Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Oct. 27, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody.

OK, on Monday, I got asked about the ways in which DOD is participating in the interagency process that helps work with veterans' groups and others as we continue to relocate American citizens and SIV applicants from Afghanistan. And so my answer was pretty generic. I thought -- I wanted to come back and provide a little bit more context, if that's OK.

The department supports the State Department-led relocation and resettlement efforts through three basic avenues. One is senior-level touch points between the State Department, the Joint Staff and OSD. These are senior leaders that are constantly in touch. Two is embedded liaison officers that we have in the Office of the Coordinator for Afghan Relocation Efforts over at the State Department. And then three, U.S. government and private organization meetings.

These private group -- there's a U.S. government private group conference call which has occurred twice weekly since the 17th of September, and that provides these groups a broader understanding of U.S. government relocation policies and information sharing that helps align with our evacuation priorities. This arrangement and the coalition of data that it helps enable gives us the opportunity to better identify American citizens, legal permanent residents and Afghans that we've committed to assist and further facilitates their evacuation. The Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary also conduct a twice-weekly call with the CARE leadership over at the State Department, the Coordinator's Office, to discuss the public-private relationship and DOD-State issues that are specific to relocation and resettlement.

Our integration with the Coordinator's Office helps us manifest -- helps enable the manifesting and the evacuation of immediate family members of U.S. service members from Afghanistan, and also helps facilitate interagency discussions on the evacuations of Afghans from third-country locations.

So there's actually quite a bit of activity, and when I got that question the other day, I don't think I knocked it out of the park, so I just wanted to provide a little bit of extra context there.

Also, on a scheduling note, I think you all know, U.S. Army General Laura Richardson will assume command of U.S. Southern Command from U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Fowler at 1:00 o'clock on Friday down at the SOUTHCOM headquarters in Florida. The secretary will be presiding over that ceremony. General Milley will also be in attendance. We certainly wish Admiral Fowler fair winds and following seas in his next chapter, and we thank him for his decades of honorable and faithful service to our nation. The secretary will have a lot more to say about his leadership at SOUTHCOM on Friday, and as well as welcoming General Richardson to a huge and historic task. That ceremony's going to be streamed live on our website for those of you who want to watch it.

And with that, we'll start taking questions. I think we've got Bob on the phone. Is that right, Bob?

Q: Yes, John, thank you. I wanted to ask you about China's overall hypersonic weapon test that General Milley told Bloomberg T.V. is, quote, "very concerning." And I was wondering if you could provide some context for that concern. In other words, -- how does Secretary Austin see this? Is it concerning to him in the sense that it shows the U.S. has fallen behind China in military technology, or that it makes this technology, makes the U.S. more vulnerable to a potential Chinese nuclear attack? Could you provide some of that context?

MR. KIRBY: Without speaking to specifics of this test, which we haven't done, I would tell you that -- and the secretary addressed this the other day while we were on travel. We've been very clear about our concerns over China's advancements in certain capabilities, a wide range of capabilities, capabilities that the secretary noted himself that do very little to help decrease tensions in the region and beyond, and they're paired with -- these advanced military capabilities are paired with a foreign and defense policy approach that uses intimidation and coercion of neighboring nations to yield to China's interests. And so taken in sum, it reinforces for us the need to continue to treat the PRC as our number-one pacing challenge, and the secretary's committed to doing that.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Charles?

Q: Thanks, John. We've counted at least six service members who were involved in the January 6th riot at the Capitol. Five of those remain on duty. Are the services moving too slowly to resolve these cases?

MR. KIRBY: I think the secretary's comfortable that each of the military departments have taken seriously his concerns over extremist activities throughout the force. I know we've talked about this the other day with respect to the working group's efforts. And he's comfortable that the civilian and military leadership of each of the services are working through appropriately each of these cases, and he obviously cannot get involved in any of the adjudication over these members. He has to let the service leadership deal with it, but -- he's comfortable that the -- that they'll do that in the appropriate way and in the appropriate time.

Q: If I could just follow up, so these cases in general of these service members who were involved in January 6th riot, you know, for example, there was a Marine who is on security camera holding a door open, allowing protesters to pour into the building. Do these cases fit the Pentagon's definition of extremism, or is this something that's to be determined later, once we have this new definition of extremism created?

