Transcript

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Holds an On-Camera Press Briefing

Nov. 17, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It's good to see everybody.

You’ve all heard me say this before, but it’s worth repeating: We have the strongest fighting force in the world because we have the strongest team in the world. And that includes not just our brave men and women in uniform but our outstanding military families as well. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic and tight housing markets across the country have made financial struggles even tougher. 

With the holidays approaching, I know that this is on the minds of our military communities. And it’s certainly top of mind for me. 

So today, I’ve directed the Department to take several steps to strengthen the economic security of our force. 

First, we’re providing some immediate relief. 

The Department of Defense has temporarily raised the Basic Allowance for Housing in areas that have had a 10 percent increase in rental costs this year. 

And in places with housing shortages, we’re extending Temporary Lodging Expense reimbursements so that families have more time to find a home that fits their needs. 

And when it comes to making sure our people have enough to eat, we’ve created a new toolkit that will help leaders identify service members who are struggling … connect service members and their families to resources and support programs … and more. 

I have also directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop a strategy and implementation roadmap within 90 days to strengthen food security across the force. 
Now, the steps outlined in today’s memo won’t solve all the economic worries that military families face. But they’re important steps, and we’re committed to getting this right. 

Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about. Basic necessities, like food and housing, shouldn’t be among them. 

This is a readiness issue. 

That’s why I’m focused on making sure that our service members and their families have what they need to thrive—so that they can focus on the hard work of defending our nation. 

Now, I’d also like to say a few words about my trip to the Middle East, starting later this week. 

I’m looking forward to being back in Bahrain, where I’ll speak at the Manama Dialogue, a major security forum that will be meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic began. It’ll be good to connect with partners and allies in the region and beyond. 

Let me underscore two key themes that I’ll discuss. 

First, the United States is deeply committed to the security of the Middle East, and we’re continuing to strengthen our partnerships there. 

And second, we understand that many of today’s most pressing security challenges—in the Middle East and elsewhere—transcend borders. 

So we must meet these shared threats with shared solutions, in lockstep with our friends… who also come to the table with formidable capabilities.

You could see the strength of our network of partnerships on full display just a few months ago. 

As we wound down our 20-year military mission in Afghanistan, our partners in the Middle East stepped up to help us evacuate more than 124,000 people. 

We couldn’t have done it without partners like the United Arab Emirates, which will be another stop on my trip. And I’m looking forward to discussing our two countries’ common defense priorities. 

Now, it’s not lost on me that this trip comes at a time when Iran is stoking tensions and undermining stability in the region.

We remain deeply committed to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. As I’ve said before, no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran.

That’s why we fully support the President’s efforts to achieve a new diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.

But, of course, Iran presents serious security challenges that extend beyond that program. 

So I’m going to continue to be very clear: we will defend ourselves, our partners, and our interests against threats from Iran or its proxies. 

Now, one last thing before I take your questions.

And this gets at the issue of civilian casualties, which I know is on your minds.

It’s on mine as well, I can assure you.

As you know, we conducted an independent review and investigation into the August 29th airstrike in Kabul … an airstrike that tragically killed 10 innocent civilians, including seven children.

I know Lt. General Said briefed you on his findings. 

I also asked the commanders of U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command to come back to me with their plans for how to implement General Said’s findings and recommendations.

They’ve done that, and I am working my way through their recommendations.

We’re also looking for rigorous outside thinking. I think you also know that we’ll soon be releasing a civilian harm study by RAND that Congress ordered in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020.  And there’s another RAND study on civilian casualties in Syria that is working its way through a security review.

I look forward to reading these two studies and to benefitting from them as we conduct operations going forward.

The American people deserve to know that we take this issue very seriously … and that we are committed to protecting civilians and getting this right, both in terms of how we execute missions on their behalf and how we talk about them afterward.

We have more work to do in that regard, clearly. 

And I recognize that, and I am committed to doing this work in full partnership with our military leaders.

For now, I am ready to take your questions. And I’ll start with Bob Burns.

Q: Thank you, Sir. Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you a couple of things about Russia – recent developments on Russia. What is the buildup of Russian forces and military structures in the vicinity of the Ukrainian boarder? The other is Russian anti-satellite test that they conducted recently which this administration condemned as reckless.

Now on Ukraine, I’m wondering as a career military officer, what do you make of what you are seeing of the recent activity near Ukraine – does the buildup of Russian military forces on the Ukraine border look like a build-up to invasion or some other type incursion? And on the anti-satellite test, what would you say is so objectionable about what they did? Does it point toward some sort of conflict in space or ‘weaponization’ of space?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Well, overall Bob – and thanks for those questions – continue to see troubling behavior from Russia and you’ve highlighted two key issues there. The first, the troop buildup near Ukraine, and the recent anti-satellite test – none of this activity is helpful to the security environment and it causes us deep concern. So we will continue to call on Russia to act responsibly and be more transparent.

