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

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Okay, I don't have an opening statement. I think Bob is on the line, so we'll start with you, Bob.

Q: Thank you, John. Good morning. I have a question for you about vaccinations. Now that the Army has put out their numbers, and if you look at the -- all the services together in the active duty, there is a relatively small percentage that are refusing the vaccine, but still, some thousands are -- seem to be headed for, you know, removal from the active-duty force in the coming weeks or months. And I'm wondering -- I -- I realize that the services handle these processes, but I'm wondering what the secretary's level of concern is that potentially, 10-, 20,000 or more members of the active-duty force are going to be forced out in the coming week -- coming weeks or months.

MR. KIRBY: Bob, I -- I -- I think his concern really is essentially around the -- the readiness of the force and the importance of the vaccine. What -- what he would tell these individuals if he had the chance to speak to them directly is to get the vaccine if -- if they're medically-eligible, obviously, get the vaccine because it's the best way to protect themselves and their units. That -- that's -- that's the readiness concern, is getting the vaccination rate as close to 100 percent as possible. He trusts that the services, as they have, they will continue to manage this mandate according to their -- their own dictates, their own operational requirements, their own staffing and manning requirements, and that they'll do so appropriately.

No one's minimizing the -- the potential loss here, but I do think it's important to keep it into perspective. In the Army's case it's, you know, less than one percent of the force. And the Air Force, when they put out their initial numbers the other day, noted that, yes, 27 were initially being processed for administrative discharge, but 1,800 had been administratively-discharged throughout the year of 2021 for any number of other -- of other reasons.

So we don't want to see anybody administratively-discharged for not taking a vaccine because we want to see them take the vaccine, because it's -- because it's -- it's a -- a valid military medical requirement, and it makes them safer. It makes their units safer. It is, as the secretary said, a -- a very real readiness issue.

Sylvie?

Q: To put a (inaudible) on that, aren't you concerned that these discharges could trigger a new wave of extremism within this population of ex-military? Because it's -- it's a political question. The vaccine, it has been so much politicized.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: It's a political question. So this population of ex-military may well be people that are politicized and have a politicized view of this vaccine. So aren't you concerned it could -- they could become new extremists?

MR. KIRBY: Sylvie, I -- I -- I certainly wouldn't speak for each individual and what's motivating them in -- in these cases not to take the vaccine, and our concern right now is on the readiness of the force. And as the secretary said, the readiness of the force is made stronger by getting everybody vaccinated. That's -- that's our concern right now. It's -- it -- it is really on the -- the military -- I'm sorry, the -- the medical readiness of -- of our men and women.

Q: About extremism, do you know when you are going to publish the report?

MR. KIRBY: Soon. Joe?

Q: Thank you, John. Two topics. First, in regards to the F-35 deal with the UAE, is the Pentagon, from -- from a military point of view, is the Pentagon concerned that the technology of the F-35 could be transferred to a third party?

MR. KIRBY: I would just say, Joe, that we're -- we're -- we're always concerned about technology transfer to nations that -- that have an adversarial view of -- of our commitment to a rules-based international order.

There are end-user requirements with every foreign military sale -- I'd refer you to the State Department for more detail about that -- and those -- those are important, they're important safeguards when we participate in foreign military sales and they're non-negotiable.

Q: But the -- as you may know, the UAE and the United States are, like, really close partners in many -- in many fields. Why is the concern in regards to the UAE? I mean, is it -- is it a matter of trust?

MR. KIRBY: The -- as you said right at the outset and we -- we readily -- readily acknowledge, we're -- we're close partners with the UAE. In fact, the Secretary was just there not long ago to thank them for their -- not only the -- the broader contributions to -- to regional security but because of the help that they gave us in the evacuation back in August of -- of individuals out of Afghanistan.

They were a -- a key partner in that effort and they remain a key partner across many other efforts. They're here, in fact, in town, yesterday and today, for the joint military dialogue. We'll have a readout of that meeting later today. So all evidence of the -- the partnership still being strong.

Look, they raised questions and concerns. We have questions and concerns of our own, and we'll work our way through that. As I said the other day, you know, we still would like to see this sale go through and we're still open to dialogue with the UAE about it.

Q: On -- on a different topic, quick question -- are you concerned of the -- the Wagner -- Russian Wagner Group's activities in -- in Africa? We've seen them in the Central African Republic in Madagascar and now in Mali. What's your -- your take on that?

