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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; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
May 31, 2018
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DANA WHITE:  Good afternoon, everyone. 

This week, the secretary visits the Indo-Pacific region, where he is emphasizing the importance of a safe and secure and prosperous region based on shared principles that are aligned with international law.

As the secretary said, those shared principles include respect for sovereign nations, an ability and desire to peacefully resolve disputes, free and fair trade and investment, and adherence to international rules and norms that have provided the Indo-Pacific region with 70 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Yesterday, Secretary Mattis welcomed Admiral Davidson to this strategically important region and wished Admiral Harris best of luck as he retires and transitions to the State Department. 

During his remarks, he also renamed Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command, reinforcing the region's strategic importance.  Pacific Command has repeatedly adapted to changing circumstances and will carry that legacy forward with its new name under Admiral Davidson's leadership.

In Hawaii, the secretary met with his counterparts from Japan and Indonesia to discuss a variety of regional security issues.  Today, he attends the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he will address America's Indo-Pacific framework to continue fortifying alliances and new partnerships. 

The United States is a Pacific nation, and the Indo-Pacific region will remain a priority as we continue implementing our National Defense Strategy, acknowledging challenges while signaling resolve and a lasting commitment to our allies and partners in the region. 

Switching gears, the 2018 DOD Warrior Games begin today -- tomorrow, June 1st through June 9th in Colorado Springs.  Established in 2010, the Warrior Games showcase the resilient spirit of today's wounded, ill or injured service members through paralympic-style sports. 

These athletes have overcome significant injuries, for example, Marine Staff Sergeant John Stance, who was injured in a 2009 IED attack in Afghanistan, will compete in eight different events as part of Team SOCOM, or retired Air Force Tech Sergeant Jessica Moore, who is overcoming breast cancer and will compete in sitting volleyball.

We expect more than 250 athletes, service members and veterans to participate this year.  They represent the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command.  The United Kingdom Armed Forces, Australian Defense Force and Canadian Armed Forces will also participate.  

Athletes will compete in 11 events, including archery, cycling, field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track, wheelchair basketball and, for the first time in Warrior Game history, indoor rowing, power lifting and time trial cycling.

The games provide an opportunity for athletes to showcase their healing and recovery through adaptive sports.  It is one of the ways we celebrate our warriors and their service to our nation.

With that, we'll take your questions.  Bob.

Q:  Yes, thank you.  Could I ask either of you to give an update on the situation in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in terms of progress that's been made since we -- the last couple of weeks, in terms of either territory retaken -- is that -- is that fight about finished now?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  Sure.  So, Bob, I'd be happy to talk to that.  Progress continues.  SDF has been able to refocus on operations, generally on the east side of the Euphrates River, pushing down toward the Iraqi border, and we -- wouldn't want to put a timeline on that, but we're making progress, and, in concert with our SDF partners, I think that, you know, we're beginning to clear out the final pockets of ISIS.

As you know, we're probably not going to be able to get to a condition of complete perfection in this effort.  They're going to transition to an underground effort.  

But what we want to do is leave behind, after we uncover the ground -- we want to leave behind security elements that are going to be able to maintain it at the local level.  And that's sort of a long-term aim we have, as we push down the Euphrates River Valley, and that progress is continuing.

Q:  Are they being killed in large numbers, or are they leaving, or standing and fighting or --

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, if they stay, they're -- they're going to be killed unless they surrender.  So I -- I'd have to -- I can come back with you for some -- with some precise numbers, but not -- not large numbers.  It's a fairly small-scale engagement, but, generally speaking, having some success.

Q:  Thanks.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.

MS. WHITE:  Tara?

Q:  Thanks.  Actually, a -- a follow-on on Bob's…Since the April airstrikes, has the department seen any indication that there have been additional chemical weapons employed or developed by the Syrian government?

MS. WHITE:  We haven't seen any indications that there have been any more, but we continue to monitor the situation.

