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Senior Defense Officials Hold a Background Briefing, June 24, 2022

STAFF: Hey, good morning, everyone. This is (Edited) from the Department of Defense. We're going to do a background session this morning with a ‘Senior Defense Official.’ This is (Senior Defense Official). She is (Edited). Please refer to her only as "a senior defense official."

I -- who came in just -- just a moment ago and said you'd probably have a question?

Q: Hi, thanks, (Edited). It's Lara from Politico.

STAFF: Great, thanks, Lara.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: All right. Let's go up first with Lita. You're up.

Oh, you know what? Hold please. I'm sorry. We're going to start with the senior defense official's opening comments, and then I'll move to questions. I apologize.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, sorry about that. Hi, everybody. This is (Senior Defense Official). Again, I guess "senior defense official" for today.

So I'm just going to be a little bit brief, but I did just want to have a chance to to touch on a few themes that I think you'll probably have questions about. 

So first, because it's kind of out there in the news today, I wanted to just give you my quick take on what we're seeing on the battlefield, and then secondly, a few highlights on security assistance.

So I just want to put into context what we're seeing in Severodonetsk in terms of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ managed retrograde from that location. And the context that I want to share is just, when you look at the sweep of the past four months, obviously we've seen Russia having to, you know, completely recalibrate its plans, because its initial plans were overly ambitious and mismanaged, going from their multi-axis attempt that was defeated by the Ukrainians to now, a focus on Eastern Ukraine. And really, the Russians are just eking out inch by inch of territory here.

So in moving the Ukrainian Armed Forces from Severodonetsk back, what they are doing is putting themselves in a position where they can better defend themselves. And I think it's important to reflect on the cost that Russia has paid for this very small, very incremental gain.

Now you know, shifting to the security assistance piece, this is where we're really focused on giving the Ukrainians what they need when they need it. Earlier in the fight, obviously, it was a very different terrain. It was a very different battle, and we were focused on providing them in particular with short-range air defense like the Stingers, and anti-armor capability like the Javelin, and they put those capabilities to excellent use. But now this is an artillery duel, and we are ensuring that the Ukrainians have the capabilities they need to fight back and defend their territory, and now with the HIMARS System, to be able to do that at a safer standoff distance.

So just a quick recap on specifically the capabilities that we're focused on right now. We've provided to date 126 155mm howitzers and 260,000 155mm rounds. The thing that was significant about our decision to provide these capabilities was these are not just needed in the fight; they're also NATO-standard systems. So unlike the first phase of the fight, where we were providing the Ukrainians with capabilities they already knew how to use, now we have in place training programs to be able to train them on new systems they had never used, the M777 artillery system, and now we have training for use, and also for maintenance and sustainment. So with the HIMARS, you just saw yesterday our announcement of four additional HIMARS Systems. We have training programs in place so that they will be able to use this new NATO-standard system.

The other capabilities, just to make sure that you have this, that we announced yesterday in a package of $450 million in presidential drawdown include 36,000 rounds of 105mm ammunition, 18 tactical vehicles to tow 155mm artillery, 1,200 grenade launchers -- these are the MK-19, and these are able to be mounted on armored vehicles -- 2,000 heavy machine guns, again, able to be mounted on armored vehicles or boats. And in fact, we are providing 18 coastal and riverine patrol boats, and I can get into slightly more detail on that if anyone is interested. And obviously, with each of these packages we provide a lot of spare parts. We want to make sure they can keep these systems up and running. But you know, these particular capabilities just announced yesterday, again, come on top of, you know, a series of announcements, to include the billion-dollar announcement from last week.

And I just want to leave you with one other point -- actually, two other points, if I may, before I open up for questions.

All of these capabilities are the result of extensive consultations with the Ukrainians. Just yesterday, I was talking to the Ukrainian deputy minister of defense, and we were talking about, you know, specific capability needs and how the Ukrainians are able to employ the existing capabilities. Secretary Austin is continually in contact with Minister of Defense Reznikov. The chairman is in continual contact with General Zaluzhnyi, his counterpart. So we are constantly taking on board the feedback we get from the Ukrainians on what they need, and we are, as Secretary Austin said, moving heaven and earth to get it to them.

The last point is just that this isn't just a U.S.-only effort. You know, we're really proud of Secretary Austin's leadership through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, where he has brought together, you know, roughly 50 defense ministers from around the world, certainly, many Europeans, but also others from other parts of the world to show their support for Ukraine and to provide tangible support.

