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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  I'm so glad that you guys are so concerned about my wellbeing.  It's heartwarming really.  I appreciate that.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  (inaudible) feel better?

Let's get to it. I know I’m late. It’s been one of those days.  Just a couple of things here.  This morning, Secretary Austin had a phone call with the South Korean minister of national defense, Suh Wook, to discuss the security environment, of course, on the peninsula.  The two leaders strongly condemned yesterday's ballistic missile launch by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which they noted threatens the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region.  They committed to close cooperation to enhance the U.S.-ROK alliance deterrence and defense posture.  Secretary Austin reaffirmed that the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of the ROK, leveraging the full range of U.S. military capabilities, to include extended deterrent capabilities.  The secretary also congratulated the minister on his successful tenure as minister of national defense, noting that the alliance had, in fact, been strengthened under Suh's leadership.

On another note, on the 20th of April, I think you all were tracking, Secretary Austin had a phone call with the PRC minister of national defense.  We've received a few inquiries, and I would just like to address a little bit of some -- some -- some inaccuracies out there in -- in -- in the information space.  Specifically, the PRC Ministry of National Defense published a readout of their own which erroneously claimed that the United States adheres to the One China principle.  The secretary did not say this; rather, Secretary Austin made clear that the United States remains committed to our One China Policy as enumerated in the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiques and the six assurances.

And then lastly, if I could, just to address an issue which I know is on everyone's mind today, and this is the issue of intelligence sharing with Ukraine.  I just want to stress a couple of things.

First, the United States provides battlefield intelligence to help Ukrainians defend their country, and we've talked about that quite a bit.  We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military.  The Ukrainians have, quite frankly, a lot more information than we do.  This is their country, their territory, and they have capable intelligence collection abilities of their own.  Ukraine combines information that we and other partners provide with the intelligence that they themselves are gathering on the battlefield, and then they make their own decisions and they take their own actions.  And I think it's important not to forget this is a war the Russians started, and of course, they can end it tomorrow.

And with that, we'll take questions.  I think Lita, you are up first and you're on the phone.

Q:  Hi, yes.  Thanks, John.  Can you tell us whatever visibility you might have on the situation in Mariupol?  Have you got any sense of how many of the Ukrainians are still there, and how many, even in broad numbers, Russians are still fighting in that area?  And then a second quick one:  Have you seen any indication that the exercises by Belarus are concerning at all, or any indication that Belarus is placed to get more active in the war or -- in any way?

MR. KIRBY:  No indications that Belarus has intentions to -- to become active in the war in Ukraine, and I'll let them speak to their exercises.  But -- but we're not -- we're not tracking indications that they're planning to or intend to get involved directly in the war in Ukraine.

On Mariupol, we still see Mariupol under siege from bombardment through airstrikes predominantly.  We still assess that -- that Ukrainian soldiers are -- are still -- are -- are -- are still at that plant.  They -- they've said it themselves and -- and are still resisting.  So we again see the violence that's being visited upon Mariupol and the destruction that's being caused there as a continued bombardment by Russian airstrikes in Mariupol.

I don't know if that answers your question or not.

Q:  Do you have any sense of how many Russian troops, even in very broad terms, might still be around Mariupol?  We have been told by others about Russian troops leaving that area.  I was wondering if you had any sense of how many remain?

MR. KIRBY:  I want to be careful a little bit here and because our knowledge of Russian force dispositions, you know, it isn't perfect, Lita.  I think in general we would assess that the majority of Russian forces, ground forces that were dedicated to Mariupol have left and have moved to the north away from Mariupol.

And that a small number, roughly the equivalent of a couple of battalion tactical groups are still in and around Mariupol at this time.  Predominantly the activity is largely through airstrikes in and around Mariupol and certainly at that -- at the Azovstal -- Azovstal plant.

That's about the best I can do, Lita, given that we don't have perfect visibility into every Russian unit.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Idrees?

