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Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Hey, everybody.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Just at the top here, I do have one clarification on something I said yesterday. As we announced in the 53rd U.S.-ROK joint communique, as well as the joint press conference that followed the security consultative meeting,  Secretary Austin and the ROK defense minister agreed to conduct a full operational capability assessment of the Combined Forces Command during next fall's combined command post training, not during the summer.  I think I alluded to summer as a window for those discussions, and that was incorrect.  It's fall, so with my apologies for the mistake, we'll start with questions.

Bob?

Q:  Yes, thank you, John.  I wanted to ask you about the reports, I think first published by the Wall Street Journal today, that the UAE is in some manner backing away from or backing out of the F-35 deal out of concern for the U.S. security requirements. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, so I just would say a couple of things on that, Bob.  I've seen the reporting.

The U.S. partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapons sale.  We are committed to working with the UAE to address their and our questions with respect to this sale.  We are always ready to discuss this sale and any potential sale with our Emirati partners.  We will always insist, as a matter of statutory requirements and policy, on a variety of end-user requirements.  That's typical.  And these end-user requirements and protection of U.S. defense equipment are universal, nonnegotiable and not specific to the UAE.

Q:  Can you say whether this is going to -- is there going to be a session tomorrow or today at the Pentagon to discuss this and other issues with the UAE officials?

MR. KIRBY:  I mean, the joint military dialogue was set to start tomorrow between us and the Emiratis, and we're looking forward to that meeting.  And the meeting wasn't designed to talk about a military sale; It was designed talk about the broad scope of our defense relationship with the UAE.  But I would anticipate that this would be something that we would take advantage of the opportunity to talk with them about their concerns, as well as sharing our concerns about the sale.

I do want to remind that, and I think you all know this, that the foreign military sales are the province of the State Department.  But yes, I do believe that tomorrow's dialogue will give us an opportunity to at least share the mutual concerns on this.

Q:  So who -- who would be leading that? (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY:  I'll get you that. I don't want to speculate.  I'll get you that.

Q:  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.  Seems like we don't have a lot.

Yes, sir?

Q:  Both the Navy and the Air Force has started relieving service members of duty as a result of the vaccine mandate.  Can you talk about how this is developing, as well as any expectations for a total number of separations?

MR. KIRBY:  I'd have to refer you to the services on separations.  I mean, that's a service-specific military department responsibility, and as we said from the very beginning, the secretary was going to delegate the authority to manage the mandatory vaccine at the service level.

You've seen that the Air Force has announced a discharge, a pending discharge, of 27 members who have refused to get the vaccine.  I can't speak for the Navy.  I think they should speak for how they're going to handle the vaccine requirement.

But I, you know, I gave you guys numbers the other day, and I can update them today.  Just to put it in some perspective for you, active-duty personnel with at least one dose is now over 97 percent, almost 97.2 percent.  Active-duty personnel that are fully vaccinated stands at 90 -- almost 91 percent of the total force, including Reserves and -- and the Guard with at least one dose, it's 89 and a half percent.  So almost 90 percent of the total force has at least one dose, and fully vaccinated stands at just under 75 percent.

So the vast majority of our people, and this shouldn't get lost, the vast majority are doing the right thing and did the right thing even before the vaccine was mandatory.  But they're getting the shot, and so I think it's important to keep that perspective.

But again, to your specific question, that's really, we're going to defer to the services to speak to how they're going to handle the vaccine mandate.

Q:  Are there any updates around a possible booster requirement?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any updates for you.  It is still under active discussion here at the Pentagon, but there's been no policy decision made about requiring the booster shot, making it mandatory. 

Again, I want to add, the secretary strongly encourages those who are eligible to get the booster shot, because the science does show that it absolutely helps reduce the risks of contracting and certainly, for those who get it, breakthrough cases, the science shows that it minimizes the effects of COVID.  So we strongly encourage people, again, who are eligible to get the booster.

Q:  Two quick follow-ups.  Do you know how many service members have received the booster at this point?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't. Again, because it's not mandatory, Oren, so it's not something that we're tracking centrally.  The services might have a better idea of that, but as you know, eligibility has increased over time, so even not everybody has been eligible for the booster, based on their own demographics, so I don't believe we're tracking that centrally.

Q:  And is there an expected or anticipated number of sort of total separations, or anything like that?

MR. KIRBY:  I couldn't give you an estimate.  Again, I think I think that was the question he asked. So two points.

One, the services are really managing the vaccine mandate, and whatever administrative or punitive measures come as a result of those who refuse to take it as a lawful order, that's really a service-specific requirement.  And I certainly defer to the services but I'd be surprised if they can offer you a predictive analysis of exactly how this is -- you know, how -- where they're going to go over time on this.

