PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. A couple of things here at the top.
So I think all of you know, effective today all Defense Department eligible and authorized adults are able to make an appointment by contacting their local military treatment facility for a COVID vaccine directly or using their military treatment facilities’ appointing process. This obviously supports President Biden's direction to make the vaccine available to all eligible and authorized adults by today, the 19th of April.
The services will also redirect 31,500 additional doses of Moderna to overseas locations in European Command on top of their already allocated Moderna vaccine. The services will also redirect to approximately 30,000 additional doses of Moderna to -- vaccine -- to Indo-Pacific Command and Central Command and will be -- and that -- we expect that will be completed by the end of May, May 21st, roughly.
This will help keep the vaccination efforts on pace to provide initial doses to over 80 percent of our overseas personnel and their families by the end of that month. And I just remind, 83 percent of vaccines received by the Defense Department have been administered, exceeding the U.S. average of 78 percent, and more than 28 percent of our total force is now vaccinated. So, we're making progress and we're happy to see that.
On an exercise front, the U.S. Pacific Fleet's Unmanned Battle Problem 21 exercise is taking place off the coast of San Diego from the 16th to the 26th. Sailors will have the opportunity to engage with the latest unmanned technology, which will drive faster learning and rapid employment of these systems in the fleet.
This exercise will improve U.S. Pacific Fleet's warfighting advantages by integrating multi-domain manned and unmanned capabilities. As exercises of this nature evolve, the opportunity for coordination among allies and partner nations will also arise, creating stronger relationships in the Indo-Pacific.
With that I'll take some questions. I think, Lita, you're first.
Q: Hi John, thanks. Two things. The E.U. you've probably seen is now saying that they believe they're estimating that there are 150,000 Russian troops along Ukraine's borders. And I know you have not wanted to put a number on that previously, but I'm wondering if you can tell us if that is, indeed, an accurate or relatively accurate number.
And then secondly, can you say how many National Guard troops the District has requested -- even if you can't say whether or not it has been approved or how many are being approved, can you at least talk (inaudible) sort of sense of the scope of the requests from D.C. for the Guard? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Lita. You're right, I'm not going to get into specific numbers or troop formations in terms of the Russian buildup. We do continue to see that buildup. It -- as it was before, very seriously concerning to us. And we call on Russia to obviously make their intentions more clear. We don't believe that this buildup is conducive to security and stability along the border with Ukraine, and certainly not in occupied Crimea.
So, again, we call on the Russians to cease their provocations and to contribute to better security and stability there. And they can start by being more transparent about what their intentions are and what they're doing.
On the D.C. Guard request, I know that there is a request that the Army is looking at right now, Lita. I don't have the details of it. And I suspect we'll know more once the Army has made a final decision and is able to speak to that in general. All I can tell you is that there is a request in the building. Army is looking at that. I don't want to get ahead of their process.
Certainly, I could refer you to the Army to speak to it as well, but if and when we get more information about this, we'll certainly pass it on.
Q: As a follow-up, can I...
MR. KIRBY: Of course.
Q: On Ukraine, are you seeing or can you even characterize whether this buildup has grown over the last several days since last week, or I think there’s been some discussion that some things are sort of -- it's at a steady state. Can you give us a sense as to whether there's more activity or additional troops in recent days?
MR. KIRBY: Well, without getting into too much tactile specifics and sort of day by day, what I can tell you is, in general, we have continued to see this buildup increase. And, again, that is concerning to us. And we certainly would like to have a better sense of what their intentions are. But in the main, over the last couple of weeks, we have continued to see an increase in the forces along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea.
OK. In the room, yes, sir. Who are you?
Q: I'm sorry?
MR. KIRBY: Who are you?
MR. KIRBY: I just don't know.
Q: Well, my name is Roj Zowa, I work for Iraqi Kurdish TV.
MR. KIRBY: OK.
Q: And my question is on Iraq, obviously. The recent attacks, we've seen more and more attacks. Do you think your small-scale limited kind of counterattacks, are they enough to deter these attacks? Because we are seeing more and more attacks happening. And then including a recent one with a drone that we're not really sure how was that not detected before, you know, targeting the airport in Erbil.
