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Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold a Background Briefing

STAFF: Hey, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, Brigadier General Pat Ryder here, DoD Press Secretary. Thank you for joining us for today's background briefing on Ukraine. Joining us today are [omitted], who may be attributed to as "a senior defense official," and [omitted], who may be attributed as "a senior military official."

Again, today's briefing is on background. We'll take as many questions as we're able in the time we have allotted for today.

And with that, let me turn it over to our senior defense official.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Hello, good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be with you again, and look forward to your questions.

What I thought I'd do at the front end is just give a bit of context on a piece of news from the Kremlin from late last week. This was President Putin's order to increase the size of the Russian Armed Forces by 137,000 effective January of 2023. The way that the Kremlin framed the announcement, they said it would increase the size of the Russian military to 1.15 million.

I wanted to share with you our perspective that this effort is unlikely to succeed, as Russia has historically not met personnel end strength targets. And in fact, if you look at the Russian Armed Forces prior to the invasion, they may have already been 150,000 personnel short of their million-personnel goal. So this is, again, prior to the invasion in February. Also prior to the invasion, roughly a quarter of the personnel were conscripts, and the remainder were professional soldiers. So far, we've seen Moscow has been trying to use largely professional soldiers, as opposed to conscripts, in the Ukraine conflict.

Just one other point to add: Russia has already begun trying to expand recruitment efforts to staff at least one volunteer battalion per federal district, and to raise a new third Army corps. They've done this in part by eliminating the upper age limit for new recruits, and also by recruiting of prisoners. Many of these new recruits have been observed as older, unfit and ill-trained. So what this all suggests to us is that any additional personnel Russia is able to muster by the end of the year may not, in fact, increase overall Russian (inaudible).

[Crosstalk]

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You heard almost the whole thing, that -- that this suggests that any additional personnel that Russia actually can muster by the end of the year, in fact, may not increase overall Russian combat power. And hopefully, you heard all of the rest of what I said. But I just wanted to provide that additional context before we go to questions.

STAFF: Okay. Let me turn it over to our senior military official.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. [omitted] 

But anyways, listen, day 187 of Russia's illegal and unprovoked large-scale invasion of Ukraine, so we're past the six-month mark now. Really quick battlefield tour here, because I know you're interested in answering questions. I -- first of all, you know, significant open-source reporting referenced activity in southern Ukraine. I'm going to give you the same answer when you ask me a question, but the bottom line is I'm going to refer you to the Ukrainians, and the Ukrainians are able to talk in much greater detail about it. But I know you're hearing those bits of information, as well.

I would point you to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who estimates -- or that estimates that over 500 civilians have been killed in just over the past two weeks. That number's probably harder -- or higher. I know you -- everyone reported last week on the attack on the train station in Chaplyne and, you know, another example of generally indiscriminate target on behalf of the Russians.

So in terms of the battlefield, quite honestly, there've been no major geographic shifts since the last time I talked to you, which was about three weeks ago, quite honestly. So some minor adjustments around the battlespace and vicinity of Kharkiv. We know that the Russians, again, are firing into the city, have fired into the city, some airstrikes over the weekend that went into Kharkiv proper, but no major adjustments of the fore line of troops in that particular part of the battlespace

Same thing around Siversk to Bakhmut. Although I know a number of you reported the Russians have made some initial gains or made some small gains in the vicinity of Bakhmut, some of those have gone back and forth, but again, no major adjustments.

Heavy artillery and airstrikes in Donetsk. In Zaporizhzhia -- and I know we'll talk a bunch about Zaporizhzhia today -- you know, we know that there are airstrikes and artillery bombardment that have gone on around the nuclear power plant.

We also know with great confidence that the Russians are firing from the area around the nuclear power plant, and as many of you all have reported, using the nuclear power plant to store a bunch of their equipment. And so, you know, certainly not helpful in the entire process.

In the vicinity of Kherson, again, an uptick in kinetic activity over the past few days, including artillery and rockets, and as I mentioned to you before, I don't have particulars on whether or not an offensive has begun down in Kherson, but we have seen an uptick of fighting in that portion of the battlespace

In the Black Sea, about a half dozen ships remain underway, a good portion of them (inaudible) capable, and then continued air -- in the air, we see that the air remains contested in Ukraine. So Russian forces continue to use airstrikes primarily in the south and the east.

