Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Media Roundtable at the Munich Security Conference

Feb. 15, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Good afternoon.  I'll just give a minute of intro, if you want.  And you'll hear a common theme, and that is my top priority as secretary of defense is implementing our National Defense Strategy.  You've heard me say our principal competitors being Russia and China, China then Russia in this era of great power competition, followed by Iran, North Korea, and similar rogue states, and then, of course, we have the enduring challenge of extremist organizations. 

So I'm trying to move on, as I have since day one, to implement that and effect it through a series of reviews, both internally and across a number of areas as I try and fulfill those lines of effort lethality - readiness - number one.  Number two, growing our alliances and strengthening our alliances and growing our partners.  And number three, reform, reform, reform.   

So a lot under way, some of which you want to talk about.  There are other things happening in the world, obviously.  I just came off of two good days and meetings in Brussels with NATO.  And a lot going on that front as well.  So I'll just kind of pause here to give you guys time to ask questions, so. 

STAFF:  Bob? 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thanks.  This morning on stage, you, during the Q&A session, you were talking a bit about Afghanistan.  You said no one is requesting or asking that all U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan.  So continuing on that point, I wonder, can you say counterterrorism operations will continue and are not governed by this reduction in violence agreement or will not be -- remain separate? 

SEC. ESPER:  I want to make sure I address the first part.  I forget how the interviewer asked it.  I think she said, as you -- she phrased it in a way that she said we're getting out of -- like, and what I was trying to say is, no, that's not what we're talking about.  We're -- there is a reduction in violence period, and then we have to consider whether or not to move forward with a peace agreement. 

With the peace agreement there will be a reduction to a certain number over time, 8,600.  And then from there it's -- actually from the beginning it's all conditions-based.  So the way the question was framed, I just want to clarify.  And I think Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General Stoltenberg was trying to do the same things in the premise of the questions offered to him, just to clarify that. 

 Now what was the...

Q:  Whether the counterterrorism forces would continue to operate separately from those...

SEC. ESPER:  For the reduction of violence? 

Q:  During the reduction of violence, and is that a separate matter from the rest of the...

SEC. ESPER:  I think -- I can't recall all the details but we have agreed to a number of things we would not do as well.  And they have agreed to a number of things we will not do as well.  I want to say we are going to suspend a significant part of our operations.  But I don't want to go any more into it. 

Q:  Can't say...


Q:  ... will continue then?

SEC. ESPER:  I just can't recall specifically.  I want to say that we will probably suspend all that as well. 

Q:  (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER:  Probably. 

Q:  Could I ask that more...

STAFF:  Yes, Nick. 

Q:  Yes, Nick Schifrin from PBS.

So separate from the reduction in violence, you know, just making clear I want to ask about the peace deal itself.  Is there a commitment from the U.S. and is the Taliban agreed to a counter-terrorism operation long-term?  And I know that it's conditions-based.  I know that it's phased.  But the negotiators are talking about zero over time in Afghanistan.  So can you address that idea that with -- under those conditions, under phases, we're still talking about zero or is there a commitment from both sides to keep the counter-terrorism...

SEC. ESPER:  All I'm prepared to talk about right now is where we are in this process.  And where we are right now is on the doorstep of a reduction in violence period, if we decide to move forward, if that -- if all sides hold up, meet their obligations under that reduction of violence, then we'll start talking about the next part and whether to move forward.* 

And then I think I and others will have more to offer you on that front, Nick. 

Q:  OK.  And then just to clarify, the time -- the clock has not begun on the seven days reduction in violence, right? 


Q:  When is it going to...


SEC. ESPER:  That is a moving date because we are still doing consultations, if you will.  And have to...


SEC. ESPER:  Yesterday, I met -- yesterday, Secretary Pompeo and I met with President Ghani.  So there is some float in that.  So I can't give you a hard date right now. 

Q:  Can I follow real quickly?  That 8,600 number that we're tossing around, a senior defense official had said that we could do training and counter-terror operations, but I know when that number was initially thrown around, like several months ago, it was just to focus on counter-terror. 

So can you explain what the 8,600 would mean?

