Media Availability by Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  I'm on the record now.  OK.  Let me think. We rolled out the NDS.  This afternoon, we'll roll out the Nuclear Posture Review in a -- good morning.

Q:  Good morning.

(Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  …in a whole-of-government mode.  In other words, Department of Energy, Department of Defense and all. Next week, I'll be on Capitol Hill to discuss the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review.

And today, I'm going to see the minister of defence of Ukraine.  And yesterday, I saw the minister of defence of United Kingdom.  And so we continue, engaged across the world and across the various alliances and partners we have.

And it's within a framework, now, of the president's national security strategy.  We now – for the first time in 10 years – the DOD has a National Defense Strategy.  And it'll be carried on down through in that Nuclear Posture Review, which will come out right away.

And then there will be, also, a Ballistic Missile Defense Review.  And at that point, the chairman will bring up the National Military Strategy, which will, in effect, put the military aspects into direction to our combatant commanders and the service chiefs.

So that's where we're at strategically right now, and engaging elsewhere around the world.  So.

Q:  What's your sense in the New York Times story today, that says that the Pentagon seems to be slow-rolling and not offering enough options?

SEC. MATTIS:  That was a good one, huh?  No.  I salute whatever you write.  You have the right to write anything.  I thought it was especially humorous that we didn't realize we were still on the -- on the video teleconference, since one of the people on the screen was talking with us at the same time.  I guess we were talking to ourselves and imagining the person on the screen.

Yeah, I got a kick out of it, frankly.  Obviously, I think you all remember when I literally, with the chairman, walked out of briefing the president on the military options.  I walked right in front of the cameras outside the White House.

We have done one -- and we've briefed again with the president, of course, over the intervening months.  But it is not the case...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  It appears to...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: ... there was one time when the National Security Council did not have someone present with us when we were briefing, and that was because the vice president had been on travel the day we briefed the president.

So at some point -- I don't know if it was a week or a month afterwards, couple weeks afterwards – the vice president came to the Pentagon and we briefed him on the exact same brief - the chairman and I did.  This is, obviously, well after the one where we went out publicly in front of the White House.

And there, we again briefed on the military options to the vice president.  That’s the only time the National Security staff was not present when we did the briefs, to the president and the vice president on military options.

You know, we have been very candid that we have military options backing up our diplomats.  And as you saw a few weeks ago, even to the point of briefing on the military situation -- not details -- to the 20 nations that joined Secretary Tillerson and minister of defense of -- excuse me -- minister of foreign affairs of Canada and Vancouver, British Columbia.

So it is what it is, but I could not find any relation to what's actually going on.

Q:  But it appears this is coming from H.R. McMaster.  Is he just being...

SEC. MATTIS:  I wouldn't -- I'm not saying that.  You may.

Q:  Well, that's what I'm saying.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  It appears it's coming from him and his shop.  It appears that he wants to be more aggressive, more options.  Just talk about that.  What's your relations like with H.R. McMaster?  You guys are on the same page...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't -- we have no problems between us.  And the National Security staff has been over there twice this week on other issues, and both times the first place I stopped was with him.  And we discuss how the meeting's going to go that day.

That -- again, I said I could not find any relation to reality that I deal with.  But it is what it is.

Q:  Could I ask you, very quickly, about Ukraine?  Your -- your meetings this afternoon, what you'd like to learn, what you hope to discuss today.

SEC. MATTIS:  Sure.

Q:  We haven't heard a lot about Ukraine in a long time, especially the U.S. involvement there with the training. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  The training, I believe it's Canadian, U.S., Polish, Lithuanian trainers over there in western Ukraine, at the training base.  We're training them up.

Obviously, what we want is the same thing the United States has stood for for a long time in our history.  That is an independent sovereign Ukraine, making their own decisions about their own future.

We do train their military.  We're working with them on reform of their military.  That'll be a lot of what we discuss today.  The minister is leading the reform effort, so we're working with him.  And, you know, it is just -- it's an ongoing effort to make sure that they stay independent and sovereign.