As Dr. Kahl briefed last week, the Ukrainians have been very successful in employing their assets as well. And then we continue to train Ukrainians out of the country.

And so I'll hold there and look forward to answering your questions with – [omitted].

STAFF: Thanks very much, sir.

All right, let's go to Lita Baldor, Associated Press.

Q: Hi. Thanks for this.

I'm wondering if -- [omitted], I know you can't give us any apparent details on this counteroffensive. You said there's been an uptick in fighting. Can you give us a sense how big of an uptick and is this fighting from both sides? Give us any sense of that you can.

And then one quick question for [omitted]. You talked about Russia using prisoners -- I -- I -- recruiting prisoners sounds like an oxymoron. That would -- it -- it would sound to me like they -- are they just drafting prisoners and sending them to the front or can you explain that a little?

Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Okay, Lita, thank you.

So over the weekend, we saw a larger number of artillery fires primarily coming from the Ukrainians. And so, you know, I say "larger" I wouldn't -- I wouldn't exaggerate that but it's an increased amount of artillery that we've seen coming from the Ukrainians.

And then they have -- as you all know, for the past couple of weeks, they have been making some small advances in and around the Kherson pocket for a while. So I don't want to mislead you here and tell you that I don't think the offensive is underway. I -- I would just -- I'd refer you to the Ukrainians right now because we have seen some offensive action in that area for the past couple weeks.

And I'll pass it over to [omitted].

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks.

I -- I agree with you that the term "recruiting" sounds like a bit of a -- a misnomer. That is the term that I've seen used, in terms of the Russian -- Russians “recruiting” prisoners to try to fill out these increasingly thin ranks.

I don't have insight into kind of the person-to-person level discussions that -- that occur when these individuals are brought out of prison and onto the battlefield. So no specifics on that.

STAFF: Thank you.

Let's go to Tom Bowman, NPR.

Q: Yeah, for the senior military official, so you say you really can't give us any particulars on this offensive. You see an uptick in fighting. You say go to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians are saying this is a significant counteroffensive. So clearly, you're not willing to go that far, correct?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Tom, I’m just saying, I think the Ukrainians have a better way of telling you what they're doing than we do. I mean, even in the best case, you know, I'm getting my reporting from the Ukrainians. So --

Q: Well, are they telling you that it's a significant counteroffensive? Because that's kind of what they're saying publicly. Are you getting the same thing? And if -- if that's the case, why can't you tell us it's a -- a counteroffensive?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Well, I just don't -- I mean, listen, are they on the offensive? I think they are. Is this a counteroffensive? I don't know. And the reason I tell you that is because, as I said, over the past couple of weeks, we've seen them making some offensive moves in and around the Kherson pocket.

So listen, I'm -- you know, like you, I would love to have perfect information here. I think we'll get some more information over the course of the next 24 to 36 hours.

Q: Yeah, but again, it's frustrating for us because they're saying it's a big counteroffensive and what we hear -- see -- hear from you guys is, like, an uptick in fighting. Those two don't match, you see?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: No, I'm with you, Tom.

Q: Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- and -- and one last thing -- Mykolaiv, what are you seeing around there?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Nothing that would cause me to talk about it, I guess, Tom. I'm not tracking anything in excess going on in Mykolaiv.

Q: Yeah, yeah. Okay, thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah.

STAFF: All right, let's go to Jack Detsch, FP.

Q: Thanks for doing this.

[Omitted], I had -- I had a quick one. Does -- does the U.S. or do you have any sense of the force ratios in -- in Kherson? Does -- does Ukraine have better numbers than they had in the Donbas, vis-a-vis the Russians? And also, just wondering if you've seen any impact on the Russian forces in terms of attrition from -- from the attacks that the Ukrainians seem to have affected on Russian supply lines?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: I think those are great questions. I think, first of all, we have seen the ratios between the Ukrainians and the Russians are in much better number, in -- in terms of equality or parity in the south, than they were initially up along the -- the eastern portion of the battlespace.

