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Secretary of Defense Esper Media Engagement En Route to EUCOM

Sept. 5, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

STAFF:  Mr. Secretary, do you have any starter comments?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Yes.  First of all, thank you all for joining us on this trip.  I'm looking forward to engagements with both EUCOM and AFRICOM tomorrow, and then of course meeting with our allies in London and Paris on the subsequent days.

More immediately, though, I want to express our continued concern as a department, for all the people in the Bahamas, the States in the path of Hurricane Dorian.  We are well-prepared and postured to support. 

With regard to the Bahamas, which got hit pretty hard and I think is still under the effects of Dorian, I have approved DOD support to NORTHCOM, to airlift USAID personnel and supplies, and we'd also be sending, along with that aircraft, a DOD airfield assessment team, an airfield clearing team, an air traffic control team to open the Bahamas up as soon as possible for relief flights, aid flights, et cetera. 

So, again, that's all in addition to what we're prepared to provide for the people of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and others.  So, again, we'll keep a close eye on that.  A lot of trust and confidence in the NORTHCOM commander and in the National Guard of the states, to do the right thing to take care of our people.  So, anyways, we monitor that as well while I'm on this trip. 

So I'll just stop right there, and open up for questions.

Q:  Can I start you off with a question about Afghanistan...

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.

Q:  ... can you give us either a kind of an update on where things stand?  Or just can we start with that, could you tell us where things stand?  Just met with the president yesterday.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.  I mean, Ambassador Khalilzad is obviously still making his way around the region, talking to folks.  And I haven't gotten the latest update from him.  But, you know, negotiations in some ways, are still ongoing. 

So I don't want to say anything that gets in front of that or upsets that process.  I am meeting tonight with Secretary General Stoltenberg.  He and I are going to have dinner together, and that'll be one of the topics I want to discuss with him as well, to make sure that he and our Resolute Support allies have a sense of where I think things are.

As we've always said, though, we've got good support from our allies in Afghanistan.  As we reiterated when I was in Brussels in June, I think, you know, we went in together and if we -- if we come out, we'll come out together and -- and continue kind of a proportionate sharing of the duties and responsibilities there.

Q:  So the idea, obviously, is that you do come out.  And there would be a withdrawal, there'd be a peace -- a cease-fire and a peace deal.  What is your own feeling about whether you can rely on the Taliban to meet commitments that they make, given the history of...

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, again, I'm not going to comment any further on what's sensitive negotiations.  And I'll just go with what I said in the past.  I think most people feel that the way forward is through a political agreement, that's how this conflict ends. 

And if we're on the cusp of one, which we could be, I don't want to -- I don't want to upset that, I want to make sure that the State Department has the freedom of movement to negotiate the best deal possible.  And then we have to tee it up for the president to consider, and we'll just go from there.

Q:  So he hasn't signed off on it yet?

SEC. ESPER:  No.  I'm just going to -- like I said, it's still where it is, with Ambassador Khalilzad. 

Q:  OK.

Q:  Could I follow up on that?  Since the broad contours have been announced by the president and the ambassador himself, in an interview with Tolo News in Afghanistan, the Taliban have carried out a suicide bombing, which was quite brutal and deadly.  And there was a letter by, I think, nine former ambassadors -- U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan, saying a full withdrawal would jeopardize Afghanistan security.

And so a lot of veterans and sort of people who have served in Afghanistan are asking how does (inaudible) surrender, given the Taliban keep on doing sort of these terrorist attacks, but the U.S. continues to sort of negotiate and not really change its position?

SEC. ESPER:  Well again, I'm not going to get into details on any of that.  I can just tell you that the conflict continues now.  They're conducting attacks, Afghans are conducting attacks.  We're supporting Afghan attacks.

And that's why we think the best way forward, if we can get to the right deal, is a political agreement that leads to a viable outcome.

A separate topic -- yesterday obviously the announcement was made about the $3.6 billion for the border wall and -- sort of -- you authorizing for it to be used.  Democratic lawmakers have come out and sort of criticized it from, you know, this jeopardizes national security; it circumvents the Constitution.

So I was wondering if I could get your thoughts on sort of the rationale and the conversations that you've had with lawmakers.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'm not going to get into detail of that right now.  I came into office long believing that it's important for the department to consult with our congressional partners from both parties in a bipartisan fashion and, as much as we can, to notify them privately, early, before we do any type of public releases.

And so that process is ongoing today, where we will be reaching out to affected lawmakers, and to advise them before we make anything public.  So until that happens, I want to kind of respect that process, and once we've made all of the notifications and things like that, then I'll comment more publicly.

