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Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: OK, back at it here as Senior Defense Official. On the operational side we still assess that Russian progress on the ground remains slow and uneven in the northern joint force operation area with Russian forces appearing to really sort of orient themselves around Lyman, L-Y-M-A-N, Lyman, which is as I think you all know just a wee bit southeast of Izyum, but that seems to be where they're starting to orient themselves.

As they continue to try to move south and southeast, they are continuing to meet with greater concentrations of Ukrainian forces and a stiffer resistance, so they still remained stalled in general. Again, I would say progress is very slow and uneven. They are stalled in terms of their overall momentum in the north.

In the south we haven't seen much progress by the Russians coming north out of Mariupol at all. They seem to have paused either to -- either to create better defensive positions or to refit and re-posture themselves, but they're not making -- they're not making really any progress in the south. There are -- they're south of a town called -- just south of a town called Velyka Novosilka. It's V-E-L-Y-K-A, and second word N-O-V-O-S-I-L-K-A, and that they're south of that and no notable changes from their positions in the last 24. No notable changes either in Kherson or Mariupol.

Most of the strikes continue to be focused on the JFO and on Mariupol. We have seen some missile strikes out into the west near Lviv. Looks like they're trying to hit critical infrastructure, electricity and that kind of thing, and trying to get at the ability for the Ukrainians to use railroads in particular, but that they're -- I would just say that while we're still assessing sort of the damage, it's not clear that they've been very accurate in trying to hit that critical infrastructure, and there's been no perishable impact that we've seen to impeding or in any other way obstructing with the Ukrainians' ability to replenish and restore themselves.

No significant changes in the maritime posture to speak to. Really there's nothing there. On the security assistance stuff, I won't get into training because we just had a lot of that, but I could tell you that more than 90 percent of the 90 howitzers that were pledged to Ukraine in the last two presidential drawdown authorities are actually in Ukrainian hands. Again, where they go and how they're being used, that's up to the Ukrainians. So I -- we don't have a bird's eye view of every single tube and can tell you where it is in the fight. 

And as for the 155 ammunition that goes with them, nearly 90,000 155 projectiles have already been transferred to Ukraine and are in Ukraine, and to remind you the total of those two packages were about 144,000, so certainly a majority of the projectiles are also in Ukraine. 

And I think I'll stop there and we'll go to -- we'll go to questions. Go ahead, Lita.

Q: OK, thanks. Sorry. I think I'm unmuted. Can you say whether or not the Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. and western shipments into Ukraine have been either impacted or if you've had to change anything at all because that appears to be -- also be one of their goals in what they've been doing over the last couple of days, particularly in striking out around Lviv and other places? Has any of that worked at all?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, there's been no impact to our ability to continue flows into Ukraine. We've seen no indications that any of this western aid has been impeded or even struck. We just don't have any evidence of that happening.

Q: Just a follow up. You said they seem to have paused coming out of Mariupol. Do you have any new guestimates on how many of the BTGs are still around there or how many have left?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, I think we would -- we would -- we would estimate that roughly two battalion tactical groups worth of Russians are still dedicated to Mariupol, so it's a couple of thousands, but is that two precede BTGs, we don't really have a clean picture of that because some -- we do think there's a mixture of some other non-Russian military forces that are there. For instance, some Chechen fighters. So roughly a couple of thousands, which is equivalent to two BTGs, but I would be careful reporting this as exactly two BTGs are in Mariupol, but the great majority of the forces that were on the ground in and around Mariupol have left and are now, a we've talked about, have tried to move north and they've just -- they've just been kind of stalled there south of that town, that Velyka Novosilka.

OK, Bowman.

Q: Yes, can you give us a status report on Kharkiv, what's going on with the fighting around there? And also you said 90 percent of the 90 howitzers are in Ukrainian hands. Does that mean just in country or actually in the fight if you could clarify that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I meant in the country.

Q: OK, and ballpark how many are actually in the fight? Do we have any sense?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think I'm going to -- I have that number, but I think I'm just going to demur on that, Tom. There's...