And again, without knowing all the particulars of what the Ukrainians are doing, I've got to believe they -- you know, they are students in military doctrine, and so they understand that conducting an attack takes a greater number of forces than if you were on the defense. So I think they probably have worked to adjust their numbers.

The gosh, I'm -- I'm sorry. The last part of your question, do you mind repeating that part?

Q: Yeah, just if -- if the -- the attacks on Russian supply lines, including into Crimea, have had any impact on -- had attrition -- attrited the Russian forces or impacted their -- their ability to resupply the south?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, so you all have reported really well on -- on what the Ukrainians have been doing to the supply lines. You know, they have -- not unlike the -- the rest of the fighting along the -- the battlespace, they have been employing their HIMARS to great effect, some of that on lines of communication. I know you've reported on how they've struck a number of bridges.

And so I think they've probably certainly had an effect on the Russians' ability to move north or south or east or west, however you want to look at it, across the Dnieper River, but -- and then we've seen, again -- and I get some of my best reporting from you all -- we've seen a -- a good number of reports talking about the morale of the Russian soldier on that side, you know, in -- in the Kherson pocket.

In fact, you know, the Washington Post diary articles this past week -- and I know those are a little dated, but if you take the diaries written, you know, several months ago of a Russian soldier and you -- you take those at face value in Kherson, in that area, I mean, morale then was miserable. So now imagine you're a Russian soldier and, you know, a couple months into it and you've been getting hit pretty hard by artillery and -- and HIMARS employed by now the -- as we mentioned, the Ukrainians added capabilities associated with their air campaign. They are becoming more and more efficient and effective. And so add that to already bad morale and bad troop numbers, as [omitted] was kind of mentioning earlier, and I've got to think that -- that the Ukrainians have seen that as well and are working to take advantage of it.

STAFF: Let's go to Barb Starr, CNN.

Barbara, are you there?

Q: Yes. Thank you.

Can you -- can you tell us if there is any U.S. role in helping keep the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant safe as it gets compromised? That's not a hypothetical question. I want to know if there is any U.S. role regarding that plant? And, secondly, can you tell us -- there are reports that U.S. officials believe U.S. weapon stocks in some cases are now quote "uncomfortably low." As [omitted], I can only imagine you have some detailed insight to the state of U.S. weapon stocks. What is that right now? Are weapon stocks for the U.S. low and in what instances is that happening?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Barbara, I'll answer the last question there, and then I'll pass it back to [omitted] on the nuclear power plant piece.

So to the first, the short answer to your question is no. You know, every time -- every time we work one of these directives, we -- as you would expect and hope, we take our readiness into account before we make a decision. And so I can assure you that a number of those questions are number one, do we have the ability to execute operations ourselves if it were ever to come to that? And number two, do we have the requisite equipment and munitions available to continue to train ourselves at a high state of readiness? And in both those cases we're able to provide what we have provided and still maintain our readiness as military force.

And I will pass it over to [omitted].

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. Barbara, the focus for us on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is on urging Russia to vacate the power plant and allow the Ukrainians to operate it in peace. So our focus is on pressing the Russians to cease military operations in the area. In terms of the actual functioning of the plant, we're very intent on ensuring that the IAEA can send its team into the plant and ensure the safety of those plant operations. We know that those Ukrainian plant operators are doing the best they can under very trying circumstances. And we've seen reports of how the Russians have been pressuring them and harassing them and we applaud their efforts to maintain that safety. But we really need IAEA to be granted access.

We believe that the safest outcome would be a controlled shutdown of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant reactors, that this would be the least risky course of action in the near term. That said, we also have U.S. scientists that are monitoring radiation sensor data at the power plant and we have seen no indications of increased or abnormal radiation levels so far.

Q: If I can briefly follow up, you said, I believe, that, saying we, are intent on making sure the IAEA team can safely get in and do its work. By saying we, do you mean that the Defense Department is playing a role in assuring this? And can you say what that role is?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I was referring to the U.S. government as a whole. My State Department and Department of Energy colleagues have the lead on this and they are the ones who are in close dialogue with the IAEA and with the Ukrainians on the functioning of this power plant.

