battlefield.

Q: Quick follow-up. Have you -- have you seen any evidence that Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq have left and joined the group in Afghanistan? If yes, how many?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: I -- I do not know the specific numbers and -- and -- and how they have come. But what I can tell you is that one of the primary reasons that we're trying to target them in -- in Afghanistan is to preclude the flow of -- of those particular fighters from Afghanistan into Iraq and Syria.

So we will continue to work to eliminate that sanctuary from -- take that sanctuary away -- away from them and deny them the ability to -- to train and operate in Afghanistan, therefore -- looking to better stabilize Afghanistan into the future.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, thanks. Laurent Barthelemy is the next on the list. He promises it's a very quick, short, one-part follow-up.

Q: Hi, General. Thank you -- thank you for your patience.

I want to be sure that I understand well your assessment on civilian casualties in the last month. Are -- are you denying that there's been a rise of civilian casualties in the last month? Or do you admit that such an increase may have occurred?

GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, I'm not going to get into the specifics of numbers. What I will tell you is that we continue to investigate every accusation, determine its credibility, and then determine if we need a follow-on investigation to understand what happened in those specific instances where a civilian casualty appears to have occurred.

I will tell you, though, there's a human dimension to this. We're not perfect. And we are making every effort to understand, as we develop the target and then prosecute it, how we can improve the way we execute and -- and deliver ordnance.

And, as I mentioned, from my level all the way on down to the individual that's delivering the weapon, they have ability to abort it -- in other words, turn off that strike if it doesn't look right.

And I would -- I would tell you that that is occurring in a manner that would ensure to me, at my level, that we're doing everything we can to preclude harming those that we would want to liberate on the ground.

CAPT. DAVIS: Well, we thank you for your time today and talking to us, and look forward to seeing you again soon. Thank you, everybody.