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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, good afternoon, everybody. Just a couple of things at the top here. Today was the last day of exercise Noble Fusion, a joint and combined naval expeditionary exercise combining multiple elements of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force alongside the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in the Philippine Sea. 

This was the first time since 2018 that two Marine Expeditionary Unit, Amphibious Ready Group Teams were operating together in the Indo-Pacific. The exercise was conducted from the first until the seventh of February in the vicinity of Okinawa and the Miyako and Luzon straits. And it demonstrates that Navy and Marine Corps Forward Deployed Stand-in Naval Expeditionary Forces can rapidly aggregate multiple MEU and ARG teams at sea with other joint and allied forces. 

To conduct lethal sea denial operations, seize key terrain, guarantee freedom of movement, and create advantage for U.S. partner and allied forces. Now on the personnel front today, the department welcomed Mr. Andrew Hunter as the Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Technology and Logistics. 

However, as directed by the Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Hicks, Andrew will be performing the duties of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and sustainment. In this role, Andrew will be responsible for all matters pertaining to acquisition, contract administration, logistics, and material readiness, installations and environment, operational energy, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the acquisition workforce, and the defense industrial base. 

He will have a fairly big inbox. And we also want to thank Mr. Greg Kausner, for his willingness to step into the USD for A&S role, which he has been serving in since August 2021. We'll welcome Mr. Hunter to the team and glad he's been confirmed and ready to go. And with that, we'll take questions. I think Lita, we got you on the phone.

Q: Hi. Yes, John. Thank you. Can you give us a better more detailed sense of what the troops in Poland and Romania are actually doing right now? Are they training or are they just kind of sitting there waiting for something to happen? And then are you seeing any buildup of Russian troops or any other threats along the borders with Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania?

MR. KIRBY: No specific or additional threats in terms of directly from Russia to NATO's Eastern Flank, Lita. We do, however, continue to see sizable forces continue to be added to the forces that Mr. Putin has arrayed in the south and Crimea, and alongside Ukraine's borders, including in Belarus. But nothing directly posed at or aimed at NATO's Eastern Flank. 

As for what they're doing. They're only just now arriving on station, Lita. So, I don't have a menu of activities that they've conducted in the last, you know, 24 to 48 hours. I mean, largely, this has been about movement and arrival and getting set up. I would expect you to see them, once they get settled in, to begin to conduct some exercises with their partners in Romania, and in Poland. 

And as well as just you know, making sure that they have all the logistics and sustainment that they need for the time that they'll be there. When we're talking about the 82nd, and Poland, only leading elements have arrived. 

So, you know, we said there was going to be 1,700 all told, and only a few hundred have arrived, actually, I think it's like a couple of hundred right now. So, there's more to flow in and that that will happen over the coming days. OK, yes. 

Q: I wanted to…

MR. KIRBY: Who are you?

Q: Pete from Bloomberg

MR. KIRBY: Pete from Bloomberg All right. 

Q: Actually, one of the questions was…

MR. KIRBY: Well, I didn't think -- I assumed he was a reporter just hadn't had a chance to see you in here.

Q: I gave you a copy of my book. 

MR. KIRBY: That's right. 

Q: Anyway, do you have any additional details in terms of Russian troops building up on the border of Ukraine? And do you have any updated assessment on the likelihood of an attack?

MR. KIRBY: So, here's what I would say. Even in just over the course of the weekend, we saw Mr. Putin add to his force capability along that border with Ukraine and in Belarus. And without getting into specific numbers, he is well north of 100,000, and it continues to grow.

But what's important is not just the numbers, it's the capabilities. And what we see is that he is really putting in place robust – what we would call Combined Arms Capabilities in Belarus, and along that border with Ukraine in Russia. That means not just infantry, or tracked vehicles, but artillery and long-range fires, and air and missile defense, as well as special operations. 

I mean, he has a full suite available to him. And it continues to grow every day, including just over the last two days. As for indications of an invasion, we don't have anything specific that we can point to as an a-ha moment and say, well, that's it. Now we know that he's definitely going in, and he's definitely going in on such and such a date. 

But again, I would go back to what we continue to see him build there. And it's not just the Combined Arms Capabilities, it's the ability to sustain these troops in the field for a period of time. So even as he has added combat capability, he has also added logistics and sustainment capability. In other words, the ability to keep them in the field for longer and longer periods of time. 

So, it's a whole panoply of things that we're looking at and watching. We could not say with specificity now: A that he's made a final decision one way or another. Or B, if he does what it's going to be. But with each passing day, he gives himself a lot more options from a military perspective. And I would just add, if I might, it's not your question, but there is still time and space for diplomacy. 

We still believe there's a diplomatic path forward that should and can be pursued. And Mr. Putin can easily de-escalate the tensions by just taking some of that force presence away, which is certainly within his power to do that. Does that answer your question? 