SEC. ESPER:  The 8,600 number is a number the commander feels very comfortable with that we can go down to and still perform all of our missions, whether it's CT and train, advise, and assist. 

Q:  David Sanger from The New York Times. 

SEC. ESPER:  Hi, David. 

Q:  Nice to see you. 

SEC. ESPER:  I'm looking for the -- I thought this was a foreign press meeting. 



SEC. ESPER:  OK.  So are you guys allowed to raise your hand too? 


Q:  I've got two digital issues I wanted to ask you about.  One, which will go to Germany on the press -- on your comments on Huawei.  But I wanted to ask you about the cloud to begin with, because you saw this was suspended by a judge.  I was told yesterday that this weekend, in fact, the Pentagon was close to being moving -- begin the move to the cloud. 

So I wanted you to assess a little bit of what the delay, which could be long, but may not be, had to do with it.  And why -- I don't think we've ever heard from you on the question of whether you ever experienced any request, even if it was ignored, from the White House or the president to make sure that this contract did not go down. 

SEC. ESPER:  Look, I'm not going to get into that part because I don't speak about my conversations between the president or White House officials.  The decision to conduct a review early on was a decision I made.  I made based on, as I conducted my rounds on the Hill prior to my nomination process, I heard a lot from members on both sides of the aisle. 

Obviously a lot was in the media as well.  So obviously -- and this was an issue the contract that I had not been involved in as Army secretary.  So I knew that it was something I needed to learn a good deal about.  And I took the time educate myself. 

Back to your first question, David...

Q:  But you're not going to say whether you felt any pressure from the White House.

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not -- I never felt pressure from the White House. 

With regard to -- with regard to -- I'm not going to comment on where we are right now because it's obviously in the courts.  But I will say this much, it's important to the war-fighter that we move forward on this contract.  I think it makes us far more efficient and effective on the battlefield when you can get into a cloud and overlay artificial intelligence that improves your speed, your timeliness.  You have better reliability.  You can better protect the data.  You know, it's more cyber-secure. 

So, look, we -- this is affecting the war-fighter.  We have to move forward.  It has gone on too long.  And I hope we can get over this -- this latest issue and keep moving forward to deliver to our war-fighter the capabilities they need to fight and win on the battlefield. 

Q:  On Huawei, you made a very impassioned case downstairs earlier on in this case.  It looks like, from everything that we can see from our German colleagues here that Germany is trying to move its way to something close to what Britain decided a few weeks ago, which is keep Huawei on the periphery but not in the core. 

Is that an acceptable position, to your mind? 

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know because I haven't studied their position and what it means.  So I think we have to take a close look at that.  But the concern still remains that if countries choose to go the Huawei route, it could well jeopardize all the information-sharing, intelligence-sharing that we've been talking about.  And that would undermine the alliance, or at least, you know, that -- our relationship with that country. 

So I can't offer a comment until I've had a chance to have our experts look at it and brief me. 

Q:  And China, like Adam said, it has come out I guess Wang Yi, after your speech, responding to Pompeo and Esper, this is Josh Rogin tweeting out: "B.S. and lies." That was Wang Yi's reaction to it.  Do you think your message is getting through to the Chinese at all?  What messages -- the need for more cooperation or the dangers of 5G or Huawei?  Any evidence at all?   

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I didn't hear the minister's comments or Josh's, for that matter.  I hope our message is getting through.  We've -- I've conveyed the message privately to my counterpart, and I've conveyed this same message multiple times publicly, because it's critical to our national defense, our strategy.  It's at the top of our list for our strategy. 

So I hope they will listen.  I know they're hearing it from other countries, because I talk to my counterparts.  And the message is the same, respect our sovereignty, follow the rules, obey international norms. 

Q:  What about domestically the message of how to approach China?  We've had a year where...

SEC. ESPER:  Domestically in their country or in our country? 

Q:  In the United States, after a year where, you know, General Dunford was saying things like, anybody that does business with China is helping the PLA, and kind of a much harder stance, versus, you know, the battle of China...

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'm not sure...


