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Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing

STAFF: All right, hey, good morning, everybody. This is (Edited) from Defense Press Ops. I'm glad we're able to do this this morning. It's been a while since we've done one of these.

Just as a reminder, this is a background brief. Your subject matter expert today will be referred to as "a senior defense official", and for your informational purposes, that senior defense official is (Edited). He'll give a brief opener, and then we'll go to Q&A.

We do have a 30-minute cap on the Q&A today, so we'll have to stick with that. I apologize. We may not be able to get to everybody, but we'll move as quickly as we can.

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

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. Well, first of all, good morning to everyone. All right, I'm going to -- this is going to get you all sharpened up, but I'm going to tell you, I've been on the job now for about two weeks, so I hope you'll forgive any of my misunderstandings just up front, but I would tell you that I've been on the Joint Staff before: left here a couple years ago and in between, was serving in a job that had me in Europe for the last three months, deployed as a part of operations forward. So I do feel pretty comfortable talking about what's going on overseas and I look forward to our conversations today.

I think you're all aware it's the hundredth -- 124th day of Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine. As you've likely observed on social media, Ukrainians are noting now that they do have HIMARS in their country. I won't go into any particular details this morning, but all indications are that they are employing them very well. We're continuing to work diligently to get the additional four HIMARS in the country that were announced in last week's PDA. And also of note, the second round of HIMARS training should coincide with that, as well, and we expect that to be done here in the near future. And again, I'm happy to talk about that training and other training that we're conducting with our partners and with the Ukrainians.

Over the weekend, I know you're also aware of the Russian-executed 60 missile strikes across the country in Kyiv, Lviv, Chernihiv and Odesa. We're not quite sure about the Russian objectives of the strikes. They certainly could be a protest against the G7, or of the arrival of HIMARS in country. We do know, and I think all of you have reported to some extent the impact of civilian casualties in Kyiv in particular against apartment buildings that were in vicinity of that strike, or the intended location of that strike. Again, not unusual to hear of civilian casualties associated with Russian strikes, sadly.

In the Donbas, we haven't observed any real additional further movement out of Severodonetsk or through Severodonetsk by the Russians. We have seen Russian gains. Those gains, as many of you have been reporting, in that portion of the battlespace are occurring (inaudible), and I'm happy to talk a little bit about that, but it does not appear that they have encircled Lysychansk, and the Ukrainians are fighting very well, or very hard in -- in that part of the battlespace.

And then, as has been mentioned in open source, we're also aware of several reliefs of Russian generals in Ukraine. I'll leave all the particulars of that to the Russian MOD spokesman, but we do continue to see concerns with that leadership or -- and continued morale concerns with Russian forces.

Near Kherson in the south, we're aware of growing indications of resistance against the Russian occupation. Over the last several days we've become aware of assassinations of local Russian officials, and we're also aware that reporting suggests the Ukrainians have been successful in liberating several small towns northwest and west of Kherson, showing that despite tactical success by the Russians, they continue to hold on to what they capture to territory and prevent it from falling into Russian hands.

The last thing I'd say before I open it up is, you know, we are continuing to work our security assistance and moving heaven and earth to get that assistance forward to the Ukrainians as fast as we can, and I think what you're seeing on the battlefield is that the Ukrainians are making good use of not just our assistance, but systems that they're obtaining from our partners and allies around the world.

So I will hold there and look forward to your questions.

STAFF: All right. We'll go ahead. We'll start with Lita, AP.

Q: Morning. Thank you. Thanks, (SDO), for doing this.

I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about the new medium to long range missile systems, the NASAMS that are going to be going to Ukraine. Like what additional capabilities that will give them and how long it may take to get them, how many? Just how that might impact the battlespace from your view? And one quick other thing just on this sort of broader, you said you weren't sure -- the U.S. isn't sure why there was suddenly Odesa and all the other broader strikes, is there any -- is there any suggestion that there is an effort by Russia to change its focus or would it be just some statements do you think?

Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Let me -- so on the HIMARS, so the -- I think what we're finding, and I don't want to draw a correlation between the HIMARS and the rocket strikes or the missile strikes that we talked about in the second part of your comment there, you know, as I mentioned, we have not received indications that the strikes by the Russians are associated with the entry of the HIMARS or of anything else, quite honestly. And what I couldn't tell you is if that is part of their larger -- you know, their larger portion of the offensive or not. So I don't want to connect it too.

And then the question about the air defense systems. I think you probably saw that the national security adviser talked about the air defense system. That's certainly something that we're looking at, is the way to help Ukrainians with additional air defense assets. I don't have the particulars associated with the systems. But as soon as we know that and as soon as those are finalized, we will certainly work to provide you with those details and the particulars of the systems that we're employing.

STAFF: All right. We'll go to Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

Q: Hey, good morning. Thanks for your time today.

Wanted to ask about these strikes, mostly by way of what you think they may be targeting, you know, that the -- what weapons deliveries are obviously getting spread out across the country, there is some sense the depots are being at least targeted. Have you seen anything hit in terms of depots? And do you get the sense that that at least an aim here?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks for your question, Dan.

Well, first of all, I'd say, you know, we -- you know, we are apathetic, if that's the right term in terms of the targeting. What I mean by that is, the Ukrainians are determining the targets that they shoot at. So we have provided the systems to the Ukrainians. They were pretty amazing in their training and have been in all sorts of training that's going on outside the country. And then based on that, they're determining the targets that they need to hit. This is their fight. And they're doing that.

I don't have particulars related to the targets that they've struck, but I know that if they were to employ them, they would employ them like we would in some cases against command-and-control or logistics, large concentrations of troops, that types of thing. But don't have the particulars about how they're targeting in this situation.

Q: I'm sorry, just to be clear, I was asking about whether there is an assessment that the Russians are trying to hit Ukrainian depots.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That's a whole different question that I answered incomplete, or incorrectly. And I don't have that.

So, we are seeing that they are trying to hit targets -- as an example, the target that resulted in the civilian casualties over the weekend, that target, those apartments were adjacent to or near a factory that we know constructs munitions for the Ukrainians. So it does give an indication that in that case in particular they were trying to hit a military target. I don't have evidence that they're trying to hit other logistic support areas at this time.

Sorry about the mess-up on that, Dan.

Q: No problem. Thanks.

STAFF: All right, we'll go to David Martin, CBS.

Q: Could you give your latest assessment on the two opposing sides' ability to sustain operations? Are the -- you hear absolutely conflicting opinions that the Russians can only keep this up for a couple more months or that the Russians can keep this up forever. What is -- what was the assessment from the Pentagon?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, sure. The -- first of all I would tell you -- I mean, if you just look on paper -- if you just look on paper, the Russians certainly have an advantage that relates to munitions systems and likely total numbers of troops that they can put on the field.

What's much harder to gain an understanding of is the will of the Ukrainian fighter. And I think, you know, and I know you all have reported on this extensively as well, but if you go back to the very beginnings the Ukrainian fighter has demonstrated an ability to win in a level of adversity that is just surprising in many cases.

With that in mind, I'd be hazard to give you any kind of timetable associated with either sides' ability to press, and just because I think it has surprised the world time and time again.

I do know this: The Russians can stop any time they want. The Russians are the ones that instigated this. The Russians are the one that attacked a sovereign nation. And so, at any time they could opt to stop and head back. I imagine that, you know, that won't necessarily be the exact thing we see, but that's certainly their possibility.

Q: Let me ask you more specifically then with Severodonetsk. Are they going to be able to exploit that or do they now have to stop and regroup?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That's a great question.

I think -- you know, so they certainly wanted Severodonetsk. What's -- you know, from a military perspective, what I would tell you is the small number of Ukrainians that held the Russians at Severodonetsk for as long as they did is really something I think we'll probably all study in the future.

And when they chose to leave Severodonetsk, they chose to do it of their own accord, and to give that up in order to move to better-prepared locations for the continuing of that defense. And so, again, I'm telling you I think we'll end up studying that in our army in years to come. I think they're going to do that throughout that portion of the battlespace or the battlefield.

