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Pentagon Press Secretary and China Task Force Director Update Reporters on Department of Defense Operations

STAFF: Hello, everybody. As you can see, I have a guest here with me today. We're going to kick off the gaggle with Dr. Ratner, who is going to be leading the China Task Force that you heard the president announce yesterday when he was here in the building. Dr. Ratner has some commitments early this afternoon, so we're going to need to get him out of here like before noon.

And before I turn it over him, just a -- just a reminder that the China Task Force is about sort of a -- it's a coordinating function here in the department, and policy questions with respect to China are not questions that he'll be able to deal with today. What I wanted him to do was come down and talk to you about the structure, the framework, the intent, the goals of -- of the task force.

And so with that, Dr. Ratner?

DR. ELY RATNER: Great, thanks, John, and is the -- can I just turn this thing on, or we're good to go?

STAFF: I think it's – it should be on.

DR. RATNER: Yeah, OK, great.

Well, thank you, everyone. Great to see everybody. My name is Ely Ratner. I'm currently serving as a special assistant to the secretary of defense. I was a member of the -- just as a little bit of background, was a member of the DOD Agency Review Team during the transition, and also helped to lead to East Asia Working Group for the Biden campaign. 

My last job in government was as deputy to the national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden; spent some time at the State Department, and also worked for then-Senator Biden, both on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in his political staff. So that's a little of my background -- and then have spent time in academia and think tanks doing various aspects of the -- of the China problem set.

As it relates the task force, obviously thrilled that the president visited yesterday, came to the department, announced the establishment of the task force. As the -- Secretary Austin has said from very on early from when he was announced, and he has reiterated since, he sees China as the number-one pacing challenge for the United States, and this task force is a manifestation of that.

As -- as everyone in this room knows, as -- as DOD has become increasingly focused on the China challenge, there's been a proliferation of policies, activities and -- and initiatives related to China, and the purpose of the task force was, particularly with the new team coming on board, a new secretary, to ensure that those activities were synchronized, prioritized, and coordinated to the greatest extent possible. 

The goal of the task force is -- is not to boil the ocean. What we're going to do here is try to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for the secretary, try to identify what should serve as his and his team's top priorities on China, whether those be issues that need secretary-level decisions or guidance, issues that need greater prioritization, attention, and resources, or issues that need either strength and/or new processes to move them forward to address them. 

This is going to be a four-month maximum, four-month sprint by design; not creating a new bureaucratic layer here, but rather, intending to conduct the task force wrap up in the May/June period, provide recommendations to the secretary, and then hand the baton off to various elements of the department to carry forward implementation and review of -- of the issues.

In terms of how I foresee the task force proceeding, the initial period of the task force will be an assessment, where the members of the team will be spanning out across the department, doing a little bit of a listening tour to hear what the various components are identifying as their top initiatives, top priorities, and challenges, and then it'll be incumbent upon the task force itself to distill those down to a discrete set of top priorities, and then spend a period of time trying to identify, what are the right mechanisms to address, review and -- and implement various areas.

In terms of the team itself, some of you may have seen the fact sheet that was released yesterday. I encourage you to -- I brought some extra copies -- but it -- it provides a -- a little bit of additional data. We would expect the size of the task force to be roughly around 15 individuals, all full-time DOD; not going to be bringing new folks in from the outside. It's going to be a mix of uniformed and civilian DOD employees from across the department, so expect representatives from different parts of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the services, the combatant commands and the I.C. So we're looking for representatives from across the department.

Where we are now in the process -- still putting some of the pieces together, building the team as we speak. We should have more information on that -- who the -- who is involved -- over the next couple weeks, and likely to be releasing, over the next couple weeks, a memo from the secretary to the -- to the department formal -- formally establishing the task force, as well as a charter. So when -- when that's released, we'll provide a little bit more information at the time.

And I'll just make a couple more points, and then stop. 

In terms of the final product, the intent here is not to produce a lengthy public report, but rather, to provide the secretary with a briefing and -- and memo proposing and recommending, as I said, specific top priorities. So that's the goal here. We will be consulting with Congress for sure, with Legislative Affairs here; pre-notified several of our partners on the Hill in advance of the announcement yesterday, and I look forward to meeting with congressional staff in the weeks ahead. 

I personally am a strong believer in the imperative of a bipartisan cooperation as it relates to the China challenge, and -- and look forward to engaging with members and staff on both sides of the Hill.

And then, just the last thing I'll say, of course, is that this effort is -- although it is DOD-focused, it is also carefully integrated with the White House and the broader interagency. The secretary, of course, had the chance to discuss this yesterday with the president during their meeting, and the secretary had previously raised and discussed the task force with the secretary of state, the national security advisor, the DNI, to ensure that we're all working together on this. And I myself have been in very regular contact with the -- my counterparts at the NSC to ensure that what we're doing here at the Defense Department and the task force is -- is integrated with the broader strategy and the -- and the whole-of-government approach.

So John, why don’t I stop there, and happy to take questions.


We'll start with Bob, on the phone.

STAFF: Stand by.

(UNKNOWN): OK, there's nobody -- there's no pre-briefing or anything like that going on?

(UNKNOWN): Thanks. Thanks, Jessica.

(UNKNOWN): Yes, someone in the room said Mr. Ely Ratner's already giving his opening statement. 

MR. KIRBY: OK, we'll start here in the room.

Go ahead.

Q: Yeah, Abraham Mahshie with the Washington Examiner. Secretary Esper really stressed China, Indo-Pacific, so did he -- didn't he leave something behind for you guys to pick up? I don't know. It seems a little bit like you're trying to figure out what was going on. Can you help clarify that, please? 

