Press Conference by Secretary Mattis and Sen. Sullivan in Alaska

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis; Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska


SENATOR DAN SULLIVAN:  I think everybody here knows, we have an outstanding secretary of defense.  Most importantly, very well respected by allies, members of Congress, Democrats, Republicans, but I would say, most importantly and saw again today, is by the troops.  The troops, you know, our military really, really respects the secretary, and it's just great to have you here, sir.  So thanks very much for coming.

Just a -- just a few words for opening, you know.  I had the opportunity to -- well, I -- I worked with the secretary quite a lot, being on the Arms Services Committee, but the Alaskans in the room know that I frequently talk about, how this -- our state constitutes three pillars of America's military might.  

We just literally saw, that we're the cornerstone of missile defense, being at Fort Greely.  We are the hub air combat power for the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic, and you're seeing it right here at Eielson, with 54 F-35s coming in the next couple of years, with two squadrons of F-22s down at JBER.

The state will have over a hundred combat coded, fifth generation fighters.  Pretty sure there's no place in the world that will have kind of -- and that's the fighter, fifth gen capability.  

In terms of Air Force power, there's a whole bunch of other assets, and then, of course, we're a platform for expeditionary forces.  4-25, which just got back from Afghanistan, the first striker we gave, which is right down the road here, given our strategic location and air lift, and we have the best training in the world, and I think the secretary saw it at JPARC, and great communities.  There's no place in America that supports our military, like, we do, in Alaska.

And when you look at Secretary Mattis' national defense strategy, which is quite an impressive document, which focuses a lot of the Indo-Pacific as the priority theater and missile defense.  And I think it's safe to say, that, with that new strategy, a very, very well supported strategy in the Congress, Alaska plays a critical role here.

And then, finally, we're rebuilding our military, rebuilding our military after defense cuts and readiness declines that we saw for the last several years.  There's a bipartisan focus on rebuilding the military, and we have very significant bipartisan budgets, again, thanks to the leadership of Secretary Mattis, coming to Congress, testifying on how important that is.  And you're seeing it here.  In Alaska, in the last three and half years, we've had close to $1.4 billion dollars in military construction.  If you look right outside, you're seeing it, and that is to build up these three pillars that I talked about, and it's happening, and it's happening in large part because of the leadership, of Secretary Mattis.  So, again, sir, it's an honor for you to be here.  

I have been pressing him, you know.  I did talk about how we have more vets per capita than any place in the country.  In large parts, because people serve in the military, they come here, they see a gorgeous day like this, they have great training, the communities love them, and when they retire, when they get out, they come back here.

So, I have been pressing the secretary, and once he finally hangs up his combat boots, that he should actually retire in Alaska, but we'll see.  I'm not sure I've fully convinced him yet, but I think this trip had a decent start.  So, Mr. Secretary, I'll turn it over to you`.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Thank you, Senator Sullivan.  It's been a delight to be up here for, I guess, it's only 24 hours, and I wish I could spend about 24 days on the tour, of the Fort Greely missile field that we just returned from, just a few minutes ago, where -- and that is, as you know, a critical component in the American deterrent effort against the use of -- of missiles, against our country's several hundred young soldiers, National Guardsmen up there, who defend 300 million Americans. 

And they are very, very much aware of their job and the responsibilities they carry.  It's a very sobering reminder, for our adversaries, that we are able to defend ourselves, and so, it was a real good trip for the senator.  And I had to go up there and see these people, going through their drills and their constant state of readiness, but it's also a reminder, if we needed one, of Alaska's critical role in our nation's defense.

And geography matters, as we say, in the military.  Geography matters, and even if something was called Seward's Folly, years ago, when he bought it, I think we're all so proud of Alaska now and the key role it plays.  In the defense of our country, we would call it anything but a folly, today, where it is probably the gateway to the Pacific for us, in many, many ways.  It's one of five states that's got a Pacific coastline, and I actually come from one of those states, myself, so it's a good to have a senator who takes such a possession of the issues that we have to deal with out in the Pacific, who lead by example.

I knew his senator when he was number 100 on the list of seniority in the U.S. senate, and he is not the -- the number 100 anymore, but I would also tell you that, by his study of the issues and his leadership of the legislation, in many, many ways, he has brought the Congress in support of the Department of Defense in ways that we did not enjoy, in years past.  And we're grateful for that sort of support, Senator, your airbases, your radars, the training of your soldiers in the most difficult climates, in the world, means they're ready for anything.

The interceptors we have up here, I would just tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that, Alaska, in many ways, is the absolute center of the defense, of our country, and for the Indo-Pacific, and certainly, over the polar ice cap.  And appreciate the leadership, but also, your willingness to go the extra mile, senator.  The senator and I we're out in Singapore here, I think, less than a month ago, out there.

