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Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Holds a Press Briefing

STAFF: Good afternoon, everyone. We are delighted to welcome Dr. Colin Kahl, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy of the Department of Defense. He's going to walk us through today's Presidential Drawdown Authority.

COLIN KAHL: Great. Well, good afternoon. It's great to join you all today to announce the latest military assistance authorization to support Ukraine in the face of Russia's premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified invasion. First, however, I'd like to share with you that Secretary Austin spoke with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Reznikov yesterday to discuss Ukraine's military requirements as fighting continues in eastern Ukraine. 

Secretary Austin highlighted the success of the Ukraine Contact Group held on May 23 and noted the unity of the International Community in supporting Ukraine as it repels the Russian invasion. Minister Reznikov expressed his gratitude for U.S. leadership on this effort, and the two leaders outlined priorities for the next in-person Contact Group planned for June in Brussels. 

And now for today's announcement. Today, President Biden directed the drawdown of an additional $700 million in weapons and equipment from the Department of Defense Inventories. 

The capabilities in this package include High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS, and guided munitions with a range of up to 70 kilometers, five counter artillery radars, two air surveillance radars, 1,000 additional javelins, and 50 command launch units, 6,000 anti-armor weapons 15,000 155-millimeter artillery rounds, four MI-17 helicopters, 15 tactical vehicles, and spare parts and equipment. 

These are critical capabilities to help the Ukrainians repel the Russian offensive in the east. One such need is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System I just mentioned, which responds to Ukraine's top priority ask. This system will provide Ukraine with additional precision in targeting at range. The Ukrainians have given us assurances that they will use this system for defensive purposes only. 

In anticipation of this potential decision by President Biden, the Department of Defense pre-positioned the HIMARS systems in Europe to ensure that they can be rapidly delivered to the Ukrainians. And put in place a plan so that we could start training Ukrainian forces immediately, while ensuring they learn how to operate the system safely and effectively as well as to maintain the system. 

We will continue to closely consult with Ukraine and surge additional available systems and capabilities in support of its defense. I would also like to acknowledge and express our appreciation for the strong bipartisan approval in Congress of $40 billion to support the U.S. response in Ukraine. This additional support included $8 billion in additional Presidential Drawdown Authority for security assistance, $6 billion under DoD’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and $4 billion in State Department foreign military financing for Ukraine and countries impacted by the situation in Ukraine. 

This is the first security assistance package announced since the additional supplemental was signed by President Biden. The United States has now committed approximately $5.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including approximately $4.6 billion since the beginning of Russia's unprovoked invasion on February 24. 

Even as we continue to provide vital assistance, I would be remiss if I failed to recognize and commend our allies and partners from more than 40 countries who have joined us to continue supporting Ukraine with heavy weapons, munitions, and other vital security assistance. 

Our support for Ukraine and that of the international community remains unwavering. And finally, I want to thank our dedicated men and women, our service members, civilians and contractors supporting the department's efforts. From the individual bases sourcing U.S. equipment to transportation command providing movement support, to our service members on rotation in support of our enhanced presence across U.S. European Command, to our own policy professionals here at the Pentagon. 

The department has come together in extraordinary ways to support this historic effort. Without our most valuable resource, the never-ending dedication and support of our employees and contractors, this response would not have been possible. And with all that I'm happy to take your questions and I think we're slated to start with Ben Fox from AP.

Q: Hi.

DR. KAHL: Hey Ben.

Q: Can you talk about how many and how quickly you can get these H-MARS, excuse me HIMARS into the hands of Ukrainian forces? Obviously, time is of a critical essence right now. 

DR. KAHL: So, the initial tranche of HIMARS Systems will be four. As I said, we've already pre-positioned the systems in theater so that we can deliver them expeditiously. I think it's important to keep in mind though, these aren't turnkey these, of course, are systems that the Ukrainians need to be trained on. We think that'll take around three weeks. 

And they need to know not just how to use the systems but of course how to maintain the system. So, think of logistics, maintenance, things like that. So, it'll be a number of weeks, until that training is complete.

STAFF: Barb.

