Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Dec. 17, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Thanks for your patience in starting a little bit late on a Friday afternoon. I do have a few things to start out with.

So I think you saw this morning that Secretary Austin spoke during a Hall of Heroes induction ceremony that was conducted over at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. That ceremony honored the recent Medal of Honor recipients, Army Master Sergeant Earl Plumlee, Army Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe and Army Sergeant First Class Christopher Celiz. We echo, of course, President Biden in saying that we are grateful for all that these three soldiers have done, and we certainly honor their courage and -- and bravery under exceptional circumstances.

As I mentioned previously, the Defense Policy Board met this week for the first time since completing -- since we've completed Secretary Austin's zero-based review process. That board, which is chaired by Madeleine Albright, received classified briefings on China military modernization, the National Defense Strategy priorities and strategic approach, integrated deterrence, the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review. Secretary Austin joined the meeting yesterday to receive an out-brief from the board on their findings after reviewing a draft version of the still-classified 2021 National Defense Strategy. The secretary thanked the members for their continued dedication to the nation and their sound advice and counsel as the department continues to refine the NDS.

As you know, the Defense Policy Board is chartered to provide independent advice and recommendations on matters concerning defense policy in response to specific tasks from the secretary, the deputy secretary or the undersecretary of defense for policy. A full readout will be posted on defense.gov later today.

Also on the Secretary's plate today -- this morning he spoke by phone with German Federal Minister of Defense Christine Lambrecht this morning to congratulate her on her new appointment to the role. The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to strong U.S.-German defense cooperation, both bilaterally and of course within the NATO alliance.

They discussed their commitment to work together on a full range of challenges, including addressing Russia's destabilizing actions in Eastern Europe, ensuring NATO alliance unity, maintaining positive trajectory on defense investments, and of course increasing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. A -- a full readout of that should be posted, if not now, certainly very soon on our website.

I'm sure that some of you have also been tracking some recent confirmation hearings. We were very pleased to see the confirmations of John Sherman, the Chief -- new Chief Information Officer, and Nickolas Guertin, the new Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, and of course Admiral Chris Grady, the new Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We welcome them all to their new roles, welcome some of them back into public service, and the Secretary's looking forward to -- to working closely with all three of them.

As I think you know, December 18th is National Wreaths Across America Day. It will kick off tomorrow at 8 am at Arlington National Cemetery, as wreaths will be placed at each marker by volunteers. Chairman Milley plans to attend that ceremony. The event has grown over the past 30 years to include now nearly 3,000 participating locations all across the country. And of course if anyone would like to volunteer, you can go to their website at wreathsacrossamerica.org.

And then lastly, later today, the -- this afternoon, U.S. Air Forces Central will release their Airpower Summary Reports covering February 2020 through November 2021. These reports will provide an overview of air operations, to include strikes, conducted in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan under Combined Forces Air Component Commander authorities.

As you know, the public release of airstrikes in Afghanistan was paused in March of 2020 due to sensitivity surrounding the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. It is important to remember that during this time, DOD continued to -- I'm sorry -- continued to collect and analyze the data and provided it to Inspectors General for inclusions in -- in their regular reports to Congress.

Seeking to remain as transparent as possible, the Secretary directed that this data again be made publicly releasable. These reports will be available, as I said, later today on U.S. Air Forces Central's website at afcent.mil. And again, they'll go back to February 2020 and then they'll continue going forward.

With that, we'll take questions. Lita?

Q: One quick thing on that. Are those monthly reports that are just going to all be shoved out or is there one big report on that time span?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know what it's going to look like when you click on the website but there'll be the monthly summaries going back to February 2020, and then going forward, every month, as it used to be.

Q: Okay. And then just another question on vaccines. Since the services are now starting to release some of their discipline -- and you addressed this a little bit the other day -- is there any concern by the Secretary and have there been discussions between him and some of the service chiefs and secretaries about discipline and any effort to ensure that it's equal across the services, such that if you're treated one way by the Marine Corps, you're going to largely be treated the same way, given similar circumstances, by the Army or the Air Force?

MR. KIRBY: Lita, I -- I think in general, that will most likely be the case. I mean, you've -- you've already heard the services talk about the fact that they are, even as deadlines have lapsed, offering their troops even more time to get vaccinated before taking any administrative action. And administrative discharges generally occur the same -- in the same process across the services. Now there might be slight differences, but an administrative discharge, that process is not so unique among the services.