Q: How about -- how about a ballpark number?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: ... some details we want to -- no, I'm just not going to go there, Tom.

Q: All right. All right.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: They are -- we know that they are using some of those howitzers in the fight. But I am not going to get into force disposition on an unclassified line and give away, you know, Ukrainian operational capability. I just -- I'm just not going to do that. But, do we have an idea? Yes, we do. 

Kharkiv, the Ukrainians still hold Kharkiv. They -- they -- they never actually gave Kharkiv up. And as I said the other day, we have seen indications that they were able to push the Russian forces about 20 to 30 miles to the -- to the east of Kharkiv. But, they still hold it. And the Russians have not made any progress there. 

And we -- we still think, though, that the Russians want Kharkiv. I mean, they haven't exactly left it alone either. And again, we've talked about this a lot, but if you just look at a map, you can see it's a big industrial city and it's right at the -- right at the northwestern sort of lip of what we consider the Donbas area. 

So, even though it's not technically in that JFO from industrial capacity side and just from a geographic location, I mean, it appears as if the Russians still have designs on Kharkiv. But there's -- they've made -- they've made no progress.

Q: All right, thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, Jennifer Griffin. OK, maybe we lost Jen. David --

Q: Hey.

Q: Did I just hear Jen come on the line or?

Q: Hey, this is Liz Friden, her producer. I'll just use this time to ask a quick question. Have any of the helicopters been delivered to Ukraine aside from the five that were delivered in March?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No. Go ahead, David.

Q: The -- this -- the announcement of these Belarusian exercises, what is -- what is the assessment of that? Is that a precursor to Belarus entering the fighting or is it an attempt to pin down Ukrainian forces from reinforcing the east? What's the assessment of it?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't think we have a firm, clear assessment of the announcement of this exercise. It could just be exercises. I could tell you that we've so no indication that Belarus has shown an intention to involve themselves in Ukraine. 

Sam LaGrone?

Q: Hey, I'm good. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: OK, Dan Lamothe?

Q: Has been answered. Thank you. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you. Jeff Seldin?

Q: Hey, thanks very much for doing it. On the helicopters real quick. None of the helicopters of the 16 that were promised have been delivered? Just want to make sure I understand that right. And also, any updates regarding Russia's use of mercenaries and or foreign fighters? Anything on that front? Thanks. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Five of -- five of the 16 MI-17s are in Ukraine. The others 11 are in progress of getting there. But they're not in the country yet. And, I'm sorry, what was your question on foreign fighters?

Q: Just wondering if you've seen any changes in the -- in the Russian use of mercenaries and or foreign fighters? If any have been coming in, being deployed anywhere? 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I mean, I talked about Chechens probably being down in Mariupol. We know the Wagner Group has been operating in the Donbas and that they have recruited from places like Syria and Libya and that they use Syrian and Libyan fighters, but I couldn't give you an exact number or exactly where they're geolocated. But outside of those things we've already talked about, I don't have any additional context on foreign fighters. 

Let's see, Jack Detsch?

Q: Hey. With the strikes on Lviv, I'm just wondering if you're seeing an uptick in Russia going after both critical infrastructure, I know you mentioned, but also Ukraine's defense industry in order to knock that out as part of the war?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nothing on the defense infrastructure side in recent days, Jack. But, I mean, when they were a week or so ago hitting Kyiv, we know that they were trying to hit some weapons production capability there. But, we haven't seen that in quite a few days. 

The strikes that we're seeing in the west are really -- it looks like they're going after, when I say critical infrastructure what I mean is electrical power, that's predominantly what they seem to try to be hitting. 

But again, no real -- we're still doing -- trying to do the best we can on a damage assessment of that, we just don't have a lot of more granularity in how successful they've been. 

But, I mean, if you just take a couple of steps back, what you can see them doing with some of these, I'll call them out-of-area airstrikes, because we're all focused on the Donbas in the south, appropriately so, is to try to get at, again, the Ukrainians ability to resupply themselves and to reinforce themselves. Both sides rely on rail to move things and to move themselves. 