DR. RATNER: Sure, yeah. I think, again, the way that I would describe it is that as the Department of Defense has become increasingly focused on the China challenge, there's been a proliferation of activities and policies and programs. Some of those began under the Obama-Biden administration; some began under the Trump administration, much of it for the good. And what we're trying to do here, again, is ensure that these activities are synchronized, that they're coordinated, and that we have our priorities straight.

Q: Is this a continuation of what was happening in the prior administration, or is there a starting over?

DR. RATNER: My -- I don't think the set marks of that are the right way to think about it. I think what we're talking about here is how is the Department of Defense responding to the China challenge?

Q: Thank you.

DR. RATNER: And we're going to be building upon existing efforts.

MR. KIRBY: Let's stay here in the room for one more. Nancy?

Q: I have two questions, one specific about the objectives, and then a broader question along the lines of my colleague. You said you're looking for priorities. You talked priorities. Is it priorities about where the -- the -- future deployments would happen, priorities in terms of funding? Can you give us any more specificity about priorities as you see them in terms of questions that would answer, vis-a-vis, DOD activity?

DR. RATNER: Yeah, so I'm -- what I'm not doing to do is prejudge the findings of the -- of the task force. We did, in the fact sheet yesterday, did list a number of areas where we're going to be looking, to include strategy, operational concepts, technology and force structure, force posture and force management, intelligence, alliances and partnerships, our engagements with China. I think we're going to go out and, again, survey the department and get a sense of where the biggest challenges, and where might there be an opportunity for secretary-level and leadership-level attention to move some of these challenges forward.

Q: So… 

DR. RATNER: So I don't -- I don't have a specific set in mind right now, and it may end up being a disparate set of issues; again, some that -- where the answer is, this an issue where there is a clear need for sec -- a secretary-level decision or guidance, right? There might be another area -- this is really important; hasn't necessarily received the attention and resources it deserves, and this is a budget issue. And then there may be others that are process issues. Here's an area where there's a lot of activity going on in different parts of the department. It isn't sufficiently synchronized, and here's one way you might think about addressing that set of issues. So there is -- I think it'll be -- it'll be a range of different types of issues, actually.

Q: Okay. And then broadly, one thing I'm having a hard time understanding, one is the things, I think, maybe (inaudible) from the Biden campaign is that they were coming in with a lot of experience and a lot of sort of priorities and agendas coming forth into the administration. I was wondering if you could help us understand why there's a need now for a sort of a subsequent review of China policy. I think a critic would argue that there's some expectation that the administration would come in with sort of priorities and goals and approaches towards China and -- and the threat from -- from that region. I was wondering if you could help us understand why there's a need for a subsequent task force to the sort of policy agendas that the Biden campaign promised coming into the administration.

DR. RATNER: Yeah, I think this task force is about ensuring that the Department of Defense is playing its role in that whole-of-government strategy as effectively as possible, not to be rewriting a -- a strategy in and of itself. So ensuring that, again, the processes and the activities are coordinated and synchronized, and that there's a clear set of priorities.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, now we'll go to phone.


Q: Yeah, hi, hi. This is Bob Burns. You may not be aware, but those of us who are on the phones were only connected to the audio after the speaker began taking questions, so didn't hear anything of what he said.

MR. KIRBY: We'll fix that. We'll -- we'll get you that transcript as soon as we can. Apologize for that problem.

Q: Can I ask a question anyway?

MR. KIRBY: Of course. That's -- yeah, absolutely.

Q: So again, not knowing what -- and someone may already asked this, but just it was occurring to me. I didn't realize that he was going to be explaining the -- the nuts and bolts of this task force. But I'm -- somebody's phone is ringing there. Sorry. But anyway, I'm wondering how this examination of policies, force structure, and so forth, does not overlap with the Global Force Posture Review that obviously also will include INDOPAC.

DR. RATNER: Yeah, that's a good question, and the answer is that the task force is going to work with and support and draw from a number of the processes and -- that are occurring throughout the department. It is a crosscutting challenge that is -- you know, addresses not only the -- the Global Posture Review, but a -- a number of other reviews and processes that are going to be occurring. So I think the answer to that question specifically is that we'll have folks that are very much integrated in that process, and that the outcomes and the findings of the Global Posture Review will be integrated into the thinking that we're doing here, and into -- to the extent that we are also going to be looking at force posture questions, thinking about the implementation and review, going forward, about how to be most effective in that regard, including how they relate to the National Defense Strategy or otherwise.

So I've done -- been working on China a long time, I led a major study in my last job at the Center for a New American Security. It was a congressionally-mandated study out of the 2019 NDAA on China. I understand very clearly the problem – China's a matrix problem because it cuts into almost every single functional issue and, frankly, increasingly every geographic issue that we -- that we deal with.

And so that's -- that's something I do have some experience in, and the answer is to be working with them in a cooperative way and making sure that we're all -- neither to displace them, but to be rowing in the same direction.

MR. KIRBY: Did that answer your question, Bob?

Q: Yeah, unfortunately -- yeah, thanks for that. I mean, unfortunately, there's somebody's phone on the line that keeps ringing, I couldn't hear a lot of it. But anyway, that's -- aside from that, you can move on.

MR. KIRBY: All right, thanks Bob.

Phil Stewart from Reuters?

Q: I think you said Phil Stewart, but I couldn't hear because of the ringing (inaudible) more difficult than it needs to be.

But if you (inaudible) -- (give ?) a sense of -- if you could (just give ?) a sense of how these (inaudible) elapse in general because, you know, sort of almost in a Venn diagram right now, are there other reviews that you intend to -- to (inaudible) specific issues, or are you pretty much through with the reviews (inaudible) (other ones that ?) (inaudible) stand-downs in Afghanistan and (inaudible) (Republic ?)? Are there other ones (inaudible) as well?

