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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  …I know you guys would be counting.  OK.  So, a couple things at the top; Let me get organized here.  All right.  So I can announce today that the President has authorized the Department of Defense to return a small, persistent U.S.  military presence to Somalia.  This decision was based on a request from Secretary Austin and included advice from senior commanders, and of course, concern for the safety of our troops who have incurred additional risk by deploying in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis for the past 16 months.

We're evaluating the appropriate timing and the next steps for implementation of this order.  So, you've just got to give us a little time; we're working our way through exactly what this is all going to look like.  I don't have any additional details for you right now.  I want to remind that those forces, as they have been, will continue to be used in training, advising, and equipping partner forces, to give them the tools that they need to disrupt, degrade and monitor Al-Shabaab.

Our forces are not now, nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations.  The purpose here is to enable a more effective fight against Al-Shabaab, by local forces.  Which Al-Shabaab has increased in their strength and poses a heightened threat.  So again, this is a repositioning of forces that are already in theater, who have traveled in and out of Somalia now on an episodic basis since January of 2021.  Our view was -- the Secretary's view was that that episodic engagement model was inefficient and increasingly unsustainable.  Forces also lost time on target, and critical situational awareness needed to detect and disrupt an enemy attack.  By time on target, I mean time on station; not suggesting that there was something about direct combat relations or combat operations here.

Shifting to a persistent presence will not change the mission, and it will not imply substantial changes in resources.  We're working now to evaluate local conditions, including those following the Somali presidential election yesterday.  And we're engaging partners in the region, including the Somali government to determine the best way forward.  That is as far as we're going to be able to go on that one today.

Also, on Tuesday, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the association of the U.S.  Army and the U.S.  Army Pacific Command will convene their three day LANPAC Symposium and Exposition in downtown Waikiki.  LANPAC is the premier land forces symposium and exposition in the Indo Pacific region, bringing together government, academia, industry, and many of our allies and partners.

Over 25 countries are expected to participate in person this year, it will run from the 17th to the 19th.  And many of the panels and press conferences will be live streamed on DVIDS.  And I'm told that you guys should already have in your email inboxes the feature link page for DVIDS, so you can access that.

OK.  Over to questions. Ben from AP.

Q:  I know you said you didn't want to have the details -- any further details on Somalia.  But do you -- can you tell us what components will be made up of that and what branches?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, it's not that I didn't want to have the details.  I'm not going to be able to provide additional details in terms of what that's going to look like.  I'd refer you to AFRICOM to speak to that.  But I doubt seriously that they're going to get into actual unit designations, Ben.

OK.  Yes, Jen.

Q:  John, can you discuss what the security guarantees we plan to give to Sweden and Finland while they apply to NATO, given that it could be an eight to -- eight month to a year-long process?  What are the bilateral sort of security guarantees you're willing to...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, so I think I think that's further afield of where we are right now, Jen.  They haven't even made a formal application to NATO.  So, there's a multi-step process here, going from application to a session.  And I don't want to get ahead of where we are.

What I said last week applies today.  These are two countries with modern militaries.  They're two countries that we have operated and exercised with.  We know them, they know us.  There's a -- from just a bilateral U.S. relationship perspective, there's a level of comfort there.  And we're confident that should there be capabilities or support that either nation might need in the interim between application and a session that we'd be able to work something out with them.

But I don't want to get ahead of where we are right now.

Q:  And what is your reaction to Putin's response to their informing him that they will likely apply for -- to NATO?

MR. KIRBY:  I think I -- look, I'd let Mr. Putin speak for himself.  I don't think there was a great shock or surprise that the Russians reacted the way they did about the news of these two countries wanting to join NATO.  I think there's a few things that we all need to keep in mind.  One, NATO is a defensive alliance, it has never, and it does not now pose a threat to any other nation.  And that includes Russia.

Two, it's not up to Mr. Putin, or any other third party to get a veto on whether a nation joins NATO or not, that is between that nation and the other members of NATO to decide.  And again, there's a multi-step process here.  And three, I think we need to remember who is actually the aggressor here, and whose actions probably are motivating those two nations to want to join NATO.  And that's Mr. Putin and Russia themselves.

