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Media Availability With Secretary Mattis

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Sept. 18, 2017
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Q:  Well, sir, while you were up in -- visiting the ICBM units, you got news that North Korea had fired another missile.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  

Q:  And a lot of people are wondering why you don't shoot them down.

Q:  Could you say on the record, by chance?

Q:  A lot of people asking that question.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Okay, we'll be on the record here for a minute, you know, why we don't shoot down the missiles.  

Number one, those missiles are not directly threatening any of us.  Obviously, Japan's missile defenses are up, and their radars are operating.  Ours are.  And they are intentionally doing provocations that seem to press against the envelope for just how far can they push without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable.  So they aim for the middle of the Pacific Ocean, as you know, where at least we hope no ships are around, right?

And the bottom line is that, when the missiles -- were they to be a threat, whether it be to U.S. territory, Guam, obviously Japan -- Japan's territory, that would elicit a different response from us.

Q:  And Ambassador Haley said today that there are many military options for North Korea -- at the U.N., she says this.  Is that your perspective?  And is that the message that you want to be out there?

SEC. MATTIS:  Ambassador Haley is correct.  There are many military options, in concert with our allies that we will take to defend our allies and our own interests.

SEC. MATTIS:  On the record.

Q:  Do you think the sanctions are actually working now?  Or do you think they have a prospect for working?  Or are we reaching kind of a deadend moment?

SEC. MATTIS:  What we've done with the sanctions is we are putting the leader in North Korea in a position to be aware that the international community, voting unanimously twice now in the United Nations Security Council, seeing the increasing diplomatic isolation that comes with it, comes with the economic sanction that there's a penalty to be paid for ignoring international concerns and norms.

I noticed while I was in Mexico, that Mexico had declared the DPRK ambassador persona non grata and he was dispatched home.  That's an example of what is working.  It's a pressurization effort to raise the cost.

You notice Peru has done the same.  Other nations have ordered their workers home.  So yes, it's working.

Q:  Sir, is there any military option the U.S. can take with North Korea that would not put Seoul at grave risk?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, there are, but I will not go into details.

Q:  Do you think the increased rhetoric could lead to miscalculation on the North Korean site and lead to sort of an intentional conflict?

SEC. MATTIS:  I believe there is always the potential for miscalculation by the DPRK leader.

Q:  On the question about shooting down their missiles when they're testing them; would that not be a further strengthening of deterrence if you were to do that?  Do you think along those lines?

SEC. MATTIS:  I cannot make that calculation as far as the DPRK leader.  But we will defend ourselves, our interests, our allies.  And we work together very transparently and openly with our allies for the very reason that we just mentioned.

     Q:  And, secretary, just to clarify; you said that there were possible military options that would not create a grave risk to Seoul.  Are we talking kinetic options as well?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I don't want to go into that.

Q:  When Defense Minister Song was here, he went back and told his parliament that you two at least discussed the possibility of small tactical nukes.

Is that one of the many wide options under consideration?

SEC. MATTIS:  We have open dialogue with our allies on any issue that they want to bring up.  We're not only friends, we're trusted allies.  And we bring up all issues with one another.

Q:  Sir, there's a chance that small tactical nukes might be redeployed to the Korean peninsula?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I said that we discussed the option.  But that's all the further I want to say.

Q:  On the subject of the Iran deal, there's been some thought that President Trump is signaling that he won't (inaudible) next time.

Do you think that the U.S. should stay -- continue (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  I keep my advice to the -- that would involve my official position -- I keep my advice to the president private, or in confidentiality.  He's the decision maker.  He is the elected commander-in-chief.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, will you be making a supplemental budget request for the additional troops in Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now, the budget is in play.  As you know, we're going under a CR, until I think it's December 8, if I remember.  It's somewhere early in December.  And will sort this out with the appropriators on Capitol Hill and OMB, as we figure out how we're going to account for the operation -- the active -- what we call the overseas contingency operations and then the base budget and how the Congress wants to deal with this.  

Q:  So you do you not expect that you'll need additional money before December for those additional troops that you're sending to Afghanistan?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  

Q:  When might we get an update on how many troops are heading over to Afghanistan...

SEC. MATTIS:  I think we've already said.  We've straightened out -- we got the total number who are there now, and we've already said about how many more are going, where the president's been very clear that we're not going to be broadcasting to the enemy how many are going, where exactly they're  going.  You know they are shifting to an even stronger train, advise, and assist effort.  

So I think that's plenty of transparency, so the American people know what it is we're doing, approximately how much of a commitment it is.  And so I probably won't give any more information that the enemy would appreciate.  

Q:  What is the approximate?  I don't think I've heard it.  

