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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room

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Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
Nov. 16, 2017
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DANA WHITE: Good afternoon.

Today, the secretary left for a trip to NORAD and NORTHCOM. He'll be discussing homeland defense as well as space issues.

Next year actually marks the 60th anniversary of NORAD. It's the 60th year -- 60 years of a partnership with Canada, with a trusted ally, a close friend.

And then he's headed off to San Diego. He's going to attend the Marine Corps recruit graduation. It's a proud moment for Marines and their families.

And then he is going to be the keynote -- he's speaking to the Navy Fleet Sync Conference. It's an opportunity for him to talk to his commanders and talk about how we increase naval lethality and influence.

On the budget, the department has been operating for 1,060 days under a C.R. The current C.R. will expire on December 8th. We need Congress to pass a robust and predictable budget. We need an F.Y. '18 appropriations budget before December 8th.

C.R.s are wasteful. They're inefficient. They delay -- they delay maintenance. And they increase anxiety in the industrial base, as well as in local communities. They have a negative impact on the economy, as well as local communities. It's just a waste of money and we need to be able to plan in advance.

On the Budget Control Act, Congress needs to lift sequestration as it's currently structured. As the secretary has said many times, no enemy has done more harm to combat readiness in the field than -- than sequestration.

If sequestration happens, it'll mean a $52 billion cut to the F.Y. '18 budget. Again, it affects readiness, lethality.

And it also can affect our partnerships, because our partners plan out their budgets to work with us. And so, if we have to cut back on exercises, that -- that has impacts on interoperability and our ability to work together.

And we need to lift the defense caps. Again, a robust, predictable F.Y. '18 budget is what we're looking for.

We will not be here next Thursday, so I will say in advance happy Thanksgiving.

And so, with that, we'll take your questions.

Bob?

Q: Thank you.

In light of the secretary's comments this morning about North Korea, I wonder if you can say what does the Pentagon make of this apparent pause in North Korea's testing of missiles and nuclear tests? Is it a potential opening for negotiations?

MS. WHITE: Well, I wouldn't speculate on whether -- what North Korea's activities are or aren't.

Our policies remain to have the verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So it's a diplomatic effort. We'll continue to support our diplomats and ensure that they can negotiate from a position of strength.

Q: I'm referring to the absence of North Korean actions. I mean, they have been fairly regularly testing both missiles and doing nuclear tests. And there's been this -- either deliberate or at any rate apparent pause in activity in the last couple of months.

I'm just wondering whether -- as the secretary appeared to allude to this as a possible opening, I wonder if that's what he's been talking about.

MS. WHITE: I think it's perilous to predict anything about what North Korea does or doesn't do. But we're continuing to monitor the situation.

Jamie?

Q: Dana, just to follow-up on North Korea, the president yesterday said that he had an agreement with Chinese President Xi that there would be no freeze-for-freeze in order to try and move the peace process forward. But yet in Beijing today, China's foreign minister said they do believe this so-called dual separation of a pause in military exercises in return for a pause in testing of ballistic missiles would be the best way to get the peace process going.

Today the U.S. has started another big exercise in the Pacific with Japanese forces. Why is it so important that you keep doing all of these exercises? Why couldn't there be some sort of temporary pause in order to try to kick start diplomacy?

MS. WHITE: Well, one, I would say that our exercises are long-planned and our exercises are about reassuring our partners and our alliance allies. So I would refer you to the State Department and the White House on those reports.

But again, these exercises are long-planned in advance.

General --

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.: I would just add that for forward-deployed forces, exercises are a critical component of readiness. They do, in fact, assure our our partners. They're not necessarily aimed at anyone. But they also, I think, exercise a powerful deterring effect by the fact that they're occurring.

MS. WHITE: (inaudible)?

Q: The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement the other day saying that they deplored the statements by the Pentagon and the coalition spokesman for expressing their respect for the SDF and ISIS deal in Raqqa. Do you have any reaction to that?
MS. WHITE: Again, with respect to all of that, we continue to encourage all parties to seek political solutions and we continue to work with the SDF, because our focus is to defeat ISIS. And that will remain our focus.

Q: (inaudible) -- secretary aware of the -- the deal between SDF and ISIS in Raqqa?

MS. WHITE: I'm not going to speak to -- secretary's aware of many things.

Right here.

Q: Good afternoon, Ms. Dana. My name is -- (inaudible) -- from -- (inaudible).