So the secretary is not overly concerned that there will be vast differences between one service over another as they process these individuals for administrative separation. And it is administrative. It's not -- you know, it's not as a result of a legal proceeding in that -- you know, like a court martial. And, again, this is -- administrative discharges, as you know, are a fairly common practice so that the processes are pretty similar across the services.

Yes, Jen?

Q: So, John, let me get your reaction to the fact that 60,000 Afghan interpreters who had applied for SIV visas remain behind in Afghanistan, 33,000 of them are cleared for vetting. This is based on The Wall Street Journal article that quotes State Department officials. Will the U.S. -- will the U.S. military be helping with evacuating those people? And 60,000 interpreters being left behind is pretty significant.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I've seen the press reporting and I certainly would refer you to the State Department for validation of the numbers, Jen. As you know, that program is not administered by DOD. That said, the secretary continues to believe strongly that we have a moral obligation to help those who helped us, especially, you know, interpreters and translators and people that -- that literally put their lives on the line with our men and women in uniform. He feels very strongly about that. That's why he continues to work closely with Secretary Blinken, and we, as a department, continue to work closely with State Department's task force to help identify and facilitate the movement out of Afghanistan of all those who have helped us. So as I've said many times, while the military mission in Afghanistan is over, the mission to help get our allies out and safely out of the country is not over.

And then to your second question, I do not foresee a U.S. military role in terms of facilitating the physical relocation of these individuals. We have been -- well, we as a government have been doing this through commercial and industrial aircraft, not using military aircraft. I don't see that changing.

Q: I'd also like to get your reaction to the former national security adviser to President Ghani, Hamdullah Mohib, who has given an interview in which he blames the Doha agreement for the fall of the Kabul government. So he's essentially blaming Zalmay Khalilzad's agreement under the Trump administration for the fall of the Afghan government.

MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen those comments. As you know, we're doing our own after-action review here. I certainly won't get ahead of the work that they're doing. As you've heard the secretary say, I mean, certainly the Doha agreement sent a powerful signal to our Afghan allies and the Afghan government that -- that the United States was leaving. There is no question about that. And we do believe it had -- it definitely had an impact on the morale of the ANDSF.

But, Jen, and without getting ahead of the after-action review, obviously, we've been talking a lot over the last several months about what happened in Afghanistan and I suspect we're going to learn there was a lot that led to the events of mid-August, a lot. And I -- I think we'd be reticent at this place in time to pin it on, you know, one thing, one -- one decision, one agreement, one meeting, one factor. I think it would be imprudent for us to do that right now.

Q: And just one last question. What has the Pentagon done to patch the Log4J software vulnerability?

This is the new -- that CISA put out the warning, federal government agencies are affected by this software vulnerability. They're -- Jen Easterly gave an interview yesterday. I mean, they're really sounding alarm bells. What has the Pentagon done to protect itself?

MR. KIRBY: So, US Cyber Command, the NSA and DOD Cyber Crime Center are taking rapid action right now to identify and mitigate the Log4j vulnerabilities by monitoring for malicious cyber activity and directing mitigation against potential exploitation. We continue to work with Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, CISA, on a whole-of-government response and sharing information with our interagency -- interagency and defense industrial base partners.

We reinforce the guidance and information that CISA has released and we strongly encourage everyone to follow their guidance to upgrade and patch accordingly.

I think you can understand for operations of operational security I'm not going to be able to get into the status of our network operations or information systems at this time.

Janne?

Q: Thank you, John.

On the NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act, and that the fiscal year 2022 Defense Authorization Act passed the U.S. Senate this week, and --

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, has what?

Q: Passed -- has passed this week.

MR. KIRBY: Passed through the Senate, yes.

Q: You want me to take off?

MR. KIRBY: You can take it off if you like.

Q: All right.

And the restriction on the reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea has been removed. So are you going to keep the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea at the current level?

MR. KIRBY: So the -- you're right: It passed the Senate. The president hasn't signed it into law, so I'm not going to get ahead of the president.

But I can assure you that there's no plans, no intention to change our alliance posture in any way. And -- and the secretary said as much, as you know, when we were in Seoul just a couple of weeks ago.

Q: That's what I was trying to ask you about.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: You already answered.

MR. KIRBY: And any changes at all -- not that I'm predicting any. We're committed to this alliance and to keeping our force posture there. You saw that that was referenced in the Global Posture Review.

