Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook


PETER COOK: Afternoon, everybody. Got a quick announcement off the top before I turn to your questions.

Today, senior officials from the Department of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Defence signed a memorandum of understanding regarding measures to minimize the risk of in-flight incidents between coalition and Russian aircraft operating in Syrian airspace.

With today's signatures, the MOU is now in effect. The MOU includes specific safety protocols for air crews to follow. These protocols include maintaining professional airmanship at all times, the use of specific communication frequencies and the establishment of a communication line on the ground. The U.S. and Russia will form a working group to discuss any implementation issues that follow.

The MOU does not establish zones of cooperation, intelligence sharing or any sharing of target information in Syria. The discussions through which this MOU has developed do not constitute U.S. cooperation or support for Russia's policy or actions in Syria. In fact, far from it. We continue to believe that Russia's strategy in Syria is counterproductive and their support for the Assad regime will only make Syria's civil war worse.

The United States will continue to focus on advancing our interests in Syria. We will continue our efforts to go after ISIL, which poses a threat to us and the international community.

We will continue to support a moderate opposition that is essential for a political resolution in Syria. We will continue to be the single largest donor in addressing the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and beyond its borders. Unlike Russia, in those efforts we are joined by a coalition of 65 partners.

So that is the latest with regard to the memorandum of understanding with Russia. And again, that was signed a short time ago earlier today.

And with that, happy to take some questions.

Bob?

Q: Peter, you -- I think you referenced a communication line on the ground or something like. What is that about? And also, why are you not releasing the actual text of the understanding?

MR. COOK: First of all, to the second part of your question, it was at the request of the Russians that the memorandum, in full, not be shared. And with regard to the first part of your question, I can just tell you in broad terms that it's effectively another line of communication on the ground that would supplement any interaction that took place in the air.

Q: Between where and where? I mean --

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into the details, but it's -- again, it's a -- it's a line of communication that would be open between the Russians and the coalition in the event that there was an inability to communicate effectively in the air.

Q: (off mic)

MR. COOK: Again, it's a -- David, it's a -- I'm just going to give you the basics here. We have a line of communication on the ground that serves as a backup and that's the best way -- that's the best way to describe it, the opportunity to -- to have real time conversations if necessary.

Q: Can you say what country it's in?

MR. COOK: I -- I'm not -- I can't get into all the details of the memorandum of understanding, but this is something both sides have agreed to as, again, sort of a backup in the event that there's a problem with communication in the air.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: The communication -- the communication between the Russians and the coalition, this is before any air operation over Syria?

MR. COOK: I'm sorry, Joe. I'm not sure I understand your question.

Q: The line of communication or any communications between Russia and the coalition would take place before any air operation?

MR. COOK: No. No I don't -- I don't think you understood me. I apologize if it's on my end. But this would be a backup form of communication.

There is a series of protocols in place that effectively are intended to avoid any sort of risk of a mid-air incident between our air crews and Russian air crews. Effectively, if they follow these protocols, we should not have the risk of engagement with Russian air crews over Syria.

In the event there is an incident or engagement in the air, there are protocols that they can follow and an ability to engage with each other in the air to make sure everyone is safe and operating safely. And as a backup to that, there is a separate line of communication that is available should communication in the air break down for some reason.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK: So this is an -- this is an effort -- I'm going to call it a line of communication. I -- honestly, I'm -- I don't know, technically, what you want to call it.

But just -- just rest assured that there's a line between that is available to be able to resolve some of these issues, should it come to that. And our hope is that it doesn't come to that.

Q: Is it military-to-military, when you say that?

MR. COOK: Yes, I think that's fair to say. Yes?

Q: Peter, does --

MR. COOK: Yes, Jennifer?

Q: -- the memorandum extend to Iraq, and do you have assurances from the Iraqi government that the Russians will not carry out airstrikes in Iraq?

MR. COOK: This agreement is specific to Syria. My understanding is the Iraqis have said publicly that they're not calling for airstrikes, and for anything further, I'd ask you to -- refer you to the Iraqi government.

