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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: So, hey, everybody. Thanks so much and again, apologize for the delay today. Before we get started just one item to mention. In Belize, representatives from the United States and Central America are participating in the annual Central American Security Conference, otherwise known as CENTSEC, along with other regional international partner nations. 

And that will be done through the second of the month. SOUTHCOM sponsors CENTSEC annually to facilitate dialogue and regional security leaders as part of its enduring promise to increase cooperation and help achieve shared security goals. Leaders will engage in roundtable discussions and bilateral meetings on topics that range from transnational criminal organizations, and irregular migration, to COVID-19, climate change, and natural disasters. 

General Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command will be participating, and we'll be delivering some opening remarks. And on that we’ll take questions. Looks like we got Lita on the phone.

Q: Hi, John two things, please. One, can you tell us whether there have been any decisions made on troops going to any of the Eastern Flank countries? And secondly, on Red Hill, there seems there appears to be a bit of confusion about what the military is doing. 

Does the Pentagon agree to drain the Red Hill tanks? And if so, why is the Defense Department appealing the court orders? And so, can you consider sort of address what is an issue that is clearly angering people in Hawaii about whether or not the department is actively going to drain the tanks? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, no announcements to speak to you today with respect to any other deployment orders or troop movements with respect to the situation in Ukraine. And on Red Hill, Lita—The first thing I'd like to say is how seriously we are, in fact, taking this issue. We obviously, number one priority is to make sure we're looking after the military personnel and their families, as well as residents -- civilian residents affected by this contamination. 

And we’re -- Navy's working on that very, very hard. We still have just under, looks like, I think 4,000 military families that are displaced, that we're trying to get them into their -- back into their quarters as quickly as possible. And number two, is, of course, safeguarding national security and making sure that we can fuel the forces of the Indo-Pacific region. 

And of course, Red Hill is a critical component of doing that. We also, thirdly, want to make sure that we are absolutely being good stewards of the environment. And we do that all around the world. We know we particularly need to do that here in Hawaii. It's an environment that we enjoy; that we appreciate ourselves. We're living in it, and we know we have significant responsibilities there. 

And then lastly, we know, we've got to work closely together with state authorities to re-examine the future of the Red Hill bulk storage fuel facility. And we're doing that. What I would say about the appeal, and I certainly understand the concerns that have been expressed. We are going to -- we do intend to file an appeal by the deadline which is tomorrow. 

But in the meantime, and while we feel like it's important to do that, so that we have a little bit more time to come up with better-informed decisions about some of the aspects in the emergency order-- most particularly the defueling aspect of that order-- we also are going to be trying to work with local authorities about other proposals for a way forward to -- absent and distinct from legal proceedings. 

To try to come up with the best way forward with respect to our strategic fuel reserves, and how that is handled going forward. So, we have already put in place a lot of immediate actions in trying to improve the water supply there at Red Hill, suspending operations at the facility-- that's been done. And reaching out and trying to get an independent third-party commercial firm to assess and to review operations at the Red Hill facility, as well as system integrity, all with an eye towards how that facility can or should be operated going forward. As well as can or should be de-fueled going forward. 

So, we have an open mind on this, Lita, we -- there's an awful lot of attention being applied to this. You probably saw the Deputy Secretary had conversations last night not only with members of Hawaii's congressional delegation, but with the governor. And we're going to continue these discussions.

 So, we are absolutely open to looking at options. And those options can include a defueling of Red Hill. And we're going to continue to stay closely lashed up with leaders and legislators from Hawaii. The last thing I'd say on this, I know it's a long torturous answer to a very good question. 

But we know we've got responsibilities here to get this right -- to get this right for the families affected, not just military families, but residents of the state of Hawaii. To get it right for the state itself, to rebuild some of that trust, and -- that you referenced in your question. And also, to get this right for our own national security purposes. Again, I don't -- we don't have all the answers figured out right now and where we're going to go with Red Hill long-term. 