I want to ask you, going back to Syria, if the situation with Russia and others -- there has been these, kind of, accusations from Moscow saying that you have been helping ISIS. So, it's going to affect the scenario, because they are fighting in one part of the country, you are fighting in another. But eventually you may all come together.

So, I'm wondering --

MS. WHITE: Well, their claims are false. Our -- we deconflict with Russia.

General, if you'd like to --

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.

We flatly reject those accusations. They're simply not true.

And in fact, they're not helpful as we pursue what could be a mutual objective of the destruction of ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley. We're conducting one of the most carefully designed air campaigns in the history of modern warfare, and so we flatly reject those assertions.

Q: But they keep on insisting that that is what has happened. Are you preparing --

GEN. MCKENZIE: Insisting that it happened doesn't make it true. It is not helpful to continue to insist it, just like it's not helpful to dig up images from old video games to display as part of the assertion.

MS. WHITE: Lucas?

Q: The Russian Foreign Ministry accuses the United States of being an occupying force in Syria. What's your reaction to that?

MS. WHITE: As the secretary said, we are there to defeat ISIS. We are there -- you know, there is a stabilization piece which the State Department leads. We want a peace process, so that flatly rejects that.

GEN. MCKENZIE: I'd agree. We're there to defeat ISIS.

The government of Syria has proven to be unable to accomplish that goal by themselves. There's a clear collective reason for us to be in there, along with our partners and allies.

And we're actually coming to the endgame there, and we've still got some hard times ahead of us, but I think we're going to have a successful resolution to that in the next few weeks or months.

Q: And as you do go to that endgame, should the American people expect airstrikes in Afghanistan to ramp up as the air war over Iraq and Syria winds down?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm not going to comment on an operational matter like that.

I would tell you though that we see the endgame in Syria ultimately has to be a political endgame, where we support the efforts of our diplomats and the international community to come to resolution.

Q: There's been an uptick in airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia as well. Is this all part of anything coordinated that as things wind down in Iraq and Syria the military is expanding operations elsewhere?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think as we constantly assess the battle space, when targets present themselves that are actionable and within the law of armed conflict, we're going to strike those targets.

MS. WHITE: Tom?

Q: Thank you.

When you talk about about the endgame, can you give us, like, just, as we look ahead, some kind of idea about the form that's going to take? Obviously, this is going to be faster in Iraq. Is there going to be, like -- are you going to declare victory? Or is it going to be, sort of, a tapering down?

How do you think this is going to play out over the coming weeks?

MS. WHITE: Obviously we've been very successful militarily and the caliphate is falling rapidly.

But again, as the chairman has said, this is an inflection point. We will have -- ISIS is still a threat and it will continue to be a threat, (inaudible) -- Iraq, Syria remains a global threat.

So we will continue to fight ISIS and -- but we also have to think that this is a generational struggle.

Barbara?

Q: General, can I ask you to come back to Somalia for a minute, if I may?

We've seen over the last week U.S. airstrikes in Somalia almost every day. So could you just talk about Somalia for a minute and Africa more broadly -- the terrorist threat in Africa?

Why now in Somalia? Are you in fact seeing a more physical threat, either from al-Shabaab or ISIS?

And in places like Somalia, where do you see the terror -- emerging terror groups getting their funding from? A lot of people suggest, believe or it not, you know, these places, they get funding from poaching, from illegal wildlife trade, from drugs. Where is the money coming from? And why now in Somalia?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Let me actually deal with the first part of your question, Barbara.

So, as targets present themselves, sometimes it talks a long time to develop a target because it through it an exquisite vetting process to make sure they're we're striking the tracking appropriately, not doing damage that we don't need to do. So something it takes us a long time to develop targets.

So there's no particular rhythm to it, except that as they become available and as we're able to process them and vet them, we strike them.

As for the second part, so I do not believe necessarily there's a ramp-up. It's the density of targets is such that now there's some of opportunities to do those strikes.

As for where the money comes from, would want to get back to you on that little bit. But I would offer a general observation that stabilization of local governments and local security forces are the types of tools that would be necessary to reduce their ability to gather money illicitly inside a particular country. So it's to all our benefit to ensure that those structures within these sub-Saharan African states are built up to the maximum degree that we can do that.

MS. WHITE: Right here

Q: Yes, hi, Sam LaGrone, USNI News.

