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Department of Defense Off-Camera Press Briefing by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Hoffman

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN R. HOFFMAN: Hey, guys. All right, so do a little – do an opening statement here on the record and take some questions. I've got a hard stop cause I've got to actually grab lunch before a three hour meeting or else I will die in that meeting.

So – no, I just wanted to start with some calendar updates. So, we have a busy week here at DOD. On Wednesday, the department will hold its 9/11 Memorial Ceremony at the Pentagon to remember the lives lost in the brutal terror attacks 18 years ago. We invite all of you to attend that.

With Congress back in session, we expect to have additional personnel announcements soon. We worked closely with congressional staff throughout the August recess to ensure our hearing dates are established and our nominees are considered for confirmations quickly.

We appreciate the support we've received from the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate committee to make sure that those confirmations will be moving forward.

DOD's senior leaders will be meeting with members of Congress throughout the month to discuss the importance of passing a budget no later than Oct. 1. Passing a budget on time is crucial to the department's ability to implement the National Defense Strategy.

Switching to the news of the day, DOD remains ready to support those affected by Hurricane Dorian. NORTHCOM is in support of USAID's Office of Disaster Assistance, OFDA, which is the lead federal agency for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. All requests for military capabilities are going through NORTHCOM. Gen. O'Shaughnessy is the DOD lead.

NORTHCOM has received 30 relief requirement requests and it is actively fulfilling those requests. There are currently close to 1,200 deployed or ready active duty forces supporting relief efforts. Secretary Esper authorized NORTHCOM to utilize 20 Army and Navy helicopters to provide transportation logistics and conduct assessments of transportation nodes to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. We are pursuing options to assist in airspace deconfliction, as well.*

Four U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys from the USS Bataan transported a U.S. Air Force airfield assessment team to conduct its mission. The airfield assessment team completed its evaluation of Grand Bahama International Airport and reported the field is C-130 and C-17 capable.

NORTHCOM has conducted an airfield assessment of Marsh Harbour Airport to survey – support the delivery of personnel and cargo via rotary and fixed wing aircraft. That is not yet complete and we are proud to announce that Active Duty military has completed 36 sorties and saved at least eight lives so far.

So, regarding the story of the Air Force's review of travel procedures for Air Mobility Command crew flying international routes, it's important to note that the Air Force conducts missions all around the world and operates out of many airfields, both military and civilian.

As Gen. Thomas had pointed out earlier, every two and a half minutes, a U.S. Air Force aircraft takes off and lands somewhere in the world. Airfields are chosen on a number of factors, including weather, flight path, cost of fuel, priority missions, security clearances and apron space.

Air Force mobility aircraft, primarily C-17s, have increasingly leveraged Prestwick as a stopover location between 2015 and 2019 due to key – several key factors. One, Prestwick is a 24-hour a day operation, which makes it viable option for aircraft traveling to and from U.S. Central Command AOR, compared to other military stopover locations that have imposed increasingly restrictive operating hours.

Additionally, AMC issued a flight directive that designed to increase efficiencies by standardizing routing locations, with Prestwick being among the top five locations that were recommended for – for reasons such as more favorable weather than nearby Shannon Airport; less aircraft parking congestion than locations on the European continent; they typically support AFC's high lift missions, as well as the 24/7 operations.

As our aircrews serve on these international airlift missions, they follow strict guidelines on contracting for hotel accommodations and all expenditures to taxpayer dollars. In this key – in this case, they made reservations through the Defense Travel System and used the closest available and least expensive accommodation to the airfield within the crew's allowable hotel rates.

While the Air Force is still reviewing all trip records, we've found nothing that falls outside of the guidelines associated with selecting stopover airports on travel routes or hotel accommodations for crew rest. I'd like to point out that the cost of the hotel in – on the stopover I mentioned was $136 a night, which is well within the $166 per night per diem rate and was significantly cheaper than the nearby Marriott property, which was $161 a night.

So with that, I will be happy to take questions.

Q: Jonathan, can you address some questions on Afghanistan? Starting with – does Secretary Esper support now moving ahead with the planned troop drawdown to 8,600 in light of what's happened in the last two days?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I know you heard this a number of times from the secretary on the trip last week. We're going to refer questions on the Afghanistan negotiation and process to the State Department. They have the lead.

