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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Brigadier General Croft via teleconference

ERIC J. PAHON:  Hello, everybody.  As you know, I'm Eric Pahon.

Brigadier General Andrew Croft is joining us today.  General Croft is the deputy commanding general for Air and the Joint Air Component Coordination Element.

He's been in Baghdad now for more than 10 months working in the headquarters of the Coalition Joint Force Land Component Command, or, as you've probably heard, CJFLCC.

His primary duty is to ensure the air component is effectively and efficiently supporting the Counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq via careful coordination and use of surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and strike aircraft.

Additionally, he's the primary adviser to the Iraqi aviation forces, including the Iraqi Air Force, Army Aviation Command, and their Air Defense Command.  In that capacity, he leads the effort to train, advise and assist the Iraqi air forces to become more capable, professional, sustainable and affordable.

And one point I'd just like to make here:  I know you've got many questions on Syria, but General Croft is Iraq-focused.  If you have Syria questions, we can talk afterwards.

And with that, General Croft, can you hear us, sir?

BRIGADIER GENERAL ANDREW A. CROFT:  I sure can.  Good morning.

MR. PAHON:  If you'd like to start with your opening statement, sir.

GEN. CROFT:  All right, good morning.  You bet.

Good morning, folks.

Coalition air power in support of the Iraqi Security Forces has been extremely successful in the destruction of ISIS in Iraq.

From the herculean effort in Mosul, to the rapid victories in Tal Afar, Hawija, and westward through the Euphrates River Valley, the coalition supported the Iraqis through the by, with and through strategy.

This strategy has been wildly successful, enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to reclaim their territory from a barbaric enemy, while allowing the coalition to minimize its footprint in Iraq.

It is now our job to enhance these capabilities within the Iraqi aviation enterprise, and we will do this through our train, advise and assist mission.

To accomplish this mission, we stood up a Coalition Aviation Advisory and Training team, or CAAT, in early February that leverages U.S. and coalition forces already deployed to Iraq.

By the middle of this summer, the CAAT is projected to transition into a new Air Force Wing-Iraq, with the explicit mission of advancing the capabilities of the Iraqi aviation commands.

The formation of this training effort is a crucial step as we continue to assist the Iraqis in consolidating their gains after years of tough combat.

It is our goal to make them better as a partner in mission areas such as border security, protection of critical infrastructure, and the ability to defeat violent extremist organizations.

We will do this by working with pilots, technicians and planners to increase the effectiveness in areas such as basic and advanced flight training, support to Iraqi ground forces, medical evacuation, aircraft maintenance, and logistics.

The Iraqis have already achieved several milestones since the CAAT stood up, including reopening their air force academy in late February; and the Iraqi forward air controllers conducting a live-fire exercise in early March, where they successfully called in training air strikes from coalition aircraft for the first time ever.

The story of the fight against ISIS from the air is one of success, as these recent accomplishments demonstrate, and we look forward to working closely with the Iraqi aviation commands to build on those accomplishments.

Thank you, and I'll be happy to take your questions.

MR. PAHON:  Okay, thank you very much, sir.

First question's going to go to Tom Bowman with NPR.

Q:  Could you give us a sense of where ISIS now in Iraq?  Is it mostly out around Anbar, along the border with Syria?

And also talk a little bit more about the numbers with this training effort starting in the summer.  How many U.S. personnel will be involved?  How many, you know coalition personnel will be involved?

GEN. CROFT:  Sure.

So for the ISIS numbers -- or locations first, the areas of highest concern where we still have fragments of ISIS or remnants of ISIS, mainly the Makhmur, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu area, there's a -- sort of a diagonal line there where we find fragments of ISIS.  And we work with the Iraqi Security Forces to go after those fragments.  We've done that in the last month or two.

And the other area of concern is the western Anbar desert south of Rutbah, south of the -- the -- the international highway.  It's an open desert with not a lot of population, and so ISIS has remnants or fragments out there -- out there.


GEN. CROFT:  -- to find, locate and either capture or eliminate those ISIS remnants.

The second part of your question was the Coalition Aviation Advisory and Training team.  That is going to be the future air force wing.

The numbers there for the people involved, it's about 350 U.S. members.  And then we're going to use about 100 to 120 coalition members to man that wing.

