Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Jan. 18, 2022
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Okay, just a couple of things at the top here.

You hopefully have seen a statement we just put out by the Secretary, condemning yesterday's terrorist attack in Abu Dhabi that killed three innocent civilians and targeted civilian infrastructure. We remain committed to the UAE's security and ability to defend itself and we stand united with our Emirati partners in defending against all threats to their territory.

And then last week, I think you may have seen Secretary Austin designated the -- the Defense Microelectronics Activity as a Center for Industrial Technical Excellence. This designation allows greater utilization of small runs of DOD critical microelectronics and semiconductors, both inside and outside the DOD.

It also allows the use of public-private partnerships that provide opportunities to promote partnering agreements between depots and private industry. Microelectronics, I think, as you all are aware, is a DOD critical mission area, enabling many key weapons systems, and we think this is a positive step forward to help ensure that that critical mission area stays relevant and -- and viable into the future.

And with that, we'll go to questions. Bob, I think we've got you on the phone.

Q: Yes, thank you, John. A couple of quick questions.

The statement on the Abu Dhabi attack says the U.S. is committed to helping the UAE defend itself. I'm wondering if you could put something concrete behind that. Is there some consideration of increasing some sort of air support -- air defense support, I mean, or something of that nature?

And the second question regarding Ukraine. So where do things stand right now in terms of plans for further arms transfers to Ukraine or -- or per -- perhaps increasing in-country training, that sort of things?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Bob, thanks.

On the UAE, I don't have any additional announcements to make today. I think as you know, we have a very robust defense partnership with the UAE, which includes foreign military sales of various different types of weapons and platforms.

And so that will continue, of course, and obviously we're in constant discussion and dialogue with our Emirati partners about ways we can strengthen that defense partnership, but nothing today. I think today, it was really important -- the Secretary felt it was important to make clear that -- that -- that just like elsewhere in the administration, we -- we take these attacks on the Emiratis seriously and we're going to continue, again, to look for ways to make that defense partnership and their ability to defend themselves stronger and -- and better.

On -- on Ukraine, nothing to announce today, either with respect to additional defense articles -- as we've said all along, we're going to continue to look for ways to help Ukraine defend itself, and that does include additional security assistance. But again, nothing to say today about that.

On trainers, I think as you know, Bob, the Florida National Guard has members currently deployed to Ukraine in -- in this rotating advise-and-assist capacity and they remain at work, alongside their Ukrainian counterparts, again, advising and assisting and helping train, and we expect that that -- that that mission will continue.

Now, obviously, as I said last week, we're going to continue to watch the situation on the ground, and if we need to make decisions for force protection purposes, we'll do that, but I -- there are -- is no -- there are no planned additional rotational troops to -- to Ukraine at this time, no changes to what the Florida National Guard is doing on -- on the ground.

Janne?

Q: Thank you, John. Do -- you know the North Korea (inaudible) missile launches, that the United States have -- what kind of missile North Korea launches?

MR. KIRBY: Are you talking about the one on the 16th, two days ago?

Q: -- I think it's 17th --

MR. KIRBY: Okay.

Q: -- In Korea --

MR. KIRBY: A couple of days ago. Anyway, we've assessed them at -- we've assessed them as ballistic missiles and we're still -- we're still running the traps on that, so I don't have more detail than that.

Q: South Korean Defense Ministry said that (inaudible) Army tactical missile system KN-24 Are you confirming that?

MR. KIRBY: No, I cannot.

Q: Cause South Korean Defense Ministry, they announced yesterday that (inaudible). The South Korea minister of defense announced that North Korea's recent missile launches, assessed as a direct and serious military threat to ROK. My question is, are you devaluing these missile launches because they don't threaten United States?

MR. KIRBY: Are -- are we what about these launches? What was the verb you used?

Q: Yeah, devaluing.

MR. KIRBY: Devaluing.

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Deval -- we're not devaluing anything, Janne, not at all, and we're -- we -- we have a treaty alliance with the Republic of Korea, and we have actual, tangible security commitments to the defense of South Korea. We take that very seriously. So there's no devaluing, and -- at -- at all. We're -- we're obviously -- and we have as a -- as an administration, condemned these missile launches and called them out for what they are: clearly violations of various U.N. Security Council resolutions, and dangerous to the region, certainly dangerous to our allies and partners, and we're taking that very seriously. There's no devaluing of anything.

Q: Because Indo-Pacific commander always said that we are -- U.S. is not threatened, you know, so as far as...

MR. KIRBY: He's not -- we're not what?