Q: That does.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sorry that I didn't recognize you with your mask on.

Q: John, are you seeing any evidence that Putin is planning to use or deploy hypersonic weapons?

MR. KIRBY: I don't see any indication of that at this time, but we're watching this very closely. 

Q: Can you rule it out?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to rule anything in or out for Mr. Putin. He again, continues to add to his capabilities. It wouldn't be exactly clear if the intent is to invade Ukraine, why one would need a hypersonic weapon to do that. Those weapons, as you know, are meant to be used at extremely long intercontinental ranges, and to approach with stealth and speed. 

Again, I don't know what's in his head, but one would not think that one would need that sort of weapon if one was going to invade Ukraine from right across the border.

Q: Even if he was to show off?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I won't get inside his head. We haven't seen any indications of that with respect to what's going on in Ukraine.

Q: Are you seeing any fracturing within the Russian officer class, the generals who surround Putin? Is there any sense that they might be telling Putin that this is not such a great idea? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I've seen some press reporting on that today. I can't confirm those reports. I would just say that the major military decisions don't get made in that country without Mr. Putin being directly involved. And so, what we're basing our judgments on is what they're actually doing. 

I shouldn't say our judgments, our expectations based on what they're actually doing what we're seeing them do. And they continue, whether there's dissension in the ranks or not. They continue to add to their capabilities if they want to conduct another invasion of Ukraine. Yes, Oren.

Q: Two questions.

MR. KIRBY: We're doing great on the sound here, aren't we? Go ahead. 

Q: Given the number of troops...

MR. KIRBY: You better make them really short questions.

Q: Given the number forces he has right there, Russian-Ukraine, has he simply made a decision to leave other parts of the country relatively undefended? And the second question, any update...

MR. KIRBY: You mean Russia?

Q: Yes. And the second question, any update you can give on discussions or decisions to unilaterally send troops to other -- to support other NATO allies?

MR. KIRBY: No other announcements to make with respect to potential other moves either within Europe or outside Europe. I have nothing else to announce today. I would remind, and I know I’ve said this before, we have 80,000 troops already on the European continent so we have a lot of capability that already exists and may not have to move anywhere.

On your other question on whether he is creating vulnerabilities by moving so many forces to the West. Those are tradeoff decisions that any senior political leader has to make with respect to military forces. Even with a military as capable as ours, if you add capability somewhere, you are taking it away somewhere. There are finite amounts of troops and systems and weapons that any country possesses.

No. I wouldn't -- well, I wouldn't assume anything. But normally any leader making these decisions would have to factor in whatever risks and vulnerabilities, such a massive movement over such a long period of time would have in other areas. Again, we're really focused on what he's doing right there in the western part of his country. Yes, Court.

Q: Two things. Can you -- do you have it handy right now, what all has moved in as part of this? So, you said early elements of 82nd, 18th Airborne Corps, 300 have gone into Germany. Is there anything else you can say, like give us a rundown?

MR. KIRBY: I think you almost did it right there, Court. Yes, I mean, it's a couple hundred out of the 82nd have already been there. We'll eventually get to 1,700 over the coming days. The headquarters element for the 18th Airborne Corps pretty much all in place. There'll be some puts and takes I think over the coming days, but that was a very small 300 person or so at JTF headquarters. 

The thousand striker troops from Germany to Romania, I think they're there now. There is nothing else that I'm tracking that's going to be moving. No other additional forces put on PTDO from last week. So, I think we're kind of where we are right now.

Q: And then are you -- are there any indications that President Putin now that there's, you know, this talk of a potential for a full-scale invasion of the country, that he's preparing some sort of an occupation force for post invasion, if in fact, Russia does try to take over Ukraine. And can you give us any sense of how large that force might be?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have estimates on that. Again, everything kind of flows from whatever his decision is. And as we've said before, I mean, he could do something of a small scale, and have a temporary nature, perhaps in the Eastern Part. In Donbass, you're hearing a lot of Russian state media talk about Ukrainian aggressions in the Donbass, or he could do something much bigger. 

And if he did something much bigger, you know, in terms of trying to occupy more of Ukraine for a longer period of time, then clearly, one would have to expect that he would do the planning for what that occupation would look like. And, as we know, from our own experience, you know, if you're intending to hold territory, you have to make sure you have plenty of sustainment capability to do that to include ample force. 

But again, we don't know exactly what he's planning. So, I couldn't give you a number of like what an occupation force would look like, because it's really going to depend on what he ends up doing. And I know, I sound like a broken record. But one thing he could do is simply move these troops away, de-escalate the tensions and get serious about diplomatic negotiations and find a peaceful way through this. 

Let me go to the phones, I haven't done that. And I've got to try to be done here in about 15 minutes. So, I'm probably not going to get to everybody today. Howard Altman Military Times.