Q:  If I could follow up with (Idrees’) comment about the border there, some on Capitol Hill were saying we may not reallocate that money for next year (so?) those construction projects will lose funding.  Is that a concern to the Department, that some of these projects overseas and at home could lose the funding entirely?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, again, ask me that question in a couple of days, but for now, we'll let the process play out today and, you know, I want to make sure that the Department's able to answer any lawmakers questions or queries privately before we release the former report to the Hill, if you will.

Q:  Earlier in August, (inaudible) a thinktank came out and said that U.S. operations (inaudible) in Africa, and they praised what's going on in Niger as just -- as a template for how the U.S. should operate in Africa.

I don't know -- I can't remember the thinktank right now.  I don't know if saw that report, but you know, more broadly speaking, how are things in Niger now, and could it be the template for operations, with the new base opening there?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, you know, I'm going to AFRICOM tomorrow to kind of get an update on just those things, right?  So what is AFRICOM's current posture in Africa, what are their current operations driven by what, how are they adapting to the National Defense Strategy, et cetera?

You know, I was briefed there in June when I went for General Scaparrotti's change of command, so I spent some time there once already, but I was wearing my Secretary of the Army hat then and it was General Waldhauser.

So now, we have a new Secretary of Defense and we have a new AFRICOM Commander.  So this will be his first chance to sit down with me and kind of go over things like that.

Q:  There were some talk before, when you were the Secretary of the Army, of reducing some of the financial commitment from Africa and some of the other commands.  Whatever happened to that idea?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't remember that at the time, but certainly as we continue our pivot to, in the course of the National Defense Strategy, towards China and Russia, then that means we've got to really look at assets, forces, et cetera in other theaters because of the pool of available assets, resources are only so big.

Q:  Yeah.

Q:  Sir, the vice president announced that there are going to -- there's been finalizing of the joint base in Poland for American troops.  Can you say what those bases are and how soon troops will be able to go through?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so just a few things.  I've seen some of the details, I just can't remember the facts and Jonathan or somebody could follow up with you on the locations.  But keep in mind, these are rotational forces, not enduring forces, so rotational forces; pretty much facilitating, enabling the forces that we currently have, moving in there.

So for example, the (heel-to-toe) ABCTs.  But I think we have that data, we can track it down, I just can't ...

STAFF:  We'll be able to get it for you soon.

Q:  Let me ask a follow up.  When you do go to the (capitals?) that you’re going to and they're going to and they ask you about Afghanistan, you know, give us an update, what’s going to be your message to them?

SEC. ESPER:  Well you know, in many ways, it is the same as it is to you all and to the American people, and that is, you know, the best way forward is through a political agreement through all sides and to get on that type of trajectory.

Because right now, we've been in 18 years of conflict and if we stay on this continued path, it doesn't look like it's ending anytime soon.  So I think we need to continue the political work and see if we can find an agreement that is, you know, workable and achievable and meets the objectives we want.

Q:  And the other thing that I presume will come up is Iran.  I think earlier today, they announced that they were going to release seven -- or a few of the British -- or crew members of the British tanker that they had seized.  And then we talked about it at your press conference last week that the trajectory seems good.

Are we now back to sort of normalcy in the Strait or is there still some sort of concern about the Irianians there?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, so I think he asked the question and I think the question was is the crisis over and I think my response was I wouldn't call the crisis over, but it does seem to have stabilized, which is a good thing.

I had not heard the news about some British sailors being released.  I think they should all be released.

Q:  I don't know that any of them were actually British.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it doesn't matter. It was, to the best of my recollection, it was an illegal seizure of that ship and they should all be released, regardless of the nationality.  So -- but that's good -- if they've done that, that's a good thing and I would urge them to release everybody.

Q:  A quick question back again on Afghanistan.  I don't know whether this is kind of think you feel like you can talk about or not, but the president himself has said that you're going to reduce down to 8,600.

So what I'm wondering is, is that going to happen regardless of whether there's a cease-fire?  Is it just going to happen and then you do whatever is culpable under the agreement?  Or is it part of the mechanisms that begin once there’s an agreement?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'll just take a pause on that for now.  I don't want to comment on the agreement, but you know, again, the whole purpose was to make sure -- you know, we went into Afghanistan making sure that it wouldn't be a safe haven for terrorists to attack America.

And we want to make sure a key objective coming out is that Afghanistan could not be a safe haven for terrorists to attack America.  So that's kind of -- that's critical for us and one of the things that DOD has -- has always stressed, the President has stressed is conditions based as well, so what else?

OK, then that's good, we're done. (Laughter.)

Q:  I actually have one more question on Vietnam and China and the South China Sea.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah?

Q:  Before you became -- before you were confirmed, the U.S. had voiced a complaint with China about its harassment of Vietnamese fishermen in the South China Sea.  And that seems to have increased.  And in the greater perspective of the South China Sea, what's the temperature?  Is it rising?  Is it falling?  Any sense of danger -- danger zone?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, well, you all know I was there a few weeks ago, and the message was that INDOPACOM's our top priority theater.  Still is, hasn't changed in three weeks.  And, you know, my message at the time was that China is not following the international norms and rules of behavior.  And this is another example of China not living up to what we expect of a normal country, if you will.  Same thing with militarization of some of the islands in the South China Sea.

