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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Press Conference at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, it has been a terrific day and I want to thank Senator Sullivan for accompanying me today. I know how committed he is to our national security and to keeping our capabilities sharp here in Alaska. I think the only thing that he cares about more than those capabilities are the men and women serving here and their families. And we had a chance to speak with some of them today, thanking them for their service and for what they do every day to help defend this nation. It is impressive. They are impressive. 

Now I also come away from this visit with a few takeaways. First is a keen reminder of just how strategically important Alaska is to our national security and to homeland defense. We are an Indo-Pacific nation and we are an Arctic nation. And here in Alaska those two critical regions intersect. This is where we can project power into both regions and where we must be able to defend ourselves from threats coming from both places. It's also where we can better posture ourselves and prepare
for climate changes that will impact our future. 

And when we talk about strategic competition, well, the Arctic is one of those places that is ripe for it. As the permafrost melts, the Arctic will increasingly become a theater for resource competition and even instability. And we need to stay ahead of that. I was impressed by the Army's Arctic Strategy and the thinking that they are applying to operational concepts here. I also came away with a better understanding of the capabilities that we deploy and permanently base here, and you can see many of those capabilities as you look around here. 

From fifth generation strike aircraft to integrated air and missile defense and the exceptional training ranges to include the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, there's a diverse set of options that we can employ and I intend to make sure that we keep them as lethal and as ready as we can. And that's really the last impression that I took away from my time here, the need for continued readiness and modernization.

I was impressed by the training that goes on, from missile defense exercises to the Red Flag Exercise to the cold weather and mountain warfare training that the Army conducts at the Northern Warfare Training Center. It goes without saying that this is a harsh environment, but as I said, it's a critically important region. And we must continue to hone the skills our soldiers and airmen learn in Alaska's unique training environment. 

We must also invest appropriately in the infrastructure needed to keep them ready and to keep them vigilant. And I'm committed to doing that and to working with the services to make sure that we adapt and modernize our training and the tools that we give our troops up here. 

And that's really the last thing that I would like to address, our people. I'm mindful of the stress that they're often under and I'm deeply concerned about the suicide rates not only here but across the force. As you've heard me say before one loss by suicide is too many and while we're working hard on this problem, we have a lot more to do. And I believe that has -- it has to start with removing the stigma attached to mental health issues. 

Mental health is health period. And we have to approach it with the same energy that we apply to other -- any other health issue, with compassion and professionalism and resources. And so if you're hurting, there are resources available. And I know that our leaders here are committed to making those resources even more accessible and available. 

My first priority is to defend this nation. And I've seen a lot of things today that help us accomplish that goal. But key to achieving it is taking care of our people, taking care of each other. And that was one of my messages to the men and women that I spoke with today. We need to look out for one another. And as I promise, I would be looking out after them in every way possible. 

And so with that, I'll take some of your questions. 


Q: Secretary, if I could ask two questions on Afghanistan. First, there is a report of a strategy of the Afghan forces (inaudible) consolidating around strategically important parts of the country and locations. Do you think that's going to help stop the gains made -- being made by the Taliban? And secondly, could you provide us with an update on any further locations you've picked for SIV (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: So you've -- you've correctly described what the Afghan leadership is doing right now. They are consolidating their -- their forces around the key population centers. In terms of whether or not it will stop the Taliban, I think the first thing to do is to make sure that they can slow the momentum and then -- and then be able to put themselves in a position where they can retake some of the gains that the Taliban -- some of the ground that they've lost. 

So I think -- I think, from my engagements with the Afghan leadership, they are committed to that. And so, we look forward to them making progress. They have the capabilities, they have the capacity to -- to make progress and to really begin to blunt some of the Taliban's advances. But we'll see what happens. 

Q: This idea of Afghans making any progress (inaudible)?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, we continue to work on the SIV issues. You've also heard me say that I believe it's one of our moral obligations to help the people who have helped us. DOD is fully in support of the -- of the State Department's effort to address this issue. And, of course, our focus has been on identifying places where we can -- we can house SIV applicants as they go through the process. 

Our immediate focus is on making sure that we've set up all the things that are necessary to support the (inaudible) that are coming to -- very soon to Fort Lee, Virginia. We're well on the way to having all the pieces in place to support that. And I truly believe that that will be a very successful and smooth operation.

MR. KIRBY: Sure, go ahead. 

Q: So (inaudible) Alaska, I guess with (inaudible) taking over the Department of Defense, what is your vision for Alaska and what role does Alaska play in your vision for the northern (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, oh thanks, I think you heard me say in my statement that this is a very critical place on the -- on the globe. It is the intersection of the areas of responsibility of a couple of combatant commands, you know, the Indo-Pacific Command, which is really important to us, as well as Northern Command. It truly is a place where we think that as we continue to -- to develop our capabilities here, it will certainly help us in our efforts to -- to create capacity and capability that allows us to do what we set out to do in increasing the competitive edge with adversaries like -- like China and Russia. 

