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Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

May 18, 2022
Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, afternoon, everybody. It's "Senior Defense Official" again. Day 84, we assess that there's 106 operational BTGs in Ukraine.

Before we get into the ops picture, I want to just make a point of clarification. I don't know if I was completely clear on this before, but when we talk about the groupings of troops, you have eastern, central, western, southern. They also have a grouping of troops basically for airborne.

But in terms of the geographic groupings of troops, they get their names from where they came inside Russia, not for where they are necessarily operating in Ukraine. And I'm not sure I was completely clear about that. So, just for your purposes, the eastern, central and western groupings of troops are basically operating in the vicinity of Izyum and Kharkiv. And the southern grouping of troops is essentially operating in the vicinity of, around, north of Mariupol and the Kherson area. That's basically how they're laid out. And so with the southern grouping of troops makes perfect sense, they're operating in the south of Ukraine, they came from the southern district of Russia, but I just wanted to make that clear, just for your own purposes. So 106, no change to last time we talked about that.

There's really only two lines of axes where we've seen the Russians make any appreciable progress since the last time we talked. The first is between Kherson and Mykolayiv, and it's really more towards pushing closer towards the Black Sea.

So as we've talked about before, they've been battling it out between Mykolayiv and Kherson. We talked about that two days ago, as well. We've seen the Russians make some incremental progress in the direction of the Black Sea.

And then the other line of axis that they've continued to make, limited, but, some appreciable progress is coming out of Donetsk towards that town, Velyka Novosilka, which is where they moved their troops out of Mariupol to just south of that town.

And as we talked about before, they had pretty much stayed static below that town, to the point where they were digging in defensive positions. And so we're starting to see the Russians, you can clearly see they're trying to link up with those troops by moving from Donetsk in their direction.

So they've made a little bit of progress but not much. It's been fairly limited, in keeping with what we've seen in the past, that you know, a few kilometers maybe every day kind of thing.

The other thing that's interesting to note, and it's not really a difference, but I think as you look at the fighting in the Donbas in particular and I mean not just over the last 24 hours but over the last days and even more than a week or so, I mean, you're starting to see Russian offensive operations become smaller in their size and scale and you're seeing their objectives become more localized.

Again, this is, you know, towns and villages and sometimes crossroads that these guys are trying to achieve. So it's just sort of a shrinking of their objectives and their goals. And that also corresponds to the size of units that are involved in these smaller objectives. You know, we're seeing more company-sized units get involved in the movements.

You know, we talk about battalion tactical groups all the time, and rightly so, that's how they organize, but what we're beginning to see in the last few days is just a more smaller, more localized approach using smaller units, which makes perfect sense.

And again, we think that this also goes to reinforce the notion that it hasn't just hasn't been much progress in the Donbas, a lot of back and forth, again, fighting at a smaller scale.

They still have not corrected their coordination issues. They're still not integrating their units very well. Their communications are still not very efficient between commanders.

And again, as we talked about before, even at this smaller level, we see them being you know, [inaudible] very closely to their doctrine of artillery fire, then a frontal attack by formations that are small, and in some cases, not fully resourced, fully manned, fully strong, and they get rebuffed by the Ukrainians.

And so I just wanted to lay that out as sort of why we're seeing all this back and forth, particularly in the Donbas region.

Let's see. Northeast of Kharkiv, we continue to see the Ukrainians push back Russians closer to the Russian border. I don't really have an update, I mean, in some places, it's as close as three to four kilometers, in other places to the northeast of Kharkiv, it could be as much as 10 kilometers.

I mean, it varies. It's not a uniform line of contact here that you can just draw with a ruler. It changes based on the terrain and the strength of both sides, but essentially, we're continuing to see the Ukrainians push the Russians back closer to the border and to reinforce themselves in the process of doing that as well, with their own capability, including artillery capability.

In the air domain, Russian sortie count, again, came in over the last 24 hours at about 225. So again, right in that window we've been talking about and seeing in most days. Between 200 and 300 strikes are focused on Kharkiv, in the Donbas mostly.

