PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: So a few things off the top. Bear with me. OK, I think you've seen by now the Secretary's memo to the -- message to the force about COVID vaccines. That -- that's public now, so I'm not going to re-read it for you. I think you all can get the gist of it.
I would just point out that there's sort of three elements here to it. One is that -- that he will -- it -- request approval from the President for a waiver to make the COVID vaccines mandatory by mid-September -- he'll make the request for the waiver by mid-September.
I've seen some reporting out there that that means that all of the troops have to be vaccinated by mid-September. That's not accurate. He'll make the request by mid-September, unless or until FDA licensure occurs before that time, at which point the Secretary has the authority he needs, upon FDA licensure, to issue -- to make whatever vaccine is then given that license mandatory. I just want to clear that up. That's point number one.
Point number two, in the meantime, two things are going to happen. One, the services are going to be tasked to come back to the Secretary with implementation plans for how they're going to get this moving. And there is not probably a lot of time between now -- certainly not a lot of time between now and mid-September, but if FDA licensure comes sooner than that, and there's press reporting to suggest that the Pfizer vaccine will be perhaps even completely approved by the end of this month -- so the services have a -- a -- a fair but limited amount of time to come back to the Secretary with their implementation plans for how they would go about mandatory vaccines for all their personnel. We have -- understand, of course, that they have their own deployment schedules, their own manning constructs, their own differences in -- in unvaccinated numbers, and so we're going to be respectful of that.
The second thing that will happen in the meantime is that we are going to be developing policies to comply with the President's direction that the unvaccinated will have to be subjected to certain requirements and restrictions. I don't have the details for all of that today. We're working hard on what will be a policy directive to come in the coming days, that will make it clear what those requirements and restrictions are and how they apply to everybody in the DOD workforce, including uniformed personnel.
And then the last thing that I'd say about this memo is -- and I hope you caught the -- the -- the -- towards the end of it, where the Secretary says we're going to watch the trends closely. We're seeing an uptick in cases, uptick in hospitalizations across the force, as we are in the country, and the Delta variant is a factor in that. So we're going to watch it closely.
And the -- as the Secretary told the force today, if he needs to move -- act sooner than this timeline, then he'll do that. So we're going to watch the trends and -- and make sure that we're keeping readiness of the force at the forefront. So that's the memo.
A couple of other things that I want to hit, if I can get this to work. As you may have seen, the Senate confirmed Carlos Del Toro, a former surface warfare officer, as the 78th Secretary of the Navy. As the Secretary noted in his statement, Mr. Del Toro was a student of the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval Post-Graduate School, Naval War College. He rose through the ranks to serve as the First Commanding Officer of -- of the destroyer Bulkeley DDG-84, and then he later worked at senior levels here at the Pentagon. The Secretary is delighted to have him on board.
He should be sworn in here very, very shortly and that will round out our service secretaries. Each of the military departments now have a Senate-confirmed, fully installed service secretary, and the Secretary's grateful for Mr. Del Toro's willingness to serve his country again here in the Department of the Navy.
I also want to recognize Chris Maier for his Senate confirmation over the weekend to be our next Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Now, as many of you know, the Secretary signed a directive in May that maintaining that position -- Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operation and Low-Intensity Conflict, otherwise known as SO/LIC -- and that's how I'll talk about it for the rest of this -- as a principle -- to sign a directive maintaining that job as a principal staff assistant who has full access to the same four that the service secretaries will have.
He also made SO/LIC an integral part of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. This special, dual-hatted approach strengthens civilian oversight of the Special Operations Enterprise while ensuring integrated policy advice on special operations, counter-terrorism and irregular warfare to the Secretary.
And now, I think you all know Chris, he's worked on these issues in and around the department for his entire career. Nobody better for this job and we look forward to his leadership and stewardship in -- in this very, very important position.
On the exercise front, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is now conducting what they call Large Scale Global Exercise '21, LSGE '21, through the 27th of this month. It began back on the 2nd. The exercise is a proof of concept global command and control pilot exercise with a regional focus, linking existing, planned service, joint and multilateral exercises to conduct an operational-level maneuver. U.S. forces will participate alongside the United Kingdom, the Australian Defense Force and the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
LSGE '21 is an all domain exercise across the Indo-Pacific in air, land and sea, field training, cyber and space operations, and special operations activities and logistics. It's going to improve our interoperability, it's going to strengthen our alliances and partnerships. And it offers a complex and challenging multinational environment for forces to hone their skills.
And while the Navy's Pacific forces are duelly nested under LSGE21, the United States Navy's Large Scale Exercise, LSE21, is running through August 16th with naval forces operating around the globe to include more than 80 live and virtual units spanning 17 time zones and six Naval and Marine Corps component commands. Units will participate in live and virtual scenario-driven globally-integrated fleet training. This again demonstrates the flexibility of our distributed maritime operations, and expeditionary and littoral operations within a contested environment. And that will include, as I said, live and both simulated training as well as real-world operations.