Q: - problems if the Russians began carrying out airstrikes in Iraq?

MR. COOK: I think we've expressed our concerns in the past about -- about that potential, that hypothetical. And I -- again, I'd refer you to the Iraqis and let them speak for themselves as to exactly what they would -- would like to see happen over Iraq.

Q: And just a quick follow-up: can you tell us what happened? We understand General Dunford's plane was, at first, not allowed to land in Erbil. Was that -- what was the reason for that? What was the reason given by the Iraqi government?

MR. COOK: Yeah. I'm learning some of this myself. My understanding, that there was a -- an issue with flight plan. I -- I don't know, quite honestly, all the details, but my understanding is the chairman was able to land in -- in Erbil, and is, in fact, in Erbil, and whatever issues there were resolved.

Q: Why did he go to Erbil first? Was it to deliver a message that -- to Baghdad that the Kurds are important and that they -- I mean, was that a symbolic decision?

MR. COOK: I'll -- I'll let the chairman's office speak for his itinerary. But obviously the chairman felt it was important to go to Iraq. We have an ongoing effort in Iraq, close collaboration with the Iraqi government, and -- again, I don't want to speak to his full itinerary.

But I think the secretary, when he visited Iraq, traveled to -- to Erbil as well.

Q: But did he go to Erbil first, the secretary? Before landing in Baghdad?

MR. COOK: He did not, but I -- again, I wouldn't read too much into the itinerary. There are a host of reasons why folks may travel to one location, another -- terms of security, and to be able to meet people in certain locations.

So I -- I -- again, I'll refer you to the chairman's office, to his specific itinerary.

Yes, Barbara?

Q: While the negotiations or discussions were going on with the Russians about this agreement, they flew within 500 feet, on one occasion, and within 1500 feet of U.S. fighter jets over Syria.

So if they want flight safety, and yet they're flying within 500 feet of U.S. aircraft, what makes you believe you can trust them?

MR. COOK: Well, Barbara, I think you just highlighted why we need this kind of agreement in place. Our air crews continue to fly in a professional fashion, and this agreement, now -- this understanding obligates the -- the Russians to do the same, and we -- again, call on them to abide by the protocols that they have now agreed to.

And what you just described would not -- would not reflect the professional airmanship that -- that this understanding now calls for.

Q: What does it say, that they're doing that even as they're negotiating or discussing flight safety with you, and yet, at the very same time, flying within 500 feet of U.S. aircraft and U.S. pilots over Syria? What's that say about their trustworthiness to you?

MR. COOK: What it says to me is that the Russians need to abide by these flight safety protocols that they've now agreed to, because we don't want miscalculation and misunderstanding. The kinds of activities you just described could lend themselves to misunderstanding and to miscalculation, and that's certainly something we want to avoid.

We do not agree with the Russians on their strategy in Syria. At a minimum, we can agree with them on the safe operations of flights over Syria between our air crews and theirs.

Q: I just want to follow up on Jennifer's question. It seems fairly inconceivable -- but who knows -- that the chairman of the joint chiefs' flight crew, his U.S. Air Force flight crew, would have incorrectly filed any flight plans over Iraq in particular. This is a country they've been flying into for well over a decade.

How could it possibly have been flight plan miscommunication?

MR. COOK: So I --

Q: It does beg credulity.

MR. COOK: Well, again, I'm not there, so I don't know exactly what -- what the discrepancies were. I just know that the chairman is on the ground. Iraq -- the airspace over Iraq is a complicated place. The Iraqis have security concerns, understandably, given what's happening in their country. So I think we'll -- we'll find out exactly what the discrepancy was here, but the chairman's on the ground safely and I think that's what's most important here.

And obviously this is something we would love to avoid with the Iraqis, but sometimes things happen. We'll find out what he details were.

Yes, Tara.

Q: Peter, given the number of close flights recently between Russian and coalition aircraft, what happens now that this is signed, if there is another close call? If the Russians fly by another UAV or a coalition jet?

