Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

April 21, 2022

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Okay. Lots to get through to start. First off, I think you all know, the Secretary had a chance to meet with the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal at the Pentagon here today to affirm our unwavering US support for Ukraine and the humanitarian situation in that country.  The Secretary highlighted the authorization of a presidential drawdown, the additional drawdown that you saw today of $800 million, that's tailored to meet critical Ukrainian needs for today's fight as Russian forces launch a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine.

This authorization is the eighth drawdown of equipment from DOD inventories for Ukraine since -- since August of 2021.  Capabilities include, and you can see it up there, 72 155mm howitzers and 144,000 rounds, 72 tactical vehicles which are designed to tow the howitzers, more than 120 Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems, as well as, of course, field equipment and -- and additional spare parts.

This commitment, together with the 18 howitzers that were announced on the 13th of April, provide enough artillery now to equip five battalions for Ukraine for potential use in the Donbas.

And I want to stress again that what we're providing is done in full consultation with the Ukrainians and that they believe that these systems will be helpful to them in the fight in the Donbas.  Where and when they employ them and how they employ them, of course, is going to be up to them.

The United States has now committed more than $4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including $3.4 billion just since the beginning of the invasion on the 24th of February.

The United States also continues to work with its allies and partners to identify and provide Ukraine with additional capabilities.  And we're going to continue to utilize all available tools to support Ukraine's Armed Forces in the face of Russian aggression.

Additionally, earlier today, the Secretary met with his Czech counterpart, Defense Minister Jana Cernochova, to discuss ongoing security assistance for Ukraine and continuing efforts to help strengthen NATO's Eastern Flank.

And then finally, of course I think you know the Secretary conducted calls with his counterparts in Germany and France to discuss ongoing security assistance efforts in Ukraine and for Ukraine.  He thanked each of these leaders, as well, for all of their contributions, and we'll have a full readout of those discussions a little bit later.

But it is, again, of a piece of the Secretary's continued efforts to consult and to communicate with allies and partners, not only in Europe but around the world, to try to improve Ukraine's ability to defend itself, because some of these allies and partners have capabilities that they can provide that we can't.  And so he has been literally working this personally every single day. 

And to that end, I can announce that the Secretary will be hosting a number of his counterparts for a Ukraine Defense Consultative Group at Ramstein Air Base on the 26,th next week.  The goal is to bring together stakeholders from all around the world for a series of meetings on the latest Ukraine defense needs and, and this is critically important, ensuring that Ukraine's enduring security and sovereignty over the long term is respected and developed.

Topics will range on the agenda from obviously the latest battlefield assessment of the renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine to energizing the Defense Industrial Base in an effort to continue the steady flow of security assistance, and again, in taking a longer, larger view at Ukraine's defense needs going forward, beyond the war that they're facing right now.  We think it's time to have that discussion as well.  So the Secretary's very much looking forward to getting over to Ramstein early in the week to have this meeting.

And with that, Bob?

Q:  Thank you, John.  On that last point, did -- I'm sorry I missed it -- did you say the -- how many countries are represented?

MR. KIRBY:  We're -- we're -- are still working through all of the invites, so I don't have a total list for you now.  As soon as we can get you one, we will.

Q:  But it's more than NATO countries?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, not just NATO countries.

Q:  OK.  My -- my question's actually -- I have two questions about your list there on -- on the board.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.

Q:  On the drones, the Phoenix Ghost drones, so what can you say about their role?  In other words, broadly speaking, are they intelligence-oriented or are they attack-oriented?  And when did you begin developing that asset?

And the second question is on the artillery, the howitzers.  In layman's terms, what is the significance of five battalions worth of artillery that you're helping the Ukrainians develop?

MR. KIRBY:  Five battalions of additional artillery will add to their compliment of their own artillery battalions.  It will, it's added firepower.  Now, we're not putting U.S. troops in with these systems, so they're going to have to provide the artillerymen, of course, but it's added capability, it's five more battalions, which is quite a number.  You know, hundreds of additional troops to field these systems but they are additional systems.