And then finally, I want to take a chance here to welcome my -- our new -- in public affairs, our new Principal Deputy Assistant to the Secretary Elizabeth Trudeau. She is coming to us from the State Department, a career Foreign Service officer at very senior levels. She was a consul general just recently in Belfast, and before that in Lahore, Pakistan. As some of you know, I worked closely with Elizabeth when I had the opportunity to work at the State Department a few years ago. No finer professional and I am really excited to have her on board to help me communicate for the department.
So is she in the room? No, she's not here.
But I encourage you to come on by, say hi to her, shake her hand if you haven't met her before. And again I can't, I just can't thank her enough for being willing to depart from the normal career Foreign Service track in the State Department and come over here to the Pentagon for a little while to help us do a better job communicating. So I'm grateful to her and I am sure you all will have a good time working with her.
So with that, I'll take questions. I think Lita is on the phone.
Q: Thanks, John. One quick thing on vaccines and then I have a second question. On the vaccines, do you -- does the department believe that it has enough of the vaccine to meet requirements if and when the president does approve the waiver or something -- or does become formal? And you may not be able to answer this because implementation plans aren't in yet, but are there enough vaccines and then does it get rolled out in phases?
And then my second question is on a different topic. Do you want me to wait?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, let's wait. So on the inventory, we don't believe the inventory is going to be a problem. Again, that's one of the reasons why the secretary has given the services a couple of weeks to come back with their implementation plans and certainly any concerns that they might have about inventory. And I can't speak to service inventory. You'd really have to go to them. But we will make sure that the inventory will not be a limiting factor here when these vaccines are made mandatory.
And then as for phases, again, that's what we're -- we're looking for from the services, Lita, to come back to tell the secretary how best they think they can implement once the vaccines are made mandatory. Because each service is unique. They -- each one has a different un-vaccinated population. Each one has different deployment and operational and exercise demands. I just went through a bunch exercises in the Indo-Pacific. So there is -- there is a lot of different intrinsic cultural and operational issues that the services will have to factor in. And the Secretary is interested in hearing their plans for doing it in the most efficient way.
There will be a reporting requirement for the services to come back to the Secretary on a periodic basis to let him know how they are doing. Again, we don't have all the details of exactly what that reporting process is going to look like. But as soon as we get closer, we will certainly make -- make sure everybody is aware.
What was your second question?
Q: Afghanistan. You're aware; I'm sure about Kunduz over the weekend. With this -- with the Taliban clearly rolling along at this point, does the Secretary believe that the U.S. should increase the amount of airstrikes and support it's giving to the Afghans? And can you say whether or not the Pentagon is making any recommendations to be allowed to do airstrikes beyond August 31, as currently planned? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: On the second part, I don't have anything to update with respect to what authorities might exist after August 31st. I think when the Secretary was last here at the podium, he said that our focus is on executing the authorities and using the capabilities we have through the end of the drawdown, which is at the end of the month. And I'm simply not going to speculate what things are going to look like beyond that.
On the -- on your first question, the Secretary shares the concern of the international community about the security situation in Afghanistan, which is clearly not going in the right direction. And the Secretary continues to believe that the Afghan forces have the capability, they have the capacity to make a big difference on the -- on the battlefield. We -- he -- he has maintained that we will continue to -- to support them with the authority where and when feasible, understanding that it's not always going to be feasible. But where and when feasible, we'll continue to support them with airstrikes, for instance.
The other thing is we're focused as we should be given the President's direction. We're focused on completing the drawdown by the end of the month and by transitioning to a different bilateral relationship with Afghan forces that will be one of support financial and logistical maintenance support from outside the country. That's the focus. That's what we're driving at. But again, as we have the authorities and capabilities, and obviously, we have fewer capabilities now than we did before the drawdown. But as we have them, and I have them available, we'll use them where and when feasible.
Q: It's very much appreciated. As she mentioned, the Taliban increased their attacks in Afghanistan, and they control most of the key provinces in Afghanistan. Even President Ghani and his prime minister, Afghanistan prime minister, say that behind that Taliban activity, Pakistan. And people asked -- Afghan people asked that why the United States, especially Pentagon, doesn't bring pressure on Pakistan. And we don't -- Afghan people did not understand that Pakistan is the enemy or friend.
MR. KIRBY: We...
Q: The expectation is very high to bring pressure on Pakistan.
MR. KIRBY: We continue to have conversations with Pakistani leadership about the safe havens that exist along that border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we're mindful that -- that those safe havens are only providing a source of more insecurity, more instability inside Afghanistan. And we're not bashful about having that discussion with Pakistani leaders. We're also mindful that Pakistan and the Pakistani people also are -- fall victim to terrorist activities that emanate from that same region.
So, we're all -- we all have a shared sense of -- of the importance of closing down those safe havens and -- and not allowing them to be used by the Taliban or other terrorist networks to sow discord. And again, we're having that conversation with the Pakistanis all the time.
Q: Why aren't you doing more to help the Afghan forces?
