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Gaggle by Acting Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan While En Route to Miami, Fla.

March 29, 2019
Acting Secretary Of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PATRICK SHANAHAN:  (inaudible) before I start, there -- are there things you think we should  -- I should think  about as I'm making some comments, or just go to Q&A [questions and answers]?

Q:  You know, it's up to you.  You know, we could just go right to Q&A (inaudible) we can get through a lot more material.  That's really your call.

SEC. SHANAHAN: Yeah, I've just got a couple things just in terms of framing the trip.

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  If that's worthwhile.  If it's -- it really has to do with SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command].  And (inaudible) to me, there's, like, three things I want to make sure that I accomplish when I'm down there.  One is always just to be able to go kick the tires. 

So Admiral Faller's been down there for about four months.  So he's got the lay of the land and probably has his team all put in place.  It's good to go get a feel for how that team's working together, just actually going on-site is a big deal.

The second piece is, I really want him to walk me around the region operationally because he's been to Central America, he's been to South America, he's been all over the Caribbean.  So in his words, "Tell me what you've seen." 

So it's not a briefing.  It's really, like, "Walk me through what you see."  And from that, you get a sense for opportunity, risk, changes.  That, to me, is just very tactical.  So it's like the interactive Reuters, right?

Q:  Sure.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  So you have somebody who's got some real expertise.

The primary purpose of my visit, though, is I've been working with Admiral Faller about how to re-integrate SOUTHCOM into how we're doing great power competition.

Q:  I was going to ask that.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.  So the discussion isn't like, "Well, what are other people doing?"  I mean, we always talk about that.  It's like, okay, now that you've seen the game board...

Q:  Right.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... let's start to talk about how you're integrating the pieces.  How do you sequence, how do you prioritize.  What's your framework.

Now as you present that, let's think about how it integrates back into, you know, what the chairman does -- his integrated global campaign plans.  You know.  What is your view relative to those campaign plans.

I think you know, the chairman does Russia, China.  You can kind of run down the majors.  So I want him to start to articulate SOUTHCOM's role from that standpoint.  And as you can imagine, it's not a simple – simple discussion. 

We've had a number of interactions over time, but this is to actually be able to dedicate some critical thinking and to keep moving the ball forward.  I don't want to talk about the environment.  I want to talk about the changes of -- really focus on structural changes...

Q:  Right.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... and then identifying hard objects that we can grade ourselves against and be able to demonstrate progress.  And for us, particularly in the region, what does that security network architecture look like?  And there's not -- there's not an answer.  This is part of the iterations we go through.

So he'll have a regional view.  We've got to figure out how, how to integrate into those campaign plans.  And then what we've done differently back in the department is, we bring all the combatant commands together, to talk about a particular campaign instead of just region by region throughout the world.

So this is about how we change our alignment to focus on great power competition.  The other piece that starts to fall out of this is, once you have that construct, are we resourced properly?  And so...

Q:  Well, particularly, particularly on on SOUTHCOM, right, you could argue they've never been...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  So...

Q:  ... resourced.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  And so you start to -- you have the ability now to...

Q:  (inaudible)


Q:  Does that mean that you're -- you're open to the idea of potentially raising resources for SOUTHCOM to address this issue, or...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That's -- that's why I want to hear his perspective.  But when you think about dynamic force employment, the whole idea behind dynamic force employment is you can take about a third of your resources and be able to flex.

Q:  Is that right?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  If you really look at what we're evolving to with dynamic force employment, it gives the chairmen and myself the ability to shift and move resources.  The -- the existing construct, or the prior construct to the NDS [National Defense Strategy] is that you would fix or assign resources for a longer period of time.  Now we -- we know we need to be more mobile, but even more important, this is -- this is the, really, underpinning of dynamic force employment -- unpredictable.  We want to be predictably unpredictable.  Where it's important to be predictable for a confidence standpoint, be too predictable. 

And so that's -- this is the basis of our conversations.  It's less about what's going on with that?  Okay, how do we really take this to the next -- to the next level?  So that's what great power competition is about, and as -- as you know, and I think you'll get some briefings there's a lot of  activity going on in the region.  It's not, you have to be able to look at that activity and say, "What does it really mean?"  Don't count noses.  Don't count, you know, all the different things.  Study it.  What does it mean, and how does that set your priorities?  Maybe I’ll just cut it at that. (inaudible) Q&A?


