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Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Media Engagement at U.S. Northern Command

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, good afternoon, everyone, thank you for coming here today to speak with me. 

And allow me to convey to you what I learned today here at the Northern Command. So I had a very good discussion with the commander, Gen. O'Shaughnessy, about what NORTHCOM's [U.S. Northern Command] mission is and their operations to date. And I've got to tell you, I cannot be more proud of what Northern Command has done now for the past three and a half months.

As many of you know, we have 62,000 Americans out on the streets across the country helping their fellow citizens get through this coronavirus. Northern Command is in charge of nearly 14,000 of them, to include over 2,600 medical personnel who are serving in, I think, 22 hospitals, five alternative care facilities, on our hospital ships. And they've done a remarkable job from day one.

And for many folks, don't realize it, day one for this command was around January 20th, when we got our first request for assistance. That was when we pulled Americans out of China to bring back to the United States. And Northern Command implemented and executed that mission, where we brought them back to March Air Reserve Base in California and we hosted them on our installation.

So DOD has been on this mission from the early days, from mid-January, or so, we were on top of this. My first guidance to the field happened in -- on January 30th, just days after the first American was identified, and we issued our Global Pandemic Campaign Plan, which put Northern Command at the forefront of that on February 1st, weeks before the first American regrettably succumbed to the disease.

So I am very proud of what Northern Command has done. They've done an outstanding job. They've implemented my three policies -- priorities flawlessly. Those were: first of all, protect our service members, our DOD civilians and their families. Secondly, ensure we maintain our mission capabilities. And then, thirdly, make sure we provide full support to the president's whole-of-government, whole-of-nation response.

And with that, as I repeat what priority number two was, it's important to note that Northern Command is not just a command committed to providing support to civil agencies, as they do all the time. It's a warfighting command. 

So in the midst of dealing with coronavirus, Gen. O'Shaughnessy and his team also had to make sure that we maintained our missile defense capabilities from foreign adversaries; that we intercepted Russian flights into our air defense identification zones; and any number of other functions that are related to their defense of homeland mission, which is mission number one for this great command.

So again, I've had a very good discussion today. I had a chance to learn about what's called JADC2, or Joint All-Domain Command and Control, and how they are using it in this coronavirus fight. I had a chance to talk with several folks who are on the frontlines, in New York City, Connecticut and elsewhere, fighting coronavirus and just get a better feel for what life has been like for them and how they -- how they execute their mission so well.

So a great visit today, it was my first visit outside of D.C. since the lockdown, if you will, with the coronavirus. And I couldn't think of a better stop. So with that, I will -- we'll open up for questions.


Q: Mr. Secretary, the intensity of the COVID-19 crisis in some respects appears to be lessening, some of which you heard today, but there is talk of a resurgence potentially later in the year. Do you expect a second wave and are your prepared for it?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we are preparing for a second wave and maybe more. We don't know what the trajectory of this virus will be. So we -- we listen to the medical experts. We've actually spoken with Drs. Birk -- Birx and Fauci. We are preparing for the long haul. As you know, we've -- I've issued guidance now nine times to the field as to how to prepare for this. So my view has been that we will be at – we’ll be at this for a number of months, at least until we get a vaccine.

And on that point, as you know, DOD is working vigorously through our own medical researchers and labs to develop both vaccines and therapeutics. We're making some good headway on that, but we're also partnered up with our other public sector partners and the private sector to do that. So, again, we're preparing for the long haul; it gets back to priority number for me -- that's protecting our service members, the DOD civilians and their families, and we're going to take a very cautious approach to that, because we have very -- we have two very important missions here. 

We've talked a lot about the support to civil authorities, but the most important mission is protecting our country and our interests abroad from -- from threats from adversaries.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Here?

Q: Yes. When do you expect that social distancing requirements for the military might ease? (Inaudible) back to his question, especially in light of a second wave that may or may not be coming?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, I don't see it easing anytime soon. We're going to continue to practice good habits and do everything necessary to protect our force. And again, it's applying those guidelines, those principles, based on unique circumstances of your particular unit or your mission. 

So here, you know, in the open air, it's not as essential. In a room, we’re wearing masks -- we flew out here today: everybody on my team was wearing -- and myself -- we were wearing face coverings. If you were to go onto a submarine or onto a bomber or whatever, they're going to take probably even more stringent actions to make sure that they are safe and secure.

So we're -- until such point in time until we have a therapeutic, and certainly a vaccine, we're going to be exercising a good deal of caution, and implementing those same best practices that have held us in good stead so far.

You know, I'm proud to report that, you know, to date, 3 1/2 months into this, a 2 million-plus man force, nearly 2.9 million persons exactly, we've had around 5,000 people infected total. The number less than that for military is -- the actual number today is less than that. We've had around 100 or so folks hospitalized, and as tragic as it may be, only two people have succumbed to the disease.

So these practices, everything that the commanders have been implementing and exercising, have held us in well -- in good stead.

STAFF: (Inaudible)

Q: I was wondering if the pandemic has slowed the process for choosing the new home of the U.S. Space Command?