Q: Indo-Pacific statement, in the commander's statement about those Korean missile launches, they are -- they said that there's no threat in the United States. So that means your -- our neighbor alliance countries so concerned, so worried...

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: ... about the North Korean missiles. But the -- it seems like if North Korea's not threatening the United States, you don't care, right? 

MR. KIRBY: No, that's not true. That's not true, and I would encourage you to look at the -- the rest of the statement that the Indo-Pacific commander continues to put out on -- in these cases. I mean, he talks about the destabilization to the region and the threat that it poses to allies and partners. In this case, or in that case, you know, he -- he wanted to make clear, I think, to the American people, which they have a right to know if -- if -- if these things are posing a threat to the homeland. 

But I -- I think you can, again, go back and look at his statements, and he's very clear about the threat that -- that this program continues to pose not only to our ally in South Korea, but -- but to others of our partners in the region. And we're not -- we're -- we're -- continue to take this threat and this improving program of Pyongyang's very, very seriously.

Q: Is this missile intercept-able, or not?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to get into any more specifics of our assessment on these -- on these individual launches from the podium. I won't do that.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Pierre?

Q: Thank you. Do you assess that the attack yesterday on the United Arab Emirates was a threat to U.S. soldiers and U.S. citizens in the area?

MR. KIRBY: It -- it was certainly a threat to our Emirati partners, and -- and that's enough. But we are -- we know of no U.S. casualties as a result of this, and -- and we're still, you know, we're still taking a look at -- at the attack itself. So it's -- it's -- it's difficult to say positively that there was no threat to -- to U.S. personnel or American citizens on the ground. It was clearly designed to go after this particular facility.

Q: We understand that the U.S. facilities in the United Arab Emirates, and maybe also in Qatar, were able to detect the attack. Why is it that nothing has been done to stop it?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I -- I'm not going to get into the operational tick-tock here, Pierre. We continue to work with our partners in the region to make sure that they have robust-enough capabilities to help defend themselves, and that includes the ability for early warning and indications. As we've seen, even in places where we ourselves are attacked by these UAVs, even the best of systems isn't necessarily going to get every single individual threat, and we continue to see -- in this case, it was the Houthis supported by Iran, but we continue to see in Iraq and Syria, militia groups supported by Iran sort of choose this tactic, this -- this way of conducting attacks using UAVs, and -- and it's an evolving threat that we are constantly trying to make sure that we can stay ahead of. But it's a difficult threat to -- to constantly make sure you can stay ahead of.

So while we'd love to say, you know, we have, you know, 100 percent coverage in every single one, that's going to be a very difficult thing to achieve as the threat continues to evolve, and evolve, quite frankly, Pierre, in -- in real time.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Fadi?

Q: And -- and John, so you just said that the Houthis, supported by Iran, were behind this attack that the secretary described as terrorist. However, he did not assign any blame. He didn't mention the Houthis. So first, are you -- based on your assessment, are you confirming that the Houthis actually...

MR. KIRBY: I -- I think I've spoken pretty clearly to it.

Q: So -- so, OK. And based on that, are you able to say whether the weapons used -- system used in this attack and -- and the type of the attack mark any development in the Houthis' capabilities?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments, (inaudible).

Q: Would U.S. forces stationed in Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE able to share the -- any early warning with their Emirate (inaudible)...

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about operational details.

Q: Are -- does the U.S. -- last question, since I'm not getting answering. Does...

MR. KIRBY: No, you're getting answers. I'm answering all your questions.

Q: I'm not sharing -- and you're not sharing anything. That's it, the answer. So are the U.S. forces in the UAE now supporting their Emirati counterparts in -- in any way, shape or form in dealing with this attack?

MR. KIRBY: I know of no requests by the Emiratis for U.S. assistance in terms of investigating and responding, obviously, as I said, and as the secretary said, they're close partners, and if they -- if they desire U.S. assistance, I mean, clearly, we'd be positively disposed to -- to look at that. But I know of no requests for support right now.

Let me go to the phones. I've got lots of folks on the -- on the phones, and I don't want to ignore that. Carla Babb?

Q: Hey, thanks, John. Quick question about some Afghan Army helicopters. There were -- there were about a dozen that went to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on August 15th, and now, the Taliban is looking to get them back. And I'm just wondering what the Pentagon thinks about that, and where the Pentagon feels that those Army helicopters should go. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: We're still working out the -- the disposition of -- of those helicopters, Carla. I don't have an update for you on any decisions about how they will be handled, but I think it's safe to assume that they will not be sent into Afghanistan to be at -- to be used by the Taliban. But as to what they end up doing and where they end up going and who ends up with them, we are still working our way through that decision-making process.