But one thing is for sure that's, that our -- we are going to have security commitments in the Indo-Pacific long-term. And those security commitments are going to require fuel and sustainment. And so, we got to think about that seriously. We got to make sure that whatever plan we have in place, whatever we do here, that we can continue to defend the nation from the Indo Pacific Theater. 

It's a long answer apologize, but I appreciate you staying with me there Lita. Ah, here, in the room…

Q: John, can I...

Q: Thanks, two questions. First, are you able to name any of these potential host nations that have reached out and requested U.S. troops? 

MR. KIRBY: Not right now, Matt. No. But as I said yesterday, we're in close consultation with them. If and when there's decisions, to deploy additional U.S. forces on Allied territory in lockstep with that or those countries we'll certainly be as transparent with you as we can be.

Q: Secondly, can you speak to these reports that the U.S. is aware of Russian troops, possibly moving medical supplies? Especially blood supplies up closer to the Ukrainian border? And what kind of concerns does that raise for the department?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I've seen the press reporting on this. Number one, I'm going to stay away from intelligence assessments. I would point you though, to the fact that we have been long-saying that in addition to the combat capability that Mr. Putin continues to add, and does continue to add to the western part of his country and in Belarus, he has also, over these many weeks, increased his logistics and sustainment capability. 

And there's a lot that goes into logistics and sustainment -- aviation support, certainly medical support. So, we have seen him provide that kind of sustainment capability with respect to those forces. 

And obviously, that does include, you know, field hospitals and doctors and nurses and you know, the kinds of things you would need to do to be able to medically care for troops in the field. Now, is that alone all by itself as some sort of tripwire indicator or, you know, causing alarms to go off that an invasion is imminent?  Not necessarily. 

We look at a whole mosaic of information as we evaluate what we're seeing on the ground there. I would just go back to what we’ve said and have said now for more than a couple of weeks. We believe that he has enough capability to move now if he wants to. And he continues to add to that capability and those options. 

And he could, depending on what his goal is here and what he wants to do, he could move imminently -- at any time. That answer your question? 

Q: Yes. 

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Tom.

Q: Hi, John. I have two questions, please. The first one is this -- yesterday, it was two years since the White House expanded the use of land mines for the Pentagon. I'm wondering if you could -- what's the degree of accuracy of statements that the Pentagon prefers this wider use of land mines?  Or and opposes a return to how it used to be before? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to take the question. I don't want to speculate on land mine use policy. So let me take your question.

Q: My second one is also yesterday, when you announced -- when it was announced, excuse me, that Qatar is going to be the newest major, non-NATO ally. It reminded me that Afghanistan is also on that list of countries. 

MR. KIRBY: Yes. 

Q: How does the Pentagon weigh in on the White House, you know, naming a country like Qatar, or in this case of Afghanistan, what role if any, does the Pentagon play in the consideration of amending or removing that designation for Afghanistan?  

MR. KIRBY: Well, I refer you to State Department. But...

Q: Well, I asked about what role you guys would have in that?  If any.

MR. KIRBY: So, let me get at it here. The decision to make Afghanistan, a major non-NATO ally was, you know, back in, I think 2012. And that was an arrangement made with the democratically elected government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. There is no such commitment and no such agreement in place now that that government is no longer in Kabul. 

And I would -- for more detail on where that's going, I would point you to the State Department. But your question you didn't ask this, but it does give me an opportunity to clear the air a little bit. I -- my answer to this yesterday was in-artful at best and inaccurate at worse. The President did declare that his intention is to designate Qatar as a major non-NATO ally. 

He obviously has the authority to do that. I think yesterday I said it has to be a NATO decision. The President can designate that, and he has obviously made clear that he intends to do that. It's designed for countries that are not treaty allies of NATO, but that have strategic working relationships with U.S. forces, and certainly Qatar does. 

Some of the benefits could include priority delivery of military surplus, consideration for participation in military counterterrorism exercises. And while it does provide some military and economic privileges, that non-NATO ally status does not entail any specific security commitments to the designated country. So... 

