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Senior Defense Official and Senior Military Official Hold a Background Briefing

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thanks very much for joining us. Today's background briefers will include [REDACTED] and me, [REDACTED]. For attribution, please refer to [REDACTED] as "a senior defense official," and to me as "a senior military official".

And with that, I will turn it over to the senior defense official for opening remarks, and then we'll take your questions.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Great, good afternoon. Today, we are continuing to see widespread and brutal Russian attacks targeting Ukraine's critical infrastructure. Ukraine has been able to defend against some of these attacks, but damage to the electric grid and water supply are serious concerns directly harming the civilian population. Air defense capabilities continue to be a U.S. priority, and we are working actively with partner nations to improve Ukraine's defenses.

Before I get to questions, I'd like to highlight two things this afternoon. First, I'll just touch on highlights from the department's most recent security assistance package released on Friday, and then I wanted to take this opportunity to describe in a bit of depth the proactive steps that the Department of Defense is taking to prevent the illicit diversion of U.S.-provided weapons following the release of a U.S. government plan on this topic last week.

So first, briefly on security assistance, on Friday, the department announced the 24th drawdown of equipment from DOD inventories for Ukraine since August of 2021, a package of security assistance valued at up to $275 million.

Five capabilities from this package: First, additional ammunition for HIMARS, which the Ukrainians continue to employ in ways that are changing the dynamics on the battlefield, disrupting Russian forces behind the front lines and creating opportunities for Ukrainian forces to maneuver; second, 500 precision-guided 155-millimeter artillery rounds, which enable Ukraine to counter Russian threats at a distance and with high accuracy; third, more than 1,300 anti-armor systems, capabilities that are a continuing need for Ukrainian forces to counter Russian armor. Anti-armor capabilities included in this package include the shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon, or SMAWs, and AT4s; and then fourth, 125 Humvees. These are versatile vehicles that can conduct multiple missions, and at this point, we have now committed several hundred Humvees to Ukraine, and they have an outstanding capability to maintain these vehicles; and then last, four satellite communications antennas, which enhance Ukraine's ability to access a number of existing commercial satellite communication capabilities over Europe. These will support services like broadband access and provide robust communications to Ukraine's fielded forces.

Now I'd like to turn attention to this question of how we are preventing the diversion of U.S.-provided weapons to Ukraine. As we continue to provide security assistance packages at a steady rate, I want to emphasize that the department has not seen credible evidence of the diversion of U.S.-provided weapons. Instead, we see Ukraine's frontline units effectively employing security assistance every day on the battlefield. Nonetheless, we are keenly aware of the possible risk of illicit diversion and are proactively taking all available steps to prevent this from happening.

Last week, my colleagues at the State Department released the U.S. plan to counter illicit diversion of certain advanced conventional weapons in Eastern Europe. DOD fully supports this plan, and is taking an active role as a key implementer. Ensuring accountability of advanced weapons donations is a top priority, and over the past several months we've taken significant steps to adapt our accountability practices in support.

As a matter of policy, we conduct a rigorous risk analysis as part of our security assistance package development process, and we consider a number of factors prior to approval. These include the risk of diversion, whether a recipient can adequately secure U.S.-origin material and if the equipment is too sensitive to transfer.

Secretary Austin has repeatedly discussed DOD's emphasis on this with his Ukrainian counterpart, and the Ukrainian government has committed to appropriately safeguard and account for U.S.-origin defense equipment. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have also agreed to support U.S. end-use monitoring efforts, and they have assigned dedicated personnel to support these efforts. Though our ability to execute normal monitoring procedures remains impacted by security conditions, under these circumstances we are both working with Ukraine to adapt our processes in country and we're engaging our allies and partners to strengthen external controls as well, and I just want to touch on these two things before handing it off again.

So inside of Ukraine, DOD conducts enhanced end-use monitoring along four lines of effort. First, we make comprehensive records of U.S. weapons donations at our distribution nodes immediately prior to transfer to Ukraine.

Second, once in country, Ukraine logs and tracks Ukraine security assistance from the border logistics hubs to the front line. Ukraine also provides expenditure and damage reports to capture losses. To support Ukraine's ability to report in the current combat environment, we're also developing new and innovative ways to improve data collection and management. Ukraine continues to provide information transparently and openly.