Q:  And you had a meeting yesterday with your Brazilian counterpart, the president met with the Brazilian president last week.


Q:  Is there any -- you know, the president raised the possibility -- and this has come up before a long time ago -- about maybe getting Brazil back on the path toward , some degree of integration with NATO someday.


Q:  You know, and obviously, it's a process.  But is that something that came up, or -- if the president brought it up.  Did it come up in your meetings? (inaudible) 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Our meetings were really more, in the -- in the near term, how do we prioritize activities that become enduring?  That NATO comment, I think, is -- as things grow over time and it becomes a greater degree of integration, is there an expanded opportunity? 

For the defense minister and myself, it was, how do we create natural interdependence so that it's self-sustaining and perpetual?  And what I said to him was, "Let's focus on an issue we both have a long-term interest in."  And so often, people concentrate on positions when it's more we have an interest in security in Venezuela.  We have an interest in the humanitarian mission in Venezuela.  How do we work together?  Whether it's intelligence sharing, which as you know, the nature of their new status allows us to do, you know, more work together, more exercises, more sharing.  And to me, having it be not a bureaucratic exercise, but you've solved -- the focus on an issue, people will naturally go the extra mile to find solutions. 

That's was the nature of our conversations.  I wanted him to get a sense of who does what on our team, so as we start to plan exercises, that he can provide some top-down direction or emphasis so that things don't get hindered with the normal bureaucracies and differences between our countries or our departments.

Q:  Just off the top, the Indian ASAT [anti-satellite] test that happened this morning kind of caught a lot of us by surprise.  Are you aware that test was going to be happening?  Did they communicate ahead of time with the pentagon on that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We track a lot of things for the – your comment that you were surprised.  I don't think you were probably surprised.  I mean, I think -- you know, we've -- this is what's -- that's why I think the Space Force is so important, is we talked about space being a contested domain.  It's a good example of how many changes are taking place in that environment, you know.  Indians probably aren't the only people that have that kind of capability.

Q:  Was the Pentagon aware the test was going to happen, though?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We track everything. 


Q:  Can I ask as a bigger question? So I mean, like, India is a partner, increasingly friendly partner to the United States.  But, you know, now they've done this test, it raises questions about whether or not the Pakistanis will do a similar test?  Will other nations will think it's okay to start shooting satellites in different orbits?  What are your -- what is your message to other countries that see this test that think, "I might want to try and get this kind of technology too"?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We all live in space.  I mean, my message would be, we all live in space.  Let's not make it a mess, right?  Space should be a place where we can conduct business.  Space is a place that people should have the freedom to operate.  We cannot make it unstable.  We cannot create a debris problem that ASAT tests create.  So thoughtfulness goes a long way, but...

Q:  So does that mean that you, you would be -- the U.S. is trying to discourage some countries from carrying out these tests?  Or just thinks they need to be done in a very deliberate way?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  None of us need to debris in space. I think it would be a kind of holistic comment.

Q:  You have any discussions with the Pakistanis yet about whether they’ll do (inaudible)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I haven't had any conversations with them yet.

Q:  Just to Phil's point, though, we've talked about the debris issue before, and when China did its test, everyone really got on them.  To the point where China hasn't done it again, partly because of the international response.  What --


SEC. SHANAHAN:  When did they do their test?        

Q: 2007

SEC. SHANAHAN: That’s what I remember (inaudible). So we're over a decade.

Q:  (inaudible) Yeah.  And (inaudible).  So --

SEC. SHANAHAN:  But my understanding is -- I'm not sure what is being tracked. Do you know, that's what’s being reported in terms of space debris?

Q:  (inaudible) so the last report was I think six weeks ago, I think we pulled it from CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies].

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, no, but from this test. 


SEC. SHANAHAN: know, what's being reported...

Q:  (inaudible) I’d say what the Indians are saying.