MR. COOK: Well, obviously they -- they've signed this agreement. They are obligated under it, just like we are, to abide by the rules, and if there's an instance in which there's unprofessional conduct and they're -- not the kinds of safety protocols that are called for here, obviously we will raise those concerns with -- with the Russians and -- and we'll take it from there.

Our hope, of course, is that now that they've signed this, that they will abide by the professional airmanship that our crews are already showing over Syria right now.

Tom?

Q: Peter, does this apply to drones as well?

MR. COOK: Yes, this covers both.

Q: And drone-on-drone?

MR. COOK: This covers all aircraft over Syria operated by Russia and the coalition.

Q: And also, is there a separation you would like to see here? A mile, two miles, 20 miles? Is that part of the agreement? How much a safe distance should be kept?

MR. COOK: A safe distance is probably the key words you use there.

Q: But what is a safe distance? Is that spelled out?

MR. COOK: The agreement -- again, I'm not going to get into all the details of the agreement --

Q: In miles? Feet?

MR. COOK: Let me -- let me finish, Tom. It, again, calls for aircraft to -- to maintain a safe distance and again, I'm not going to walk through all the details here, but our -- we have the most professional, capable air crews in the world and they operate with professionalism every day over Syria.

We're now calling on the Russians to do the same, and these crews -- our crews certainly know exactly what a safe distance is and the obligation is upon the Russians to maintain that safe distance, maintain that professional airmanship, just as our crews are displaying right now.

Q: But could you give us a sense of that safe distance? Is it feet or a mile? What is it?

MR. COOK: I think it is safe to say that anything that could be deemed as -- as threatening or hostile would -- would represent a violation of this agreement and it is very clear to our air crews what constitutes that right now, and they're able to identify right away when another aircraft has -- has crossed that line.

And that is -- should be abundantly clear from this memorandum of understanding exactly what that is. There should be no question in the minds of the -- the Russian pilots and the coalition air crews as to what the -- the proper protocols are here.

Q: And lastly, I understand when the two F-16s left Incirlik on their way to Raqqa -- had to divert. The Russian aircraft was 20 miles away. So can we assume that that is a distance that the U.S. would like to see?

MR. COOK: Again, I'm not going to get into distances with you -- with you, Tom. but it's -- our crews will know full well when a Russian aircraft -- we hope it doesn't happen, but the potential for a Russian aircraft to violate these terms -- it will be abundantly clear.

Q: But -- Peter, just to be clear on your answer --

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: -- to that question about -- to Tom. It sounds like there are no numbers spelled out in the agreement in terms of distance. Does it just say -- does terminology -- "a safe distance," not "X number of miles"? Is that correct?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into all the specifics, because --

Q: (inaudible) -- what the numbers are. I'm just saying, are there numbers?

MR. COOK: "Safe distance," Bob, is the best way to -- to look at this. This is the way the pilots themselves are -- are viewing this, and this should give our pilots -- again, if the Russians abide by it -- some comfort -- some measure of comfort that these kinds of incidents can be avoided altogether, and that there's no need for them to have an encounter if everyone's abiding by these rules.

So let me go to the back. Yes -- James first, then Tolga.

Q: Let me -- isn't it reasonable to think that the Russians' notion of "safe distance" might be different than the Americans' notion of "safe distance", and so that the agreement would -- would necessarily need to define, in some way -- because the Russians might say, "well, to us, five miles is a safe distance. We're great pilots. We're better pilots than the Americans."

It -- it just seems like you -- "safe distance" has to be defined. But are you saying it's not, or are you saying you're not going to tell us?

MR. COOK: I’m telling you, James, that these -- the protocols that are put in place here that we've agreed to and the -- the Russians have agreed to should be abundantly clear to he pilots what's appropriate, what's not. What would be deemed as threatening, and what's not.

And that's why we're confident that this will ensure and -- and encourage the safety of our pilots, our air crews over -- over Syria. So, again, safe distance -- again, the -- the other steps that are in here -- I'm not going to read through each and every one of them -- will make it clear what you can and cannot do in proximity to our aircraft.

Q: Just a quick follow. Do the actual pilots themselves have the ability to communicate, now, under this agreement, in a way that they did not have before?