Third, DOD is conducting hands-on training with the Ukrainian Armed Forces on U.S. best practices so they can provide better data, for example, from sites close to the front lines that U.S. personnel cannot visit.

And then fourth, to verify this data, U.S. personnel have recently resumed on-site inspections to assess weapon stocks in country whenever and wherever the security conditions allow. The return of our defense attaché and Office of Defense Cooperation personnel in country has allowed us to resume this critical function.

And then lastly, external to Ukraine, the United States is working with our allies and key partners to secure borders and build law enforcement capacity to prevent illicit diversion across the region. DOD continues to highlight the importance of accountability in our foreign engagements, and we also conduct training for regional partners.

Secretary Austin made transparency and accountability a key focus at the last Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting in Brussels on October 12th. These are all meaningful steps to adapt our processes for the current combat environment. We'll continue to work with our colleagues across the U.S. government and with our international partners to ensure accountability of security assistance now and in the future. Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you very much, ma'am.

And ladies and gentlemen, I'll just provide a quick overview of the situation on the ground in Ukraine as senior defense official highlighted, Russia continues to conduct missile strikes against Ukraine in -- Ukraine's infrastructure to include their power grid, which has caused widespread power outages.

In the Kharkiv region, we assess that Ukrainian forces have liberated some additional villages as they continue to press toward the east, with heavy fighting and artillery strikes in the vicinity of Svatove and Kreminna, as -- and has -- has been the case, Russian forces in this area are focused on reinforcing their defensive lines.

Near Bakhmut, no major updates to provide. We do continue to see heavy fighting as Russian forces attempt to pursue offensive operations.

Meanwhile, in the Kherson region, we continue to see deliberate and calibrated operations by Ukrainian forces as they press Russian forces along the three main axes we've previously described. We assess that the Russians in this area continue to reinforce their defensive lines as well.

Finally, we're tracking the reports and Russian statements regarding an alleged attack against Russian Navy vessels in Sevastopol. We do assess that there were explosions there but I'm not going to have a damage assessment to share nor am I going to have any further information to provide in terms of what may have caused these explosions.

And with that, we're happy to take your questions. We'll start with Lita Baldor, AP.

Q: Hi, thank you. One quick follow up on the Defense Official's comments and then a second question. You talked about U.S. doing on-site inspections when and where security allows. Can you expand on that a little bit? Are they able -- is (the DAB ?) and that team able to get close to the front lines? Can you do -- give us a more detailed sense of that? And then secondarily, if there's -- you don't have any more -- I gather from your comments you don't have any more information on the -- on the alleged attacks that Russians are alleging that Ukraine and/or the Brits did. Can you tell us your assessment of ships being able to leave or not? Are grain shipments getting out or is there a larger Russian effort to stop that? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. In terms of the inspections, I'm not going to get into specific details on locations of where these inspections have taken place but I will tell you that in -- in each instance, our team from Kyiv, our -- from the U.S. embassy has found the Ukrainians to be very transparent and able to support inspections as we were doing prior to the invasion. And in terms of the -- the question of ships, we have seen open source reporting that there -- there have been ships with grain that have continued to -- to get out but this is -- this is a very nascent report and we're watching it closely.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you, Lita. Okay, let's go to Howard Altman, War Zone.

Q: Thanks. I've got a couple questions. One is -- is on the grain shipment. There's been some reports that the Russians have fired on ships in the grain shipment effort and there -- there were some deaths. Can you confirm that? And then I have some other questions.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks, Howard. We've -- we've seen nothing to indicate that Russians have been firing at grain ships.

Q: Where -- I -- on Friday, I talked to the head of Ukraine's military intelligence. He said a couple of things -- a lot of things but one thing he said was that they expect that the Iranian short range ballistic missiles will be delivered to the Russians next month. Do you concur with that? Another question is you also said that the Russians have their best troops in Kherson City, ready to defend that. Can you comment about those two things? Thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks, Howard. So on the -- on the former question, again, we've seen press reports about alleged Iranian missiles to be sent to Russia for use in Ukraine. Again, I don't have any information to provide on that. As far as Kherson, I -- I don't know that we've characterized which kind of troops Russia is sending where. Again, broadly speaking, what we see is Russia digging in in that region to defend Kherson City and -- and their outer lines, but again, that's something we'll continue to watch closely. Thank you.