Q: Can I follow up on a couple of things? You mentioned that the Ukrainians had committed that these weapons would be defensive only. But you didn't say that they had promised not to strike targets inside Russia, which they may believe is in the defense of their nation. So my first question is, do you have a specific commitment that they won’t strike inside Russia? 

DR. KAHL: Yes. 

Q: And can I follow up then on, you said this is going to be three weeks at least of training. Do you feel at this point, given the Russian gains in the Donbas that the Ukrainians can afford those three weeks? Can - how do you push back against the gains the Russians may make in that time? And the administration is talking about this package in terms of putting the Ukrainians in the best possible position at the negotiating table. 

No longer hearing talk about they may succeed, in booting the Russians out of Ukraine. Is this three weeks going to be - delayed that prospect and is that even a reasonable prospect?

DR. KAHL: Sure. Well, Barbara, as you know, the battlefield has changed a lot in the last three months. So obviously, in the first instance, the Russians tried to take over the entire country. They were defeated in the Battle for Kyiv. They've made some progress in the south and now they're trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. 

You're right, in the last several days, the Russians have made some incremental progress in and around the Donbas. They have not had a decisive breakthrough. And the Ukrainians are putting up a heck of a fight. And right now, it's a concentrated artillery duel in the east. It's why we put so much emphasis on providing 108 M777 howitzers, and a 200,000 rounds of ammunition. 

Most of those howitzers are currently in the fight, and they're helping the Ukrainians a great deal. So, I think we're not seeing the Ukrainian defenses buckle. They're hanging on, but it is a grinding fight. And we believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a timeframe that's relevant and allow the Ukrainians to very precisely target the types of things they need for the current fight.

Q: Is three weeks too late?

DR. KAHL: I don't think so.

STAFF: David Martin?

Q: Defensive purposes, does that mean they cannot use the HIMARS to go on the offense and expel the Russians from territory they hold? And you said, four systems? How many rockets for those systems?

DR. KAHL: So, Ukraine is defending their territory, anything they're doing on the territory of Ukraine is defensive in this context. The formal assurance is that they will not use these systems to target Russian territory. So just to clarify on that. Go ahead. 

Q: Anything they do with these weapons on their territory...

DR. KAHL: They are defending - they have the right as a sovereign nation to defend their territory. They didn't start this war, the Russians did. And the Russians are on the offensive. If the Ukrainians are pushing them back from Ukrainian territory, so for example, the Ukrainians made a recent push into Kherson. If they push back along the line of contact in the Donbas, we would consider that defensive.

Q: And the number of munitions?

Q: A number of systems. I'm not going to go into the total number of munitions. I would emphasize, however -so there are four systems, but we are providing them an initial tranche of munitions. It's important for them to get trained on the systems, to get familiar with the systems. We will be in a position to rapidly surge additional munitions as appropriate in the battlefield evolves.

STAFF: Let's go over to the phones real quickly. Jack Detsch from Foreign Policy.

Q: Can you hear me? Hello? Hello? Ukrainians have been asking for the system for about two months now. I'm just curious why the decision took so long on the U.S. side?

DR. KAHL: Yes, well, so the conflict is or the current stage of the conflict is about three months old, and the nature of that conflict has shifted. And the priorities the Ukrainians have had and what we thought had been most relevant to enable the Ukrainians to push back has changed over time. 

So, in the initial phase of the conflict, especially as the Ukrainians were trying to repel the invasion in and around Kyiv, the capital city, which was an existential fight for the heart of the country. We were really emphasizing anti-armor systems like the Javelin Systems, anti-air systems like Stingers, but also other medium and longer-range air defense systems alongside our allies and partners. 

And that assistance proved decisive in stymieing the Russian attempt to take Kyiv. The Russians were defeated in Kyiv. As the conflict shifted to the east, as I said, it's become an artillery duel. The challenge that Ukrainians had is that they relied on Soviet Legacy Systems. 