And no real changes in the maritime environment worth speaking to. The Russians are still trying to, what movement we're seeing is them trying to reinforce their positions on Snake Island, you know, resupply, that kind of thing, but nothing indicative of a pending, you know, amphibious assault or anything like that.

Now, some of you may ask "well, why are we seeing them move from Kherson towards the Black Sea? Is that an indication that an amphibious assault is coming?" We just don't know.

We've seen no indications that there's a naval component to this. It could just be that they're trying to reposition for a -- a different line of approach on Mykolayiv, but there's been no, again no indications of an imminent naval assault here.

I think that's pretty it from our operational perspective. From a security assistance perspective, I have no doubt some of you are going to ask me about when the next PDA is going to come.

I don't have an announcement for you on that today but, you know, obviously we'll let you know as soon as we have something but I do think that there'll be another presidential drawdown package coming soon, but I won't get ahead of it.

And the stuff that's already flowing there, the previous packages, we know that 79 of the 90, U.S.-provided M777s are now forward with the Ukrainian military, and we get that from them, they're telling us that. They're providing long-range indirect fire capability.

And of the 209,000 rounds of 155 ammunition that we committed to Ukraine, 75 percent, more than 156,000 of those rounds, have been transferred to the Ukrainian military. So the majority of the committed 155 rounds are in country.

Three of the 11 Mi-17s have been transferred to the Ukrainian military. All the radars that we promised, the TPQs 36 and 37 and 64 all of them have been transferred to the Ukrainian military now.

Of the Switchblades, of the 300 that were announced, there are more than 200 of them in country, and almost, well nearly 10 of the Phoenix Ghost UASs are in Ukrainian hands.

Training continues. I really don't have any updates for you on that. I mean, the training we talked about two days ago is ongoing. Again, everything from how to use an M777 to how to maintain it to how to use the Pumas. No, I don't have an update on how many Pumas are in the country.

And I think as you saw in the last PDA we told you that we were going to give the Ukrainians some electronic jamming equipment. There is training going on with a very small number of Ukrainian soldiers on that equipment. That's ongoing as well. So that's happening.

And I think that's it. Let me go to questions now. Lita?

Q: Thanks.

Two things. First, do you have any indication of Russia's use of laser weapons in Ukraine? Putin has talked about them doing that and talked about using a specific weapons system, the Peresvet or something like that. Anyway, do you -- have you seen that at all?

And then second question is on replenishment. The Army Secretary said it's going to take about 18 months to replenish specifically the Javelin stocks. Can you give us sort of an update on where the Defense Department stands on efforts to get -- to sort of move forward with contractors and everyone on replenishment?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, I'm going to be unsatisfying here, Lita. I have not seen anything to corroborate reports of lasers being used. Yes, we've seen some open press reporting on that, but we haven't seen anything to corroborate that.

And I'll have to take the question on the Javelins. I just don't have an update on contractual decisions that we may have made or not. I'll have to take that one.

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Pierre?

Q: Thank you.

I want to double-check on something. I believe you said last week that the Russians don't have enough BTGs in the area to go west beyond Kherson and towards Odessa. Do you still assess the same way?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't think I said they don't have enough BTGs to go west beyond Kherson. What I said was that they were still fighting out with the Ukrainians between Mykolayiv and Kherson and they have not made much progress towards Mykolayiv. That's still the case today. The progress we've seen is a line of access from Kherson more towards the Black Sea. Not necessarily in the direction of Mykolayiv.

The Ukrainians are still fighting and we don't hold that Mykolayiv is at all in Russian control. It's still in Ukrainian control. But I don't think I said that we don't think they have enough BTGs to go beyond that. If I did then then I was mistaken.

Q: My mistake, thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, Idrees?

Q: Hey, two quick questions.

Firstly, do you have a readout of the meeting with the Swedish defense minister? Were there any agreements made on security guarantees? And secondly, there were some reports over the past few days that Putin was micromanaging the war effort.