So last week's meeting in Brussels, we had 50 countries. We did have a few new ones, including from the Western Hemisphere, Ecuador attended. And at the meeting we heard 20 countries announcing new donations. And when I talk about the HIMARS systems this is part of a category of multiple launch rocket systems and the allies are also providing these systems. So Germany said that they would provide what the M270 MLRS system. We already have the U.K. providing that system. And you had other countries; Slovakia, Canada, Poland providing additional artillery capabilities. So it really is a global effort and one that we are happy to be playing a leadership role in.

Okay, I will stop there. Thank you for your patience.

STAFF: Thank you, Senior Defense Official. Hey, Lita, you're up first.

Q: Good morning, thank you. And, yes, thanks for doing this. Can you give us a bit more on the HIMARS system particularly on the training? How many Ukrainians have been trained on it? And my understanding is these were pre-positioned in the region. Are you pre-positioning a lot there from the United States? Were they already sort of there because they are already European based?

Can you just give us a better sense of how fast the training is going to go, is it still three weeks? So how quickly will these get on the battlefield? And also it appears some of the first four are already on the battlefield. Can you tell us if they're actually in the Donbas? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Absolutely. So I can tell you that the first batch of four HIMARS are in Ukraine. I can't comment on specifically where but they are in Ukraine. So the Ukrainian armed forces have the opportunity to put the HIMARS into the fight. They are serviced by a trained crew that completed training both in terms of operating but also in terms of maintenance and sustainment.

And right now we have another platoon in training to be able to use that second batch of HIMARS that we just announced yesterday. So I don't have a precise date for you on the second batch in terms of when it will arrive. But we're talking a short timeframe. By mid-July you will have all of this capability in Ukraine.

I hope that's helpful.

STAFF: Hi, Jeff, you're up next. Jeff Schogol, you there?

Q: Yes. Thank you, sorry. Thank you. Thank you so much for doing this. I'm wondering do you have any update on numbers of Russian casualties? If you can't give us the specific figures then perhaps a range of how many killed and wounded the Russians have taken.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sorry, I do not have specific casualty figures for you, for either side.

STAFF: Hi, Barb, you're up for CNN.

Q: Two questions. The first one, can you -- I'll ask them at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about where it may go from here? And what I mean is there seems to be a general acknowledgement that Russian era weapon stocks are pretty much depleted across the board. And while you're trying shift them to NATO, that's not complete yet. So are you and the contact group -- are there any Russian stocks still to be had? Can you describe anything you're doing to scour (inaudible) parts or other elements that may have Russian stock weapons?

Can you talk at all about where that goes from here? And one admin question on yesterday's package, I believe you guys said you were providing 18 additional 155 Tow Vehicles but not additional 155 Howitzers, I think yesterday. And I'm just wondering why no additional Howitzers have some of the Tow Vehicles broken down. You need to replenish? Are other countries making up that 155? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks, I'll take the last question first. So the vehicles are actually to be able to tow the actual artillery, the 155 millimeter artillery. But it doesn't mean that it's necessarily a U.S. donation. So in some cases they need additional tow capability for other equipment that they are receiving.

So that's why sometimes you don't see necessarily in each of our packages a one for one match because we are actually working as part of this larger donor community, if that makes sense.

Q: Right.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: In terms of where we go from here, yes, the Russian stocks, the Soviet type equipment stocks are dwindling. That doesn't mean we've reached rock bottom. There are still sources of ammunition. There are sources of equipment. There are still countries all around the world who we're talking to who want to be able to make their own transition to NATO type equipment and are very much willing to provide their equipment.

They are looking for that backfill in many cases. So what we are looking at is not just how we source the Soviet type equipment and not just how we source NATO equipment to transition it to Ukraine. But we're also looking at how we're ramping up production lines of U.S. and NATO equipment so that we can backfill other countries and ourselves so it's a multi pronged effort.

STAFF: Hi, Courtney Kube for NBC.

Q: Hi, thank you. So can you tell us what specific -- the riverine and patrol boats that were part of the announcement yesterday -- What is the specific threat that Ukraine asked for to combat that the patrol boats were what the U.S. is offering? And then can you tell us where that is? I'm assuming it's the Black Sea, but just a little more detail on that.