MR. KIRBY: As I said, Lucas, we are continuing to support them -- and I assume you're asking about airstrikes, I'm guessing? Because we are helping Afghan forces in a myriad of other ways. But I'm assuming that's your question. And as I said, nothing has changed about the fact that we have the authorities to do it throughout the drawdown. We have some capability to do it from obviously over the horizon, and the strikes that we have taken have all been from over the horizon. And we'll continue to use those capabilities where and when feasible.
But as I said, Lucas, it's not always going to be feasible in every case. And the Taliban has been making advances; there's no question. The Afghans have capacity; they have capability, they have a capable Air Force. And as I said, weeks ago, I think, whatever the outcome here, when we look back, we're going to be able to know, we're going to be able to say, that it was driven by leadership, Afghan leadership, political and military leadership, that's what's vital here.
Q: When you say that the Afghan forces have the means to defend themselves, what proof do you have? They've lost now six provincial capitals in Afghanistan.
MR. KIRBY: I have the proof that they have a force of over 300,000 soldiers and police. They have a modern Air Force -- an Air Force, by the way, which we continue to contribute to and to -- and to improve. They have modern weaponry; they have -- they have an organizational structure. They have a lot of advantages that the Taliban don't have. Taliban doesn't have an Air Force, Taliban doesn't own airspace, they have a lot of advantages. Now, they have to use those advantages. They have to exert that leadership. And it's got to come both from a political and from the military side.
Q: ... they're using those advantages right now in the country?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into an assessment every day here, district by district, provincial capital by provincial capital. We're -- as I said, at the very beginning of my answer, the Secretary -- the Secretary is watching this closely. And we're deeply concerned about the trends and where it's going. The reason why not is because it's their country to defend now; this is their struggle. The commander and chief have given us a new mission, and that mission is to draw down by the end of this month, and that's where we're moving to.
What it looks like beyond that, I'm simply not going to speculate. But this is their country. These are their -- these are their military forces. These are their provincial capitals; they're people to defend. And -- and it's really going to come down to the leadership that they're willing to exude here, at this particular moment.
Q: John, as far as the United Nations are concerned, have the United Nations ask all their members any role in Afghanistan now after the U.S. leaves Afghanistan? And also, what role do you think now India and Pakistan should or are playing there?
MR. KIRBY: I won't answer the U.N. question. That's really for my colleagues at the State Department and the U.N. Ambassador up in New York City. That's out of our lane. But I would -- to your second question, we want all neighboring countries, all neighboring countries, to -- to not take actions that make the situation in Afghanistan more dangerous than it is already, and to continue to try to use international pressure to get a negotiated peaceful political settlement to this war.
Q: Just quickly follow, as far as India is concerned, since Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State both were in India and also now, Prime Minister Modi mentioned India is chairing the United Nations Security Council chairmanship now. Do you think U.S. has ever asked India or India asked the U.S. about India's role in Afghanistan now?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of discussions between the U.S. and India bilaterally, at the U.N. level. As you know, India has played a constructive role in Afghanistan in the past in terms of training and -- and other infrastructure improvements. Clearly, that kind of work, that kind of effort to help Afghanistan, you know, maintain stability and good governance, is always welcomed. But in terms of the specifics, I would again refer you to my state department colleagues.
Q: Thanks sir.
MR. KIRBY: I got to go to the phone guys, I'm sorry. Let me just do a couple here.
Q: Thanks. Are you surprised that Afghan security forces are unable to hold -- are unable to stop the Taliban's onslaught? Or is this kind of momentum that the Taliban has something that is expected?
MR. KIRBY: I would say we're again deeply concerned by the security situation in Afghanistan. I would remind you that even before the President made his decision about withdrawal, even before the President took office, the Taliban had been making advances on the ground. Now, clearly, those advances have accelerated and deepened. Nobody's walking away from that, but it's not that -- it's not that their desires we weren't -- we weren't seeing the kinds of things that they were interested in on the ground.
Q: But -- OK, but you're concerned. But what about surprised? You're not surprising or...
MR. KIRBY: I think I've characterized it appropriately. We're -- we're concerned, and we've -- and we've made that concern clear about the -- the deteriorating security situation on the ground. JJ Green?
Q: Yeah, thank you, John. So, you've -- you've outlined what the advantages are that the Afghan forces have and what the Taliban doesn't have. Then what -- what can answer -- to your knowledge and to the Pentagon's understanding why they're not having more success in dealing with what the Taliban essentially have been rolling out systematically for a while now? Why is it that they're not able to respond at a higher level?
MR. KIRBY: Hey, I'm not going to speak for another military and give assessments here of their battlefield performance on a day-to-day basis. As I said at the outset, I think when whatever the outcomes are, when we look back on this, we're going to see that leadership, leadership in the field, leadership, and in Kabul were really the keys. And I think I'd leave it at that. And one more from the phones here. Stephen Losey, Military.com?