MR. COOK: They have -- they've always had the ability to communicate. The protocols, I think it's safe to say, make it easier. Less chance for miscommunication, and perhaps enable them to communicate more easily, more efficiently than they did in the past.

I think that's fair to say, and -- and so -- but again, James, I want to make the point that there's -- if they -- the Russians abide by these rules, there would be no reason for them to have to engage audibly in communication, because they shouldn't even be that close to begin with. They shouldn't be in that kind of a situation.

Q: We're just trying to understand what "that close" means. That's all. That's why we're asking.

MR. COOK: Tolga.

Q: Just to clarify the safe distance. Is it including the -- only the safe distance -- safe distance between the aircrafts, or also there is a -- there are some conditions in the protocols indicating forcing Russian aircrafts to stay away from the Turkish border in a safe distance as well?

In terms of these Russian incursions a couple of weeks ago.

MR. COOK: Yeah, this -- this specifically, Tolga, refers to aircraft and flights over Syria, specifically.

Q: Any other condition regarding these incursions?

MR. COOK: This refers to aircraft specifically, this memorandum of understanding. We've made clear our concerns about the -- the Russian incursions into Turkish airspace -- NATO airspace.

We've obviously raised those concerns, but this agreement -- this memorandum of understanding -- deals specifically with -- with aircraft over Syria.

Q: Can I just clarify on the communications for a second? You said it's easier. Is it -- so is there a specific channel --

MR. COOK: The --

Q: -- or frequency? What -- what is it that makes it easier?

MR. COOK: -- yeah, I think I've -- I think I've mentioned here before in -- in these conversations that the goal here was to have a specific frequency that they would use as the baseline, and that's a good example, Tom, of how this would be easier, more efficient, should they have to have those communications again. But these protocols, we would hope, would prevent that from even having to happen.

Let me -- let me move over here. Go ahead.

Q: One follow up and then a pass over question. You said that Russia asked the memorandum language not be released. What was their justification for that and why did the U.S. agree?

MR. COOK: To be quite honest, I don't know. I wasn't there for -- for that part of the agreement, but I know it was a request that was made and -- and I'm not sure the -- the full reason behind it, so.

Q: And coming a little bit closer to home. Canada had election last night. The prime minister-elect has said in the past that he would look to end Canada's involvement in anti-ISIL operations and also cut entirely the F-35 planned by -- from the current government. Any reaction from the Pentagon? Concerns about the fact that an ally may be leaving the coalition?

MR. COOK: Well, obviously we noted the election results in -- in Canada. It's a NATO ally, a NORAD partner, part of our counter-ISIL coalition and we look forward to continuing the strong defense relationship we have with Canada moving forward. I think it's -- again, if we have that close relationship, I think it's be -- they're a partner in the F-35 program. I think it'd be inappropriate for me to speculate on how that might change going forward.

But they are a key ally of ours in so many ways, but particularly in -- in defense issues and we look forward to maintaining that relationship going forward, improving it.

Q: Yeah. Can you elaborate a little bit on the types of --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK: (inaudible) -- my e-mail, too. Sorry.

Q: Okay, yeah. Since the Russians have been flying, can you elaborate on the -- the numbers of unsafe encounters there have been and any details on the types of --

MR. COOK: I -- I don't have a -- a list here. My understanding -- there -- there have been a handful of incidents. I think Barbara referred to a few, but again, our hope if these protocols prevent anything like that from happening going forward. That's certainly our hope and expectation.

Q: Does that include both manned and unmanned aircraft?

MR. COOK: Yes, this agreement covers -- covers both.

Q: (off mic)

There have been incidents involving Russian intercepts of -- of unmanned aircraft as well as manned aircraft.

MR. COOK: Yes. Again, those incidents -- causes concern, so the reason we wanted to have and were willing to at least talk to the Russians about this one limited area where we could find mutual understanding and simply to promote the -- the safety of our air crews and -- and also the operation -- our coalition air operations over Syria, including unmanned aircraft as well.

Yes?