Q:  Yeah.  I mean, they're saying it was pretty low so it should -- it was (inaudible).  But, I mean, I guess is that a standard then.  If you're -- if you're going to test these things, we don't want you to test them.  But if you're going to do it, do it...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Those are the important conversations we need to have as space policy is changing, right?  I mean, it's how do we want to operate in space.

Q:  So, are you worried about proliferation?  Or no? I just want to be clear.


SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, we have to -- we have to couch what you mean by "worry," right?  Big worries and small worries.  I think not having rules of engagement is worrisome.  So how people test and develop technology is important.  But how we share, this -- you know, critical domain, you know. 

I would expect that anyone who tests doesn't put at risk anybody else's assets.  There are certain, you know, basic principles.

Q:  You sound pretty comfortable with the Indian tests, you're not seeing -- you're not voicing -- you're not taking the opportunity to voice concern about the Indian tests? Correct?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  At this point, we'll study the tests.  And then we'll, you know, share our thoughts.


Q:  I want to shift to the budget for a second?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Sure, sure.

Q:  Because that's what I do.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, yeah.  Yeah, yeah.

Q:  So obviously, there's the -- the $1 billion request that the HASC [House Armed Services Committee] has said they don't support.  The Pentagon is being clear, and everyone agrees they can -- you can still do this if you want to.  But are -- is the plan to push through that $1 billion reprogramming?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, it is. 

Q:  It is?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We're following the law -- I think -- one of the things that's important on the $1 billion is, is we really work to be transparent, legal and then, you know, work with urgency. 

The reason I wanted to talk -- you know, you sort of talk about the timing.  I wanted to make sure the timing of it was before the hearing and not after the hearing, just because then people would say, "Well, you pulled -- pulled a fast one on this."

We're very sensitive in consequences of these kinds of -- of actions.  And you know, the relationships we've built up over time.  I mean, there are going to be consequences.

Understand the position of the -- of the committees.  I also have a standing legal order from the commander in chief.  So we laid out a process some time ago, what we've been -- from a timing standpoint and a flow, have been working to that very deliberately and very openly.

Q:  So, I mean, Adam Smith and other democrats have made clear that, in the past if this happened, they would attempt to take away reprogramming regardless in the future.  Do you expect that to happen and what's that mean to you guys?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, I would expect that to happen.  And I -- you know, Adam wouldn't say that and not -- and not mean it.  You know.

For me, the thing we have to sort through is, reprogramming actions like for the hurricane, you know, those are -- they're a necessity.  So we're going to have to figure out how to manage -- get through this situation.

Q:  So it's worth it because the situation is (inaudible) you just need to get this stuff?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It's a very difficult situation.  It's going to take -- we're going to have to be artful to manage this.  But I don't think it's going to be easy.

Q:  We haven't spoken to you since the end of the caliphate.  I was wondering, you know, when I was in Syria with General Votel over -- about a month ago, there was a big question about what's going to happen to these SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] prisoners they're holding -- trying to hold to Geneva Convention standards. 


Q:  Have you had talks recently this week, last week with your counterparts about taking some of these prisoners back?  What are your concerns about these folks?  And, you know, we're heading to SOUTHCOM.  There's no shortage of lawmakers who wouldn't mind seeing some of the people who aren't repatriated end up at Gitmo.  So how are you thinking through all that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Foreign terrorist fighters and then the ISIS fighters that we've captured, is probably a discussion that I have two, three times a week.  So it's a -- it's a very steady dialogue on status of them, to long-term, how do we want to manage the situation.

And the discussions are internal, external with the D-ISIS coalition, and then regionally.  Because there's a number of options that we have there.

But the steps that we're taking are to ensure that we know who's been captured, the conditions are being properly – properly managed -- and I have to say the SDF is doing a very good job.  As well as these camps they've stood up for the IDPs [internally displaced person].

I mean, they're -- in a very short period of time, I think al-Hal is probably near, 70,000 people.

Q:  Wow.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  So, I mean, it's -- you know, the amount of effort towards stabilization has been significant and extraordinarily responsive.