Q:  And in the east of the country, what's your understanding of what the situation is there right now?  Is it deteriorating?  Is it just a stalemate as it has been, or...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I don't think the line of contact has shifted.  Don't quote me on this, but I've not been briefed on any shift in the line -- it’s kind of still on the same place it's been.  There's still fighting along it, most nights.  
There are still Ukrainian soldiers dying along the line of contact.  It -- there are still Russian-supported forces there, along the line of contact.  So I think it's pretty much the same.

Yeah?

Q:  Mr. Secretary?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Secretary, (inaudible) -- on Afghanistan, there's been a spate of violence in the past week and a half. 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  How do you stem that flow?  And is Pakistan the primary cause of the concern?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Back when we came up with the strategy and you saw, even as early as August, before we had any reinforcements get there, their surge against -- seizing district capitals, provincial -- district centers, provincial capitals.  They haven't seized any since.

That's even before we got in, when there -- it was like the Afghan troops took heart, the government took heart.  And so we anticipated that as they got blunted in trying to seize towns and dominate them, that they would, in fact, increase their efforts to murder innocent people as a way to stay relevant in their minds.

It's probably not the way to win the love, trust, affection or support of the Afghan people, obviously.  And so we anticipated this.  There were a lot of steps taken, and some were very successful at blocking some of these.  We know we've stopped some, caught them, killed them, arrested them, whatever.

Some have gotten through, tragically.  But we anticipated this as they were rebuffed in what they were doing, what I would call the more conventional insurgent tactics (inaudible) to take over the centers.  They -- this was their -- their response.  And we're working hard to train up people for the kind of urban protective tactics that they need.

Q:  You anticipated it to get worse before it gets better?

SEC. MATTIS:  I – yeah --that's, you know, no.  Our intention is that it will not get worse.  But this is war.  They're murdering innocent people.  And criminals, as you know, can -- can do things.  So...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  To follow on that question, do you anticipate that more U.S. forces may be needed in Afghanistan, to stem some of the increase?

SEC. MATTIS:  No plans for that right now.  I mean, about -- I mean, there's rotating forces, but not more forces.

Q:  You don't see a plus up at all?  Just rotating in new...

SEC. MATTIS:  We -- we've announced a strategy, and the approximate numbers, and -- like, if you mean another thousand troops, or another 5,000 -- I have no plans along those lines.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, why do you need low-yield nuclear weapons?

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, we'll -- we'll roll out the nuclear posture review.

The first thing you have to understand is what's happened over the last 20 years, and what -- what the strategy is.  Obviously, what we have is a nuclear deterrent -- so keep those two words always together -- and then look at the efforts to push forward on nonproliferation and arms control.  And you have to do that when you're in a position of persuasion, not of hoping, okay?

So what we're trying to do is ensure that our diplomats and our negotiators are in a position to be listened to when we say we want to go forward on nonproliferation and arms control.  At the same time, you do so by having an effective, safe deterrent, and you have to look at each one of those words.

But we'll roll it out this afternoon, and so I'll be back.  I hope to be back down here before I go to Europe.  I've got a little busy week next week on Capitol Hill, and other things, but -- and then I'll get into more detail.

But I want to roll it out coherently, and not answer one piece of it, which only leads to another question, okay?

Q:  Just one small piece:  Is it because of the Russian threat, you need these new weapons?

SEC. MATTIS:  We deal -- we are deterring nations that have spoken about using nuclear weapons.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, if I go about -- back to Afghanistan for a moment, the latest reinforcements headed there, this security force assistance brigade.  Have you -- are you aware of the reports that the commander of that brigade raised concerns with General Votel, who raised them with General Milley, about the readiness of that unit, about its sort of being rushed into combat, and just concerns about its readiness for war?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I think that's vastly overstated, by -- not by the commander, but the way it was parsed out.

I've talked to both General Votel and General Milley at length about this, and I'm going to go down and see the -- see the -- the troops down there here soon, and -- and talk with them personally.

I've looked at the training regime, and we have -- first of all, the quality of these troops, in terms of their experience and their selection, and second, the training, gives me a lot of confidence.

Q:  So you have no concerns about their --

SEC. MATTIS:  No concerns.

Q:  How are we doing on NATO commitments for troops in Afghanistan?  Is that something that you'll bring up with our NATO partners?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, it -- they are committing, and they are committing more troops, and we will bring it -- it's one of the matters for discussion when I go to Europe in about 10 days -- at the ministerial. 