MR. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into the specific details of each attack. Obviously in that case, of the one you're mentioning, there was a measure of success there, right? Because it hit a hangar. And what I would say is that -- so, a couple of things. First, our forces in Iraq are there to help the -- our Iraqi partners continue to prosecute their operations against ISIS. We're there at their invitation. That's what we're there to do. And it's a fairly limited presence on the ground in Iraq.
We had a terrific Iraqi -- Iraq strategic dialogue just a couple of weeks ago where we talked about the importance of this mission. We talked about the ways we are enabling and improving the capability of Iraqi security forces. And, of course, there was talk about holding technical talks in the future about what that footprint is going to look like going forward. So I think the relationship with the government in Iraq and with Iraqi security forces is strong.
When it comes to these -- these attacks, and the ones you mentioned, the Iraqis are, as is their right, investigating and looking at that. We're already giving the time and space to do that. And I'm not going to presuppose or speculate about future responses except to say that if a response is deemed warranted, then we're going to work with the Iraqis to do that on our own time and in a matter of own choosing to have the effect that we want.
Now clearly, you're right, these attacks continue and that's concerning. And we're in consultations with our Iraqi partners right now about what the best way forward is on that. But first and foremost, we want to make sure they have the time to look at this, give us their views, and to reinforce for our own commanders, not that they needed it, but just to reinforce, that they always have the right of self-defense.
Q: Is it fair to say that right now you're not sure what the best way forward is?
MR. KIRBY: I wouldn't go so far as to say we don't know what the best way forward is. We're working with our Iraqi partners and they're investigating these. And I think we want to let them do their work before we jump to conclusions here about what to do next, what's the next approach.
If -- well, I won't go there. That's fine.
Q: The Extremism working group has a number of short-term like fast action items to work on?
MR. KIRBY: We do.
Q: Are there details about the deadlines for those yet?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have the specific details for deadlines on those. As you saw in the memo, some of those were immediate actions that they're moving out on now. And so it's not as if there is a deadline to complete – they’re moving out on them now. But then the working group will take -- as you saw in the memo, take a longer view of say, like, data collection, and how to better do a job of data collection. And there, that's a longer-term project. I'm not aware that there is a specific deadline on the calendar for when they have to come back for that.
Q: Sure. But in terms of the -- coming up with the definition or the study that they're supposed to get off the ground, are there milestones there that they're supposed to hit?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have any milestones to report today. I'm happy to go back to the working group and see if they've developed something in the interim. But I'm not aware of any right now.
Q: I wanted to go back to Ukraine. Did you say that this military buildup is the largest ever in Ukraine, so I wanted to know if you are more concerned than last week about this buildup or if you still think it's linked to military exercises?
MR. KIRBY: It is the largest buildup we've seen since -- certainly since 2014, which resulted in the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. And, again, I'm not going to -- I'm not prepared to qualify for you how much bigger it is. It is certainly bigger than that -- than that one in 2014.
And, again, as for -- you know, we certainly heard the Russians proclaim that this is all about training. It's not completely clear to us that's exactly the purpose. So we are -- we remain seriously concerned about this build up, and we call on Russia to be more transparent about their intentions.
And in addition to that, to cease the provocations we -- there was a couple of Ukrainian soldiers killed just a couple of weeks ago -- to abide by their Minsk agreement requirement and to take actions that decreased, not escalate the tensions on that border and in Crimea.
Q: And also today, Poland announced that American expecting an American F-15 and F-16 fighters have arrived in the country. I wanted to know if it's linked to the military buildup or if it’s there with no relationship at all?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, this is an exercise that they call an agile combat employment exercise. It's basically both an active and a reactive operational scheme of maneuver executed within tight timelines to try to test and improve our survivability while generating combat power from the air.
So it's a routine exercise. Been in the works for quite some time. It is not a specific reaction to what's going on -- on the border with Ukraine or in Crimea. This is -- this is fairly routine. We do this all the time. As you know, we have had a rotational presence in Poland, which we greatly appreciate and welcome, and this is all part of that rotational element of training and readiness on the European continent.