Q: Are U.S. military assets being used to monitor the radiation levels?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Not to my knowledge. This -- the information that I'm sharing with you is from my State Department and Department of Energy colleagues.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you.

Let's go to Phil Stewart, Reuters.

Q: Hey there.

Moving just for a moment to Iraq, could you give us a sense of any U.S. role in assisting the government in Baghdad or assisting in efforts to secure -- better secure U.S. forces in the country or even in Syria in the wake of all this unrest that's going on? And what are your -- what are your concerns? What's being done? You know, Reuters is reporting sustained machine gun fire in central Baghdad right now. And there's lots of images out there.

And I also had a question about the -- the NS -- the White House has already said that there's no evacuation underway. There's a lot of skepticism on social media about that, citing helicopter movement and other movement. Could you give us a sense of whether there's any kind of U.S. military assistance or any U.S. movement, you know, internal to Iraq now? 

Thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So, I'll take the last one first. First of all, if we were conducting evacuation, I promise I wouldn't be able to be on the line with you right now. We'd be completely inundated with an evacuation. That is not the case.

And so, I don't know where a bunch of that reporting is coming from, but the embassy -- I am certainly aware of ongoing protests in and around the green zone and, as you know, have been going on more or less for the past several weeks. But, there is no change to our status in the embassy.

And in terms of the first question, and I'll just kind of connect the two a little bit, you know, we spend a great deal of time ensuring that we're taking care of Americans overseas. And we have ample security at the embassy in Baghdad to ensure that. And then I would just tell you largely across Iraq and Syria that remains the case.

Certainly, the strikes that occurred last week, a response to continued aggression by Iranian militia groups -- Iranian-backed militia groups from Syria. And I think enough has been said on that. But again, we're taking every effort, we’re making every effort to ensure the safety of our people.

STAFF: All right, let's go to Lara Seligman with Politico.

Q: Hi, thanks so much for doing this, [omitted].

Is -- I wanted to know, is there anything you can tell us that's not open source about what's going on in Kherson right now? I appreciate having these briefings, but since we are on background, it would be helpful to get a little bit more information. And along those lines, my question is, can you confirm that Ukraine has breached Russia's first lines of defense outside Kherson as they've said?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So Lara, I know we're on background. That doesn't mean I'm going to give you any classified information. So, you know, and I'm very serious -- I am happy to provide information that's not classified.

And I would tell you we are in -- you know, we are in contact with our Ukrainian counterparts. The Ukrainians have told us what you're seeing in open source media, that they have started an offensive of some sort. We just don't know the level of that.

I don't -- I certainly don't know if they have penetrated the first lines of defense of the Russians, but as I mentioned earlier to Tom, I think in the next 24 to 36 hours, we'll all have a much greater understanding of the level of this offensive -- or these offensive actions vice some in the past several weeks.

Q: And just to follow up, maybe you could answer this -- have you seen Russia begin repositioning any more of its forces from the east to the south, in anticipation of this offensive?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: We have not.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Great. We've got time for just a couple more. We'll go to Heather at USNI.

Q: Hi, thank you so much. I was just wondering if you can confirm that we are seeing the largest naval buildup in Europe right now? And if so, what message is the U.S. trying to send with that?

STAFF: We're going to have to get back to you on that one, Heather. I know -- I know you had asked that question last week and I -- I know we're putting together a -- a response for you on that.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Thank you. All right, let's go to Mike at Washington Times.

Q: Yeah, thanks. My question was already asked and answered, so I pass.

STAFF: Okay, thank you -- thank you. Tony from Bloomberg?

Q: Hi, this is for the Senior Defense Official. We've been inundated over the last few weeks with lists of committed U.S. equipment to Ukraine. Senior Defense Official, can you walk us through what's actually been delivered, by way of the HIMARS, Switchblades, Phoenix Ghosts, actually delivered versus committed?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, Tony, this is a great question, but to get to that level of detail, I just don't have it all in front of me. I would say that with -- you know, with the items in general, when they're coming via drawdown -- presidential drawdown -- so that pertains to the HIMARS, to the GMLRS, the ammunition -- most of the ammunition, I should say -- those are arriving very quickly, so really within days and weeks. And, you know, from all of our prior drawdown packages, it's very expeditious.