You know, if you look at that spot, it's not very big. And what I mean by that is the area that the Russians and the Ukrainians are fighting over right now and that the Russians are losing a large number of people to gain, the Ukrainians are making them pay for a very small piece of ground.

In most cases, the Ukrainians are leaving those locations of their accord, not necessarily because the Russians have made them do but because they are choosing to move to positions of greater advantage. And the cost is pretty significant for the Russians. I think we'll see that continue.

It is important, though, when you look at the map to realize the size of that general area is not huge. I think and this is -- I haven't put this on a map, but I think the entire area we're talking about is something like from D.C. to Fairfax for those who live in this area. So not very big.

The way it's being described in some circles you would think that it was here to Richmond or here to Norfolk, but that's not the case. And again, the Ukrainians are holding that at pretty extensive cost for the Russians.

STAFF: All right, we'll go to Idrees with Reuters.

Q: Can I just try that question once more? So there was basically a Washington Post story over the weekend citing Western intelligence, saying that Russia would exhaust its combat capabilities and be forced to stop its offensive in the east. Do you have any intel product that says their combat capabilities are near to being exhausted and they'll have to stop their offensive?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have those particulars to be able to talk to any real knowledge here. I'm sorry.

Q: That works. Thank you.

STAFF: All right, we'll go to Jack Detsch, F.P.

Q: Sort of on a similar line, U.K. intelligence this morning said that Russia's likely to start leaning more heavily on reserve forces, echelons of reserve forces in the Donbas. Just wondering if you've seen sort of any mobilization of those sorts of forces perhaps from the army combat reserves or from other echelons of Russian forces.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I know that the Russians have employed reserves over the last month or so. The fact that the Russians are talking about reserves speaks to the impact the Ukrainians are taking on the Russian army. And again, going back to our earlier discussion about, you know, initial indications about how the Russians might perform or the Ukrainians might do so, the fact that there continue to be reports and conversations about Russians using reserve speaks to the impact that the Ukrainians are having against their army.

STAFF: All right, we'll go to Mike Glenn.

Q: Yes. Thank you (SDO).

With the high number of combat casualties, there have been some reports that the Russians are really having to scrape the bottom of the barrel for their senior leadership, including calling up retired officers back to the active duty. I'm wondering if can you all confirm that they're really digging for senior leaders because of all the casualties they've suffered.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know, I think I've seen some of the same open press you have. I have not seen any particulars in our circles here, but I've seen the same open-source reports.

You know, given the way and per my earlier comments about general officers being replaced, it would make sense that they will start to run shy of senior leaders. And so, I think there's probably some veracity to those reports. I just don't have any particular evidence myself.

Q: Okay, thanks.

STAFF: All right, we'll got to Nick, PBS, Nick Schifrin.

Q: Thanks, (SDO). Thank you very much.

Can we go back to Severodonetsk and Lysychansk a little bit? I know you're trying to describe the physical area that it is, but as you know politically Severodonetsk became important because Russian separatists seized the administrative capital of Luhansk and Severodonetsk became Ukrainian-held, essentially, political capital of the Oblast. So can you talk about the significance of the fall of Severodonetsk from a little bit more strategic perspective, and the risk to Lysychansk that is posed today?

And then I know Lita asked about NASAMS. I know, even if you don't want to specify the platform, could you just talk about the requests that Ukraine is asking for when it comes air defense? Can you talk about what you understand the air defense requirement is today, and in general, how the U.S. is trying to help that?

Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure, Nick. I appreciate the question.

I should probably clarify the criticality of ground. If I'm a Ukrainian, every foot of Ukrainian soil I give up is pretty important to me. And so I don't want to -- I don't want to underestimate the impact of losing ground to the Ukrainians. I think, you know, similarly to Mariupol, I think there was a great deal of symbolism in Severodonetsk for many of the reasons you just stated.