And what makes it important is the kind of fighting that we expect in the Donbas, because of the terrain, because it's open, because it's flat, because it's not as urban, we can expect the Russians to rely on long range fires, artillery in particular. 

In fact, Bob, we've seen them move in artillery units even before they started moving ground forces in, or I should say traditional infantry in.  So we know that this is going to be part of the Russians' playbook, the use of long range fires, which are assisted by artillery. 

So understanding that terrain, understanding the geography, understanding Russian doctrine here, we believed, but more critically, the Ukrainians believed that they needed additional artillery firepower, and that's what these will offer, in addition to the 18 that are already beginning to move in as well.

So we're going to continue to have a conversation with the Ukrainians about their needs going forward, but given the kind of fight that we expect is coming, we believe that this will be a force multiplier for them.

Bob:  OK.

MR. KIRBY:  And then on the Phoenix Ghost, this is a drone that had been in development before the invasion, clearly.  The Air Force was working this.  And in discussions with the Ukrainians, again, about their requirements, we believed that this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine.  And so, it was already in development, but we will continue to move that development in ways that are attuned to Ukrainian requirements for unmanned aerial systems of a tactical nature in eastern Ukraine. 

I am just not going to get into great detail about the specifications here.  I would just tell you that this unmanned aerial system is designed for tactical operations.  In other words, largely and but not exclusively to attack targets.  It, like almost all unmanned aerial systems, of course, has optics.  So it can also be used to give you a sight picture of what it's seeing, of course.  But its principal focus is attack. 

Q:  You said particularly useful in eastern Ukraine.  Why would -- why would that be? 

MR. KIRBY:  I -- again, without getting into the specifications, but the kinds of things this drone can do lend itself well to this particular kind of terrain.  I think I'm just going to leave it at that.  But its purpose is akin to that of the Switchblade, which we have been talking about in the past, which is basically a one-way drone and attack drone.  And that's essentially what this is designed to do. 

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, Sylvie. 

Q:  Thank you.  I have two questions.  For the technical one, I don't know, you may already have answered that.  But...

MR. KIRBY:  If it's a technical question, the chances of me being able to answer it are slim.  But please go ahead. 

Q:  So the howitzers that the U.S. is providing, are they more -- do they have a longer range than what the Russians have or are they more precise?  So that's my first question. 

The second one is the president said that Putin would never succeed.  So does he mean that the objective of the Western assistance to Ukraine is now to push completely Russians out of Ukraine instead of only avoid a change of regime? 

MR. KIRBY:  Well, look, on the howitzers, again, not an artilleryman, so this is also for in advance of Mike's inevitable questions, I'm not going to get into the specific specifications on the M777 howitzer.  My understanding is it does have a very long range.  And this particular variant has a longer range, I can see Mike nodding, so I must be on good ground here.  But I'm not going to get into the specifics of it.  And, look, I am, it should be clear to all of you already that I am no expert on American artillery.  I am certainly not an expert on Soviet artillery, so I couldn't tell you how much better this is than Soviet artillery.  I can just tell you that as an American system, we're very confident in its capabilities, its range, its effectiveness, its precision.  More critically, the early feedback we're getting, by the way, this died on me, so if somebody could get that started again.  Early feedback we're getting from the Ukrainians who are undergoing training on the 777s is that they are very happy with the performance of the system and  they are learning it quickly.  The training is going very well.  And they are excited about being able to use that system in the field, OK?   

And then you had a...

Q:  Yes...

MR. KIRBY:  Oh, the president's comments.  Look, I think we have been nothing but consistent here, Sylvie.  I've said it before.  We want Ukraine to win this, which means we want Ukraine whole again and sovereign again.  And we don't want Russian forces in Ukraine, any part of Ukraine.  And how that gets solved at the table or on the field is really up to the Ukrainians to determine, not the United States.  But the president is right. 

