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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

March 22, 2022

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Good morning, everybody.  (inaudible) here.  As always, "senior defense official."

Not a whole lot of changes today either.  Still assess more than 1,100 missile launches; no real changes by the Russians on the ground near Kyiv; still hold them to be about 15 kilometers to the northwest, and still about 30 to the -- to the east.  Yeah, no -- no real changes to speak to with respect to Chernihiv, to -- to Kharkiv.

We had talked about this town, Izyum, in the east south of Kharkiv, and as you might remember, we were talking about the Russians coming down out of Kharkiv towards Izyum, which lies a little bit to the southeast of Kharkiv.  With what we believe to be the Russian attempt to sort of cut off the joint forces operations area, the -- basically, the -- the -- the Donbas.  And that's one reason, not the only reason, but one reason why we -- we think they're -- they're so interested in Mariupol, so they can come up from the north and then down from the -- I'm sorry -- come up from the south, down from the north from Izyum.  And -- and today, you know, we had talked about the -- assessing that the Russians had -- had -- had taken Izyum, and what we're seeing today is -- is some significant fighting there by the Ukrainians in an effort to take it back.  So I just thought I'd -- I'd note that.

The -- in -- in -- down in the south, you know, now that we're talking about Mariupol, no -- no real changes from yesterday to talk about with the exception of a couple of things.  Obviously -- and again, you guys are seeing this the same we are -- lots of continued bombardment, artillery and long-range fires in the Mariupol.  What we observed over the last 24 hours is that the Russians have likely been firing into the city from the sea, from the Sea of Azov, so just to the south of Mariupol.  We assess that they've got about -- about five to six ships in the Sea of Azov.  Actually, I would count that as -- I'd -- I'd say more like seven, and -- and we think some of them, at least the surface combatants -- or at least some of the surface combatants have been -- have been shelling into Mariupol, and that -- that wasn't the case yesterday.  Now, not all of those seven ships are surface combatants.  We think they've got a minesweeper in there and a couple of LSTs, but -- but I did want to note that that is a -- a -- a bit of a change from -- from -- from yesterday.

But obviously, we continue to observe a -- a -- a number of Russian forces inside the city.  We think at least some of them are -- are separatist forces that came from the Donbas.  And again, the Ukrainians are -- are fighting very, very hard from -- to -- to keep Mariupol from -- from -- from falling.

No changes in -- in the airspace to speak of.  I already talked about the maritime environment, and I know many of you will probably ask about the Black Sea.  No real changes from yesterday.  We did not observe shelling of Odesa from -- from the Black Sea over the last 24 hours, but we still assess that they have several warships that are -- that are in the northern Black Sea.  Again, it's -- like all maritime environment it -- it -- it changes, so I -- I can't say with certainty that it's the same number of ships or that they're in the same locations they were yesterday, but we still assess -- we still see that -- that naval activity in the northern Black Sea and no -- and no sense, no indication that there is an imminent amphibious assault on or near Odesa.  And again, we did not observe, at least from the navy side, we did not observe a -- shelling over the last 24 hours.

Some of you are going to ask me about combat power, assess combat power, so I -- I would say today's the first day that we've assessed the -- and again, this is an assessment, an assessment, and I want to be careful that I -- I -- I quantify -- I qualify that, but we have assessed that for the first time that the Russians may be slightly below a 90 percent level of assessed available combat power.  Again, let me remind, that is of -- that is of the combat power that they assembled in Belarus and in the western part of their country prior to the invasion.  It is not an assessment of all Russian military power.  But we assess that for the first time, they may be just a little bit below 90 percent on that.

And no -- no indications, no tangible indications of reinforcements being brought in from elsewhere in the country, no tangible indications of foreign fighters that have flown into the country.  We do assess the Wagner Group is active in Ukraine.  We think that that activity is largely in the Donbas area, but no indication that they've, you know, moved in foreign fighters from Syria or elsewhere.

And on resupply, again, no tangible indications that they are making an -- an effort to resupply from outside the -- the theater there, that -- that they're pulling in from elsewhere around the -- around Russia.  But we do continue to see indications that they are having these discussions, and that they are making those kinds of plan both in terms of resupply, and also reinforcement.  It's just that we haven't seen that actually been -- taking -- take -- take place.