Q:  Just two quick questions.  Firstly, the Russian have claimed for a couple of days that they have hit western and NATO weapons inside Ukraine.  Any targeting you've seen or any impact on the flow of weapons?

And second question, I heard the May ninth Victory Day in Russia, are you seeing any change in tactics on the ground by the Russians?  Are they being more aggressive or is that not really something that's having an impact on the tactical situation by the Russians?

MR. KIRBY:  So on the second question, we've seen no -- let me back it up, Idrees.  In the Donbas region we would still assess that the Ukrainians are putting up a very stiff resistance and that the Russians have not made the progress that we believe they  expected to make by this point.

That's not to say they haven't made any progress.  I think we would continue assess it as incremental and uneven, but not non-existent.  And again we think that that's partly -- a big part of it is the Ukrainian resistance but also partly through their own uneven efforts to fix the challenges that they had north around Kyiv.

I can't say that looking at the -- looking at what we can see that we can say definitively that there's a change in behavior or aggressive or momentum based on the coming day of May ninth.  And what they plan to do or say on Victory Day, that's really up to them.  I don’t think we have a perfect sense.

But I can't sit here honestly and tell you that we -- that we're seeing a correlation between the looming deadline of the ninth and the way they're behaving in the Donbas.  It's still uneven plotting, incremental but they have made some small progress particularly in the north part of the Donbas.  So I think I'd leave it at that.

And as for the -- the shipments of -- of -- of supplies and weapons and materiel going in, that continues every day, including today, and we've seen no indication that -- that -- that that flow has been impeded.  Does that answer -- yeah.

Tara?

Q:  Hey, John.  So I recognize your statement earlier, saying that the U.S. is not providing intelligence directly targeting senior military officials, but can you provide examples of intelligence the U.S. has shared, past intelligence, that has been helpful to the Ukrainians in this fight that hasn't targeted a senior official?

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, as -- as I've said consistently from the podium and -- I'm not going to detail the intelligence that we're providing to Ukraine.  I won't go any further than what I've said before, certainly no further than I went today.

We do provide them useful intelligence, timely intelligence, that allows them to make decisions to better defend themselves against this invasion.  And -- and I think the less said about that, honestly, the better.  So I'm just going to ...

Q:  ... it's about, like, their logistics or weather or, you know, anything like that?

MR. KIRBY:  It's not that I can't, I won't ...

Q:  OK.

MR. KIRBY:  ... I won't.

Q:  And secondly, yesterday, Admiral Richard reaffirmed it's the U.S. assessment that China intends to attack Taiwan by 2027.  Is there any concern within the building here that all of the resources the U.S. is putting in to help Ukraine might make it more difficult in a -- defend -- defense of Taiwan situation?

MR. KIRBY:  So two thoughts, if you -- if I may.  One, what Admiral Richard said -- and also, I think Chairman Milley said the same thing -- that -- that it's -- that it's -- that it's President Xi's intention to be able to have the capability by 2027, not the intent to do it by 2027.  That's an important distinction.

And then as for our ability in -- in the Indo-Pacific -- so first of all, I mean, our -- our -- our focus with respect to Taiwan is, as I put in my opening statement there, when I was correcting the Chinese readout of the phone call, that we still adhere to the One China policy and -- and the support that we provide Ukraine is in complete keeping with the communiques and the assurances, but just as critically, the Taiwan Relations Act.  And that is the -- that is the -- the provision and -- and sales of military systems to help Taiwan in its self defense and that's the focus.

And as you've heard the Secretary say, gosh, a bunch of times, the -- there's no reason for cross-Strait tensions to become a conflict -- there's no reason for it to -- it shouldn't -- it shouldn't, that we would -- we continue to not want to see the status quo militarily changed in a unilateral way and we're committed to that Taiwan Relations Act and to providing the capabilities.

