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Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing, April 12, 2022

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, good morning, everybody. Sorry I'm a little bit late.

I don't have a whole lot of updates today from yesterday, so I'll just, rather than go through everything, I'll just tell you what I can update you on.

We're up to more than 1,540 missile launches. Air strikes continue to be focused on Mariupol and the Joint Force operation area there to the east, and Donbas.

The convoy that we've been talking about is still north of Izyum about 60 kilometers or so, and we do assess that it's moving, but not at breakneck speed. No updates for -- I don't have the number of vehicles. I don't know how fast they're traveling. I don't know what's in every truck, but I still would characterize it the way I characterized it yesterday. It includes some command-and-control elements, some enablers and we think it's also intended for resupply, perhaps an effort to amend their poor performance and logistics and sustainment in the north. But again, we don't really have a whole lot more information about what's in that thing.

There is still heavy fighting around Izyum right now, and Russian forces do remain south of Izyum, again, about 20 kilometers or so, which is not a huge change from where it was before. I don't have an update on number of BTGs that are in the east and the south. Nothing to update you from yesterday. It's about the same, and let's see --

I think that's it, so we'll get the questions because I've got a hard stop at 11 o'clock, so Bob, on to you.

Q: Thank you, Let's see -- on the issue of a possible -- of white phosphorus or some sort of chemical agent that has been reported the last couple of days, do you have any update on what your assessment of that is?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, no updates. You saw my brief statement last night. I think that statement holds today, that we're still trying to monitor that -- these reports, but we cannot confirm the use of chemical agents at this time. We're still evaluating.

Q: Can I ask a quick other question?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure.

Q: The Russian Ministry of Defense has reported that they struck I believe it was two ammunition depots in Ukraine. They've occasionally reported this. I'm wondering what the sum total is of that, not in numbers, but in effect. Have they been effective not just against ammo depots, but against weapons depots that have in any way, you know, denigrated the weapons shipments that you've -- that the West has pushed into Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I can't confirm the Russian account there, Bob. It'd be hard for me to quantify what effect they've had on ammunition and supplies for the Ukrainians. We have seen them, just in general in terms of the things they're striking from the air, we would not push back on the idea that they are trying to hit Ukrainian -- the Ukrainians' ability to sustain themselves in the fight so that they certainly have shown an interest in trying to hit logistics and sustainment for the Ukrainians, and that they have certainly tried to try to go after Ukrainian air defense, as well. The level of success or failure they've had at that is difficult for us to know right now. We just don't have great visibility in terms of their actual targeting and what the BDA is.

But as they begin to focus on the east, as they now start to reinforce their positions there, create a command-and-control organization, as well as logistics and sustainment, it follows a certain logic that they would also try to deny the Ukrainians some of those same advantages. But again, I'd be reticent to go into great specificity about their actual success in in doing that, but we have seen indications that they are attempting to try to affect the Ukrainians' ability to sustain themselves in the fight.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yup.

Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, on this convoy, presumably, we believe they're heading to Izyum, is that right? And also, are the Ukrainians attacking this convoy at all, or is this kind of open ground that makes that difficult? And also, what's the Russian combat power, what percentage? I think one of the last times we talked, it was like 85 percent.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. So we would assess that Russian assessed available combat power -- and again, I want to remind you guys that that's of the combat power that they preassembled before their invasion. We estimate that they're just above 80 percent in terms of what's left of them.

Yes, the convoy's north of Izyum. I don't know its final destination, but I would remind that, you know, with the spring weather they have to stay on the paved roads. They're staying on highways and avenues. They're not going off-roading here. So we do assess them about 60 kilometers north of Izyum, and they are moving south. Now, whether Izyum is it, I just don't know.

Q: And as far as --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, and I have not seen -- we haven't seen indications that the Ukrainians have attempted attacks on the convoy yet.

Q: Okay, thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Idrees?

Q: Really quick, have you seen any movement of any chemical agents in or near Ukraine by the Russians? And secondly, could you just give us an overview of Ukraine's Air Force and jets? You did a nice job a couple of weeks ago, where they stand now, what sorties, what numbers, just broadly.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sorry. What -- say the second one again?

Q: Oh, oh, just Ukraine's Air Force and sort of what their firepower is, how many sorties they're doing, just broadly.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. I'm going to demur on that right now, Idrees. We would assess that the Ukrainians still have -- they still have the majority of their air defense available to them, but they have been clear that they want to boost their inventories for air defense capabilities. They've been clear that they want more aircraft. And again, as you know, we're talking to allies and partners about doing what we can to help them get more long-range air defense systems.