Okay, I think that usually gets to the questions that we -- that we get, so we'll start with Lita.

Q:  Thanks.  There's been a lot of discussion about Ukrainians taking back one of the suburbs around Kyiv, Makariv.  I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about sort of the -- you had mentioned the other day, or -- or yesterday a counterattack on Kherson.  Can you give us a sense of what you're seeing Ukraine do in -- in these efforts where they're apparently trying to take back some of the suburbs, and a -- a broad assessment of how encircled is Kyiv at this point?  Is -- is it just a couple little avenues that the Ukrainian military has, or are -- are there broader gaps?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  The -- on the encirclement of Kyiv, I don't think that we have observed any major changes.  In fact, I mean, I don't know, Lita, that it's fair to say that Kyiv is encircled.  I don't think we've ever said that, that it -- that it was.

We said that the Russians were certainly interested in achieving that.  But, again, your 15 kilometers from city center to the northwest, and you haven't moved in a long, long time, and you're still about 30 kilometers to the east.  We don't see a push from the south towards Kyiv from the Russians.  They haven't been able to break out of Chernihiv.  So I don't know that we would have assessed Kyiv as encircled.

They certainly are still where they were before.  I can't verify the accounts of them taking back a suburb.  I did ask that question this morning anticipating that you would, but I -- we can't -- we can't confirm it, can't refute it either, but we can't independently verify it.  What I can say is we have seen, if it is true, it's certainly of a piece of efforts that we have seen Ukrainian endeavor in the last few days to -- to try to take back territory that the Russians have gained, such as I mentioned yesterday in Kherson.

It's not exactly the same situation, but in Mykolaiv, and we haven't really talked about Mykolaiv much, the Russians still have not been able to Mykolaiv.  And now we assess that, you know, before they were in sort of the north to the northeast of Mykolaiv.  They're also -- they're -- we get a sense that they are repositioning themselves to the southern part of the city because the Ukrainians are fighting so -- so hard in Mykolaiv.  So they are making the Russians sort of reposition around there.

So we're definitely seeing anecdotal evidence, anyway, that the -- that the Ukrainians are not only defending well, where they choose to defend, but they are -- they are making efforts to take back territory that the Russians have -- you know, have taken in recent days.  But I can't -- I can't verify the specific anecdote there, near Kyiv.

Jack Detsch?

Q:  Hey, (inaudible), I know you said no indications of foreign fighters from elsewhere, but we're hearing U.S. officials saying on -- on other platforms that the Belarusians are preparing to go in.  I was wondering if you had anything on that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't -- I don't have anything specifically with respect to Belarusian intentions.  We're -- we're watching this as closely as we can.  But -- but nothing specific to report to in terms of Belarusian activity towards -- towards moving in.

Q:  Got it.  And then with the Ukrainian repulse of other Russian forces, have you assessed that anything has changed tactically with -- with the Ukrainians or is this sort of the same hit-and-run attacks that you've talked about previously?  Yes, again, we don't -- we wouldn't -- we wouldn't assess that there has been any major changes to their operating concepts.  Again, I want to be careful here because we're not -- you know, we're not in the operational planning cycle with these guys, and they should speak for themselves.

But we do continue to see them defend in a very nimble, agile way.  You called it hit-and-run, I mean, there is certainly some of that still going on.  But, again, what we're -- what we're starting to see are indications that they are -- they are -- are now able and willing to take back territory that the -- that the Russians have taken.

Again, I -- it's indications and it will be difficult for us to say that this marks, you know, some sort of major muscle movement member by the Ukrainian military.  It's clearly notable.  Whether this is a part of some sort of larger operational plan, we can't say for sure.

Phil Stewart?

Q:  Hi.  There was a Russian media report that was withdrawn after they said it was a hacking incident.  But they said Russian casualty numbers of 9,861 Russian troops dead and 16,153 wounded.  And these are figures that -- that actually have been there -- out there once before.