This will be a big part of my discussion this week, with our allies in London and Paris, is making sure, as we discussed in Brussels a couple months ago, that we all appreciate the rise of China and what it means.

And that we've got to work hard and we've got to work together to get them back on the trajectory where China's rise is a peaceful rise, a non-hegemonic rise, a rise where they follow the current international rules, and not try and upset them.  So that will be a big part of my discussion.  It feeds into 5G and Huawei and all those things.

Q:  Is it accurate to describe Vietnam as a military ally of the United States?

SEC. ESPER:  I haven't thought about that point.  I mean, clearly, what we're trying to do, consistent with the National Defense Strategy line of effort number two, is to grow our list of partners and allies around the world.

And I'd certainly would want to put a country like Vietnam, as I did with Mongolia, in the partner column.  And that can mean it's -- you know, there are political partners and economic partners and military partners.  So we want to expand that list as much as possible and grow it out in multiple dimensions.

Q:  Can you tell us about your meeting with the president?  Was it a broad range of topics, without going into detail?

SEC. ESPER:  Broad range of topics.

Q:  Broad range of topics.

SEC. ESPER:  Good. Thank you for answering my question there. (Laughter)

Q:  And one specific question on the JEDI cloud contract.  Are you expecting a decision in the coming weeks?  And was it a very fundamental concern you had, or was it just a sort, I’m new -- I'm going to do a review of what's gone before me?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.  You know, as I said before, you guys have been watching this topic probably longer than I have, right?  And so I've taken a briefing, about two hours of briefings, every week now for the last two or three weeks.  I'll miss the one this weekend.  So I have no firm timeline in mind.  I want to make sure I get to the point where I'm comfortable enough to know it. 

But at the same time, as I've gone back and I do a lot of my own research, reading on the weekends, you know. I've read House report language on this, about JEDI and the concerns they have.  I've read some independent reports, written about it.  You know, we get letters from members of Congress about it.  On all sides of the issue, right?  So it's kind of ingesting all that. 

I saw where another DOD I.G. is doing another review.  So in some ways, the timeline isn't completely mine.  The DOD would have to finish its report.  So I don't have any hard timeline in mind. 

I do know that JEDI -- I'm sorry, let me just back up.  I do know that cloud-based A.I. capability is important to the warfighter.  I know that.  And so we need to move in that direction, and sooner rather than later.

And the question is, as I said before, is JEDI the right strategy?  Was it handled properly?  Is it fair to the taxpayer?  All those things.  That's kind of what I'm trying to understand. 

But there's no doubt in my mind that we need a cloud-based A.I. strategy, if we're going to really fully implement the NDS and be able to think, react quicker than the Chinese. If we're able to better protect our systems, our networks, et cetera.  To do those things, we need to move into a cloud and it needs to be A.I. enabled.

Q:  Per Poland.

STAFF:  Last question.

Q:  The president earlier said that he was thinking that they would remove troops from Germany to go to Poland, 1,000.  Based on Germany not meeting the 2 percent threshold, per NATO.  Is that a really big point that you're going to be making?  Or is this going to be more on some other topics in terms of communicating with allies ...

SEC. ESPER:  Well ...


Q:  ... or is the two percent a big topic for you?

SEC. ESPER:  I will continue to make the point with all allies that two percent is the minimum, and particularly Germany because Germany's a wealthy country and they're paying one of the lowest -- making one of the lowest contributions in NATO and they really don't have any viable plans to hit the two percent within the timelines prescribed.

So yes, two percent's critical and it's not just, again, allies in NATO, it’s allies in Asia, as well.  And in my mind, two percent's the floor.  I think given the threats and challenges we face in both regions, it should be higher than that.  The United States is contributing well over three percent.

So I actually think it should be above two percent.  So that is one of the messages I'll be carrying out and I'll, you know, be thanking the Brits for meeting their two percent and I'm sure the Secretary General Stoltenberg, who feels as strongly about this as we do -- we'll have a discussion about that as to how we can raise the -- continue to push our allies to raise their numbers.

And we do have some that are on the right trajectory right now.

Q:  So you're confident there's going to be a defense secretary in Britain? (Laughter.)

STAFF:  All right, guys, thank you. (Laughter.)

There will be a Defense Secretary in Britain.

(CROSSTALK) (Laughter.)

SEC. ESPER:  There will be a defense secretary.

Q:  It may not be the same one?

SEC. ESPER:  I've already spoken to him.  I look forward to meeting him. 

SEC. ESPER:  OK, thanks guys.  Thank you.  Sorry to cramp you all in here.