Q: Hi, thanks. So, how is the service going to track compliance for the COVID vaccine and verify that people who got the shot elsewhere, like not in a military facility like guardsmen and reservists, have actually been vaccinated and aren't just claiming that they did? My second question is, what are the consequences going to be for those who don't? Who continues to refuse to get the shot? Is this going to be punished like a refusal to obey a lawful order?
MR. KIRBY: So, I think the first question you're referring to is what the interim between now and when it's mandatory? Because once the vaccine is mandatory, your -- your inoculations go into your electronic medical records. So, it's -- it's documented that way. So, if you're talking about what's gonna happen between now and then, as I said, at the very beginning of the press conference, we are working through what will be a policy directive to the services to lay it out for them. What do the new restrictions and requirements ordered by the President, what does that mean for uniformed personnel? So, I just don't have that answer right now.
Your second question is about -- I'm guessing what you're talking about is, once the vaccines are mandatory, and if a member were to refuse after it became an order, a lawful order? I'm not going to speculate and get into hypotheticals right now, but I think you saw in the Secretary's memo of today that -- that he has full confidence that service leadership and commanders are going to implement the new vaccination program with professionalism, skill, and with compassion. And I think I'd leave it -- leave it at that for now. OK, back to the room?
Q: What is the actual deadline for the service leadership to get their plans to the Secretary?
MR. KIRBY: He did not issue a specific deadline in this memo. They were already -- some of them were already working on the potential because all of us had a sense that this was coming. But he did not give them an actual deadline. He does not expect that it's going to take them very long to come back with implementation plans. But he wants those implementation plans ready before -- certainly before the -- the middle of September. Obviously, we'd like to see those plans submitted earlier than that because it's possible that we could reach FDA licensure on at least one vaccine, perhaps as early as the end of the month. He met with the service secretaries this morning; they all understand the timing here. And the Secretary is not worried about them meeting a certain deadline on the calendar; they all know what they have to do in the timeframe within which they have to do it.
Q: Follow up, given there's already kind of an accountability infrastructure for ongoing vaccines while you're in uniform. What needs to be hammered out? Flu vaccines are given every year; there's an accountability, you know, that's -- that's in the computer if you don't get your flu vaccine, there are already consequences. So, what needs to be hammered out when this infrastructure already exists?
MR. KIRBY: Adding a vaccine to the mandatory list doesn't -- doesn't happen every day. It's a -- it's a big muscle movement. And the Secretary wants to give the services ample time to prepare for that, as well as the force. I mean, this has been -- as you and I have gone back and forth here for months, I mean, it's been a voluntary vaccine from the -- from as soon as the time that we had them. And -- and now shifting to making it -- eventually making it a mandatory vaccine, a required vaccine, that's a big shift. Not just for the system and our military treatment facilities but also for the force itself. And you can consider this memo today as what we would call in the military a warning order. A warning order to the force that this is coming, and we want you to be ready for it as well. And obviously, we'd prefer that in -- that -- that you get the vaccine now and not wait for the mandate.
Q: So, that mid-September date then, is that more trying to line up with these FDA approvals given that you don't think that it's going to take very long for plans to be put together? And the Secretary is not going to take very long to approve those plans. Why wait more than a month to get this?
MR. KIRBY: Again, we -- we think that FDA licensure will probably occur at least in one case sooner than that. And this was really determined to give enough time and space for the force a very geographically dispersed operationally able and out their force to get ready for the potential mandatory issuance of this vaccine. It -- it was in the Secretary's determination, an ample amount of time to prepare, keeping in mind that we may have to move sooner based on FDA approval with the Secretary has approval authority once FDA -- FDA licensure occurs. So, it was a combination of factors. OK?
Q: I got a bunch. OK, so...
MR. KIRBY: Let me get my pen.
Q: Well, it's become to be like at the end of the briefing, I just keep adding more. So, the -- so the assumption that the reason that there was no mention of a waiver in that memo is because the assumption is that it's going to get full authorization prior to this becoming mandatory for...
MR. KIRBY: No, no, there was a mention of a waiver. He -- he -- in the memo itself...
Q: (OFF-MIKE) unless I'm mistaken.
MR. KIRBY: I will seek the President's approval to make the vaccines mandatory. That's the same as saying a waiver.
Q: OK, so he's going to -- he is -- he is asking for a waiver...
MR. KIRBY: He intends to ask for a waiver by mid-September unless or until FDA licensure occurs first.
Q: OK. And then so and if -- if this becomes mandatory before it has the full FDA authorization, then what will the difference be then if service members then refuse, still refuse? Even if it's -- because it's -- it's different then, right? Like, if it -- if it...
MR. KIRBY: Not really.
Q: I guess will there be -- will there be consequences if a service member refuses before it has full authorization from the FDA?
MR. KIRBY: So let me -- two parts there. Let's say that FDA licensure doesn't come and by mid September he seeks the waiver and the president grants that waiver. They then become added to the list of vaccines that are required of all service members in the military.
I won't speculate about consequences on the back end. The -- it would premature to do that. But, it them becomes a required vaccine just like all the other vaccines and I think there's 17 total. There's eight at least I know of that you have to get just to go to boot camp. It just becomes part of that -- of that regimen.