Q: So, realizing, of course as you said is the State Department's decision and not Pentagon decision. But you're calling this...

MR. KIRBY: Obviously the President gets to make the designation. I'm saying the State Department is the one that is better placed to speak to Afghanistan in particular. But that the agreement in 2012 did not -- applied to the government in Afghanistan at the time. It does not apply to the Taliban. 

Q: (Inaudible). Well, thank you very much. 

MR. KIRBY: Does that help?  

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: But also -- well, actually, you helped me because I wanted to clear up my less-than-stellar performance on this question yesterday, so.

Q: Sometimes we can actually work together.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I appreciate that. Actually, it did -- you gave me an opportunity. Pierre.

Q: (Inaudible) 60 nations are working within the 5th fleet and doing operations together. Is it something that you look at as a increasing working together, or is it more a sense of urgency and the threat that is being seen in the area? 

MR. KIRBY: It's probably more the former than it is the latter, Pierre. We routinely try to improve these bilateral relationships and these multilateral relationships in the region with respect to military capabilities. But obviously, when we do it now, we certainly do it with the knowledge and the understanding that there are increased threats posed by Iran. 

And so, it's not like we're doing this in a vacuum or just doing it to do it. I mean, there are clear threats posed by Iran to the region. And we have to make sure that not only we're ready for it, but from a multilateral perspective, our partners are too. 

Let me get to the phones here. Dan Lamothe Washington Post.

Q: Hey, John, thanks for your time today. I want to ask you a question about some of the reports we've seen on Russian naval vessels returning from exercises and some number of troops in Belarus, potentially also returning. Is there any indication at all that the Pentagon sees of any kind of de-escalation? Or no, in light of everything else, you've already mentioned, the blood supplies, et cetera. Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Dan no, we don't. We would not characterize what we're seeing as de-escalatory. Phil Stewart.

Q: Thanks. Real quick. You know, Russian President Putin made a comment today that basically suggested that now was the time to act on Ukraine, because what if Ukraine were to join NATO? And I was just wondering if you could respond to that assertion that Ukraine, left on its own is on a trajectory to join NATO. And therefore, you know, Russia's security interests are, you know, best addressed now. Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, again, I would just go back to what we said in the past. That it should be up to Ukraine, who they associate with, and any membership in NATO is going to be a decision between the sovereign state in question and NATO. And it's not something that that Mr. Putin gets to have a veto on. It doesn't work like that. 

There has been, obviously, work done internationally, to help Ukraine address their reform needs. Particularly with respect to defense reforms, the United States has been a part of that, of that process, and that work continues. We're not going to speculate one way or another about the future of NATO expansion or Ukraine's part in that. Again, that is a decision that can only be made between the Alliance and Ukraine. 

And it's not for another nation to try to dictate terms to… Separate and distinct from that, Phil, I mean, this is a piece of the Russian playbook of putting stuff out there in the information environment, deliberately designed to deceive or to try to create excuses or pretexts to justify what really would be – should they incur again -- an unjustifiable act. 

Joe Gould Defense News.

Q: Hey, John, thanks for doing this today. My question is the SECDEF is set to testify tomorrow on Afghanistan in a closed -- or deliver a briefing in a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees. We saw that 18 Senate Republicans are calling for a portion of that to be open. And several House Republicans called for a public hearing there on Afghanistan as well. 

The Defense Secretary did testify in public on Afghanistan in September. But would you respond to this most recent call? Would Secretary Austin be willing to testify in public on Afghanistan? Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: He, as you as you noted, Joe, he has. And of course, if he's asked to testify, again, in public -- in a public setting on Afghanistan or any other matter, he takes the oversight responsibilities of Congress very seriously, and would certainly comply with that. 

But tomorrow's briefing, the parameters of that were set by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. And we're abiding by the dictates of the procedures that they put in place. 

Sylvie from AFP. I'll come right back to you.

Q: Hello, John. I have two questions. First, I asked you yesterday, how many U.S. troops are stationed right now in Poland and Lithuania? And you took the question, and I didn't receive the answer. And second, a totally different question in -- about the Sahel. 