Let's see. Idrees from Reuters.
Q: Hey, John. Thanks for doing this. I if could just go back to the Russia bounty story from last week, the report -- just to make sure that I understand it correctly, last week from the White House podium Jen Psaki said the intel community had concluded that here was only low to moderate confidence in the reports about the bounties.
On Friday, you said, you know, you won't speak to intel from the podium, and there is, and to air quote it, "enough uncertainty about it that we believe we need to know more," end quote.
So two questions, firstly is it that the White House can talk about intel from the podium but the Pentagon can't or does it depend on the circumstances? And secondly, does the department and the secretary believe that the intel community -- the conclusions have come to on the Russian bounties are wrong and further investigation is needed? If you could just sort of clarify those two.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Look, I wasn't trying to separate the Pentagon from the White House on this. We certainly agree with the way my colleague at the White House couched this and the way the intelligence community has spoken to it at a low to moderate degree of confidence.
So I wasn't trying to walk away from that at all, but low to moderate doesn't mean nonexistent, either. And so, as I said the other day we believe it's a serious enough issue that we would like more clarity from the Russians on this.
OK. Mike, go ahead.
Q: Not about Russia. It's been about six months since the COVID rollout -- or the COVID vaccine rollout here in DOD. I wanted to get your -- get your take on how you think it's been so far and how you see it going forward?
MR. KIRBY: What rollout?
Q: The vaccine rollout within DOD.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Well I mean, look, I think I kind of -- I sort of teased to that a little bit, Mike, in my opening. We know we've got a lot more work to do here, so I think I said 28 percent of the forces now vaccinated. That means there's an awful lot that isn't fully vaccinated right now, but we're not keeping vaccines on the shelf. I said 83 percent of what we have in stock is being administered, so it's not waiting too long before we're getting it into arms, and we're moving pretty healthfully through the tiers.
And as I also announced at the top, now we believe we're far enough along that now we can open up eligibility to everybody, including beneficiaries, retirees, and adult dependents as well. We've -- so like just in raw numbers, more than three millions doses have been delivering to DOD. We've administered 2.5 million plus. So that -- you know, 1.5 million have their initial dose, another 1 million have their second dose. And of the single-dose vaccines, something like 66,000 have had that.
So we believe we're making progress here. There's a lot more work to do, and as I also said at the opening we're making efforts to get more Moderna vaccines overseas to help out our overseas populations as well, but it's not just vaccinating the force. It's helping vaccinate the American people, and we still have more than 30 teams out there.
This doesn't even count the more than I think 20,000 National Guardsmen and women who have been -- already have been doing this in support of their states and local communities, but we have more than 30 teams that are out there assisting with the -- in the FEMA federalized mission around the country.
So I mean, we're not just leaning in to try to help our people. We're leaning in to try to help the American people.
Q: Got it. Follow up. On this refusal issue, is there any way why DOD couldn't do something to incentivize it like some companies are doing? Maybe a three-day pass or whatever? Is there -- try...
MR. KIRBY: Yes, so, you've seen reports that some local commanders are putting in place some local sort of incentives. We at DOD don't believe that that's our mandate to do that, and we know we have to be careful because it is -- it is still under an emergency use authorization. Therefore, it's still voluntary. And what we want is to provide enough information and education so people can make the right decisions and can talk to their doctors and their families about what's right for them because it may not be right for everybody given whatever preexisting conditions they might have.
So at our -- at the DOD level, I think you're going to see us continue to be very careful about not implementing or instituting incentives, artificial incentives to try to do this. Again, the secretary believes that the best incentive is to make the best decision for you and your family and to think about your teammates. And if -- and if the vaccine makes sense from -- for you from a medical perspective, that should be incentive enough to get it so that you're helping out your teammates and your family and your friends. Does that help? Barb.
Q: I know you said you didn't have a lot about the National Guard requests, but I do want to come back to that. They made the -- according to the mayor and the D.C. top DOD officials earlier today that made the request a couple weeks ago, it has been pending at the Pentagon. It's been under consideration, and they wanted to have a National Guard capability in place as soon as today knowing the verdict in the Chauvin trial could come at any time.