Q:  ... if you're Silicon Valley and others. 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I'm not sure Dunford said it that way.  So I'm not going to comment on what he said.  It either was a context -- I know he and I share many of the same views, but I think there is -- I just met earlier with a bipartisan group of -- bipartisan, bicameral group of members of Congress.  And I know nearly all, maybe all share my concerns and our views. 

And if they are a reflection of the American people, then I think that says a lot, that we're all concerned about China's trajectory, about the current leadership, and about what it could mean to our future. 

STAFF:  Let's get to our international press.  Go ahead? 

Q:  Hello, (inaudible) from the Financial Times.  Talking about doing business with China, the British government is in talks with China about providing this high-speed railway at network.  So this is just a few weeks off the Huawei decision, there's now another big deal on the table.  Are you concerned about that?  

SEC. ESPER:  I just don't know enough about it to comment.  I don't know what that would mean.  I don't know what the technologies involved are.  You know, I have a little bit of history understanding dual-use export controls and what could it mean, you know, if you have the technology that goes into a commercial system, can it be applied to a military system? 

So I just don't know enough about it to comment.  I would scrutinize these things though for sure. 

STAFF:  The gentleman next to her? 

Q:  (inaudible) from The Economist.  Can I just ask about NATO and China.  NATO put China in its final statement to the summit for a first time in a very prominent way.  Off the back of your meetings, can you elaborate on what is tangibly being done within the alliance to address China in a bit more detail than we've had so far possibly?    

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.  I mean, as I recall, I'll have to kind of dig back through our notes and see if a -- one of the outcomes of the leader summit was to form -- was to bring people together to look at details as to how we move forward in terms of addressing the challenge from China.  And I think that's...

Q:  And is there any progress on that? 

SEC. ESPER:  We didn't discuss it in detail at this meeting.  I think it's -- because this meeting was -- the London meeting was, what, seven weeks ago?  So there hasn't been time for much progress to be made, if you will.  But those were the things -- I think the important thing was NATO made a statement about China.  And that's significant.  And from here it's about building on that work. 

I've attended three or four defense ministerials so far and China has come up at every single one of these. 

Q:  Are there particular steps you would like to see, the alliance? 

SEC. ESPER:  I'm going to pause right there because I think, you know, in the spirit of the alliance, what we like to do is talk about these things together and agree together, and then move forward. 

STAFF:  Yes, do you have one Courtney?  Courtney.    

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, Courtney. 

Q:  Do you -- I don't mind if more international press go.  But I'll ask the question. 

Did you -- a couple of weeks ago, President Macron was pleading with President Trump not to pull U.S. troops out of Africa.  Did you have any conversations with him or any of your French -- any of the French delegation?  Can you update us on where that stands? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.  I've been in contact with my French counterpart now, Minister Parly, for several months on this.  We've talked multiple times, you know, both at our meetings together in Brussels.  And she was in D.C. in January.  And we had a long conversation about this.  And I've told her the process I'm going through.  It's not focused on any one place or any one command. 

But I'm -- as part of my NDS implementation plan, I'm looking at all of our theaters, all of our commands to make sure that we are implementing the NDS, the National Defense Strategy, and that based on that, based on the missions derived from that, do we have the right type and right size of forces for each command? 

So she is well aware of that.  She shared with me her views on this.  I've given -- I give the French credit for what they've done in Africa, particularly the Sahel.  They've been real leaders.  They've been reaching out aggressively to get more European partners on board with mixed success.  And I fully support that effort. 

I think it would be good for more European partners to join in this system. 

Q:  But you haven't had any meetings while you've been here?  (inaudible) the French about that particular (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  No, not right here.  We just -- we've all been running around in our little circles. 

STAFF:  Then we'll go in the back here. 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. 

Q:  Thank you, Secretary.  Secretary Pompeo today pretty much said that all the concerns about the trans-Atlantic relationship that dominates so much of the discourse at this conference are unfounded, in his view.  I was wondering if you could give us your view.  Do you see currently a trans-Atlantic rift or crisis?  And if so, what would be the root causes of that?    

SEC. ESPER:  I don't.  I think the trans-Atlantic alliance is stronger than it has been in a few years.  If you look at in the last three years alone, the number of countries who are meeting their Wales commitment has doubled.  That's a good thing.  Another third of the group has -- will likely meet their numbers on time. 