Q: John, the American public has an absolute right to know how and what its troops are doing and how taxpayer dollars are being spent. Can you tell me when journalists will be allowed to embed with troops going over to Europe? And if not soon, who or what is holding that decision? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Well, look, I mean, I'm the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. So, I'm the one responsible for decisions that are made about media access to our operations and to our people. So, to paraphrase the famous Harry S. Truman, the buck stops with me on this. 

We're still working our way through what would be the appropriate level of media access here to what our troops are doing. I just don't have anything to announce to you today or to speak specifically. I certainly have heard loud and clear the interest. I understand that and I respect that. But when I have something, you know, more than I can be more definitive, I certainly will. 

MR. KIRBY: Tony Capaccio.

Q: Hi, John, I had a question on Polish tanks, M-1's. A number of Senators wrote Secretary Austin February 3, and Secretary Blinken asking them to expedite approval of a formal M-1 tank request Poland made in July. 

I understand the Defense Security Cooperation Agency has either not yet or recently finished its analysis for the State Department. What's the status of that DOD review? And why is it taking so long?

MR. KIRBY: As for how long it takes then, you can imagine this is not a small decision. And we want to make sure we get it right. I don't have any updates for you today, Tony, but I'll check to see if there's a process answer that we can provide you. But again, these are not decisions we take lightly. 

And we certainly understand and respect the oversight role of Congress. And we also understand and respect our Polish allies, and the defense relationship that we have in them. I just don't have any announcements today. 

Q: There was a Sailor that passed away at a SEAL Training Course. Is the Secretary aware of this? And does he have concerns about this? As there have been some criticism that Navy's -- the training for this hell week may be too much?

MR. KIRBY: The Secretary was briefed on the incident. And he sends his deepest condolences to the family. That's the kind of news that no parent wants to get. So, he knows that the Navy is looking into this and they're fully investigating the cause of death. 

And I think the Secretary wants to make sure that he gives the Navy the time to look at this carefully and thoughtfully before coming to any kind of conclusions. Obviously, you know, once such accident is one too many -- we just don't know. We just don't know what happened here. 

Q: But is it too premature to make criticisms like that?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, the training has to be demanding, given the work that our Navy Seals do on behalf of this country every single day. So, you would expect the standards to be very, very high for their readiness. I think right now, two things need to be focused on. 

One is support for the family, a grieving family who is just going through agony right now. And two giving the Navy time to investigate this death and really try to figure out what happened here. And I think it would be not only premature, but it would be irresponsible to get ahead of that process at this point. 

Yes, Fadi? 

Q: Yes, John. Do you have any update on the operation against the ISIS leader? In the Secretary’s statement, he said that the department will look into whether any actions taken might have contributed to civilian casualties? Because we're getting reports from the ground that puts the civilian casualties more than the assessment found.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I don't have an update for you, Fadi. I mean, we continue to do an after-action review on this. And, you know, as we know, more will certainly provide it and as you saw on the secretary statement, we're certainly willing to take a look and to see if, if there were any actions taken by the United States that could have caused civilian casualties. 

And again, we just don't have any more granularity. I think it is worth reminding though, how the kind of restraint that the special operators showed every step of the way. And the fact that the raid was done at all shows the degree to which we were willing to try to avoid and minimize any civilian harm. Doing it the way we did, knowing that there was an innocent family, who didn't even know who else was in that house on that first floor. 

And getting them all out safely, as well as four additional children. But again, always willing to take a look, as the Secretary said. Just don't have an update, but we're very proud of the restraint and the professionalism and the precision with which the special operators conducted this mission. Yes. Let's see, I already got Lita, Tom?

Q: How you doing, John, thank you. This is sort of a corollary to Jen's earlier question. What's the Pentagon's analysis of the public warning from the General Ivashov. He's Chair of all Russians Officer Assembly. He's saying that Putin should not invade Ukraine, it would be a disaster. What analysis do you think the Pentagon has -- do they expect to have feedback from this letter they have in Moscow?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak to internal communications between Russian officers and I can't speak to this press reporting that Jen asked about. 

I've seen the press reporting, and I just don't have anything to speak to it. That said, we would certainly agree that another invasion of Ukraine would be disastrous, certainly for the Ukrainian people, and certainly would not come cost free to the Russians -- to the Russian military. 

There's absolute -- nobody wants to see, at least nobody other than perhaps Mr. Putin, nobody wants to see this devolve into armed conflict. And that would absolutely incur casualties, and a high cost to we believe, to the civilian population of Ukraine as well. And it doesn't have to be that way. 