But I think, you know, again, perspective is important here.  In the Air Force alone in 2021, they administratively discharged over 1,800 Department of the Air Force service members for non-COVID-related reasons.  So I get the focus on the 27 but again, administrative discharges are a common practice and you can see the numbers- a vast majority -- vast, vast majority had nothing to do with COVID.

Q:  (Inaudible).  I’d like to ge back to the UAE. Can you say what are some of these requirements and what you described as questions related to concerns about China and Chinese influence inside of the UAE?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get more specific than I did, Fadi.  Again, we felt it was incumbent to answer these questions because the Emiratis are coming to town, but I'd point you to the State Department.  They are in charge of foreign military sales, not the Department of Defense, and so they are really a better agency to speak to specifics on this.

Q:  Are the requirements that are asked of the Emiratis to meet the same to every sale related to the F-35?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, end-use requirements are typical for every foreign military sale but they're not all the same because it depends on what you're selling and how that item is going to be used.  So again, I'd point you to the State Department, their Bureau of Political Military Affairs.  They run the foreign military sales program and they are a much better source for you than the Department of Defense on this.  But end-use requirements are not atypical, they are in fact standard, as you would expect them to be.  We have obligations to the American people and to our own national security interests when we engage in the sale of weapons and systems.

Q:  Yeah, but I'm asking the question just to understand from a technical point of view.  When the U.S. decides, in negotiations, for a deal regarding the F-35, I'm talking about this program, so what I understood, your requirements for each nation can be different, depending on various variables or considerations, right?

MR. KIRBY:  Conditions on the sales can be different, depending on the circumstances, but I'm not going to go into any more detail than I just did.  You really should talk to the State Department.

Yes, ma'am?

Q:  On the Red Hill issue, I know you talked about it yesterday, the Deputy Secretary is there today.  What's the hope to get out of her visit there?  And there seems to be a lot of finger pointing when it comes to the issue.  Is it about what the source is and the problem that contaminated the water?

MR. KIRBY:  Finger pointing by whom?

Q:  There seems to be, between local officials, and Navy officials on the ground as to what the source is and like how this came to be an issue.  Can the Pentagon assure the folks that this is going to be handled?  People are still displaced ahead of the holidays, from what we understand.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.  You're right, the Deputy Secretary is there today and she's going to get a chance to not only talk to Navy and local officials but even to some of the families who have been displaced and affected by the contamination of the water supply there.

I think you saw in the Secretary's statement yesterday that he is personally tracking and monitoring this, it has his personal attention.  So to your question about how seriously is the department taking this- we're taking it very seriously.  Our first concern, as is the Navy's, is the health and well-being of all those who are affected by it, not just our people but our neighbors too.

And so they're working very hard to make sure that those who are displaced are getting the care and attention and the sustenance requirements that they need.  I don't know, and I couldn't predict, I'd refer you to the Navy, about how long they will be displaced.

Obviously, we understand this is a particularly tough time of year to not be in your home.  We're mindful of that.  But we also don't want to return them to those homes until we know it's safe to do so and that they can have clean water to use.  So the Navy's working this very, very hard.

As for the finger pointing, I would just tell you that, and the Secretary has -- you saw it in the statement, his expectation is that Navy leaders are going to work hand in glove with local officials, local and the state officials, to get the water cleaned up, to get the people back in their homes, and to make sure that we fully understand the origin of this contamination and can rectify that so that it can't happen again, and of course to work with local authorities on whatever clean up needs to happen.

So I can't speak to the circumstances that you're alluding to, except to say again that the Secretary's expectation is we're going to work in lockstep with local and the state authorities.

Q:  And one follow up on that, does this situation highlight other potential infrastructure problems on other bases that the military is looking at?  There's been reporting that possibly this could be something that became used by a foreign actor to, you know, incite something.  So is this alluding to a greater problem within infrastructure problems within the military?

MR. KIRBY:  We have seen no indications that this was the result of some sort of, you know, maligned activity by a foreign actor or an outside actor.  I don't want to get ahead of the investigation but let me just make that clear right away.

As I said the other day, the Secretary's expectation is that commanders and leaders all throughout the world, and certainly here at home, are doing what they need to do, when they have fuel storage facilities available to them or that they are responsible for, that they are managing those facilities in the most safe and responsible and environmentally conscious way possible and that they're meeting all state and federal guidelines and regulations in doing so.

I don't think, because again we’re still investigating this, it's difficult to say what happened at Red Hill, what relevance or correlation there may be between that and any other fuel storage facility.  Important to remember, again, I'm not alluding to anything, I'm not trying to get ahead of the investigation, but it is a very old facility, built right after World War II.  And it's very unique in its purpose and the size and scope of the storage -- the fuel storage that it holds, 2.5 million gallons.  So it's a unique facility with a unique structure and architecture around it.