But any changes whatever will always be done as an alliance decision in lockstep with our South Korean allies.

Q: So any numbers not changing in the 28,000 --

MR. KIRBY: I -- I'm not here to announce or to signal or to in any way provide an indication that there's going to be a change in posture on the Korean Peninsula.

And again I point you back to the secretary's comments when we were in Seoul.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Abraham?

Q: Thank you, John.

Two questions related there. I wondered if you could update us on the situation of the Russian troop build up on the border of Ukraine. Is there anything different there?

And then also Secretary Austin, of course, completed the Global Force Posture Review, but there have been no announcements about movements in some of the NATO eastern flank allies that're obviously interested in bolstering up the eastern flank. Are there going to be any announcements about possible new troop rotations anywhere in the world?

MR. KIRBY: No. Next question.

I'm just kidding.

We continue to monitor the situation in Russia and Ukraine of course. I don't have -- as I have tried not to do to get into intelligence assessments here from the podium. I'm not going to do that. But we haven't seen any -- we haven't seen any significant changes in the posture of Russian forces arrayed around the Ukrainian border. They are still there in large number, and that's as far as I think I'm going to go.

And then as to your second question, I have no new rotational deployments to speak to in terms of our -- our NATO allies. We have a lot of capability in the region. That capability's still there. Some of it is fixed, some of it is rotational. And as you heard Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor say, you know, if there's an incursion, another incursion, and if some of our NATO allies ask for additional capabilities or rotational elements, we will be positively disposed to consider that, but I have no such requests to speak to and no movements to speak to today.

Tara?

Q: Thanks, John. On the Airpower Summary Reports, going forward, will the department commit to continuing to release airstrike data in Afghanistan? And in that vein, have there been any U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal was complete?

MR. KIRBY: There have been no airstrikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal is complete, and yes, we are committed to providing summaries, should -- should that be the case. Just, that's why we're trying to get back to these -- these Airpower Summary Reports, which would -- they -- they're published by AFCENT, and -- and so Afghanistan would still fall within their writ.

Q: Will those strikes include DOD-conducted strikes only, or would, if there's a -- if there's a strike conducted by another government organization, would it -- would those also be counted in the data?

MR. KIRBY: My understanding -- and I will check this after the briefing, but my understanding is its U.S. only. We're responsible for our, you know, for our missions, so it would be U.S. only, but I'll -- I will just double check that.

Yeah, Rio.

Q: Thank you. Yesterday, the Biden administration had the Chinese study of military … for helping the Chinese military to get hold of brain-controlled weapons. But could you give us a sense of the DOD's assessment on what such weapons might do in greater detail? And how much is the DOD concerned about the Chinese military using such weapons in the battlefield in the future?

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, I missed the first part of your question. What weapons are we talking about?

Q: The brain-controlled weapons.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Brain-controlled weapons?

Q: Brain-controlled weapons?

MR. KIRBY: Okay. I'll tell you what, Rio, I don't have control of my brain today, so I'm going to take the question and -- and -- and we'll get back to you on that one. That's a very specific question that I was not prepared for, so we'll -- we'll take it and get back to you. Let me --

   (CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: What's that?

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Brain-controlled weapons, all right. Okay. We can do both. I can take it and send it out and if you want, I can read it out on Monday, as well. But I wasn't -- I -- I don't have anything for you on that one.

Let me go to the phones. Sylvie?

Q: Hello, John. My question was asked. Thank you.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY: Brain-controlled weapons. All right.

David Martin?

Okay, Dave, we'll come back to you. We missed you.

Oren from CNN?

Q: John, there are now seven Republican governors -- that includes Oklahoma's governor -- who are -- who are asking for a withdrawal or a retraction or an exemption from the National Guard vaccine mandate. Obviously, he's already responded to Oklahoma. When might you respond to the other governors? And is there any indication or suggestion that for any reason, the -- the response would be any different?

MR. KIRBY: We have not responded to those letters yet. We just got them. In fact, I think the latest one came in last night. Obviously, we will respond appropriately to -- to the governors regarding their concerns. I would just say that as we said to the Oklahoma governor, this is a valid military medical requirement, the vaccine. It makes for a more ready force and it is in the secretary's authorities to set those mandatory military readiness requirements.

Do you have one? Yeah, go ahead.

Q: Yeah. In follow up, the governor of Texas said something -- something to the effect of he will -- he was accusing the federal government of trying to defund Texas if they made them enforce the mandate. To your knowledge, has the Pentagon ever said anything about defunding?