And so, we think that that's what this is -- that these strikes around Lviv were really critical infrastructure strikes. But again, don't have a full BDA of it and no indication that there's, back to my question -- answer to Lita, there's no indication at all that -- that there's -- that there's a Russian impediment to the flow of material.

Q: Got it. And do you have an overall update on the missile launch picture? I don't think I got that at the top. And then just if the pace is increasing, because it seems like just from the numbers you've been providing it's -- the average has gone up from where it was in terms of launches per day.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The one freaking day, and now we're at day 69, where I don't have a missile count, I -- I -- you -- I get asked about -- I get asked about the missile count. I don't have it, unfortunately. We just didn't get it today. So, I'll try to -- we'll try to -- we'll take for the record and see if we can get you guys something on background later today. There's not -- know -- just know, oversight on our part. It's not that we're trying to pull back the numbers. 

But, look, I would just tell you, I mean, again, I don't know what the number is going to be today, Jack. So, what I'm about to say could be completely wrong. But, in general, over the last -- well, over the last couple of weeks at least, there's just -- there's been, you know, roughly between 40 to 50 per day. 

It varies a little bit, but it's roughly 40 to 50 per day and they're mostly focused on, at least in the last, you know, couple weeks, certainly last week, all focused -- mostly focused on the JFO and Mariupol. 

And we've seen sporadic strikes, long-range strikes, you know, like we talked about just a minute ago out in Lviv and sometimes in central Ukraine. But, I'm looking at a map right now that shows that what we -- what we consider sort of -- what we -- OPIR reporting, it's basically reports explosions and which are almost in every case a result of an airstrike of some kind. And, I mean, it's all very, very concentrated on the Donbas and north of -- north of Mariupol. 

So, we'll get you a fresh number. That should be a gettable thing. I just -- I will -- I just didn't have it here today. 

I lost my place. Barb?

Q: You were talking about you have no indication that Russian strikes in the west especially around Lviv in that area on those railheads and those points have impacted Ukraine's ability to replenish, restore or get the weapons that you're sending in. You also said that there are now artillery pieces in their hands in the fight in the east. 

So these are two examples of where you are able to talk about the status of weapons you've given Ukraine once they cross the border which seems slightly different than the ongoing position that you don't what happens to them once they cross the border. So are you getting more information from Ukraine now about the weapons you've given them and what is being done with them? And if so, can you explain any of this?

And my quick follow-up, can you bring us up to date on any Russian operations around Luhansk? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, Barb, the information that we -- that we get is not consistent from day-to-day. They are in a fight for their lives and if we're able to find out because they tell us what they're doing with some of this stuff then we know. But we're not -- we're not consistently trying to draw out from them every detail of every munition that goes in and where it is and how they're using it. 

Our focus is on getting it to them. Their focus is on getting it into the fight and using it. And that's happening. So my information today might not be as good tomorrow. I'm just, again, as I said from the very beginning of doing these backgrounders, I will give you what I can but you need to understand that from day to day what I can give you is probably going to change and it's not always going to be perfectly tactile that way I know you guys like to get it.

We're just doing the best we can to keep you informed.

Q: Before you get -- before you get to Luhansk, can I just follow-up and ask if you are getting some sporadic information do you have any sense of indication guidance on to what extent they may be genuinely stockpiling or storing weapons, munitions, ammunition for the coming days and weeks as they see this fight go on? Are they setting things aside to build their inventory so they always have something in-hand?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I would simply tell you that they are -- they are getting the material into the fight as best they can. And that changes from area to area and the status of the fight itself. And I am not going to talk about their own logistics. 

Again, I think we need to be careful not to -- not to talk publically about issues that affect their operational security. They are doing what they believe they need to do to use this material the best they can. And we do know that some of it is in the fight. 

Again, we don't have perfect knowledge of every single munition or every single system that's being sent in on any given day. But we do hear back from them and we do know that in this case that's there are -- there are Howitzers that are being used. 