Sylvie, are you there?

Q: Hello, yes. So I didn't hear you were calling me.

The Russians have announced that they are going to start new exercises with Belarus. The U.S. says that there are some military troops' movements near the border, which are consistent with these exercises. And what is your comment?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I -- I try not to comment for the -- you know, to the -- to the operations and exercises of another country. They can -- they can certainly speak for themselves on that. What I would tell you, Sylvie, is we continue to see a sizable force presence with -- by the Russian Armed Forces in the western part of their country, around the eastern border and northeastern border with Ukraine. It continues to be concerning to us. There's no sign, no indication that the Russians are willing to deescalate.

And -- and as we said -- well, as our diplomats said more than a week ago, that one of the things that we were willing to talk to the Russians about was changing the scale and scope of our exercises, if and only if there was going to be reciprocity on the Russian side. Again, we see no signs of -- of de-escalation.

So we're going to continue to try to pursue the diplomatic path, and -- and as an administration, make sure that we're -- that we're ready, should that path fail and should there be another incursion of Russian forces into Ukraine.

Oren?

Q: You've been watching Russian movements now for a few months. Is it any clearer what President Putin's goal is here? And what other options do you have, either to deter Russian action or respond to it, if you could detail any of that? And then a follow up.

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I think it would be -- it -- it would be difficult for us to say with specificity and certainty what we know Mr. Putin is driving at here, what he -- what his actual goals are. He clearly is building up a force posture there that provides him multiple options. It's just difficult to know right now what options he's going to choose and we still don't believe that he's made a final decision.

Of course, the option that we would prefer is for him to deescalate, to take -- to take the tensions down. And of course, one of the easiest ways to do that would be to remove some of that force presence. That's not happening.

And I'm sorry, you had another -- I missed another one.

Q: What options does the U.S. have either to deter or respond?

MR. KIRBY: So look, I think the President has spoken to this very, very clearly, about -- about severe consequences -- and -- and that includes in -- in the economic domain -- and I obviously won't speak to that with great specificity here, from -- from this podium.

What we are prepared to do and what we've said publicly is if there's another incursion and if our NATO allies request capabilities and support and resources for their reassurance, as part of NATO, we will be positively disposed to consider those requests and to -- and to see what's possible.

And so we're -- we're ready to do that. You know, we've thought through various permutations here and we're -- and we're ready to do that, if asked.

Q: One more quick question -- Russia's demands, if I'm not mistaken, also included demands of Scandinavian countries not joining NATO, NATO not moving eastwards -- for example, with Finland. Is there any concern or suspicion that a Russian move on Ukraine might be accompanied by some sort of action against Finland or other countries there?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I wouldn't speculate. That's -- you know, you -- that's -- that's -- that's a couple of jumps ahead of where we are right now, Oren, and I would -- I wouldn't speculate, I certainly won't speak for Russian intentions here.

We're focused on the issue at hand, which is making sure that Ukrainian sovereignty is respected, that there's not another incursion, and trying to find a way -- as an administration, finding a way to diplomatically deescalate this.

And we still believe that there's room for diplomacy. We've heard the bluster and the rhetoric out of the Russian side. We still believe that there's room for diplomacy to succeed here. And here at the Department of Defense, we want to provide all the time and space that -- that can -- that can be provided to our diplomats to do that.

Let's see -- Mike Brest, Examiner?

Q: Thanks, Mr. Kirby. Two quick questions.

The SIGAR report that was declassified today -- I was wondering if you wanted to comment on that, specifically as it relates to the Afghan Air Force's inability to sustain itself without U.S. assistance?

MR. KIRBY: So, I mean, we're aware of the Special Inspector General's recent re-release of a newly declassified report from January 2021, on the status of the Afghan Air Force, and I would remind this was from January 2021, which also included data that was well before that timeframe.

And what remains clear is our longstanding assistance and open acknowledgment of three key tenets surrounding the importance and the long-term viability of -- of what was the Afghan Air Force, the important role that they had in supporting the ANDSF on the ground, the need and the importance that we recognized of continued funding and maintenance, logistics and training support, which, again, the Special Inspector General found, as well, and the challenges of course faced with continuing such support amidst a withdrawal of -- of on the ground forces.

The -- the specific challenges that were presented in this report were well known to us, in fact were being actively addressed by the department and our coalition partners, as presented by the responses that we issued to the Special Inspector General's three main recommendations, and the -- they were -- these were responses made by Headquarters U.S. Forces Afghanistan, the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, and NATO Special Operations Command Afghanistan.