Also on the harpoon launchers, can you give us a little bit more detail about when those -- the truck mounted harpoon launchers that the U.S. is going to provide to Ukraine -- when those could be delivered if you have estimate on that? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. So the patrol boats, let me give you a little bit more detail here. So it is a total of 18 but they are slightly different vessels. Two of them are small unit riverine craft, 35 feet. Six of them are maritime combat craft, 40 foot patrol boats. And then 10 of them are medium force protection patrol boats, these are 34 foot Sea Ark Dauntless class patrol boats. So slightly different variety within the overall 18 boat package.

And so I use the word riverine in there, these are largely to protect the river ways and to enable Ukraine to maintain its control of the river ways. They can also be used in, you know, close-in coastal areas, but the river piece was the initial impetus I believe for this -- for this particular request.

Hopefully that's -- oh, and then on harpoon, I don't have a precise date for you. So you know, we can look and see if we have something more detailed and I can get back to you, but at this very moment I don't have that for you.

STAFF: All right. Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP.

Q: Hello. Thank you. I have two questions. First, I wanted to know -- to speak about the HIMARS. Why only four? I understand that the first batch was four because you wanted to see how they were used and if the training would go well. So if it indeed went well, why only four? And my second question is about the gains that the Russians are making in Donbass. I understand that now they control around 20 percent of Ukraine. So I don't understand how you can say that it's really incremental because 20 percent, it's a lot.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you, Sylvie. Are -- is that it, yes?

Q: Yes.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay. So on your first question about HIMARS, I think it's really important to think about HIMARS differently from how you would think about, say, the howitzers, the M777s that we've provided previously. The HIMARS enable standoff distance, but they also with the munitions that we're providing offer incredible precision. So this isn't about, you know, volume. It's about, you know, precise targeting.

So in addition to the fact that we wanted to, you know, introduce this system in a very thoughtful and very deliberate way with appropriate training, with an appropriate ability to have a feedback loop on how well the system is being introduced, there's also the fact that it's just a different kind of system.

And then the piece that I mentioned earlier is also really important. It's not just the U.S. We also have -- so you can't just look at the eight so far from the U.S. You have to also look at what the U.K. and Germany are doing so far. And there are other countries that are on the cusp of considering additional MLRS systems. So it's a larger effort than the U.S. piece.

In terms of the gains, you know, I don't want to ever minimize not just the percentage of territory, you know, but the loss of Ukrainian lives that we've seen from Russia. So in saying that Russia is making incremental gains, I'm certainly not minimizing the territory that they do hold and how significant that is to Ukraine and really to the world as a significant violation of sovereignty.

But that said, I think you have to compare what Russia -- the limited gains that Russia has achieved versus what Russia's original plan was because Russia's original plan was to have taken Kyiv by this point and to be thoroughly dominating Ukraine. And instead what we see is they have these gains around the edges and you have, you know, a fierce Ukraine that is fighting back with the world by its side. So in that sense it really is significantly less than what Russia intended.

STAFF: Pierre Ghanem with Al Arabiya.

Q: Thank you. If you don't mind, I would like to follow up on this question from Sylvie but on a different face. How would you describe the withdrawal of the Ukrainians from Severodonetsk? Is it like a defeat? Is it like saving lives? How would you describe it? And I do have another question also. We are seeing more assets given to the Ukrainians that are to do with the coast, with the maritime area. Is it an anticipation to give them more strength to defend themselves against an attack by the Russians on Odessa?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. So in terms of the situation in Severodonetsk, the way that I view it is the Ukrainian Armed Forces are performing a professional, tactical retrograde in order to consolidate their forces in positions that they can better defend themselves. And I see this as occurring on the heels of their ability to continue to pin down Russian forces over a very long period of time in a very small geographic area. So that's how I would describe the current situation there.

If I understood your second question correctly, I want to distinguish between the two capabilities that we've touched on and maybe that will answer your question. 

These coastal and riverine patrol boats are essentially, you know, very useful in patrolling the rivers of Ukraine. In terms of defending the Black Sea coast, including the Port of Odessa, this is where we see coastal defense capabilities as being vital. And here is where the fact that you've seen donations from allies of the harpoon system and now you have the United States also leaning in to provide the harpoon system, this will be helpful in enabling the Ukrainians to defend, you know, Odessa, and other positions along the Black Sea coast. I hope that was helpful.

Q: Thank you so much.

STAFF: All right. David Martin, CBS.

