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Transcript

Senior Defense Officials Hold a Background Briefing, June 15, 2022

June 15, 2022
Senior Defense Officials

STAFF: Good afternoon, everybody. Hear me OK? All right, good afternoon.

As I'm sure you all just saw, Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley just wrapped up their remarks following the third meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, where they announced an additional $1 billion in security assistance for Ukraine. This next round is a combination of our drawdown authority, our 12th-such package, as well as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. We wanted to give you the opportunity to ask some questions of our subject matter experts, so today, we have (Edited). This briefing is going to be on background. Please refer to them as "Senior Defense Officials". They'll each give you short opening remarks, and then we'll take your questions. Anticipate about 30 minutes.

And with that, gentlemen, I'll turn it over to you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: Thank you, and thanks so much for joining us here today. 

As President Biden announced earlier today following his phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, the United States will be providing Ukraine with another $1 billion of security assistance. This new assistance will support Ukraine's most urgent needs for artillery, as well as near-term priorities for coastal defense, secure communications and optics. The assistance is split between two different authorities: Presidential Drawdown Authority and the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, or USAI. We understand it can be confusing why we use either authority or both at the same time, so I wanted to start off by providing you with a little bit of an overview on that.

The presidential drawdown authority enables the department to draw from existing defense stocks to rapidly provide capabilities that Ukraine needs most urgently. The $350 million in this presidential drawdown package that's part of the $1 billion is designed to provide additional artillery systems and ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARs, for the concentrated artillery duel that continues to transpire in eastern Ukraine. 

USAI is an authority that we've been utilizing since 2015. It was given to us by Congress after Russia's invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It enables the department to make direct purchases of equipment, as well as contract for training and maintenance and sustainment, including in support of equipment provided through presidential drawdown. USAI programs, in addition to meeting Ukraine's shorter-term needs, also help ensure Ukraine's enduring strength by providing for procurement and training of Ukrainian forces on NATO-standard equipment.

This $650 million in USAI that's part of this package represents an initial tranche of assistance from the $6 billion in USAI that was appropriated under the $40 billion supplemental given to us by Congress. 

This announcement today represents the beginning of a contracting process to provide additional capabilities to Ukraine's Armed Forces, and (Senior Defense Official #2) here can address how the department is working with the services and industry to expedite those contracts as quickly as possible.

Using both presidential drawdown and USAI maximizes the support we're able to provide to Ukraine by enabling the department to draw down from existing military stocks, as well as contract for new equipment and services to meet Ukraine's most urgent requirements and minimize the potential negative impacts on U.S. readiness. 

One such example of a capability that's included in the USAI package being announced today is a vehicle-mounted Harpoon, which will bolster Ukraine's coastal defense systems. I wanted to mention this because it's just one of over 1,300 proposals submitted by industry in response to a solicitation from the department for systems that can meet Ukraine's capability needs, and (Senior Defense Official #2) can talk more about that. With this announcement, the United States has now committed over $5.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia began its unprovoked and brutal invasion back on February 24th. I also do want to underscore the contributions, very important contributions, that have been made by our allies and partners. 

As the captain mentioned, today in Brussels, the secretary and that chairman met with their counterparts from over 40 countries, and they discussed how to better coordinate and cooperate on getting Ukraine the urgent security assistance it requires going forward, and in their press conference that concluded just a little bit ago, the secretary had some very important announcements coming out from new commitments made by allies and partners that will be beneficial to Ukraine.

With that, I'd like to turn it over to (Senior Defense Official #2) in case he has anything to open with.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: Oh, thanks, (Senior Defense Official #1).

I think I just want to highlight that this really is a testament to the great ideas that industry has been providing us through the RFI process, and then you know, truly, the department acquisition workforce that is using all of the different authorities that have been provided over the years to quickly execute these requirements and contract for these critical capabilities to quickly support the ongoing and the urgent requirements that the Ukrainians are currently facing.