Q:  So no -- no evidence that they've been used, or -- on the local population, or anything like that?  And, if you haven't, why -- why do you think that's the case?  

Was it that the strikes did take out that one production facility that was so heavily targeted?  Was that -- did you ever end up getting any evidence that there were chemicals there that were able to be removed from the battlefield?

MS. WHITE:  Well, the -- the strikes that we did were -- they hit the heart of their chemical weapons manufacturing.  So we think we made a significant -- significant damage to their ability to deliver those weapons.

But, in terms of having more details about why -- I mean, that -- these decisions are ultimately up to the Assad regime.  They understood our message very clearly about what we thought about their use.

Q:  And just one that's slightly less serious -- so, now that there's the -- the new naming of INDOPACOM, what's kind of the timeframe for changing all of the different signs and patches?  And will you have to make a supplemental request to Congress to fund this?

MS. WHITE:  Well, the -- the president was able to make this decision for the name change.  I will have to come back to you about the timeframe for all of the sign changes, but I -- but I will.

Kasim.

Q:  Yes, ma'am.  Assad, speaking to the Russian media, said that they are ready to speak to -- to negotiate with the SDF.  And, if not, they will take military action in the SDF-held areas to secure the whole Syrian territory under the regime.  

What's your reaction to it?  And are we ready to face Assad?

MS. WHITE:  Our mission remains to defeat ISIS in Syria.  Our desire is not to get involved in the Syrian Civil War.  But we also would call on Russia and Iran to ensure that Syria actually lives up to its commitments.  That regime stays in power because those two regimes continue to support it.  

Lucas.

Q:  General, who's a bigger threat right now, North Korea or China?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I'm not sure that I'd choose to characterize it in that way.  We look at a broad number of threats to U.S. national security, in concert with our allies and partners, and we maintain a -- we maintain a stance against them.  So I'm not -- I'm not sure I'd choose between the two of them in that way.

We are prepared to -- we're prepared for both.  We're certainly prepared, as we had our discussion here last week, against North Korea, maintaining the high state of readiness that we've had for many years on the Korean peninsula.  And we're ready for that as things develop in the near term in the peninsula -- the possibility of a summit.  

And we continue to seek areas to cooperate with China where we can.  But, where we can't, we're prepared to certainly protect both U.S. and allied interests in the region.

Q:  Is that true with North Korea right now, as well?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Is that the same with North Korea -- that -- areas of possible cooperation, as well?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Certainly not a question for me.  Our slice of the pie is to support our diplomats with military power.

Q:  So, bottom line, you take both threats equally serious.  Is that what I'm hearing?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  We take both threats seriously.  We know China has a much larger nuclear capability, and you've got to take that into account.  China has a much larger economic engine that you have to take into account.  So the threats are very different.

In North - when you consider North Korea, the first thing you look at is their capricious and unpredictable behavior spanning back several decades.  So those are all things that we take into account when we take a look at them.  But I don't think it's useful, actually, to compare the two.

Q:  Can you describe the missiles that China has deployed to its South China Sea islands?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  They've deployed surface-to-air missiles, air defense assets to the South China Sea islands.

MS. WHITE:  Lalit.

Q:  Thank you all.  What does it mean for the countries in the region for renaming Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific Command?  What are the signals they're sending to the countries in the Indian Ocean region and – in the Pacific region?

MS. WHITE:  It means that we understand the importance of our alliances and our partnerships, not only in the Pacific, but those also in the Indian Ocean.  This demonstrates how strategically important this region is.  

In the National Defense Strategy, we talk about -- the Pacific is the priority theater.  And so, by renaming it, it really shows, as the secretary says, the connectivity between these two oceans.  And so we look forward to, one, working more closely with building those partnerships as we move forward.

Q:  And secondly, is the secretary planning to meet the Indian prime minister in Shangri-La?

MS. WHITE:  I don't know that.  I'm -- let me -- I believe Prime Minister Modi has a -- has a speech before Secretary Mattis.  I would not be surprised if there was a pull-aside that -- I'll come back to you on that specific point.  