Q: I believe the first time you described the retrograde from Severodonetsk you said that it was a marginal gain by the Russians at great cost. So if you can't give us an estimate of Russian casualties, what is the basis for the statement that they have made these incremental gains at great cost?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well I would say I can't give you a precise figure, but I do say with confidence that the Russians have suffered heavy casualties, and they also have suffered heavy equipment losses. So these are the steep costs that we're talking about.

Q: Do they have the ability to keep pushing forward beyond Severodonetsk and finish the takeover of the Luhansk without having to stop and regroup?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think what you're seeing now is the Russian forces are showing the signs of wear and tear and debilitated morale. And it is impacting their ability to move forward swiftly. That's why you're seeing this kind of inch-by-inch progress where there is any progress. I think that, if you look back at the situation in Moscow, you have a limited ability -- even though you have a large population in Russia, you have a limited ability to mobilize additional forces without political costs. So even though we do see this large nation of Russia with what was a large military, you have to see that they are operating within some pretty serious constraints that is slowing significantly the progress that Putin expected to see.

STAFF: Tara Copp from Defense One.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. I have one clean-up question and then two others. On the patrol boats that the U.S. is sending. Do you have the classes of boat for the maritime combat, the two 35-foot boats he initially said, and then (inaudible) in force protection? Then I've got two other questions.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I pretty much gave you what I have. I don't have additional descriptions of them in terms of the size and the names I gave you.

Q: Okay. My second question is about timing. It seems a little surprising to have another $450 million tranche just right after the 1 billion. Was there a sense that the $1 billion wasn't enough or that there was more urgency because of what Russia is achieving right now that there needed to be a quick follow-on?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The way that we're orchestrating these packages is really all about what they need on the battlefield, and, you know, when they need it, and how fast we can get it to them. So there isn't a specific defined amount of time or, you know, there is no timeframe that's necessarily too short. And if we need more time to build a package based on the requirements and they have what they need, we can stretch it out. So it's not based on some other rationale.

Q: Okay. And then third and last question, thank you, the -- you know, earlier this week, there were Ukrainian fighter pilots and also an air defense -- air force air defense officer who were talking to a lot of media, who talked to members of Congress saying that what they really need is better cruise missile defense, but it doesn't seem to be getting up through the ranks of the general staff and getting communicated to you all, which is why they were here. I was just wondering, at all, since you've seen these more sophisticated artillery systems going and some radars, is there any chance that there are fighter jet discussions on the table or additional air defense systems on the table?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Air defense is a key area that we're very much focused on. You know, certainly initially it was that short range air defense that we were providing in massive quantities. But we quickly shifted our focus to seeing how we could bolster and enhance Ukraine's existing air defense capabilities. Now what they have in place now is a Soviet-type system. So we partnered with Slovakia and were very pleased that Slovakia was able to provide an S-300 system through support from the U.S. and allies for backfill. And I think what you're seeing in Ukraine is, even though there is that substantial Russian threat, Ukraine has denied Russia air superiority. Russia does not control the skies, and the Ukrainians have been remarkably skilled in operating their air defense systems. So we are still looking at how we can continue to help the Ukrainians build out those systems, and it is a priority area.

STAFF: All right, Jack, Foreign Policy?

Q: Thanks so much. I just wanted to follow up kind of along the lines of Sylvie's question with the eight HIMARS and sort of some of these systems going in more slowly than the Ukrainians publicly desire, at least. I'm just curious about the risk calculus on your side. Obviously, you want to ship them the NATO-type kit, but is there a risk of going too much too fast, and things will break?

And then I was just curious -- on the Russian side, do you have a sense of kind of the command of the war at this point? Is Dvornikov still running the show or is the Kremlin still really overseeing this campaign? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. I'll just tell you that those questions of kind of appropriate training and sustainment are very much in our mind as we're providing these NATO systems. But what we're finding is the Ukrainians are just incredibly capable, incredibly motivated and incredibly skilled at being able to absorb these new types of equipment. So we are able to continue to give them these new systems, and they are able to, you know, pull people out of the country and train them. So it is a consideration, but so far, it hasn't held us up and it hasn't held the Ukrainians up.

In terms of the war effort, I can't give you much, you know, detail in terms of the day-to-day, but we certainly do see this still as a war that Putin himself is taking a great interest in, and is providing that direction for.

STAFF: Okay, Phil Stewart, Reuters?