On the buildup of the forces around on the border of Ukraine, we watch this very closely and I am in regular and frequent contact with General Walters, the EUCOM commander.  The truth is, Bob, we are not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to. But these movements certainly have our attention. And I would urge Russia to be more transparent about what they are up to take steps to live up to the Minsk agreements.

Our support for Ukraine sovereignty territorial integrity remains unwavering.

You asked about the anti-satellite test as well. What’s most troubling about that is the danger it creates for the international community. It undermines strategic stability. As you know, there’s a debris field there now that will be there for, forever – and it’s a safety concern. And so we would call upon Russia to act more responsibly going forward. I mean, they have the ability, they know exactly what kind of debris field they’re going to create, so we wonder why they would move to do such a thing.

Q: A step toward weaponization of space or conflict in space?

SEC. AUSTIN:  Certainly we -- we are concerned about the weapon -- weaponization of space and we would certainly call upon Russia and all countries to act in a responsible manner in this regard, so.

Let me call on Eric Schmitt.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. On the issue of civilian casualties, military operators have used the justification for these strikes, not only in Kabul on August 29th but also a strike on March 18th in 2019 that we reported on Sunday -- the New York Times did -- the justification they used was self-defense. 

My question is how concerned are you that -- over all these years of military activity, going up against organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, how concerned are you that military operators are using self-defense perhaps too casually, even deliberately, as a way of -- of -- of circumventing the steps around -- the measures that have been in place to mitigate civilian casualties? 

And I have one follow up after that.

SEC. AUSTIN: So that's three questions and one follow up there, Eric, so ... 

(Laughter.)

Just kidding. At the outset, Eric, let me just highlight that we -- we do work very hard to avoid causing harm to civilians. Every -- every civilian casualty is a tragedy. But I would also say that I have no doubt that we can work harder -- and I'd go beyond that and say we must work harder.

I'm committed to adjusting our policies and our procedures to make sure that we improve and I'll be holding all our senior leaders responsible for putting those policies and procedures into effect as we go forward.

In terms of whether or not we are taking things casualty -- casually -- excuse me -- we take every strike very serious, Eric, and I think, again, it's incumbent upon us to -- to look at our procedures and our policies to make sure that we continue to refine them, and where we see -- where, you know, we're not doing things as well as we could, we -- we should -- we should adjust. And you'll -- my goal is to make sure that we improve upon our performance going forward.

Q: You mentioned -- this is my second question that leads into that -- now, you've said you've taken responsibility -- the military has taken responsibility for the casualties, again, both on August 29th, as well as the ones in Syria, and many others, but it's very -- it's very rare when the military actually holds anyone actually accountable or somebody -- there's administrative action or other -- some kind of other disciplinary action.

To what extent are you personally committed to holding people accountable now for these kind of actions?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, I -- I believe that leaders in this department should be held to account for high standards of conduct and leadership. And that's who we are and I believe that our troops understand that. And for my part as Secretary of Defense, I have every intent to uphold that standard.

Again, when we have a civilian casualty, we investigate that by standard procedure, and again, we'll look at our policies and procedures and make sure that we're as tight as possible going forward here.

Let me call on Jen Griffin.

Q: Thank you, sir. What, in your opinion, is the significance of the recent Chinese hypersonic weapon test? Some people in the Pentagon have said it's a Sputnik moment. General Hyten said it did not create the sense of urgency it should. Was this a Sputnik moment?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, those are terms that I -- I wouldn't use. I don't personally use. You know that we have concerns about military capabilities that the PRC continues to develop. 

I've highlighted the PRC as our pacing challenge and we continue to do everything that we can to develop the right capabilities and also, you know, the right concepts that we think will be necessary and will be effective in any kind of contest going forward. That includes China, Russia, or any other countries that would want to take us on.

We also have to maintain the capabilities to defend ourselves. You've heard me say a number of times that it's my job to defend this nation and I take that very seriously. This department takes that very seriously. 

And so we're working on -- as hard as we can to insure that we can defend ourselves against a range of threats going forward.

Q: And just to follow up, why has the Chinese been able to field a medium range hypersonic weapon and the U.S. has not?

SEC. AUSTIN: Jen, I don't know if they fielded those weapons but they're testing those weapons.

Q: I believe General Hyten did say that in the interview with CBS.

SEC. AUSTIN: All right. OK. Well, you know we -- we continue to move as fast as we can to develop capabilities. And again, we look at our full range of capabilities and not just one specific capability as we look at, you know, our -- our adversaries. And I believe we have robust capability across the board. 

Let me go to Wafaa Jibai.