MR. KIRBY: Did you get enough of that --

DR. RATNER: I did. I think that's for you. I mean, the question is, is where does it fit in the -- in the --

MR. KIRBY: -- the other -- the other review.


MR. KIRBY: Or is this the last one, is what I took away from that.

Q: Yeah.

MR. KIRBY: Other reviews?

Q: Of other geographical areas, other problems.

Q: Task forces --

MR. KIRBY: Okay, okay.

SQ: -- beyond --

MR. KIRBY: Okay, thank you. You guys got more of it than I did.


STAFF: Well, we're used to listening to Phil.

MR. KIRBY: So, Phil, I mean, I -- I don't -- I would never want to get ahead of the secretary's decision-making. I mean, I think, as Dr. Ratner's pointed out, that the secretary firmly believes in the -- the usefulness of this task force look over the next few months, and he certainly is interested in pursuing the global posture review in as timely a manner as possible, and we've talked about that being complete by mid-year, mid-summer.

And if the secretary believes that there are other parts of the world or other issues, functional issues, other capabilities that he believes warrants additional study or review, you know, I'm sure he will make the appropriate decisions in that regard.

So I don't want to get ahead of -- of decisions he hasn't made yet, except to say that he is very committed -- and you can see from all the work that he's doing in just these first couple of weeks on a range of issues. He's committed to getting his arms around what the department is doing, what we're doing well, what we're not doing well, and how do you make up that difference. And I think you're going to see his headspace continually in that -- right there, for a while.

Does that answer your question, Phil?

Q: I mean, should we all on the -- in the media think that a review equates to changes in policy? Or is a review just that? The fact that you're doing these reviews, that you're actually going to change anything?

MR. KIRBY: By definition, this is a chance to get smarter. And it may or may not involve actual policy changes. A review is just that. And I would -- you know, I'd caution everybody from -- from, you know, trying to anticipate or predict likely changes in force structure or resourcing, strategy, operational concepts, capabilities, until the reviews are complete.

So I would not -- I understand the -- the anticipation on your part is that there'll be some changes as a result, and I suspect that in any of the reviews that he's doing, there may in fact be policy changes. But I -- again, I don't want to get ahead of his decision space and the kind of advice and counsel that he's going to be getting from all these activities.

Go into the room, Lara?

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. So two quick questions. One, are you -- specifically are you re-looking at the DOD list of Chinese companies that are blacklisted? And then secondly, a little bit more broadly, can you tell us a little bit about this administration's posture on telecommunications and the Huawei issue and is that going to -- how is that going to -- how are you going to tackle that?

DR. RATNER: Yes, so I think this is a good question that -- that may illuminate a little bit of how we're going to be approaching this.

So on the question -- the first question of Chinese companies connected to the PLA, what we're going to be doing on the task force is trying to understand whether the Department of Defense is effectively organized to try to address these types of issues, right?

And so the goal is not to say the list should be this long and this is what the -- the goal of the task force is not to make policy on that particular issue. The goal of the task force is to ensure that the Department of Defense is configured and organized to support the interagency strategy on those sets of issues, both of them.

So for sure, we're likely to be addressing technology issues, hoping to have either representatives on the task force itself, and if not then deep engagement with R&E and A&S and other parts of OSD that are tackling some of the technology issues. But for sure, we're going to be going after them.

But the question that we're going to be asking is are we prepared to answer these questions as best we can, not what's the right answer on this specific policy issue. There's already a policy process under way that's doing that that we're not going to be replacing. So the normal conduct of China policy and the interagency process will be occurring separate from this task force, the task force does not take over that role during this time.

Q: So will you be looking whether to reorganize the Asia-Pacific desk, is that the kind of thing that you're going to be looking into doing? Like, I guess, ASD / DASD, like, are you looking to do a reorg of that?

DR. RATNER: That is not currently on my -- on my likely agenda list, no, no.

Q: I guess I'm just trying to understand what that means exactly, that you're trying to figure out whether your best positioned to -- whether DOD is best organized to address these problems. Like what changes could there be?

DR. RATNER: I'm not going to pre -- again, I'm not -- and I'm being completely straight, I'm not going to pre-judge the findings. What -- what is clear is that this issue of technology competition is of increasing importance in the U.S.-China relationship. It's a huge priority for the administration, they've made that clear. There's a new technology directorate inside the NSC.

And many of the issues related to technology have to do with defense and security issues, and we have to make sure that DOD is adequately organized to be able to answer the kind of questions that the interagency is asking, and also as it relates to both innovation and supply chain and technology protection issues.

So this is, in -- in some ways, a -- it's illustrative, insofar as it's, in some ways, a -- a new issue set in parts of its dimensions and we kind of make sure that we're organized to address it.

MR. KIRBY: I think we have to – got time for one more, Ely?

DR. RATNER: Yeah, sure.


MR. KIRBY: Can you do one more? Meghann?

Q: I haven't got a ton of questions. Sorry, Dr. Ratner.


MR. KIRBY: One more for Dr. Ratner. Go ahead, Jim.

Q: Sir, the military-to-military contacts in the Indo-Pacific are -- are key to a lot of these things. Will your task force be looking at the current state of military-to-military contacts and then perhaps suggesting areas where they could be improved or enhanced or -- or new countries that should be approached? Is that the sort of thing you're looking at?

DR. RATNER: Absolutely, I think both in the context of how are we approaching our alliances and partnerships but also how are we approaching our defense relations with China? Absolutely, we'll be looking at both of those.