We're going to provide the State Department as much maneuver space as possible for them to negotiate a – a successful settlement. With regard to potential troop drawdowns or potential numbers, those are hypotheticals that we'll – we'll look at once an agreement is in place.

What we've always said, though, is that the number of troops that we will have will always be the appropriate level that we need to provide security there. We're going to focus on the counter-terrorism mission and we're going to focus on the reason we got into Afghanistan in the first place, and that is to prevent terrorist operations or individuals from using Afghanistan as a base from which to operate against the homeland.

Q: But did I understand you to say there would be no troop withdrawals considered until there is an agreement with – with the Taliban?

MR. HOFFMAN: I said – well I – I'm not going to – you have – I think your question was with regard to troop drawdown with regard to an agreement. I said that that – I consider that a hypothetical that I'm not going to address until – we're not going to get ahead of the State Department and the White House on that.

Q: So there's no immediate plan to start withdrawing?

MR. HOFFMAN: There's ...

Q: Right now?

MR. HOFFMAN: With regard to the agreement, once again, I'm not going to get ahead of any agreement that's taking place or any agreement that's being negotiated, so I have no information for you on troop drawdown.

Q: Can I follow up on that? Yesterday, the Taliban said that more Americans lives would be lost (inaudible) of Trump's decision. Have you made any changes to force posture in Afghanistan or force protection measures?

MR. HOFFMAN: So all of our combatant commanders around the world take the – the life and safety of the troops under their – under their command seriously. So Gen. Miller has the authority to take steps and take measures that he believes are necessary to protect the troops that he has.

What we would like to see, though, is we'd like to see the – the Taliban and others come together to find a peaceful solution. The only peaceful end to the – to the – the conflict in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution and that's going to involve the Taliban, that's going to involve the current Afghan government coming together and sitting down.

Q: Jonathan, the secretary arrived back on Saturday. The meeting in Camp David hadn't come off was going to be on Sunday. Was he scheduled to be in attendance at Camp David?

MR. HOFFMAN: I'm not going to – that's a – that would be in reference to a presidential meeting. I'm not going to get into the scheduling or attendance of that. I would refer you to the White House on the president's meetings.

Q: Just to follow up on the – the Taliban question, does the Pentagon have any figures, any numbers in regards to how many Taliban have been killed in counter-terrorism – counter – (inaudible) operations since the beginning of this year?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have the numbers for you on that but I can have somebody from – from Joint Staff get back to you on that.

Q: OK, thank you.

Q: Just to follow up on Bob's question, is it – is there any plan for a drawdown outside of any sort of agreement?

MR. HOFFMAN: I have no announcement, no information for you on a drawdown number, on a change in the numbers in Afghanistan.

Q: And then can you confirm that 1,000 Taliban were killed within the last week or so?

MR. HOFFMAN: I think that was similar to the question he just asked and I'll refer you back – I'll get Joint Staff to get back to you on numbers on that.

Q: And – and why announce – why – why mention body counts?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't believe we did – OK, that'd – that'd – that'd be a question for Secretary Pompeo.

Q: Jonathan, when Secretary Esper was in London, he was asked by reporters about some comments on whether the Pentagon would hope that the allies could pick up some of the costs for these projects on the wall that are now going to be delayed, at least.

There seems to be some confusion, talking to some of these countries, about whether this was a saying, "Hey, you guys need to pick it up," or saying, "Hey, if you guys wanted to pick it up, that'd be fine, we wouldn't complain." So was this a direct request from Secretary Esper to these countries, to spend more money on these specific projects?

MR. HOFFMAN: Secretary Esper, in conversations he's had for months – oh I guess he's only been secretary for a month, so – conversations he's had with his allies, even when he was the acting secretary, and then on his travel as the secretary, he has gone back to the president's top line of, "We expect our allies to contribute more." The 2% Wales agreement number is kind of the baseline we have.

On this current trip to Europe, he discussed the need for our allies to contribute more. We need to raise all of our capabilities, both in Europe and in Asia-Pacific, to confront China and Russia.

And so, as part of that, he sees this as part of an extension of that. In certain areas, it may make sense for our allies, if they want to see the increase in funding for facilities in their country on our bases, then they might want to consider looking into them.

Q: Is the Pentagon requesting for these 38 projects, that have been, now, delayed?