I'm not going to -- I want to be careful not to get into their order of battle, and their sortie rate now that we are in this sort of a more confined and sort of a new phase by the Russians. So I'm going to be very careful about that.

You had another question.

Q: Yeah, if you've seen any --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don't have anything to report with respect to the Russians bringing in chemical agents. I mean, we have nothing to confirm that.

And again, we have -- we cannot confirm the reports that were out on social media yesterday that chemical agents were used in Mariupol. We just -- we're looking at this as best we can but we're not in a position to confirm those reports.

Dan Lamothe?

Q: Hi, good morning. Thank you.

Wanted to see if we could maybe get some explanation on the challenges that go with confirming this kind of report in Mariupol with the chemical agents in light of the security, the challenges to get soil samples, anything else, you know, outsiders might use to try and confirm something like this.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. I mean, well, the biggest challenge is we're not there, you know. And we don't know if anything was used. 

But let's say for hypothetical purposes, and I hate doing this, but let's say it was riot control agents. So the effects are going to be felt pretty immediately, and probably not widespread, probably not going to get into the soil. And the symptoms,depending on an individual's susceptibility, could be short-felt or it could be more long-term, we just don't know. And we don't have access to the hospitals that might have treated these individuals to talk to the doctors who could give a diagnosis.

I mean, there's a host of difficulties. If it was something larger than that then, of course, you would expect to see more widespread people being hurt and being treated for it. And again, that would require you to have some dexterity in talking to medical professionals.

Or if there was, again, something even bigger you, you know, a plume for instance of a cloud or something that you could track. But those are very difficult to track when you're not there. They're certainly not something you can just track easily from, you know, from the air. So these are difficult things to prove even when you are more proximate, and we are not.

And so I think you can understand we want to be very careful here before making a proclamation.

That said, look, we know that the Russians have a history of using chemical agents. And they have shown a propensity in the past, and so we're taking it seriously. 

Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, (Edited). Hi, sir.

A couple questions -- quick questions. Does the Pentagon assess that the Russians now are conducting the suppression of enemy air defense campaigns that you would have expected to see earlier in the invasion? They're doing them now, though, in the east versus in the west or more broadly in the nation?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't know if I'd say suppression, Tony. I mean, as I said earlier, we believe they're going to try to improve their ability to sustain the fight and try to deny the Ukrainians' ability to sustain the fight. And part of that is air defense.

But, you know, is it a full-out suppression of air defense effort? I don't think we're seeing that at this point.

Q: Second question on the vaunted Switchblades that’s captured the world's attention. Has the first 100 in the $800 million tranche that the president signed last month, have those been delivered to Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: A significant amount of the first 100 we know are in Ukraine. But it's not all 100.

Q: Maybe -- okay. Are they being used right now or still -- is there training going on by -- training going on?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- there's no additional training that I'm aware of. Again, we -- but -- and I couldn't tell you where they are in Ukraine and whether the Ukrainians are using them at this point. I don't know.

Q: And then finally, the second -- the tranche in these three --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I just -- let me make a point.

Q: Please.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We may not necessarily know. I mean --

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We're not on the ground with them. And they're not telling us, you know, every round of ammunition that they're firing and at who, and at when. I mean, we may never know exactly to what degree they are using the Switchblades.

But I can tell you that a significant number of that 100 we know are now inside Ukraine.

Q: And the second tranche and the $300 million in the Ukrainian Security Initiative, are those going to be put on contract soon, or what's the status of those?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, actually, our folks at NANS are working very hard to expedite these contracts. I'm not going to get into a timeline --

Q: Yeah.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- but I can tell you that we expect those contracts to be let and put in motion very soon.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you.

The statement that came out last night said the Defense Department is concerned that Russia could combine riot-control agents with chemical agents. And I'm hoping you could elaborate on how that would work. For example, CS gas with sarin?

And also it's true the U.S. is not in Ukraine, however, it was able to confirm chemical attacks in Syria. So how might the U.S. be able to determine whether chemical weapons were used in Mariupol while being outside of Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, I just kind of answered that with Dan, Jeff. I don't think I can get any more than that.

It's difficult to do. And the size and scale of it and the visible evidence and the ability to have credible information from first responders that helps a lot.