And what we're doing is, instead of bringing people in, we repurpose current airmen that are doing jobs in support of the combat operations.  And as those combat operations drop off, we repurpose those airmen into that -- into that training environment; or if they're no longer required, we take them out of Iraq and send them home.

Q:  One last thing on Anbar:  Are you seeing ISIS fighters coming into Anbar from Syria?  Or most of those were already in Iraq, maybe moving -- moving west?

GEN. CROFT:  I think the -- the numbers we find in the Anbar desert, they're few.  They are not coming from Syria that we're seeing, although that would be a concern in the future, and we're fully aware of that possibility.

But the numbers that are out there, it is literally in -- it's small numbers.  And we think they are actually just existing or trying to survive out in the desert in those pockets or remnants that might be left.

MR. PAHON:  Okay, thank you very much.

Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24?

Q:  Thank you very much, sir.

When you say that there are -- Makhmur, Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu are the areas of highest concern for you regarding ISIS, has the situation deteriorated since October when the Iraqi forces attacked Kirkuk?

GEN. CROFT:  Actually, I think the situation's gotten a lot better since October.

So the -- I think your first question was why in that area?  Those are the -- that's where we've done the last few operations with the Iraqi Security Forces.

So, back in February the Iraqis did three operations up in the Makhmur area, also the Hamrin Mountain area and also in the Hawija area.

Two of those operations the Iraqi Security Forces moved on the ground to secure those locations.  The third one, in the Hamrin Mountains, because the terrain is so rough, they asked for coalition air support in the Hamrin Mountains and we did some airstrikes there because it's such rough terrain and hard to access.

So that leads me to believe that the remnants that we see are in those locations.

Q:  So, when Iraq attacked Kirkuk last October, these ISIS pockets were still there and attacked Kirkuk before ISIS was defeated?

GEN. CROFT:  I'm sorry -- can you say that question one more time, please?

Q:  You seem to be saying that the Iraqi attack on the Kurds in Kirkuk occurred before ISIS was defeated in the places that you named.  Is that correct?

GEN. CROFT:  Okay.  I think what you're asking me is, was ISIS defeated before the Iraqi Security Forces occupied Hawija?

So, obviously, they cleared Hawija up to the Kirkuk area and then after that moved to the Euphrates River Valley.  There are still remnants of ISIS in that Kirkuk-to-Makhmur area, which is why we did those operations with the Iraqi Security Forces in January and February.

If that answers your question.

Q:  What I am trying to get at is there are people who are saying that the Iraqi attack on Kurdish forces in Kirkuk has caused a deterioration in the security situation.  Do you agree or disagree with that?

GEN. CROFT:  I disagree.

MR. PAHON:  Laurie, we'll come back to you.  I'll let somebody else try.

Richard Sisk,

Q:  Sir, with the new training program for pilots, JTACs, does that mean that the programs to train pilots here in the States, are they coming to an end?

GEN. CROFT:  I'm sorry -- I'm having trouble hearing that.  I hear the pilots in the States -- so, we train the Iraqi pilots in the United States.  They go through basic pilot training, basic flight training and advanced flight training in the U.S. and then the F-16 pilots come back to Iraq.  They do the follow-on training in Iraq.

And then the JTACs, or in this case the Iraqi forward air controller course -- we train the Iraqis here at Taji and Bismayah to then be able to control their own aircraft, much like an American JTAC would.

Q:  Okay.  So, the program here in the States, that is continuing?

GEN. CROFT:  That is.  Yes.

So, we still continue to train Iraqi pilots in the States at our pilot training bases and then the F-16 base in Tucson, Arizona.  That gets them through basic qualification in the F-16, then they come to Iraq and any follow-on training they do -- let's say a flight leader or somebody who would lead a larger formation -- that training is done in Iraq at Balad Air Base.

Q:  All right.

Then the training at Balad -- can you give us an estimate of how many pilots will be training?  How many JTACs?

GEN. CROFT:  Yeah.  So there's two.

So the pilot training at Balad, right now the -- the Iraqis have 21 F-16s at Balad.  The remaining 14 are in Tucson, Arizona.  So they split the force for primary training in Tucson and then advanced training in Balad.

Up until about last October, November, the Iraqi F-16s were primarily flying combat operations.  Since the end of combat operations in December, they've gone to training operations.

And so, right now, they have about 20 to 25 pilots that are fully qualified in that squadron at Balad, and then they train an additional four or five at any one time -- just like an American fighter squadron would do with the same numbers -- to do things like become from a wingman to a flight lead to a leader of a four-ship flight lead.