The items that we are contracting for do take longer because we're going out to industry to procure them. The Phoenix Ghost capability that you mentioned, I know that was a topic of interest before, and we did have -- we've provided Phoenix Ghosts last spring and we decided earlier this summer to provide another Phoenix Ghost contract, which we announced under USAI.

I can confirm for you that under that new contract, we have already delivered the first batch of capabilities. That, I just happened to know off the top of my head because it occurred quite recently. And as you may recall, for Phoenix Ghost in particular, we're going to be able to continue providing regular intervals of deliveries to ensure that the Ukrainians don't run out of Phoenix Ghosts in particular.

But I don't have a rundown on all those capabilities but we can try to follow up.

Q: -- may I -- may I ask one follow up? Friday night, the Pentagon dropped the first NASAMS contract to Raytheon for $184 million. It said this contract is estimated to take two years to complete, August of 2024. May I ask -- realizing you're not the acquisition authority but why two years for something that seems as so urgent?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So the USAI package that pertains to the NASAMS that will take, you know, up to a couple of years is a package that is designed to build the enduring strength of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

So we do know that, you know, we have to go out to industry and industry has to sometimes produce new capabilities, and that is what that package pertains to. I would have to defer to my acquisition colleagues to get into the -- the specific details.

But I will tell you that in terms of air defense writ large, we had an earlier contract for NASAMS, which should be arriving really within the next couple of months here, and that was for more immediate use by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, with capability that we could quickly procure.

Q: Is that from Norway these are coming from, those units?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: This -- again, we're procuring from industry. I don't have more specific detail on that.

Q: Okay, thank you -- thank you.

STAFF: Do one more question and then I'll have to conclude our time. Ethan from Sputnik?

Q: Yes, thank you for taking all of our questions today. Quickly, at the top, have there been any recent communications between the U.S. and Russia on the Syria deconfliction line, given the increase in military activity there as of late?

And second, White House Strategic Communications Coordinator Kirby said earlier today that the U.S. doesn't have a way of accounting for the number of shells fired around the Zaporizhzhia plant. I was wondering if you could give some clarity on that, what sort of visibility the U.S. actually has, and if they've specifically asked Ukraine privately not to shell that area? Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, hey, Ethan. It -- listen, on the Syria piece, we routinely communicate with the Russians in Syria. So that has not changed. We continue -- it's in both our best interests we continue to do that.

And then I'm sorry to ask you to repeat the last part of your question. Would you mind repeating the second question?

Q: Yes, no problem. White House Strategic Communications Coordinator Kirby said earlier today that the U.S. does not have a way of -- of accounting the number of shells -- artillery shells fired around the Zaporizhzhia plant in Ukraine. I was wondering if you could give clarity on exactly what level of visibility the U.S. has on the military activity around the plant and which side is shelling at any given moment?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, I -- so what I know for sure is that the -- the Russians are firing from around the plant and, you know, I also know that there are rounds that have impacted near the plant. You know, the way that we're tracking the forces around the nuclear power plant -- it's not like there's a -- a constant -- it's hard to explain, I guess. It's not like there are forces in every square inch of the area around the plant. And so we also know that the Russians have fired in the vicinity of the plant.

And I don't want to say that the Ukrainians haven't fired in that vicinity either because I think there's probably a likelihood that they have, but in good -- in a number of cases, it's returning fire of the Russians who are firing from those locations.

I mean, I guess the easy thing to say here too would be, you know, the Ukrainians are very aware of the potential impacts of striking the nuclear power plant and they're going out of their way not to do that. And they have had conversations with us about that too, that they are very aware of the criticality of that nuclear power plant.

Q: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

STAFF: That's all the time we have for today. Again, a reminder, this is on background. And we will -- took a couple of questions, we'll get back to you on those.

Everyone have a great day.