They made a decision to invade Ukraine, a nation which also posed no threat to anybody.  They made a decision to jump in there with hundreds of thousands of troops and -- or more than 100,000 troops.  And they're the ones prosecuting this war in an utterly brutal way.  And all of that can stop right now if Mr. Putin made the right decision.

Yes, Abraham.

Q:  Thanks a lot, John.  Two questions.  This -- about the Somalia announcement, a lot of has been said about this same level of resources, no change there.  But it just seems...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, that's how I put it.

Q:  Great.  Thank you.  So, it seems though that there'll be a lot less airlift used, Air Force assets, moving those guys back into -- the operators into and out of Somalia?  And then second related question.  The Air Force is divesting 100 MQ-9s to another government agency, can you say if -- what agency and if those will go to Africa?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have anything on that one.  I'd refer you to the Air Force.  I don't have any information about divestment of unmanned systems.  That's really an Air Force question to take.  But look, I mean, the -- as we called it, episodic, just -- we did not feel, the Secretary did not feel that that was in the best interest of helping partner forces go after a continued and in fact, heightened threat by Al-Shabaab.

So, we believe this is the best, most efficient way to continue that mission, the advise and assist and training mission.  And by having a persistent presence, it's possible that there will be a diminution, if you will, on -- on transport back and forth, I think.  But in general, Abraham, I mean, this isn't going to make a huge difference resource-wise, and it's just the right thing to do.

I mean, the advise and assist mission as we've seen in many places around the world is best done when you're on site, and you're -- and you can develop those relationships and keep those conversations going.  And stay as relevant as possible when you're coming and going.  That's a little bit -- that contact is a little bit harder to work.

Barb.

Q:  (inaudible) ISR from Somalia...

MR. KIRBY:  I won't -- I'm not going to get ahead of where we are, Abraham.  I mean, those are questions that only Gen. Townsend at AFRICOM can speak to.  The point is, Al-Shabaab remains a threat.  And that threat we assess, not only continues, but is increasing.  And we believe this is the best way for us to continue -- what has remained a very valuable advise and assist and training mission; this is a better way to do it.

Barbara.

Q:  On Somalia, can you tell us -- you said the threat is increasing.  Specifically, as much as you are able to, what is the Al-Shabaab threat right now to the U.S. and U.S. interests?  Do you believe Al-Shabaab is capable of actually carrying out an attack now, if not in the past, but now, carrying out an attack outside of Somalia?

Do they have the capability to do that, because you're doing this you say because the threat’s increasing?  And on the advice and assist -- in the past U.S. troops did accompany Somali and African forces into the field for advice and assist on their missions. But staying behind the so-called last cover and conceal position.  Will that still be the rules of the road for U.S. troops that they will, in the advice and assist role, go out into the field on missions, but stay behind any so-called, you know, sort of line of contact, if you will?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get into specific ROE from the podium.  I don't think that would be a valuable thing to do.  The advise and assist mission that we've been conducting will continue.  It's just that now they -- our troops won't be coming and going, they will have a persistent presence there.

So, there's really no change to the way in which we've been doing advise and assist.  As for the increasing threat, again, I want to be careful not to, you know, get into specific intelligence here.  But this is -- Al-Shabaab continues to conduct attacks, certainly there in Somalia.  They have been capable of conducting attacks in the region.  And we know that in the past, they have expressed at least the intent and desire to attack outside the region, including against American interests.

So, we're watching this closely.  This is not a threat that's going away.  Again, it's not like we haven't been doing anything in Somalia at all.  That's not true, it's just the Secretary believes, and the President has approved his recommendation that a better, more efficient way to get at that threat is to have a more persistent presence.  But it'll be a moderate presence.  It'll be – and it’ll be the work they'll be doing will be deliberate to the threat.

Q:  Quick, very quick.  Ukraine follow up.  Do you have anything currently on the status of Kherson?  And the extent to which Ukraine forces may be operating trying to push the Russians back?

