BRET BAIER: Thank you very much. I'm going to trade seats with you because my microphone is on this side. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: I always knew you wanted to be on the left.
MR. BAIER: Yes. There you go. So good afternoon. I've done this for the past two years. I did it -- I interviewed H.R. McMaster, and a few weeks later, he resigned.
MR. BAIER: I interviewed Secretary Mattis, and a few weeks later, he resigned. Everything okay?
SEC. ESPER: I guess, I'll have an easy Christmas.
MR. BAIER: Okay. Just checking. Thanks for the time. First I want to talk about this this horrible story out of Pensacola. You can definitively say it's terrorism to them?
SEC. ESPER: Well, first of all, it's a very tragic incident. Three lives lost, eight injured, and of course we extend our condolences to all the families affected by it and touched by it and our military community down there.
But no, I can't say it's terrorism at this time. I think we need to let the investigators at the F.B.I. do its work, and tell us -- get us the facts and we'll move on from there.
MR. BAIER: It's reported that he posted a will on Twitter praising Osama bin Laden. There have been multiple arrests. Any other light you can shed on this investigation?
SEC. ESPER: You know, not at this time. Like I said, my view is to let the investigators do their work. In the meantime, the DoD has taken precautions. Yesterday, I directed that we look at our security precautions across the services in all of our installations and bases and facilities to make sure that we get the appropriate degree security to protect our service members and their families and our communities. And that's underway.
And at the same time, I also directed that we look at our vetting procedures within DoD for all the many foreign nationals that come for good reason to our country to train, and as you may or may not know, anybody that comes to United States to train is -- or should be, is vetted by the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, and then ultimately us. So we need to relook all of that.
But again, I think what we need to do is, is make sure we understand the whats and whys and hows of this and not jump to any conclusions before that happens.
MR. BAIER: Is there any doubt or concern in your mind deploying troops to Saudi Arabia in the wake of all of this?
SEC. ESPER: No, not at all. I think, you know, Saudi Arabia is a longstanding partner of ours in the region. We share mutual security interests primarily with regard to Iran and the importance there is reassuring our neighbors and partners and allies throughout the region that we are there to assist them, we are there to defend the international rules based order and we want -- we need to deter Iran from its maligned behavior.
MR. BAIER: You mentioned Iran, there are multiple reports out there about additional forces heading to the Middle East to counter Iran. Is that happening?
SEC. ESPER: No. Those are false reports. I don't know where they came from. We've deployed 14,000 troops since May of this year. But right now, I'm not looking at any major deployments coming up in the region. That said, on a day-to-day basis, we monitor what's happening in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula, in the European theater -- all over the world, and we make adjustments to our forces up or down based on what the needs of the commander are, and that happens again, routinely.
MR. BAIER: Is the President open to that?
SEC. ESPER: Yes.
MR. BAIER: Why? Has the 14,000 been effective?
SEC. ESPER: Well, the 14,000 since May, not this mysterious other 14,000, yes, I think to the degree if you go back in time to June or July when we had the shoot down of the drone, we had the Iranians seizing or trying to disable ships in the strait. We took some actions. I eventually deployed some additional forces a month or so later.
And since that time in terms of overt actions directed to us or our allies and that was following the wake of the Aramco incident, we haven't seen that level of activity. So that's a good thing.
But again, what I need to do is to continually assess the situation and make sure we have the right degree of forces in position to deter Iranian bad behavior, and if necessary, to respond and respond forcefully in a way that they understand that we're serious about defending our friends, reassuring our allies and preventing them from misbehaving.
MR. BAIER: Knowing what you know, do you expect Iran to launch another attack?
SEC. ESPER: I don't necessarily expect them, but I have to plan and prepare for it. And again, that's something we try and watch very carefully and adjust our forces and our readiness posture to do something.
And by the way, part of our strategy out there is to -- and I mentioned it in my remarks is the multilateral position. I've had phone conversations with many of our NATO allies about providing additional forces into the Saudi Arabian peninsula. Air Defense assets in particular. We all recognize the challenge presented by Iran. Again, whether it's their direct operations, or more likely -- most likely -- through proxies, either from the south or from proxies in Iraq, that could threaten us or our interests.