The disappointment is there is another third roughly, right, that won't meet their Wales pledge on time.  So that's that piece of burden-sharing, when you look at the readiness of NATO, we're far more ready today than we were a few short years ago.  And at the London meeting, the leaders meeting in London, we agreed on the -- we all announced our numbers on the NATO readiness initiative.  That's the 30 squadrons, 30 ships, 30 mechanized battalions ready within 30 days. 

That's big.  We've agreed to adopt pursuit readiness initiatives and to begin adopting a culture of readiness.  So I see the alliance moving -- becoming much more ready, much more allied, much more willing to think outside of the European context; so we've obviously been together with Resolute Support in Afghanistan for some time. 

Now we're talking about expanding our mission in Iraq.  We adopted the China piece that was mentioned earlier.  So I see alliance growing together.  As somebody, again, who, you know, when I entered the Army in 1986, the NATO alliance was the thing.  And then, you know, once the Soviet Union came apart in the early '90s, we -- you know, we searched around for mission and we lost the readiness edge.  We lost capability. 

I see us now coming back.  And at times there have been divisions within the alliance for -- over the years between any number of administrations.  The message we keep sending on burden-sharing is not a new one.  My predecessors have talked about burden-sharing, all of them going back many years.

But I think we are much stronger today than we were a few short years ago, for sure. 

STAFF:  Mr. (inaudible)?

Q:  Yes.  Hi, my name is (inaudible), German Public Radio.  Going back a little bit and looking at the conflict itself, (inaudible) always tells us it's important for him that people talk to each other and not at each other.  And we talked about the American-Chinese (inaudible). 

Do you feel that this conference does its job?  Did you get enough situations where you can really talk to people behind closed doors? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I think the value of these conferences, as I found in so many of them, is not just what happens on the floor but what happens off the floor where you can have side meetings, bilaterals, if you will.  So during my just two days here, I've met with many of my counterparts from countries I often don't have a chance to see. 

I've met with business.  I've met with think-tankers.  I've met with members of Congress.  So these are fora to have those types of conversations.  And you tend to talk about the conversation of the day, the issue of the day.  And so I think it's a great opportunity to exchange views and discuss those things.  

Q:  And the Chinese especially? 

SEC. ESPER:  I have not -- my counterpart is not here from China.  But I do try and have frequent contact with him.  He and I have spoken on the phone a couple of times.  We met -- last time we met was in Bangkok, I think.  It's important to have that dialogue.  I reached out to him early in my tenure to have that connectivity and to begin exchanging views.  It's a great way to not just improve understanding, but to -- if something happens I have somebody I can call up immediately to make sure there's no misperceptions or misunderstandings. 

So we have to keep the dialogue up.  It's important -- I'm a big believer that no matter what, you should continue dialogue and have those lines of communication open.  

STAFF:  Ryan?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, there are some talks that the French president talked about, you know, this need for some kind of European autonomy or ability to act independently outside of the U.S. framework.  Obviously there's a concern about maybe duplication of some of what NATO does. 

But generally do you feel that Europe should be able to do more independently of the United States or do you think that they shouldn't be looking that route? 

SEC. ESPER:  You know, I think that's fine, as long as they don't duplicate what NATO does and as long as they don't take away resources from NATO countries or NATO missions, I think it's good.  We talked earlier about Africa, where the French have taken the lead now for many years and they're looking for more support.  And that's a good one. 

I think if Europe had the means to step up, particularly at the high end, things that we tend to get tapped for most frequently, that would be very good.  These are the conversations, by the way, that we had at the Brussels meeting, particularly on our, I think it's, Tuesday night dinners when the EU comes. 

We talk about issues such as there should -- we agree as an alliance, no duplication, no efforts that draw resources.  And it has come up frequently as the EU considers EDF and PESCO, nothing that creates and obstacle for trans-Atlantic cooperation.  And EDF and PESCO are particular concerns of non-EU countries. 

So that's generally where I fall on these issues. 