MR. KIRBY:  In Kherson?

Q:  In and around Kherson.  Do you have any status on Kherson at the moment?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, being careful not to get into too much tactical detail here in Ukraine.  Our assessment is that Ukrainian and Russian forces continue to come into contact and conflict with one another, around Kherson.  They -- the Ukrainians as you know, prevented the Russians from moving from Kherson to Mykolaiv, that town to the northwest, on the northern coast of the Black Sea.

In general, we just assessed that there has been increased activity over the last couple of days, between those two cities, Mykolaiv and Kherson, and between obviously, Russian and Ukrainian forces.  But I couldn't tell you on a -- you know, with great specificity where exactly that fighting is, but there has been active fighting in and around Kherson in the last couple of days.

Sylvie.

Q:  To go back to Somalia.  At the beginning of Monday, President Biden decided to limit the number of airstrikes, especially in Somalia.  So, does this decision to go back on the ground mean that airstrikes are going to resume?

MR. KIRBY:  I think we'll just let the mission play out here, Sylvie.  I'm not going to be able to predict for you whether and how, and to what degree activity like airstrikes are going to increase or decrease going forward.  The mission is not one of combat operations for our troops, it's advise and assist.  And I think I'd leaving it there.

Q:  And was there -- why now?  Was there a specific incident that caused...

MR. KIRBY:  No.

Q:  ...Secretary Austin to ask for change?

MR. KIRBY:  No, no, no. I mean, this is something -- I mean, this is an outgrowth over many months of talking to Gen. Townsend at AFRICOM and getting his fingertip feel for what's going on.  It's been a result of watching the Al-Shabaab threat as it -- as they have continued to pose that threat in Somalia and in the region.

And again, this was an outgrowth of a very deliberate, mature, reasonable policy process here at the Pentagon to come up with a recommendation.  Again, based on the advice and counsel of Gen. Townsend as well as the Chairman, Gen. Milley, about what the best way forward for this advise and assist mission.

And again, we believe it's the right thing to do to be there in a more persistent way.  But again, the mission is not changing.

Mosh.

Q:  Quick one on Ukraine.  On Kharkiv, a Senior Defense Official earlier said that the Ukrainian military has been able to gain ground pushing the Russian forces closer to the Russian border within three to four kilometers.  I was wondering if you could provide any more details specifically, have Russian forces been pushed back across the border?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have more detail than then basically that.  We do assess that to the north of Kharkiv, the Ukrainians have been able to push Russian forces back.  They are regaining ground and territory that the Russians had occupied north of the city.

I couldn't tell you with great granularity exactly how far or, you know, or whether some of those forces have been actually pushed over the border, and some are not.  And I also would caution to, you know, it's possible that there may still be Russian forces that are still closer to the city in other areas.  So generally do agree with the assessment that they have been able to regain territory north of the town.

We've also seen them regain territory east of Kharkiv.  It's not really fair to call it a town, it's a big city.  But I can't get much more specific than that, unfortunately.

Yes.  Yes, Joe.

Q:  Thanks, John.  Two questions.  First, you alluded to a risk to troops in Somalia from this rotational model.  And I was wondering if you could say more about what kind of force protection risk there was?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, without getting into the specifics of force protection, and what we do to put, you know, to put that in place.  I mean, the constant coming and going.  I mean, that just -- that if you're trying to do advise and assist, and you’re trying to develop those (inaudible) relationships, if you're coming and going, it's harder to do that.

Which doesn't make the mission any easier to accomplish.  And then just the travel in and out, it incurs a time and additional potential risk here.  So, we just think it's the right thing to do.

Q:  And then on Sweden.  Sweden's Defense Minister is, is visiting Washington later this week.  Is he going to be here?  And can you offer any kind of preview of his (inaudible) what’s on the agenda?

MR. KIRBY:  The Secretary is looking forward to meeting with the Swedish Defense Minister on Wednesday.  And we'll certainly have more to say about that, after that meeting is over.  I don't want to get ahead of the agenda.  I have no doubt that the defense minister will want to discuss with the Secretary their plans with respect to NATO.