MR. KIRBY: The working group's efforts and what we expect will be at the result of it -- one of the things that will result from it is a new definition of what extremist activities are. That's not -- I want to stress again, it's not a definition of extremism. It's taking a look at the activities that -- were in place, which we use to define extremist activity, and asking ourselves, is that still the appropriate list of things? And do we need to take things off? Do we need to add things? And so that will be part of the report? Once the final coordination of the working groups efforts are done, and I so I want to make sure that --that you understand that's a distinct effort.

And I wouldn't, again, without speaking to these individual cases, because we can't do that. I wouldn't want to leave you with the notion that adjudication by the services is somehow dependent upon the timing of the working group. Again, he's comfortable that the service leadership will deal with this in appropriate way at the appropriate time. But the efforts of the working group are separate and distinct from that. Jen.

Q: John I want to go back to the hypersonic weapon test. Is this a Sputnik moment as General Milley said? Is this a capability that the U.S. military does not have?

MR. KIRBY: I don't think it does any good for us to characterize this put a label on it. This advancement of capabilities. And again, I'm not going to speak to the specifics of what's been reported out there. What I can tell you is that the department is -- I mean, from almost day one, when the Secretary took office.

And talking about the PRC as the department's pacing challenge, there's a suite of issues with respect to China from the security perspective. And that's what our job here is at the department that deeply concern us about the trajectory of where things are going in the Indo-Pacific. And taken together, all those things are reason for concern, and are being used to inform the operational concepts that we want to be able to employ.

They're informing the budget. They're informing the programs and the priorities of the department. They're going to inform, in many ways, our training and exercise regimen. So, there's a lot here. A free Indo-Pacific remains a key national security goal of the United States. And we at the Department have a significant role in helping make sure we can protect that interest.

And so, it looks it's going to get -- China's activities are going to get factored into the global posture review as well, and the upcoming national defense strategy. So, there's, I'm not going to point to one specific thing, Jen and say, that's it. That's what makes China the pacing challenge. There's a lot that goes into that, including Jen, not just the capabilities that they are putting a field in afloat.

But the way in which they're using their foreign policy in the region to coerce and intimidate.

Q: Can you just talk about the technology. Are these glide vehicles, something that the U.S. has already tested? There have been several tests, some of which failed some which were successful in the last week. Can you explain to us where things stand on the technology?

MR. KIRBY: There's a limit to how far we can go speaking publicly about certain capabilities, but it's in the budget. You can read it for yourself. The -- our own pursuit of hypersonic capabilities is real. It's tangible and we are absolutely working towards being able to develop that capability. But I won't get into the specifics of testing and where we are. Tony.

Q: So, people are going to want -- people who don’t follow the hypersonic issues that closely, the millions of Americans, they're going to wonder, does the United States have a defense against hypersonic missiles at this point? Does the continental U.S. have a defense?

MR. KIRBY: Tony again, without getting into specific capabilities, I don't think it would be useful to speak to here at the podium. This is not a technology that is an alien to us that that we haven't been thinking about for a while. And I would argue that it's not just our own pursuit of this sort of technology, but our mindfulness that we have defensive capabilities to that we need to continue to, to hone in to improve. And I think I'd leave it at that.

Q: John, quick clarification, and then there's another question. You mentioned the global force posture review. Is there a date yet for when that will be released?

MR. KIRBY: No, I don't have a date to announce.

Q: Then, I wondered if you could update us on the work of the China task force. Have they completed their work? Have they briefed Secretary Austin? Is he receiving -- like, how often is he receiving briefings about China?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I mean we can get you the transcript. But when we concluded the work, we actually were very transparent about the conclusion of the Taskforce and their efforts. They have stood down. It was never it was supposed to be as you heard Dr. Ratner say when we stood it up that it was going to be a sprint. And they completed that sprint.

And we rolled out the basic findings and recommendations and we can get that to you. As for recent conversations, I literally just came from the Secretary's latest China brief. So, he, one of the things he tasked himself with, at the end of the task force was personal leadership over a regularly scheduled a coordination and discussion session with the senior leadership here at the department.

Including the service chiefs in the service secretaries, as well as appropriate combatant commanders. And he just had the latest iteration of that regular bi-weekly meeting today this afternoon.

Q: His China briefing are bi-weekly the?

MR. KIRBY: They're -- yes, I'll check on the exact frequency. But I'm pretty sure there are about bi-weekly, yes. And he shares them himself -- himself. Meghann.

Q: Can you tell us how many of the how much of the active-duty force is vaccinated against COVID-19? And if you can break out how much of the reserve forces that would be convenient too.