So I don't understand why this is still pending and still being discussed. Would the secretary, given what happened last time, not being extremely concerned about having the proper public safety measures in -- in place?
MR. KIRBY: Of course he would, Barb. I can't speak to the specific process by which this request was handled inside the Pentagon. I would refer you to Army to speak to more detail about when it came in and how it's been worked.
I can tell you that Army leadership are looking at this as you -- as I think you know, the Army secretary has the authority to approve D.C. National Guard employment and that still remains his authority. So again, I -- specifics on process, I -- I'd have to point you to Army on that.
Q: And let me also ask just to follow up what Idrees asked, just to completely be absolutely clearly, you have not closed the door today to the notion that some type of payment was made in furtherance of an effort to kill American forces in Afghanistan. You just haven't closed the door that some kind of bounty was paid.
MR. KIRBY: It's not -- it's not The Pentagon not closing the door, Barb. The intelligence community's assessment as has been stated more than once is a low to moderate level of confidence.
And that's why on Friday I said, given that there's at least some measure of confidence, perhaps not high, but some, it's serious enough for us to be concerned about and to want more answers.
Q: And when you say and the -- if the Biden administration is keeping the door open to the notion that there were bounties paid by someone who was Russian, do you believe that you're looking for official Russian support for this effort? Do you believe it was just people in Afgh-- do you know anything about what it is you're looking for?
MR. KIRBY: As I said we'd like -- we'd like to know more. We -- we believe Russia should hold themselves to account for this.
Q: Do you know it can be, given it was military personnel potentially victimized by this, has there been any reach out recently to the Russian military to ask them to explain what happened.
MR. KIRBY: Well, first of all, as I said Friday; I know -- I can't -- I know of no specific linkage to casualties, to American service members in Afghanistan, to this idea. I know of no linkage there. And I want to be clear about that. And I'm also aware of no specific outreach to the Russian military with respect to this.
Q: And what's the door open to here?
MR. KIRBY: As I said, the -- it's a -- the low to moderate serious enough that -- that we're concerned about this. And we -- we believe that the Russians need to be more forth coming and to be transparent about the -- the veracity of this.
Q: Thanks. I want to follow up on my colleague, Mike's, question about vaccination in the -- in the DOD. There was a letter from California congress member -- Congress, you might recall, to the president asking to make it obligatory for service members to have the vaccine. Is that something that Secretary Austin favors?
And the also, does Secretary Austin still -- is he still not interested in asking service secretaries for rates of declination or for service secretaries who collect that data.
And also, you used to release data for infection rates, and then compare it to the general population. Do you have that?
And then also, finally, as you open up to the full military service members who could schedule their vaccines, there's always that top tier. That top tier and those people in strategic areas before deploying and you're going back two times, three times, four times and asking them.
Is anything further -- more effective in getting that top tier to accept has been -- is there new strategies that are working?
MR. KIRBY: Thanks. Is there more questions? You think you’re good with those five or six?
Q: Yes, I want to cover all the bases with this.
MR. KIRBY: You covered a lot of them. All right, so I'm going to -- I'm probably going to miss some them. I should have been writing this down and I apologize for that. I'm sure you do. As of today, the total cumulative cases -- COVID cases that we've experienced is 278,686.
That's cumulative. That's not who has it now. And deaths in the Department are 338. And again, our thoughts and prayers to out to all the families that are grieving those losses.
And this -- those numbers include active duty military as well as reserves. It includes civilians, dependents, and contractors. It's the universe. That -- and those are cumulative numbers.
The vaccine is still under emergency use authorization. The secretary respects that and it remains a voluntary vaccine. What else did you ask? We're doing -- as for -- as for education and information, we continue to look at ways that we can do a better job at providing information about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and what we're doing to get it to more places.
We've tried here for our part to put regular COVID briefings back on the schedule. There'll be another one this week that we're going to do here in the briefing room. And the services have all done a terrific job using their own communication vehicles to help get the word out about the vaccine and how it's being distributed.