MR. BAIER: Is it your estimation that Iran -- the threat from Iran is increasing?
SEC. ESPER: I think you could make that assessment given the effectiveness of the maximum pressure campaign, given what's happening in the streets of Iran these days, you see a regime under stress. It's a good thing that the Iranian people are also seeking, the prosperity, the liberty, and the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. That's something that we believe is, as I talked about promoting American values abroad. That's what we do.
So you see a regime increasingly under stress. I think we need to be prepared for any contingency.
MR. BAIER: Are you seeing evidence of missiles going into Iraq from Iran that could threaten U.S. troops in Iraq?
SEC. ESPER: Well, I'm not going to comment on anything like that in terms of intelligence. But, you know, there have been reports in the public space about rockets being fired at American forces on bases in Iraq. So we've seen a little bit of an uptick there. And that's, again, another indicator for us of Iran reaching out.
I mean, you'd look right now on the Arabian Peninsula, you see some type of rapprochement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That's a good thing. Right? Because the Iranians have been trying to -- one way by which they've been creating turmoil in the theater is through Yemen and through its proxies in Yemen. So those things are all challenging their strategy right now. And we watch it carefully.
MR. BAIER: The resignation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, how do you see that?
SEC. ESPER: Well, you know, I was in Iraq in the Middle East about four weeks ago. I met with him. I met with the Defense Minister, we discussed that at the time. I, of course, assured him that we respect Iraq's sovereignty, that we're there to assist Iraq to help them in terms of the train, advise, assist mission to deter Iran and to deter Shia militia groups in that country.
So what you see what's happening in the streets now are people coming out across Iraq, protesting any number of issues, whether it's job opportunity, economic pressures, but also saying we want Iran out of our country. And so that's a telltale sign particularly among two Shia nations.
And so it's not good to see that the destabilization in the government, but they're trying to work their way forward. What we don't want is that country to collapse. They've been good partners of ours, and we need to continue to support them in a way we do currently.
MR. BAIER: I am going to bounce around the world here. Are you concerned about this Christmas gift North Korea says it will deliver if no deal is reached?
SEC. ESPER: Well, look, we keep a close eye on North Korea all the time. My job is twofold. One is to ensure we're ready to fight and win tonight if called upon, and I'm confident that we are. I was just in Korea a few weeks ago and meeting with our commanders on the ground, reviewing our operations together.
And number two is my job is to enable our diplomats to make sure that they have the support of the Defense Department as they move forward. So our position remains the same. The best path forward with regard to North Korea is a diplomatic solution, a political agreement that gets us to a denuclearized peninsula. That's on everybody's interests.
MR. BAIER: The National Security adviser, Robert O'Brien was on my show Thursday.
SEC. ESPER: He did pretty well, didn't he?
MR. BAIER: Did he? Okay. And he said, that the administration is hopeful that a deal can come together. Where is that hope coming from? Because you look at what's happening, you just don't see it?
SEC. ESPER: Well, look, you prepare for the worst, but you work for the best. And in this case, you know, we have a very capable State Department team that's out there engaging with the North Koreans. And the best path forward is through a political agreement. And that is our hope.
If you don't have hope, then what? You fall back into a war footing. I will tell you that when I came in to office in the fall of 2017, and Secretary Mattis was there, we were on a war footing. We were -- we were getting ready to possibly go to war against the DPRK, and it was the President's intervention, his outreach, his leadership that began the dialogue with Kim Jong-un directly that got us off that path.
And two years now, we haven't had nuclear tests, and we haven't had ICBM launches. Those are good things. And again, what we've got to continue to do is push and talk to the North Koreans about getting back to the diplomatic table and try and find a way forward.
MR. BAIER: How concerned are you about North Korea's solid fuel rockets? Does it change the equation?
SEC. ESPER: Well, solid fuel boosters do provide you a degree of efficiency and mobility and it gives you less warning than do liquid fuel rockets, but they've been moving in this direction for years. Again, it's another thing that we watch, because it reduces our warnings if you will, but we have very good Intelligence on North Korea. We work closely with our partners, the South Koreans who are very capable allies as well.
These are all things that it's my responsibility along with the Intelligence Community to keep a close eye on.