And I think the Secretary believes that the men and women of the military, even the ones that have been hesitant will comply with that should it -- should it take that. But what he's asking for in this message to the force today is don't wait. They're safe, they're effective, they work, they make us a more ready force, a more lethal force and there's no reason to wait for the mandate.
Q: And then once it becomes mandatory will the DOD now -- then provide declination ranks if people do decline?
MR. KIRBY: I don't know. I don't know if we've made that decision, Courtney.
Q: And then I have one Afghanistan one. You mentioned that the advances -- the Taliban advances have accelerated and deepened. Does that mean that the Taliban is moving -- sort of rolling through these areas taking areas faster than the Pentagon or than the military had expected? And if so why do you think that's occurring?
MR. KIRBY: I don't want to get into as assessment of faster than was expected or not expected. Clearly the security situation is deteriorating and just over the last what 72 hours roughly five provincial capitals fell to the Taliban. That's deeply concerning.
Again, I don't want to get into a statement about surprise or not, it's concerning and we're watching that very closely.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Yes, ma'am.
Q: So I will be (inaudible). The U.S. Navy has sent aircraft to Greece to help it's forest fires and this weekend the U.S. embassy in Ankara made the statement and announced that two of CH-47 Chinook's will be deployed to Turkey as well which also is battling with wildfires. Are you aware of its process and when they will be there?
MR. KIRBY: I think the -- in the case of Greece, a P-8 Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft was already provided to assist Greek authorities with basically getting a better picture. It's a surveillance so -- a reconnaissance aircraft. Sorry. So the request was for help with them getting a better understanding of the scope of the wildfires and that aircraft has already been provided. They flew operations in support of Greek authorities over the course of the weekend, from the 5th to the 7th of August.
As for the -- as for the situation in Turkey, at the request of the Turkish government, U.S. Army, Europe and Africa is sending two CH-47 Chinook aircraft, very quick with water delivery buckets. So they are actually going to be involved in helping put out the fires at, again, the request of the Turkish government.
I don't have the details on whether they're there yet, whether they've started flying yet. And I'd refer you to U.S. Army, Europe and Africa to get -- they'd have a much better sense. But I do know that the Turkish government asked for that and we are providing that. Different kind of help, but still willing to lean in and help our partners. Janne?
Q: Thank you. I have a couple questions for you.
MR. KIRBY: You have a what?
Q: I have a couple question for you.
MR. KIRBY: OK.
Q: You may have seen the recent report that there was recently a F-16 fighter emergency sortie from Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. Why did the Department of Defense release this fact right after the North Korean Kim Yo Jong demanded cancellation of the U.S. and South Korean joint military exercise?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything specific on these reported stories. What I can tell you is that F-16s and other U.S. Air Force aircraft routinely fly out of Kunsan Air Base and they conduct training missions and support regional security right alongside with our ROK allies. Flying aircraft out of Kunsan is not unusual. And again, part of the normal security arrangement with the -- with the ROK.
Q: OK. This -- do you have any background on this, because why they have emergency sortie that is not regularly exercised?
MR. KIRBY: I honestly don't think I can answer it better a second time.
Q: OK. Another one. It is reported that South Korean national intelligence service detained a spy who received all the order from North Korea to (inaudible) the purchase of F-35 fighters from the United States. Are there any problems with the purchase contract?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything for you on that.
Q: Can you take question for that?
MR. KIRBY: No, I'm not going to take that question, because you're talking about -- well it's -- first of all it's an intelligence question related to another nation's intelligence services. And that the -- we are just not going to speak -- we're not going to speak to something like that.
Q: They are spy planes, there is a lot of damage between U.S…
MR. KIRBY: Janne…
Q: and South Korea.
MR. KIRBY: I appreciate your interest in this but I think that's a better question put to our ROK allies, not to the United States Department of Defense.
Q: (Inaudible) reduce the purchase from F-35, you know. OK, this is the last question. China also demanded the earlier cancellation of U.S. and South Korea joint military exercise. Also South Korea lawmakers signed the suspense of the, you know, joint military exercise.
The point is South Korean government, (inaudible) the joint exercise politically, not from the military perspective. You mentioned in the last briefing. What is your comment on this? Because are there any differences between U.S. and South Korea in terms of the military perspective?
MR. KIRBY: I'm certainly not going to speak to domestic problems inside South Korea. Again, that's for the South Korean legislators to speak to. Nothing's changed about our need for readiness on the Korean peninsula and our desire to work in lock-step with our ROK allies on training regimen that improves that readiness and keeps that readiness strong. And we are -- we makes these decisions, as I've said, many, many times before, in lock step with our ROK allies and that's not going to change.
Q: You always fundamentally answer this and I need a fundamental answer.
MR. KIRBY: I gave you a fundamental answer, you just don't like it. But it is -- it is an accurate answer.