Now, it's one thing for me to show up at a defense seminar, a defense meeting, probably the most important one for the Pacific, but when senators and congressman show up, that lends an authority that we would, otherwise, lack in terms of a priority that we, Americans, place on the Indo-Pacific region.  It's also a reminder of the article, of the Constitution, that requires the Senate to advice and consent on a host of issues and to have someone who actually goes out and meets our allies, talks with our potential adversaries, and tries to find a way to keep an ocean named for peace a peaceful domain.  At the same time, augmenting the nation's defense, it's economic might.  There's a host of reasons why Alaska remains absolutely on the frontline of our -- of protecting our nation.

So, I'd like to stop there, we can take a couple questions, and a few of us have got to get on the airplane, and we're going to head out of here.  And the senator's got to go back to work as well.  

SEN. SULLIVAN:  Yes, sir.  

All right, well listen, I think we're going to start with -- I know we have some national press.  Hopefully you guys got a good dinner last night and got off base, but I think we're going to start with our local.  

Is Tim here, for --- yes, Tim.  

Q:  Thanks, sir, good to meet you (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Thank you.

Q:  So, as you know, the -- in recent years, temperature been increasing, sea ice has been retreating.  It's a blue ocean north of here.  As you know, we've got five handfuls of icebreakers, maybe coming up here, in the next years, as I understand it.  Do we need more and do we need to support facilities?  Do we need a deep draft, a deep water port, in Nome out there on the Bering Sea Coast?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think when we look at our relationship to the Arctic, you've got a number of nations in the Arctic Council, as you know.  Many of those are NATO nations -- Denmark, Norway for example, Canada -- and I think what we have to look at, its how do we work together?  And certainly America has got to up its game in the Arctic.  There's no doubt about that.  It's cited as an area of concern with our National Security Strategy, as it looks more broadly, and then as the National Defense Strategy as it looks more specifically on how we deal with certain other countries in the world.  

And so part of it will certainly see an increased Coast Guard presence, I believe, because in fact we have waterways that are open today that were not open five years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago.  

So the reality is that we're going to have to deal with the developing Arctic, and it is developing.  It's also going to open not just to transport, but also to energy exploration.

So in a broad term I would just say you're exactly right; we're going to have to increase along the lines you're outlining.

SEN. SULLIVAN:  And, Tim, just to add to that, you know, I think one good news piece on that is that the Congress is starting to recognize this more strategically, not just me and Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young, but -- but many members, bipartisan.  So I'll just give you a couple of examples.  In 2015 in the National Defense Authorization Act, we've got a provision in there for an Arctic strategy, which the secretary signed off on.  It's actually a pretty serious document.  It's an unclassified version.

Last year and this year we got provisions for six new icebreakers, three heavies, three mediums.  Last year that provision got -- that was in the Senate and the NDAA, was a provision of mine, got stripped out in conference.  I got it back in this year. So we voted on the NDAA just a week ago. So that's in there again.  We're going to fight for it like crazy in the conference this year to keep it in.

And two years ago we did get a provision in there, again, in the law for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to look at the need and characteristics of what we determined was called a strategic Arctic port for the infrastructure that could host this.  So that's in the law.  The Pentagon is actually working on that right now.

So these are all things that Democrats and Republicans in the Congress have supported.  So I agree with the secretary; I think we're behind, but I think we're finally starting to catch up, and it's the executive branch and the Congress, and I think that's the good news piece on that.

Erin, you want to go next?

Q:  Yes, Erin Greenberg with (inaudible).  So last month you wrote to Congress how some of the department's concern about F-35s, (inaudible) the proper mix with F-35s and F-18s.  And I was wondering how that could possibly change the plans for getting some of those to Eielson and (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, what we're looking at there is the mix of airplanes.  For example, this -- the F-35 going to be used the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines, plus a host of allies.

Inside the Department of Defense, we're looking for what is the mix, for example, that we need on aircraft carrier decks, and we're looking at sustainment costs.  There's a full-court press.  We've got people whose only job is focused on this airplane and its incorporation into our force.

So the plane is coming.  We want to make certain it comes with the proper support facilities, the proper training facilities, all of the things that keep an airplane flying.  It's not just a matter of buying it.  So that's really what that was about, the mix of the aircraft for the various services, and the sustainment of the aircraft.

Notice we're talking about how we're going to incorporate it; we're not talking about if it's coming -- it's coming.  

SEN. SULLIVAN:  Sarah?

Q:  Hi. With the increasing military presence in Alaska and other things, what is one area where you still see lacking?

SEC. MATTIS:  Still see?

Q:  see lacking?

SEN. SULLIVAN:  Still see lacking.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Let me think.  You know there are some areas -- I'm not going to completely answer your question, because there are some things I don't want our adversaries to know.

But I would tell you when you look at the three legs that the senator described, on that three-legged stool, if we keep a balanced force along those lines, if we adapt to the changing situation we face in the Arctic, I think we're in a very good position to address whatever happens.

And there may be times we have to put more on one leg than another, or diplomats are successful on one thing so we can shorten what we're doing on one, and increase the other to address changing sea ice and this sort of thing.