So those -- that training is ongoing at Balad.  And it's actually doubled or tripled in -- in frequency and numbers as they've moved from combat operations to training operations.

For the forward air controller portion of the -- of the question, we do that, like I said, at Bismayah with coalition instructors.  We just finished a course last week where we trained 12 forward air controllers, and we're starting another course on Saturday -- this week, on Saturday, where we're going to -- where we're going to train an additional 15 air controllers.

Each one of those courses lasts about three months, and it ends in live-flight training.  That training will happen in May, and then we'll start another course shortly after that in June.

And so the Iraqis are trained in Iraq, and then they are supported by Iraqi aircraft and Iraqi helicopters in those training environments, so that they can continue to do this, if needed, in combat operations.

MR. PAHON:  Next we'll go to Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News.

Q:  General, can you talk about Turkey's actions in northern Syria, particularly in Afrin, and how that's affected the fight against ISIS?

GEN. CROFT:  So, I won't comment on any future operations.

What I can say is that ISIS still exists physically on the ground in Syria.  And our primary mission, obviously, here, from the military perspective, is the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  And we need to continue to continue the offensive in both locations, wherever they exist.

It -- the -- Afrin is quite a -- a distance away from where ISIS is right now.  They're primarily on the eastern border of Syria.

So we are concentrating there as an air component in that eastern -- in that eastern portion of Syria.  So the actions in Afrin, from the air perspective, don't have that large of an effect on us as far as the ability to pursue the air campaign.

And right now, in Operation -- OIR right now, the majority of our air assets are in Syria, in that fight against ISIS on the ground.

Q:  Thank you.

And while other generals have made it a point to say the main effort has shifted to Afghanistan, in the last Air Force Central Command strike report, more bombs were actually dropped on ISIS in Iraq and Syria than Afghanistan.

Can you talk about that, and talk about how the ISIS war continues in Iraq and Syria, and -- and why are all these bombs still being dropped?

GEN. CROFT:  Yeah.

So, I'll give you this number:  that the -- the number of bombs we dropped in Iraq and Syria last week was the lowest since the beginning of OIR back in 2014.

So that is an indication that ISIS is totally fragmented and there's remnants in Iraq.  At the same time, we are continuing to fight ISIS as required, as we find them in Syria.

Some of the assets that you mentioned have been moved to Afghanistan as the fight there continues.  We continue to fight and drop and strike as required when we find ISIS.  The majority of the strikes happen in Syria versus Iraq, but the numbers have dropped off considerably here in OIR.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. PAHON:  I don't recall your name, I'm sorry.

Q:  Hi, General.  Mark Selinger, Defense Daily.

I have, kind of, a Washington-centric question.

You know, we're six months into the fiscal year, the defense appropriations bill just got enacted.  Is there anything in that bill, money for munitions or F-16 upgrades, that's going to help you do your job?

GEN. CROFT:  I could tell you it's, obviously, very recent.  I have not seen any impact on our operations from that perspective.  So, right now, no impact.  I can't say that won't impact us in the future, but right now there's been -- I see no impact from -- from where I sit here in Iraq.

MR. PAHON:  Behind Laurie here.

Q:  Kyle Rempfer with the Military Times.

Regarding the drop in air strikes that you mentioned, is any of that attributed to SDF units that are leaving the ISIS fight to go north Afrin?  And do any of those SDF units provide, like, targeting information?

GEN. CROFT:  It -- it's probably a factor -- it's a function of multiple factors.

One, as I mentioned, like I said, in Iraq, the strikes have been reduced considerably.  And we need to continue to keep the offensive going against ISIS in eastern Syria.

The -- the SDF right now is -- I would say that the tempo of operations has slowed a little bit on the offensive side of the house in Syria, but that's not to say that, next week, it's not going to pick up again.  So it's -- it's hard to predict exactly what will happen in the next couple of weeks.

But I will say, from the air component perspective, we have put our majority of our weight of effort in the Syria fight, and that's where it needs to be to continue to eliminate that threat on the ground.

And the effect in Syria obviously has an effect on Iraq.  And we watch that very closely, because the Iraqis would be concerned about any ISIS fighters or remnants moving from eastern Syria into Iraq if we're not able to end it right there.