MR. HOFFMAN: I'll leave it – I'll leave it at that. I'll leave at my comments and the comments the secretary made previously.

Q: I want to go back to – to Bob's question on Afghanistan. Two things. So by not commenting on troop drawdown and – that the peace negotiations are ongoing, that's true. They're not called off? You're still...

MR. HOFFMAN: I'm referring – anything on peace negotiations, referring you guys to State Department. We're providing – State Department, they are the lead. We're giving them as much space as possible to do the negotiations.

Q: OK. And then the second part of that, you said that the U.S. would continue to focus on the C.T. mission. The U.S. has two tiers operating in Afghanistan, one is counterterror under USFOR-A, and the other is training and equipping the Afghan military.

MR. HOFFMAN: So the point I was making...

Q: Is that something we’re not focusing on?

MR. HOFFMAN: No, I think the – the point I was making to Bob's question is, when we're looking at what is the enduring presence, the enduring mission of the U.S. is that we're going to – we're going to focus on having a CT mission, and we're going to be where we need to be anywhere in the world to focus on preventing terrorist actors from having a safe haven from which they could strike the United States, whether it's Afghanistan or elsewhere.

So that's what was I was talking about, Thomas.


Q: So you're not...


Q: ... ending the USFOR – or the Resolute Support mission?


Q: Jonathan… yes? (Laughter.)

Q: (Inaudible). You said that – to go back to the Trump hotel in Scotland, you said that the hotel was booked through the Air Force reservations system...

MR. HOFFMAN: The Defense Travel System...


Q: ... yes, travel system. So did the – so it means the Pentagon never thought about taking the Trump hotels out of the system?

MR. HOFFMAN: So is that a question?

Q: Yes.


Q: Does it mean they never – it was not the question that people were wondering, if maybe it would be good to get the hotel – Trump hotels...

MR. HOFFMAN: I would have to get...

Q: ...out of the system?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I would have to get back to you on that one. I – I'm not as familiar with the DTS system, so I'd have to get back to you on that. What I can tell you is that we know that under the authorization, the authorities and regulations, that the crew, in this case, followed all of those.

What you're getting at, is there an issue between what the regulations say and what perception is?

Q: Right.

MR. HOFFMAN: And so I think what – I spoke with Gen. Goldfein this morning, and as he has noted, he has instituted a review of international travel for our flight crews, and looking at accommodations.

And what we need to look at is, even if something falls within the travel regulations, is it appropriate to stay at places that some people may consider a luxury property? Or do we need to rethink that? And that's something that the Air Force is looking at right now, but I don't have a specific answer to your question.

Q: And without being – even if it was not – if it were not a luxury property, the fact that it belongs to the president, isn't it a factor in the booking government travel?

MR. HOFFMAN: Like I said, I don't have an answer for you on that.

Q: Is there a way to find out if the...

Q: Jonathan, I have a question about the hurricane.

Q: ... (inaudible) Trump hotels (inaudible) in the DTS system?

MR. HOFFMAN: Sorry, what was the question?

Q: Can you find out if there are other Trump hotels that, like, show up in the DTS system, like around...

MR. HOFFMAN: I can – I can have – I don't know, (inaudible) have that – but I'll – (inaudible) get back to you on that.

Q: Can I ask one more on this? You said twice, now, that the Air Force is reviewing all trip records. And then, once they're reviewing international travel for flight crews. Is that – my understanding was, the review was more about the guidelines and the rules. But are they actually looking at all trip records...


Q: ... for crew...

MR. HOFFMAN: What I said was for the trip records, with regard to that trip that was in question.

Q: Just the one in question? OK.


MR. HOFFMAN: ... reviewing the trip records on that one, to just ensure – we want to make sure with regard to that one, since it's garnered so much attention, that everything was done properly. Our initial review is that it was, but we do look at it.

Then there is the larger context of international travel accommodations, particularly with regard to things that some people, even at $136 a night, some people characterize as luxury accommodations.

Q: Yeah, about the hurricane. So Bataan is in Bahamas now, but it seemed like about a week passed before Bataan went to the Bahamas. And I was wondering, do you have any information on when the request was sent in to send ...

MR. HOFFMAN: To move the Bataan?

Q: Yeah, exactly.