Now, we've also heard the Secretary say -- and it's -- he said it in budget testimony just this weekend -- certainly it's in -- it's in our National Defense Strategy that China's the pacing challenge.  And if you look at our budget, which is a big one -- $773 billion -- a record number of dollars dedicated to research and development of new kinds of capabilities that get at what the Secretary calls "integrated deterrence," which gets at our ability to defend our security interests in the Indo-Pacific specifically, not just in the Indo-Pacific but certainly as we're talking about China right now, related to that.

We have -- five of our seven treaty alliances are in that part of the world and we -- we take those commitments very, very seriously.  So there's an awful lot, if you just unpack -- unpack that budget, to see that we are investing not only in capabilities but in operational concepts, to help us deter conflict with -- with any adversary, and certainly we would consider the PRC a -- a challenge in that regard, in a way that would -- would, I -- I think, be robust enough going forward.

Q:  I guess to ask the question in a -- a -- a better way -- you know, you talked ...

(CROSSTALK)

Thank you.  You know, you have the sales of military systems for Taiwan but you've also seen this ramp up for domestic production of systems, not only to help supply Ukraine but to backfill U.S. stockpiles, backfill NATO members.

So is there a strain there?  Can -- can both be supplied within not only the 2027 timeline but the very near term?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, again, let's not get fixated on the 2027 timeline, but what we are doing to support Ukraine -- so first of all, the short answer to your question is that we're -- we're not concerned about that, that -- that a focus on Ukraine is somehow going to take our focus, our eye off the Indo-Pacific or specifically our obligations on the Taiwan Relations Act.

The materiel that we are sending to Ukraine almost completely so far has been under drawdown authorities.  So it's materiel that we have on our shelves and in our inventory and in our warehouses, on our bases, that we are providing to them because they're in an active fight.

Right now, the focus of that is long range fires and the artillery and all of that because of the Donbas region.  And that -- that support, which we continue to provide, does not affect in any way our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act or the other ways in which we're supporting Taiwan, OK?

Yeah?

Q:  Russia's Ministry of Defense just announced that they had (inaudible) nuclear-capable missile strikes -- or launches -- practicing these nuclear-capable missile launches in Kaliningrad, which is Europe, the U.S., Baltic allies.

Because of this, is the Pentagon considering, you know, ramping up its defenses on NATO's Eastern Flank?  And -- and honestly, how concerning is this, that he has done this and he's had these actions, he's done previous actions with nuclear-capable launches and he -- and -- and Putin is failing or has been delayed in Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, again -- again, look, we've decried the escalation in -- in rhetoric by the Russians now numerous times when it comes to nuclear weapons.  And it -- it's -- it's not the behavior of a responsible nuclear power, to engage in that kind of rhetoric.

And I would just tell you that, as I said many times before, we monitor this every single day, we are comfortable and confident that our strategic deterrent posture is well placed and robust enough to defend the homeland, as well as our allies and partners.

But it is uniformly unhelpful and irresponsible for -- for the Russians to regard and speak to, boast about their nuclear weaponry.  There's no reason to bring it to that level.  I think we can all agree that the specter of a nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia is good for no one, certainly not good for Russia, it's not good for us, and it's not good for Ukraine or -- or the -- or the region.

Has that exercise or has this rhetoric resulted in us changing the footprint on NATO's Eastern Flank?  No, we are still at just over 100,000 U.S. troops in -- in Europe.  The extra -- the -- I shouldn't say "the extra" -- the additional 20,000 that we've put in place since February is rotational and they are still there on those rotational orders.  I don't have any updates or changes to that but there's been no change to footprint, not just on the Eastern Flank but anywhere in Europe, as a result of -- of -- of these comments or these -- these exercises.

Q:  OK, thank you, but if -- if I may, you know, you keep saying "rhetoric" but it's not just rhetoric.  They are actually ...

MR. KIRBY:  And I said ...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I said in addition to what -- these exercises, we've made no changes.

Q:  OK.  But how concerning is it?

MR. KIRBY:  I thought I answered that before.  It's obviously concerning.  I mean, as I said, this is -- this is not the behavior of a responsible nuclear power, particularly given what is going on in Ukraine right now, and the focus of the international community on what is going on in Ukraine right now.