Q:  And then you talked a little bit about asking the Europeans with the French to do more to cover maybe Africa, as we draw down in Africa, potentially.  If they don't -- if they don't do any more, will that affect your decision whether or not to keep forces in a...


SEC. ESPER:  Well, it's not just Africa, it's wherever, wherever there's a role that may be that we are somewhere else engaged and we can't support, or maybe it's of unique importance to -- of special importance to EU countries or something like that, I think it's important to have that capability. 

Aside from that, I'm looking at it through the lens of the NDS.  I'm conscious of what else is happening out there.  So I'm just taking this one step at a time.  I've made the first decision just recently to deploy a security force assistance brigade to Africa for two reasons directly related to implementation of the National Defense Strategy. 

The first being that this is a specially organized, trained, and equipped force.  They can do train and assist better than anybody else, if you will.  And is what the commander is seeking and what will be most helpful to the countries -- the spotlight countries there. 

The reciprocal is, it allows me to bring home elements of the 101st Airborne unit -- Division so they can go back and get ready, prepare, and focus on their NDS mission.  So it's a two-fer for me.  

STAFF:  We’ll go here? 

Q:  Thank you.  (inaudible) German Public Radio.  Just a quick follow-up question on Huawei.  You said on the stage very clearly that this should -- or could undermine the NATO alliance...   

SEC. ESPER:  Right. 

Q:  ... very clearly.  Is this the way you made it clear to your counterparts also in Germany that this is a danger for NATO? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. 

Q:  And where you see the threshold there, simply Huawei participating or, as my colleague asked, is this a huge difference between the core participation or more on the...


SEC. ESPER:  I think each case is unique depending on how a country decides to implement it, et cetera.  So it's hard to say.  It's a blanket -- I'd just have to see how it's implemented, you know, country by country, and whether that touches on, you know, the connectivity we have with regard to information, intelligence, those types of sharings, and how vulnerable it becomes. 

So it's hard for me, without having, you know, a group of experts who could assess what that plan looks like to kind of give you an answer one way or the other. 

Q:  Do you think that Germany is aware that they are destroying possibly NATO by letting Huawei in? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I wouldn't say destroying NATO.  I would say that depending on the country, it could interfere, disrupt our ability to share information between that country, right?  An example could be that we continue the information we share with the other -- you know, the other countries, but we are not able to share it with that particular country. 

So I wouldn't just call it as destroying NATO.  But clearly on a country-by-country basis it could cause us to -- it could disrupt it in a sense of maybe we're not able to share the level of data that we did in the past, or maybe the volume of data, or maybe the type of data, so -- information, et cetera. 

Does that make sense?

Q:  (inaudible)


STAFF:  We have time for two more. 


SEC. ESPER:  Did somebody not -- Glenn?

Q:  Yes, I just wanted (inaudible) a number of months since the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani. 


Q:  And have you seen any noticeable change in the Iranian posture in Iraq or the Gulf?  Has there been a de-escalation?  What has been the outcome of that? 

And you had a conversation with Sheikh Al-Sabah, the prime minister of Kuwait yesterday.  Did he express concern about the escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States in the Gulf?  And what were some of the points that he may have raised?  

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, well, I had a good meeting with the sheikh yesterday.  We talked a number of issues.  This is one of them.  You know, a lot of it was the partnership.  They've been good partners of ours for many years, have hosted forces.  But beyond that, you know I don't get into my private conversations. 

The first question was -- oh, Iran. 

Q:  About Iran...


SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to go into, you know, too much level of detail because it's -- you know, some of its classified.  But we -- it's fair to say we have seen a change in Iranians' behavior.  As I said before, I think we restored deterrence.  And it's something we watch very, very carefully. 

Q:  And do you think that the Iraqis -- you (inaudible)  the Iraqis -- I mean, the Iraqis still want you -- you've mentioned they do, but is that sort of working its way through, that tension, because there has been a lot of public display and Iraqis have been sort of protesting America's presence?  Do you think that's passing? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the people in the streets have been protesting corruption and Iranian presence.  There has been maybe one or two manufactured protests.  But I think generally your core question, Glenn, is, yes, I think the Iraqis want us there.  And I hear it from them privately.  I hear it from our friends in the Middle East who talk to them.  I hear it from our European friends in Brussels who have talked to them, that they clearly want the United States and the coalition there. 