Yesterday, three former secretaries of the Navy spoke at CSIS talking about the 355-ship Navy, and they touched upon some of the readiness issues that were exposed after the Fitzgerald and McCain collisions.

And kind of a unifying theme that kept coming up again and again and again is one of these readiness -- or a lot of these readiness issues are based around the fact that there isn't a really clearly articulated national strategy. And that's something that the building is supposed to have been working on since Secretary Mattis has gotten here.

Can you give us an update on where y'all are on, sort of, that larger strategic picture and that larger view and what you can share and when you're going to do that?

MS. WHITE: We are working on the national defense strategy. It is still a work in progress.

I don't have any details on the exact date it is -- but it is what's going to ultimately drive our budget requests. And that is very important. The secretary wants a budget that is driven by strategy. So that is what we will do in the NDS.

Q: Sure, but is that -- so we'll expect to get a roll out with that paralleled to y'all's F.Y. '19 budget position or we piece it out through what y'all are -- are --

MS. WHITE: I will come back to you. I will -- there's a roll out plan for that. It is still being worked. So -- but we unveil the NDS and that is informing our requests. That's absolutely informing our F.Y. '19 requests.

(inaudible) – in the back.

Q: General, can you tell us how many U.S. troops right now in Afghanistan, how many in Iraq, how many in Syria?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.

So, in Afghanistan, the number we've been working with has been approximately 11,000. As you know, we've just completed a force flow into Afghanistan, so the new number for Afghanistan is now approximately 14,000; might be a little above that, might be a little below that as we flex according to the mission.

But with the additional forces that the commander has identified as needed and that the secretary and the president have approved, the new approximate number for Afghanistan is 14,000.

In Syria, we have five -- about 503 operating in Syria.

And in Iraq, we have approximately 5,262, I believe is the number.

So those are the numbers.

Now, we're going to come back when -- and apply the same process to Iraq and Syria that we have to Afghanistan, begin to give you rounder numbers than what I've just given you right there.

But those are the numbers that we're working with today as you asked the question.

Q: Are you still working on the process of providing additional numbers on Iraq and Syria? These are the force management level numbers and might not be the actual numbers.

MS. WHITE: We are still working on Iraq and Syria according to the standards that the secretary laid out that we told you about -- we revised the Afghan numbers. So we are still working on it, according to those principles.

Q: General, lastly, Afghanistan: Your problems with airlift because of Puerto Rico, those are over, those are gone?

GEN. MCKENZIE: The force is closed, and a tremendous job to U.S. Transportation Command and all the -- all the people that made that happen. Yes, it was -- it goes to show you the robustness of the force and the ability to flex when unforeseen circumstances arise. I think it's a tremendous story about the global reach of the United States.

Q: I want to go back to Tom's question about the endgame in Syria. I'm not sure I understand.

Are there going to be U.S. forces that remain after ISIS has been eliminated from all the major pockets inside Syria because the government of Assad is incapable of keeping them at bay? What's the strategy there?

And then I have a follow-up.

MS. WHITE: Again, our mission in Syria is to defeat ISIS. We need to defeat ISIS first.

We are working with -- by, with and through those local forces. We are -- as Brett McGurk, special envoy, has talked about, there's a stabilization effort that's also going on; it's not just military.

But again, our focus there --

Q: Does that include a military component or are there going to be military elements staying?

MS. WHITE: Again, we have to defeat ISIS in Syria, so we're going to continue that mission.

And I won't speculate about the future, but there is a piece that also is about stabilization.

Q: And then on Zimbabwe, really quickly, have you received any sort of request from either the government or the military in Zimbabwe to aid with stabilization there?

MS. WHITE: We are purely just monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe.

Q: You say that the ultimate goal in Syria is defeating ISIS, but Secretary Mattis the other day here said that the U.S. will keep its presence in Syria until the Geneva process, you know, reach to a diplomatic solution.

How are these two things related to each other, defeat of ISIS and the Geneva process which is dealing with the larger civil war in Syria?

MS. WHITE: Again, we have to defeat ISIS, but there's also a stabilization -- there's a the Geneva process is going on. They're going on at the same time, they're simultaneous. It's not this or that. There's still ISIS in Syria and we're still in a fight to beat them.

Right here in the middle.

Q: Jessica Stone, China Global Television.