In terms of Mr. Putin's initial strategic objectives, which was clearly to erase Ukrainian sovereignty and to capture Kyiv, he has failed.  He has failed to achieve any of those objectives to date.  Now the Russians are saying, well, they're going to focus their efforts on the Donbas and in the south.  They have been vague about exactly to what end, but that's where they are focusing their efforts.  And we're going to do everything we can to help the Ukrainians prevent that from happening. 

Q:  Thanks. 

MR. KIRBY:  Nazira. 

Q:  Thank you, John.  Our country's situation is still critical, so many Shia people, (inaudible) people has been killing this week the situation get worse.  Afghan people think that United States forget them. Very bad situation. 

And also they wanted me to pass their message that still United States remember them, or totally forgot them and outmatch Ukraine situation impact Afghanistan people.  Is it the time that the United States look at recognizing Taliban? 

So many things...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, there's a lot there.  It's not up to the Department of Defense to talk about recognizing the Taliban government, that's a decision made outside this building, I'm not going to, I have nothing to say on that. 

Look, we absolutely have not forgotten the people of Afghanistan, and the State Department particularly is working very hard to continue to work with nongovernment agencies as well as the Taliban to continue to be able to get people out of Afghanistan.  And that effort continues.  There's not a Defense Department role in that, but clearly we are supportive of that. 

Yes, in the back, Kasim. 

Q:  Can you just clarify something about this drone to us?  You said -- is there for specific needs of Ukraine and it was developed before the invasion, so it was still -- when it was in the development phase...

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an exact start date. 

Q:  Okay, and also will the U.S. Air Force also use this for U.S. military needs or is this just something for the Ukrainians...

MR. KIRBY:  The whole idea of this was for us to use it, so I would expect we'd still have an interest in using this capability, but we're also now, we see the benefit right now in the moment for Ukraine to use it, and so we're going to provide some of them. 

Q:  Also, about this meeting in Ramstein, you said it's -- one of the goals is ensuring Ukraine's enduring security and sovereignty over the long-term is respected and developed.  Are we talking about the post Russian war or Russian invasion conditions?  And then you were talking about the post war type of security for Ukraine, what do you mean?  Can you just elaborate on this? 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, post war, long-term, absolutely. 

Yes, Gordon, did you have a question?  No? 

Q:  Yes, I just wonder if you could speak to the capacity issues on the Ukrainian side for getting all of this stuff, flowing all this stuff in?  Do you guys see on this side of the border any capacity concerns?  And secondly, are there any issues that -- I know you guys are moving stuff in as fast as you can, but are there any issues that's governing or slowing down any of the throughput? 

MR. KIRBY:  So far no issues in terms of slowing it down.  Eight to 10 flights a day are going into the theater, not all of those flights are American flights, but most of them are.  And every single day, including this day there has been ground movement inside Ukraine.  So we have seen no slowing down. 

As for absorption inside Ukraine, I mean that has not proven to be a problem because it's factored into the discussions and the scheduling in an iterative way, Gordon.  So clearly absorption rate is an issue.  I mean, they have to be able to receive, transport, to store temporarily if need be, and then to deliver to units. 

That's a Ukrainian responsibility, so far that's, from our perspective, and from what we're hearing from our Ukrainian counterparts they're able to do that and do it quite effectively.  But it is, that's always a factor in discussing what gets sent in and how it's packaged for them. 

So we're doing this in tranches, we talked about this the other day, part of that is because the war is changing and we want to keep a pace with that and alter what's in the packages based on what's going on on the ground and what the Ukrainians say they need. 

Also what's factoring into that is their ability to receive, and to use, and to temporarily store appropriately.  So there's a, all that's baked into the process.  There hasn't been like a stumbling block, or a pothole that's stopping something from going in because we're factoring that all into the decision-making. 

Q:  Got it.  And to clarify on the training, we understand that some of the training of howitzers has begun, I think this past week or whenever...

MR. KIRBY:  Correct.  Started yesterday. 