And how they manage the munitions themselves I think they should speak to that to the degree that they want to. I suspect they will not want to and we obviously are not going to violate that operational security for them.

On Luhansk, I don't have anything on Luhansk today. In the summary that I'm looking at and the information that gleam to do these briefings there is no update on Luhansk that I can speak to.

Q: OK.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Paul Handley.

Q: Hi. Can you -- going back to Belarus, are any Russians taking part in the exercises? Do you know anything about that? And are these exercises forcing Ukrainians to divert more forces to the north border for safety?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't anything about the Belarusian exercises, Paul. I don't know what they're doing or what they -- what units are participating in that. I mean I saw that they were going to conduct some exercises but we don't -- we just don't have a clear assessment of that.

What we do see is the Russians continues to try to focus their efforts particularly in the northern part of the Donbas and that's what we're focused on right now.

Q: Also one more -- one more thing. Is there any more information on the visit of General Gerasimov to Ukraine?  What he was doing and what the results were?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No. We don't have any more context about his visit. Other than that we know he went. Our assessment generally that is was sort of an attempt to provide some oversight. Probably a bit of fact finding but we don't have -- we don't have anything more on that.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tony Capaccio.

Q: Hi, sir. I had a couple of industrial based questions, a little closer to home. Has the Department of Defense designated at this point any programs the D.O. category? I asked a couple of weeks ago about D.X. and there wasn't any designation on that. 

But have any been designation D.O. for high priority?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'll have to check, I don't know. 

Q: OK. A month ago the Pentagon announced $300 million in the Ukrainian Security Assistance package. A month later the only contract that you guys had put out is for the Puma drone but no other contracts. Can you check the status of that? Because that was high profile at the time and it seems to have dropped off the map.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, I'll check it, Tony. I'll tell you I'm also going to be arranging in the next few days somebody from -- probably from A&S to join me on this backgrounder on background to provide more context on this. I understandably have limited experience in that world and so I recognize the high interest in this. 

Just like we did with the training, I will get some subject matter experts to join me either on this background call or even maybe at the podium. But that's going to take me a couple of days to get organized. 

Q: OK. Well I would appreciate if you can get a roll up, a status report on the $300 million. Besides the Puma contract what else has been announced possibly that we're not aware of or the status of the other -- the other like laser guided rockets.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well remember, Tony, there's a limit of what $7 -

Q: Seven point three million, yes.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- 7.5 that we -- below that we don't announce. So we're not going to violate policy just because of these circumstances. 

Q: Right.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So I -- if we didn't announce it then it's either it didn't happen yet or it's below that threshold. 

Q: All right as long as you can get an update that'd be good. Thank you. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: All right, Phil Stewart. Phil, you there? OK, we lost, Phil. Lara Seligman?

Q: Yes, sorry about that. Yes. Can you hear me?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Go ahead. Go ahead, good.

Q: OK, great. Yes, the Ukraine Intel assessment from today said that the Russians were likely to move out of Izyum to try and capture the towns of Kramatorsk and Syevyerodonetsk, and just wondering whether you -- you -- the U.S. assesses the same? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We've been talking about this now for days, Phil. I mean, I've -- I've talked about all of those towns. As I've -- as I've talked to you before, we see them sort of on three lines of access coming out of -- of -- of Izyum -- one's toward Lyman -- Lyman -- I -- I hope I'm pronouncing that right -- and that -- I talked about that in my opening comments, that they -- that they seem to be orienting on Lyman -- the -- the middle line of access coming out of Izyum is -- is towards Slovyansk, and in the direction of Kramatorsk as -- as sort of the third, as well.

And then I guess if you could, you could -- you -- you could draw a fourth line of access coming south out of the Izyum region that just goes directly south to try to -- again, to try to cut off the Ukrainians in the Donbas and to meet up with a line of access that will be coming north out of -- out of Mariupol, but that line of access is stalled, as I said earlier.