What we said at the time and -- nothing -- nothing changes about that, you know, as we were heading into the summer -- it was -- it was an Air Force that -- that we and our coalition partners helped make much more capable, that they were flying the majority of missions, in support of their troops on the ground -- that was also true -- and that they had capabilities far more advanced than they had ever had before and that the United States was going to continue -- this was the -- the original plan, of course -- was to continue our support for the Afghan Air Forces.

So we -- we absolutely recognized the -- the shortcomings and the issues that the Special Inspector General made back in January of 2021. We were addressing those and we made -- we made it very clear that -- that we were going to continue to try to find ways to make the Afghan Air Force even better.

Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hey, John, thanks. I had two quick questions.

One on DOD health issues -- is there a contemplation of going to (inaudible) health condition delta? And what are the personnel implications if you go to health condition delta?

MR. KIRBY: There's no -- there's no plan right now to go to delta, Tony. I don't have a list of the criteria of what delta would require but we can certainly get that for you. That's -- that's easy. I just don't have it with me, so I don't want to speculate.

Obviously, it would -- it's -- it's more severe, more strict restrictions on -- on people here at the Pentagon. But I -- I'm no -- I'm not aware of any discussions to -- to move from Charlie to Delta at this time.

Q: A quick -- quick -- a Ukraine question -- last week, a Russian reporter asked Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in an interview that was broadcast on Thursday, whether Russia was considering deploying military infrastructure in Venezuela or Cuba. He responded "I don't want to confirm anything or rule anything out."

Two questions for you. Has DOD or SOUTHCOM picked up any indications that Russia intends to move any military hardware to those nations or that officials of those nations have invited such a move from Russia?

MR. KIRBY: Look, I -- without -- I'm not going to speak about intelligence issues here from the podium, Tony, and I'm also not going to respond to Russian bluster about -- about something like that. I would just point you to what -- to -- Jake Sullivan said last week, and that is that we take our responsibilities to defend this country and our national security interests very, very seriously and we will continue to do that in whatever case that those interests are going to be threatened by anybody. I think I'd leave it at that.

Tara Copp?

Q: Hey, John, thanks for doing this.

One on COVID -- with force protection Charlie, what's the guidance for DOD civilians on attending conferences or official travel? Is that all on hold for right now?

And then I have one on Ukraine.

MR. KIRBY: That’s allowed, it's allowed right now, and again, Charlie applies to the Pentagon Reservation, so it's not -- not the entire Department of Defense. But only -- the only travel that's permitted is what's considered critical to national security. So I -- you know, participation in conferences obviously is put on hold. And that applies to everybody, the uniformed and civilian alike.

Q: OK, thank you.

And then on Ukraine, in your earlier responses, you noted that, you know, change is possible if force protection measures make it necessary. Is it also possible that DOD would be withdrawing U.S. troops from Ukraine or is it just to augment those and -- and guarantee better force protection in case of an incursion?

MR. KIRBY: I’ll tell you that we'll do what we need to do to keep our people safe and secure. I don't want to jump ahead of where events are right now or speculate about possible outcomes but I -- we would do -- we will do whatever we need to do to make sure our people are safe and secure.

Steve Beynon, Military.com?

Q: Thank you, John. Hey, with all the issues on Texas' border mission -- soldiers aren't getting paid on time, they're running out of water, all -- they're getting in trouble drinking and such like that -- is there any authority for the Pentagon to investigate the state mission or -- or is there any want to do so or -- or step in in -- in any way on that?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any effort to -- to investigate the -- the border mission that the Texas Governor has ordered his National Guard, under his authority, to -- to conduct. I'm -- I'm not aware of it. Obviously, we've seen the press reporting about some of the issues there.

Whether a -- a National Guardsman or woman is -- is in Title 10 or Title 32 status, we obviously are concerned whenever we see reports about behavioral conduct issues that are detrimental to good order and discipline. But I know of no efforts -- or no design right now to investigate those.

I'll go to a couple more and then I promise, Goyle, I won't forget you, buddy. All right, Heather from USNI?

Q: Thank you. I was wondering if there was any update on the DOJ's review of the injunction that was ordered by the federal judge in the -- the case of a -- a Navy special warfare community and vaccine mandates. (Potential audio issue here)

MR. KIRBY: Ellen from Synopsis? A couple more seconds there, Ellen. 

OK, let's see. Kelly from Nexstar.

Q: Hi, John. Can you hear me OK? Can you hear us OK?

MR. KIRBY: Yup, I got you.