Has the U.S. seen any level of specificity with which he is sort of, you know, overseeing it? Is he, you know, taking part in tactical decisions down to really low levels? Or what are you seeing in terms of his -- what he's doing?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, Idrees, we just don't have perfect visibility into his personal leadership of the war. We know that he gets regular updates from his civilian and military leadership about what's going on there but we don't know how accurate the information he's getting and then how he reacts to that specifically.

We just don't have that level of fingertip feel over his personal leadership of the war. But clearly, he's the decision-maker and we know that he was very involved in the planning up to the invasion. We'll have a readout of that meeting coming soon.

What I can tell you is there was a discussion about this interim period between application for NATO membership. And then what we think all anticipate will be their ultimate accession into the alliance.

And I'm not going to get into the details of everything that they talked about in that discussion. But, you know, the secretary made it very clear that that we have a comfort level with their military going back many years.

And that at a staff level we'll be happy to have a discussion with them about security and capability needs that they might have to help assure them and to deter Russia should that be necessary.

So those discussions are ongoing, they'll be done at, you know, there'll be some continued staff-level discussions about what if anything those requirements might look like.

But there was no sign on the dotted line moment here today where, you know, where something was proffered and then agreed to. This is not an issue of major concern for either side.

We, again, these are militaries that we know both of them very well. We exercised with them, they have modern western capabilities. And so, again, as we've said many times, should there be a need or a requirement to help with our own security assurances that we're confident we're going to be able to get there.

Let's see, David Martin?

Q: Two questions. One, I think there are new reports of Iskander nuclear-capable missiles being moved toward the border with Finland. Do you have any information on that?

And two, the advances that you described Ukrainians have made north and northeast of Kharkiv, are they in -- now in a position with their artillery to threaten Russian supply lines?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Threaten Russian supply lines, you mean outside of Ukraine?

Q: Well, coming down from Belgorod and -- and that other town that's to the -- to the east of Belgorod.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, look, on the Iskanders I have not seen any indications. We haven't picked up anything about movements of this Iskanders.

All I can tell you, David, is where they are geographically. They're to the north and northeast of Kharkiv and they pushed the Russians back to as close as 3 to 4 kilometers from the border.

And they have been able to move in and we've talked about this before, I mean this isn't news today, they have moved in artillery, including some of our M777s in to Kharkiv to help defend themselves.

But I'll let the Ukrainians speak for what their intentions are on the ground and what their operational goals are. All I can do is tell you what we're seeing. And we're seeing them continue to push the Russians further away from Kharkiv to the north and northeast. Frankly to the east as well.

But, as I said you can't draw a line with a ruler and say well, it's all 3 to 4 kilometers from the border. It varies on the terrain. And again, some are as close as 3 to 4 kilometers some are as far away as 10 to even 15 in some places. So it's not uniform. But what the Ukrainians plan of action here to the north of Kharkiv is really for them to speak to. Courtney?

Q: Hey. Just very quickly, the -- have you -- do you have any reports that any of the weapon shipments have been either struck or targeted to date, we just haven't asked that in a while? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, we've had no indications that the Russians have actually hit any storage of shipments coming from western nations. We haven't seen anything in the last 24 hours that even indicate that they were even trying to disrupt the shipments.

But look, I mean, Court, and we've talked about this. I mean, you know, they've hit rail hubs, they've hit electrical power stations. They've targeted what they believe to be storage facilities. We think they are certainly trying to disrupt that flow but we have no indications that they've been successful with that and the flow continues.

I mean I just walked you through some of the stuff that's continuing to go in and we know that it's getting into the fight. We know specifically like the howitzers we absolutely know they're in the fight. And these are items that have only been sent over in recent weeks. Paul Shinkman?

Q: My question was asked. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks, Paul. Joe Tabet?

Q: Yes, thank you so much for taking my question.