Tony.

Q:  A couple foreign policy questions.  So, given China's importance, what's the status of the annual China report that the Pentagon puts out?  You're perennially late on it, but that's an issue.  

And, as for General McKenzie, since the president pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, have you detected -- has the Joint Staff or CENTCOM detected any unusual ratcheting up of activity by the IRGC or Quds forces in the area -- small boat activity around the Strait of Hormuz, any tangible military reaction to pulling out of the agreement?

MS. WHITE:  In terms of the China military power report, I'll have to get you a report at a -- I'll have to come back to you on the exact timing.  I'm very familiar with the report and the timing of it -- if they are still writing it.  So I will come back to you about when we might see that come out.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, Tony, we continue to look at Iranian military naval activity very hard.  No significant changes to date, but, you know, we tend to -- we want a little larger sample size before we come up with any definitive conclusion.  

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Nothing significant, to this time.  But we'll continue to watch as we go forward.

MS. WHITE:  Right here in the stripes.

Q:  Yes.  I wanted to know if there was any update on the coming of the JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) RFP (request for proposal).

MS. WHITE:  So, the JEDI RFP -- we are still working on it.  This is an events-driven RFP.  We are enthusiastic.  There were more than 1,000 responses to -- between the first and the second-draft RFPs.  

So we are working on it, but it's important that we don't rush toward failure.  This is different for us.  We have a lot more players in it.  This is something different from some of our other acquisition programs because we do have a great deal of commercial interest.  We are going to the commercial sector for it.  

So I don't have a timeline on it, but we are moving, and we also want to take in all of the different stakeholders and consider how we move best forward.

Q:  Can I get a follow-up on that? 

MS. WHITE:  Sure. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Has there been any change to the single-vendor winner-take-all strategy in crafting the final RFP?

MS. WHITE:  To date, as far as -- there has been no change to that -- to that strategy in terms of the first two years, for that single award, and then determining how to move forward after that.  So no.

Q:  Is September for the final -- for the source selection -- is that still on track, even if the final RFP is delayed?

MS. WHITE:  Let me -- let me tell you -- why don't I talk to you -- I'll come back to you.  Everything is moving forward.  But I will tell you, because of the incredible interest in and the excitement around the cloud -- the excitement around the cloud, we are -- we are moving forward.  

But, like I said, there were over 1,000 responses, so we need to take all of that in consideration.  And so we're moving forward as quickly as we can to get this right.  

Jeff 

Q:  Thank you.  Filming has begun on the Top Gun sequel.  Is the defense department concerned that the new movie will adequately or accurately portray the current state of naval aviation?

MS. WHITE:  I am very confident in our team's ability to assist in the development of that.  But I don't have any further details for you.  I personally have not read the script yet, but we will work very closely to ensure that it depicts our aviators in a realistic way.  

Q:  All right.

MS. WHITE:  Different Jeff.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Pakistan's foreign minister told VOA that the Pakistanis are very upset about the way the U.S. has continued to treat Islamabad, and that they are considering actively shutting down the U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.  And they -- he also warned that China and Russia are stepping into the vacuum that the U.S. is leaving.  

Has Pakistan raised these concerns with the Pentagon, or the possibility of shutting down the supply lines?  And how would you describe the U.S. military relationship right now with Pakistan, especially in the counterterrorism arena?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  Let me talk about the supply lines.  They've done nothing to shut down the supply lines -- the ground line of communication from the south, or the air line of communication that comes in over western Pakistan.  

So I can't -- I'm not in a position to talk about what they may or may not have said at the diplomatic level, but I can tell you, at the military level, that those lines remain open and that stuff is continuing to flow across them.

MS. WHITE:  Barbara.

