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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to Colorado Springs, Colorado

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
Nov. 16, 2017


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  -- where we observe the National -- to look at the National Defense -- Space Defense Center.  I think the best way to look at it is, is we don't look at war as being space war or cyber war.  War is war.  And any kind of conflict in the future could well include cyber or space assets.  So we look at it that way, at the integration of the (inaudible) across domains.

But as I leave there, I want to better understand how we work together with the Canadians, the various systems and how they feed in.  And how the decision-making that acts on speed when I'm on the phone with them all the time.  I want to know how it goes -- how it's happening out -- at their locations.

Next we're going to go to San Diego.  There tomorrow morning I'll be at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot graduation.  Every Friday.  Big day for young people.  And these are the young folks who look beyond political rhetoric or anything else.  They come in, they volunteer, and they don't expect somebody else to do it.  They come in and defend the country.  In the information age, they know what they're getting into, they have no doubt what they're getting into.  They've seen it on TV since they were little kids.

And it's rather intense socialization into the Marine Corps.  So they're proud that -- (inaudible) -- many of the parents will be there.  Everywhere west of Mississippi you'll see states represented, that's where the kids are from -- young Marines are from.

Then I'm going to go off at that point in the afternoon I’m going to talk and spend time at the Navy's fleet commanders synchronization conference, where all the fleet commanders from the Atlantic, Mideast, Pacific come together and we talk about naval matters and joint operations.

So that's what I'm doing.  What questions do you have?

Q:  You've had a few days now to, sort of, study the situation in Lebanon and, sort of, the Saudi role in it.  Obviously Lebanon is not just Lebanon, it's a proxy between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

How do you see, sort of – Hariri’s quote unquote “resignation” –-(inaudible) --and the general role the Saudis are playing in the last few days?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't have the specific information.  I'm talking to people in the region, including today, about what's going on, and I'll have a better idea soon.  But we're working it.

Q:  Have you spoke to Crown Prince Salman? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Talk to who?

Q:  MBS? Mohammed bin Salman about the situation.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I've talked to MBS.

Q:  (inaudible) -- on North Korea, do you agree -- do you agree with General McMaster that North Korea is not a deterrable nation?

SEC. MATTIS:  It's not what?

Q:  It's not deterrable.  It's not a deterrable nation.

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that is a question on a lot of people's minds right now.  Are they deterrable; are they not deterrable?

And I think what that we have to do is try deal with the protection, defense of our country and our allies, and that's where I stay focused right now.

Q:  Do you believe they are -- do you believe they are deterrable?

SEC. MATTIS:  I believe that we have to have good strong defenses with our allies in order to buy time for the diplomats to resolve this situation.

Q:  Do you -- do you fundamentally believe that they are a deterrable nation?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think we have to work with our allies to ensure that they know they have no military option, and allow the diplomats to solve the issue.

Q:  (inaudible).  Do you -- when McMaster says a preventive war is a viable option, do you agree with that?

SEC. MATTIS:  You'll have to ask him.

Q:  Do know what that -- do you know what he means by saying that?  Like, do you agree with that assessment?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not going to answer the question.  I am involved in protecting the country, working with allies, buying time for diplomats to solve the basic problem.  And that's where I'm focused right now.

Q:  (inaudible) specifically dealing with North Korea and the Cheyenne Mountain, I'm trying to -- specifically dealing with North Korea and the Cheyenne Mountain, how much of a role does that play into it?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, this is part of the defense of the homeland that we undertake there.  It's a command center.  And it's the staff that's watching this at all times in order to stay alert to any kind of threat to us or to our allies.

Q:  So, in Afghanistan, you've gone from a timeline-based campaign plan to a conditions-based campaign plan.  So what do you, as a secretary, want to see conditions wise before you could start recommending U.S. force -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, on this, what we've done is worked out specific -- in a compact, we call it, with the government of Afghanistan -- specific indicators where I'll just tell you there's over a hundred.  And each of those will be measured and we will meet routinely to see how we're making progress on them.

Remember, the political goal here of the military campaign is reconciliation.  The campaign itself, and what we're looking at, will be measures along that path.

And so, we'll look at each of these, from the most quantitative number of defectors this month from the Taliban, to the more subjective.  We try to quantify to the degree we can, then apply subjective data.  So we always try to start with objective data, measure the data and move on.  Number of villages where we have, you know, schools open and things like this.  We start there and work outwards.

Q:  Is that a constantly ongoing review, or is it --

SEC. MATTIS:  The assessment will be happening at the local level constantly.  Certainly we'll do some kind of roll up on a monthly basis, and on a quarterly basis it will be more of an assessment – in other words, "Okay, where are we now?" 
You don't want to assess too often, because it's wasted time.  You've got to give time for things to get traction.

But we do have reports going into NATO as well to Brunssum.  The Joint Force Command Brunssum -- which overwatches for NATO, the campaign there.

And it's also oriented to a presentation to all the nations, NATO nations, and the partner nations.  Australia, Georgia, any other nation that contributed to the NATO campaign.  And so their political leadership, obviously, is going to want a lot of feedback on how the campaign is going.  That's how we put it together.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I would be remiss – I’m with the Christian Broadcasting Network, sir.  Talk to me a little bit about your faith and how it’s shaped who you are and your goals, and also about how you make decisions.

SEC. MATTIS:  That's something I stay pretty private about.

Q:  I understand.
Q:  Can I go back to Saudia Arabia – what is your message for MBS and Saudi Arabia.  Do you support the consolidation of power and this jostling in Lebanon?  What is your message for Saudi Arabia?