But I also think that there'll be a robust discussion about what's going on in Ukraine, because it has fundamentally changed the security environment in Europe.  And it's clear that the Swedish people also recognize that it has changed.

So, I have no doubt that that will be a major topic of discussion.  But again, we'll do like we normally do.  You guys will be able to catch the beginning of the meeting.  And then we'll have a readout afterward.  I'll probably end up coming up here to talk about it.

Travis.

Q:  Thanks, John.  Two questions, the first on Somalia.  It appeared from other reporting that part of the Secretary's justification to the President was that this will allow the targeting of specific leaders within Al-Shabaab, can you confirm that?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm just going to say that it will allow us to do a better, more persistent job of advising and assisting the Somali forces, our partner forces there, as they go after Al-Shabaab.

Q:  And the second question, totally unrelated topic.  With this baby formula shortage, has there been any talk at all at the Secretary's level about whether this is a problem for military families, and whether there’s any kind of assistance or relief that could be provided?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, it's a great question actually, Travis.  We're not immune to the same supply chain problems that other families across America are experiencing.  And, as you know, we have the commissary system on bases, that -- that provides groceries and food stuffs for military families as a benefit of being in the military.  But again, we're not immune to this problem.

So, we're working our way through that very, very, very hard.  So, the Defense Commissary Agency, otherwise known as DeCA, because we have to have an acronym for everything.  DeCA is monitoring the current market situation impacting the supply of baby formula.  Our assessment right now is that both overseas and remote commissaries are currently at an adequate level of supplies for baby formula.

The Defense Commissary Agency is working to ensure that all orders for overseas and remote stores receive baby formula shipments.  They're working daily with distributors to address any product disruptions.  Current stock levels of available baby formula here in the continental United States is at 50% at our commissaries throughout the states.  And overseas, it stands at 70%.

We're -- and as I said, the DeCA is doing everything that it can to get the products they need on to store shelves, and that includes, again, overseas commissaries.  So, we're not immune.  The Defense Commissary Agency is already ahead of that problem and doing everything they can to keep things on the shelf as best they can.

Q:  So those percentages would be a percentage of the amount that you would...

MR. KIRBY:  We would normally have.  Yes.  So, it's 70% of what we would normally keep overseas, we've got on the shelves.  And then 50% here or at home.  Yes.

Q:  Can I follow up on that real quick?  But do you have -- is that 50% a problem for military families?  Do you, pardon me, do you have any indications or reports yet at any bases in the United States that families cannot get the supply they need because only 50% is available?  And are you able to replenish and maintain that 50% at least?

MR. KIRBY:  We're working on this very, very hard, Barbara.  I know of no indications, that's not to say that -- I can't speak for every military family at every base and what every commissary has on any given hour on their shelves.  But we did check with the Defense Commissary Agency and right now, today, they assess that throughout the United States, there's a 50% -- what they normally would have, they've got 50% of what they normally would have on store shelves, and 70% overseas.

But I couldn't speak to every individual commissary or every individual military family.  What we can say, is that we aren’t immune to the same supply chain problems that the rest of the country is facing, number one.

Number two, we obviously take it very, very seriously our responsibility to make sure that the kinds of things our families need to take care of themselves to feed their children.  We take that very seriously, too, and we're working very, very hard at that.

And the Defense Commissary Agency, as you would expect them to do, are monitoring this situation as closely as they can.  And particularly for overseas, they're working closely with distributors to make sure we can keep those stocks up.

Because at overseas, it's always -- not as always as easy for our military families to get food stuffs in some overseas and particularly remote commissaries.

Yes.  Yes, in the back there.

Q:  Yesterday, a video was released from Mariupol, what seemed like burning munitions falling over the steel plant.  And a British military expert says that it can be white phosphorus.  Is there any word from the Pentagon about that?  Any confirmation?

MR. KIRBY:  Can't confirm that.