Was wondering, does the U.S. believe that these numbers may be credible?  Does the U.S. believe that this was actually a hacking attack or was it -- kind of a censorship issue?  Is there any insight you can give us on the casualties in this incident?  Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Unfortunately, no, Phil.  We don't -- we -- I mean, I'm aware of that incident but we can't -- we can't declaratively say whether it was hacking or whether it was a protester who did it, or whether the outlet was making some sort of statement.  And we certainly can't verify the numbers.

As you know we have been very, very careful about not getting into the casualty count.  Because even our best estimates are just that, and we have low confidence in them.  And so, I'm -- I'm going to continue to stay away from the numbers.

Tom Bowman?

Q:  Yeah, I wanted to get back to you -- what you talked about the discussions by the Russians about resupply.  Could you put any more detail on that?  Is it more likely they'll bring Russian forces from elsewhere in Russia?  Is -- or is it more likely, you know, like say Syrian troops?

And also, Ben Hodges and others have said the next 10 days will be crucial for the Russians, are along these lines of resupply and sending in replacements.  Do you guys agree with that that the next 10 days or so will be absolutely crucial for the Russians?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't think -- I haven't seen any indications here that -- that we're putting a 10-day timeframe on -- on Russian resupply being more vital than it has been lately.  I mean, we're on day 27, and we continue to see them have fuel problems, food problems.

We're starting to see them as we've talked about have inventory issues, particularly with respect to precision-guided munitions.  I mean, so, it follows that, you know, a month into an operation of a size and a scale that they've never attempted before that -- that they would be exploring replenishment options.

I think -- I don't think that comes as a shock to anybody here at the Pentagon.  We note that they -- they -- they were having logistics and sustainment issues less than a week in.  So clearly they did not properly plan for it, if they did they are not -- they didn't properly execute to that.

I -- I just never -- I haven't seen anything here about the next 10 days being particularly vital.  We believe that -- that they believe it's been a problem since the first week.  And they have struggled to overcome the challenges and the missteps that they have made with respect to logistics and sustainment.

As for where they can draw reinforcements from I really don't want to get -- get ahead of -- I think I'd rather not get into specifics of -- of the kinds of discussions that we think they're having.  I would just tell you that we would expect that -- that if they were going to draw in reinforcements the most likely scenario would be to draw them in from outside of Russia, where they have troops stationed outside the country before they would pull from inside the country. 

Again, I'd remind you that of the battalion tactical groups that Mr. Putin has available to him across -- across Russia, he has used about 75 percent in this particular operation.

So I think our assumption would be he'd pull from outside the country first.  But that's an assumption, and I really don't want to get any more detailed than that.

Marcus?

Q:  Thanks.

Q:  Hey, (inaudible), Thanks.

Earlier this morning Bill LaPlante's up on the Hill for his nomination hearing to be the head of acquisition.  And it was brought up by several Senators that there are -- there is not a hot production line in the U.S. for Stingers.

And just overall munition supplies and needing to kind of ramp that up with everything that the U.S. has been giving to Ukraine.  So are there any steps that the Pentagon's taking right now to, you know, order more weapons or communicate with companies to start preparing for those orders?

I know you have a budget that's about to drop but as we know that takes usually years to be implemented.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I don't have anything to report on terms of -- of -- of discussions with the defense industry in terms of Stinger inventory.  And I -- I think, yeah, there's no -- I -- no discussions like that to report right now.

We're -- we're, obviously, doing everything we can.  You've seen the numbers to get -- to get -- to draw from our own stocks to provide to Ukraine.  I think I just need to leave it there.

Tony Capaccio?

Q:  Hi, (inaudible).  Yesterday the president said, referring to Russian rhetoric, he said that it's -- that's a clear sign he's considering using both chemical and biological weapons.

I need to ask you, has -- has the -- has the Pentagon come up with any tangible evidence that Russia is marshaling potential chemical use in terms of, you know, maybe a specialized tactical battalion group that's equipped to launch chemical weapons or MOPP gear being issued?