And so with that, I think I’m good. Ready for -- to take questions, sir.

STAFF: All right. We'll go to questions. I just want to double check. Did we have Lita jump on the phone? All right, nothing heard.

Yeah, go ahead, Courtney.

QUESTION: Hi. Courtney Kube with NBC News. Thank you, first of all, for doing backgrounders. I think we're all happy to be -- hopefully, this will be the beginning of more of them, (Edited)? 

STAFF: We'll see how it goes.

QUESTION: Yeah. On the Harpoon systems just quickly, can -- so the U.S. -- and correct me if I'm wrong, but the U.S. military does not have vehicle-mounted Harpoon systems, right? So these are something that -- how -- those are coming directly from industry, and then going -- can you talk a little bit about that? And are there, because of the administration policy that the U.S. would not -- is not providing equipment or weapons that the -- could be used by the Ukrainians to strike inside Russia, are there any restrictions on the Harpoons being used against Russian ships that you can speak to?

And then finally, can you -- either of you talk to how -- when some of these -- these systems will start moving in, or how long, if you have any assessment of how long it could take before the packages are -- have all been -- or how -- how long it could take to deliver them all. Thank you.

STAFF: You start?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: Well, I'll take one piece of that, and then I think the rest is more appropriate for (Senior Defense Official #2).

So as you know, a Harpoon is intended for coastal defense. I think we've seen the negative impacts that, you know, the Russian blockade of the Black Sea has had, and continued Ukrainian fears about Russia targeting Odesa and other critical ports around the Black Sea. So this is a capability that provides them significantly stronger deterrence. But no, it's not being provided with any conditions.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: So for Harpoon system specifically, working with allies and partners, we will provide a launch capability that will be able to be truck-mounted and then, supported by donations from other allies and partners that, I'll leave them to announce their donations playing forward, but that capability will be supported by a combination of efforts that will lead to these two systems. And then from a timing perspective, I would anticipate in the near term over the next couple of months, to execute the contracting actions and provide that capability.

QUESTION: So the actual harpoon launchers are likely to come from another country like Denmark that's already provided them, right? And then the U.S. is providing the actual harpoon. Is that what you mean or…?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, we would provide the harpoon launchers. 

QUESTION: Oh, but again, I thought the U.S. didn't have truck-mounted ones. So --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We do not. We would be procuring a launcher that had been identified as a capability that, through the RFI process, as a proposal that would be out there, that could be provided, and then married-up with allies and partners that would have missile capabilities.

QUESTION: OK. Thank you.

STAFF: David?

QUESTION: Forgive me, I came in a couple minutes late. Did you have a fact sheet that puts out what is involved in the 350 million and what is involved in the 650 --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So my understanding is that one has just been released.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It should be out now, yes. It should be out now.

QUESTION: Was that then in the full report?

QUESTION: OK. So Chairman Milley made reference to longer range artillery, not the HIMARS, but the rocket-assisted projectiles with a range of 40 kilometers. Are those in this package and are additional rockets for HIMARS in this package?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So there are additional rockets for HIMARS in this package. I am unable to say anything beyond what the chairman already said about the specific types of artillery or rockets.

QUESTION: Can you tell me how many additional HIMARS?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I am not. I'm sorry.

QUESTION: The systems or the number of rockets you mean? You can't say number of systems or rockets?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So there are no additional HIMARS systems in this package. There are rockets for HIMARS but I'm unable to say how many.

STAFF: All right, Tony.

QUESTION: OK. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg. So to square the circle around the Harpoons, somebody reading ‘Harpoon coastal defense systems’ is going to think the U.S. is providing the missiles, not the launchers. You were kind of clear, but it's not the missiles- those are coming from Denmark, these are the launchers to go on trucks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The U.S. will be providing the launchers. I'll say any harpoon missiles will be coming from allies and partners.