Yes.  Let me go back to the phones here.  Matt Seyler from ABC.

Q:  John, thank you.  On unidentified aerial phenomena with Ronald Moultrie and Scott Bray on the Hill tomorrow to discuss recent DoD findings.  I just want to see if you could give any preview of what we might expect out of that.  And also, if you could say when is the last time that Secretary Austin was briefed on ongoing UAP research by DoD?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll have to take the question on the last time he might have gotten a brief, I don't -- I'm not tracking that, Matt.  Look, as I said last week, we look forward to getting a chance to testify to Congress about the work that we're doing to get a better handle on the process itself.  I'm not going to get ahead of a hearing that hasn't happened yet.

But I know Mr. Moultrie is looking forward to walking members of Congress through how we're going to organize around this effort.  And that's really what this is about.  It's about organizing around the effort so that there's a common collection process for how these reports get brought into the system, how they get analyzed, how they get investigated, and then how they get adjudicated.

That's what we really got to get our arms around.  And I think the Under Secretary Moultrie is looking forward to that.

Jeff Seldin.

Q:  John, thanks very much for doing this.  A few on Somalia.  Gen. Townsend has been talking about the downside with what he called commuting to work in Somalia.  Since at least April 2021, he noted in June 2021 at that point, Al-Shabaab was threatening Somalia, the region, and potentially the U.S. homeland itself.

So, what finally convinced everyone about a year later that the tipping point had been reached and now was the time to finally send the troops back to Somalia.  Second question on Somalia.  What impact will the presence of U.S. forces have on other regional forces that are there, like the forces from the AU, some of which have been leaving?  Were there any conversations with them prior to this decision being made?  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  I'll let AFRICOM speak to whatever conversations they might have had with the partners in the region.  But look, as I mentioned, to Sylvie, this isn't about a tipping point.  I mean, this was something that we took very seriously through a deliberate policy-making process.  This was a decision -- the decision to remove the persistent presence was done by the previous administration.

This administration came in, wanted to revisit that.  We did, through a very deliberate policy-making process.  It's not as if advise and assist missions weren't happening, they were.  We were absolutely continuing to -- to work with our partner forces on the ground to go after Al-Shabaab.

But you're absolutely right, Gen. Townsend made clear that his view was that it was better to have a persistent presence; his recommendations and those of other senior military leaders were factored into this process.  And we are where we are.  I wouldn't point to a specific date on the calendar or a specific event and saying, well that's it, that is what convinced us.  What convinced us was having a reasonable, mature, deliberate policy-making decision process to get to this decision.

And again, the Secretary made the recommendation, and the President authorized it, and we're looking forward to moving forward now.  And there's some additional spade work that needs to be done to change from the -- where we are now, episodic events, an episodic presence to a persistent presence.

Lara Seligman, Politico.  OK.  Nothing heard.

MR. KIRBY:  Jared from Al Monitor.

Q:  John, I think I think Lara is audible to us.  She wants to go ahead.

Q:  Hey, can you hear me?

MR. KIRBY:  Got you.

Q:  Hey, sorry about that.  I'm just two quick questions, one on Somalia.  Is there an end date that you can tell us for this deployment?  Or is this -- is it open ended?

MR. KIRBY:  Not, it's not a deployment, Lara, this is a change in the posture.  It's about putting troops back into Somalia on a persistent basis, and so it's not a deployment with an end date.  Now, forces will come and go as they do with the other COCOMs.

They'll come and go to support their requirement, but the requirement now is for a persistent presence.  But that doesn't mean that whatever unit is going to be the first one to have that persistent will always be there for time immemorial.

I mean, they'll come and go as we routinely rotate forces in and out of different combatant commands.

Q:  I guess what I mean, is that is there an end date for troops to leave -- U.S.  troops to leave Somalia?  Or like I said, is this an open-ended presence that we're going to be having?

MR. KIRBY:  Recommendation that we move to a persistent presence in Somalia.  And I think that's where we are.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  Did you have another one, Lara?