Q:  Bunch of questions.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  You get nice bump-up from -- in the '19 budget plan, so 716, and then 597 base.  That's about 5 percent nominal growth.  What -- where will a lot of that increase go to, in terms of the areas within the R&D or procurement?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I can't give you just a -- I mean -- the money is going from readiness, to modernization, to nuclear deterrent, to, you know --it's -- you look at the strategy, and you see where it's going.

Q:  Okay, were you happy with the increase, or did you push for more, and -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I'm -- I'm very happy with 700 --

Q:  16.

SEC. MATTIS:  -- for this year, and 716 for next.

Q:  Okay.

Q:  So that completely --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  On Syria, Turkey's continued its operations in Afrin.  There's reports of the SDF being killed and tortured by the Turkish-backed rebels in the region.

SEC. MATTIS:  Tortured by --

Q:  Mutilation by Turkish-backed free Syrian army rebels.  There's video online of this.

Are you concerned that Turkey may expand the operation into Manbij?  Have you seen any signs of that?

SEC. MATTIS:  See, right now, we're at a point where ISIS is on the ropes.  It’s obvious -- you know -- for all the questions and challenges I had in this room over the last year, I think now it's pretty much undeniable that they're in trouble.

What we don't want to do -- remember, I kept saying, "It's not over yet.  We need to keep the pressure on."  So this is a distraction in an area that we thought had been relatively quiet, Afrin.

So we want to get back to finishing off ISIS, and destroying all of their geographic holdings, so that they're on the run, and -- and get it driven down to a point that in Syria, we're freer to go into the Geneva process, and you now see that that is on track again for all the people who've questioned we'd ever get there.  You see, coming out of Sochi, which did not work out, I think is the most polite way to describe the outcome.  They're on their way to Geneva – Staffan de Mistura -- and the United Nations.

So that's what we're doing in Syria.

On the Iraq side, on the other hand, we're now going after the small sleeper cells, the small concentrations out in the desert.  So we want to stay focused on this.  That's what we're trying to do.

So yeah, we don't want it to spread, and Secretary Tillerson is engaged with his counterpart in this regard.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (inaudible)

SEC. MATTIS:  Slow down.  I've got all of about eight more minutes.  We'll get to it.

Q:  What about your talks with the Turks, your counterparts?  So what are you --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not going to discuss those right now.

Q:  Okay.  But are you confident that they're not move -- they won't move on Manbij?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not going to -- I'd prefer not to answer that right now.

Q:  Can you talk a little bit about the chemical weapons that were -- the State Department was talking about just a little bit yesterday, that mentioned chlorine gas?  Is this something you're seeing that's been weaponized or – just give us a sense. 

SEC. MATTIS:  It has.

Q:  It has.  Okay.

SEC. MATTIS:  It has.  We are more -- even more concerned about the possibility of sarin use, the likelihood of sarin use, and we're looking for the evidence.  And so that's about all the more I can say about it right now, but we are on the record, and you all have seen how we reacted to that, so they'd be ill-advised to go back to violating the chemical convention.

Q:  Can I go back to Ryan’s question, please?

You talked about the need to honor -- the -- the department's talked about the need to honor Turkish -- Turkey concerns about borders, and at the same time, to not abandon Kurdish partners in the SDF.  But we haven't heard an explanation of how that's going to happen, because it seems that one goes against the other.

Can you give us any specifics about how this department is trying to mitigate the risk of Afrin and expanding …

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I mean, obviously, welcome to the real world.  You know, that you -- you're always having to balance competing interests.

Turkey, number one, is a NATO ally; number two, they’re the only NATO ally that confronts an active insurgency on their own home territory; number three, it is by a group of PKK, a named terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, and they have murdered innocent Turks.  That is the legitimacy of the Turkish concern.  And when rockets come over a border, or insurgents come over a border -- and not just in -- in this Syria complex situation, but also out of northern Iraq and all -- then we are with Turkey 100 percent.

At the same time, we're trying to take down ISIS, and there's only one group that's proven capable of doing that that we've worked with.