And, you know, I don't have much more I can add on that. And I'm not going to get into much more of the chemistry here. It's true that we've had, in the past, we've had indications that that could be one thing that the Russians look at it is a potential mixing of agents with the idea that they could disguise a more serious attack by using the vehicle and the techniques of riot-control agents.

Again, we are not in a position now to say that that's what happened. We cannot confirm that any agent at all was used in Mariupol at this point. But we have had indications in the past that that would be -- could be one tactic that the Russians might employ, the combination of a riot control agent with something more serious to cause stronger symptoms.

Again, not in a position to confirm that that happened at this point. And I'm not enough of a chemical expert to tell you exactly what those agents would be, and how you would mix them. I would point you to my college transcripts, where I got a D in organic chemistry and was forced to change my major. So I'm not exactly the right guy to talk about that.

Mike Brest, Washington Examiner?

Q: Good morning.

Last weekend, The New York Times verified a video showing Ukraine soldiers killing a Russian soldier. And so I'm wondering if the Pentagon is aware of that video, what you could say on the matter, and if there have been conversations between the U.S. and Ukraine about treatment of prisoners of war.

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Cannot verify the video. Yes, obviously we’ve seen it but we're not in a position to independently verify it.

And I would just tell you that we have been very clear both publicly and privately with the Ukrainians what our expectations are for the proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Barbara Starr

Q: A couple of question on security assistance, if I may.

So as you work towards trying to get the Ukrainians heavier weapons like artillery, armor, et cetera, what can you tell us about your effort to see if maybe you -- if the U.S. has something in inventory that might work for them with minimal training? Is there something that you might be -- even if you can't say precisely what it is, is it an option to look at whether you have systems you could provide with some minimal training that would be useful in time for them?

And to follow-up on security assistance, as you transfer things across the border, could you just clarify, does everything go essentially to Ministry of Defense or do you have certain items earmarked for particular units? I wasn't clear on that.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: My understanding is that we don't earmark for particular units. These items are not sitting around very long. Once they get into the transshipment sites they are palletized and put on trucks, those trucks are picked up by Ukrainian armed forces and taken into Ukraine. And then it's up to the Ukrainians to determine where they go and how they're allocated inside their country.

So we do not earmark it. And I'm sure the Ukrainians has some system for how they decide where these things go and what units get them and in what order. But that would be for the Ukrainians to speak to. We certainly don't get down to that level of detail.

What we try to do is talk to them very frequently about their needs, and not just at the secretary’s level but below that, to get a sense of what they want, and then we try to coordinate the delivery of that stuff not just from us but other nations and get them on trucks as fast as we can. But what happens to them once they're inside Ukraine is up to the Ukrainian armed forces.

And as for your other question, look, I mean Switchblades are a great example. This is a system that the Ukrainians were not familiar with but that we believe, based on talking to them, that it could be valuable. And so we did conduct some brief training with a few of them as we talked about. And we are exploring options for additional possible training on the Switchblade going forward.

So we don't have anything to announce in that regard but we're working (inaudible) --

Q: Well, what about the heavier weapons?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm getting there, Barb.

Q: What about the heavier weapons?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm getting there -- I'm getting there, Barb.

Q: (Inaudible), sorry.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm getting there.

I am not going to get ahead of future drawdown packages and what that might look like. But if we determine, in concert with the Ukrainians, that there's additional systems that they need that we can provide but that might require some training, then we're certainly willing to talk to them about that and what that would look like.

But I'm not going to get ahead of decisions that aren't made yet. And I'm not going to try to, you know, speculate about additional systems right now.

But certainly we would not -- I guess what I'm trying to say is that the idea that they might need something that might require training is not prohibitive in terms of our decision-making.

And the Switchblade is a good example. We knew when we talked to them that this could be valuable for them and we knew that they didn't know how to use it. And so we're working on, you know, how do we get them continuous, some sort of -- not continuous, but how do we get them some additional training on the Switchblade.

Now, the Switchblade doesn't require a lot of training. You could do it in about 24 to 48 hours. Other systems, we'll just have to see. But it's not prohibitive in our mind that just because something might need some additional training that we shouldn't provide it. But again, I don't want to get ahead of decisions to where we are right now.

Q: And why is it that all the Switchblades have not gone into Ukraine? You always tell us nothing's --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm not going to talk about the specifics of how things are moving in.

We are flowing things in every single day. And you want to flow things in in a way that the Ukrainians can properly receive it and use it and are ready to receive. And so, I would just leave it there.