Q:  ...is that also true for some of the other platforms that also need training?  And to clarify, does the Phoenix Ghost need the same kind of training as the Switchblade? 

MR. KIRBY:  We believe that the Phoenix Ghost will require a little bit of training the way the Switchblade is kind of akin to what the Switchblades require, because it's not all that different a system.  It's different, but the same basic tactical purpose.  So we do believe it will require some training, and we're working that out right now. 

Q:  But there's no -- but that -- the training...

MR. KIRBY:  The only training that is going on right now, that I can speak to is the training that's being done outside Ukraine on the howitzers.  But we fully expect that there'll be some additional training and familiarization done on some of these things like the counter artillery radar, the Phoenix Ghost, even the M113 armored vehicles will require a little bit of familiarization.  So we're baking that into the process as well. 

Meghann. 

Q:  On the howitzer training, is this first cohort going to be the only cohort, or do you need to do...

MR. KIRBY:  We anticipate there'll probably need to be more. 

Q:  OK, and also where is the training happening, and who is doing it? 

MR. KIRBY:  It's outside of Ukraine, and I'm not at liberty to talk about exactly who's doing it. 

Q:  Are U.S. troops doing the training? 

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not at liberty to talk about who's doing it. 

Travis. 

Q:  Thanks.  I wasn't sure if you would see me back here in this dark corner.  There's been a cluster of suicides on the George Washington carrier, and I know the secretary has an ongoing effort to try and understand suicides, and he's looking at, I think eight different facilities.  And you had said before that that list could grow, are there any plans to look at ships?  And, do you think that ships provide unique circumstances that need to be understood when it comes to suicide? 

MR. KIRBY:  Well, the Navy's still investigating these deaths, and so I don't want to get ahead of that, as you might understand.  So let's put that aside for just a second.  But each death is tragic in its own right, regardless of how.  And our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the families, and frankly the shipmates, because they're affected too, they're part of a sailor's family, I know that from experience. 

The secretary's expectation for the IRC on suicide is that it will look across the force, so absolutely he wants it to look at shipboard life, shipboard duty, just as well as duty in remote locations, Alaska has had this issue.  He wants a broad scope and view of suicides across the force.  So not just at installations, if you will, certainly he would like that to include conditions of shipboard life. 

And I think, I mean, I've served at sea on ships, and I've served on ships that were in shipyards.  And each of those environments is challenging.  I think we have to be a little humble when we're talking about suicide, and it's just human nature to want to point to something and say well, that's the reason.  It's this problem, or this culture, or it's because the ship is doing this instead of that. 

And I think we have to be really careful jumping to those conclusions, because what compels an individual to take their own life is -- it's individual, and it's complex.  And I think as the secretary has said many times, a sense of humility going into this is really, really important. 

So obviously, as we look across the force we certainly want to look at things like command climate, and culture, and mission, and OPTEMPO, the tempo at which we're pushing people.  All those things are stressors in life, some of them could contribute to the problem of suicides.  But again, it's a very individual thing. 

The other thing we want to do, Travis, is again with humility be willing to consider what we don't know and to talk to experts who are smarter about this than we are.  And we have terrific mental health professionals in the military, but there's people outside the ranks in the private sector that really do focus in on this particular issue.  And we want to avail ourselves of their knowledge, and wisdom, and be willing to again be humble about what we don't know and ask tough questions. 

When the Secretary was in Alaska, you know, several months ago; he took time to sit with mental health professionals from the local university who specialized in issues surrounding suicide and he found it very illuminating.

Also very daunting because they conveyed very clear to him how tough this is an issue to wrap your arms around.

Q:  Do you know if the situation with the GW is going to be folded into this larger effort on suicides?  Is it something that we're still waiting to see how it turns.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  I mean again, I don't want to get ahead of the Navy's investigation here.  The IRC isn't really designed to look at a specific issue or a specific individual active suicide.  It's really designed to look across the force at the factors that compel an individual to take their own life and what those factors are and how we as an institution can we help mitigate those.