And so somewhere between that, working with the Kurdish elements there that have -- have dealt defeat after defeat to ISIS, and the Turkish concern that that group is allied with the PKK, and they did have a past association.  But we are convinced right now that by having our troops on the ground, we know they're not contributing to any attacks on Turkey.

If we were to find it, we would obviously not support that; we would move against it.

But right now, we are trying to balance the finishing off of the ISIS with Turkey's legitimate security concerns.  And that is what diplomats get paid to do and ministers get paid to do, the secretaries get paid to do. 

So we're working the issue.

Q:  I understand that, but it -- can you give us any specifics in terms of how you're going about that?  Because we -- we keep hearing this, but it's such a big delta --

SEC. MATTIS:  No, this -- this was not -- it's simply not the right time to do this through the public square.  That could actually make it more difficult in terms of domestic audiences that have got to deal with -- with their own understandable positions.

And oftentimes when you get up to the level of decision-makers in governments, you don't get the choice of great decision or bad decision, it -- it's how do you balance the competing interests?

I can just tell you it's -- it's an active discussion right now with our ally Turkey.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you've mentioned the upcoming ballistic missile review.  How does -- what questions is that designed to answer?  How does it dovetail with the Nuclear Posture Review?

And just as an addendum, what should we make of the latest missile test that was less than successful?

SEC. MATTIS:  On the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, what you try to do in this effort is defend the country, defend the homeland, defend our interests, our allies, but at the same time make certain that you don't put everything into defending.

No football team only plays defense, okay?  In a competitive situation, you also have to hold at risk, in this case, what North Korea holds dear, to remind them, "Don't do it, don't attack us."

So that -- it will have to be part of this integrated strategy.

Remember when I said we have the president's strategy, then we have ours.  And inside it we have the Nuclear Posture Review and we have the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and out of that we'll carve out the actual military strategy.

So you see the defense going on, you'll see also the operations with our allies to protect them and provide military options in the event someone were to try and attack us.

Your second question about the test, I would assume that some tests would fail.  The whole reason we test is because the thing isn't mature yet.  That's normal, that's good, okay?  So I'm not the least bit concerned about that; that's how you learn.

Q:  And are you really considering banning cell phones from the building?  And will it affect reporters?

(Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  Here's what I said -- and this was months ago.  

I said I need to understand what we're doing here based on the threat of cell phones being -- that can be turned on remotely and the user not even know that.  And thus, they can be -- if you don't have the -- somehow prevented from being even present, it can be a threat.

And so, we're -- I've not received the recommendation -- this was months ago, at least six weeks ago, maybe longer, when I put it out.  I said I need to know what is the threat, what can we do about it and what are the options?

And certainly that would be one of the options, but they're -- we're looking at any option that'll maintain security.

You're in a -- you're in a military headquarters.  There aren't that many military headquarters in the world where reporters are given the free rein that you're given.

So, you know, when in Rome, got to be a Roman, okay?

(LAUGHTER)

SEC. MATTIS:  So --

Q:  Secretary --

SEC. MATTIS:  I want to go off the record, shortly -- yes?

Q:  Can I ask a quick follow up, just a clarification on what you'd said earlier about Syria and sarin gas?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  Just make sure I heard you correctly, you're saying you think it's likely they have used it and you're looking for the evidence?  Is that what you said?

SEC. MATTIS:  That's -- we think that they did not carry out what they said they would do back when -- in the previous administration, when they were caught using it.  Obviously they didn't, cause they used it again during our administration.

And that gives us a lot of reason to suspect them.  And now we have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it's been used.  

We do not have evidence of it.  But we're not refuting them; we're looking for evidence of it.  Since clearly we are using -- we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions, okay?

Q:  So the likelihood was not what your -- you're not characterizing it as a likelihood?  I thought I used -- you used that word; I guess I misunderstood you.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, there's certainly groups that say they've used it.  And so they think there's a likelihood, so we're looking for the evidence.

Q:  Is there evidence of chlorine gas weapons used -- evidence of chlorine gas weapons?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that's, yes --

Q:  No, I know, I heard you.

SEC. MATTIS:  I think it's been used repeatedly.  And that's, as you know, a somewhat separate category, which is why I broke out the sarin as another -- yeah.