Q:  Dana, I wanted to ask you, with the president imposing the tariffs now in Canada, Mexico, and the E.U., What impact do you -- does the Pentagon foresee on its own acquisition program, its ability to market weapons that it has stated it wants to do overseas?  What's the economic impact going to be on you?  How will you overcome that in your budgeting?  

And, if I could just follow up also on the cloud contract, can you say for certain at this point that there has been no directive or influence from the White House about any particular firm potentially winning that contract, that everybody who bids on it -- are they -- there is no political direction to exclude any firm from that contract?

MS. WHITE:  I'll take your second question first.  I can tell you that no political pressure has been given.  This remains a full and open competition, and that's what it will remain.  

On your second question, with respect to the tariffs, as that just came out, we need some time to take a look at it.  But we will -- we have to look at the full impact, and then come back and analyze and determine how we move forward.

Q:  Can I have a quick follow-up --

MS. WHITE:  Sure.

Q:  -- to General McKenzie?  

Sir, on North Korea, have you -- have the -- you yet seen any tangible evidence to your satisfaction that the North Koreans are signaling moving away from either their testing program, or their missile program?  

Yes, they blew up the tunnels, but there's a good deal of agreement that it was the entrances and that they may have removed technical equipment ahead of time.  So have you seen anything that tells you they are moving away from those programs?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Now, Barbara, North Korea is opaque.  It's very hard to -- very hard to see into North Korea.  I would note they have not tested a ballistic missile in quite a while.  I would also note they haven't tested a nuclear device in quite a while.  

So there's a certain empirical evidence there.  But, beyond that, it's very hard to see, and that's about as far as I'd be willing to go in discussing it.

MS. WHITE:  Right here.  

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  One second.  Right here.  Tell me your name.

Q:  Roxanne

MS. WHITE:  Roxanne. 

Q:  With Congress getting ready to, obviously, give the Pentagon more money, particularly -- what lawmakers say -- to take care of our readiness crisis, how is the Pentagon planning to be more open about how that money is going towards readiness and what the problems with readiness are, given some of the reluctance to talk about some of the issues?

MS. WHITE:  Well, we -- I mean, we've had both the CNO and the commandant, and we've had the secretary of the Air Force, and they've all come here, and they've talked about readiness, and they've talked about some of the things they're looking for.  

You will see more of that as we implement the National Defense Strategy.  The National Defense Strategy is driving our budget, so you will see that as a rhythm with us.  It's important -- it's an -- a priority for the secretary to ensure that Congress and, most of all, the American people understand how we're spending their money.  So you will see that.  

He has -- he has called on all of his leaders to ensure that we provide that transparency about what we're doing and how we're investing that money, not only in readiness, but also in long-term research and development -- everything from -- with respect to the cloud or A.I.  It's important that they -- that the American people understand how we're investing.

Q:  Okay.  The one issue, though, is there's been some reluctance at the higher levels to say that there is a readiness crisis.  Are the leaders willing to say that and talk about how they're trying to turn it around?

MS. WHITE:  Well, the secretary has said in testimony, as well as -- other leadership has talked about, both to the press as well as in testimony to Congress, that we got into the situation over a matter of years.  

We've had -- we haven't had budget certainty.  We've been on C.R.s for the last nine years, and that had an eroding effect on our capabilities and in -- on a -- our investments.  So I think we've been very open about what the challenges have been, long-term.  

But make no mistake:  The United States military stands ready to fight tonight, regardless.  And so, that, we are always ready for.  But we'll continue to talk about that, and, most of all, we'll -- most importantly, we will talk about how we are using that money to invest and ensure that we fulfill the National Defense Strategy.

Sylvie.

Q:  Hello.  I would like to talk about the unaccompanied migrant children.  We spoke about them a -- a few weeks ago.  And I wanted to know if you have any news about that, if HHS -- apparently, their shelters are getting full -- if they asked for some military bases to be used.

MS. WHITE:  So, to date, they -- I do -- I'm not aware of any requests for any military bases to be used.  However, I can tell you that we are very open to providing facilities and working closely with them to ensure that their needs are met.