MR. KIRBY: So active-duty personnel with at least one dose is 96.9, so 97 percent. Active-duty personnel that are fully vaccinated as it today stands at 86.9 percent. Of the total force 82 percent have at least one dose and the fully vaccinated percentage of the total force is just over 68 percent. I do not have breakouts, Meghann for Reserve and Guard.

I just don't -- we're not tabulating that that data. You could -- maybe the services could be able to provide you that more specifically. Yes. Yes ma'am.

Q: Thanks, John. I have three questions and actually kind of piggyback off of her questions. I spoke to some military attorneys, and they said that they had sailors coming to them frustrated after they apply for religious exemptions. Basically, their leadership said you can apply but we're going to deny it. So, what is your response to that, if leaders are doing that? Are there any repercussions if they're discouraging people from applying for the religious exemption?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of the specifics of these reports, Teresa. I mean, I can't speak to them with great specificity. I can only go back to what we've said before a couple of points. One, the Secretary his expectation is and I think it's been borne out that leaders throughout the department are going to handle the mandatory vaccination program with compassion, and with understanding.

And with a with a full suite of tools available to them to try to get members who are resistant, to do the right thing. I think you can see from the numbers I just gave Meghann, there's not a lot of resistance. People understand that this is an important program, and they're participating in it. Secondly, with respect to the exemption process, each service handles this differently.

And that's why the Secretary has delegated the execution of the mandatory vaccines to the military departments. Each of them have their own exemption process and are making it clear to members what that process is. I know, I don't have any direct knowledge of a situation where a member of the military was told by his or her leadership, hey, go ahead and apply, but you're going to get denied.

I just I can't speak to the specifics of that case. Again, I go back to what the Secretary expects that there is there's an exemption policy been in place well, before the COVID vaccine. It's -- so it's not new. And his expectation is that if members of the military want to apply for one that they should be able to. And they should be able to make their case.

And the leadership should follow the same process for that exemption request as they would for any other. OK.

Q: Another question on the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy believes that ISIS-K is capable of carrying out an attack against the U.S. between six months to a year. And he also mentioned Al Qaeda as well. What is your response to his testimony? And also, how do you think this new knowledge will impact Over the Horizon Operations?

MR. KIRBY: I think what Dr. Kahl said was that we could see ISIS-K, generate the capability to do external attacks, somewhere between six to 12 months. And certainly, we fully support what Undersecretary Kahl said. I mean, he's basing this off an intelligence community estimate. It doesn't mean that it will happen in six to 12 months. And it underscores what we've been saying all along that we have now robust Over the Horizon Counterterrorism capabilities, and we're going to continue to try to improve them going forward.

Q: Should this be of concern, because just a few months ago, there wasn't a concern that these powerful attacks could happen. So, is there any concern or?

MR. KIRBY: I beg to differ. I wouldn't say that there was no concern. I know -- I mean, we were very honest, in August and September, that in fact, we saw it for ourselves the threat that ISIS-K poses inside Afghanistan. And we've never walked away from the fact that Al Qaeda was still present in Afghanistan.

And that, even before we withdrew that our expectation was that the Taliban were going to meet what they said they would do. Which is to not allow Al Qaeda to have safe haven in Afghanistan, and certainly not to cooperate with them. So, there was never any statement here from the Pentagon that, you know, it wasn't a big deal and now it is a big deal.

The Undersecretary Kahl was simply reflecting what now post Afghanistan what the Intelligence Community's assessment are. But it's a reminder to all of us that the threat is real, as we said it was even before. And a reminder to all of us that we need to continue to work on improving Over the Horizon Capabilities. OK. Janne.

Q: Thanks, John. I had a quick question. First question is the United States and South Korea held a high-level disarmament and the Non-Proliferation meeting yesterday. And any DOD persons attend this meeting or has there been any details of this meeting?

MR. KIRBY: I don't think I have any readout of that meeting. So let me take the question and get back to you.

Q: Thank you. Second one, earlier this week, former UN Special Envoy for the North Korea, Joseph Detrani say that if the U.S. and ROK are discussing an end of the war declarations with North Korea. They should be making it clear that the ROK and U.S alliance, and the USFK issues are separate. What is your comment?

MR. KIRBY: I didn't understand the last part of your question. That we that we should make sure?

Q: To make it clear that the ROK and United States are alliance and the USFK issues are separate. Because...