MR. KIRBY: We're aware of the reports that Mali may be considering hiring a Russian-supported private military group known as the Wagner Group -- I may not get the pronunciation right on that.

Given the group's record, any role for Russian mercenaries in Mali will likely exacerbate an already fragile and unstable situation and would complicate the international response and support of the transitional -- the transition government of Mali.

The Department of Defense, as you know, suspended security cooperation and military training with Malian Armed Forces following the August 2020 coup.

So we are working to encourage the restoration of safety and security for the Malian people and a successful transition towards a legitimate, constitutional role -- rule in Mali.

Tom?

Q: John, could you talk about readiness and the vaccine? The services must have a sense at this point about which units -- the -- we -- you may have clusters of people who just -- "we're not going to take the vaccine." So it could be a brigade of the 101st, could be 2/8 Marines.

So is -- is the Secretary getting, you know, reports about which particular units that may be -- have a readiness issue? And is that -- if that's the case, are the services kind of looking to plug in, you know, soldiers or Marines or -- or sailors where they believe they're going to have some sort of a -- a cluster or a gap?

MR. KIRBY: He's being routinely updated by the services about their vaccination status. I don't know if it goes to that level of detail, Tom, in terms of, like, units. I also don't know -- and I would point you to the services for this -- whether there are, as you put it, clusters or not, or whether it's fairly spread out across the force. That's really a question that the services could answer.

But obviously, military readiness remains a priority for the Secretary across the board. So yes, military readiness means, in the Secretary's mind, 100 percent vaccination rate, right -- that's what we want, that's what we're driving to -- but military readiness also takes other forms -- you know, it's training, it's maintenance of equipment, you know, it's -- it's striking the right balance with OPTEMPO. There's a lot that goes into military readiness. It's always on his mind and it will be going forward on this.

But again, I'd go back to what he has said so many times -- in his view, the -- the best antidote -- pardon the pun -- for military readiness is to get the vaccine, in -- in -- in terms of military readiness -- or medical readiness.

Q: Clearly, thousands are not going to do that at this point.

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, just looking at the Army's numbers, I can't dispute that estimate. And in -- and so they -- they will -- as I think the Army said, they're going to give them a little bit more time to try to make the right decision here before administrative discharge processing begins. I don't think they're going to do that until next month.

So these thousands that we're talking about, they still have an opportunity to do the right thing, to do the right thing for themselves and for their -- for their units. And we obviously hope that they will, but if they don't, it is a lawful order and it -- it has to be obeyed because it is a valid medical requirement.

Yeah?

Q: I have another vaccine question. As more people get booster shots across the country, people in the service are getting booster shots, as well, do you think the services would ever make that information public, for the percentage that has booster shots or not?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know that we've made a policy decision about -- about whether or not that data is obtainable and releasable. As you know, we have not mandated booster shots across the force. That is still being discussed here at the Pentagon, the efficacy of doing that.

I think certainly, if we would move to a mandatory booster requirement, that would obviously compel us to collect data on that. I just -- I don't know what the data looks like right now and whether that's something that -- that could be collated.

Q: (inaudible) it would come, like, secondary sort of thing, the --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: -- should there be -- should there be a -- a -- a decision to mandate a -- a -- a boost -- a booster, obviously I think that would compel us to -- to have data, to -- to represent that mandate with data, the way we have with the vaccines themselves.

I'm not aware of any intent or -- or -- or even data availability at this point to -- to speak to how many have gotten boosters. I -- I -- I -- so I -- I -- I really don't have an update for you on that, you know?

Let's see -- Paul Shinkman?

Q: Yeah, hi, John. I'm staying on the vaccine mandate -- so despite your statements and some of the new numbers we've seen this week, critics, including Senator Inhofe, still say that he believes that the Defense Department, as he says, "cannot answer basic questions about the impact the mandate will have on the total force."

So my question is does DOD now have an understanding of the potential worst case effect of these potential separations across the services or is that something you're still studying as we learn more about the actual numbers of discharges?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Paul, I mean, we're -- we're just at a -- a point here where the administrative processing is really just beginning. I mean, the Air Force just this week talked about 27. The Army now has a few thousand but they're not going to even begin the processing until next month. And it's possible that some number of -- of -- of those Army soldiers may -- after taking some time to think about it, may come around and take the vaccine.

So I just don't think we're at a point now where, you know, we can draw a line and say "Okay, this is exactly what -- what impact these separations are having on the force." I just don't think that we're there yet because there are still opportunities here for people to do -- to do the right thing.