Their combatant commanders are doing this as well, trying the best they can to make sure they're informing their population. So it's a -- it's a constant effort. We're always looking at what we're doing to inform and educated and asking ourselves are we doing enough and is there more context we can provide and can we do that in a more efficient way.
So I can -- I certainly speak for our organization here and it's something I talk to my staff about every day. What are we doing right, what are we -- what can we do and more to get more information out there in a timely fashion.
Q: Can you just -- as a follow-up, can you clarify why is it that the secretary is not interested in rates of declination?
MR. KIRBY: I didn't say the secretary is not interested in declination. I never said that. What I said was, and I've said it quite a bit, is that we're not tracking it right now at the OSD level, at the DOD level.
The services are beginning to get a better sense now. But you've got to remember, Abraham, the reason why they're able to get a better sense is because now we've moved it out of Tier 1 and Tier 1B -- Tier 1A and 1B and the services are now moving into 1C and Tier 2, which is basically everybody.
So now there's just a larger percentage of people vaccinated or who have been offered to vaccine in the force. So it's -- so it's easier to get a better sense. But that number, you call it declinations rate, I've heard some people say refusal rate, whatever you want to call it, it's really only as valid as the population offered is.
I mean so if -- you know you can say of the -- of the tier that we've worked through, say Tier 1A, what you know in your service, how many are in that, you know what the denominator is and so you can do a better job with the numerator, because it's done, it's complete.
But you can't take that rate, that acceptance rate, and say it applies to the whole force when not the whole force has been offered it. Now we're in a new category now. We're opening it up to everybody. And so, I think in a few weeks we'll have a much better sense of what you call acceptance and refusal rates across the force, but you got to remember, I mean, it's - we've been working through this in tiers. And so, the data's only as good as you work through those tiers and complete them. That's - and that's why it's really been more up to the services to try to track that than it would be for us, but I wouldn't say the secretary is not interested in it. He's done a public service announcement on this. He's talked to troops about this when we go overseas. He's obviously made it a priority in empowering the COVID task force and in staff meetings. I mean, he's certainly interested in it.
More than that, though, he's interested I making sure that everybody has the information they need to make the best decision for them. That's what he really wants to do, and that's why your other question is frankly more valid, and that's what are we doing to try to provide that information. And as I said, we're looking at our own processes every day. Believe me, I know, we could be doing more and doing it better, and we're working on that.
Q: Which is fine. I'm so sorry, but the word complete. When you say when we complete them, tier 1A, 1B, what do you mean by the word complete?
MR. KIRBY: I mean that you get - you vaccinated enough in those tiers that it's safe enough to use your vaccines now to move into lower tiers. That enough people are vaccinated in that tier. You're not going to get everybody, right, but you want to get enough that it's comfortable, and this is where it comes down to service chiefs and commanders about where they're comfortable moving to the next tier, OK?
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Let me take some more from the phone. Jeff Seldin.
Q: Thank you for doing this. I wanted to get back to Afghanistan. Wondering is the Pentagon working with the current Afghan government to set up whatever agreement should be necessary so should a counterterrorism force need to go back into Afghanistan after the pullout is complete, that they're able to that? And how is that complicated by the negotiation going on between the Afghan government and the Taliban? Is there any such agreement that you put in place right now, is that going to have to be revised or redone if there's a power sharing agreement? How's that going to work?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to - yes, I'm not - I can't speculate about this, the future of the negotiation settlements and the negotiations that are going on, I mean, that's really for our colleagues at the State Department to speak to.
The president was clear. We are removing all U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan and we will remove them by the - you know, early September. All of them with the exception of what's going to be required to protect the diplomatic mission in Afghanistan.
So I know of no discussions with government in Kabul about reinserting counterterrorism forces inside Afghanistan. As the secretary made clear in Brussels last week, we will maintain a sufficient counterterrorism capabilities in the region to deal with emanating threats from Afghanistan, threats to our homeland from terrorist groups, but the president's direction was crystal clear. All U.S. military personnel with that exception are going to be leaving Afghanistan by the fall - by early fall.