And if there was a certain point in which it became impossible for the United States, even working with our allies and partners, who also had Soviet Legacy Equipment to resupply the Ukrainians with the artillery systems and ammunition they were accustomed to using. Which meant that the priority was to shift them towards, in this case, 155-millimeter artillery systems, we've been providing them M777 howitzers. 

So that was as the fight shifted to an artillery duel. The first thing was to get these howitzers into the fight, and now we're shifting HIMARS.

Q: You said it was about three weeks to train, does that include the full training for maintaining the systems? Or is that just for operating them?

DR. KAHL: The training, you know, it's not always the same Ukrainians who are being trained to operate and maintain. So, you can do them both at the same time. So, it's roughly three weeks to train them how to use the system and maybe a couple of additional weeks for the maintainers. But that's what we're talking about here. 

Q: And then one more on the use of it. It - so is it that the U.S. sees that if Russia is striking out Ukraine from inside Russian territory, that Ukrainians cannot strike back inside Russia? That that's how is that not considered defensive? 

And if Ukraine does use these weapons in what they see as a defensive way, by striking inside Russia, are there any repercussions for them violating this agreement that they've made?

DR. KAHL: It is true that the Russians are engaged in a number of standoff attacks from Russian territory. So, think of long-range missile systems or air launch cruise missiles, those types of things. The core of the battle though right now is on Ukrainian territory in the east. The systems that were providing, the HIMARS, and the guided munitions that go along with them will allow Ukraine to range any target they need for that fight inside Ukrainian territory. 

These systems would not be particularly useful to hit a, you know, Russian bomber launching an air launch cruise missile, you know, hundreds and hundreds of kilometers away anyway. So we think we're giving them the capability they need for this stage of the fight. 

Q: And then any repercussion if they do violate that?

DR. KAHL: They've given us their assurances that they're not going to use these systems for striking Russian territory. And we trust the Ukrainians will live up to those assurances.

STAFF: Fadi.

Q: Thank you for doing this. So, we heard before the U.S. delivered the howitzer, that this will make a difference in the battlefield. However, we've seen the Russians making advances in the Donbas regardless of how you assess these advances. Now we're talking about four systems, I believe each one can carry six rockets, I think. 

So, how much of a difference do you think four systems will make in the battlefield? And especially with the Russians capability of actually targeting them? And then on the timeframe of providing these systems. So, between training and maintenance, and fielding, what are we looking at here? How many weeks? Thank you.

DR. KAHL: So, on the last question, I'm not going to speculate beyond what I've already said, which is it will take a few weeks to train them on how to use them. And at the same time, you're training a subset of Ukrainians on how to maintain them. We have repositioned the systems in Europe already. So, they should be able to be delivered expeditiously. 

But beyond that, I'm not going to go into timing. You know, look, no system is going to turn the war, right? This is a battle of national will, you have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men mobilized on each side. It is a grinding, hard conflict, and it's likely to be a conflict we've said many times it will stretch on for a long time. 

Over the entire course of the war the Russians have not done particularly well. They're certainly off plan. They had anticipated, you know, taking over the country in a matter of days, at the outset maybe 30 days. They are far off plan. So, I'd say based on kind of the general expectations for how the conflict would be going, I think the Ukrainians have done an extraordinary job. 

And we've of course, tried to do our part in in providing them the assistance they need to defend their country alongside allies and partners. What the HIMARS will allow them to do is to get greater standoff. So right now, the howitzers we provided them have about a 30-kilometer range, the HIMARS have more than twice that which will allow them even with fewer systems, greater standoff. 

And the other thing that distinguishes this is an extraordinary amount of precision. So, this is not something where you launch off, you know, multiple - despite it being a multiple launch rocket system, you actually don't want to launch off multiple rockets at a time. These are precision guided systems with extended range. 

And so, for high value targets that will that allow them to keep some of the pressure off of Ukrainian forces on the front, we think these systems will be very useful.

Q: Thank you. I want to go back to a couple of things you've mentioned. You said that there'll be that initial tranche of four arriving in country. When do you anticipate everything will be in country and on the battlefield? if I could start there? 