Q: As a follow up to that, is -- is one of the things you're looking at whether to deploy intermediate range -- land-based intermediate range missiles near China?

DR. RATNER: I don't have a comment on that. I think to -- to Lara's question, we're not going to be looking to answer very specific policy questions in that regard, as much as we are to surface key challenges, raise big questions, and then identify processes and who in the department are the appropriate folks to get after them.

MR. KIRBY: OK. Thank you very much. I'll stay behind, let Dr. Ratner to get going. I'll be right back -- be right back.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this.

DR. RATNER: Thank you.

STAFF: Stay put, I’ll be right back.

Q: Come back and do it again.

MR. KIRBY: OK. I apologize for the technical difficulties today. We'll get that ironed out. Just back to normal stuff, I've got a couple of things at the top here. As you know, we had a great visit by the President and Vice President yesterday. And as we talked about just a little bit ago, he announced the -- the China task force.

So on other news, we haven't had a chance to publicly welcome her but we're absolutely delighted to have Dr. Hicks back here to the total force, where she will serve as the 35th Deputy Secretary of Defense. As I think you all know, she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and onboarded here at the Pentagon on Tuesday. She's had a very busy first couple of days.

As she said in her confirmation hearing, she looks forward to working alongside professionals who have dedicated their lives to our national defense and leveraging her past experience to drive continued progress. 

In just the last couple of days, she's received briefings on COVID and the DOD's response efforts to COVID, China, the budget -- and budget season, as you all know, is coming very, very soon -- and the department's sexual assault and prevention efforts. These are just the first in a series of -- of briefings that are going to be -- we're going to help her get up to speed and provide informed policy decisions and recommendations to support the Secretary's priorities. 

As for the Secretary, yesterday I think you saw he had a call with the Norwegian Minister of Defense Frank Bakke-Jensen that reaffirmed the strategic defense relationship between the United States and Norway. Secretary Austin thanked the Minister for hosting rotational U.S. Marines for cold weather training and underscored the importance of continued training operations and cooperation in the high north. And it was a very warm and friendly conversation, as -- as you might expect.

Today, the Secretary also had a chance to speak with Polish Minister of Defense Mariusz Blaszczak -- Blaszczak to reinforce the importance of the longstanding U.S.-Poland strategic alliance. The Secretary and the Minister discussed a range of issues, including Poland's commitment to defense modernization, the U.S. force presence in Poland, and the extension of the New START Treaty, as well as exchanging views on regional security. 

They both hailed the significance of the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement as important to strengthening our mil-to-mil relationship and they look forward to its implementation. The enduring presence of U.S. rotational forces in Poland enhances NATO's interoperability and strengthens defense and deterrence along NATO's eastern flank.

The Secretary noted the value of Poland's contributions to the alliance and expressed his commitment to continuing -- continued consultation on challenges impacting Euro-Atlantic security. Both leaders look forward to meeting in person as soon as COVID conditions do permit. 

I think you've also seen the departure today of the first team that will go to support FEMA-led vaccination sites. This one will -- this -- this Army unit is deploying out of Fort Carson. They're going to eastern Los Angeles. They are due to arrive on or about the 15th of this month, so just -- just four -- four days away.

I'm sure you will have questions about follow on teams, and what I would tell you today is that we continue to source those requirements and work with FEMA to determine future sites out of that initial tranche of -- of 1,110. I don't have any announcements of that today or specifics on where those additional teams will go and exactly when they're going to be there but the -- the conversation with FEMA and with state and local authorities continues. And as we get more information about additional teams, we'll certainly provide it to you and as quick as possible -- as -- as quickly as possible.

OK, that's it for my topper. I'm going to go back to Bob to see if he had any -- Bob, if you had any other questions today?

Q: Yeah, thanks. I do have a -- a question. President Biden apparently declared an end to the national emergency on the southern border. I'm wondering whether this has any implications for troops deployed down there, either National Guard or active?

MR. KIRBY: So, Bob, as I understand it, it -- it won't have a -- an immediate impact, that that -- that that mission is funded through the rest of the year. So I don't have any changes to that mission to read out as a result of the President's decision.

Q: Thank you.


MR. KIRBY: Hey – hey – hey. What's that?

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: No, go ahead.

Q: No, I'll just wait -- no, Meghann had a question, I'll go after her.

MR. KIRBY: OK, Meghann, go ahead.

Q: Thank you. Well, this is a follow-up to Bob's. If there's no plan in place right now is that because it's not something the Pentagon is thinking about? Is that somebody else's call? Could the governors start bringing their own people back? Like, who had the authority here to start drawing down at the border?

MR. KIRBY: It's not that we're not thinking about it. It's that it's a -- it's a -- the mission was funded and programmed for the rest of this year. We always evaluate mission readiness and needs and requirements, I just don't have any changes to read out a result of this particular presidential decision. Okay? Lucas?

Q: How much did this cost?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that in front of me, Lucas. We'll take that question and get back to you.

Go ahead.

Q: The president could also decide that the mission ends today and the troops come home today, right? He just hasn't drafted --


MR. KIRBY: He is the commander-in-chief.


Q: I wanted to ask you something completely different. So we've all now seen the video on Capitol Hill on January 6th of the vice president being rapidly escorted out of the area with his entire detail, which included the military officer carrying the nuclear football. And we've seen the video of all of them, including that military officer, moving in a very extreme situation.

Defense officials who deal with nuclear weapons say they were not aware of -- during that very brief period of time inside the Capitol that -- of -- that the nuclear -- the officer carrying the nuclear football were in this extreme, extreme situation. 