MR. KIRBY: Are separate?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Separate from discussions about the Alliance?.

Q: Yes, because North Korea wanted to -- together for that issue going to be a discussed. Maybe North Korea want to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, and those things?

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Well again, I don't have direct knowledge of these comments. But U.S. Forces Korea are on the peninsula because of the alliance. And are fully represented in alliance discussions as our South Korean allies.

Q: (inaudible) Security Advisor Sullivan said yesterday -- he also said that there is a difference between South Korea and the United States regarding declaration of end of war?

MR. KIRBY: The end of the -- I don't have anything. Other than -- we've talked about this from the podium before. I don't have anything different to say today about that.

Q: What is views of this? Because, you know, North Korea once said they have some differences views.

MR. KIRBY: Let me take the question, Jenny, because I don't understand what the dispute is here. We've already talked about this.

Q: (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: No, I get it. But if there's been a nuance change, I'm not aware of it. So let me take your question. Your other one. I know that's not satisfactory. But let me do that before I go making policy pronouncements here that are misinformed. OK.

Q: Alright thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go to the phones here. Tom Squitieri.

Q: Hey, John. Thanks a lot. I have two quick follow up questions. One as you mentioned today and Monday, regarding the vaccination exemptions. Each service will come up their different way of doing it. Does this mean that an individual in one branch could find an exemption where he or she could not in another branch?

MR. KIRBY: It's difficult for me to address that question in a broad-brush way, Tom without knowing you know what the exemptions are. Some people will be exempt medically. Some will certainly apply for a religious exemption. And each exemption asked for particularly those of religion will most likely be case specific, individuals specific. So that's a very difficult question to answer.

What I can tell you is that each military department has their own exemption process. So, they will handle that, according to the existing process. And as I mentioned to Teresa, the Secretary expects that they'll do that and do it in a compassionate way. But that's an almost an impossible question for me to answer, because each case is going to be treated specifically and individually as it ought to be as appropriate.

Q: (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY: (inaudible) I already got you, Yes Luis -

Q: I'd like to go back to General Milleys comments. He interpreted that he is confirming that there was a test of a hypersonic weapon system. Is that accurate?

MR. KIRBY: I would refer you to General Milley’s staff to answer that question. I'm not -- I don't have anything to add to the comments and the press reporting of them. Except to say, we remain concerned about China's advancement of certain capabilities, and we're going to stay focused on that.

Q: So, you as the DOD spokesman are not going to confirm what he said on the record?

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to let him, and his staff deal with his comments in the interview. And I'm not going to speak to the press reporting of this particular test. OK. Yes, Oren?

Q: Can you give an update for a search for a Vice Chair. Can you give an update for search for a Vice Chair to replaced General Hyten? Has the Secretary spinned names to the White House? Where's that process stand?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have an update for you on this. And I don't have any personnel announcements to make. We're all mindful of the looming retirement of General Hyten. The Secretary remains very grateful for his leadership, and his service. And when there's something to say, with respect to an announcement or nomination that will come from the White House as appropriate. Yes, Pierre?

Q: Any update on Yemen, any help for the Yemen government to help them protect (inaudible)? Or is it only helping the coalition of the Saudis to protect Saudi Arabia?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any updates or changes, Pierre. We continue to work with partner nations in the United Nations, toward an end to the conflict by working to secure a ceasefire, ensuring the flow of humanitarian aid, and to help restore long dormant peace talks. I think, you know, the State Department is in the lead for the United States through one of our most capable diplomats, Special Envoy, Tim Lenderking. And I know that he's working very closely with the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg. But there's no changes, no policy initiatives that are new or different today. Yes.

Q: Is DOD considering mandating COVID booster shots?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any update for you on that. We haven't -- there hasn't been a policy decision in that regard. Jim, did you have a question?

Q: Just going back to General Hyten. That position has gapped in the past. But it's -- they don't like to do that. The Vice Chairman position is -- does the Secretary concern that there will be a gap because it's going to take some time for that process to unfold?

MR. KIRBY: You're right. It's not optimal that there's a gap in that position. It's a key national security role, no question about that. But it has in the past in the recent past twice, been gapped for short period of -- a short period of time. And while, nobody can by law be named, you know, Acting Vice Chairman. Some of the duties can be delegated in an acting capacity to other members of the Joint Staff.

I would let the Chairman's Office speak to how they might handle the delegation of those duties. But it has happened in the past. Again, , not optimal, but it can be done, and we'll make sure that it's done in a way that doesn't impugn or diminish our ability to meet our national security goals.