You know, any chatter you're picking up that would indicate potential imminent use?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't have -- there's no -- no change since yesterday in terms of our assessment about any imminent chemical or biological use.  But -- but we certainly agree with the president's assessment about the -- the rhetoric and the language.

I mean, they continue to talk about this, and it's a Russian playbook tactic that, you know, what you accuse others from you're usually the one planning it.  And -- and so while we haven't seen any imminent indications, we're monitoring this very, very closely.

Q:  What kind of indications would you be looking for?  Are there specialized groups within the Russian Army that, you know, they're chemical weapons shock troopers?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Well, we certainly know that they have chem-bio forces available to them.  So that's something we would obviously monitor.  We would monitor the rhetoric because the rhetoric matters, because of the way the Russians try to set pretexts for activities that they're doing.

So that's being -- that's being monitored.  And then just look to various streams of intelligence.  We're doing the best we can to -- to pick up any indications that they have moved chemical or biological weapons into Ukraine or that they are trying to weaponize, for instance, the pathogens that these biological labs have.  We just haven't seen that bear fruit yet.  And we certainly don't want it to.

But there's a variety of things that we're looking at, Tony.  And again, just no indication that there's something imminent in that regard right now, but we're doing the best we can monitor it across a range of different sources and methods.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Heather from USNI.

Q:  Thanks. I know you mentioned that there's no updates on the maritime front, but have you noticed if Russia's attempting to take anymore ships into the Black Sea or changing how many ships are there?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I don't have -- I don't think we know of any -- find my -- here it is here.  I don't know of any other movements inside the Black Sea in terms of adding to their fleet.  We would say that -- let me see here -- we -- right now we access that in the Black Sea the Russians have about 21 ships.

And we haven't noticed that that has changed in any significant way over recent days.  They -- I don't know of any transits -- I don't have any transits to speak of.  Of those 21 ships, a dozen of them are surface combatants and the remaining 9 are amphibious ships, tank landing ships.

Okay.  Let's see, Luis Martinez?

Q:  Hi.  A question about another location of fighting in northwest of Kyiv -- Bucha and Irpin, I think, is the name of the town in Hostomel.  Are you seeing Russian forces there being cut off by the Ukrainian counteroffensive there?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  No, Luis.  I haven't seen reports of that. 

Q:  Thank you much.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  I mean, I'm not -- I'm not denying it.  I'm just saying, to your question, have I seen reports of that -- No.  I mean, it's -- I'm looking at -- I'm looking at our map right now.  I mean, they -- they -- there has obviously been -- they have -- they've not made any progress around there.  And the Ukrainians are fighting to the north of the city, but I can't corroborate that particular report.

Q:  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Okay, sorry.  Karoun from Washington Post.

Q:  Hi (inaudible).  Sorry, two questions kind of picking up off the things you were talking before -- talking about before.  One, you talked about that Russians would potentially mobilize or redeploy those who had been outside the country to Ukraine, that theater, before taking people internal to the country.  And I was just wondering how many forces, how many troops do you assess that that would potentially give them at their disposal to add to the theater around Ukraine?

And the also just in the in the discussion about being stuck around Kyiv, I'm just curious, have you seen any signs of Russian forces trying to reposition their approach on Kyiv in a -- as a result of how they've become kind of mired?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  We haven't seen any major repositioning by them around Kyiv.  Again, it's kind of been static, 15 kilometers or so to the northwest and 30 kilometers to the east, they just haven't -- we have not seen a lot of movement on their part.

And I want to clarify, as I said, we're -- we aren't sure if they reinforce from other places.  We're not sure where they would pull that from.  The -- what we think is most likely is they will probably want to pull from elsewhere, not in Russia.  But, I can't rule out that they wouldn't still pull in reinforcements from in Russia too, they could.  I'm just saying that what we think is most likely is they're going to look at battalion tactical groups or forces they have elsewhere in other countries.

And I couldn't give you a number on what that would look like.  It's going to depend on whatever decisions they make in terms of what -- how many reinforcements they need.  I don't have the global force posture for the Russian military.

I don't know, you know, how many troops they have in any one place.  But, it's our assessment that as they look at reinforcements it's probably the most likely scenario that they would want to pull in from places not inside Russia.