Q: I don't know if you have a readout of general chief of staffs -- Dunford meeting with the Kurdish officials, but a couple of weeks ago, several Kurdish officials came out.

They said they were complaining about the train and equip program and they said that -- that weapons that promised was to be delivered to Peshmerga after May has been decreased by Baghdad and there were no promise being made by their side also after that.

Do you have any -- any comment on that?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of that. I don't have a readout of the chairman's meetings, so I'd refer you to -- to his office. But I'm not aware of -- of an issue with regard to that and I think our support for the -- has been strong in terms of equipment, and I think you've got the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in Erbil. Right now, I think that's representative of that sort of commitment.

Q: One more on Syria, I think several weeks ago or maybe a couple of weeks ago, there were different statements came out from the U.S. government, including Pentagon, on the airdrops for the Syrian rebel -- moderate rebel in -- in -- in Syria, including YPG.

At first, it was an attempt that there -- the airdrop also -- would include the YPG, and that will -- they will be equipped. And then there was change in the statement. And do you have any comment why there was any change in the statement that the -- that the airdrop would not -- for the YPG would -- just for the moderate rebel?

MR. COOK: The -- the airdrop, again, was for the Syrian Arab Coalition. It was successful, and I'll just restate that. I mean, it's -- it was -- it went where it was intended, to the people it was intended -- you know, who were intended to receive it.

Q: But that was not intended to deliver -- to be for YPG?

MR. COOK: It was intended for the Syrian Arab Coalition.

You -- I've got a tag-team from Fox. I've got Lucas behind you. Who do I go to, Jennifer?

Q: I'm going to defer to Lucas.

MR. COOK: You're -- Lucas?

Q: Thank you, Jennifer.

MR. COOK: I'm impressed. Not every correspondent would do that, so I'm doubly impressed.

Q: Peter, do you trust the Russians?

MR. COOK: Lucas, the fact that we have had to resort to a memorandum of understanding here to try and work out what should be -- you know, standard protocol over Syria -- it gives you an indication of our concern about Russia's activities, but our willingness to -- to work with the Russians when it's -- it's in our own interest, and that's what's happening here.

We are looking to the Russians to abide by these protocols to ensure safe flight operations over Syria. But let me reaffirm once again, this is a narrow understanding with the Russians dealing with a very specific issue.

Russia's larger efforts in Syria -- their strategy there -- we've been quite clear -- the secretary's been quite clear. We don't agree with what they're doing. And that has not changed.

We can agree, on this limited basis, to try and promote the safety of our air crews over Syria, and -- and again, that's -- that's where things stand with -- with Russia.

Q: Because to date, there are statements from this building that say otherwise. The Russians -- you say the Russians are not striking ISIS, the Russians have signed agreements in Minsk, there's been new Russian nuclear agreements that the Pentagon says the Russians aren't abiding by.

What makes you think they will abide by this one?

MR. COOK: Well, we -- let me go back to where we were from the start. Our crews continue to fly in Syria every day. We continue to have situational awareness for our crews. We're doing everything we can beyond this understanding to make sure that our crews are as safe as possible, and we're going to continue to do that.

So do not believe that this memorandum of understanding is the only thing we're doing to make sure our crews remain safe over -- over Syria.

I'm going to go to the back. I'm just going to move around a little bit. Sorry.

Q: To follow on that, you indicated that you don't particularly trust Russia, that's why you've kind of signed this MOU in the first place.

If that's the case, you don't trust Syria or Iran either. Why not do the same thing with them?

MR. COOK: We -- this is specific to flight operations over Syria, and at this particular moment in time, if we have an -- an issue of a -- an incident over Syria, it would most likely involve Russian aircraft, because they're the ones flying over Syria right now. So I'm -- I'm not sure the -- the parallel there.

We're doing this because of the risk -- the risk right now that these air crews could have some sort of incident over Syria. We're trying to reduce that risk by -- again, this memorandum of understanding with the Russians.

Q: Peter.

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Does this MOU cover any coalition aircraft that could be flying in Syria, and has there been any feedback or concern raised by other coalition governments about the discussions happening?