Q: I'm going to ask you what is your view of the…
MR. KIRBY: I just gave you --
Q: military perspective, not…
MR. KIRBY: No one cares about my view of anything. I gave you the department's view of training and readiness on the Korean Peninsula.
Q: ... clarification on the September 15th date.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, don't get hung up on 15th of September. I've seen that in some of the press reporting. It says "by mid-September."
Q: Right, but I'd say the -- the President -- the White House released a statement from the President already saying he strongly supports the Secretary's decision to add it to the list. So can you -- I mean, do you -- so the DOD has permission right now, and the President has -- has said "I support you, go ahead."
I mean, what's -- is there -- is that just to give them -- the services breathing room to sort of get their ducks in line ...
MR. KIRBY: I mean, you still have to get -- you -- you -- and we -- and we certainly saw the President's statement and -- and grateful for it, for the support that he very clearly iterated in that, but you still -- unless FDA licensure has occurred ...
MR. KIRBY: ... you still need a -- a waiver for the authorization -- you still need a -- a formal waiver by the President of the United States, which we do not have right now. So while we obviously saw and appreciate the -- the President's statement of support, we would still be compelled by law to ask for that waiver. Obviously given the President's statement, we certainly don't expect any problem with that, but -- but it's a -- it's a process issue.
Q: OK. I had another question, different topic. Apparently, there's been some commercial satellite images that spied a couple of ICBM fields in China. Is the Pentagon concerned about China's rapid nuclear buildup?
MR. KIRBY: I -- I'm not going to speak to the imagery issue and certainly I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments. We have maintained, since the beginning of the administration, our concerns about the kinds of military capabilities that China is procuring and putting into the field and into the fleet, which -- and the way in which they're using some of these capabilities to coerce their neighbors.
And that's why the Secretary considers China the number one pacing challenge for the department, that's why he's now made two international trips to the region -- in part why he made two -- two trips to the region, and it's why we're doing so much to revitalize our alliances and partnerships.
And you've heard him talk about integrated deterrence and making sure that we have the appropriate capacity and capabilities, not just in the Joint Force but among our allies and partners, to provide a credible, viable deterrent capability for any adversary in that part of the world, OK?
Let me go to the phones. I haven't -- I don't want to neglect them too much. Jeff Seldin, VOA?
Q: Hey, John, thanks very much for doing this. A couple of questions on Afghanistan. Given that the U.S. airstrikes are all over the horizon -- it means the -- the planes, the platforms are up in the air for some time -- to what extent is -- is the Pentagon concerned that the Taliban have been able to kind of map out the -- the routes that -- that the U.S. is taking here, in order to coordinate their offenses, to miss where the planes are most likely to be?
And also, how much can the U.S. do in cases where it seems, like we saw over the weekend, where Afghan forces don't put up any fight or -- or don't put up a fight for very long before retreating?
MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, can you repeat that second question? There was, like, knocking in your phone. I -- I couldn't ...
Q: Yeah, sorry about that. But the second question is how much is the U.S. able to do to help Afghan Security Forces in cases, like we saw over the weekend, where it seems the Afghan forces aren't putting up much of a fight or -- or not putting up a fight for very long, given the distances involved with the -- the U.S. and -- and the air power now?
MR. KIRBY: Well, the answer to that question is "not much." I mean, if -- if it -- the -- we don't have forces on the ground in partnership with them, and we -- we can't -- we will certainly support from the air, where and when feasible, but that's no substitute for leadership on the ground, it's no substitute for political leadership in Kabul, it's no substitute for using the capabilities and capacity that we know they have.
They have an Air Force, the Taliban doesn't. They have modern weaponry and -- and organizational skills, the Taliban doesn't. They -- they have superior numbers to the Taliban. And so again, they have the advantage -- advantages and it's really now their time to use those advantages.
And as for your first question, again, I'm not -- I don't want to get into specifics about each and every airstrike and how they're conducted. I -- what I would tell you is that where and when they are feasible, we use the capabilities that we have most available to meet the needs of whatever that strike mission and whatever that package needs to be. And we always, in any case, factor in force protection on any military operation we conduct, and that includes aerial strikes on the ground.
OK, I've got to keep going here, guys. I'm -- stay with me here. Dan?
Q: Hey, yes, thank you. Two -- two follow ups, please. On the vaccine issue, I realize it's early, but can you elaborate at all on -- on what this might mean for deployments, preparation for deployments, those sorts of things?
And then on Afghanistan, can you elaborate a bit on -- on just what some of the recent U.S. operations, airstrikes, et cetera have looked like over the last several days? Lots of questions are getting directed up to the OSD level at this point and I'm just trying to get some clarity and some additional transparency. Thanks.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Dan. On your -- your first one, I -- I don't -- we don't have specifics right now in terms of what -- what the new vaccination policies are going to -- what effects they're going to have on deployments. As the Secretary put in his memo, we want a healthy and ready force. That means a force that's ready to deploy.