Q: Would that potentially include more soldiers and and airmen being transferred and stationed in Alaska? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you've seen us increase our capability up here recently with the arrival of additional F-35s. And we're in the process of building out the capabilities to support that effort. And, of course, we've already announced that and I don't have any further announcements to make today. I will just point to the fact that I'm really proud of the people that are up here working hard every day to create a world-class training environment and a world-class capability, again, that gives us additional capabilities to protect this nation and also to -- to increase our competitive edge against some of our adversaries

MR. KIRBY: (inaudible)

Q: (inaudible) two questions, first one about Iraq, ongoing discussions the role of U.S. forces in Iraq. So are there American combat troops in Iraq currently? And how will the troops' roles be changing? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, as you know, Prime Minister Kadhimi is in Washington as we speak. He will meet with the president on Monday. I won't get ahead of any discussions that he and the president will have. I would just remind you that we are there at the invitation of the Iraqis. And that -- and we're there for a specific (inaudible) and that is to help train, advise, and equip them to -- to do things such as countering ISIS, which has been a threat throughout and we certainly don't want to see ISIS redevelop additional capability. 

You've heard Prime Minister Kadhimi say that he is very grateful for the -- for the support that we've given them in the past. And he certainly looks to benefit from that -- that support going forward. 

Q: And then to follow up, do we (inaudible) the troops in Iraq right now? Does the U.S. military call the troops "combat troops" currently? 

And then on Somalia, we've noticed that there was a six-month gap in strikes in Somalia. There were dozens under the Trump administration each year and then they stopped. When President Biden became commander-in-chief and you became Secretary of Defense. Does this new strike -- new strikes that just started now, do they mean that we will continue to see strikes against al-Shabaab? And what was the reason for that six month gap? 

SEC. AUSTIN: So I've lost count, is that two questions or three questions? 

Q: Very long (inaudible) combination. 

SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of the types of troops that we have in -- in Iraq, you know, all of our troops are capable of doing multiple things. And certainly, you know, we -- we task our combat troops, our troops that are capable of conducting combat operations with training, advising, and assisting. And so -- so we're capable of doing a number of things and -- and it has been that way throughout. You've seen us do that across -- around the globe. And so I think trying to make that distinction is very difficult. But I would say that the key is -- will be, you know, what we're purposed -- what we're tasked to do at any one point in time. 

In terms of the strikes in Somalia, General Townsend has always had the authority to employ force to protect our forces and also to protect our partner forces. As you may know, we've been working with -- with partner forces in Somalia to counter the activities of al-Shabaab, which is an al Qaeda affiliate. And most recently what has happened is our partner forces have increased their op tempo and they have been pushing back on -- on al-Shabaab in a more significant way. And the result of that is some engagements that were fairly intense. And we conducted those strikes to support our partner forces there. 


MR. KIRBY: Jim? 

Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary. One of the things that you really emphasized since taking office is the outreach to friends and allies, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but around the world. There isn't a day it seems that goes by without you, because of COVID, reaching out on the phone. And you've had three or four trips to these areas. I'm just wondering why -- why should the average American care about this aspect of security policy, that -- that outreach to friends and allies? And -- and what does that outreach to these friends and allies mean to potential adversaries? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, as -- as you know, Jim, we have -- everything that we have done in the past has been a part of -- as a part of a team, a coalition. It's who we are. It's how we fight. It increases our capability and capacity in -- in ways that are very difficult to describe, but it magnifies our capabilities. And it's something that we're very, very proud of. And, you know, we -- we look to continue to develop our relationships with like-minded partners and allies, those that share our values, those that look to do things like ensure that we have -- that we follow in an international rules-based order which -- which I think is very, very important to us. 

And so it is our strength. And I would point to the fact that others don't have those kinds of -- don't enjoy those kinds of partnerships and alliances. And if you look at a China or Russia, they don't have the the ability to get to align themselves with -- with like-minded partners to the degree that the United States does. It magnifies our capability in ways that are really difficult to describe because they are so significant. 


MR. KIRBY: (inaudible)


Q: But does it encourage you that you're looking right over there and it's an Australian F-35 and it's an American (inaudible) and they're obviously (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: It's absolutely encouraging. It's the way that we operate. We train with each other. We share common practices and policies. And it's how we're going to fight going forward. And, again, it really increases our capability by orders of magnitude. 

MR. KIRBY: Last question. Elana? 

Q: Yes, sir. With the numbers rising of COVID variants, how concerned are you about it impacting troops? (inaudible) some of the biggest (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: I'm sorry, I -- because of the background noise I didn't...

Q: Yes, I'm sorry. (inaudible). With recent rise in numbers of the Delta variant, how concerned are you about impacting the troops (inaudible)? More recently (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Like the rest of our leadership, like the rest of the world, I remain very concerned about the most recent variant. It is highly transmissible and I would point to the fact, though, that we have worked hard to continue to vaccinate our force. We have at least 70 percent of the force that has gotten at least, you know, one dose of the vaccine. We're going to continue to push -- push hard to ensure that we're making the vaccine available to the force. And we're going to encourage people, our troops, to take the vaccine. It's a very important force protection measure, so.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks very much...


Q: I just wanted to follow up with that with the Delta variant (inaudible) requirement (inaudible)? 

SEC. AUSTIN: It -- right now, it remains voluntary. Our focus is going to continue to be on making sure that our troops have the right information, factual information, that they can talk to their doctors, they have the ability to talk to their families about this vaccine. You know, if you just look at what the vaccine has done across -- across the globe, it's incredibly powerful. And so we think -- you know, I think the right thing to do is to make sure that we continue to encourage our troops to take it. 

Thanks so much everybody. 

Q: Thank you, sir.