MR. COOK: This -- this does include coalition aircraft, as well, and we've been in consultation with our partner nations within the coalition throughout this entire process, so they're well aware of the memorandum of understanding and the terms that are within it.

Q: Do U.S. pilots have permission to fire on Russian planes if the Russians do not abide by this protocol?

MR. COOK: I'll just maintain what we've said from the very start. Our crews -- our air crews always have the right to defend themselves. Our hope, with the memorandum of understanding, is that the risk of any sort of incident in the air over Syria is reduced at a minimum, hopefully eliminated by this, and -- but our crews, no matter where they're flying, have the ability to defend themselves if they feel threatened.

Q: On the budget and Defense Authorization Act, does -- is Secretary Carter still advising the president that he should veto NDAA as it now stands?

MR. COOK: Yes, the secretary still supports the president's call for a veto of this for the reason we've talked about from here, and the secretary has detailed at length up on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. I've got time for two more.

Q: Quick point, you say it covers the -- the MOU covers the coalition, does it also cover Syria? Syrian aircraft?

MR. COOK: This is specific to Russian aircraft and coalition aircraft, and that's right now the -- that's -- if there's a risk of incident right now, it involved Russian aircraft. So no, it does not cover Syrian aircraft.

Q: Other times, you've said specifically threatening behavior. Were some of these earlier encounters, were -- were some of those considered to be threatening on the part of the Russians?

MR. COOK: I think safe to say that anything involving close proximity to an aircraft that is not a member of your coalition could be deemed as threatening. So those are the kinds of incidents we look to avoid here and -- and I think these protocols, if they're followed, will reduce that risk and reduce the chance of anything like that happening.

Q: And in Afghanistan, any progress on the investigation and initial casualty assessment?

MR. COOK: Waiting for our own update from Afghanistan on the initial civilian casualty component of that investigation and I don't have a specific update for you now, but obviously we're waiting for those results ourselves.

And I'll get the last one here.

Q: Thank you. Peter, it seems that there's a new U.S. aircraft deployment in Incirlik. Do you have any details that you can share with us on this?

MR. COOK: My understanding, I literally got this word as I came in, is that there -- there are A-10s arriving in Incirlik and I don't have the exact number, but I do -- my understanding -- literally, I got this word as I came in that there are A-10s arriving at Incirlik and this was part of a regular rotation that was planned.

Q: So you're replacing some of the F-16s?

MR. COOK: That's my understanding, but I literally walked in here with this and I'm just sharing what I -- what I know at this point.

With that, I've got to get to another -- I'll squeeze one more in in the back. Sorry.

Q: So one last question on the MOU.

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: So it's -- it seemed like it was generally agreed upon on Friday. Has there been any improvement since Friday on interaction between U.S. and Russian aircraft in Syria?

MR. COOK: You mean in the air, have there been --

Q: Has there been improvement in communication?

MR. COOK: Yeah, I'm -- I'm not aware of any incidents that have happened since them, so to me, again, that could be a reflection of the Russians abiding by the rules already.

Our folks have been abiding by these rules from the start. This is standard protocol for our coalition air crews. So again, maybe that's an indication of -- that the Russians will be abiding by this. We certainly hope so.

And -- but now this is in effect, signatures were put in place today, and -- and we'll go from there.

Q: Who signed it?

MR. COOK: I'm not sure I can release that. Someone you know, I'll just leave it at that. (Laughter.)

So --

Q: (off mic) In previous rounds, -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK: I won't be able -- I won't be able to answer this, I'm sure. But --

Q: (off mic) to take.

MR. COOK: Okay, sure.

Q: Earlier, the A-10s had not been sent to Syria because of concerns over air defenses there, and the -- the A-10s' close air support role. If you could give us anything on what the A-10s will be doing, if they'll be flying over Syria? Any concerns there might be on the air defenses there?

MR. COOK: Let me -- me -- let me take that question. I'm sure we can give you a solid answer, but before I weigh in without getting 100 percent visibility on exactly what their role will be, we'll get that for you.

Okay. Thanks, everyone.