So I wanted to ask if this now raises questions, review, concerns about -- it's a new scenario, domestic insurrection -- about -- about maintaining control of the football. Is this something the Department feels it needs to look at in case there are new scenarios for maintaining positive control out there?

MR. KIRBY: A couple of things, obviously this is not the forum and I would not get into a -- the discussion about specific command and control over nuclear strategic forces. Number two, we have seen the video and don't have any particular comment on that at this time. And then three, I would say I'm not aware of that video and your question driving any specific reviews inside the building.

The last thing I'd say just writ large is that there's nothing that we take more seriously here at the Department than the safety and security of the American people and in making sure that the -- the chain of command has -- has the information they need, the right options before them, and -- and -- and the capabilities in place to defend the American people. And obviously, that certainly includes, as it always -- as it -- as it has historically, our strategic nuclear forces. And I think that's -- 


Q: Can I ask more broadly --

MR. KIRBY: -- as far as I'm going to go on that.

Q: -- Thank you. Can I ask more broadly, much more broadly, has -- have those events sparked any -- separate from the I.G. review, have those events sparked any after-action so-called review in the Defense Department about what transpired? Totally broadly across the spectrum on that day, is there anything that you're looking at? Is there any review underway? Any -- you after-action everything that I -- I know of, so I'm just curious if you're doing any of that on this event -- the whole January 6th.

MR. KIRBY: Outside of what I -- I -- I think has already been talked about in terms of -- of -- of...

Q: Well, there's the I.G.

MR. KIRBY: Right. I mean, outside of that, I'm not aware of anything specific with respect to the events of that day. Does -- does that get you...

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go to the phone again, here. 

Scott from Federal News?

Q: Admiral Kirby, thank you so much for doing this. You know, wondering a little bit about the National Guard. I know that you're in talks with Congress right now, and they've sent a letter to see if you can recoup any of the money that had been moved for previous budgets. Is there any update on that, or you know, have you worked through any of the bureaucracy to figure out how you might be able to get that money back into the military construction areas?

MR. KIRBY: You're talking down at the Southwest border, is that right? I think that's what he was referring to. I don't have an -- I don't have an update on that. The -- I think he's referring to the -- the reprogramming. Let me just see if I've got -- yeah. They actually teed me up for that question, and the answer is we don't have an answer yet. We're -- we're working with the necessary policy offices and the comptroller, so I'm afraid we don't have an update for you on that.

Phil from Reuters, do you have another one?

Q: Yeah, just this one -- one more. You know, is it -- is it fair to assume then, that if there hasn't been an announced review on a subject, that if not, that matter is not under a policy discussion, or isn't under review? Or should we just assume that everyone is under review?

MR. KIRBY: I missed the first part of your question. You said do we assume there's a review on what?

Q: Well, I guess, you know, the -- that a lot of these reviews that have been announced on major issues that -- that are kind of in focus, but I'm wondering, you know, isn't kind of natural for an incoming administration to do a review on everything, in a way? And -- and -- and I guess the -- the -- the question is, you know, is it -- is it safe to assume then that even if a review hasn't been announced on any given issue, that there -- that that's not under review anyway?

MR. KIRBY: No, I don't think that's safe to assume, Phil. I mean, when -- when -- when we launch a review, when a -- when a -- when a -- a -- a formal process is implemented to take a look at a challenge, an area, a function, we're going to be open and honest with you about that. 

But you hit the nail on the head when you talked about a -- a new team coming in and naturally wanting to get the lay of the land, and to better understand what policies are in place that we would want to continue, what policies might we want to change? And that also could lead to resourcing programming capability changes, too. I mean, I think this is just a natural evolution, and what we've tried to do is -- is be as transparent with you as we can in terms of what we're reviewing, what the timeline is and -- and the resources that we're -- that we're applying to it. I mean, you just heard from Dr. Ratner. I mean, he was very specific in terms of the -- the number of people on the China Task Force. 

So long answer to your question, but no, I don't think it's safe to assume that just everything is under review, but certainly, there is a lot to review. And -- and as you guys have reported -- reported, you know, the -- the transition process was, in some areas, not as comprehensive as it was in -- in others. So again, I -- I think this is -- this is to be expected.

What I can -- the last thing, and I'll say on this, is just to foot stomp it again, is, I mean, I -- I can assure you that as we learn things, as we change things, as reviews are complete we will be open and transparent with you about -- about whatever changes come down the pike. OK?

In the back, there?

Q: Thank you. (inaudible). So in about 2009, the (inaudible) called a military in (inaudible) to sort of – look at and present and alternative energy and new energy-efficient ways to (inaudible) in the military. I'm wondering if there's anything (inaudible) to that which (inaudible) coming forward now to (inaudible), and if there's -- will you be looking forward to continue those efforts or to wrap them up.

MR. KIRBY: I don't have -- I don't have a particular comment on -- on the senator's -- the trip or her...

Q: (inaudible) but the fact that this was going -- ended up going on in the military, there was a focus on it, and she (inaudible) to highlight it and (inaudible) to present...

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: ... (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: So what I would say is I'm -- obviously, the department knows well the impacts of -- of climate change, and we know that they're real. We've seen it firsthand in -- in expanded mission requirements, degraded training, costly damage to property and infrastructure. The department has committed to and has a successful track record of including climate change considerations in our various activities and risk assessments. Our past actions are no longer sufficient, we believe, to meet projected impact trajectories or specific requirements of administration policy -- administrative policy, sorry. 