Q: But John what is the hold up?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a specific personnel process here to speak to Jen. This is a big job with immense responsibilities. And rest assured that the Secretary will make appropriate recommendations to the President. And the President will make his nomination clear at the right time. And we'll move forward. There will be there'll be a nominee and the confirmation process will pursue. But I don't have any specifics to speak to today about how the process has gone to date.

OK. Wait a minute I haven't gone to anybody else on the phone. I'll do couple more. And then yes, I'll get in trouble if I don't do it. Jeff Seldin.

Q: John, thanks very much. I have one on China and one on Afghanistan. For years, military officials would say that Russia was the more immediate existential threat. Does the Chinese hypersonic test change that type of thinking at all? Is Beijing now a more immediate military threat than Moscow?

On Afghanistan, with the possibility the assessments that ISIS-K, Al Qaeda could both mount -- have the capability of mounting attacks within two years at most. How does that compare to threats from ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates, elsewhere, Syria, in Africa? And how are these assessments influencing the global posture review?

MR. KIRBY: There's a lot there. On China, again, right from the get go, the Secretary referred to China as our number one facing challenge. And nothing has changed about his concerns with that. We are laser focused on making sure that we have the operational concepts, the capabilities, the resources that we need to deal with this pacing challenge.

Specifically in the Indo-Pacific, but they have a global reach that we have to be careful about to and mindful of. On Afghanistan, I don't have intel assessments on every other region of the world where there are Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda affiliates to include groups like ISIS. I just don't have that. And I can't speak to, but what we have said in the past remains true today.

That we continue to see and have seen and continue to see the metastasize action of the Al Qaeda threat, and Al Qaeda affiliate threat out of Afghanistan into other places. Some of the places you mentioned, in North Africa and the Sahel, and in the Horn of Africa, and other places in the Middle East. No question about that.

And that's why we're going to remain so focused on making sure we can improve our Over the Horizon Counterterrorism capabilities. It's why we're also going to continue to invest in and you saw this in a recent trip to the Gulf states invest in our alliances and our partnerships in those parts of the world where we continue to see this. And strengthen our bonds inside the interagency, particularly with the State Department.

As we try to deal with the continued threat of terrorism across the range of elements of power of the government. It's not all about the military component. Tony Bartuca? 

Q: Thank you, John. My question goes to the defense industrial base impact of the vaccine mandates. Science shows vaccines are effective at protecting people, protecting those around them, but there is pockets of resistance to the mandates. Some of it is in the defense industrial base. The Raytheon CEO said yesterday he expects supply chain disruptions, workforce problems. Is DoD planning for these potential disruptions? And does DoD think it's going to increase the cost of programs and make schedules overrun?

MR. KIRBY: I certainly hope that's not the case, Tony. We haven't today seen any of that -- any of those tangible outcomes as a result of this. But we are in close touch with our defense industry colleagues about this. We fully support that the president's mandate that the defense contractors are vaccinated so that they can continue to do the work they need to do so that we can do the work we need to do to defend the country. So we're fully in support there and are in close touch with our defense industry colleagues.

But I don't -- I don't think we've seen any practical outcomes in that regard at this time. We're going to stay vigilant on that and stay in close touch with defense industry partners going forward.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Luis.

Q: This is going to sound like a weird question, but there is a national supply chain issue going on with the civilian economy, lack of product that are sold not only in civilian marketplace but also on base exchanges, post exchanges. Are you seeing an impact from this supply chain, products and merchandise on military commissaries and exchanges?

MR. KIRBY: Let me take the question, Luis, I do not know, and I don't want to guess. So we'll take that question and get back to you.

Last one?

Q: On the ISIS-K, the fact that they can regenerate within two years for external actions, can you clarify -- does that mean potentially an attack on the continental United States or U.S. interests around -- in Europe and Asia and Africa? (inaudible) yesterday, you know, attack the U.S. Any sense there?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know that there is much more granularity than what the Secretary called -- mentioned yesterday, that the intent is there and that certain capabilities could also be there along that timeline. But I don't know that the -- and I would point you to the intel community, but I don't know that there is a lot more granularity in terms of what that would mean. I mean, that's still a long way away.

Q: Right.

MR. KIRBY: But we have to be mindful that the threat is there, and that's why we're going to stay focused. OK, thank you, everybody.

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