MR. BAIER: Do you think that this is just a cycle that Kim Jong-un goes through the saber rattling? And it's kind of what happens every Christmas.
SEC. ESPER: Look, I've been watching North Korea since 1994 when I was a war planner for the Pacific on the Army Staff, so I've seen these, these efforts, these plays, if you will, how North Korea acts whether it was him or his father. So the important thing is to pay attention, it is to don't discount everything, but you also can't react to everything they say and do.
MR. BAIER: Syria. What is the administration policy when it comes to Syria?
SEC. ESPER: Policy is to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and for the troops' position in Syria. That is our mission right now. We're working very closely with our SDF partners to do just that.
MR. BAIER: And that's what you're trying to achieve? ISIS solely.
SEC. ESPER: Enduring defeat of ISIS.
MR. BAIER: Nothing to do with Bashar al Assad?
SEC. ESPER: In what regard? In terms of the broader -- we have a broader effort there in Syria that involves a U.N. process by which several countries are underway to find a political resolution to that. Again, that's -- the State Department has a lead on that, and we support them in that manner.
MR. BAIER: Has the administration put Turkey in a position that has disadvantaged the U.S. military in any way?
SEC. ESPER: I don't think so. I think, Turkey has put itself in a position where it's disadvantaged itself. I mean, at the time of their incursion into Northern Syria, we thought it was a mistake to do so. We thought it would lead to the release of ISIS prisoners that would lead to greater instability in the region. We saw some of that.
But it really once again, puts into contrast our concerns about Turkey's direction that they may be spinning out of the NATO orbit. Now, I've spoken publicly about this.
On the other hand, NATO is -- I'm sorry, Turkey is a long standing NATO ally. They've fought with us from Korea to Afghanistan, and I think it's an all of our interest to make sure that we pull them in closer to NATO and we preserve what is now or what will soon be a 30-nation Alliance. So a very long standing and capable Alliance.
MR. BAIER: A recent Pentagon I.G. report said President Trump's partial withdraw from Syria has allowed ISIS to quote, " ... reconstitute capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad." Do you agree with that?
SEC. ESPER: I have not seen evidence of that. I think, given our operations together with the SDF, given the operations undertaken by Turkey, given the very successful operation we conducted to kill ISIS leader, al Baghdadi and his number two, I think we set them back.
Now that said, that doesn't mean that ISIS from Africa to Afghanistan, and in Syria isn't trying to reconstitute, of course they will. They have a very strong ideology. So it's incumbent upon us to maintain that presence and stay on our toes so can continue to tamp those things down as they arise.
MR. BAIER: So do you have enough troops in Syria?
SEC. ESPER: I think we do. I think we have enough troops. And if we don't, then that's something we would deploy additional troops. That's one of the things I keep in close contact with the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, and specifically my Commander, General McKenzie to make sure that he has what he needs to accomplish his mission.
MR. BAIER: Just to be clear on the first question about deployment, you're saying it's not true? You're not considering it?
SEC. ESPER: I'm not considering nor is there anything in a system that says we're going to put 14,000 additional troops in the Middle East before Christmas.
MR. BAIER: How about seven?
SEC. ESPER: It's flat out wrong. We're not considering putting 7,000 additional troops, and I'm not going to walk down from there.
MR. BAIER: How about five?
SEC. ESPER: Five. Sure. We're going to put five more -- five more soldiers. Sure. Five. Just five. Look at any day of the week, we are moving forces in and out of these regions, and it's not just there. You could go to the Korean peninsula.
We're rotating ABCTs - Armor Brigade Combat Teams to Europe and Saudi Arabia and the Middle East all the time. This is the normal flow of forces. And if the Commander needs additional resources that will come up with the Joint Staff, we will consider it and we will provide him what he needs as appropriate.
And that could happen today, it could happen next week. It could happen a month or two or three from now. But right now, there's no major deployment of additional forces to the region. It's just a false report. And I wish -- I wish I could figure out why people don't try and confirm those things with the DoD before they put those reports out.
MR. BAIER: You're saying it is fake news.
SEC. ESPER: Yes.
MR. BAIER: Okay. What are you telling the Kurds in regards to Syria who feel that they've been abandoned by the U.S. decision to pull back there? What are the conversations you have?