SEC. ESPER: I don't think it has. I got briefed on the process being implemented by the Air Force a few weeks ago. We want to be very transparent and very objective in that process. It may have slowed down a little bit, because one of my expectations was that they go to Capitol Hill, they brief members of Congress, and they make sure they get input on both the criteria, the process, et cetera. But I think they, for the most part, remain on timeline for that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I know you've been in meetings all day, but wondering if you could comment on reports about U.S. -- your decision to pull out some Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to -- I'm not going to talk about any specific actions, Bob. As you know, we're moving forces around the world all the time -- deploying, redeploying, what not, so I have no news for you on that front.

STAFF: Here.

Q: Hi. Curious if there's an update as to whether or not Crozier -- if I'm pronouncing his name right -- would be restored to his former position as the head of the USS Theodore Roosevelt?

SEC. ESPER: I have nothing to report to you on that. As you know, the Navy -- the Navy has launched its -- an investigation of not just -- of the entire T.R. matter, if you will. It was -- they decided to launch that based on the findings of their preliminary inquiry. That will take a period of weeks, and then we will wait and see what happens.

But as I am in the chain of command, I've withheld (inaudible) further comment at this point in time.

STAFF: (Inaudible) did you have one more?

Q: I do have one more, if you don't mind here. Yesterday I was on a webinar with Secretary Barrett and Gen. Raymond. They were mentioning the recent movement of a Russian satellite with characteristics of a weapons system in close proximity to a U.S. satellite. Any response to this or any thoughts that you'd like to share?

SEC. ESPER: No, I won't add anything to what they may or may not have said. I can just tell you that we have -- we have robust capabilities in space, a lot of that comes out of this state, if you will, and I'm very proud of our team and what we have, and the new SPACECOM, Space Command, under Gen. Raymond will do everything they need to make sure that our capabilities are protected, and that -- and that we have what we need to do in order to maintain the integrity of our assets in space, and to keep space free and open for our use, whether it's military or commercial.

And as you know, we rely heavily on space for our economy, for our way of life, everything.

Q: Was there a timeline for Space Command being picked? Is it like before the end of the year? Do you guys have a deadline?

SEC. ESPER: We don't necessarily have a deadline, if you will, but I want to make sure they have a robust process, so that everybody has a chance to contribute, to be briefed on it, so that there's enough transparency so that it is fair to everyone. The important thing is to go through that and make sure we come out with, you know, a clear decision that everybody can respect and -- and be comfortable with.

Otherwise, if you don't go through a process like that, this ends up getting caught up in legislation or complaints or inquiries and investigations. And so I want to make sure we have a thorough process, so once we've picked that location, it's picked for all the right reasons, everybody understands why it was picked, and that we can move forward on doing what we need to do.

STAFF: Yes, thank you.

Q: One more?

STAFF: Yes, go ahead.

SEC. ESPER: Sure, go ahead.

Q: Thank you so much. 

OK, a recent letter from 10 Democratic senators criticized the Pentagon's response to COVID as disjointed and slow. What is your response to that?

SEC. ESPER: You know, I talked about this the other day in the Pentagon Briefing Room. I'm disappointed that members of Congress would say that, particularly some who are members of the Armed Services Committee. I actually think it was a partisan attack, conducted in a political year, which is unfortunate, because we try and stay out of politics, but when you have DOD performing, I believe, exceptionally well in the context of this coronavirus, in large measure due to what Northern Command has done, I just think it's unfair to -- to the 62,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are out there on America's streets, in hospitals, in nursing homes, you name it, helping their fellow Americans. We've been ahead of the curve, ahead of the need, every step of the way.

I've spoken to over three dozen governors and mayors about this, all of whom who represented senators who signed that letter, and they all told me, without fail, how much they appreciated DOD, how they commended our performance, and -- and we've had nothing but high praise from all of them. 

So I'm very proud of what we've done. Again, I chalk it up to politics. We will respond, and like I said, we've been very open with Congress. The facts are out there. I've cited for you the facts with regard to protection of our force, and I think those numbers speak for themselves.

But this is a political election year, and these things tend to happen, particularly when you have an administration, and Department of Defense in particular, that's, I believe, is performing exceptionally well in very trying times.

Q: With all due respect, sir, was there criticism of the 62,000 service members and civilians, or of you know, top brass at the Pentagon, though?

SEC. ESPER: Well, it was both. It said that DOD has failed this -- has been slow or something like that. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a criticism of all of DOD.

You also can't say that we were acting slow, but -- at the top, but yet all the troops and every -- all the resources and medical supplies arrived on time. The ships arrived ahead of need. We expanded hospital capacity ahead of need. So the two are closely linked. You can't have one without the other and vice versa.

So I have great faith in what my commanders have done. You know, the guidance that I set out to the field, whether it was supporting local authorities or protecting the troops, I've -- as I've said earlier, I said it first when that came out in 30 January, amended it eight times since then. And who does that go to? It goes to people like Gen. O’Shaughnessy, who has a robust medical staff here, who knows how to then take that medical guidance, those principles. He has extensive resources, and then to further flow them down and distribute them to the command.

And again, I think in you -- in terms of look at his performance, executed flawlessly, I think the number of service members under his command that have been affected by coronavirus is extremely low, and so the numbers, the data, just prove themselves out. 

We are used to operating under what we call "mission command." That means you work with broad principles and guidelines, and you give exceptional people like Gen. O’Shaughnessy, like every other combatant commander, service chief, service leader, you give them the freedom to apply to the situation. That's exactly what they've done. And I'm sorry that some people just don't understand that.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: All right, thank you, guys.

SEC. ESPER: Thank you. Thank you all.