Yes, it's not designed on a particular incident.  Yes, John.

Q:  Thanks.  Are these Phoenix Ghost Drones also -- like already in the Air Force arsenal or did -- are you sending all of them to --

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, they're already in.  I mean when you draw down authority, you're drawing down from your inventory.  So it's in our inventory, yes.

Q:  Are these more capable than the Switchblade?  Is that why you --

MR. KIRBY:  They have different capabilities than the Switchblade.

Q:  OK.  Are you able to say what it is?

MR. KIRBY:  No, that's about as far as I'm going to go on it.

Q:  And speaking of unmanned systems, have those unmanned coastal defense vessels arrived in Ukraine yet and can you shed any more light on what those are beyond what --

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have an update on them.  Yes, in the back there.

Q:  Thank you, sir.  Today, Russia announced that they are sanctioning dozens of U.S. officials and I believe that your name is one of them.  So do you have any response about that?  This is the first question.  The second question, how much these sanctions make your communications with Russian counterparts more difficult, especially in military issues?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm sorry, say the last one again.

Q:  How much these sanctions make the communications between you and the officials on the Russian sides more difficult?

MR. KIRBY:  The sanctions aren't having an effect on communications.  We've been trying to have communications at the higher levels with the Russians now for several weeks and they clearly aren't interested in that.

And the fact that there are sanctions levied against either side, I don't think that's a factor in the lack of communication.  Right now we have believed but certainly today as offensive operations begin a new in the Donbas that this is exactly the kind of time that we need to be talking to Russian leaders at senior levels.

But so far they've been unwilling to engage in that.  And as for me, I looked at everybody else on the list, that's a pretty fine group to belong to.  So I'm okay with that.  Yes, Tom.

Q:  For those of us of the Vietnam generation who were draft eligible, the Battle of Khe Sanh

MR. KIRBY:  I just want to make clear, Tom, that I was not in that grouping. 

Q:  Yes, I know.

MR. KIRBY:  You said we, I don't want you putting me in that group, pal.

Q:  Those of us and not you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, but I just wanted to state for the record that I'm not those of us.

Q:  Thanks for reminding me.  Khe Sanh was a big battle in Vietnam where the U.S. was able to supply surrounded Marines for -- till they were able to succeed in liberating them.  Then fast forward to the Bosnian War where we fly into Sarajevo and the planes would do a move called a Khe Sanhey when they would come in and drop down to avoid ground fire.

I reference these points thinking of what's happening in Mariupol where it's surrounded.  How has the U.S. military progressed since the days of Khe Sanh and through Bosnia to be able to supply should a case come up where the U.S. military is in a Mariupol situation.  Are they able to supply them to relieve them, to provide ammunition?

MR. KIRBY:  Are you referring to like air dropping?

Q:  I'm referring to whatever possibilities there are.  Air dropping is one of them, yeah.

MR. KIRBY:  Well, look.  The president's been very clear.  We are not going to have U.S. forces fighting in Ukraine and that includes in the skies over Ukraine.  And that policy has not changed because of the potential that it could lead to direct armed conflict with Russia.

Q:  I wasn't asking about the U.S. in Mariupol.  I was citing Mariupol as a reference point.  If that happened in the future, the U.S. changed its way of delivering supplies as it did in Khe Sanh and so forth.

In other words, we're talking about the U.S. military capabilities in a situation like now?

MR. KIRBY:   I'm afraid I am not only not an expert on artillery; I'm not an expert on air drop supplies and logistics.  We can get you in touch with somebody here at the Pentagon who can give you a much deeper dive on we do resupply from the air.  Obviously we have that capability.

But I'm afraid I'm not qualified to offer much on that.

Q:  OK.  And anybody who looks at you realizes you're not part of the Vietnam generation.

MR. KIRBY:  I hope so.  I hope so, thank you.

Q:  I want to tap your expertise on defense contracting.

MR. KIRBY:  Can we just got to another question now.  That's good.  This is going to be a short exchange, Tony.