MR. HOFFMAN: Well, to be clear, they wouldn't get a request to move the Bataan specifically. The request come from – they ask for certain capabilities, so when it – whether we need airlift to – for food, for water, for medical care, the request that we've seen that we're fulfilling right now – and there's a number of them.

But, for example, was the one where we can (inaudible) a lot of capabilities, is for heavy lift aircraft, and then also for the field evaluations, so an effort to help reopen the airports.

So I can look into that, but there wouldn't have been a request for the Bataan...

Q: Right.

MR. HOFFMAN: ... to be moved specifically itself.

Q: And then was the request coming from USAID or is that the Bahamas government, sending...

MR. HOFFMAN: So the way that the process works, is the Bahamian government would make a request of USAID through their Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, OFDA. And then OFDA would make that request up to NORTHCOM.

Q: OK.

Q: Hey. So just to take another stab at Bob's question...


Q: ... was the Pentagon aware that there was a Camp David meeting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I'm not going to get into the scheduling of presidential meetings, all right?

Q: OK.

Q: Just a Syria question. So the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces said that the U.S. has withdrawn the lower levels of troops, it's made his job a lot harder. He's asked for additional U.S. support, additional U.S. presence. Are there any plans to increase U.S. presence in Syria?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have any information for you on troop numbers in Syria for right now, that I can provide you with. What I can tell you is that in Syria, we're working very closely, particularly in the security mechanism that's taking place along the Turkish border, to try to – to limit the conflict, work on a way where we're in close coordination with the Turkish allies to help that, so that there's no additional conflict there between any side, so that we can focus on the D-ISIS mission.

Q: And those troops that are kind of doing that deconf – the security mechanism action, those ground patrols, are those new troops that have been brought in? Or are those troops that were originally assigned to the counter-ISIS mission, that have kind of been redeployed in country?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have news for you on that. I can get back to you on that.


Q: And has the troop numbers gone down from one thousand? That is the force cap, as I understand it, in Syria.

MR. HOFFMAN: Like I said, I don't have any number – (inaudible) the numbers on that, I can get someone from Joint Staff to get back to you on the numbers.

Q: Is the joint patrol just a one-off patrol? Is this now part of a regular schedule that happened this weekend?

MR. HOFFMAN: So the goal is that there will be joint efforts within the security mechanism to ensure, I think, some of the requirements for fortifications and to make sure there aren't weapons in that area.

The goal is to be working more closely with the Turkish forces, in an effort to avoid having any sort of conflict or – or misunderstanding of having individual forces moving through that area.

Q: And do you have an assessment of how much of the YPG equipment and weapons are out of the zone so far?

MR. HOFFMAN: I do not. I do not.

Q: Is there an update on the secretary's review of the JEDI program? Maybe a new target date for a – when a contract might be (inaudible)...

MR. HOFFMAN: No, he's – I think he said this previously, he's already gone through a couple sessions of an in depth review. As we've talked about before, as the secretary of the Army, he was not really heavily involved in the JEDI program previously, so he's been taking a long look at it just to understand the program.

So he's done a couple of sessions, I think we have another one scheduled this week. But I don't believe that he is – he's – he's close to – to making a decision on it. His goal on this is to get it right. It's an important capability that we need, the ability to have a cloud-based system as well as to have a – a – the ability to develop AI.

So he wants to get it right, but he hasn't put a timeline on it.

Q: What is the status of the employee assistance program for all of the civilians here at the Pentagon and in the military branches? Suspended last week, is it getting cranked up or what?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I can get you a – the – the direct statement from the – the parties responsible for that, but the – my understanding is that the – the hope is that that will be turned back on in a very short period of time.

Q: Thank you. Does the DOD have a – a dollar amount for how much damage the most recent hurricane did to U.S. military installations?

MR. HOFFMAN: No, we actually – the – the services are going out individually and doing assessments of their facilities and their bases. That's working its way through the system but that number hasn't been provided up, at least that I haven't seen it as – as of yet.

But their – the services are responsible for doing that and they're putting that assessment together.

Q: And you gave us a number for the relative hotel rates in Scotland but can we also get numbers about the cost of aviation fuel at the private airport as opposed to – if they refueled at a military base?