So that does affect the -- the area that I'm concerned about primarily, which is the defense of Iraq and the borders and such.  And the Iraqi government is fully aware of this as well.

So it is imperative that we continue to maintain the offensive against ISIS.

Q:  Okay.  Thank you very much.

MR. PAHON:  Courtney or Jack, do you have anything today?

Q:  I have one, actually.

GEN. CROFT:  Okay, Courtney Kube.

Q:  Hi, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News.

Have you seen any kind of new air defenses in Syria by either ISIS or by the Russians or anything?  Are they doing anything that is causing any kind of new threat -- I'm sorry, I said the Russians, I meant the Syrians -- any new air defenses, either ISIS or by the Syrians that's causing any kind of a threat to U.S. aircraft over Syria?

GEN. CROFT:  No, we've not seen anything change.

In fact, the majority of the Russian efforts have moved from eastern Syria to, sort of, western Syria, if you will.

So our level of coordination with the Russians for de-confliction continues.  I'd just say it's very professional.

But I've seen no changes as far as any change to a threat to our air component, particularly in eastern Syria.

Q:  Does that include any kind of new threats from the ground?  So not necessarily something that would be a problem of de-confliction, but more a new -- or any new or changing threats from the ground against U.S. and coalition aircraft in Syria?

GEN. CROFT:  No, no.  We've not seen that.  So, right now we have -- like I said, quite a few assets over there.  We have our strike assets there, we've got our surveillance assets over there.  But again I've not seen -- we've not seen from the air component any increasing threat from the ground.

MR. PAHON:  And -- okay.  Jack Detsch?

Q:  Yeah, just in terms of President Erdogan of Turkey has threatened to invade the Sinjar Province to expel the PKK, has that had any impact on U.S. operations sort of in and around the Iraq Syria border?

GEN. CROFT:  No, it has not.  I've not seen any evidence that that's ever occurred.  We've seen no change in activity up in northern Iraq from Turkey.

Any actions the Turks would take in northern Iraq is something that the Turkish government, obviously, would coordinate with the government of Iraq.  But I've seen no change at all in northern Iraq with respect to those comments that were made.

Q:  And could the U.S. provide any assistance in terms of helping to expel the PKK from the air to Turkey in the future?

GEN. CROFT:  No, that -- that is between the government of Turkey and the government of Iraq purely.

So, obviously, the government of Turkey has concerns about the PKK.  But what they do in northern Iraq is going to be a government-to-government coordination not involving the coalition.

MR. PAHON:  Okay, and we'll do one last question.  Laurie Mylroie, she's got one follow up.


Q:  (Off mic) different issue.

Perhaps you would be familiar with this.  The Iraqis have said -- expressed the intent to purchase the Russian S-400, which would be -- put them in violation of U.S. law.  Has that issue been resolved yet?

GEN. CROFT:  Yeah, I've seen -- I've only seen that in the open press; I've seen no evidence that that's going to occur.

It's a very expensive, complicated system.  But I've seen no evidence that that is actually going to happen.

Q:  No one's consulted with you about that?

GEN. CROFT:  No.  No they have not.

MR. PAHON:  Kasim Ileri, do you have one question?

Kasim just walked in, Anadolu.

Q:  I'm sorry, I was watching it from TV, but I would like to follow-up --

MR. PAHON:  (inaudible) -- ask a question.

Q:  Yeah.

I was just going to follow up on a question about Sinjar.  So Sinjar was under the ISIS threat by -- with the support of the coalition, with the support of the U.S. air strikes, the area was cleared from ISIS.

And then somehow it fall -- it has now fallen to the PKK.  Right now, PKK is in control of it.

How do you see, you know, that change in, kind of, hand?  How did it happen?  How did the PKK just take over the city and then the coalition had say nothing to a terrorist group who is designated by the United States as well?

GEN. CROFT:  Yeah, so I don't know exactly where the PKK is in relation to Sinjar.  I know they're in the vicinity of Sinjar, but as far as the exact locations on the ground, I couldn't tell you exactly where that is.

From the air perspective, that is not an area that we are going to go into, because it's a counter-ISIS fight that we're in.

What happens in Sinjar is up to the government of Iraq to -- to move forces as required to stabilize that area.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

MR. PAHON:  Okay.  Anybody else?  Going once, going twice.

Okay, General Croft, thank you very much.  Appreciate your attendance.

And everybody have a great day.  Thanks.

GEN. CROFT:  You bet.