QUESTION: ISR, there's been complaints on the Hill that there have been no drones in any of these packages. The Gray Eagle has been contentious. Where does that debate stand? Congressman Adam Smith today said the Russians, their -- they have greater ISR capabilities to seek out Ukraine. Ukraine does not have a counter capability. Where does that issue stand on the Grey Eagle or any other armed or unarmed drones?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The requirement for drones I completely recognize. I don't have anything I'm able to say about Grey Eagle at this time.

QUESTION: Is that in the works? And is that still an ‘interagency sausage making process?’

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It's -- I don't have anything to say about that right now.

QUESTION: And can I ask you one thing you might have something to say on? Go ahead, sir.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The only thing I'll mention though on continued ISR, right, so you know under the original tranche one of the Ukraine assistance initiative, the initial 300 million, we did provide 22 Pumas that are an ISR platform.

And you know, I think you're all aware we provided Phoenix Ghost, which provides an ISR portfolio to it, along with switchblades. So there have been unmanned aircraft systems with ISR capabilities that have been provided throughout the course of this conflict.

QUESTION: Thanks for clarifying that. That was a good clarification. The Switchblade series 600, the anti-tank one, that's not on contract yet is it? That was announced in early May as going to be on contract. Where does that stand in this process of alacrity?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, so the 600 currently is not on contract. So the 600 was for us it’s a prototype system. And so there's some work to get that through everything from the tech release process and get it to a solution that is viable that could be procured and fielded.

QUESTION: Thanks.

STAFF: Let me go the phones real quick and then I'll come right back to the room. Sylvia, AFP?

QUESTION: Hello, thank you. You said that there is no additional HIMARS system in this package. Why? What is the logic if the four systems that were already given are going to be in the battle very soon?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, thanks for that. So Dr. Kahl spoke to this a bit during his press conference following the last package. But also, as the chairman noted in the press conference earlier today, we expect that the HIMARS -- the four HIMARS systems previously announced and the ammunition and trained crews, will be operational in Ukraine by the end of the month. 

And this initial tranche is going to help get the Ukrainians familiarized with the system and will provide us with information on how they're using the system and how effective it is on the battlefield. And it's that information, in combination with continued consultations with the Ukrainians that will inform future decisions on additional systems.

STAFF: Alright. Fadi?

QUESTION: Thank you gentlemen for doing this. So I have two questions. One on the harpoon- Is providing these systems based on a new assessment of renewed threat from the Black Sea, because we've been told that the Russian risk of some kind of amphibious assault is almost nonexistent right now. That Russia cannot open two fronts to whether to try to take -- occupy Odessa.

And when you mentioned like sea ports, the Russians have capabilities to hit these ports with long range missiles not even from the Black Sea. They can do it from over the Caspian Sea as they did before when they targeted Odessa. So why is this -- what is the assessment and the need for these new harpoon systems?

Are you thinking that something might change around Odessa or that region? And why is the U.S. providing, and other allies, these weapons now for the Donbas region in such incremental way. We've known since April 15th that the war will shift to that region. We've been told the assessment in the Pentagon that this war will be tougher that's going to be -- the Ukrainians were not going to be using that many MANPADS, that there's going to be more artillery, Russians will use major fire power… 

So why are we still like sending 18 M777s here?  I don't know how many there like in such an incremental way, while the Ukraine is saying they have an urgent need of many big numbers of these systems? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: So, to address your first question, so the provision of Harpoon is not in response to any particular piece of new information. It's a combination of continued consultation with the Ukrainians and coastal defense still being near the top of their urgent requirements list. And also, as (Senior Defense Official #2) mentioned, is that these sort of technical solutions to enable a truck-mounted capability that are now available that we can provide. 

I think the secretary and the chairman spoke to our strategy earlier today of providing assistance. We, in collaboration with allies and partners, are pushing artillery long-range fires to the front as quickly as we can, taking into account, of course, the other considerations such as our own readiness. 

Q: Thank you. 

STAFF: Well go back to the phones for a few. Nancy, Wall Street Journal.