In Mali, France is reconsidering its military deployment. And I wanted to know if would change the position, you know, the military assistance that U.S. is giving to France in the Sahel.

MR. KIRBY: Second question, Sylvie we -- I don't have any announcements to speak to. We've talked about this before. The Secretary routinely communicates with Minister Parly about the situation in Sahel and French operations. And he has on more than one occasion, made sure she understood our commitment to supporting them as best we can and in keeping with their requirements, and that support will continue. 

But I have no changes to talk to you today or announcements to make. On your second question, I clearly still owe you an answer. I did not come today with the number. This is a good lesson for me and briefing two days in a row. Perhaps I just need to not do that anymore. But we'll -- we will absolutely get to the answer. It's a gettable number and I apologize for the delay.

MR. KIRBY: Jeff Seldin, VOA. Jeff wait a minute. I promised Meghann. Sorry, I got fixated on my call list. Go ahead, Meghann.

Q: It's fine. So, in Secretary Austin's letters back to the governors who are asking not to have to enforce the COVID vaccine mandate for National Guardsmen, he says that not getting vaccinated will jeopardize their ability to participate in Title 32 drills, or trainings, and so on. How can that be enforced from up here? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I mean, we've talked about this. The most likely... We have. We have. It's not like there's going to be some universal enforcement mechanism by DOD. It will occur naturally as, for instance, the hypothetical Guardsman who doesn't get vaccinated, shows up for drill or shows up to go to training or school and won't be able to participate, because they are not going to be able to provide proof of vaccination. 

And so that will kick in administrative processes that the Guard has in place when a Guardsman that can't -- isn't medically qualified -- to fulfill his or her duties. And that will just start a natural administrative process. It's not about a universal overarching enforcement mechanism.

Q: If the governor has ordered those units not to enforce it, then how can you guarantee that leaders in those units will ask for a vaccination card?  In Oklahoma, the TAG has said, please just don't show up if you're not vaccinated, because you'll risk not being paid. But if every other state doesn't say, please don't come. What's to stop them from showing up at drill with, you know, First Sergeants and company commanders, who are saying...

MR. KIRBY: Right, so...

Q: ...I'm not going to check your vaccine because the governor said don't do it. 

MR. KIRBY: Without getting into too much hypothetical and specifics at the unit level...

Q: That wasn’t hypothetical, that is what I’m bringing it up to you.

MR. KIRBY: I know and I -- you know, how I feel about hypotheticals, particularly at the unit level. But just broadly speaking, Meghann, I mean, it's a lawful order to get the vaccine. And therefore, it is the Secretary's expectation that leaders will enforce that lawful order. 

And so, if there's evidence that a leader is not going to make sure that a unit is properly medically protected before they drill or train, then that leader can be held accountable for that act by that leader's chain of command. 


Q: So very quick follow up. Is there an update -- you've said the DOD was concurring with DOJ on the lawsuits related to National Guard mandates?  Is there an update to that or still conferring? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm still referring. Yes. Let's see. I'm sorry, Jeff, I think I cut you off.

Q: No worries. Thanks, John, for doing this, appreciate it. The U.S. was praised in the response by the Syrian Democratic Forces in putting down the attempted ISIS jailbreak in Hasaka that started of last week. But there are still a lot of questions about the fate of hundreds of boys and teenagers were being held in a nearby facility. 

The SDF had said some of them had been used as human shields. Wondering because of the U.S. was giving help to the SDF, along with the coalition, do you have any information on what happened to these boys and teenagers? And was the SDF able to share any of the information about them, during the fighting and did that shape the way that U.S. fighter planes and helicopters and armored vehicles assisted the SDF?

MR. KIRBY: As we've said before, I mean, we try to take every precaution possible to ensure we are mindful of any civilian harm. I think, and certainly, you know, we do that routinely. I don't have specific information for you, in terms of how the fight unfolded on the ground between the SDF and the limited OIR support that was provided. 