Q: Yeah. Just two quick questions. One, if you could say how you expect Russia to -- or whether you expect Russia to live up to its threats to retaliate for the supply of these longer-range weapons and these NATO-standard weapons. And then secondly, what do you see happening in regards to Kaliningrad and -- and the decisions to cut off the supply of goods to Kaliningrad? Is that something that you expect to continue to escalate? Are you concerned about escalation there? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. Good questions. So I think that in terms of retaliation, you know, it's fully my expectation that Russia is trying to thwart the supply of these capabilities to the Ukrainians. I mean, certainly, we see Russian strikes not just in the east, but also in the west, you know, targeting a range of infrastructure in Ukraine. So I think they're trying. They certainly aren't able to succeed there. But I would imagine that that would continue to be their objection.

You know, and right now, Kaliningrad certainly, historically has been a place where we've been very attentive to the dynamics and the delicate regional situation. I don't have anything for you today to signal a specific concern, but you know, can only just say that we're watching it closely.

STAFF: Hi, Heather. USNI?

Q: Thanks so much. I was wondering if you can give us a better idea of what the maritime aspect is right now, you know, how many Russian ships are in the Black Sea, if any Russian ships have sunk. Just kind of giving us that background for the previous package and this package and the effort to send some more maritime equipment.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. Well, I could say, I don't have precise ship numbers for you, but the Russians continue to blockade Ukraine, and they continue to prevent Ukraine from having access both to the Sea of Azov, which is completely blocked and used to be a channel of commerce and industry and food supplies, and also, the Black Sea, as well. So they do have that overwhelming presence that is blockading Ukraine from being able to ship grain to the rest of the world and from having that connectivity through seas.

And the focus, in terms of support for Ukraine to enable its defense, it really is on providing Ukraine these coastal defense systems. Certainly, Ukraine does have some indigenous capability in this area with the Neptune missile, but we're very eager to be able to provide the Harpoon system, which the U.S. is providing under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and having our allies also provide those capabilities.

STAFF: Hi, Jeff. Voice of America?

Q: Hey, thanks very much for doing this. Curious -- are there any indications that Russia's been having any success in its attempts to intercept or stop security assistance from reaching Ukraine? And if needed, is there anything that the U.S. and other allies could do? I know other officials have spoken about how quickly this has happened, but is there anything that can be done to get aid to Ukraine even more quickly?

And then finally, quickly, has there been any talk about providing Ukraine with other assistance in case Russia decides to not just focus on the Donbas, but perhaps make another run at Kyiv? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. So I have no evidence of any Russian success in intercepting or, in any other way, impeding the steady flow of security assistance to Ukraine from the United States and its allies and partners. So no success there on the part of Russia.

In terms of moving more quickly, when Secretary Austin says that we're moving heaven and earth to get the equipment there, I can personally attest that that is absolutely true. There is no bureaucratic barrier that we haven't been able to bat down in order to massively streamline our own systems from a process perspective in terms of the decision-making, but also the logistics. And we have absolutely no barriers to communication with the Ukrainians to be able to identify those needs as quickly as possible. But I'll tell you, if anyone comes up with any additional ideas on how to get stuff there faster, we will the first to take that on board.

And your last point on Kyiv, you know, what we are doing across the board to strengthen the Ukrainian Armed Forces and to strengthen their capabilities will enable them to be able to continue to secure Kyiv and defend Kyiv.

STAFF: All right, one last one with Lara, Politico.

Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. A couple questions. First of all I wanted to ask about the possibility of giving Ukraine the longer range munitions that can strike targets up to 200 miles away. I know that the White House had I think decided against that but that's something the Ukrainians have really been pressing for. And related to that I understand that Minister Reznikov sent a letter with his personal reassurance to Secretary Austin that if they get these munitions they would not be used to strike targets in Russia.

So I'm wondering if you have a response to that?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So right now the HIMARS that we're providing Ukraine, with the guided multiple launch rocket system munitions, the GMLRS as we call them, they enable the Ukrainians to have roughly a 70 kilometer range. That's like twice what they have with the Howitzers that we're providing them.

So from an examination of the battlefield, when you look at the actual distances that the Ukrainians would need to position their systems and the actual positions of the Russians that they are fighting in Donbas, they don't need more than that range. That range will give them significant capability and significant advantage.

STAFF: Thanks, everyone. If you have follow-ups, please don't hesitate… 

Q: If I could just follow-up on that.

STAFF: We actually just need to wrap up, Lara, I'm sorry. But if anyone has follow-ups please feel free to reach out to me or to (Edited) and we will get a response to you today. Thanks for calling, everyone.