Q:  So, you know, are you getting commitments from European allies to repatriate these people?  And are you telling them that they have to go to --  you know, the (inaudible) may wind up at Gitmo because if the Brits don't take them (inaudible)? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We haven't drawn a line in the sand on anything.  And that's not to say that there aren't very important discussions taking place.  But just think of the timetable. 

So I would -- I would tell you that there are a number of different frameworks.  Each country has a different set of -- of legal constraints and parameters, procedures they have to work through.  So it's very difficult to characterize one over the other.

But it's not as simple as saying, "Please come to this place on this date.  We have folks we want to turn over to you."  But it -- when we -- when we talk about kind of next phases in the campaign, this is one of the most critical areas – is, we've captured all these people, what's the long-term disposition?

Q:  What are your thoughts? What do you think?

STAFF:  (inaudible) Do you want to move on -- to one-to-one?  (inaudible) We are running out of time.

Q: Okay.

Q:  So the I.G. [Inspector General] investigation has been launched.  There are just a lot of thoughts and questions out there about what this means for you personally, in terms of eventually becoming full SecDef [Secretary of Defense]. 

Have you talked to the administration about eventually filling the full-time role?  Do you believe the I.G. investigation is going to be a roadblock there?  And do you think the I.G. will eventually clear you fully?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, so let me just talk about the IG investigation for a second.  I -- actually it's a -- that's a good question, I'm glad you brought it up.  You know, first, I made mention of this at the SASC [Senate Armed Services Committee] hearing, I welcome it.

It's not an issue to me.  You know, I -- when I joined the administration, I severed all financial ties with Boeing, I severed all financial ties with the defense industry.  You know, Home Depot is a -- that I -- it's part of the defense industry, I mean it goes down to that level of scrutiny.

And then, with the advice of the -- what is it, the Standards of Conduct Office, they said you're better off with a belt and suspenders and recusing yourself for the duration of your time, I said fine, we'll do that, whatever it takes.

So I put a full set -- a full host of processes in place.  So I feel like I've put the right precautions and procedures in place.  So in terms of the IG investigation, they -- I fully cooperate, moving quickly and I appreciate the IG addressing these accusations.

But what I would say is look, I have -- in over 30 years of experience doing large scale engineering and manufacturing, and I've brought that experience and management expertise to the Department of Defense, and what I would tell people is I'm not at all biased towards Boeing.

I'm biased towards performance for the Department of Defense, I'm biased towards performance for the taxpayer, and most importantly, I'm biased for performance for the war fighter.  And what I would, you know, further comment is I know substandard industry performance, and I am an equal opportunity critic of substandard performing programs and I will always criticize substandard performance. 

My history has always been to call things the way I see it because at the end of the day, that's what our war fighters deserve and that's why I joined the Department of Defense. 

Q:  Have you talked to the administration about taking on the full SecDef job?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I serve at the pleasure of the President.

Q:  But you'd be happy if they offered it to you?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I show up every day and put my shoulder into the wheel ‘cause I believe in what we're doing.  I want to make a contribution to national defense and I believe I can deliver on the National Defense Strategy.

STAFF:  All right, we've got time for one more.  Just sort of to be fair here because -- you had multiples in there, we’ll give the last one to Aaron.

Q:  Space Force, just -- obviously the – again the House Democrats have made it clear they don't agree with the Space Force proposal.  It seemed like particularly the number of general officers was kind of a -- an issue with them.

So two questions, one, what is the step forward?  You know, how are you going to work this with them?  And two, are there enough people in the Pentagon to actually fill out the leadership of a SDA [Space Development Agency] space column space for -- given how few actual general officers and (inaudible) level people to do the space stuff?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I -- two things.  What I heard yesterday was a lot of support for the Space Force.  The, you know, fundamentals -- there wasn't pushback on that, the pushback was on, you know, how do we make it more nimble, how do we make it more cost effective?

I cheer when I hear that kind of language, that -- you know, that's music to my ears.  To your second question, we are rich and talented in the Department of Defense.  I don't worry about finding the talent, I -- we have such depth, it's really about how we organize to harness it.

But we are deep in space talent, it's now how do we unleash it and allow us to go address what, you know -- what we talked about earlier, environments would become even more contested.  Okay?  Good to see you guys.

Q:  Yeah, thanks for having us.