So we believe greater integration at the front end of all our processes is required to ensure climate resilience for installations and operations. And -- and just to remind, in -- in 2019 alone, the department assessed climate-related impacts to 79 installations in every geographic combatant command area of responsibility. And as President Biden highlighted from the department's -- that -- the climate report from January of 2019, about two thirds of 79 mission assurance priority installations, based on their operational role, are vulnerable to current and future recurrent flooding, and more than a half are vulnerable to current or future drought. About one half are vulnerable to wildfires. 

And I could go on and on in -- in more detail here, but obviously, we -- we not only feel the impacts of the change in climate to our facilities and installations, but we feel it in terms of the missions we are asked to perform around the world, and not -- not just from the security and stability problems that happen from -- for people leaving, refugees from leaving extreme weather conditions, but -- but also, the increase in the demand for U.S. military forces to contribute to humanitarian aid and disaster relief around the world. Those -- those requests continue to increase as this extreme weather increases in -- in severity.

Q: Can I have a follow-up? Just to focus on energy, which is really a strategic priority, it really, you know, underlies everything at the military does, and it's either an enabler or a constrainer. Is there any thought about putting additional resource -- resources (inaudible) technology related to energy? (inaudible) is a scenario that is -- is kind of under review.

MR. KIRBY: No, I think -- I mean we all -- we know we have to adapt current and future operations to address resilience and in collaboration with the components. The Department is developing installation energy plans to identify, evaluate, and mitigate energy risks to critical missions. 

Our installation energy plans account for all those risks, including the effects of a changing climate and to improve our ability to sustain critical missions in contested environments.

So very much energy research development. Energy resilience, if you will, is very much part and parcel of the kinds of preparations that we're going to be doing across the department. It's not just external; it's internal for us as well. And you might have seen in one of President Biden's early E.O., executive orders, he tasked the secretary to do exactly that.

To in fact make sure that we're factoring in the section climate change, not only in the operational plans and resourcing requirements, but also into our own internal energy programs. 

Yes, sir?

Q: Thank you. (Inaudible) at Hart Airport at Saudi Arabia we've seen more missiles coming from Yemen from the Houthi. First, I appreciate your comment to -- are there any plans to send more assets to the area to protect Saudi Arabia and also the Americans who are living there?

MR. KIRBY: I -- so a couple of things. I mean I'm -- I never talk about future operations here from the podium. So I'm not going to start doing that today. But to reiterate, Saudi Arabia is a pillar of regional security architecture and they're a core stakeholder with respect to counter terrorism and combating Iran's destabilizing activities.

Given the shared threat that we faced, the Department will -- seeks to further cultivate strong partners to help share the burden in the region. We are committed to assisting Saudi Arabia with the defense of its borders in light of emergent and credible threats, so of which you cited in your question.

So I -- there's no change from our policy perspective in that regard but I don't and won't speak to specific potential future capability.

Q: Do they have enough assets? Do the U.S. have also enough assets to defend against the -- what the Houthi are trying to do?

MR. KIRBY: What I would tell you is, again, nothing's changed about our commitment to helping Saudi Arabia defend its boarders, which are very much under threat. We constantly review capabilities versus demand anywhere around the world and adjust as necessary. It just wouldn't be prudent for me to get ahead of decisions or to talk about future potential operations here in this forum.

But I can assure you that it's something that we're constantly looking at and constantly talking to our partners in Saudi Arabia about. 

OK. Here?

Q:  Thank you. (Inaudible). 

I'm just trying to understand the China task force, the need for them and the transition period. So could you clarify? Did the old leadership just leave and take their strategy with them, or did the last leadership team share the China strategy and what it was doing with the new administration, including Dr. Ratner, presumably he was part of some of those transition meetings during that transition process.

MR. KIRBY: I'll have to get back to you. I don't have the specifics of what -- what was handed over during the transition, especially on China. So I'll take that question. We'll see if we can answer it in a more comprehensive way but I would not want to speculate on that. 

On the phone, Tony Capaccio? 

Q: Hi there, John. Can you give a status report on the preparation for the '22 budget? And how deeply has the Biden group delved into the service plans, the '22 service plans they inherited? And what's the status of the -- of tradeoff reviews right now?

MR. KIRBY: So, Tony, I mean, work is as -- not surprising to you -- work has already started on the '22 budget, and as I said in my topper, Deputy Secretary Hicks has already begun to have budget briefings, and she will continue to dive in deeper into the service plans here, as the -- in the coming days. 

I don't have specifics for you on that. The -- our team has just arrived here in the last couple of weeks, so there's a lot of work to do to get up to speed on what -- what planning the services have done thus far and to make sure it nests well with the -- with this administration's defense policies, so I don't have a specific update on that or on the -- on your -- your second question. 

Q: ... skinny budget that might be relation, new administrations put out skinny budgets. Do you have any feel for whether this would be March or April or into May at this point? 

MR. KIRBY: I don't have an estimate right now on the -- on the skinny budgets, Tony. But I'll take a look, and if we can get you something more specific, I will. 

Sam from USNI?

Q: Hi. I had a question on vaccination take rates across the -- the services. I think -- I think you all alluded to last week, that you were going to try and run down some numbers in terms of, you know, the sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines who were eligible for vaccines. Do you all have an idea of, you know, what the refusal rate is at this point? Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: So what I can tell you, Sam, is we've got, so far, there's been 1,040,825 doses ordered by the department. All of those doses have shipped; 966,280 doses have been delivered to military treatment facilities across the force, so almost all the ones that -- that were shipped to us. 

Eight hundred thousand, one hundred and thirty-five vaccinations have been administered since the 14th of December, in -- in the department. Of those 800,000, 589,442 -- we can get you these numbers specifically, if you want -- were first doses; 210,693 were second doses. 