But I think right now as I look at it, it's a pretty -- pretty balanced program, and thanks to the leadership of the administration of the Senate Armed Services Committee, House Armed Services Committee, and then more broadly as the senator said, Congress as a whole, bipartisan.  I think we have probably what we need right now, but there's no room for complacency is really what your question reminds us of, and we'll stay alert to the changing situation and the threats against the United States.

SEN. SULLIVAN:  Sir, I would just say on that, you know, I mentioned we're a platform for expeditionary forces and great training.  There is -- and I see it all of the time, and I know the secretary does, increasing interest from some of the other services to get up here, to train more, because this is great training.  It's very rugged.  It looks a little bit like Korea, you know, cold and mountainous.  And to be able to have forces up here who can get to places on a moment's notice and still do great training.

So I know for a fact there's a lot of services that have an interest in doing more up here.  The Marines this last winter had several hundred Marines up here doing some serious, serious training, and I think they see this as a potential expeditionary platform for, you know, in the future so we're going to keep trying to build on those three pillars that I mentioned, because I think certainly they help our great state, but they're really important for the national security of the country, and it's the secretary's Indo-Asia Pacific strategy, which is highlighted in the new National Defense Strategy for the United States that he wrote.

You look at the kind of thrust of that, and I think Alaska is front and center in terms of being able to help implement and execute that military strategy.

Yes, Phil?

Q:  Secretary, on missile defense, since the Singapore summit there's been a lot of happy talk that the threat may have diminished, but the North Korean missile threat is still there.  They've launched -- they have two new types of ICBMs.  Based on your visit to Fort Greely, how do you see the current North Korean missile threat, and are you confident that our missile defenses can counter.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I've been to Fort Greely, because I want to see the -- the young soldiers who are absolutely responsible for maintaining the 24/7 watch over the missile defense capability.

But I would tell you that right now that I might with Secretary Pompeo, and National Security Adviser Bolton on Friday.  It is full support for the diplomats who are trying to solve this issue.  At the same time, that capability still exists today, so clearly we take that very, very seriously.

But our hopes are riding with the diplomats, so we're going to see progress in the days and weeks ahead.

Q:  Are you confident that the missile defense systems would work if we needed them?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm absolutely confident the missile defense system will work.

SEN. SULLIVAN:  And just -- this is another area where, again, with the administration and the Congress working together we're building it up -- I mean, we're not -- it's not static.  Right now we're building another field at Fort Greely as we speak for 20 more silos of 20 more missiles.  

And in the current NDAA that passed last Monday, there was a whole new section on missile defense that looked -- had space-based sensors.  It was, again, bipartisan approval on that to integrate our THAAD, our Aegis and our homeland system back here.  

So nobody's stopping.  The threat's increasing the administration and the Congress are working together to increase it, and a lot of it is taking place here in Alaska.

Phil?

Q:  Let me just ask though about the immigration issue. We've heard that maybe one of them might only house unaccompanied children.  Is that correct?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, the two bases, that is confirmed now, that those will be the two bases, Goodfellow Air Force Base and Fort Bliss, but I cannot confirm the specifics on how they'll be used.  We'll provide whatever support the Department of Homeland Security needs in order to house the people that they have under their custody.

So we'll work that out week by week.  The numbers obviously are dynamic, so we'll have to stay flexible in our logistics support for the Department of Homeland Security.

Q:  Do you think it's appropriate role for the military, given that these are -- you know, if they were unaccompanied children why is a military base the right place for them.

SEC. MATTIS: Throughout history the U.S. military has provided, whether it be for -- as I mentioned yesterday on the airplane, Phil, whether it be for Vietnamese boat people, who were escaping tyranny at that point.  It's been used for Americans who have been thrown out of their homes by natural disasters.  We've provided logistical support.  And we're not going to get into the political aspect.  Providing housing, shelter for those who need it, is a legitimate governmental function.  This one I recognize the political aspects of it, but for us it's a logistics support effort.

SEN. SULLIVAN:  I think we've got time for one more.

Go ahead, Tim.

Q:  This is a political question I realize.  If this deal with North Korea bears fruit, do you see any point in the future where there'll be less of a need to continue to expand the missile defense base at Greely, because of that major adversary, which as I understand it, is one of the main concerns and why that is (inaudible).  At some point though?

SEC. MATTIS:  It's a great question, Tim, and if I had a crystal ball I could better answer it, because even if one threat goes away -- and let's all with the diplomats well who are working this now -- even if one threat goes away, we have to stay alert to other things in the world that could constitute a threat.

So I think geography -- as I mentioned earlier, geography is geography.  You cannot replace.  You can't wish it away.  Alaska sits actually on a key location from a strategic point of view.  And this is physics at this point.  

So no, at this time, I can't imagine that, but it's an ocean named for peace that washes up against your shores of your state.  Let's hope someday we won't have to do this sort of thing. 

For right now though, our job is to make sure that our diplomats speak from a position of strength, and that's what we're focused on.

SEN. SULLIVAN:  Thank you, everybody.  And, Mr. Secretary, thanks again.  Godspeed on the rest of your travels, we look forward to you coming back.