And until these vaccines become mandatory, we continue to want to appeal to a sense of teamwork among the unvaccinated service members in the force, that this isn't just about you, it's about your ship, it's about your platoon, it -- it's about your squadron, it's your opportunity to contribute to the health and readiness of your teammates and thereby the nation. Now, once they become mandatory, they will become mandatory.
As for the effect on deployers between now and mandatory, again, we're still working through that, as I said at the outset, and we'll have, I think, more defined policy prescriptive requirements and restrictions in the very near future.
On -- on airstrikes, Dan, not going to be a satisfying answer but it'll be an honest one -- we're not going to get into specific details of each and every strike -- where, when, what kind of ordinance. We continue to fly airstrikes in support of Afghan forces on the ground, where and when feasible. I know you're probably tired of me saying that but that's the truth -- where and when feasible, knowing that it is not going to always be feasible.
And we have conducted airstrikes in the last several days but I won't get into the specifics about -- about targeting and BDA and -- and that kind of thing.
OK -- oh, let me go back here to the room. I -- I've been pretty good about that. Yeah, Ryo?
Q: Oh, thank you. I have two questions. For vaccine mandates that U.S. forces -- (inaudible) U.S. forces frequently interrupt with allied forces in military exercises, for example. Do you hope that allies will also require their forces to get vaccinated in the future, to do joint operations smoothly and safely?
MR. KIRBY: These are sovereign decisions by nation states with respect to their Armed Forces. We're in no position to dictate how and when they likewise seek COVID protection for their forces.
Q: OK, a separate topic. The secretary met the Palau President last week.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: The Palau requested the U.S. to construct a new military base when the former Secretary Esper visited Palau last year. Did you have any progress in the meeting to build new military facilities or bases to create a more distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific?
MR. KIRBY: The Secretary was delighted to meet with President Whipps last week, and they had a very good conversation. It was not centered around the construction or additional -- building of additional infrastructure to support U.S. forces. He did thank President Whipps, of course, for the rotational support that we do get from Palau. It's modest in sizes, but it's important. It's important for, again, our network of alliances, partnerships, and friendships in the Indo-Pacific region. That there was nothing specific discussed or agreed upon with respect to additional infrastructure.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Yes, sir?
Q: Paul Handley from AFP. A couple things. One, can you -- following up on the earlier question, can you say how many bombing flights or strikes have taken place? And does the U.S. have the capacity to increase those or are you at the limits -- the over-the-horizon limits right now?
MR. KIRBY: I do not, and I won't get into a specific number. And as for our capacity, we have a pretty robust over-the-horizon capability already in the region. And we're going to continue to use it again where and when it makes the most sense, where and when it's feasible.
And as for whether it needs to step up or step down, that's going to depend, again, on the conditions on the ground and what is feasible from our perspective in terms of -- in terms of effectiveness.
Q: So you said -- as you said...
MR. KIRBY: Now what I want to walk you away from is this idea that we plan to accelerate or we plan to decelerate. We're going to continue to support them where and when feasible.
Q: You could accelerate it, (inaudible).
MR. KIRBY: We have a robust capability in the region.
Q: You've said before and said again today that the -- that things are getting worse. We've heard that for several weeks, and that the Afghan leadership needs to step up. Clearly if things are getting worse they're not doing what they need to do. What do they need to do?
MR. KIRBY: It's...
Q: Are you aware that -- are they failing?
MR. KIRBY: That is not a question that the department's going to take a position on Paul. As I've said, they have all the advantages. It's really about using those advantages to maximum effect. This -- that question is much better put to Afghan officials in Kabul and in the field, not to the Department of Defense.
Q: (inaudible) agree because this has been going on for four or six weeks, two months already to say that same thing. What aren't they doing that they could do to stop this advance of the Taliban?
MR. KIRBY: Yes...
Q: I mean, clearly you're supporting them to stop it but it's not working.
MR. KIRBY: I also don't think that that's an assessment we're going to make here from the Department of Defense, and that's really -- those are questions better put to Afghan officials. This is, as I said, when we look back it's going to come back to leadership and what leadership was demonstrated or not, and I'm not going to get into an assessment here day-by-day of what they're right or what they're doing wrong, certainly here from Washington not being there on the field alongside Afghan forces. It would be inappropriate for us to do that.
Yes, in the back there.
Q: Sir, I want to follow up on this. Is this a political question or failure? In your opinion?
MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to assess the decisions that Afghan officials are or not making. Those are questions that really should be put to them to speak to how they're executing their strategy. It's not a U.S. military strategy, it's Afghan strategy to defend their own people, and -- and they should speak to that, not to us.
What we can speak to is that we're going to maintain a -- a good relationship with Afghan forces going forward, we're going to continue to help them defend themselves to the best ability we have for the remainder of the drawdown, and I'm not going to speculate about what it's going to look like beyond that.
Q: OK. Given the last development, the development that the last 72 hours, do you still find it relevant to say the mission was successfully accomplished in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I -- I assume you're talking about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The President has said that we accomplished the mission for which our troops were sent to Afghanistan, and that was to disrupt and defeat Al-Qaeda and the threat that Al-Qaeda represented to the homeland, and that mission has been complete. The President has made that clear.