DR. KAHL: Yes, I think this is a version of the same question. So, I we are shipping four HIMAR Systems to Ukrainians. They won't initially go into Ukraine, of course, they have to be trained on the systems. So, I'm not going to go into details about where they will be, where the training will happen. 

The training will take a couple of weeks. Three weeks, we think to get the Ukrainians trained on how to operate the system. There'll be some additional training for maintenance. So sometime in that timeframe, you can start talking about getting the systems into the fight.

Q: So that's roughly a month. A month to what period? That it is, or there's - how many tranches are there?

DR. KAHL: Well, we have $7.3 billion of additional drawdown authority. So, I think we need to see this kind of as a rolling process. As the fight continues to change, the Ukrainians come to us with their priorities. We make our own assessments. We are always measuring things against what the Ukrainians need our assessment of the battlefield, but also things like the impact that it has on our own armed forces, especially when we're drawing things out of our own stockpiles. 

And so, we think that as they are starting to get trained on the HIMARS Systems we'll continue to have the conversation with Ukrainians about what the next tranche of security assistance will look like, and the tranche after that, and the tranche after that. And we're grateful for Congress for appropriating, you know, a sizable sum that will allow us to continue these tranches at fairly regular intervals based on the changes on the battlefield. 

Q: And then I'd like to ask you about training. U.S. service members train on similar systems are trained for months. And I was wondering if you could walk me through how the three week period was determined? What are the limitations of that training? Does it limit the ability of Ukrainian forces to use these systems at their maximum capacity?

DR. KAHL: Yes, but I think, first of all, we're going to train them to the standard that is required for them to use these systems. I will say, the Ukrainians have proven time and time again, to be extraordinarily ingenious, and quick learners. 

And so, I think we've been able to speed things up in the training cycle based on how quickly the Ukrainians have learned systems and been able to integrate them into their activities. And so, a special training course was put together specifically for these systems, and the Ukrainians that will be trained. And our current assessment as if it's in the three week-ish range. 

Q: And it's not taking anything away from them?

DR. KAHL: I don't - I mean, only time will tell but I don't think so.

STAFF: I'm just going to go back to the phones. Eric Schmitt, from the New York Times. Eric.

Q: I have two questions, one two-part question. One is just at what level were these assurances given by the Ukrainian government? Did these go all the way up to President Zelensky speaking to President Biden? 

And more broadly, can you give us a sense of how you now are calibrating sending these kinds of advanced weapons into Ukraine without the fear of provoking Russia? As it has been a constant concern throughout.

DR. KAHL: So, the assurances have been given at multiple levels of Ukrainian government. Secretary Austin has raised these issues with Minister Reznikov and their numerous calls. They're talking to each other once or twice a week, that has been true since the beginning of the conflict. But this particular assurance goes all the way to the top of the Ukrainian government to include President Zelenskyy. 

On escalation, look, we are mindful of the escalation risk and everything we're doing associated with this. President Biden has made clear: we have no intention of coming into direct conflict with Russia. We don't have an interest in the conflict in Ukraine widening to a broader conflict or evolving into World War Three. 

So, we've been mindful of that, but at the same time, Russia doesn't get a veto over what we send to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians didn't start this war, the Russians did. The Ukrainians didn't provoke this war. This war was unprovoked. The Russians can end this conflict anytime they want. If they are wary of escalation, all it takes is one man to say stop. 

And they can do it. So, we are mindful of the escalation risk, but in the first instance, we're focused on what we think the Ukrainians need for the current fight.

STAFF: Thanks, Eric. We've got time for just two more. Tara.

Q: Thank you. Hi, Tara Copp with Defense One. I want to get back to the escalation question. You know, with each of these traches and these drawdowns, we've seen more advanced weapon systems being given to Ukraine. At what point does it become too advanced, and you kind of risk running that escalation where you might provoke Russia? 

And then secondly, specifically on the HIMARS, you said the first four are going to Ukraine. How many systems do you envision sending to Ukraine? What are the limitations there?

DR. KAHL: So, on the latter, we'll just have to see. We're providing this initial tranche that will allow for training familiarization, start to get the systems in the fight. It will also be, we need to get information too and the Ukrainians too about how useful they are and how they're being used on the battlefield. 