MR. HOFFMAN: Well I can put you in touch with – with the Air Force. I don't have the exact numbers on me but I – I believe they do. But what I would go back, when you look at those numbers, is a couple of things, is one, at Prestwick we have a negotiated rate. So we have actually a rate that's significantly lower than the commercial rate.

I – I – I don't remember whether it's higher or close to the – the – the cost that it would be on a U.S. facility, but the cost of fuel is just one of those variables into whether we use a facility like that. So we've got to take into all of the account are the factors of weather, 24/7 operations, diplomat clearance, apron space, priority missions and fuel.

So – but we'll get – the Air Force can get you that.

Q: And just a clarification, you had said that the C-17s are increasingly using this airfield. Are they also increasingly using this hotel, the one that the – the – the airmen stayed in?

MR. HOFFMAN: I – I don't have an answer for you on that. I don't – I don't know that and I – I haven't looked into that. I can see if we can get you an answer on that. But – but once again, as we mentioned, the use of – of hotels that are under per diem are – are meeting all of our travel requirements.

As we found in this case, there was nothing inappropriate or counter to the regulations.

Q: Do you have an update on the secretary's Fourth Estate review? When I spoke to him a little while back, he said he had found savings but he didn't want to talk about numbers yet. Do you have a dollar figure and can you enlighten us a little bit about the process going forward? Do you anticipate any of these savings you find are going to have – require congressional approval?

MR. HOFFMAN: That's a really good question. So I don't have a dollar figure for you. I can give you a little bit on the process cause – for example, the different offices that – that have Fourth Estate's equities, they'll do reviews – they'll do their own internal reviews to look at projects.

There's a assessment from others within the department of maybe identifying cost-sharing or cost savings that they – they think are possible. That'll be brought up and be reviewed at the – the – the CMO level and – I'm sorry, the – at the under secretary for management level, and then looked at with the deputy, and then the secretary hosts a review with all of the parties that may have equities and go through it.

You know, we went – I sat through one of these last week. Really digs into what are the appropriate roles? What are the appropriate missions? Is there someone better and capable that can handle this than – than the equity that has it now, due the better cost savings? And – and what other changes could we make?

So he goes through a very – very (inaudible) and then he gives people tasks and says hey, I gave you some – some feedback and input on this part, I need you to come back to me and then we're going to look at it and then make some recommendations on how to move forward.

But it's going to be an ongoing process. Whenever he's made a – a decision, it's not going to be – I've got to go through everything and then make some decisions. If he sees a program that needs to end or needs to be moved, he'll make that – he'll make that decision as quickly as he can.

Q: So the changes are happening as they move forward, it's not going to be we are going to have a package within the next budget request that has all of these changes?

MR. HOFFMAN: Yep, he's going to make changes as – as we move forward. So if he identifies changes that would – would save money, there's no interest in waiting until next year to start saving money.

Q: Can you confirm that he's made changes up to this point?

MR. HOFFMAN: I'll have to get back to you on that because like I said, I know we've gone through the initial rounds of the review, but it's ended up with him tasking out follow-up questions where people need to come back and get some guidance.

And then obviously we have the process of working with Congress, what – the secretary's been very adamant that he wants to make sure Congress is fully informed. (Inaudible), before he would make any changes, he – he would obviously want to inform Congress about what type of steps we’re going to take.

All right, one more.

Q: On Syria, you – the department is calling the – the deal between Turkey and U.S. a security mechanism while Turkey is calling it a safe zone. Will we ever see a safe zone in northeast Syria or is this just, as said – the case, just joint patrols, helicopter patrols and ...

MR. HOFFMAN: I think what we're going to see in – in Syria is a – is a security mechanism in an area in which the U.S. and the Turkish government will work together to – to both ensure that there's a lack of – of violence and – and conflict in that area ...

Q: So not a safe zone?

MR. HOFFMAN: We’re good with security mechanism. (Laughter)

All right, thank you guys ...

Q: Jonathan, was the – was the military going to be involved in transporting any of the participants in the Camp David meeting ...

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have ...

Q: ... Taliban for example?

MR. HOFFMAN: ... an answer for you on that. I don’t have an answer for you on the president's meeting.

Q: But – you weren’t involved in the transportation?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have an answer for you on the president's meeting.

Q: Thank you, sir.


*Editor's note: Corrected to read actual number of authorized helicopters.