SEC. ESPER: Well, look, I certainly understand that -- that feeling at the tactical level, I've been there, right? When you're on the ground with your friends and partners, brothers you shed blood with to defeat ISIS.
But when you step back, you know, we went into this with mutual interest. The mutual interest being the defeat of ISIS. Certainly, ISIS had taken a lot of ground and territory. That was that the SDF, the Kurds were on -- they inflicted great harm. We came in. It was a great marriage that led to the physical defeat of the Caliphate.
But at no point in time, did we say, we're here to help you establish an autonomous Turkish state. In no time did we say we're going to defend you against Turkey, to get a Kurdish state. At no time did we say we're going to defend you against Turkey, a NATO ally of 70 years.
And I've talked to the commanders, they have conveyed the same to me as well, our commanders. Where we are today as we're on the ground working closely with them, and we still retain that partnership. But I think we far better understand today the limits of that partnership and the scope of how far we'll go.
MR. BAIER: During the President's trip to Afghanistan, Thanksgiving. He said that the U.S. military has been able to substantially reduce the number of troops there. How many U.S. troops are there?
SEC. ESPER: We've got about 13,000 or so between 12,000 and 13,000, and you know, the commander feels confident we can go down to a lower level without jeopardizing our ability to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorism.
But the best path forward --
MR. BAIER: So even if a Taliban deal doesn't come forward, if it doesn't get negotiated that that reduction is still going to happen?
SEC. ESPER: I would like to do that because what I want to do is reallocate forces to the Indo-PACOM theater. That's my priority theater. That's what the NDS. tells me is our priority theater. That's why in my six months on the job now, my first two trips were extended trips to Asia, to visit all of our allies and partners out there. So that's my focus.
And I'm not just looking at Afghanistan, I'm looking at CENTCOM, I'm looking at AFRICOM. I'm looking at SOUTHCOM. I'm looking at EUCOM. All of these places where I can free up troops where I could either bring them home to allow them to rest and refit and retrain or/and then reallocate them Indo-Pacific to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to conduct exercises and training.
MR. BAIER: You often say that the Pentagon's top priorities are China and Russia. But is there a point at which the continued deployment of forces in the Middle East prevents that pivot?
SEC. ESPER: Well, sure. I mean, I face that. My predecessors have faced that. You know, we have a strategy, but you have to deal with the world you live in, not the world you want on paper. And the world we live in right now shows that Iran is a country increasingly under stress, thanks to a successful strategy by the President.
And as they experience more stress, I need to be ensured that we have sufficient forces on the ground again, to reassure our allies help defend them, defend the international order and deter Iranian bad behavior.
MR. BAIER: What do you see from Pakistan? Are they still harboring the Taliban?
SEC. ESPER: Well, look at the tough border to control in the first place, but yes, you see reports of Taliban moving -- taking some degree of sanctuary across that border. That's something we deal with.
But the bigger story coming out of Afghanistan is this, is that the Afghan Security Forces have really stepped up. We've seen a marked improvement in their performance. When it comes to actions against them, the Afghans are leading the way with our support, and they're doing a pretty good job.
And it was reported just a week ago that we had a substantial impact on ISIS in Afghanistan, devastating with regard to their action. So the bigger story is Afghanistan and what's happened with the Afghan Security Forces.
MR. BAIER: China recently announced it was canceling port calls in Hong Kong for U.S. Navy warships, a practice Beijing actually began six months ago. So are relations between U.S. and China deteriorating?
SEC. ESPER: I don't think so. You know, we engage them on a number of levels across a number of areas. I made it a priority of mine to reach out to my Chinese counterpart, Minister Wei and engage with him. I've had a few phone calls with him. I met with him in Bangkok just a week or so ago, two weeks ago now, I guess, to make sure we have open lines of communication.
We have a very professional relationship. We're able to talk issues between us and to share things, but I want to make sure I have somebody to call in a crisis that there's no misunderstanding or no miscalculation. I think it's vitally important that we always maintain open lines of communication.
MR. BAIER: Russia. How concerned are you about Russia's development of hypersonic missiles and other technology? Is the U.S. falling behind in that front?