I'd refer you to CENTCOM and OIR for more detail about that. I want to be careful not to get into operational or tactical-level details here. But it is true that ISIS was -- did have a population of children there. Many of them teenage boys, which they were either and or using as human shields. 

Or, in fact grooming to become fighters themselves, which is something -- it's a barbarous tactic we've seen them employ before. But beyond that, I'm really going to refer you to CENTCOM and OIR to speak to, Jeff, because I just don't have that level of tactical detail. 

We provided some limited airstrikes in support of this operation. We provided some limited ground support largely in terms of access control. But beyond that, I'd refer you to OIR. 

Caitlin from Stars and Stripes.

 Q: Hey, John, thanks. The Russian Ambassador to the UN yesterday denied Western reports that there were 100,000 troops flanking Ukraine. I'd like to hear your response to that statement and ask how confident the DOD is in that 100,000-troop assessment number, and whether that note number has grown at all?

MR. KIRBY: We have said more than 100,000. We stand by that number. And as I said earlier, we have continued to see additional forces flow in. I mean, the Secretary and Chairman talked about this Friday. They characterize it as more than 100,000, and they have added to that number over the course of just the last few days. 

Tony Capaccio.

Q: Hey, John, sorry, I hit the mute button. Two quick questions. Can you [inaudible] the expectations about this Hypersonics Meeting that the Secretary is kicking off on Thursday. There are stories saying he summoned industry and then others saying he's going to light a fire under industry’s butt on this subject.

MR. KIRBY: So, this is a virtual roundtable session with Hypersonic Industry CEOs. It will take place on the third, as you said, Thursday. It's part of the deputy's regular drumbeat engagements with industry in areas of innovation and modernization. To help strengthen relationships and discuss ways to accelerate the development of capabilities and new operational concepts with our partners in industry. 

This meeting is going to be focused on hypersonic development but there are other topics that range from systems engineering to manufacturing. And again, this is something that the Deputy Secretary routinely does. The Secretary will -- Secretary Austin will deliver some brief framing remarks at the top of the meeting. So, it is part of a regular drumbeat. 

I will add that, and you've heard the Secretary say this before, hypersonics is not an area that we're ignoring. And there's been a lot of work done to advance our capabilities with hypersonic technology. But you've also heard the Secretary say, it is an important capability, it is not the only capability. There are a range of military capabilities and avenues for innovation that he wants to explore to better get at this idea of integrated deterrence. 

So, while I -- you know, we understand the attention on hypersonics, and that there needs to be a continued strong emphasis by the department on that, we have other capabilities we need to pursue in advance as well. And that quite frankly, coming back to my -- the first part answer is why the deputy holds these regular drumbeat meetings with defense industry experts and leaders. OK.

Q: Let me just get it correctly, please. As a former Admiral, and Navy strategic beacon. What grade do you give to the average fisherman for successfully thwarting the Russians from invading their territory? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm afraid I can't give a biased view of that because I also grew up Irish Catholic. 

Q: I know that. I didn't...

MR. KIRBY: And nobody has ever accused me of being a strategic anything, let alone a beacon.

Q: Well, John for reasons I've declined to explore. The hosts of these stations see you as a font of well-reasoned, articulate and seasoned opinions.

MR. KIRBY: I would ask them to please call my children and say the same. I -- look, I...

Q: You're speechless.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, it is a tough one. Because I also spent a lot of time fishing as a kid too. I think it's a -- it's yes, I'm just going to take your question. There's a -- yes, I'm just going to punt on that one. All right, listen, thanks everybody. I appreciate it. 

And I apologize for the late start today. I do try to be on time. I know I'm not always -- Meghann always gives me the stink eye. But we had some unforeseen technical issues today to deal with. So, I think we're going to try to be out tomorrow as well. So, stay tuned for that. And...

Q: Sounds all good.

MR. KIRBY: ...yes, I'll let I'll let you know. Appreciate it. Thanks, everybody.