MR. KIRBY: No, and I think as you probably recall in our response to Governor Stitt in Oklahoma that what -- what we said was that failure to get the vaccine could put you, as the individual Guardsman, your participation in the National Guard at -- at -- in jeopardy because your -- your -- your pay, your ability to train, your ability to go on, you know, to -- to -- to get military-funded education -- it's really about your individual participation. There was never a -- a threat to -- to defund the National Guard in any state.

Tony?

Q: Couple questions in a couple different areas. The United Arab Emirates F-35 issue, did that come up in the discussions with Dr. Kahl on -- in joint military dialogue?

MR. KIRBY: I would tell you, Tony, that it was not a focus of the discussions.

Q: Right. Yesterday, you said, "We're always concerned about technology transfer to nations that have an adversarial view of our commitment to a rules-based international order." What nations were you talking about there? China and the United Arab Emirates relationship, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia? Which nations --

MR. KIRBY: There are -- there -- there are -- there are -- are several nations that would fall into that category, Tony.

Q: Would -- would China and the UAE relationship fall into that category?

MR. KIRBY: We -- we -- you don't have to look far to see evidence that -- that China continues to challenge the international rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. 

Q: Is -- is the U.S. concerned, then, that China might have the access to F-35 technology to respond?

MR. KIRBY: I'm -- I'm not going to go beyond what I said yesterday.

Q: Okay. A little closer to home, on Monday, the Pentagon inspector general put out a report on TransDigm, the -- one of the Pentagon's top sole-source providers of spare parts. 2019 there was a -- an I.G., similar I.G. report came out, and it concluded that TransDigm was getting excess profits. On Monday, they reported that they got -- TransDigm got excess profits of one -- or 2.- -- $20.8 million. What steps has the Pentagon taken since that earlier I.G. report to arm its contracting people with better information or better tools to extract information from TransDigm that could lead to cheaper parts? And potentially --

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think you -- you saw that the -- the DOD I.G. offered some recommendations on this, of -- three of them in particular were -- we've accept -- accepted all three, including trying to, you know, work on a refund to improve alternate contracting policies and -- and several others.

So without going into more detail than that, I mean, we appreciate the work that the -- that the I.G. did. And -- and -- and we're going to accept and follow the recommendations.

Q: Well, just to press -- in layman's language the recommendation is to get a -- extract a refund from TransDigm of $20.8 million. Does DOD intend to do that, to ask TransDigm for a refund?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, so -- I mean, again we appreciate the work of the -- the I.G. It did highlight challenges that contracting officers now experience procuring parts, including their ability to obtain data to determine fair and reasonable prices.

As noted, they recommended that we seek a voluntary refund. And we're going to -- we're going to do that.

And then, like I said, the other two recommendations that we're going to pursue, one is to have the Defense Pricing and Contracting director review the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation's information for the current policy as it pertains to this issue and then to also identify alternative options for purchasing items from countries --

Q: Ok.

MR. KIRBY: -- from companies -- sorry.

Q: Thank you. Do you have any updates for upcoming U.S.-Japan 2+2? What -- what's going to be your – kind of - the top line for DOD?

MR. KIRBY: We're looking forward to the discussion. I will have more to say as we get closer to it. Obviously, Japan is a key ally in the region. And that's why it was right on the front end of the secretary's first international trip, to go to Tokyo.

I won't get ahead of the agenda specifically, but you can imagine there is an awful lot to discuss. Security -- common security challenges in the Indo-Pacific will be chief among them, including the aggressive behavior that China continues to demonstrate, the threat continuing to be posed by -- by North Korea and their missile program. Lots to talk about, yes.

Let me get back to the phones here. Luis Martinez, are you there?

Q: Hey, John. I have a couple of COVID questions if I could, please. You've mentioned that there are active discussions about whether to mandate a booster. Does that include -- as part of that discussion, are you gathering data about how many personnel have actually received a booster shot?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any active effort to gather that data, Luis. But I'll take your question and just check and make sure that -- that I'm right about that. There are still discussions about whether or not to make it make it mandatory. No decision has been made.

Q: Thanks. And my other question has to do with -- Omicron is -- we're seeing these, you know, large, increasing numbers in magnitude of cases nationwide.