Q: Thank you. I just want to follow up on that. Is it the U.S. position that these weapons are intended primarily for the fight in the east or is it that they are intended for places like Kherson, Kharkiv, other parts of the country? Can you give us a sense in terms of where you see these, the latest aide package being applied in Ukraine? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: I don't think that's really for us to answer. I think that's for the Ukrainians. 

STAFF: Alright. Luis, ABC.

Q: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for this. Just want to close the loop on the Harpoons, because I'm very confused. Because, I think the fact sheet and you said that we're talking about two Harpoon systems and that these will be truck-mounted, which industry will provide and you'll procure. But the timeline that you said will be for several months. How does it take that long to build up a system? I mean, when we're talking about simply two Harpoon systems. 

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: Hey, thank you for the question. So when I talk timeline, the timeline is for everything, right? So, that's from start to finish. From execution of contract to building the systems to delivering the systems to including the training and all the pieces that go along with operating a package that has kind of more technology in it than we've been providing in some of the capabilities to date. So, that process takes a little bit of time to get there, to be on the battlefield and be operationally effective. 

STAFF: All right, staying with the phones, Heather, USNI.

Q: Thanks so much. I was hoping to ask two questions about the timeline. So, with the idea of this needing several months, is that a way of saying that we expect this to continue for several more months? And then in terms of the fact that they keep saying that these are urgent needs, is that timeline of several months to get these systems over to Ukraine reasonable for the Ukrainians who are currently in this conflict?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: I think as (Senior Defense Official #1) mentioned, right, that the Ukrainians have -- the coastal defense is still at the top of their list of support that they require in urgent needs. 

I'll tell you, the Department of Defense Acquisitions professionals will do the fastest they can to get it on contract to include working with allies and partners to marry up the actual Harpoon missiles so that they can then get the training done and get on the battlefield. So, I say a couple of months, I just -- that's, I think, to set expectations where we're at. But, of course, we are going to do everything we can to pull that left and make this happen as urgently as possible.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: Yeah, and if I can just add to that. I mean this goes back to what I was saying about the flexibility with using the two different authorities, where we can meet the Ukrainian requirements with existing stocks we will do so as quickly as possible. 

But, there are certain items that the Ukrainians require that either we don't have or cannot provide for one reason or another. And then we will use contracting and industry as a solution to that. And, obviously, given the urgency, we look for every opportunity with the services and with industry to accelerate that timeline. 

STAFF: I'm going to stick with the phones here. Got a few more. Tara Copp, Defense One.

Q: Hello, thank you very much. Just to follow on some of the questions from my colleagues, when the chairman today said it was still going to be a couple of weeks before HIMARS was in country and it seems like there's going to be a delay on the Harpoon, you're seeing progress from Russia in the east. Is there concern that this isn't going to move fast enough to make a difference?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: No. I think the secretary and the chairman, and in his press conference a few weeks ago Dr. Kahl, noted that we're likely to be in this phase for a while. The Russian gains continue to be incremental and we believe that when these capabilities do arrive they will make a significant difference and that they will arrive in time to do so.

STAFF: All right. Lara Seligman, Politico. 

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing this. I just wanted to circle back on the Harpoons. Can you tell me a little bit about what it will take to train the Ukrainians to use these systems? What does that training look like? How long will it take? Who will be doing the training, us or a partner nation? And why are we only sending them two?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: I think on the training question, I think let's take that for an off-the-record and get back to you. 

There is some ongoing discussions still on the training piece of that that we'll need to refine for you. As far as only the two systems, I'll say two systems because of what's readily available that industry has that can be supplied in the near-term process to, again, make and have an effect on the near-term on the battlefield.

STAFF: All right, a few more here. Jeff Seldin, VOA. 