I had a few questions, just clarifying where we are on some Asia issues. The president recently in Seoul talked about increasing the payloads on the Seoul missile defense system. Do you know where we are with that? And do you have any updates on the arms deals that were announced?

MS. WHITE: I don't. I -- one, I would refer on some of those things to the State Department. But I will come back to you if we have any other further comments.

Q: Any plans in the works to do -- in the past there's been mil-to-mil with China. Is there any immediate plans to do an exchange of any kind over the next few months?

MS. WHITE: I don't know of any plans at this moment.

Right here.

Q: Alex Horton, Washington Post.

There was a Pentagon I.G. report today about sex abuse allegations among Afghan forces. There were 16 that they found. But they also concluded that before 2015, there was a lot of failure to train forces going there on how to report these abuses.

So are you -- does the Pentagon have any -- (inaudible) -- knowledge that it put troops into situations where had to take matters into their own hands? I'm talking about Major Jason Brezler, Army Captain Dan Quinn who had to take matters into their own hands to resolve this issue. Do you acknowledge that you put them in that position?

And what are the briefs and the instructions given to the 14,000 troops there about how to report abuse allegations?

MS. WHITE: Servicemembers are all obligated to report abuse allegations, and there's a very concrete system in which they do that.

But to the specific allegation, I would have to come back to you.

But, General, if you would like to --

GEN. MCKENZIE: I haven't seen the report, so I can't comment on it. I'll certainly take a look at it.

I would tell you that they get a pretty robust training package before they go. I know I did when I went, the two times I deployed.

We'll have to come back, we can tell on the exact nature of the training that they've receive.

Q: So everything is post-2015?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't know the answer to that question.

MS. WHITE: Elizabeth?

Q: Thank you for doing this. Elizabeth -- with ABC.

Given the collapse of the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, where is the Pentagon now concerned that ISIS is able to plot external attacks?

MS. WHITE: Well, I would say with the fall of the Caliphate -- I mean, with Raqqa, it was sort of a spoke, I mean, they were -- we have disrupted plots that would have been in Europe as well as in Asia.

So, with the fall of the Caliphate, there's more pressure on ISIS to stage things. So again, even though we've been very successful, this is an inflection point, there's more pressure, there still is the threat of foreign fighters. So, again, we have to defeat ISIS, and the Caliphate is falling fast, but we still have to remember that there's a -- this is a long-term struggle.

General?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, I think ISIS at one time thought that they would operate a global network centered in the Caliphate, which is now having the life squeezed out of it.

I thought -- I believe at one time, they thought they might have a lily pad in North Africa, particularly in Libya. That hasn't worked out real well for them.

I think they had aspirational views of going to other places. But I would tell you, because of the global coalition that we've assembled and the ability of those nations in these disparate areas of the world to operate effectively against ISIS when it arises, that plan has not been terribly successful for them.

However, I think where we need to pay a lot of attention, is to their activities in the cyber domain and their ability to proselytize in that move, very dynamic arena and the potential for self-radicalization and inspire attacks really across the world that aren't directly linked to geography.

So we're going to put a lot of attention against that particular threat, because I think it's a very real and compelling threat.

MS. WHITE: Sylvie?

Q: Hello. I would like to go back to the question that Bob brought up about Somalia. Did you -- with the fall of Raqqa, did you locate a larger flow of ISIS fighters going through Yemen to Somalia? Did you -- is it one of the reason for the more strikes in Somalia?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm not prepared to actually talk about operational details.

We look very closely at how foreign fighters flow into the Caliphate -- not so much anymore -- and how they try to get out, which is very hard for them now, for a variety of reasons.

But I'm not -- I'm not prepared to actually say that that's the case here, and I wouldn't be able to share it if we actually knew.

Q: Just a follow up on that.

Around the same time Raqqa fell, to (Sylvie's ?) point, last month, there was the first air strikes against ISIS in Yemen, and then earlier this month, the first airstrikes against ISIS in Somalia. Are you saying that's a coincidence?

GEN. MCKENZIE: No, I'm saying that we strike targets as they become available. Some of those targets had been -- we'd been working them for a long time.

I'm not prepared to say it's linked to the fall of Raqqa. I'm just not prepared to make that linkage.

MS. WHITE: Jamie?

Q: So, Senator Al Franken today apologized for his behavior on his USO tour, regarding another performer, including a photograph that showed him either groping or -- or pretending to grope this other person.