Q:  April 1st you guys announced $300 million for the Ukraine security assistance initiative.  That's not draw down authority that's contracting.  So far you've done one contract for Pumas but not for the breath of the other list including Switchblades and laser guided rockets.  Where are those, right?  Where are those contracts?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, we're working hard on that.  I mean I can tell you, Mr. LaPlante our new undersecretary for acquisitions and sustainment is personally leading this effort.  You're right the Puma contract is the first one let.  It won't be the last but we're working hard on that right now.

Q:  I'm going to ask you, in energizing the defense industrial base, you guys keep talking about that.  Has the Pentagon -- has Secretary Austin or Secretary Hicks decide to involve the so called the DX rule on programs?  DX is the highest rated acquisition program.  It's like MRAPS in the Gates era.

Are any programs being eyed to reconsider them DX highest priority. 

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any decisions to read out with respect to the DX rating, Tony.  I mean this is something that we look at periodically.  What is and what isn't given a DX rating and what that rating should be.

I don't have any updates for you on that and I don't want to get into internal deliberations about the contracting process.  We let the one for the Pumas, we're working that and Mr. LaPlante and his team are working very hard on the remaining contracts that will be let under that 300 million.

Q:  (inaudible) everybody is asking you about it.  Will you be able to start talking a little bit more when they -- people start putting photos on Instagram and TikTok and Facebook when it's over though?

MR. KIRBY:  We'll see.

Q:  Well, seriously, you should.

MR. KIRBY:  I appreciate --

Q:  Take a look --

MR. KIRBY:  No, I appreciate the advice.  And we'll, I mean look, I'm only going to be able to go so far here.  And I hope you guys can understand why we're doing that.  And there's some things that we can talk about more plainly and openly than others. 

We are never straying from our desire to help Ukraine defend itself.  And there's going to be things we can talk about clearly regarding our effort to do that.  And there's going to be things that we're just not going to want to talk that much about despite what's on Instagram or TikTok or whatever other social media site you named.  Just because it's out there doesn't mean that we're always going to be able to be fully candid about every single capability.

I mean it's of a piece of so many of the things that other nations are doing. There's a lot of security assistance going to Ukraine that doesn't come from the United States.

And those countries don't always talk about it.  Some do, some don't and we have to respect that and we would hope that you would understand that as well.  I mean the goal here is to help Ukraine defend itself.  The goal here is to help Ukraine have its sovereignty respected, have this war end, have the Russians leave.

And if that means in the pursuit of that goal that we're going to be a little less transparent about a capability here or there, we can live with that.  Yes, in the back.  Either one of you.  Mike, I know what you're going to ask about.  Go ahead.

Q:  (inaudible).  I was hoping you can further clarify the Phoenix Ghost.  There's 121 that were in the Air Force stocks. Earlier today in the -- in the senior defense official briefings that those were developed by the Air Force in response specifically to Ukraine environments.  Can you --

MR. KIRBY:  It was developed before. Obviously this was a system in development before. I mean you're not going to have 120 on your shelves if you just started buying on the 24th of February.  What, I probably wasn't as well worded as I should have been or it should have been. 

But it was developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas.

Q:  OK.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.

Q:  The Air Force is referring it but I think that was (inaudible) you -- do you know where this lived in the Air Force?  Was it a research lab thing, was it a --

MR. KIRBY:  I don't.

Q:  -- office.

MR. KIRBY:  I don't.  I don't.  Mike, please don't ask me an artillery question.

Q:  Actually -- well, thanks for identifying them as M777.  That was one of my questions. 

MR. KIRBY:  I knew.  That's why we put it up there. 

Q:  I appreciate it.  I want to ask you about the disposition of the fuses that will be going with the artillery rounds. 

(LAUGHTER)

Q:  But I was asking, you did talk about that they're coming from Army and Marine Corps stocks.  Are they then in storage somewhere but -- I mean, you're not stripping them from units and sending them out there, right?  I mean...