That said, as I told Tom, what's -- what the secretary believes is -- is the right thing for readiness is to get the vaccine. And obviously we watch readiness across a scope of other metrics. And we're going to be constantly watching to see if there is any impact as a result of these separations. And if there is, then obviously, you know, we'll -- we'll address that. But it's just too early right now to -- to know what, if any, unit readiness impact there is going to be from these. I would -- I would point you -- again, we're early on here, early on. So, with that caveat I'd point you to -- to look at the context and the perspective of the numbers we're seeing so far. Twenty-seven airmen and what could be a few thousand soldiers, less than 1 percent of the entire active-duty Army. So, again, not not minimizing the importance of it. Not saying that we want any -- we don't even want one soldier to be administratively discharged because of refusal to take the vaccine. But I do think some context and perspective about the scope here, the size of the numbers is important when you look at the entire total force.

Yes, Jim?

Q: And yet you said 27 airmen and you said I think it was 1,800 total had been administratively discharged over the past year.

MR. KIRBY: 1,800 for non-COVID-related purposes over the course of '21. That was what the Air Force put out.

Q: You have the same statistics for the Army?

MR. KIRBY: No, I don't. I'd point you to the Army for that.

Tara Copp.

Q: Hi, John. Thanks for taking my question. I've got two that are vaccine-related. You know, you saw the letter from all the governors yesterday with the National Guard which is kind of a separate issue, is the secretary beginning to reach out to the National Guard Bureau with any readiness concerns because if more and more Guard governors say they're own units do not have to be vaccinated, at what point does this really become a readiness issue?

And then I have a follow-up on Sylvie's question, you know, is the Pentagon thinking about not wanting to alienate these soldiers, airmen, et cetera because it is a -- unfortunately the vaccine has become a political issue and what's the risk of pushing those service-members out and, you know, maybe encouraging them to join extremist groups?

MR. KIRBY: So on your first question, he is in regular touch with the National Guard Bureau leadership as well as the service leadership about the status of the, of their vaccination progress.

On the second the question, what we want, and I think it -- I know you all are getting probably tired of me saying this, what we want is 100 percent vaccination. We want these people to do the right thing for themselves and for their units. It is a lawful order. It is a valid military medical requirement. And so that's the secretary's desire. Your -- your question potentially presupposes that -- that and I'm not saying you said this, Tara, but the extreme opposite view of your question would be that we wouldn't enforce this lawful order, this medical requirement because we'd be worried that we might radicalize a member of the armed forces. What -- what's driving these individuals not to take the vaccine is for them to speak to. It's for them to know. It's for them to have to account for.

We still believe it's the right thing to get vaccinated to stay safe, to keep yourself safe and your unit safe, your family safe. And that if -- if they choose to violate this lawful order, then they will -- they will -- will have to face whatever administrative consequences come as a result of that, according to service dictates. And -- and -- and then, you know, then it's for them -- obviously, their decision, if they -- if they want to go that route, and for them to speak to why they made that decision.

This is -- there's -- there's no reason why this has to become an -- an issue of extremism or not. And while -- while it may be a political issue in society, it's not a political issue here in the United States military; it is a valid military medical requirement, and it is a lawful order to accept the vaccine, to take the vaccine, and that's how we're looking at this. We're looking at it from the science, and we're looking at it from the readiness perspective.

Q: Thank you. And just one quick follow-up --

MR. KIRBY: Luis Martinez?

Q: Am I --

Q: If Tara wants to finish her question, go ahead, and then I'll go.

MR. KIRBY: Do you have more?

Q: Just real quick on the readiness. With the National Guard units sent those units in, you know, potentially all 50 states, that will have members that are not vaccinated, is the secretary or the Pentagon, National Guard Bureau looking ahead and planning for a contingency in case there are not enough members in a particular unit that are vaccinated, and can be activated?

MR. KIRBY: Remember, the National Guard has a longer lead time here, Tara. They don't -- their deadline doesn't expire until June of 2022. So it's just too early to say whether there's going to be a readiness impact, you know, come next summer. We just, we're not there yet. The -- the National Guard is obviously structured differently than the active-duty forces, and so we've got some that, you know, what, seven months before their -- their deadline is up. So I don't want to get ahead of things or ahead of where we are right now.

Luis?