Are you able to give us a heads-up about the Israeli minister of defense visit tomorrow to the Pentagon? And also could you say that this visit is related to the Israeli drill that the United States would take part of it and that – that, simulates bombing targets inside Iran? What's -- what's your thought on that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Hey, Joe, I typically try to reserve this call for Ukraine. That's the purpose of it. But I announced yesterday that the Israeli Minister of Defense was coming tomorrow. It'll be a breakfast meeting with the Secretary. And I'm not going to get ahead of the agenda and what we're going to be talking about.

But again, we'd really like to keep this background call to be focused on Ukraine if we can.


Q: -- thank you so much. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, it's fine, it's fair. You guys can ask whatever you want, I'm just trying to keep it focused on the topic at hand here.

Paul Handley?

Q: Hi. Two questions. One, the U.S. is about to reopen the embassy in Kyiv. What kind of security presence, what kind of presence of U.S. troops will be there with that?

And secondly, can you confirm yet that the Russians have -- are -- are using submarines to launch missiles into Ukraine? And if so, can you give us any more details about how much that's happening?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, Paul, I'm going to let the State Department talk about their security protocols. That's not something that we would speak to before they've had a chance to talk about this.

And on the submarine-launched cruise missiles, I mean, we've actually talked about this several times in the last, what is it now, 84 days, that on occasion, they have used submarines to launch cruise missiles into Ukraine. We haven't seen that in the last few days, but I think last week, there was a time when we were talking on this in fact, they did launch a couple of cruise missiles from submarines into Odesa, but we just haven't seen it in about a week.

Q: Okay, I -- I understood that you couldn't confirm that last week. But -- so it's not frequent, not often, it's not a -- a big offensive -- submarine offensive?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I mean, they've been using cruise missiles launched from both surface and sub-surface assets, you know, really since the very early goings on.

We don't always have the ability to track it to a specific missile launched to a target, to a platform. We don't have that sort of fingertip feel in every case but we have seen them do it in the past. It's not unusual. It is by no means, the source of the majority of cruise missiles that have been fired into Ukraine. The vast, vast, vast majority of them have been fired from aircraft. But they do have the capability, both from surface and sub-surface platforms, and they have made use of that capability in the past and I think we would suspect that they'll continue to avail themselves of that capability, should they be able to.

Tara Copp?

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this.

So in the last couple days, you've seen a Chechen leader talk about how this is now a war against -- against NATO, not just against Ukraine, and you've seen both Hungary and Turkey express reservations about allowing Finland and Sweden into NATO.

Is the Department of Defense considering -- you know, if this becomes a more drawn out membership for Finland and Sweden because Turkey and Hungary decide to oppose, is the Department of Defense considering additional defenses for either country or thinking that this might put them at greater risk of attack by Russia, just because they want to be in NATO but wouldn't be in NATO yet?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think all I could say to that is that we had a good discussion this morning with the Swedish Minister of Defense. Clearly, we talked about this period of time between application and accession, and we are putting our staffs together to talk about should there be security assurances that the Swedes would like, what that would look like and what we can do to help.

And, you know, there's already some staff work going into that. And we would have had, not at the Secretary's level yet, but we have had that same level of discussion with Finland as well.

And we're not putting a time constraint on that. Again, I think we need to remember these are not two militaries that are strangers to us. We know them very well. We operate with them, we exercise with them. There's a familiarity there.

So being able to provide some security assurances will not be a giant leap for us at all. And there's no effort to put a time component on this. We don't know how long the application process is going to take. The NATO Secretary General said yesterday that he did not anticipate this was going to take very long but that's really between the alliance and these nations, not the United States and these nations.

And we'll let Turkey and other nations speak for themselves, in terms of the concerns that they've expressed. We're still working with Turkey to clarify so we understand their position, but again, our focus is on communicating at a staff level with them what security assurances they might need, what capabilities they might feel that they could benefit from, and then being able to flesh out the details of that going forward.