SEC. ESPER: You know, we took a pause on this technology some years ago when we had a clear lead, and what we're doing now is playing catch up. So the Department is investing every dollar we can, every dollar that we can, you know, physically use to ensure that we have an advantage, that we gain an advantage on hypersonics.
With regard to Russia, what I'm concerned about and this gets into other issues, is their pursuit and development of a variety of weapons, strategic weapons that are outside of the current START Treaty, things that are unaccountable for, that aren't being verified.
We have seen them over the years. The previous administration saw this. We saw it where they were cheating on the INF Treaty, and now they have a capability that we don't have with regard to intermediate range weapons. So we watch very carefully what the Russians do and we're conscious of their behavior.
MR. BAIER: When you hear criticisms about this administration in Russia, how do you push back?
SEC. ESPER: I think from my perch, where I sit, I think we've been very aggressive with regard to Russia. I've called them out time after time in any number of fora, just as I did today, with regard to their bad behavior. You know, their invasion of Georgia, their seizure of Crimea, their actions in Ukraine. We've supported our friends and allies.
MR. BAIER: Is it different from the previous administration?
SEC. ESPER: I think we've upped our game. If you look at Ukraine, the provision of lethal aid. If you look at the President's success with regard to increased burden sharing by our allies, we're getting -- by 2024, the increased annual spending by our NATO allies will be nearly $400 billion. That's all going into capabilities.
We develop what's called the NATO Readiness Initiative, where, as of just Tuesday, we now have 30 battalions, 30 squadrons, 30 capital ships ready within 30 days, all identified. That's a big change for NATO.
We now have NATO focused on China, something that hasn't happened in many years. So we had a very successful NATO meeting. But at NATO, it is also reinvigorated by what Russia is doing. And again, we compete with them all over, or we compete with them in Syria, if you will. And I think we're pushing back pretty strongly against Russian bad behavior.
MR. BAIER: Are you considering more aid to Ukraine?
SEC. ESPER: We have another tranche coming up. At this time, I think it's around $250 million and the DoD supported it last time around. I imagine, we will support it next time around, but there's always checks we have to do. We always look for, you know, how's it being used? And are they addressing corruption?
MR. BAIER: Isn't there $35 million that hasn't been deployed yet?
SEC. ESPER: I think it's actually less than $10 million at this point. But most of the aid went out on time.
MR. BAIER: Does this impeachment process affect you?
SEC. ESPER: Well, look, I stay out of politics. I want to keep DoD out of politics. There's a reason why ...
MR. BAIER: Well, you have your people testify.
SEC. ESPER: There's a reason why the Department of Defense and the Military are held in the highest regard by the American people and that's because they know they can trust us. We're competent and we stay out of politics.
MR. BAIER: So does it affect you?
SEC. ESPER: No, because I think we're doing a pretty good job staying out of it. Now, I'm not going to let you drag me into it.
MR. BAIER: Okay. Last summer, the administration withheld ...
SEC. ESPER: Here we go.
MR. BAIER: ... the aid in order to get this investigation? Can you rule out taking similar actions in the future?
SEC. ESPER: I actually don't understand your question. Can you say it again?
MR. BAIER: There was a hold on the money, right?
SEC. ESPER: There was -- there was not a hold by DoD. DoD looked at the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine. We assessed it, and I've said this publicly, we looked at three things. Is it important to Ukraine with regard to their ability to engage Russia? Have they sufficiently addressed corruption? And number three, are our allies in the region also providing security assistance to the Ukrainians' assistance. The answer to all three was yes. And we supported the provision of that aid.
MR. BAIER: What keeps you up at night?
SEC. ESPER: Nothing. Because I know that we are well -- we are well-defended by the best military in the world.
MR. BAIER: I want to use this end time to talk about your ...
SEC. ESPER: We've got three minutes, Bret.
MR. BAIER: Yes, yes. Is see you looking at that clock, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. ESPER: I'm surviving so far. I may have a job through Christmas.
MR. BAIER: I am not the black widow of interviewers.
SEC. ESPER: I hope not.
MR. BAIER: All right. I want you to talk about capabilities and readiness. Where the U.S. is today as compared to where we were when the President took office?