So we continue to see that those three -- and I'm -- frankly, we've been talking about this for -- for a while. So I -- I don't know that -- I don't -- I don't know if there's any more to add to that.

Q: Sure. I guess what I thought was interesting is just the way they -- they kind of said flat out that -- that the -- they assessed the Russians were going to capture them, those two towns, and I -- and it was -- my -- the wording of -- they used the word "capture." It wasn't "try to capture," they -- they said "capture."

So I guess I -- what I was asking was not so much your assessment on -- on the -- on the routes the Russians are going to take in this fight but that -- that you think that they'll be able to capture these two places? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We -- again, Phil, I don't think there's much difference here. I mean, the -- the -- well before today, we've been talking about their efforts to try to take those towns. I mean, I've -- I've -- I've not been pulling any punches on that. Why else would they be moving towards them if they didn't want to take them?

But am I prepared to say that they have been taken? No. There's been a -- they -- they have not made very even or steady progress coming south out of Izyum. They are still meeting a stiff Ukrainians -- Ukrainian resistance. So I -- I -- I don't know how what I'm saying is different than what the -- what's put out today.

Lara Seligman?

Q: I'm good. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you. Tara Copp?

Q: Hey, two quick ones. Do you have updated numbers on the kind of average number of sorties that Russia is launching now compared to last couple of weeks? And any sort of trend line as -- you know, are they down, are they relying on air power less or more?

And then secondly, do you have any assessment of whether Russia's ability to plan and -- and execute some of its operations were degraded by the strike last week that also injured Gerasimov? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Again, I'm not confirming Gerasimov's physical condition. So I have no additional information on -- on reports about a strike in Izyum by the -- by the Ukrainians. You'd have to talk to the Ukrainian Armed Forces on that.

And as for the -- the sortie rate for the Russians, it -- they -- you know, it -- again, it varies every day. They're -- they were just under 250 sorties over the last 24 hours. That is -- it's a little -- little less than they had yesterday but not by much, and, like, every day, it kind of goes up and down. I mean, it's somewhere between 2 and 300 on -- on any given day, based on what -- what they're trying to do.

And -- and again, the -- the -- the preponderance of -- of airstrikes from aircraft are -- are in the JFO and in and around Mariupol. They are still hitting Mariupol and they are still wary of flying into Ukrainian airspace. So they're largely launching these things from out -- outside Ukrainian airspace, to the degree that they can, and that's -- that's about where we are.

OK, last question to Courtney.

Q: Hey, just two quick ones. I -- I'm -- I'm still unclear on the two BTGs in Mariupol. Can you -- I'm sorry, can you explain that one more time?

And -- and then the -- I just wanted to know if there's any decision about U.S. Marines to the U.S. -- to -- like, are they going to Kyiv right now to do any kind of assessment on the embassy or anything -- any updates on that you can share? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I -- I know of no movement by -- by the U.S. Marines to go to Lviv. Our diplomats are -- are -- are making short trips in but I -- I know of no activity by the -- by -- by Marines to support that.

And what -- what I said about Mariupol was we assess that there's roughly a couple of thousand Russian forces that are still around Mariupol. That is roughly the equivalent of a couple of BTGs -- and I -- and I -- I -- I thought I said it earlier, to -- please don't report that this means there's two BTGs in Mariupol because we actually -- we don't know that that count -- you know, that you can count that exactly. It's -- it -- it -- a BTG -- a Russian BTG is between 800 and 1,000 troops, depending on the purpose of the BTG. There's roughly about 2,000 Russians still at Mariupol, so that equates to about two BTGs, but -- but -- but I don't even think they're organizing themselves around Mariupol with -- that way.

I was just trying to put a -- a qualifier on it so you could understand the -- the -- the size and scope. The -- the rest of the BTGs that they had dedicated to Mariupol, roughly 10, have moved away and are -- are -- are trying to make progress on that northern access but they have not made any progress.

I -- does that clear it up?

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. OK, thanks, everybody. We'll see you later.