SEC. MATTIS:  How many of you have heard?  

Q:  I have not.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Really?  I read in your newspapers what it is, actually.  So I'll just leave it at that.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, on the Russian bombing east of the Euphrates, how close did they come to American special forces?  And is the U.S. ceding ground to the Russian and Syrian regime?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No, we've not ceded ground.  Matter of fact, any ground that ISIS has lost, they have not regained one inch of it.  

Q:  Ceding ground to -- excuse me -- ceding ground to the regime side?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We have not ceded any of the ground we have taken to anybody.  

Q:  What was your response to the Russian bombing of the U.S.-backed forces? 

SEC. MATTIS:  We asked them to please stop right away and go with the deconfliction measures that have worked up until now.  

Q:  Was that a departure from those deconfliction measures?  Did they -- because they've been in place and working for some time.  

SEC. MATTIS:  That's exactly right.  They've been in place, they've been working and this is a departure.  

Q:  Do you know why would?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We are sorting it out.  We have active communications, both state and defense with our counterparts right over the weekend and going into tomorrow.  

Q:  Did you talk to someone Secretary, you yourself?  Did you engage or, maybe, General Dunford?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'd prefer not to say who's doing that.  There are both State Department and Defense Department.  And when you look at the fact that this was a change, you can imagine this was at the highest levels. 

Q:  Sorry, Secretary.  On Afghanistan, I don't think many of us on-the record heard the number -- approximate number that's going to Afghanistan

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not going to give you a number on record.  The president said we're not going to talk about specifics.  

Q:  But when you came down here, I think it was three Thursdays ago, you said you would tell us the approximate number after you brief Congress. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  

Q:  Has that changed -- or I mean why has that changed?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  It's over 3,000, just as it's in the newspaper.  You've all ready it.  You've all written about it.  It's exactly over 3,000 somewhat.  And frankly, I haven't signed the last of the orders right now.  As we look at specific, small elements that are going.  So most of them are on their way or under orders now and I'd prefer not to give any more information that helps the enemy.  

Q:  Sir, the Navy fired two more officers today for the USS Fitzgerald and McCain.  Do you expect more firings?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I leave that in the Navy's capable hands.  They have a tradition of holding officers accountable and they'll do what they think is necessary.  

Q:  Do you think they're doing enough?  

SEC. MATTIS:  At this point, based on what they know, I do.  Yes.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, going back to your trip to Mexico, what kind of discussions were held regarding U.S. military involvement in counter narcotics operations with forces in the country?  

SEC. MATTIS:  The Mexican military obviously is backing up their police elements against this threat.  Our job as they come to our country for training, we open our schoolhouses for them.  We have lessons learned that we share with each other based on various operations.  It's a deep spirit of collaboration, sharing based on mutual trust and respect.  But there is no involvement of U.S. troops south of the border inside Mexico. 

Q:  Was there any discussion about placing these trainers with Mexican military or police regarding -- 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

Q:  Since June over 60 U.S. troops have either been killed or injured in training accidents across several of the services.  We've now seen several incidents.  While all of them are under investigation and acknowledge they are all different, 60 troops killed or injured since June.  What concerns does this raise for you and General Dunford about whether -- well what concerns does it raise for you?  That the rate is just so high right now.

SEC. MATTIS:  Right.  Barbara, first, I'd have to look at how much higher it is.  A loss of anybody killed or injured in training, that's what we try not to do.  But with the training being inherently dangerous, I'd have to look back over several years and make sure that I've got an idea about where we're at.  Regardless, what concerns me right now is what are the root causes or the surrounding issues.  It's not, you know, OK, we're going to look at what happened on the demolition range and we're going to look at what happened with the seamanship on a ship. And we're going to look at what happened in an aircraft that came out of the air, but I'm very interested after we find the specifics out.  

What are the circumstances surrounding these issues?  What has caused the kind of compilation of these coming in at this time?  And right now I don't have that broader knowledge.  However, you'll notice that besides the specifics, let's just take the Navy for a minute, because they've lost a lot of the casualties that you just referred to.  OK.  We've got an investigation up in Tokyo area.  We've got one down in Singapore and then the CNO is looking more broadly and you heard about the relief of several officers in the chain of command.  So obviously, you've lost confidence, the Navy has lost confidence at various levels of what's going on.  

Then you've got the Secretary of the Navy even looking, bringing in civilian shippers and this sort of thing to look at this through a non-military lens, a broader maritime lens.  So that just gives you kind of a picture in the maritime sphere of what we're looking at.  How do we broaden this to see the other considerations that could have impacted it?  What I would call the circumstances surrounding or related to but that you can't draw a direct arrow to, but pretty soon you start putting data together.  That's what has me concerned.