There's plenty of opportunity for Mr. Putin to do the right thing here and be serious about finding a diplomatic way forward and de-escalating the tensions by moving those troops away. Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

Q: Thank you. On the al-Qurashi raid, the U.S. said that it was a kill or capture mission. Where would he had gone had he been captured? And also, can I follow up on Howard Altman's question about the embeds? Can you give us a sense of one we'll know the media access sort of plan for troops deploying to Europe? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Nancy, I'll try to work all that access stuff as fast as I can. I don't have a time certain for you. And I'm not going to get into the tactics, techniques, and procedures of what might have been a capture mission obviously didn't turn out that way. But I think it'd be better for everybody if we didn't talk about the eventualities on that mission that didn't occur. 

Because as I said, when I first started talking about this on Wednesday, we want to be able to do these things in the future. We have to expect that ISIS is going to appoint another leader. And so, we want to preserve options going forward. And I do appreciate it's a very fair question. But I think I hope you can understand why we're simply going to demure on something like that. 

Tara Copp.

Q: Thanks, John. A couple of follow ups. For the soldiers that will fall in Poland and Romania and Germany, will they be housed at existing barracks? Or are they going to be bringing field tents or something like that? And then secondly, could you give us an update on the Nuclear Posture Review? 

Specifically, because and I know you don't want to discuss the internal deliberations, the intermediate range nuclear missiles and potential START Treaty participation seems to be a couple of the bargaining chips on the table. Is that going to delay the NPR’s release? Thank you

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a specific update for you on the nuclear posture view and the timing, I can tell you that its ongoing still. And we're doing it in parallel with our work on the national defense strategy. It is an interagency process, though the Nuclear Posture Review, not just -- it doesn't just exist here at DOD. 

So, we're part of the team putting this together, I can assure you that it is being worked on in real time as we speak. I just don't have a release date for you. But I think it would be safe for you to assume that it will come out and be nested along with the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and as those are ready to roll out. But again, the exact timing, I don't know. 

As for the troops that are going to -- I'm going to have to refer you to EUCOM on that one Tara. I don't know what their bed down locations are going to be. I suspect that in some cases, it will be, you know, more permanent structures most likely at host nation bases. But in the context of doing exercises, they could very well be in the field as well. 

So, it's going to kind of depend on their schedules, but I would refer you to EUCOM they'll have a much cleaner sense of their lodging than I do. Paul McLeary, Politico.

Q: Hi, John. Thanks. Can we switch gears? I wondered if you have you an update on the F-35 that was lost in the South China Sea? If -- what the status of the recovery efforts? Have you seen any Chinese moves in that region near where the plane is? And if there's any actions being taken against the sailors who are kind of leaking photos and video?

MR. KIRBY: I lost some of the first part of your question. Was it about other...

Q: Recovery efforts.

Q: Yes, the recovery efforts for the F-35. Do you see any Chinese activity in the area?

MR. KIRBY: Specific Chinese ship movements, I think you can understand we're taking all the appropriate planning actions that we need to salvage our aircraft. And we're going to recover it in a timely manner as we've done in the past. So, I think any question about have -- being in some sort of competition to recover what is in fact, our property is speculative at best. 

And then you're -- I think your second question was about the video that was released. What I know is that the Navy is not only investigating, of course, the cause of the mishap itself, but they are investigating the release of this deck video that you saw -- flight deck video that you saw. 

And I won't get ahead of their investigation, but I know they're looking into what appears to be an unauthorized leak of official video. And video, quite frankly, that's going to be crucial to the investigation into the mishap itself. OK. I've got time for just one more. I'll go to Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

Q: Good afternoon. Thank you, two questions, please. First, looking for any kind of update you might have on the maritime side, in the Black Sea? As relates to surface combatants, amphibs other things like that that might be used on the Black Coast Seaside. 

And second was looking for any kind of update you might have on the Manda Bay Investigation that I know the Secretary was interested in and sort of ordered a second investigation of? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: I don' have any updates on the Black Sea. No, no specific shipm movements to speak to as -- I think you know, though, Dan, we do have the Harry S. Truman Strike Group in the Mediterranean. And they continue to conduct operations. In fact, they're operating in -- their operating alongside the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. 

So, lots of great training opportunities with our NATO partners in the Mediterranean. Nothing to report or speak to specifically on the Black Sea at this point. On the Manda Bay Investigation, you're right, it’s our understanding that it is being wrapped up. I mean, investigation, I think it's been largely completed, it's now going through coordination. 

And sort of getting the finishing touches, put it on it. And I do think that we will be able to speak to all of you about it in the not-too-distant future. I would say, probably just a matter of a few weeks, maybe less. So, we're getting close to the end of that, and obviously we'll lay it out for you just like we laid out the Abbey Gate Investigation last week. 

OK, listen, I promised I'd be down by 3:30. And it's 3:30, so I apologize. I couldn't get to everybody, but thanks for hanging with me, and we'll see you later this week.