SEC. ESPER: Look, we've made significant strides with regard to righting this. The President has made funding our military a top priority. He has given me specific guidance with regard to making sure we have advanced weapons, so we modernized our strategic deterrent.
All of our efforts have been enabled by Congress, so it's been very supportive. Bipartisan support from the House and Senate in both the Authorization Committees and the Appropriation Committees. So I think we're all focused on the right things. What holds us up -- and I've talked about in my remarks and all the Committee members, all the Members of Congress here know this and appreciate it, the continuing resolutions are killers for us, because you're not able to conduct training.
First of all, we're operating at $19 billion less than what we would have. Right now, we currently cannot conduct nearly 200 new-start programs, nearly 100 production increases with regard to items from munitions. I am missing training seats we cannot fill, exercises that we cannot conduct.
I mean, the list goes on and on and on. So as that CR continues, our readiness goes down and down and down. Our maintenance goes - we are unable to perform some maintenance and that goes down. And look, I just can't surge at the end.
So continuing resolutions are devastating, and that's why we need this Appropriations Bill passed. Otherwise, strategically, we've seen an uptick in readiness across all elements of the force. These major investments we are making from robotics and hypersonics to AI and autonomous systems are going to be a game changer.
The challenge for us is to break old habits, to brush away bureaucracy, to give up legacy systems and low priority programs and move forward.
The American people through the Congress give -- will give a $738 billion. That's a lot of money. We've got to deliver more for what we're getting.
MR. BAIER: When you tell the American public about the threats ahead, and you talk about Russia and China, and you talk about space. What is the message?
SEC. ESPER: Well, you know, the message is that the world is constantly becoming more dangerous and more complicated. You know, in my day as a young officer in the 101st, I didn't worry about cyber. What was cyber? Nobody knew, right? But now we fight in cyber on a daily basis, offensively and defensively.
Space was never warfighting domain, right? It was the place by which we play satellites to communicate with one another, by which we watched weather systems, by which we did other things. Now, it's become a warfighting domain that we have to defend because not just as our military depend on it, but our economy depends on it. Our way of life depends on it.
So you have these new threats and they'll constantly change. Who knows what it will be 10 years from now when my successor's, successor's successor is sitting in the seat, asking -- answering your questions again. It's an ever changing world.
I will tell the American people this much and I've said it again and my remarks. Our most valuable resource is our people. The ability to fill our ranks, the ability to recruit young Americans, men and women, alike to our service academies to bring them into ROTC to OCS. They are the critical element, and we've got to continue to remind them as President Reagan reminded all of us the importance of peace through strength.
How much our country depends on a strong national defense. How vital it is that we reward our people. We forget that in his first year in office, I recall, first two years, President Reagan increase the pay of our service members by 13 percent. By the time he was finished in eight years, it was over 38 percent.
President Reagan recognized the importance of human capital, of how critical our people are. It was President Reagan's vision that brought me into the service. I joined -- I went to the Military Academy in 1982. You think back. I remember 1979. Many of us remember when Desert One failed in Iran. Remember that disastrous rate?
Here we are, 40 years later, we're able to pull off al Baghdadi raid. We are able to kill the head of ISIS with seeming ease because of how far our country has come since the days of Reagan, now, through the era of President Trump, ensuring we had highly capable, highly lethal ready forces with cutting edge technology. That's what we're about.
MR. BAIER: Mr. Secretary, the very last question. What's it like working for President Trump?
SEC. ESPER: I have a very good relationship with President Trump. We have a great National Security team. You called out Robert O'Brien there. You know, my classmate, Secretary Pompeo and I have a good relationship. It's a good strong team.
The President is always open to good ideas. He lets you have your say, your word. We're constantly kicking ideas around within the team. So it's good and it's -- he is just another one of many bosses I've had and you've had your time that you learn to work with.
And again, I think he really -- what's reassuring, he really believes in America's military and our young servicemen and women. I mean, I've been out there when he regrettably welcomed the young men and women home from Dover, right, in a gray tail underneath the flag, and I've been with him when he is with the troops talking to them, and he just has a great love of them and really believes in our military and understands what President Reagan understood and that is peace through strength.
MR. BAIER: Mr. Secretary, I appreciate the time and I think you're going to be fine for the rest of the year.
SEC. ESPER: I hope you're right.