That'll give us an assessment and then an assessment about what additional systems or capabilities they might need. In terms of, you know, hypothetically what assets we - or systems we may provide in the future and how we manage escalations. I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, I'll just say that we are constantly assessing this. 

But we're not the ones provoking Russia and Ukraine is not the ones provoking Russia. The Russians engaged in this further invasion of Ukraine completely unprovoked based on a set of fabricated, largely fabricated grievances against the Ukrainians, and a denial that Ukraine even deserves to exist. So, the onus is on Russia to de-escalate. 

They can de-escalate anytime they want. We are mindful that we don't want to take steps that widen the conflict. And so, some of the assurances that we've asked for in the context of these particular systems are mindful of that, of not wanting these systems to be used to attack Russian territory. But the Ukrainians are defending their land, their territory against an unprovoked aggressor. 

They have the right to defend that land.

Q: Super quick follow up on the number of HIMARS. Beyond the four, can you give us a ballpark sense of the capacity of the U.S. has to send additional systems?

DR. KAHL: I don't want to go into too much detail. We have a fair amount of capacity, we certainly have room to grow, but let's see how the battlefield evolves.

STAFF: One last question. Nick Schifrin from PBS.

Q: Thanks very much. Colin, the Ukrainians as you know were asking for the longer-range ammunition. So, what difference does it make if the ammunition fires 40 miles or 170 miles if the Ukrainians are promising not to fire to cross the border?

DR. KAHL: We had a bunch of - we had back and forth with them Nick on this. And as we looked at the targets that they were looking to be able to go after on Ukrainian territory, and also have some additional standoff. We thought that the HIMARS with the with the GMLRS rounds. 

These guided long-range rounds with about 70 kilometer range could service any target that they needed precisely. And so, we settled on the HIMARS with the GMLRS round as the appropriate round at this time. We don't assess that they need systems that range out hundreds and hundreds of kilometers for the current fight. And so that's how we settled on it.

Q: And the zoomed-out question: to what end are these weapons being provided? Obviously, we've asked versions of these questions and various agencies in the last couple of days. But if you don't think that HIMARS in particular, are some magic weapons that can suddenly evict Russia from occupied Kherson or change the battlefield. 

What is the vision from this building on how these increasingly modern weapons can help Ukraine either on the battlefield or whether a diplomatic venue starts? What is that vision?

DR. KAHL: Well, first of all, I think the President was pretty articulate about that today, in today's New York Times OpEd. So, I'd encourage you all, even if you're from a rival media institution, to read the read The New York Times OpEd today. I'll just say this: in the first instance, the Ukrainians will decide what success looks like. 

But we all have a vested interest, the entire free world has a vested interest in ensuring that Ukraine survives as a sovereign territorial democratic country. This is an assault on Ukraine, but it's also an assault on the rules-based international order. It's important that a sovereign independent democratic Ukraine endures. It's important that Russia pays a cost in excess to the benefits that they perceive from this act of aggression. 

Not just because aggression should be punished, but because we don't want Vladimir Putin to do this again. And we don't want other would-be aggressors to draw the lesson that aggression won't be met with significant costs. Now, the military component of that is part of it. It is obviously a very important part in enabling Ukraine to defend its sovereign territory and maintain its independence. 

But it's not the only thing that we're doing. There's obviously a massive diplomatic effort to isolate Russia diplomatically, to impose crippling economic sanctions, to put in place technology export controls which will make it very difficult for Russia to rebuild the military, it is rapidly attriting in this conflict. 

So, we are imposing significant costs on Russia, not because we have animus towards Russia or the Russian people, but because this was an act of unprovoked aggression, and there has to be a cost for that. But in terms of the final end state, we'll see. You know, the Ukrainians are going to determine what success looks like and it's our job to enable them to do well on the battlefield and to position themselves well at the negotiating table.

STAFF: Thanks, everyone. If you have follow up questions or you didn't get your question answered, the press team is available to take your questions. Thanks for coming.