So essentially, we've administered 82 percent of all the vaccines delivered. And again, that's as of today, I understand it. And our -- it's -- you know, the focus is keen and sharp and we're continuing to -- to do what we can to make vaccines available to all those who -- who want them. 

Did that answer your question? 

Q: Partially. I mean, the thing that I was looking at is, you know, there's some effort by the individual services to combat misinformation, and that implies that there is a higher number of folks that aren't taking this, for whatever reason. And I understand all the caveats that, you know, it's a -- we're in an emergency authorization for FDA, you can't compel troops to take the vaccine. 

What I'm more interested in is, who -- how many people are saying no when presented with the option? 

MR. KIRBY: So, Sam, we don't have a good, firm number on that. And I'm not surprised by that. The -- it is a voluntary vaccine, we are keeping track of the ones we're getting and the ones we're giving, and that's -- got those numbers, and we'll continue to update those numbers for you. 

But it's because it's not compulsory, there's no central tracking system to keep track of those who are either refusing the vaccine or, in some cases, deferring their decision on the vaccine. Some people simply want to -- want to wait. 

So I don't think that we're going to be in a place where we can give you an exact number of refusals because of the nature of this -- these vaccines being -- being voluntary. 

I would point you back to what General Friedrichs said a couple of weeks ago, and we'll check to see if this is still valid. But I think he said that the refusal rates roughly mirror that what we're seeing in society. But -- but I will double-check that to see if that is still his assessment, but I don't think we're going to ever be in a place where we can give you an exact number of refusals. Yeah. 

Q: Can I follow up on his question? Like, does this concern the secretary that service members are refusing and does he believe -- has he been asking -- and you don't know the refusal rate, but when the secretary asks, he’ll get an answer. 


MR. KIRBY: Yeah. The -- certainly, we'd like to have as much visibility on -- on how the administration of vaccines is going, and the -- and as much understanding as we can about the concerns of those people who don't want it, or don't want it right away. 

You saw Dr. Fauci and -- and the first lady, just last week...


Q: Is it a concern...


MR. KIRBY: ... did a town hall -- I'm getting there. Did a town hall with -- with Blue Star families about trying to address their concerns. And certainly, it's a concern of the secretary, but he's also mindful that it's a voluntary program.

And while he has taken the vaccine because he believes it was the right thing to do for him and for his health and for his family, and for his ability to do the job, he recognizes that this is a personal decision that everybody has to make. 

And he encourages every member of the military and military families to go to the CDC website and go to, and read up on this, read about the intensive safety regime that these vaccines have gone through, and get -- and get knowledgeable about it. 

And then he also encourages them, as he did, to reach out to their primary care physician, and ask their doctors about the degree to which this vaccine makes sense for them. Everybody -- everybody's different, and some people have -- well, everybody has a different health situation, and he respects that and wants them to talk to their doctors about this. 



Q: So I guess I just wanted to clear up some of what Dr. Ratner was saying. I don't really understand still what he means when he says that the task force will get -- like, whether we need to reorganize the Department. If that doesn't mean reorganizing OSD policy -- like, so what exactly is it that you would be reorganizing?

MR. KIRBY: I can't explain it in deeper detail than -- that Dr. Ratner did. I thought he was pretty definitive in his answer to you that reorganization of the Department's structure with respect to the Indo-Pacific region was not on his agenda list. But I -- I would -- it would be foolish for me to try to go into greater detail than he -- he went in with you.

Yes, go ahead, over there.

Q: Yes, (inaudible). So as just a follow-up on China task force, every year the DOD is producing a China report and this is going to just be for four months. So everything is -- by the time this report is finished so many other developments might come up. So how it will be different from the annual China report and the recommendations that they are going to produce? And how -- you know, why it is timely right now? Why is it timely?

MR. KIRBY: Well, it's timely right now because, as the secretary testified to, the -- the Department believes China is the number one pacing challenge for the Department. And it's a -- U.S. bilateral relations with China as well as China's influence on the world stage is a central focus of the Biden administration's foreign policy. So it's perfectly -- this task force effort is perfectly nested inside that and supportive of that.

The China report is a congressionally mandated report that we have to do every year, as you know. And that's a fulsome sort of comprehensive look at -- at China's activities and their capabilities. The task force is not connected to that effort. 

And I think, again, Dr. Ratner laid out all the things that the task force is going to be looking at in terms of high-priority topics, strategy, operational concepts -- the United States strategy, the United States operational concepts, technology and force structure, force posture, force management, intelligence, our alliances and partnerships, and defense relations with China. It's about looking at -- at how we are organized, how we are structured, and the things that we believe we need to focus on.

The China report, again, it's congressionally mandated, is about -- is a -- is the summary of what we believe China's up to. So it's a completely different effort.

Q: And -- and on Iran I have a question -- actually this was a follow-up. So I have -- my main question was on Iran. The Iranian intelligence chief says that Iran might continue with its nuclear program. Does the secretary believe that it's not late for the diplomatic effort to bring back Iran into the -- you know, the nuclear agreement?

MR. KIRBY: Well, the secretary believes that no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran. And as he said yesterday, the Department will be in full support of our diplomats and the State Department as they examine this going forward. The -- your question is really better placed for my colleague at the State Department than it is here in the Defense Department.

Let me go to the phones again. Brian from -- it looks like Air Force Magazine.

Q: Yep, thanks for -- thanks for that. I have a -- I wanted to follow up on the Global Force Posture Review. About when it was announced, AFRICOM was wrapping up its repositioning of forces in East Africa, called Operation Octave Quartz.

So is that repositioning and withdrawal from Somalia by the time that was announced or has the operation been on pause as (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to have to ask you to repeat your question. I -- I didn't get all of it, I'm sorry.