Does the military undertake sequencing so that they can determine whether the number of cases that they're experiencing may be Omicron versus Delta? And are you seeing a surge? And is that leading to concerns that you may have to tighten the restrictions on bases?

MR. KIRBY: We have seen a -- we did see a surge in Delta. I'm not aware of a surge in Omicron. Again, I will go back and look and see if we've got data on that. As you know, we had already tightened up what -- you know, we averted to more tight -- more tight restrictions across the department because of Delta and the effect it was having on our own workforce.

I'm not aware of any -- well, let me put it this way: the -- across the department, we are complying with CDC guidelines and continue to do that.

Obviously, we respect installation commanders and their ability to moderate -- as long as they don't go below CDC guidelines -- moderate appropriately, given the conditions where they are because the -- the conditions in local communities can be different.

So I -- I don't -- I'm not aware of any uniform mandatory changes of late, but again, let me -- let me go back and -- and take a look at the -- the status of omicron in the department before I -- before I say anything more.

Q: Does the Pentagon view sequencing as an option?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I -- I -- I'm going to check. I don't know, Jen -- I -- I don't know the answer to that.

Yeah?

Q: John, thank you. There's reporting now about exhaustion among a lot of the civilian healthcare workforce, as well as hospital capacity issues on the horizon. So against that backdrop, the question of immunization for the Reserve, the National Guard, does that take on another dimension of importance or do you have any comment on that -- is there planning underway, for instance, looking ahead, in case there is another wave of COVID with the omicron variant?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not completely sure I understand the question.

Q: -- as COVID has become a wave across the country, there -- the Guard was activated to try to provide relief for some of the civilian hospital overflow.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: And so I'm looking ahead and thinking, you know, if -- if the wave that they're looking at now in -- which has been in sort of some reporting, as well, combined with the accumulated exhaustion among the healthcare population -- the civilian healthcare population – who are reporting, you know, crisis level -- levels among their workforce in some areas.

MR. KIRBY: I mean, the -- the -- I think we've talked recently in -- in Michigan -- the Governor asked for Guard support to help out with some hospitals, and certainly, governors can -- can -- can pull upon that capability, if -- if they need to.

I'm not -- I'm not aware of any plans at the federal level to mobilize the Guard across the country due to omicron -- nothing -- nothing that we're actively planning for right now -- but, I mean, obviously we've -- we've done it in the past, back in the spring, mobilized both active duty and additional Guardsmen to assist communities all over the country with vaccinations.

But again, I -- I don't have anything to speak to today.

Q: If I can ask just a quick follow up on that -- the omicron variant seems to be spreading pretty quickly. Maybe it's just a burst right now. But within people who are vaccinated, even people who have boosters, is the department considering options in case of workforce shutdowns? Are you planning for the case that maybe there's an omicron outbreak on a carrier, for example, even if you have a fully vaccinated force?

MR. KIRBY: Well, certainly, the services would be the best place to go for those kinds of contingency plans but we are obviously watching this closely and we want to be ready for any eventuality. So we will do what we need to do for the protection of the force and the -- the readiness of the force, as -- as it require -- as it's -- as it's required out there with the -- with what's going on with the pandemic, but I don't have any -- again, I don't have anything specific today to -- to -- to talk to.

We have been -- we've done this before, we have been through this before, and we have had to adjust ship schedules and training exercises and telework and all manner of -- of -- of personnel policies based on surges in the pandemic in the past.

We -- we don't believe that we can take a -- a -- a -- an eye off of that going forward and that it -- it -- you know, depending on where omicron goes, it could have an impact on the force and on the way we train, resource and -- and -- and operate.

I don't, again, have anything to speak to today -- and each of the services will have a heavy voice in this because they know their operational requirements best -- but we're -- we're watching it closely.

I already got you.

Q: Well, just a follow up? So because the boosters do offer some protection against severe disease, I'm wondering if the specter of a rising omicron wave might lend additional urgency to the need for Reserve personnel to get boostered -- get vaccinated, get boostered and all of that?

MR. KIRBY: I -- again, we've talked about this. The Secretary, right now, fully encourages people who are eligible to get the booster shot, absolutely, and there are discussions here at the Pentagon about whether or not it -- it should be made mandatory. I don't have a decision to talk to today but for those who are eligible, we absolutely want to see them get the booster shot. The science proves that the booster shot can -- can absolutely help in preventing the disease, and if not in full out preventing, certainly minimizing the effects of it.

Okay, thanks, everybody.

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