SEC. MATTIS:  Our message is, we're trying to create stability in the Middle East, and I want to see how any activities contribute to that.

Q:  Is Saudia Arabia helping in that by consolidating power and asking Hariri to step down?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'd prefer not to answer that right now.  I need more information on what's going on in Lebanon.  I don't think any one nation outside of Lebanon is really able to dictate everything inside Lebanon.

So I need to get more information on that.  Plus I've been reading -- trying to read what's going on in the Lebanese political scene.  Still sorting this out obviously, so I don’t think this has settled into a direction yet for how it’s going to unfold and next step.

Q:  Specifically with Cheyenne Mountain and with North Korea, talk to us a little bit about -- EMPS it’s a strong hold, its missile defense for Cheyenne Mountain and how important it is.

SEC. MATTIS:  It's the coordination center for the defense of Canadian and American airspace.  So all of the sensors and tracking information comes in there for the Canadian and American officers to synthesize and stay alert for any threat to Canadian or American airspace, and then coordinate any necessary defenses.

If that helps.

Q:  (Off mic).  On the post-ISIS Syria, I know that's looking into the future, but can you just talk a little bit about are we going to leave that, effectively, to Russia?  Can you talk a bit about that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  It is the future, you're right.  ISIS -- anyone who thinks they're down is premature.

Q:  I understand.

SEC. MATTIS:  (inaudible) – continue that effort --

Q:  (Off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  -- and we completely destroy the caliphate's physical plant.

At the same time, as you saw in Southwest Syria, there's a deconfliction zone that’s been worked out.  We're trying to expand those in other areas, the idea being to try to get the fighting stopped.  To get the fighting stopped, you get to come in – from rubble removal that we will help on.  The locals will do it, but we'll do what we can, get them bulldozers, whatever they need.

Removal of IEDs is a big one – that’s the one that really slows it down, because you got to train people how to do this.  You don't want amateurs doing it.

And ensure that you get the place where it can recover, refugees can come back, there's clean water, there's some electricity.  Just the basic stuff.

At that point, ongoing in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura has gotten a U.N. mandated plan, and we're trying to move everything out of Astana over to Geneva, so we can come up with the next steps.  Those next steps will have to do with how do you set up a political reconciliation.  That plan would involve an election of some kind, under international observers.

We would be in a position then to only come down when that plan has traction, if there's something going forward, rather than walking out and then looking over our shoulders at all Hell breaking loose again.  We've got to make certain we turn this over in a responsible way.

The diplomats are ready to work on it.  The United Nations is ready to work on it.  I don't see this taking a long time.

At that point, we would see a way forward for Syria.

It's been kind of surprising, the number of refugees that have been returning as fast as they have.  We were surprised by it.  This is an area where refugees or some of them have been gone not just for a year or a decade, but for a generation.  It's been kind of surprising to see this.  That's the only real surprise that we've seen.

Fortunately, we had enough NGOs and our own government’s work in there to be able to take care of them, the displaced when they get to town.

Q:  Can you help me understand – to go back to North Korea -- how the administration thinks about North Korea?

Obviously the -- (inaudible) -- is complete denuclearization.  I understand that's the goal.  But most people who follow this issue believe that there probably -- there probably is a tolerance for North -- if North Korea stopped doing tests now, can their current arsenal, what would that -- where would the U.S. calculation be?

I know you wouldn't use the word "containment," but some people feel that that's actually probably the safest recourse forward --

SEC. MATTIS:  So long as they stop testing, stop developing, they don't export the weapons, there would be opportunity for talks.


SEC. MATTIS:  That there may be opportunity for talks, if they stop their shooting missiles, stop developing nukes, stop building more nukes, we can talk.  

Q:  So that would set the conditions for talks?

Q:  So diplomacy is still an option?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Diplomacy is still an option?

SEC. MATTIS:  We are being led right now, diplomatically.  Everything we do is designed -- the sanctions, the United Nations Security Council, two resolutions -- unanimous resolutions, more economic sanctions, diplomatic persona non grata from a number of nations around the world; it's all designed to bring diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to change its course.

Q:  So how do you see this two-month pause in ballistic --

SEC. MATTIS:   Pardon me?

Q:  There's been a two-month pause in ballistic missile tests.  Is that encouraging?  Or are you, sort of, not putting too many -- too much thought in that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, we're watching it closely.

Q:  Is it encouraging though?

SEC. MATTIS:  We're watching it closely.


Q:  Not encouraging?

I don't -- as you're building the 2019 budget, your five-year spending plan --

SEC. MATTIS:  '19?

Q:  2019, yeah.


Q:  -- basically trying to build up the U.S. military more, what hurdles do you see other than the obvious Budget Control Act sequestration problem?  What hurdles do you worry about building towards a 355-ship fleet, towards recruiting more soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I mean, in a democracy, these are one-step-at-a-time kind of things.  The executive branch proposes.

I will tell you that we have gotten bipartisan support for strengthening our military.  It's not like I go into one party and have arguments about, "We don't need to do this."  I don't -- I don't get -- how we do it is the only question.  So that's, of course, an adventure in a democracy, where you have to align the legislative branch, the executive branch, you have to have a plan, you have to adapt to the future, same time you have to deal with current situations.  So it all goes into the budgeting process there in Washington.

Right now, as you know, we're working on the F.Y. '18 one.  But the '19 one on out, we're looking at what changes have got to be made.  Some of the -- I mentioned right at the beginning, cyber, space, what do we have to do in those domains?  And certainly the naval piece looms largely.