Q:  So there's credible evidence out there that both sarin and chlorine --

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I have not got the evidence, not specifically.  I don't have the evidence.

What I'm saying is that other -- that groups on the ground, NGOs, fighters on the ground have said that sarin has been used.  So we are looking for evidence.  I don't have evidence, credible or uncredible.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, are you concerned that Japan won't buy the Aegis Ashore system after this -- the recent failed test?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

(Laughter.)

Q:  Can I ask you a follow up on -- on Nancy's question?

You mentioned U.S. troops were -- were -- I don't know what your phrasing was, but you -- but perhaps they were monitoring the Kurds as to whether they were staging attacks on Turkey.  Do we have forces that are just dedicated to keeping an eye on --

SEC. MATTIS:  The troops I have there are -- keep me informed of everything going on around them, what's the Assad regime's forces situation, what's the front line look like?  And of course they would report if they saw somebody attacking Turkey.

Q:  But there are no U.S. troops around Afrin?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

Q:  Can I -- can I ask just a slightly -- slightly different one on geography?  Are you seeing any evidence of mass killing outside or inside of Myanmar (inaudible) Rohingya?

SEC. MATTIS:  We don't have forces on the ground there.

This is probably one of the most tragic refugee situations in the world today.  There have been killings.  I -- I don't -- I wouldn't -- I'm not going to -- there have been killings of innocent people.

And the State Department is carrying -- is our lead on this.  I recommend you go to them, but it obviously is a concern to our government.

Q:  Recognizing you don't have troops there, but are you seeing anything from ISR that suggests mass killings?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We don't -- no.

Q:  National security -- strategy question?  What has --

SEC. MATTIS:  National security strategy?

Q:  No, no, the national defense strategy.

SEC. MATTIS:  Defense strategy, okay.

Q:  What is the force size?

SEC. MATTIS:  Security strategy is -- what? -- White House; defense is us.

Q:  Right.

What is the force sizing construct of your strategy?  In the past decade, it's been variations of being prepared to fight the two regional -- major regional contingencies.  There was -- it wasn't clear in the document, and Mr. Colby wasn't clear about it, either.

What -- what is it?  Because you're going to get asked about this Tuesday.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Basically, we defend the country, okay?  And what --

Q:  Well, that's a given.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, it is.  As long as everyone is reminded of what this organization exists for and what it doesn't exist for.

What we have is the ability to fight.  We have the ability to deter.  And we have the ability to reinforce or stiffen other countries' militaries, help them, train them, you know, that sort of thing -- the "by, with and through."

So it's based on alliances.  It's based, now, on a shift in focus area, to -- basically to -- what do we call it.

Q:  Great partner competition?

SEC. MATTIS:  Great power competition, yes, as the main effort.  It is not -- and we fight the wars that we have today.  We have the urgent threat out of Korea.

But, at the same time, we recognize that some nations have chosen to be strategic competitors, whether it be by invading Ukraine, or mucking around in our elections, or fortifying atoll -- you know -- features in the South China Sea.  

So we're just going to have to deal with it.  In the event, obviously, of war, then we fight.  You know?

Q:  But the two -- the two major regional contingencies -- that doesn't sound like it's in play anymore.

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that that kind of menu is very limiting --

Q:  Okay~.

SEC. MATTIS:  -- in how you look at things.  You know?  Because it says what you will do and what you won't do.  And, basically, we don't say what we won't do.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, a budget question.

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  -- the last question.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  I got to get rolling now.  We won't have time to go off the record, and I had some goodies for you today.  (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Let's go off the record.  You can save the budget for later.

STAFF:  One -- one budget question.

Q:  One budget question.  You know, given you'll be up on the Hill and -- at this point, have you kind of given up hope that you're even going to get an F.Y. '18 budget?  Is Congress so used to just passing C.R.s --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I just -- yes.  I just stay -- just stay on it.  You know?  America can afford survival.  So, under the Constitution, it's Congress's duty to raise armies and maintain navies.  I -- I forget the specific word, but they have the responsibility for that.  And I'm optimistic that they will carry out their responsibility.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Thanks so much.