Q: All right, great. Just an update since Friday regarding the false-flag intelligence. Is Russia making any other movements to provoke an invasion, any kind of intelligence that you're seeing that you could share?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, again, we're mindful of -- of being careful about talking about specific intelligence. I would tell you, again, without getting into too many details, we continue to be mindful of -- of indications that the -- the Russians will look for opportunities for what we call false flags to create the appearance of or an impetus for, a pretext for them to launch an invasion. So what we talked about last week, we still believe is valid, but I -- I simply wouldn't go into more detail than that.

Jared Szuba? OK, Jared, we'll come back to you.

Goyle?

Q: Thanks, John. Two questions, please. One, going back to Texas incident, Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Dr. Siddiqi in Texas federal jail is a political prisoner, and I will do everything I -- in my power to get her out of the country. And he never said that whatever incident took place, British or -- the (inaudible), of course, background is from Pakistan, but he never said or -- or condemned the issue. My question is, what message you think could secretary have for the terrorist?

MR. KIRBY: Ah...

Q: Or -- or do you believe -- I'm sorry to interrupt you. Do you believe this is a political jail for her for 83 years? And she was, of course, caught in Afghanistan for doing some terror activities.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, the department's not going to weigh in on a -- a legal law enforcement issue, Goyle. I think you can understand that. We take very seriously our responsibilities to defend this country, our national security interests and our people, and that does mean continuing to conduct counterterrorism operations where and when needed, and that -- and that -- that's our focus, and -- and we're going to continue to -- to do that. 

The only thing I would say about the events in -- in Texas is to -- I -- I think, and you just have to when you look at it, just congratulate the -- the -- those law enforcement personnel, the FBI, local law enforcement who worked so efficiently and so well to -- to get everybody out safely. I think that's -- that's -- that's remarkable. And we obviously extend our thoughts to the community there, as well as specifically the -- the Jewish community, so -- but beyond that, I -- I -- I think we'll let the Justice Department speak to this.

Q: And John, going back to Afghanistan, Afghanistan's -- you know, the Taliban government is seeking recognition from the military and other powers and countries to recognize them. But at the same time, what promise they made, the Taliban government, to the Pentagon and to the global community? They are not holding their promises, and they are still after the innocent women and children over there, so -- but my question is, do you think the Pentagon is going to recognize them as a military priority concern or military-supported concern? And again, what is the secretary's message for the Afghan Taliban's -- as for -- as supporting terrorism?

MR. KIRBY: State recognition is not the purview of the Department of Defense, so I'd refer you to our colleagues at the State Department to speak to that, the Taliban not been recognized as the official government of Afghanistan.

And what -- what we would say is, I think, what everybody has said across the administration, that -- that we -- we want to see human rights, civil rights, we want to see the -- the -- the promises made by the Taliban actually delivered in terms of -- of how people are going to be treated in -- in Afghanistan.

And separate and distinct from that, here at the department, we're going to stay eyes-on to what's going on there. And again, back to my earlier point, we have serious, significant counterterrorism responsibilities. We have over-the-horizon capabilities that we can avail ourselves of, and we're going to continue to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't serve as a safe haven for an attack on the homeland again.

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, sir?

Q: Good afternoon, sir. Question on the African Sahel. As you know, France is scheduled to wind down its Operation Barkhane counter-terror operation in the Sahel the first quarter of this year, and then gradually draw down troops from about currently 5,000 to 2,500 by next year. So last year, September 2021, Secretary Austin said he had a phone call with France's Armed Force Minister Florence Parly, and he assured her that the Pentagon remains firmly committed to supporting France's counterterrorism mission in the Sahel. So how France's reducing drastically its -- of all the troops cut in half, and then tack onto the U.S.' support for this counterterrorist operation? Will the increased support pull back?

MR. KIRBY: I think it's too soon to tell. I mean -- and I certainly would refer to the French Ministry of Defense to speak to their -- their operations and how they're going to conduct them. But nothing will change about our commitment to continue to support France in these efforts. So broadly speaking, that doesn't change. How they change their footprint of their operations is really for them to speak to, but the secretary was very clear, and we've been consistent. We're going to continue to support them as they need it, and as their needs change, regardless of footprint, and as their needs change, we'll -- we'll adapt our support to -- to -- to best meet their requirements, and frankly, ours too, because we have a -- a -- a shared security interest in -- in dealing with the terrorism threats there in the Sahel. Does that answer your question?

Q: Yeah, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: OK, I've got to go. Thanks very much. I think I got to everybody on the phone. Yes, I did. All right, thanks, everybody. We'll see you later this week. 

(CROSSTALK)

32:13
Play