Given that, would he be welcome -- would the senator be welcome on a future USO tour?

MS. WHITE: You would have to talk to the USO.

Q: And just to follow up, as I mentioned, some of this activity was documented in an official Department of Defense photograph of activities during the trip. Will there be any investigation about why the inappropriate behavior wasn't reported earlier than now?

MS. WHITE: The inappropriate behavior with the senator? Why it was reported to the department? Is that the question?

Q: (inaudible) -- was not a senator at the time. He was a comedian performing on a USO tour.

The activity that he's apologized for was documented in an official Department of Defense photograph that was part of a batch of photographs that were taken on the tour.

I'm just wondering if there's going to be any investigations as -- to see why this activity, which was clearly not appropriate, was not reported or anything was done at the time.

MS. WHITE: I will have to look into see if -- about those photos. And I will come back to you.

Q: I had another question. This one regarding the sergeant named David Johnson in -- he died in Niger.

There has been some reports these last days saying that he was -- where he was found, he was hand-tied, which basically gives an idea that he didn't die during combat. You have any information of that, General?

MS. WHITE: We've seen those reports.

And again, our condolences go out to those families.

But again, the incident is under investigation and we really need to respect the process. And so, we're going to wait til -- there's no pressure for them to get it done any faster, but they do need to get it right. And so we're going to wait for the results of that investigation.

Way in the back.

Q: Thank you. Loree Lewis, Talk Media News.

I'm wondering if you're able -- following Secretary Mattis' and Secretary Tillerson's appearance on the Hill when they talked about the AUMF, if you're able to provide any additional clarity at this point about how the department defines what are associated forces.

MS. WHITE: I'm sorry. Say the last part again.

Q: How does the department define what are associated forces under the AUMF?

This might be a little too in the weeds, but at the time, Secretary Mattis said that he would get back to the lawmakers with a more precise definition. And I was wondering if you have that.

MS. WHITE: Well, per his testimony and per both the secretary of defense and the SecState, they both felt as though they have what they need to -- to -- to continue operations.

But on that specific point, I will definitely have a -- come back to you on associated forces definition. You're welcome.

Right here.

Q: Hi. Wes Morgan with Politico.

General McKenzie, you said you don't see necessarily a ramp-up in air strikes in Somalia. What about -- you know, in the past six months, we've seen the number of U.S. troops in Somalia rise from 50 to I think now it's something like 500.

Is that linked at all to the current increase, current pace of air strikes? And has there been -- can you account for that -- why that rise in troop level has occurred?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm not going to discuss exact troop levels.

I think we're a little under that 500 total, actually. I think it's closer to 400, is probably what we -- what we operate there.

But no, I would not associate that with a build-up, as you're calling it. I think it's just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently.

And I certainly don't think there's a ramp-up of attacks. Again, I go back to the point that I've hit a couple of times, that really we develop a lot of targets in these places. And it takes a long time to process those targets, to get them vetted, to -- again, to make sure that we're scrupulously correct in regard to the law of armed conflict and our own values and our own approach to warfare.

So if sometimes two or three of them might become available that get close to each other -- I would also just note, parenthetically, that sometimes a strike produces movement and other targets become available, as you'll understand. So that has its own internal dynamic effect on target movement and the ability to strike them.

STAFF: Ma'am, we have time for a few more questions.

MS. WHITE: All right.

Wow, I don't see any hands. In the back.

(Laughter.)

Q: Okay, and this may be something that -- another one of these clarifications. The three carriers that are in Asia, do we know how long that deployment is? Is it just for the length of the exercises that they're engaged in?

MS. WHITE: It's for the length of the exercise.

Q: Do you know how long that is?

MS. WHITE: General?

GEN. MCKENZIE: When that exercise is complete, the carriers have actually disaggregated and begun to move on their own -- on their own individual deployment patterns.

MS. WHITE: Alana?

Q: Earlier this week, I understand that the South Koreans had discussed asking for help should an evacuation be needed out of -- the Japanese asked for help in evacuations out of South Korea, should that situation arise. I know we always have plans underway.

Would the military be in a position -- I understand they have to act under the purview of the South Koreans, but would the U.S. military be in a position to help other foreign nationals leave, should the situation arise?

MS. WHITE: We always plan -- there are lots of contingency plans, and we're always going to help our allies in the region. And so there are always plans.

All right, thank you.