Yes.

Q:  So just to go back to the intel-providing question for a second, the (inaudible) story states that the United States has focused on providing the location and other details about the Russian military's mobile headquarters which relocate frequently.  Are you saying that that is false?

MR. KIRBY:  I am not going to talk about intelligence-sharing from this podium.  I think you can understand why I'm not going to do that.  We share relevant and timely information and intelligence with the Ukrainians that -- that allow them to make decisions to defend themselves.  As I said in my opening statement, it's not just the United States either.  Other partners share information and intelligence with them.  And they have robust intelligence collection capabilities of their own.  I am not going to talk about intelligence-sharing with any more detail than that.

Q:  (inaudible) say we do not provide intelligence on the locations of senior leaders on the battlefield?

MR. KIRBY:  I stand by my opening statement that I'm not going to get into the (inaudible) of every little bit of information-sharing that we do.

Q:  OK.  Just one other on Taiwan.  Can you just clear up a little bit of the, I guess, confusion out there about what exact -- what artillery systems are being delivered or offered to Taiwan?  There was some reporting that (inaudible) system would be delayed because of a crowded production line.  So what artillery system has the U.S. offered to Taiwan...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I think that's a better question put to our State Department colleagues who handle the foreign military sales program.  That's not something that's for the Defense Department to speak to.

Yes, Tom.

Q:  Thanks, John.  Two questions.  One, a follow on Taiwan.  In regards to just the date of 2027, which was used twice this week, when you talk about pacing challenging of China, does the Pentagon look at certain markers in its own way to keep up with the pacing of China?  In other words, hearing China talk about 2027, whether they can achieve their goal or not, I'm not asking that, but does the Pentagon say, well, maybe we need to do X, Y, and Z by 2027, A-B-C by 2030?  In other words, in the pacing challenge that the Pentagon is engaged in, are there markers -- without you saying what they are, are there markers that the Pentagon hopes to meet to keep up the pace, so to speak?

MR. KIRBY:  We are obviously focused on the pacing challenging of China, Tom.  And, again, you can see that in our budget.  It's factored in to our National Defense Strategy.  And we are moving as expeditiously as we can to make sure that we have all of the relevant capabilities we need to deter conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.  And should -- and should it come to it, and there is no reason for it to, to be able to defend our national security interests and those of our allies.  We're not pegging those efforts to dates on a calendar that have been professed by President Xi or anybody else.  We're pegging those efforts to our own knowledge and understanding of the threat and our own knowledge and understanding of our capabilities to address those threats.  Mindful, Tom, that those threats change over time.  So we also have to change our capabilities over time.

And, again, I think our budget that recently submitted really, I think, hammers that home very well.  You can look, there is lots of things in that budget that get right at this, including the defense of Guam, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative,  the investments in 5G, microelectronics, AI, unmanned, I mean, it's all in there. And there's no question that the pacing challenge of China was certainly informed, the kinds of capabilities that were -- that we put in that budget.

Q:  My -- my other question is on Sweden.  Today and yesterday the Swedish foreign ministers in Washington and she had an interview yesterday with Swedish television, which I know you may not have seen but during that interview she said that the United States is promised security to Sweden should it apply to NATO.

My question is what is the -- what -- what the advice or shared information did the Pentagon give to the State Department in advance of this -- in advance of this meeting that the Pentagon could weigh in on this matter?  Thank you.  How did I do on that one, John?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Getting right at it, aren't you?  Look, we strongly support NATO's open door policy, I think you know that.  Both Finland and Sweden are close in value defense partners.  I think you know that too.

Our militaries have worked together now closely for many years.  Exercises and exchanges and we value that relationship.  And I think without getting into specific details of what was discussed between Secretary Blinken and the foreign minister, which I will not talk about.