Q: So under the plan, would U.S. counterterrorism forces if may be just go into Afghanistan without the Afghan government's permission if the president is concerned it's necessary?
MR. KIRBY: There's no plans to reintroduce American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. We have, as the secretary said, we have robust counterterrorism capabilities all around the world, and I think as he also - you heard him say in Brussels there's not a part of the Earth that we can't hit if we need to hit it, but there are no plans and no discussions about reintroducing American combat forces on the ground in Afghanistan.
OK. We'll go here. Yes.
Q: Thank you, sir. Two quick questions on U.S. AFRICOM as it relates to the headquarters of Stuttgart, Germany. Last year, Trump planned to relocate AFRICOM's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and last week the secretary said there's going to be an additional 500 troops in Germany. So does this plan relate to relocate AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart still on the table? And the second question is why is AFRICOM even based in Europe in the first place? Wouldn't it make more sense to be based in somewhere like the Horn of Africa or somewhere near Camp Lemonier in Djibouti because it's a strategic area? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: There was a long discussion years ago of when AFRICOM was established about where it was going to be based, and it was decided to base it in Europe. I'm not going to re-litigate that decision today.
You're right, the secretary did announce while we were in Berlin an additional 500 soldiers that will be going to the Wiesbaden area to help us with coordination, cyber issues, and other regional security requirements.
There is, as you know, a global posture review going on right now that the secretary has commissioned. We expect it will be complete by mid summer. I'm not going to get ahead of decisions about what that's going to come back and look like, but the idea is to take a look at where we have our resources. Are they the - are they the right ones in the right places? And do we need to adjust given the threats and challenges of the security environment that we face? And I just won't get ahead of that right now.
Let's see. Paul Shinkman, U.S. News?
Q: Hey, John. I'd like to ask you about the Afghanistan withdrawal. So there's been a lot of reporting in recent days about top military leaders having disagreed with President Biden's ultimate decision to order the withdrawal. I know that the secretary said that he expects his commanders to obey orders, but I wondered does he have any concerns that it appears publicly at least that military’s top leaders are diverging from the president on how to proceed in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: The secretary's concern right now is in making sure that we execute on the president's direction, which is for a safe, orderly, and effective drawdown by September 11. That's what his focus is on, and I think that's what it's going to remain on.
Q: And then one quick question about the Black Sea. I saw that you spoke on Friday about not commenting on the reports of the few Navy ships that were deployed there. Can you say today can - could the Navy conduct FONOPS in the Black Sea if it wanted to?
MR. KIRBY: We will continue to sail, operate where international law permits. We routinely operate in the Black Sea, and as I said on Friday, I would expect those operations to continue as appropriate.
Yes, in the back there, ma’am.
Q: Kristina Anderson, A.W.P.S. News. So I wanted to ask given the - given the climate summit this week at the White House, is there anything going on with the working group here - the climate change working group here that we can talk about or any news...
MR. KIRBY: I don't have an update for you from the working group today. I mean, the secretary's very much looking forward to the climate summit. He'll be participating, and he believes strongly that climate change is a national security threat. That's one of the reasons why he stood up the working group, and that working group is engaged in the planning for the summit as it relates to our equities there and the secretary's participation. But I don't have anything specific to announce.
Q: On Space Force, there's been some reporting that the billets are going unfilled and is there anything there that you can tell us?
MR. KIRBY: I'd have to refer you to the Space Force to speak to their recruiting and retention issues?
Q: This - they're so central to so much of industry and everything we do.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I don't disagree, but I'm not prepared to speak to individual services and their recruiting and retention programs. I'd refer you to Space Force to speak to that.
Q: One last thing. Is there anything General Wolters last week spoke about Wagner Group being active in some of these combat areas. Is there any idea that they might be involved in Ukraine and -- or along the border there or anything?
MR. KIRBY: I'm afraid I don't have anything for you on that today. I'd refer you to General Wolters and his staff to speak to that.
Lara Seligman, Politico?
Q: Hey, John. I wanted to ask you, actually just a follow-up on question that was asked earlier specifically on moving Africa Command out of Germany. You didn't really answer the question. Is that something that is still on the table?