Right here.

Q:  Yes, thank you, Dana. Raphael.

On North Korea, it came about last week, when President Trump, he canceled the meeting, one of the reasons that he gave is that nobody from the government has been invited to -- to see how the nuclear facilities was destroyed.  

Now that talks are beginning again -- or it seems -- and the dialogue is again open, has anyone invited anyone from the Pentagon to -- to some kind of check about the situation on the ground there in Korea?

MS. WHITE:  So Assistant Secretary of Defense Schriver, Randy Schriver, is a part of the State Department team, and he has been -- he's a part of the team that's gone to the DMZ.  

So that is how the department is participating in these pre-talks.  So, if the summit happens, he -- he has been our representative and will continue to be our representative.

Q:  But do you expect him to be allowed to get into -- to North Korea and check that the facility was actually destroyed, and…

MS. WHITE:  So what I can tell you is, right now, all of this is -- these are pre-talks.  And so it will be up to our diplomats and to the White House to determine how things move forward.  But Secretary Schriver is a part of that team, and he is representing the department.

Q:  Thank you.

MS. WHITE:  Brie.

Q:  Thank you, Dana.  Brie Jackson with Nexstar Media Group.  

During the NDA -- or the NDAA markups, some senators expressed concerns about children on militarily bases, specifically harass -- sexual harassment, as well as child abuse.  Can you give us an idea of what the concern is that people are seeing there on military bases and what's being done to address that?

MS. WHITE:  Well, abuse of any child, wherever it is, is horrific.  And so we take that very seriously.  And we are working -- and we -- there's actually a task force on -- that P&R has -- Personnel and Readiness has to address some of these issues.  

But you also have to consider that there are different jurisdictions, with respect to bases.  So that can also complicate some of the reporting.  But we are dedicated to working to ensure that all children on our bases remain safe and get the help that they need.

STAFF:  Ma'am, we've got time for a couple more.

MS. WHITE:  Okay.  

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Tom.

Q:  Thank you.  A follow-up, please, on two of colleagues' questions, one in regards to Assad's remarks.  

From the podium earlier this year, when we discussed Manbij, we were told -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that, if attacked, U.S. troops could defend themselves.  And then, in the incident where forces crossed the Euphrates River and were repulsed by SDF and U.S. forces again, we were told that U.S. forces would defend themselves.  

Can we take that as -- as templates as to how the U.S. forces would react, should Syrian forces attack SDF positions where there are U.S. troops?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I think you should -- any interested party in Syria should understand that attacking U.S. forces or our coalition partners will be a bad policy.

MS. WHITE:  Richard?

Q:  I had --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Yes.

MS. WHITE:  Okay.

Q:  My second one was on Lucas' question regarding militarization.  On a scale of 1 to 10 -- I'm going to channel Lucas here.  On a scale of 1 to 10.
 
MS. WHITE:  That could be dangerous.

Q:  -- 1 being -- 1 being me winning the Pulitzer, 10 being the Caps win the Stanley Cup, what's the ability of the United States military to blow apart one of these man-made islands?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So I'm not going to actually use your scale.  I -- I appreciate it. 

I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific, taking down small islands.

Q:  Thank you.

MS. WHITE:  Richard?.

Q:  Thank you.  General, can you tell us anything about the situation in Al-Tanf?  And anything on reports from the region that there's some kind of discussions underway with the Russians and the Jordanians and us on the possibility of withdrawing from Al-Tanf?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure, so situation remains status quo in Al-Tanf.  We're -- we're there.  Nothing -- nothing has changed.  That's -- just to the west is a deconfliction area, of which we are one of the responsible parties.  

We would -- we would view the maintenance of that deconfliction zone as important, and we would view with -- with grave -- we would view very gravely any actions that tended to change that.  And that's really all I have on that.

MS. WHITE:  Elizabeth?