But, again, Navy is investigating this, as you saw in the statement that the secretary released.  The Navy is also going to call in an independent outside assessor to come in as well to take a look at the at what happened and what steps need to be taken to avoid this from ever happening again.  So there is a lot of work and energy being applied to better understanding this.  And obviously, if there is lessons learned, gleaned from all this that that can be applied and should be applied elsewhere, rest assured we will do that.  But we want to make sure that we put the time to really completely understand what happened.

Jim?

Q:  Do you have an update on the military/National Guard support to those states affected by the tornado?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't, Jim.  I don't.  I mean, as I said, so while… Actually, these are updates, aren't they?  Nearly 500 personnel from the Kentucky National Guard have been called to duty.  Roughly 80 of them for recovery support, another 50 for assisting the Department of Forestry in debris clearance.  I talked about aerial storm damage assessment, law enforcement support, about 90 military police, traffic control support will comprise about 100 personnel, various other missions now equal about 150.  And there are four UH-60 helicopters on standby for incident awareness and assessment flights, three in Kentucky and one in Tennessee.  So I apologize, I apparently did have an update.

Q:  OK.  And the Corps of Engineers, are they playing in this?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, as I said yesterday, they are responding to two FEMA mission assignments.  One is regional activation.  And the other is temporary emergency power.  And we can get you the detail of what those two mission areas include if you want more detail on that.  But there has been no change to Army Corps of Engineers assistance since yesterday.

Anybody else? 

Ryo?

Q:  Thank you, John.  I meant to ask you about the U.S.-China relations.  Yesterday, Indo-Pacific Command announced it would have a three-day (inaudible) meeting with their Chinese counterpart. DoD had a similar meeting for the China Military Power Report late last month.  So do you think that the Chinese military is more willing to engage with the United States now, compared with before President Biden and President Xi's partial meeting in November?

MR. KIRBY:  I think the secretary has talked about this.  And we welcome opportunities for dialogue with the Chinese.  And we have participated, as you noted, at lower levels in some of that dialogue.  And there is still military-to-military contact between our two nations.  And that's important to try to lower the risk from miscalculation.  And so I think you are going to see those efforts continue.  Whether it's more or less, I mean, I'm not prepared to say one way or the other.

We still have significant concerns about Chinese behavior in the Indo-Pacific regions in particular, coercive, aggressive behavior that still gives us pause, as it must.  And we are still concerned about military capabilities that they continue to advance, capabilities which are clearly designed to try to limit our freedom of action in the Indo-Pacific, as well as that of our allies and partners.  And so we're going to be frank and honest and candid with our Chinese counterparts, as appropriate.

Mallory from USNI?

Q:  Hi, John.  Thanks for taking my question.  I wanted to go back to the vaccines for a moment.  How worried is the Pentagon about force readiness, given the number of separations that are starting to take place?

MR. KIRBY:  I think, Mallory, the concern on force readiness is on making sure that we can get as many people vaccinated as possible.  As the secretary has said, a vaccinated force is a more-ready force.  So when it comes to readiness, our interest is on making sure that we get as close to 100 percent vaccination as possible so that the force can be protected.  That's the concern.

I can't predict what the separation policies are going to lead to in terms of numbers.  As I said, the Air Force is the first to come out with a number.  It's important to keep that number in context; 27 out of more than 1,800 that were separated for other reasons.  Administrative separations are not new, and we're going to leave it to the services to manage this in the way that they deem most appropriate.

But again, the readiness issue is about getting the numbers of vaccinated personnel as high and as close to 100 percent as we can make it.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Roxanna, are you there?

Q:  Yes, hi, John.  Sorry.  It took me a while to unmute.  Just a quick question.  Are you seeing any kind of movement or evidence that Russia's moving its troops away from the Ukrainian border?

MR. KIRBY:  No.  We have not.

Q:  (inaudible) solution there.  West of the Ural Mountains, the western side of the -- thank you.  Are you concerned that Russians are (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  Look, I think President Biden, when he spoke to President Putin, was very direct about where our concerns are here, and he made no concessions; made very clear that we're monitoring this closely and that we want to see the situation de-escalated, and that's what our focus is on.  So we're continuing to consult with allies and partners about their concerns and what they're seeing, as well.  And as Jake Sullivan said very clearly the other day, we will be thinking through what are the best options to respond in case there is another incursion.

Q:  That’s about Ukraine, but in general, is there a way for the U.S. military to, in order to de-escalate with Russians, to pull out some of the forces or weapons under (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY:  I would just point you back to what the president's -- his conversation with President Putin where he made clear what our concerns are and what the consequences would be if there's another incursion, and he made no concessions.  I'd leave it at that.

Okay, thanks, everybody.