Q: And just as a quick follow up, could you describe some of the potential ranges of security assistance there could be? Like, would there be U.S. troops coming, increased exercises, or are you -- you -- you know, increased U.S. troop presence? Not, you know, definitive but just some examples of what they could be.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Look, I don't want to get ahead of where we are in terms of these staff level talks. I don't think that would be helpful. But I think, look, clearly one example of something that might be useful would be, you know, some additional exercises, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.

Okay, Nancy Youssef?

Q: Thank you.

As you mentioned earlier, the Senate is expected to pass a $40 billion aid budget package for Ukraine, and that includes $9 billion to replenish U.S. weapons supplies. Can you tell us what weapons DOD would restock with those funds and over what period do you think that would happen?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Nancy, I don't have a laundry list for you of exactly how that money would be broken out about stocks, but, I mean, I think you know, you heard the Secretary of the Army talk about Javelins. Clearly, we would work to replenish our Javelin stocks. There might be a need to replenish some of the unmanned aerial systems that we've been sending.

I mean, some of those systems, we didn't even have that much because we were just beginning to buy them, like the Switchblades and like the Phoenix Ghosts. So you know, that's why they're in smaller numbers, cause we frankly just didn't have that many.

So it'll be, I think, unmanned aerial systems, certainly the Javelins, and then, I think we're going to take a look at the Stinger line and see what you know, what their requirements for that might be going forward.

But that’s about the most detail I can offer you right now.

Q: Can you give us a sense of the timeline for replenishing those stocks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I mean, we're working with industry right now, Nancy. I mean, we're not waiting to have that discussion with industry about production lines. Deputy Secretary Hicks has already had many discussions with industry leaders. Bill LaPlante is our new A&S Undersecretary, is also working very closely with the defense industrial base.

I mean, so those talks now about production lines and replenishment are happening now. And we knew that we needed to do that right away. So there is a clear understanding that we have to work this straight away.

And then, obviously, we look forward to the Senate approving the President's supplemental request, of course, and once in hand, you can be assured that we'll start to flesh out the way we're going to spend resources against those authorities, to include additional presidential drawdown authority, as well as (inaudible), you know, in terms of contracting funds for Ukraine. I mean, all that will be fleshed out.

And there are people working here at the Pentagon in advance. I mean, we're not waiting for the ink to be set to the paper and to dry. We're already sort of thinking through what that's going to look like.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Carla Babb?

Q: Hey, thanks.

My question already got answered but can I get a clarification on the howitzers? Did you say 79 out of 90 of them had gone in and reached the Ukrainians?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, what I said was 79 of the 90 are actually forward deployed with the Ukrainians, providing indirect fire capability. They're actually in combat.

Q: Okay, thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. Jared from Al-Monitor?

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I'm just wondering if you can confirm -- there's a report going out there, I don't know if you've seen it, with the -- you know, the apparent list that Turkey has handed NATO allies on their demands to allow Sweden and Finland into NATO. It apparently includes, you know, requests about classifying the PKK and its affiliates as a terrorist organization, lifting of U.S. sanctions on Turkey, you know, requests about being readmitted to the F-35 program. Can you confirm that this is accurate?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, Jared, I cannot. I've not seen that list. And again, this would be a discussion between the alliance and Turkey, as well as the, you know, between Turkey and Finland and Sweden.

We're working to see if we can clarify Turkey's position of (inaudible), and as you saw the President say today, we strongly support, the Secretary said it too -- we strongly support their accession -- both countries' accession, into NATO, and we'll work with them throughout the application process.

But I cannot confirm the authenticity of that list.

And lastly, Mallory from USNI?

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question.

Just wanted to ask about Neptune Shield, now that Harry S. Truman's under NATO command again. Can you give any details about the exercise?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I listed it out yesterday, Mallory. I don't have the exercise summary sheet in front of me and the training scenario. My recommendation would be to go to EUCOM or SHAPE Public Affairs, and I'm sure that they can lay that out for you.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: All right, thanks, everybody.