Q:  I want to follow-up on Barbara's question.  There was a memo in February where Mattis said that any tariffs -- he would be concerned about the impact on allies.  So does he still share those concerns?

MS. WHITE:  I think we have to look at what -- the impact of those tariffs.  What are we looking at?  What do we have there?  I think it's -- the secretary's statement stands, but what I would say is we have to take a holistic view and -- and consider what the impact is.  And it's just too early to say right now.

Q:  What about the impact on our allies, and also the impact on the increased cost of production of military systems and --

MS. WHITE:  We'd have to take a full look at the entire impact.

Right here.

Q:  Thank you.  Jon Harper with National Defense Magazine.  

Can you give us an update on where things stand with the Missile Defense Review?  And can we expect that to be released any time soon, like in the next couple weeks?

MS. WHITE:  The Missile Defense Review is still being worked on.  There are some revisions that are being made.  I don't have an exact date for you.

Carlo?

Q:  Thanks, Dana.  On Tuesday, Muqtada al-Sadr gave an interview, characterizing the United States as an invader country, and his new ruling class would not -- would not be accepting of a long-term or mid-term military presence in the country.  

Can you give me an update, as far as what the status is in terms of how the building is trying to sort of adjust the strategy in preparation for the Sadr -- coalition -- kind of making its mark in Baghdad?

MS. WHITE:  Well, first and foremost, it would be -- I -- I won't speculate on what hasn't been determined.  The -- the results and the -- it's -- it's still being worked out, and we respect the Iraqis' process.  

We stand with the Iraqi people, and we're willing to stand with them as their democracy continues to flourish.  But these decisions will ultimately be made by Iraq's leaders.

Right here.  Ben.

Q:  Hi.  Ben Werner with U.S. Naval Institute.  And, just a question -- do you have an update on Admiral Rowden's retirement?  Secretary Mattis is supposed to I guess, decide whether he's going to take the recommendation to bump him from a three-star to a two-star?

MS. WHITE:  I don't have anything on that, but I will come back to you.

Right here in the middle.

Q:  Nick Schifrin from PBS News --

MS. WHITE:  Nick.

Q:  Hey.  I've got two questions; one, back to North Korea -- this may be too early to ask this, but has there been any discussion at all, whether in New York, or -- or in the DMZ, about joint military exercises being part of the discussion between U.S. and the DPRK going forward -- whether to continue those or to reduce those?  And the same thing on U.S. troop presence in South Korea -- have those discussions at all happened?

And, General, if I could just ask you a follow-up on your statement earlier about the U.S. military having a lot of experience in the Western Pacific -- taking that on, just making sure you were referring to World War II.  And what message are you trying to send to China?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  I'll -- it's just a fact.  We have a lot of experience, in the Second World War, taking down small islands that are isolated.  So that's a -- that's a core competency of the U.S. military that we've done before.  You shouldn't read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.

As to North Korea, the point I'd make is, we've probably got to where we are in negotiations because we supported the president's maximum pressure campaign, which involved a certain troop level in Korea and involved joint exercises with our ROK and other partners in the region.  So I wouldn't necessarily look for any of those variables to change, going forward.

MS. WHITE:  Ryan.

Q:  Thank you for doing this.  Just a follow-up on the South China Sea man-made islands issue.  Obviously, there's been increased militarization -- the Pentagon has said that China has incurred increased militarization -- bomber flight landings, missile deployments.  There seems to be no slowing down.

There was a report that they performed an unprofessional interaction with U.S. vessels when they were conducting a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation).  This doesn't seem to be working, in terms of deterring China.  Do you anticipate them changing their behavior any time soon?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  I couldn't answer for what China will or won't do.  I can tell you that we're going to continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations, as allowed by international law, and we're going to continue to do the things that we're doing.  I couldn't speculate as to what China's actions in the future might or might not be.

Q:  Are any additional measures beyond FONOPs being considered in order to --

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That's really all I've got on the subject.

MS. WHITE:  Thank you all very much.

-END-