Q: I was just asking about the freeze on re-posturing in Africa. Was the withdrawal from Somalia completed by the time that became (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: It's about the freeze in -- in Somalia -- is right -- I think -- I don't have an update for you on that, I'm afraid. I -- I -- if I understand it, it's -- is it tied up in the posture review, and I'm afraid I don't have a good answer for you. I'm going to have to take that question and see if we can get back to you. 


Q: I have a question about the reviews on combating sexual assault and extremism in the military. As I understand it, the Secretary's looking for input from military commanders in sort of tracking these problems. Is that right?

MR. KIRBY: That's right.

Q: Why, during his career -- his military career, did he never tackle these issues, specifically when he was commander at Fort Bragg and the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army?

MR. KIRBY: I wouldn't think that that's necessarily the case. I mean, he's talked very openly about his experiences in command of the 82nd Airborne and -- and that they had skinheads in the unit and that they didn't know who to look for and that the -- you know, they and the leadership missed some of the signs.

And what he has said they learned from that was that -- that while the leadership may miss some of these things, that there's probably other people in the unit that -- that are aware and maybe, for whatever reason, aren't willing or able or comfortable speaking up.

And so one of the things -- and you saw this when we announced the stand down -- that -- that he wants to use this stand down for. It's not just to transmit information to the men and women serving the department but to listen to them and to their experiences because they might be feeling and seeing and experiencing and encountering extremist ideology and -- and conduct in ways that we're not aware.

So it's -- it's -- it's really as much an effort to -- to reach out and to -- and to get -- and to get smarter.

Q: I guess I'm having a hard time understanding because Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, for example, would have been a prime position to really make this a priority issue and have those discussions and it strikes me that (inaudible) he could have heard was to engage in those conversations in uniform, face to face with troops, in a way that perhaps as Secretary he's -- he had distance from because of the perch in which he now sits.

And so I'm trying to reconcile how it went from something that he never really addressed -- I've never seen any public statements addressing each -- each of these issues in terms of coming up with solutions or tasking it, to now making those a priority as Secretary. What was the shift ... 

MR. KIRBY: Well, we’ve talked about this. I mean, I think -- I think the -- certainly the -- the -- the events over the last year, and in particular, you know, early last month, certainly sharpened everybody's view here about the significance -- the potential significance of this issue.

But it's not a -- you know, to your point, it's -- it's not something that is totally new to the military, nor is it new to society. And -- I mean, I think the first -- the first -- the -- the most recent instruction that we've put out on extremism in the military is dated 2012. 

So this is not an issue that he would have been unaware of as the Army Vice Chief of Staff or that he did nothing on it. I don't think that's a fair characterization. I mean, this is something that all of the services have been aware of as a problem for a while.

But I think the events over the last year or so have certainly sharpened the degree to which -- we believe the degree -- degree to which we need to take a look at this. And -- and I think, you know, Nancy, some of this is -- is -- it's -- it's become more of an issue in American society, as well, and social media, which didn't exist to the -- the -- the degree that it exists now, has made it so much easier for radicalization to occur, as well as to spread.

And, of course, you know, we're -- we're seeing obviously an increasing polarization on many different issues in -- inside American society and we recruit from American society. So I think it's also part and parcel of just problems that we're having throughout the country that have accelerated and expanded in -- in very recent months, if -- if not just recent years.

But it's not something that -- I -- I -- I wouldn't characterize it as -- as -- as not focusing on it or ignoring it. I mean, he -- he would've been aware of it, he was aware of it as a lieutenant colonel. So it's something that he has certainly -- certainly been mindful of.

It's just that because of all of these other dynamics in -- in -- in this country right now, it has -- it has certainly come to the fore. And -- and look, what I said, you know, before, the -- the numbers -- the numbers of individuals who espouse these kinds of beliefs and who act on them, though small, might be bigger than we're comfortable knowing and admitting. And so we've got to find that out. We don't know what we don't know but it's probably not as big as what the headlines might suppose. 

Somewhere in between is the truth about the extent of this and we don't -- we don't fully understand it, we don't know it and -- and that's one of the reasons why he's trying to get his arms around this. The other thing I'd say -- and I -- and I don't mean to filibuster here -- is the -- the stand down -- and he said this -- this is -- this is not meant to be a panacea, it's not going to solve every problem with respect to this but it might help us A, get some awareness out there about how seriously the leadership is taking it, and B, it might produce some good ideas, it might help us think about it in a different way if we hear from the experiences of -- of men and women in the force.

And the -- the second thing that I'll say is that it -- it doesn't foreclose, doesn't prevent, doesn't predict any other activities or initiatives the Secretary might take going forward. I don't think this -- this stand -- I -- well I know the stand down's not going to be the last you hear from him on this or department leadership but I -- I -- I would expect that it will help inform him as he makes follow on decisions.

Q: Do you think he would say that in his time in uniform, particularly as a top commander, that he adequately addresses his -- not -- both -- both extremism and sexual assault in the military?

MR. KIRBY: I -- did he adequately ... 

Q: ... address, tackle, try to get at these -- those initiatives?

MR. KIRBY: I think everybody, every leader in this -- in -- in -- in the department, both current and former, would -- would tell you that you can always do more. OK? All right, thanks, everybody, got to go -- I've got to go.

Q: The -- the -- the hack on that small Florida town's water supply, is the Defense Department, in any way, aiding that investigation?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of that, Lucas. You got me -- you caught me cold there. Let me -- let me go look and see. I -- I don't know.

Q: Only because the Israelis say they are helping, which is what made me...


Q: Yeah.