But again, I want to be careful here, we don't have perfect visibility into their planning and thinking.  And it's possible they could also -- it could be a mix.  They could pull some from inside Russia, some from outside, we just don't know.  All we do know is that they're having these discussions, that they are considering what reinforcements might look like and where they might come from.

Mike Brest?

Q:  Thanks for taking my question.  Yesterday, (inaudible) said that the Pentagon had seen clear evidence of war crimes.  What specific attacks or strikes constitute war crimes from the Pentagon's perspective?

And additionally, there have been reports of Ukrainians being taken against their will to camps in Russia.  And I'm wondering what the Pentagon has seen on that front.  Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yes, we're not a position to corroborate those reports of people getting pulled out of the country and taken to camps.  We've seen it.  It's deeply concerning, but we're not in a position to confirm it.

And, Mike, I think I'm not going to get into ever single airstrike that the Russians have conducted in the last 27 days.  But, we have seen clear evidence that over the -- certainly over the last week or so the Russians have deliberately and intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure, hospitals, places of shelter, and we also have indications of behavior on the ground by Russian forces that would likewise constitute war crimes.  I'm not going to get into a list of it.

As I said yesterday, the administration is going to be helping provide evidence to the multiple investigations that are going on.  But, we -- but we see clear evidence that the -- that they're committing war crimes through these indiscriminate and intentional attacks on civilian targets and the people of Ukraine.

David Martin?  Okay, nothing heard.  Liz, from Fox?

Q:  Hey, thanks for taking my question.  (inaudible) mentioned on "Fox and Friends" this morning there's active sessions about sending more U.S. troops to Europe.  I was wondering if you -- if you would add anything to that and maybe Secretary Austin is meeting with specific NATO partners later this week.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  There's -- I have nothing to speak to with respect to additional troops rotating.

What (inaudible) said was that we're not -- he's not taking that off the table, the possibility that we could possibly deploy additional U.S. forces to the eastern flank.  But right now there is -- I have nothing -- nothing to speak to.  But I think -- I think this is something the secretary is looking at each and every week and he's not going to foreclose any option if it -- if it's a valuable requirement to -- to bolster the eastern flank.

Right -- right now, I mean, he is -- his purpose for going this week is to accompany the president as the president leads this NATO summit.  I don't know of any specific plans on the sidelines of that for the secretary to meet with any of his NATO counterparts, but I certainly, certainly would not rule out the possibility that he might conduct a bilateral discussion here and there with some of his counterparts.  As you know, we were just in Brussels last week for a defense ministerial, absolutely could certainly see the potential -- if he had an opportunity, that he would continue to.  But he -- you know, this is -- he's largely going to support the president's visit.  That's the real focus.

Joe Tabet?

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you, (inaudible).  Just want to go back to what was issued yesterday from the Pentagon about the deconfliction line with the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Are you able to elaborate more what's the level of connection between both departments?  And is it -- is it similar to the -- is it the same mechanism that we have seen in Syria?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  It is.  So a couple of things on this deconfliction line.  We test it every day and the Russians are picking up.  So that's a good thing.  There hasn't been any content delivery over the deconfliction line because there hasn't been any need to have that conversation with the Russians, there hasn't been any potential conflicts in NATO airspace or -- or ground space.  That's what the purpose is.  The purpose is not -- it's not meant to be an all-purpose complaint line where we can just pick up the phone and -- and register concerns about what Russia's doing in Ukraine.  I mean, that -- that -- we've made that message clear every single day, including on these backgrounders.

So -- but that's not the purpose of the line.  It's a deconfliction line.  It is akin to what we are doing in Syria.  It's not exactly the same thing, because in Syria you have U.S. forces on the ground, supported occasionally by -- by -- by aviation, fighting ISIS in concert with Syrian Democratic Forces, and you also have Russian forces in Syria, and have had for many years.  So it's not the same situation, but it's -- it's roughly the same idea.

Again, it's a deconfliction line.  It's not a complaint line.  We have many ways of communicating directly with Russian leaders as we need to until --

(AUDIO GAP)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  All right, nothing heard.