Q:  Yes, yes.  Sorry.  Can you confirm reports that Ukrainian troops in that – the -- sorry, Azovstal Plant have surrendered?

MR. KIRBY:  I have not seeing reports on that.  No, I'm afraid I can't confirm that.

MR. KIRBY:  Go ahead, Jared.

Q:  Hi, John, I just wondered if you can tell us a little more about this trip Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken, and Secretary Austin to the UAE was a diplomatic formality?  Or were there any new initiatives discussed in the UAE-U.S. partnership during this visit?

MR. KIRBY:  So the trip was to pay our respects to the president who just passed away.  That was the goal.  I -- there were obviously discussions that the Vice President had, but I would refer you to the Vice President's office to speak to that.  The Secretary was proud to go as part of the delegation, but it really is a -- this is a White House thing to speak to, not the Department of Defense.

Yes.

Q:  I have a follow-up on Somalia and another one.  On Somalia, we have seen that Al-Shabaab threat was fluctuating over the years and United States was responding by over-the-horizon capabilities.  Now they have -- you have changed the posture, does that suggest the over-the-horizon capability actually didn't work in Somalia?

MR. KIRBY:  No, I think that's a false comparison completely.  When we talk about over-the-horizon, counterterrorism, we're talking about counterterrorism operations in places where we have no -- we have no partner forces.  We have no footprint.

Somalia wouldn't be that case.  We -- and it hasn't been that case, because we've been going in and out of Somalia.  Now we're just going to be able to stay there.  And they're our partner forces, and they are the ones engaging Al-Shabaab.  It's a completely different scenario altogether.

Yes, Ryo.

Q:  And I have another one, sorry.  I have two questions.  One on Sweden, Turkey has put some reservations on Sweden's application to NATO, citing the PKK’s presence in that country.  And PKK is a designated terrorist organization by the United States and almost all NATO members.  Would you recommend Sweden to take action against PKK in order to bridge this disagreement?

MR. KIRBY:  That is not for the Department of Defense to speak to, Kasim.  We're still working to clarify Turkey's position on this.  They're a valued NATO ally.  Neither Sweden nor Finland have made a formal application to NATO yet.

There's a process here, and I think we're going to work our way through that process.  But it's not for us to dictate from the Pentagon, what the foreign policy of another nation ought to be.

Yes, Ryo.

Q:  Thank you.  I want to ask you about China's nuclear development.  The Adm. Richard said in the congressional hearing this month, China will likely use nuclear coersion to their advantage in the future, as Russia did in Ukraine.  Is that an assessment the Secretary agrees with?

MR. KIRBY:  I think the Secretary has been crystal clear that we consider China the number one pacing challenge for the department.  And that they routinely try to use coercion and intimidation, to bully their neighbors into actions or non-actions that suit China's -- what China believes its interests are, even though they may be inimical not only to those other nations in the region, but also to nations like the United States.

So, we're going to stay laser focused on that pacing challenge that is China.  I'm not going to speculate about that the use or non-use of nuclear weapons with respect to China's activities in the region.  They've already proven that they're willing to bully and intimidate their neighbors.  We want to see that action stop, obviously.

But in the meantime, we also want to make sure we're building up the right capabilities in the region, and the operational concepts to support those capabilities, so that we can defend our national security interests in the region.  And I might add, the national security interests of so many allies and partners.

We have five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Pacific and those incur upon us very specific, very real security commitments that we have to make sure we can meet.

Q:  (Inaudible) follow- up.  The Biden administration has expressed that interest in having a dialogue with China about a nuclear issues.  Is that a part of their topics that the Secretary discussed with the Chinese Defense Minister by phone (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY:  I won't get into the more details of the phone call with Minister Wei than what we've already read out.  I mean, again, the Secretary was glad that he was able to have this initial conversation, to begin to have communications at that level with Chinese officials.  He was very clear about our concerns about China's behavior in the Indo-Pacific.  But I think I'd just leave it at that.

OK.  Thanks, everybody.  See you tomorrow.

-END-

You can also watch the video of the press briefing here.