MR. KIRBY: AFRICOM is...
Q: And then...
MR. KIRBY: AFRICOM and the headquarters there are doing great work. The secretary had a chance to get a brief while he was there. And he is very confident that they're leading, that they are working on the alliance, our partnerships in Africa. He is very comfortable that headquarters staff knows what it's doing and knows that its mission is really important. And I certainly have nothing to speak to that would change that perspective.
Q: So the headquarters of Africa Command will stay?
MR. KIRBY: No changes...
MR. KIRBY: I know of no plans to change the headquarters location, Lara. But, again, there is a global force posture review going on and I'm not going to get ahead of that process.
Q: And then just a quick clarification. I wanted to make sure I understood what you said earlier. Did you say that the Russian buildup today on Ukraine's border is bigger than the buildup we saw in 2014?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I did say that.
Q: OK, thank you.
MR. KIRBY: You're welcome.
Q: Thank you, John. So on Syria, Russian media is reporting that there has been a major airstrike by Russian air forces on militants' base in central Syria that killed over 200 militants. Did you monitor any such strike or do you have any information on that?
MR. KIRBY : I don't. I don't.
Q: Can you guys take the question if you...
MR. KIRBY: I'm happy to take the question, Fadhi, but I would not expect us to be able to give you a detailed answer...
MR. KIRBY: ... about what we monitor, you know, overseas in real time. That's not the kind of thing that we're going to talk about.
Q: OK. Then there has been at least one news report about a new mechanism that has been agreed between Russia and Iran, by which Russian military ships, warships will escort Iranian tankers moving wheat and oil from Iran to Syria to prevent any attacks on Iranian tankers. Did you detect any such mechanism? Do you have anything on this?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything to add on that report, but I think that is a great question for somebody to ask officials in Moscow and in Tehran.
Q: We will. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Good, yes.
Q: (inaudible) from Japanese Nippon Television. At the Japan-U.S. summit meeting last weekend, the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait was clarified in a joint statement for the first time in 52 years. And also it was agreed to strengthen the defense cooperation between two countries.
So my question is, in what specific areas (inaudible) do Japan and the United States need to develop defense cooperation in order to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait? And do you think it is necessary to formulate a joint operation plans in preparation for Taiwan confrontation and to provide kind of a joint exercise and decisions on this case?
MR. KIRBY: Well, look, without speaking specifically to Taiwan, as I've said, we support the one China policy and nobody wants to see things come to blows over Taiwan. We remain committed, as we have for multiple administrations, to aiding Taiwan in its self-defense, to providing materiel for their -- for them to defend themselves. So I'm not going to get into speculation about that.
The secretary was proud and privileged to be able to participate in the meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Suga. As you know, his very first overseas trip was to that region and his very first stop outside the continental -- outside the United States was to Tokyo to meet with his counterparts. And it was a terrific couple of days we had there, which gave him a chance to learn more about the region from the Japanese perspective, and to also reaffirm our commitment to our treaty obligations and to our assistance in the defense of Japan.
There are a lot of things that they talked about. And you can go back and I won't restate it, but you can go back and look at the press conference they did. You know, Secretary Blinken was there. But there's obviously a lot of things that we can continue to work on bilaterally with Japanese Self-Defense Forces to improve our collective capabilities in that region given the scope of the threats across the region, you know, and to include the threats emanating from North Korea.
So there is a lot of work to do. The secretary was delighted to be able to start in Tokyo and to have those discussions. And we look forward to continue a close relationship going forward.
Q: Quick follow up is, how do you evaluate the importance of the joint -- new joint statement between the two leaders?
MR. KIRBY: I think it was significant. I mean, any time you get two leaders like President Biden and Prime Minister Suga together like that to talk about these strategic issues and then to issue a joint statement, obviously that's significant. And, as I said, the secretary was proud and privileged to be a part of that meeting on Friday.
Q: Hello, can you hear me?
MR. KIRBY: I got you.