I think it's also important -- and I'm not, you know, wearing a Ukrainian uniform or a member of the Ukrainian government certainly, but I think what you'll be able to see is the Ukrainians kind of rally around the fight that they gave the Russians in Severodonetsk. And so although they gave up ground, I think they did so by extracting a pretty significant cost against the Russians. The fact that, you know, in the end, several hundred Ukrainians continue to hold off the Russian Army in that part of the world in a -- a pretty significant fight. It speaks again to the veracity -- or not the veracity, but the tenacity of the Ukrainian soldier and their leadership.

The -- back to the air defense question, the Ukrainians have asked for additional air support -- defense support. I know that the Ukrainians are looking for air defense in all sorts of ways, so -- from helicopters and airplanes, as well as missiles. And so we are working with the Ukrainians through all of our sources and with our partners and allies to provide them with the systems that they ask for that get after those needs.

STAFF: All right, we will -- we'll move down to Barbara Starr from CNN.

Q: I want to come back one more time, and I think it will show kind of why so many of us are so interested in this question about the U.S. calculation, assessment -- whatever you want -- can call it, about how much, how long you think the Russian military can keep this up. While the Ukrainians may show tenacity and the Russians may only show some tactical gains, at some point, they are keeping up and the missile strikes in Kyiv might have shown that -- quite an effort. So I just want to try it again. Is there anything -- do you have an estimate? If you don't have an estimate, that's pretty interesting. But do you have any estimate at this point of how long you can -- you think the Russians can keep it at the current pace?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks, Ms. Starr. I appreciate the question.

You know, I quite honestly -- and I really mean this -- I just could not give you a timeline. And you know, so let me just speak as an (edited) who spent a lot of time studying the Russians and -- and talking about, you know, ways that the Russians might employ force. You know, I think like many, we did not see what would happen at the beginning as what happened. Now certainly, the Russians have changed the way they're doing business, and the Russians have learned from their earlier fight, and they have turned, and they are using their, you know, their -- as an example, they're using artillery and missiles in a way that they certainly have, you know, an advantage.

But again, if you just look at the cost that the Russians are incurring while using those assets, it's impossible for me to give you a particular timeline. I -- and I know that's not satisfying. I'm just going to -- I'm going to stay with that right now.

Q: Well, I mean, I totally understand what you're saying. I just want to make sure I really do understand. Is it true that the U.S. has no timeline for all the reasons you just stated? Then I have one very quick follow up. Is there no timeline?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I think, ma'am, I think -- listen, we're we're doing the same thing that a lot of folks are, and we're trying to analyze, you know, the Russian abilities and the Ukrainian abilities, and we certainly are working with the Ukrainians to enhance those abilities, our partners and allies, as you know, through training and other security assistance. Those things certainly change the game, and we're seeing that the Ukrainians have asked for additional capability to continue to go toe-to-toe with -- with the Russians. But I think (inaudible) --

Q: Okay, can I ask a question?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure.

Q: Two quick. So I'm sure you saw Putin has put something out that he wants to offer Belarus missiles with nuclear capability. I'm wondering -- and of course, this could be way down the road. I totally get that. But I'm just wondering if again, another, you know, quasi-nuclear threat from him causes you and your folks to reassess in any way the security picture, to look at it. Do you have concerns about what he said? Is there anything you can tell us?

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, Ms. Starr.

I think -- I mean, certainly, anytime anybody uses the word "nuclear" you -- you have concerns. Quite honestly, it seems pretty irresponsible of a national leader to talk about the employment of nuclear weapons and to do so in a generally cavalier fashion.

In terms of my concerns, other than the fact that, you know, they talk about, you know, just -- again, I mean, the way that that statement read from Putin was, "Hey, we're going to give them Iskanders, you know, and oh, by the way, they can hold nuclear weapons."  And you know, I -- everybody takes that very seriously when you use that language. So we are certainly taking that seriously, and have taken that threat seriously from the very beginning. And as you know, our strategic forces are always monitoring things in that regard. So anyway, I'll leave it at that. I would just say again, I can't think of a more irresponsible thing for a senior leader to say than to talk about the employment of nuclear weapons in this case.

STAFF: All right, we'll move on to Tara Copp, Defense One.

Q: Hi, (SDO). Thank you so much for doing this.