Q: But we are going back 20 years -- back ...
MR. KIRBY: The other thing the President has said is that we're not going to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven to -- from which terrorist groups can attack the homeland. That's why we're going to maintain an over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability in the region.
Q: If I may, one more question on Iran? Secretary Blinken said there would be a collective response for the attack against Mercer -- the Mercer -- the Iran -- in -- in the Arab Sea. The question -- are you engaged -- are -- are you going to be engaged in this collective response?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak to potential operations of the United States military at all, I -- I never do, but I believe what Secretary Blinken was referring to was an overall interagency effort to better deal with the continued threats posed by Iran and for their support to terrorist networks, which we call on them to stop.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Sam Lagrone, USNI?
Q: Hey, John. Just following up on that point, it looks to be that, you know, Iran is continuing to harass merchant ships in the -- in the Middle East. Specifically, there's some relatively incredible circumstantial evidence that, you know, an Iranian military force attempted to seize control of a merchant ship.
I mean, is the Secretary concerned at the level of rising, you know, seemingly Iranian actions or Iranian-enabled proxy actions against merchant shipping in the region?
MR. KIRBY: I think it's fair to say that we're concerned as we watch Iran's increasingly aggressive and maligned behavior throughout the region. Without speaking to an individual situation -- you've cited two -- but without speaking to any one in particular, we obviously are watching, with great concern, Iran's continued use of intimidation and aggression in the region and, of course, their support -- continued support for proxy -- proxy militia, as well as proxy terrorist groups.
Q: But I'm glad you're talking ...
MR. KIRBY: I think -- I think we might have lost him. Let me go to Jeff and then I'll finish up with you, Jim, OK? Jeff Schogol?
Q: ... I can barely hear you because someone is having a phone conversation while this briefing is going on. Thank you.
... Mr. Kirby, just a quick ...
... what might happen if someone refuses to get vaccinated but you can say what happens if someone refuses to get one of those mandatory vaccines now. As things now stand, what ...
MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I -- I think I got the gist of the question. That's OK. I think I got the gist of the question.
(UNKNOWN): OK -- OK, so I'll -- I'll contact them and have them shipped to you guys basically.
(UNKNOWN): Oh, my God.
Q: ... can you hear me?
(UNKNOWN): Dude, News hour -- you're on.
Q: Hello, can you hear me?
MR. KIRBY: Jeff, is that you?
Q: Yes, I'm -- I'm so sorry. My question is ...
MR. KIRBY: I got -- Jeff -- Jeff, I got your question -- I got it. You don't need to repeat it, I got it -- I got it. I'm not going to -- you know, I -- I understand the question. And I -- I certainly can't speak to every case where an individual member of the Armed Services in -- refuses to -- to take a -- a required vaccine.
First of all, we don't have any evidence that suggests that this is a -- a widespread problem right now. And, I mean, I -- I think members of the military understand when you sign up for the military that there are requirements laid upon you, and -- and some of those requirements include being healthy and fit and ready to serve, and the -- some of that depends on your -- you -- you know, our requirement to make sure you're fit and healthy through inoculation and vaccination, as well as a whole host of other medical treatment that -- that you get when -- when you sign up. And so we just -- it -- it isn't a widespread issue.
And to the degree that it happens, my assumption is that that is dealt with at the command level. And I -- I would -- again, I'm not going to speculate about going forward here but I would again point you to what the Secretary said in his memo today, that he has every expectation that commanders, once this new vaccination program is in place, i.e. it's mandatory, are going to implement that -- that new program with skill and with professionalism, the same skill and professionalism they do now for existing mandatory vaccines, as well as compassion.
Q: And just to sort of build on that -- I guess something like 73-percent of the active duty force now has had at least one shot of a -- of a vaccine. And probably the last third of the Secretary's memo was urging service members to -- to just get the vaccine.
Given that the -- the Delta variant has already sort of driven up vaccination levels, do you -- do you expect that -- that that alone, in putting this mid-September date on that, might make a lot of guys and gals who are -- who are on the -- on the fence go and get the vaccine?
MR. KIRBY: We certainly hope so, Jim. Again, as I said -- I think it was in answer to Meghann -- you can consider this memo not just a warning order to the services but to the troops themselves, and we certainly hope that they will take advantage of the opportunity to get the -- the vaccines now, that are available now to them, on a voluntary basis.
That's -- that's obviously a potential effect that we'd like to see achieved as a result of the -- the Secretary's message but if they don't, eventually we're going to get to a mandatory sort of regimen and -- and we'll take care of it then.
OK, thanks, everybody, appreciate it.
Q: ... force and -- and ...
MR. KIRBY: 73-percent of the -- of the force has been -- received one dose, and I -- and I can get you the exact number, but I think we're over 60 -- something like 62-percent are fully vaccinated.
It -- it's active duty.
Q: Active duty, OK.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you.