Q: Thank you, sir, for taking my question. We have seen lately a pattern of provocative actions from Iran against the U.S. Navy that ended safely so far. Is the U.S. exercising self-restraint to avoid any escalation or to make way for diplomacy and what are the redlines that -- for the U.S. patience in that sense?

SEC. AUSTIN: Wafaa, I -- I don't think it's helpful to talk about redlines. But I want to be clear on a couple of points. You mentioned Iran's activity in the maritime domain. We continue to see unsafe and unprofessional actions as a operate -- as we operate in the -- in the gulf. 

And I think that kind of behavior affects everyone and it's very troubling. It certainly impacts freedom of navigation in, you know, everyone loses by these dangerous and disruptive actions.

And I know that we share those concerns with our allies and partners. You heard me say at the -- at the top that we won't hesitate to defend ourselves and our partners and -- and we're committed to that. We have a capability for that.

And so in terms of how we behave, we're always very prudent about what we do, but again, let no one mistake that we will defend ourselves, our interest and our partners.

Q: Just one more follow-up. So our understanding that your priority -- number one priority in the Middle East is to deter Iran but still Iran continues it's so called malign activities whether in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, in the Gulf. 

So how do you evaluate your policy of deterrence and is Iran taking it seriously in that way?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, it's not just us who are concerned about Iran's behavior in the region. It's all of our allies and partners in the region and all of our allies and partners, quite frankly, around the globe. You know the -- the -- the choke points and waterways that are in this region are very important to the international community, international commerce.

And so we're going to continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure that we communicate to Iran that this type of behavior won't be -- won't be tolerated. And again, we are prepared to defend our interest and -- and our partners going forward.

SEC. AUSTIN: Let me go to Meghann Myers.

Q: So Secretary Austin, the border mission is into its fourth year now. I understand you have ongoing discussions with the Homeland Security Secretary about their needs and your ability to meet them. What is the goal that you guys are working toward and is there a point at which you would decline their next request to bring more troops -- to continue to put troops down there?

SEC. AUSTIN: Yes. Well, thanks, Meghann. As you know and as you've indicated, our troops are there in support of Department of Homeland Defense so -- or Homeland Security. So we continue to work with the leadership to make sure that we're -- we're doing what we can to -- to enable their forces. 

I've talked with -- with the secretary on a number of occasions and we both agree that our goal is for them to develop the capability to conduct operations on their own. And so over time you'll see our presence diminish or -- and -- and you'll see Homeland Security take this over on their own. 

Q: So are they meeting those -- are they bench marked? Are they meeting that -- that progress and --

SEC. AUSTIN: They -- they -- they are making progress and I -- you know I don't have a specific date to put a pin on at this point in time. But I would tell you that we're moving in the right direction. 

And we'll have time for one last question there. I'll go to Tony Capaccio.

Q:  Sir, you started -- you started off by talking about the measures you're doing to delete financial strain on soldiers. You're on the 12th year -- 12th continuing resolution of the last 13 years -- fiscal years. 

What's been the damage to date over the first two months and if -- and as there's talk on Capitol Hill of extending it for a whole year, what are your budget people telling you it will be the greatest areas of major impact?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, Tony, I think you heard me say many months ago as -- as we were rolling out our budget that a long term continuing resolution is not helpful to anyone. It creates uncertainty and it limits our flexibility. 

When we have a long -- a long term C.R., we can't -- we can't create any new starts so we can't invest in the -- in the cutting edge technologies and capabilities that we're looking to bring on board. 

And the reason for that, obviously is we're straddled with last year's budget. Also, you know when you consider things like the fact that we've, you know, a raise has been authorized -- a well-deserved raise has been authorized for our troops, we'll have to take that -- absorb that raise out of the -- out of the current budget. 

And so that -- that creates less flexibility for us to do other things. And for example, some of the things that you -- initiatives that you mentioned, will be fine with the initiatives that you mentioned. We'll be fine with the initiatives that we've -- that I've announced, but again, I don't want to infringe upon our flexibility to do other things going forward.

Q: Are you lobbying the members of the -- the GOP members who are holding up the bill and threatening a -- a -- a – threatening a continuing resolution? Are you personally calling some of the members, saying "help us out?”

SEC. AUSTIN: You know, I -- I -- I continue to -- as you would expect, Tony, to communicate with our -- our Congressional leadership on a routine basis. And then quite frankly, I think that they -- they get it, as well, they -- they understand the -- the -- the concern, the severity of -- of the impact, and I -- I really believe that they're really working hard to -- to help us in this regard for the -- and -- and we'll continue to have those conversations.

But I thought I heard you say "lobbying" when you were talking to the Secretary of Defense. Is that ... 

Q: I do, it was a -- it was a slip of the tongue. Sorry.

(Laughter.)

SEC. AUSTIN: OK, all right -- all right.

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: All right. Thanks, everybody.

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