Wait a minute, let me finish my answer.  We are confident that we would be able to find ways to address any concerns that either Sweden or Finland might have about the period of time between a NATO membership application and their potential ascension into the alliance.  OK.

Q:  Just to be clear, you know, just to paraphrase President Lyndon Johnson, I didn't ask you what you told the State Department, I asked if you did ask.  And you -- so you did contribute some --

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to talk about internal interagency discussions and I'm not going to get ahead of the State Department here.  This was their meeting and they should speak to it.  What I'm telling you is that we're confident, given the strong relationships that we have with Sweden and with Finland that we would be able to find ways to address any concerns that they might have in that interim between an application for membership and actual ascension into NATO.

Q:  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Tony, it says that you're here on the phone.  So how do you want me to handle this?

Q:  (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  I mean would you like to leave the room and call in or --

Q:  At one point does -- do -- does the Pentagon insist that Ukraine will be able to utilize all 90 of those M77s in artillery fights?  At what --

MR. KIRBY:  I'm sorry.

Q:  -- at what point does DOD assess Ukraine will be ready to use all 90 of the M77 howitzers the U.S. has provided in (March ?)?

MR. KIRBY:  I think only the Ukrainians can answer that, Tony.  I mean it's -- these howitzers belong to them once they get inside the country.  And I can tell you as of this morning, more than 80 of them are actually in Ukraine of the -- of the 90.  It's almost complete.

And we do know that -- and you heard Secretary Austin say this the other day in testimony that -- that we know some of them are being used in combat because they've told us.  But -- but where they all are as you and I speak today and how they're being engaged, I mean that's really -- that's really for the Ukrainians to speak to.  They -- they belong to them now.

Q:  I have a gentlemen question too on that --

MR. KIRBY:  Thank you for pronouncing it correctly.

Q:  Thank you for being such an eloquent teacher.

MR. KIRBY:  You're welcome.

Q:  Senators Roy Blunt and Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, Blunt of Missouri, both claim that the U.S. has shipped a third of our javelin inventory to the Ukraine.  Is that roughly accurate or are they widely inaccurate?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, with all due respect to the -- to the senators, I -- I'm going to refrain from talking about our inventory levels.  That's -- that gets into an operation security issue for us and I don't think it's useful to speak to that with great specificity.

I would just tell you two things.  One, those systems have proven critical on the battlefield and are proving important now in the Donbass.  And two, we make a readiness assessment every single time we draw down from stocks to give to Ukraine and both the Secretary and the Chairman are confident and comfortable that we have not reached a point with current inventory that our readiness, in terms of our capability to conduct anti-armor operations should we need to do that, is impacted.

Q:  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Heather from USNI.

Q:  Thanks so much.  I have two questions.  The first is that ship spotters have spotted a missile -- a Russian missile frigate in the Mediterranean, has there been any interactions with any American ships in the Med between the Russian ship and the American ships?

And then also on a completely separate note, they've mentioned that -- or maybe -- and other military leaders have mentioned that there's been issues with recruiting.  Is the military doing enough in terms of offering benefits to recruit Americans to the services?

MR. KIRBY:  So on you first question, I -- I am not aware of any altercations or incidence between Russian and U.S. ships in the Mediterranean.  As -- as far as I know any -- any interactions thus far have been safe and professional.  I am not aware of any events or incidents to the contrary.

And on your second question, I would just tell you first of all, if you look at the budget we submitted, you know there's -- there's some -- some extra special pays and benefits that are in that budget and we're asking for a 4.6 percent pay raise for our -- for our folks, both civilian and military.

But there are other incentives in there, retention incentives.  We want to make sure that our -- but not just our recruiters but our career counselors have -- have tools at their disposal to -- to get in and to keep the best talent that we can out -- out in America.  But we've talked about recruiting in the last few days and all the services -- and the secretary included are mindful that the recruiting environment is growing tougher.

The -- there are -- there are more than enough jobs out in a -- in a -- in the -- in the American economy.  The propensity to serve is -- is not always as strong as we'd like it to be and quite frankly and uncomfortably a large number of young Americans aren't able to meet the entry requirements.