Q: Yes, I have short questions. One is about the media reports saying that, you know, we know that there's a moderate increase in the Pentagon budget for this coming year. I think it's 715 billion or something. Will this impact Pentagon's commitments towards its alliances in the Indo-Pacific area?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of the actual specifics in the budget, Tajinder, we're still working through that process. I think you know that.
I would say and I would point you back to what the secretary said when he was testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation that he believes that the PRC is the pacing challenge for this department. He believes we do need to make sure we're ready for great power competition and for the threats and challenges that many nation states pose to our national security. And a lot of that exists. A lot of those threats and challenges exist in the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility, which is, again, why that was the first geographic area outside the country that he visited after becoming the secretary of defense.
So, again, I won't get into details of the program. You will see that develop in the appropriate time. But I do think you're going to continue to see Secretary Austin focused keenly on the Indo-Pacific area. OK.
Q: And my second question is about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the peace process in Afghanistan. Everyone talks about Afghanistan, Taliban. But if you remember in February, the Financial Action Task Force, (inaudible) kept Pakistan on its gray list and it had the president in his press conference, answering my question, had said that most of the items that Pakistan is yet to address is about terrorism financing and all.
So we all know that without Pakistan stopping its support for terrorism, there cannot be peace in Afghanistan. So what -- what -- what are the steps the U.S. is taking to stop Pakistan from supporting terrorism activities in then around the region?
MR. KIRBY: We continue to have a dialogue with Pakistan about -- about terrorist issues along that border with Afghanistan. I think it's helpful to remind that they too have suffered from terrorist attacks inside their country.
And as I said, the president was clear. We are removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan and will maintain the sufficient counter terrorism capabilities we need to prevent -- detect and prevent threats to our homeland that could emanate from Afghanistan.
Let's see, Tom Squiteri, Top Media.
Q: Hey, John. Thanks. Good afternoon. I wanted to touch a few bases that Abraham didn't touch. First -- first is the Philippines and United States, they're involved with their annual military exercise right now. It's still a bit larger than last year when it was restricted from COVID-19.
I’m wondering with the tension with China being so close with this quote-unquote, fishing ships near the Philippines, what the tenor of the exercise is this year?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have the specific details about that exercise, Tom. I mean we can get back to you with a better answer. But as you pointed out, these are routine exercises that we continue to conduct and are glad to do it with our Philippine allies. But I don't have any specifics about what the scenario is and how that scenario may or may not apply to recent activities.
Again, most of these exercises are designed to improve our training and readiness and to improve alliance readiness and capability and they're not timed or necessarily planned to address a specific issue or a specific nation or a specific threat by a specific nation. We'll -- I just don't have more detail on it, Tom. So let me take that question and we can get you --
Q: OK. My second -- my second question is what's the level of unease in the Pentagon upon hearing the news that Beijing is considering a peace keeping force to Afghanistan if the U.S. troops pull out basically because of its border with Afghanistan.
MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry. I lost you. Say that again.
Q: Beijing is considering a peace keeping force to Afghanistan once the U.S. pulls out; to send into the neighboring province it has with Afghanistan across that 44 mile border. What's the level of unease in the Pentagon thinking as the Chinese could be sending in a peace keeping force?
MR. KIRBY: Well, we certainly wouldn't speak for another nation and obviously we would call on all of Afghan's -- Afghanistan's neighbors to respect its sovereignty and to respect its territory integrity as well.
And that if there -- if there's a legitimate terrorism threat that's emanating from Afghanistan to work in accordance with international law and with the Afghan government to address that, but we want Afghan -- Afghanistan's sovereignty to be respected.
MR. KIRBY: OK. I think that's about it for today.
Q: Is the Senate tomorrow on Afghanistan --
MR. KIRBY: I have nothing on the Secretary's schedule to speak to today.
Q: What about the chairman?
MR. KIRBY: I can't speak for the chairman. I only speak for the secretary of defense but I can't speak for anything for the secretary's schedule today.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: I -- let me put it another way. I don't have anything --
MR. KIRBY: -- now to speak to about the secretary's schedule tomorrow.
Q: At the time.
MR. KIRBY: I got a little tongue tied on that. All right.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks. Thanks guys.
Q: Thank you.