As I said before, I met with the Kurds earlier, they definitely want us there.  The Sunnis want us there.  And many of the Shia want us there.  But the challenge is the politics, given the influence of Iran through their proxies, is weighing heavily on Baghdad and how they move forward. 

And it's a very complicated situation.  But like I said, I believe most Iraqi officials want us there and if there is anything that they -- what they want and that we support is an independent sovereign, strong, prosperous Iraq.  I think that's what the people in the street want too.  

STAFF:  One more question. 

SEC. ESPER:  Is that Nancy down there? 

STAFF:  Yes. 

SEC. ESPER:  She hasn't...


Q:  I just want to follow-up on your speech from this morning.  In the question and answer period you mentioned that there was technology, research, or looking at ways to counter 5G happening at military installations.  Where is that happening? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, not to counter but to enable 5G.  So we can get you the details on it.  We've chosen a few bases, three or four, where we're using them as -- I don't know what you call them, like a demonstration platform where we can invite providers in.  We can make room in the spectrum for them. 

We can -- you know, a lot of times companies going in trying to face, you know, local ordinances and regulations.  I don't have that issue as much, so I can do that.  And we're working closely with them.  We can get you the list of bases and what that looks like or trying to... 

Q:  Are you giving some of the military spectrum for this? 

SEC. ESPER:  I don't want to get to technical because I can't recall right now what that means.  But we have the ability certainly to share spectrum.  That's important.  We've always -- I've made clear we can share spectrum.  There's some spectrum we need to hold.  But in terms of the sharing side, yes, and I would, again, get the technical details for you before you write that up. 

Q:  Do you know when that started and are they all U.S. military installations?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, they're on U.S. military -- they're in the States.  Yes, I think they're all in the States.  I'm trying to do -- I know where three of them are. 

STAFF:  We'll track that down. 

SEC. ESPER:  Let us get -- yes, I don't want to give you wrong information. 


SEC. ESPER:  And then it will take me eight months to kind of get rid of it. 

STAFF:  He has got to run...


STAFF:  Go here real quick.

Q:  Just a follow-up on that. 

SEC. ESPER:  I want to say it's already in the process.  I can't tell you whether they're on base right now.  But I know from a policy perspective and beginning implementation, I want to say it's under way.  But let us get you a fact sheet on that. 

Q:  Just a follow-up on the spectrum 5G stuff. 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. 

Q:  Is there a necessity for spectrum that DOD has to be used for 5G and do you have any -- are you getting any pressure from telecom companies that might want DOD spectrum? 

SEC. ESPER:  There is some of that out there and we're willing to share spectrum.  That's -- there are technical solution to do that, we believe.  But we recognize the importance of 5G not just to the commercial sector, for the private sector, but it's important to us too.  In the future war fight, we're going to need to be able to quickly and in volume and with fidelity absorb massive amounts and process and redistribute massive amounts of information. 

So 5G is important to us in the war fight as it is to the private sector.  OK?

Q:  And I could just ask that question kind of more along the lines of...

STAFF:  Then he has to run. 


Q:  Is there any -- has there ever been any discussion of DOD supporting a Western alternative to Huawei 5G?  Nokia, Ericsson?  We got a briefing yesterday from the White House and DOJ talking about, well, the alternatives are coming.  Has DOD ever been part of discussion about, hey, we can help develop or maintain an alternative to Huawei?  

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, this is one of these tricky questions where my DOD press gets it right.  For me, I haven't had that discussion.  That doesn't mean somebody in the 25,000 people with DOD and another 50,000 out there haven't had a discussion at some point.  I just -- I haven't had that discussion yet.  OK? 

STAFF:  Thanks, guys. 

SEC. ESPER:  Thanks, everybody, appreciate it. 

*[Eds. note:  Under any agreement, Gen. Miller retains the authorities necessary to protect U.S. national security interests, including the authorities and capabilities to strike ISIS-K (Korazon Province, Iraq) and al-Qaida.]