So -- or -- and -- then add to that, COVID, which impacted our recruiters’ ability to get face to face contact with -- with young men and women.  All of that has combined to make it a challenging recruiting environment.

But the secretary is focused on this.  He has had discussions with senior service leaders about this.  He knows that -- and largely we are making -- essentially making the goals that we -- we needed to make across the force.  It's uneven in each of the services and I'll let them speak to that.

But the Secretary knows, having been Army vice chief of staff awhile ago, he knows that recruiting numbers can be lagging indicators and if you don't stay ahead of them and -- and make sure you're focusing on it in the future that -- that you could find yourself in a whole.  You don't want to do that.

So -- so he's focused on that very, very strongly and I think that that will continue going forward.  I've got time for just a couple more.  Yes, ma'am, you've been patient.

Q:  Thank you.  So I'm (inaudible) a little bit (inaudible) these nuclear drills happened super close to Sweden, super close to Finland.  You, you know, mentioned that the U.S. supports the NATO's open door policy.  What message does the U.S. have to Sweden and Finland about what Russia is trying to do by kind of threatening them in this region?  What the motivating message the U.S. has for those countries?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, look, first of all, decisions to join NATO or not are sovereign decisions that these countries have to make, their leaders have to make on behalf of their people.  And we certainly wouldn't get in the way of that or in the middle of that.

I think I'd go back to what I said before, I mean we have strong defense partnerships with both countries and healthy relationships that go back many years.  And we're confident and I can't say that any more plainly that I just did that should they -- should they need assistance or security -- well security assistance, I mean should they need -- should there be a requirement for that in the interim between applying for membership and accession into the alliance.

I mean we are confident that because of the close relationship we have with them we'd be able to work something out.  And I think that's the healthiest thing that we can say right now.  Again, these are modern militaries, very capable militaries.  And we look forward regardless of what decision they make, we look forward to continuing a strong military relationship with them.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  I think you're going to have to be the last one.

Q:  Two in here  One is following up on that.  Could you be more direct, does the Pentagon want or hope to see Finland and Sweden join NATO?  And if so, what does it see that would bring to the alliance (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  That is -- that is a decision for Sweden and Finland not for the -

Q:  Yes, as a member of NATO, you would have a view -- the U.S. has to have a view on it.

MR. KIRBY:  We are not going to get ahead of the process here, Paul.  These are sovereign decisions these countries have to make.  And the discussions that they have to get into with the alliance and it would be inappropriate for the Defense Department of one NATO ally to make a qualitative assessment here or judgment going forward.

It's really for them to decide.  They are modern, competent militaries and should they join NATO, should they join NATO they would be able to provide those advanced capabilities and abilities into the alliance.

But that's -- those are decisions they have to make.

Q:  OK and separate thing, is there --  is Ukraine has conducted a series of cross border strikes into Russian territory and is believed to have carried or supported or supporters of Ukraine carried out sabotage missions in Russia.

Does the U.S. see that this is -- this is a good strategy or is it s risky strategy that might -- a risky actions that actually might have risky strategic implications for Ukraine and its backers?

MR. KIRBY:  I think the Ukrainians should speak for the operations that they're conducting or not.  We're not going to do that.  Our focus is on helping them defend themselves against an illegal and unjust and quite brutally violent invasion in their country and that's what we're focused on.  Making sure that they have the tools and the abilities to defend themselves.

But I have not, since this began, nor am I going to start now talking about Ukrainian operations in the field.  OK.

All right.

Q:  Hey, since (Janine ?) -- (Jamie's ?) not here can I ask (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  Sure.

Q:  Does the Pentagon believe that the Defense Minister from the Republic of Korea will remain Defense Minister when the new President takes office?

MR. KIRBY:  And what's my answer going to be to that?  I think that is a decision for the South Koreans.  Thanks, appreciate it everybody.