Q: Thanks, John. Questions about the incident in Syria. Can you talk to us about the shootdown of a drone, what -- what we know about it? And have there been other incursions similar to this that have not resulted in shootdowns? Are -- are there, like, warnings or something that can be used to figure out whether a drone is actually on a -- on an attack pattern or something like that before it leaves the incursion area?

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Okay, so on your -- on your first question, I think CENTCOM already spoke to this, but there were two unmanned aerial systems, i.e., drones that were tracked entering the At Tanf Garrison deconfliction zone on the evening of the 14th of December. As one of these drones continued its course deeper into the deconfliction zone, it was assessed as demonstrating a hostile intent and was shot down. The second one was not engaged, and likely left the area there. I -- I checked the -- this morning. There's still no indications or reports of any casualties and no damage to facilities, and I believe -- I believe, according to CENTCOM, the United Kingdom has confirmed that -- that the -- that they, in fact, shot down the other drone over Syria.

So -- and then to your second question, I mean, Luis, we obviously have force protection as a priority. We know that this is a -- an increasingly-used and increasingly-lethal -- potentially-lethal threat that these Iran-backed militia groups are -- are using, the -- the use of -- of -- of drones. And so I won't get into specific tactics, techniques and procedures used by Central Command to -- to deal with the -- the drone threat, but -- but it is -- it -- it is something that we are absolutely focused on. We certainly do the best we can to track and to -- and to deal with this threat in real time, as you saw just yesterday. But I -- I won't go any -- any -- in any more detail than that.

Q: Can I follow up? When you said the U.K. is acknowledging the shoot-down, are -- are you saying that in the end, both of those drones were shot down?

MR. KIRBY: Just one.

Q: Okay, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, John. I have a non-vaccine question. The NDAA just got passed by the Senate yesterday. The -- the president's expected to sign it fairly soon, maybe today. What provisions is the -- is the secretary most pleased or satisfied with in terms of added dollars? And conversely, what provisions is he most concerned about that might impact department operations?

MR. KIRBY: Tony, terrific question. I think you can understand we're -- we're not going to get ahead of where the legislation is right now. It -- it has to obviously go to the president, and we are -- we're -- we're not going to get ahead of the -- the president's decision-making space here.

I would just tell you, broadly speaking, the secretary continues to stand by the budget that we submitted back in late spring, early summer, and the provisions in that budget.

Q: Well, hey, this -- this is not the budget he provide -- he proposed. So did the secretary propose to this -- the president that he veto the legislation?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about advice and counsel that the secretary provides the president, and we're certainly not going to get ahead of the president's decision space on this.

Q: Can I ask you, has OMB provided you the pass -- so-called pass-back ?) for the F.Y. '23 budget yet, you know, that outlines broadly what the department's requests could be?

MR. KIRBY: We'll have to take that question, Tony, but you also should consult OMB, too.

Q: Yeah, but you're the recipient of it, so you would know is some --

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Can I ask you one Army vaccine question?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: There a provision in there that would limit funding for Morocco's participation in joint exercises, if there's not a -- I think it's significant progress towards a peace agreement with Western Sahara. Does -- has the department assessed that that may affect, you know, joint exercises, African Lion 2022?

MR. KIRBY: Again, we're not going to get ahead of -- of -- of pending legislation here. It's not -- it's -- it's not the -- it hasn't been signed by the president, and I -- and it would be inappropriate for us to comment about pending provisions here, absent of the president's signature. It -- we don't -- I'm not going to get ahead of him on that.

Yeah, Oren?

Q: Just a -- a very quick question. It was a couple days ago before the Army deadline that you said active duty is 97.2 percent vaccinated. I was just wondering if now that we are past the Army deadline if -- if that number is updated at all.

MR. KIRBY: I don't know. Let's see. Let's consult the iPad, which is breaking now. I got it. I got it.

All right. Active-duty personnel with at least one dose administered, 97.23 percent. Active-duty personnel as of -- today's the 16th, right? So this is as of yesterday because we're briefing a little earlier in the day. Active-duty personnel fully vaccinated stands at 90.71 percent. The total force, when you wrap in the Reserves in the Guard now, including any -- oh, and the active-duty, everybody together, at least one dose is 89.79 percent, so just under 90 percent. And -- and the fully vaccinated stands at 74.5 percent. So basically 75 percent, like we talked about. So no major changes really in the math.

Q: So nothing about the civilians -- DOD civilians?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that number for you on the civilians right now, no.

Okay, thanks, everybody.