Q:  And is there anything you can tell us yet about your own thoughts about where you go from here on?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

Q:  It's Army.  It's Air Force.  It's --

SEC. MATTIS:  Marine.  Navy.

Q:  Camp Pendleton, Fort Bragg.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Yes.  You know, the training is inherently dangerous -- inherently dangerous.  Every day we are doing things where this could happen, and it's a testimonial to just how capable we are that we don't lose more people; that we can literally have troops walking up onto an objective and train with live ammunition being fired on it and not lose them; that we can be launching aircraft at night off ship decks and, generally speaking, you never write about it because it goes on day and night, day after day and we've got to find out why we suddenly have had this spate of incidents.

Now, as I look at each of the services, they're doing the right thing; not just examining the specifics of that point, but looking more broadly, as I expect senior leaders to do, and say "What is the environment?  What is the culture?  What have we done with training over this time?  Have we reduced hours?  Have we increased hours?

Have some of these been the result of maintenance failures?  You've got to look very, very broadly and look for data points and we're doing that.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I push back though a little bit?  On the Navy side in particular, there have been documentation over several years not only in GAO reports and independent reporting, showing less training, more casualties for the ships.  There's a long series of documents showing troops going with -- or sailors going out without the training that they need and having increased mishaps.

Not to the level that fits the McCain but there -- I guess my point is there's been a long level of documentation and what you -- the sense that you get looking over it is that there's a reticence to say no; to say that we can't do it, that we don't have the resources.  So at what point does it fall on the Defense Department broadly to look at leadership to ask "When -- why aren't people say no?  Are we putting too much pressure?  Are we asking too much of..."

SEC. MATTIS:  So are you implying we're not looking at that?

Q:  I'm asking, is -- are we at that point?  Because there is a long list of document...

SEC. MATTIS:  We are reviewing that.  You bring up a good point because I would say, having some association with the U.S. military, we're almost hardwired to say "Can do."  That is the way we're brought up.  Routinely, in combat, that's exactly what you do, even at the risk of your troops and equipment and all.  But there comes a point in peacetime where you have to make certain you're not always saying "We're going to do more with less, or you're going to do the same with less."

However, there is also a requirement that commanders are given very, very high levels of authority.  And those commanders are held responsible for ensuring that we are ready for what we're doing and right now, I cannot find where during a training range here, a ship operating with full manning there and some of the statistics that you've heard about, when I first looked into them, it turns out outside agencies also included ships that we're in maintenance. 

In other words, they were zero ready because that's the way we evaluate them when they're in dry dock or they're in long-term port.  When those numbers are brought in, you're actually not giving an accurate appraisal of the ships that are operating, for example, in the 7th Fleet.  So you have to be careful as you look at some of this information, that you don't juxtapose numbers that don't have any relevance and make decisions based on bad input.

So that's part of what we're looking at now to find out, why did this go unremarked or untouched for a while? And clearly the chief of naval operations has lost confidence in several of those officers.

Q:  That has to concern you.  I mean, are people...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, it does.

Q:  You know, commanders -- from the positions you've held in the past, telling you, a senior person, what they think that person wants to hear rather than...

SEC. MATTIS:  No, that's not it at all.  There's been talk before of how do you boil a frog or -- you know what I mean?  If you drop them in the boiling water, he pops out.  But if you turn the heat up slowly, he doesn't notice it.  I don't know if that's true, I've never boiled a frog. (Laughter.)

But...

Q:  (Inaudible) (Laughter.)

Q:  So that's where the story comes from.

SEC. MATTIS:  But my point is that we always look for this and we reward people for raising their hand and saying "No more.  I've got to stop."  We've had people actually stop training where they thought their troops needed to rehearse before they went forward.  And that's not that unusual, tell you the truth.  So I am not concerned right now that we're rewarding the wrong behavior.

But we are going to find out if that's the case, we're going to look at that all the way through the various investigations surrounding these incidents.  Not just the specific incident, what are the circumstances surrounding it?  That takes some time.  That is not easy to collect data on.

Q:  And has sequestration played a role?


Q:  Can I just ask if sequestration has exacerbated these readiness issues?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, it's hard to believe that we could reduce flying hours and not have, you know, a less capable -- there's a reason why we think we need a certain number of hours, that said, on data.  But I am not willing to say right now that there's a direct line between sequestration and what has happened.  I am willing to say, as we look at the circumstances surrounding it, we're going to take a very close look at that.

I got to get back upstairs.

Q:  Thanks for coming.  Thanks for doing it on the record.

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you, thank you.