We are in constant communication with them about what their needs are and about what's getting in and when. But I would -- you know -- it's not like they've only gotten a few of these. They've gotten a significant number and it won't take long before the rest of them are in the country.

Paul Shinkman?

Q: Yes, hi, sir. Let me ask Jeff's question in a different way.

So the U.S. was able to confirm chemical weapons used in Syria without having a presence on the ground. Is there further work being put into determining whether there was a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine this time? Or is that not a particular priority right now?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No -- as I said -- I thought I made this clear at the top.

We are continuing to monitor this and to look at it as best we can. But I think you guys can understand that if it was -- and again, I'm not saying that it was, but if it was something as simple as tear gas and maybe there was only a handful of people that might have been affected, it's going to more difficult for us to be able to prove that.

So yes, we were able to prove sarin gas in Syria, but it had a much more widespread devastating effect on more people. And we were able to corroborate a bunch of different intelligence streams to be able to confirm that. But we also did that cautiously and carefully back then; that wasn't something we jumped to conclusions on.

This alleged event happened just yesterday. We are not on the ground. We don't have perfect visibility. And so, we're doing the best we can to try to get to some better conclusion. We are still actively looking at this. But I'm not going to promise you that we're going to have a result by a certain date. And, frankly, I'm not going to be able to promise you that we're ever going to have a perfect resolution or a definitive position on this. We're looking at it.

Q: That's helpful. Thank you.

And then, perhaps related, have you seen evidence of that -- the appointment of General Dvornikov to oversee operations in Ukraine, has that already changed any of the tactics or strategy of the Russian forces there with regard to potential chemical weapons use or for anything else?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No.

Q: Great. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nick Schifrin?

Q: Thanks, (Edited).

I know we asked this yesterday, but any further update on Mariupol? There's a couple of reports, people who I'm talking to, that there's a particular neighborhood that the Azov Battalion that's defending the city has been kind of isolated into and some reports of Ukrainian soldiers surrendering themselves after running out of ammunition. Do you have anything on the site from Mariupol, whether inside the city or outside of the city? 

Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, Nick, I gave you the best I have on everything in my opening comments. I don't have much more detail than that, unfortunately.

Q: Okay, that's it for me. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Liz from Fox.

Q: Hi.

On the 1,540 air strikes Russians launched to Ukraine, is there any update? Like have those slowed down in recent days? Or do you have any update specifics on if they're coming from Ukrainian air space, Russian air space?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think you -- as the Russians have much more -- they've concentrated their efforts now in a smaller geographic area. I mean, you guys can tell from the number count that they're not appreciatively changing that much every day.

And I think yesterday I said more than 1,500, today I said more than 1,540. So, it's not a huge leap as it was in the early goings when they were working on three different lines of access all over the entire eastern part of Ukraine. So it was a much wider area and they were striking on, again, multiple lines of axes. They have now collapsed their efforts now to the east and to the south. And so -- and they're operating in a much more confined geographic area.

So, I think we believe that the fact that there hasn't been -- the numbers of air strikes don't appear to be very numerous on any given day, are really more of a testament to their concentration of effort in a smaller area. I don't know if that answers your question, but --

Q: It does. Thank you.

Do you think their --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It could also – Liz, it could also change. I mean, again, we're just trying to tell you what we're seeing, you know, now.

But we don't know how this fight's going to unfold. And we can't be perfectly predicted that the Russians won't step up their number of air strikes, you know, if they feel they need to.

So, again, it's difficult to get inside their head and know exactly what they're doing and what they're going to do next. But we're trying to give you the best number account we can.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. Heather ?

Q: Thanks so much.

I was wondering if you could give us any maritime update or any information about any of the dozens of ships that are in the Black Sea or Sea of Azov.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nothing -- as I said at the top, no real significant updates in the maritime environment. 

We still assess that in the Black Sea, you know, they've got a little less than a couple of dozen ships, mostly -- the biggest number they have are surface combatants. They also have some LSTs as well. We still assess that a large part of their focus, particularly in the Sea of Azov, is replenishment. We've not seen -- Okay, yeah. So -- and no big changes to the numbers. They've got some surface ships in the northern Black Sea, kind of sprinkled throughout it we believe likely intended to, again, support activities on the ground, and then again, in the Sea of Azov, I think five ships right now in the Sea of Azov, a mix of frigates and minesweepers. So again, no major things to update.

Gordon Lubold?