Q: Thanks very much. Just wondering, how much concern is there, not just about getting the security assistance, these weapon systems, to Ukraine in time for them to make a difference, but continuing to be able to do so while evading Russia's attempts to target and destroy some of this aide as it comes in? The Russians have been making a lot of claims of late. Are there any concerns that, with Russia's superiority with ISR that others have mentioned, that this going to get more difficult the longer it takes?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: So we have not -- we continue to look for ways to counter -- to work with the Ukrainians to develop alternate means so that the Russians are less able to target. We have not seen a lot of evidence of the Russian claims. But it does continue to be a concern and we continue in our conversations with the Ukrainians to explore mechanisms to minimize the possibility of that happening.

STAFF: Alright, Caitlin, Stars and Stripes. 

Q: Hi, there. The Secretary today said that Ukraine is going to need to shift over very quickly to almost all or to all 155 millimeter howitzers. Yet today only 18 were pledged. Is that a matter of there not being enough in stock? Is there plans to get more or what are your thoughts on this?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #1: So 155 millimeter ammunition remains a top requirement as Ukraine shifts from its legacy Soviet systems over to NATO interoperable systems that is something that we continue to engage with allies and partners from around the world who either have access to this ammunition or production capacity for this ammunition to prioritize. 

Did you want to speak about the domestic piece of that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: Yes, right, I think also to highlight while there is 18 in this package, there's been previous 155s that have been provided. So that number is significantly more. We are currently working closely with industry to understand all of the supply chain constraints and how we can quickly address those constraints to up the production number to a rate that will try to support both the Ukrainian’s needs along with our backfill needs and any allies and partners needs.

STAFF: Our last one, we'll stick with the phones. John Ismay.

Q: Yes, hi. I was just hoping to clarify a few things that General Milley spoke about. He mentioned that with the additional howitzers pledged by the U.S. and other allies, I believe he said it would bring the total number of 155 millimeter howitzers in Ukraine to 300 to 400. I was wondering if there's any clarification that could be made there with more specificity?

And then the second thing Milley also mentioned 100 rounds of ammunition for HIMARS would be provided. And I'm wondering if that means 100 rockets per launcher or is he talking about 100 rounds -- 100 rockets total or 100 pods of rockets with each pod holding six rockets?

And then he also seems to have made a reference to a half million rounds of 155 ammo being provided. Can you confirm or clarify any of those numbers for me, please?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So I think -- we would have to follow-up and look at what General Milley said because I wasn't listening to the conference as it unfolded. So I would need to actually look at what exactly he said and we would need to loop back with you all on -- to clarify those comments.

Q: Could you also maybe clarify that -- one thing that I'm not clear on is if this announcement of the HIMARS if there's any -- if it provides any longer range capability than what was announced in PDA 11 on June first, when the first HIMARS were announced?

Is there -- not necessarily even asking if they're RAP rounds or not, but does it provide any longer range fires?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The answer is no.

Q: OK, thank you.

STAFF: All right, thank you, guys. Tony, you have one last one?

Q: Of the 1,300 responses were there any other that came to fruition -- any other hardware requests that came to fruition because of responses? And was the Harpoon truck-mounted, was that a totally new concept and that's why it may take a couple months?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL #2: So the truck mounted Harpoon, in this condition, in this configuration is new. And so that's why it's taking a little bit of time to pull the systems together for full operational capability. What I'll say is, again we appreciate industry’s RFIs. They have been -- they provide kind of valuable market information across the entire range of capabilities. 

We looked across the air defense, coastal defense, anti-tank, counter battery, anti-personnel, communications, UAS, along with any kind of production capacity, training, operational concepts that they had from a support and sustainment activities as well as we look at there. 

So those RFIs have provided that valuable information that we've used to not only inform our requirements for future solicitations but also assess how they would support the urgent operational needs that Ukrainians have defined. And that's really working through EUCOM to understand in how we could bring those solutions forward quickly.

Q: Have you designated any new programs at the DX level for Ukraine? The highest level -- priority level, you know what that means.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes tracking, sir. What I will need to do is -- I need to get back with that. I do not know if we have specifically raided any contracts at a DX rating.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: All right. Thank you very much. Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time today. Really appreciate it.