Dan De Luce?

Q:  Yeah, hi, thanks.

And -- and you talked about the -- the naval shelling around Mariupol.  What -- what effect does that have, if any, on that situation?  How does that fit into the larger picture of the Russian assault on that city?  And also, has any ground changed hands around Mariupol in the past 24 to 48 hours?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Changed hands -- I don't have any -- we don't have any indications that -- that ground has changed hands.  But Dan, that is a -- that's a very tactical question.  It -- it's -- you know, I -- I don't know that we would necessarily be able to answer that in real time because it is a very dynamic situation.  Both sides are fighting very hard for -- for Mariupol, and so I mean, the -- the situation changes rapidly over the course of even just a few hours.  I -- I don't have -- I don't know of any indications that -- that -- that actual geography has changed hands one way or the other.  We assess that the -- the Ukrainians are -- are inside and fighting for Mariupol.  We also assess that there are some Russian forces inside Mariupol, and some of those we assess, as I said, are -- are probably separatist forces that came down from the Donbas.

As for the shelling and what that means, difficult to say.  I mean, it's -- it is -- it is of a piece of the Russian effort to increase long-range fires into city centers because they are struggling to take them on the ground.  So we -- we believe that that's part of this effort by the Russians, again, to -- to use artillery bombardment and -- and long-range fires into city centers.  Again, we've only noticed this now over the last 24 hours or so.

And then just back to the point I made earlier, I mean, Mariupol is significant for lots of reasons:  important port -- port city, important geography with respect to the Donbas, and -- and making it easier for the Russians to -- to -- to reach overground to -- to Crimea.  And then also, I -- we think important also as sort of the southern -- the southern pole of a -- of an effort by the Russians to close off the joint forces operations area, the JFO, basically, the Donbas so that Ukrainian forces can't -- are pinned down there and are not able to come to the defense of cities further to the west, including Kyiv.  So Mariupol sort of serves as an anchor for that effort, if you will, on -- on -- on the southern -- on the southern stretch of -- of Ukraine there.  So very significant for lots of reasons.  Again, a lot of -- a -- a lot of significant fighting going on.  Ukrainians are not giving up on Mariupol.  They -- they're -- they're fighting hard to prevent that.  I'm sure that they don't need to be reminded about the importance of -- of that city to this -- this entire effort.

Okay --

Q:  Sorry, (inaudible), sorry.  Could I just ask you one follow-up?  I apologize.  You -- you talked about how they've had these logistical problems, the fuel problems.  Are you still seeing signs of that all -- all the time on a -- on -- on a daily/weekly basis, these fuel logistics challenges and problems?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Yeah, yeah, we -- we have, Dan.  We can -- we -- we still assess that they're having trouble with fuel even in the maritime environment; that they're -- that they -- that they're concerned about being able to keep their ships fueled.

And I mean, we've even got -- we've picked up some indications that -- that some of their soldiers are -- are suffering from frostbite because they -- they lack the appropriate cold-weather gear for the -- for the environment that they're in, they haven't -- they haven't -- in -- in addition to food and fuel, even in terms of personal equipment for some of their troops they're having trouble, and we've picked up indications that -- that some troops have actually suffered and taken out of the fight because of frostbite.

So yes, they are having continued logistics and sustainment issues, and again, because the Ukrainians have done a good job frustrating their efforts to resupply, as well as because we don't think they properly planned for logistics and sustainment on the level that they needed -- on the level that they needed to.

We also still assess -- and I said this yesterday, but -- but this is a part of your question -- is that they -- that they're having command-and-control challenges of being able to communicate with one another, and without communications, it's -- it's hard to, again, get things like logistics and sustainment moving.  So -- so they're struggling on -- on -- on many fronts.

Okay, I think that's about it for today.  I think the Pentagon's doing a briefing this afternoon, so -- so we'll see you all later this afternoon.  I'll -- we'll figure out how to do these things for the rest of the week, so more to -- more to follow as we work -- as we work through what kind of backgrounding we're going to be able to do for the rest of the week.  Out here.