MR. KIRBY:  We are canvassing the force.  I suspect that, you know, these 72 will also come from a mix of Army and Marine Corps stocks.  But I honestly don't know where every system is coming from, Mike, whether it was a system in storage or one that was being used by a unit.  I suspect it will be a blend of that.  But as with every other system we are providing, we are mindful of our own readiness concerns.  And we want to make sure that our own combat readiness is not affected in a negative way by these provisions.  So I couldn't tell you where each and every howitzer is coming from. 

Q:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  But it will clearly be a blend of Army and Marine Corps.

Q:  I do have a non-artillery follow up.  The...

MR. KIRBY:  Thank goodness. 

Q:  ... Times of London said that a Navy P-8 Poseidon from Sigonella was tracking the Moskva before it was attacked by Ukraine and provided them targeting information.  Can you confirm or say anything about that one way or the other? 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, I mean, I saw some of that reporting.  I'm not going to get into great operational detail here.  But as part of our bolstering NATO's eastern flank and our air policing efforts, P-8s have been a part of that.  And that includes air policing missions in the Black Sea region.  And the P-8 is, as you know, a very capable ASW and reconnaissance platform.  It does a lot of things.  It does a lot of things well.  And it's built into our air policing and NATO eastern flank efforts.  And I'm just going to leave it at that. 

Q:  But the issue about them providing -- I mean, what went on?  They provided them targeting information to Ukraine would seem to veer perilously close to acting as a belligerent? 

MR. KIRBY:  There was no provision of targeting information by any United States Navy P-8 flying in these air policing missions.  So I can disabuse you of that. 

Ryo

Q:  Thank you.  I wanted to ask you about the secretary's call with the Chinese defense minister yesterday. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes. 

Q:  After the first direct conversation is the secretary less concerned that China could provide military support to Russia? 

MR. KIRBY:  Again, without getting into more of the details of the call, Ryo,  would just tell you, we continue to see no indication that the Chinese have provided military assistance to Russia. 

Q:  A quick follow-up.  So you said previously the proper Chinese counterpart to the U.S. secretary of defense is the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.  Are you working on another call with the vice chairman in the near term? 

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not.  I don't have any future calls to speak to or to lay out on the schedule.  This was an initial call.  We felt it was a productive one.  And our expectation is it will lead to future conversations appropriate to whatever the issue is we want to talk about.  OK? 

Q:  Thanks, John. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes. 

Back there.

Q:  Mike Stone from Reuters.  So 184,000 artillery rounds that have now gone into this now eighth tranche and all of them in total...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes. 

Q:  ... how -- what is the current estimate on how long those are going to last for? 

MR. KIRBY:  I think that how long they're going to last for, Mike, depends on what the consumption rate is by the Ukrainians once they're in the field.  I couldn't possibly predict that.  It's going to depend on the operations on any given day. 

Q:  So this is the third unmanned system that's being proliferated into the environment over there.  What's happening with intelligence and surveillance data that's coming off of the Switchblades, the Phoenix Ghost tactical UASes, and the coastal ships?  Is the U.S. able to see simultaneously what's coming off those platforms? 

MR. KIRBY:  Those are tactical systems for which we wouldn't have a feed into in what's happening to whatever information they're gleaning from these systems.  You'd have to ask them.  I would remind, that the Phoenix Ghosts are not in the country at this point, so. 

Yes, in the back there. 

Q:  Hey, John, a British official says that Russia is using up to 20,000 mercenaries in the war on Ukraine.  Vladimir Putin said last month he would recruit people from the Middle East.  What do we know about the use of foreign fighters today by Russia, where they might be coming from, how many are there, and is Putin trying to use these foreign fighters so his own men don't get killed? 

MR. KIRBY:  I can't verify the numbers.  I just have not seen a number that we can independently verify like that.  We do believe that the Russians have recruited foreign fighters.  We believe that there are...

(PHONE RINGING)

MR. KIRBY:  Oh, you'd better get that. 