Q: Yeah. Two quick questions again on on the possible chem attack, can you say if the U.S. has provided, U.S. or anybody else, has provided the Ukrainians with any kind of, like, equipment that would help assess or determine an attack? And also, do you think that, hypothetically, would the U.S. distinguish between kind of garden-variety use of mace or something as a crowd-control measures and something else? And then I have one quick third question unrelated.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Go ahead, give me a third one.

Q: Just, can you say as a senior defense official where the $800 million is in terms of delivery?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, so look, I'll take the question on the chem/bio stuff. I don't think we have provided them any detection equipment, but I don't know and I don't want to guess.

on your third one --

Q: This is just like of the $800 million, what's in country, or what's been delivered or whatever. I thought that it was --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, so we still estimate the closure of presidential drawdown to be by the middle of this month. Yesterday -- I'm trying to be careful here of what I say, but yesterday, two U.S. flights arrived in the region with everything from small-arms ammunition, machine guns, body armor, grenades and other explosives. In the next 24 hours, we expect another flight from the United States to arrive with similar things in it. But again, we've been moving right along on this. I don't have -- hang on just a second. I'm looking for something a little bit more specific here. So of the just-slightly-more-than 20 flights that we expected to be required to close out that $800 million, we are at 19, so we're very close to finishing it out, like I said. We believe we'll be done by the middle of the month, and that should close it out.

We're also working on the next one, which you know is $100 million for the Javelins, and we expected that that, that's the latest drawdown- we call that ‘PDA 5,’ with the Javelins should be finished by -- also by mid-April, so we're moving on both of them, and we're almost done with the $800 million.

Q: Okay, so are you taking the question about if the U.S. would distinguish between the use of mace for crowd control or something like that and a chemical weapons attack?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That's not going to be a Department of Defense decision, and I'm not going to speculate about what would or would not be considered. That's a policy decision that you need to direct to a different agency.

But I will take the question if we have provided any chem/bio detection gear. I don't think we have, but I will take that question.

Q: Great, thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Felicia Schwartz?

Q: Thanks, (Edited). Yesterday, Slovakia's prime minister suggested that they might be willing to supply Ukraine with MiGs, I guess trade -- that the discussions are renewed triggered by how Russia's behaved, and so that a press conference with his Belgian counterpart. I'm wondering if you've seen any signs that these discussions are renewed, if this is something the U.S. would be willing to help facilitate, or if there's any change in position from the U.S. side about facilitating it as the, you know, conflict grinds on.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: There -- I want to stress again that we have from the very beginning, we have said that these are sovereign decisions that nations can make and we respect them, and if a nation wants to provide fixed-wing fighter aircraft to Ukraine, then that's up to them to decide and for them to speak to and again, our objection to the previous proposal was that the country in question expressed a desire to transfer them to our custody for us to deliver to Ukraine. That is what we objected to. We did not object to the idea of the provision of fixed-wing aircraft to Ukraine, and that would be a decision in this case for Slovakia to make. I am not aware of any discussions that we are having with Slovakia with respect to this particular idea. But we certainly would not object to it. We have no right to object to it, and that would be for, you know, for, in this case, Slovakia to determine how much they wanted to do how many aircraft, when and how they would get into Ukraine. That's not -- to the best of my knowledge, we are not involved in in any discussions in helping facilitate that movement.

Q: But would you be willing to talk about backfill the way that your lending a Patriot system? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I know of no discussions about potential backfill for this proposal. In fact, I mean, I don't believe we're actively tracking this idea of Slovakia providing the MiGs. I'm not aware of any discussions with the Slovakians over this potential transfer.

Okay, Kasim, and you're going to have to be the last one today.

Q: Yeah, thank you, thank you. Could you tell us if the United States has any input or tactical advice into the Ukrainian plan to launch offensive in Donbas?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm sorry. Can you repeat it?

Q: Yeah. I said could you tell us if the U.S. has any tactical input or tactical advice into the Ukrainian plan to launch an offensive in Donbas?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tactical advice to the Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas. I would just tell you that we continue to provide information and intelligence to the Ukrainians that are helping them in their fight against the Russians. But it's their fight against the Russians, and we don't dictate to them what their operations ought to look like. We don't expect them to tell us in advance what they're going to do, and we're doing everything we can to help them defend themselves. That includes in the information sphere, but that's as far as I'll go.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, thanks, everybody. I think we're at the podium a little bit later, and we'll see you. Bye.