I was wondering if you could characterize the cruise missile threat. Have you seen an increased use of Russian cruise missiles of late? And I know you all are not recording anymore numbers of strikes, but can you give us a sense of what types of munitions they are leaning on the most, and whether you see it as an escalation of launches or lower?

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The one thing I could probably tell you, Tara, is the last -- over the weekend that was a larger number of strikes than we have seen in previous weeks. But it -- again, and I can't tell you why that is, but we did see a larger number of strikes than we have in sometime.

The particulars of the types of munitions used, I think it'd probably be better to ask the Ukrainians at. But if we can get that and provide that data, I'll certainly see that the group works that to you.

Q: Okay, thank you.

And do you see any indications that they're having any sort of new or additional supply issues with their precision guided munitions, the Russians that is?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, Ms. Copp, I don't -- I can't really answer that question. I -- we'll see if we can follow-up with you after this.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: All right, Liz with Fox.

Q: Hey, thanks for taking my question.

I was wondering if you could get a little more specific with this second round of training on the HIMARS, how many Ukrainians will be trained on it and how many U.S. servicemen and -women are conducting the training.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, sure.

So the first thing I'd tell you is -- and this is just some personal commentary, but having been there for some of the Ukrainian training, I would tell you they're a pretty remarkable bunch. And what I mean by that is they -- their ability to really jump into things and really, you know, just learn is -- is pretty extraordinary.

So in this case for the HIMARS training, you know, a couple weeks. And it trains -- you know in the -- just over 50 plus people for the employment, it trains all different levels of people. So we have leaders as well as folks who will work directly on the system.

And people that are training them are, as you would imagine, experts in that -- in that craft. So field artillerymen and -women who are -- who are really -- and I would tell you this too -- who talk about feeling like they're making a contribution. When you talk to these men and women out there who get the chance to train our Ukrainian partners, that is a -- a real -- in terms of buoying spirit, it's a pretty big deal.

I'm not sure I answered any of your question very well there, Liz, but I'll hold there.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: All right, we'll go to Courtney with NBC.

Q: I'm sorry; I lost the call for a minute, so I apologize. Could you just -- what you were just saying to Tara about the more Russian strikes can you say that one more time. Are you saying that the Russians conducted more strikes last week than they had in recent weeks? What specifically were they using?

Are you talking missiles? Are you talking everything? And did you provide any numbers. I'm so sorry to everyone. I'm -- I lost the call for a minute.

Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I didn't give particulars, but I did say that there were missiles fired over the last week than we had seen in recent weeks. I can't explain why per my opening comment. You know we -- it could be related to the G7. Certainly could be related to the Ukrainian movement of HIMARS in the theater or it could be a larger portion of their long-term battle strategy here. I'm just not sure.

But it was more strikes over the last week than we had seen in recent weeks.

Q: And you can't provide any numbers to us, even a ballpark if -- of how many or the types of or where they're firing from or anymore specificity?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- well, what I mentioned to Tara was I don't have that data with me but if we can provide that back we'll get that down to you.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: All right, we'll go to Mike Brest.

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question.

To go back to Liz's question, I'm wondering what other trainings are currently ongoing for the Ukrainians, what weapons and when they will conclude.

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, Mike. Good question. So as you know, we're conducting training out of Ukraine and Germany and England. And so, we've got everything from maintenance courses that we're running, continuing to train on the employment of artillery systems, both HIMARS and howitzer. We're working on Excalibur employment, and that's our big stuff. But there's a lot of maintenance stuff going on as you would imagine. The systems that are being employed the Ukrainians want to keep them going. And so, we're spending a bunch of time on maintenance as well. I hope that's helpful.

Q: That is. How many people do you think have been trained in totality so far?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Great question, and I'm not going to -- I'll tell you what, I'd be doing really horrible math on one of my charts here for you. How about we come -- we'll circle back and give you an indication as to how many we've trained up to this point.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes, sir.

STAFF: All right, folks. That's our 30-minute hard stop. Thank you guys very much for dialing in. Appreciate your time today. We're out here. Have a good one.