That there are foreign fighters, mercenaries, Wagner Group inside Ukraine, in particular in the east.  But, again, I couldn't quantify that for you.  Look, I would say a couple of the things on the larger picture.  One, it's not unusual for them to do this.  It is additional manpower.  That they are recruiting so aggressively I think does indicate their belief that they need to rely on additional manpower because they know have taken losses, because they have some battalion tactical groups that have been depleted.  So I think it is a statement of need of more manpower because of the losses that they have sustained.  But it is a tactic they have used before, this use of foreign fighters. 

You know, it would be wrong to say that by using foreign fighters we have sort of greater worries about brutality, because the Russian forces themselves have been brutal in some of the worse ways.  But it is, I think, a statement of Mr. Putin's desire to bolster his manpower in response to the depletion of that manpower over the last six weeks. 

Yes. 

Q:  Is there any updates that you might have on the blockade of grain shipments out of the Mariupol area that had been something that's causing the world a great deal of stress? 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any data on that. We know that the Russians have continued to prevent the ports like Mariupol and Odesa from exporting in an effort to strangle the Ukrainian economy, that we believe that effort is still ongoing.  But I couldn't tell you what the economic impact is.  That's just not something that we're tracking. 

Q:  But the status of the blockade and the efforts to stop the blockade or to break it, is there any organized discussion about -- that you know of how to address that blockade and break it so that the world actually can receive some of these food sources? 

MR. KIRBY:  If you're asking is the United States Navy going to get involved in -- in...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  ... operations in the Black Sea, the answer is no, in terms of breaking a blockade. 

Look, this is just another piece of evidence of the brutality with which the Russians are waging this war.  And we continue to condemn it, continue to urge Mr. Putin to end the war now, sit down in good faith with President Zelenskyy move his forces out, move his ships away, and respect Ukrainian sovereignty. 

I just have time for a couple of more and haven't taken any from phone, but I do have to get going here.  Tara Copp. 

Q:  Hey, John, thanks for taking this.  I wanted to get back to something you said at the top about the consultative group next week at Ramstein.  You said it's -- you feel it's time to take a longer view.  Do you mean to say talking about the long-term footprint in Europe or the longer-term view for the battle of Ukraine?  And what does that mean really? 

MR. KIRBY:  What I talked about, and if I wasn't clear enough, I'll try it again, that part of the agenda will be to talk about Ukraine's long-term defense needs in a post-war environment and what that might look like.  So the secretary wants to -- he believes that it's not too soon to begin to have a longer-term discussion with allies and partners about what Ukrainian sovereignty needs to look like going forward. 

Q:  So you're talking about like reconstruction funding and stuff like that? 

MR. KIRBY:  Not necessarily reconstruction funds, but defense needs, their security needs longer term. 

Caitlin from Stars and Stripes. 

Q:  Hey, John.  About the sanctions that you were (inaudible) issued with, you were also listed with several journalists as well.  I'm wondering what you think this says about the effects of American media and your own public information about those efforts and what have they had on this conflict, especially internationally and in Russia? 

MR. KIRBY:  It's a good group to belong to.  And I think it does say a bit about the fear of fact, the fear of truth that Mr. Putin continues to demonstrate every day, and you can see that by the way he shut down information inside his own country.  The only way the Russians can get any kind of information is through state-run propaganda voices and organs.  And I think it demonstrates a sense of weakness, not strength, that he so abhors the work of independent journalists and the coverage of the brutality and the atrocities that his troops are conducting inside Ukraine. 

So I mean, again, I have no -- nobody called me from the Kremlin to advise me that I was being sanctioned or why.  But I have to assume that this effort both by the United States government, certainly the Department of Defense, as well as you and your colleagues in covering this war, unsettles Mr. Putin.  And, frankly, I think that's a good thing. 

OK, listen, I have got to go.  I ran a little bit long.  I apologize I didn't get to everybody.  But we'll see you again tomorrow.   

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