All right, let's go to Meghann Myers, Military Times.

Q: What is the outlook for troop mobilizations -- U.S. troop mobilizations in Europe going forward? The 18th Airborne Corps is back, there's been some rotations in and out. Is the expectation to keep it at 100,000 troops overall, about 20,000 activated, or is that number going to be in flux in the next few months?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Meghann, so right now, the intent is to keep troop levels at the same level as they've been. We have no announcements to make in terms of any changes to that in the near -- near term. So thank you.

Okay, let's go to Tom Bowman, NPR.

Q: Yeah, could you provide a little more detail on the Russian attacks on the critical infrastructure -- you know, percentage of people without power, how -- how many sites have been hit? Are these mostly in Kyiv? And also, Great Britain is planning to provide help to the Ukrainians to repair their grid. Will the U.S. also help as well?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So I'll -- Tom, we're still kind of gathering information on the latest strikes and I don't have anything more than what you're seeing in media reporting regarding the most recent strikes. When it comes to the question of the power grid and repairs for -- for Ukraine's critical infrastructure, I can tell you that that is a topic that we're talking a lot about inside of the U.S. government. Of course, the Defense Department is really in a supporting role to our civilian agencies, who have expertise in civilian infrastructure. And so we -- we are considering how we might be able to support the Ukrainians as they try to get their infrastructure back online but I don't have any specific announcements today on that.

Q: Could you characterize it in any way, the critical infrastructure hits -- widespread, extensive?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So I -- I would say right now what -- what we're seeing, Tom, is widespread impact on Ukraine's power grid. Don't have specific percentages to provide but widespread.

Q: Okay, thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Thank you. Okay, let's go to Will Dunlop, AFP.

Q: Thank you -- thanks. I had a -- a follow up on the grain shipyard question -- or issue. How would -- how would the U.S. view or respond to any attack on these ships?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So I don't think we're going to get into hypotheticals, Will. You know, clearly, the U.S. government has highlighted our support for these shipments and the importance of these shipments. And so we, of course, hope that they will continue, and as has been highlighted, it's our understanding that they are continuing. So again, we'll continue to keep a close eye on it. Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: -- go to Heather, USNI.

Q: Great, thank you so much. I was wondering if you can say if you've heard anything about Russia say that they are no longer going to follow the UN deal and allow grain ships to go through the Black Sea? And then can you give us a -- an updated -- maritime update of the Black Sea? Are we seeing any Russian ships now or have they gone back to Sevastopol? What's going on in the Black Sea right now?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks very much, Heather. So your -- your last question first. Nothing particularly new to provide in terms of the Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. Again, as you've heard us say, we would assess that they have probably about a half dozen ships in that region. But again, nothing -- nothing in particular to update you on. In terms of the -- the grain deal, again, we're aware of those reports. You've heard us say that the Ukrainian agricultural products are critical to global food security, and we certainly support the Turkey- and U.N.-brokered deal for these exports via the Black Sea, and so would call on Russia to adhere to the deal's terms. But beyond that, we don't have any additional updates to provide.

Okay, let's go to John Ismay, New York Times.

Q: Yes, hi. You said that we do assess there were explosions there in Sebastopol. Can you say anything about what you assess was the cause of those explosions?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, again, John, we're not -- we're not going to have any information to provide on that at this time.

Q: Okay. You can't say if any U.S.-provided unmanned coastal defense vessels were involved?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Again, I'm not going to do a damage assessment, nor do I have any other information to provide.

Q: Okay, thank you.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Let's go to Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

Q: Let me try a different way of asking this question. Is the Admiral Makarov still in the Russian fleet, or is it a submarine at this point?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: So again, Jeff, we're not going to provide any kind of damage assessment. As I mentioned, we do know that there were explosions in the -- in that area, but we're not going to have any additional information to provide.

Q: Well, can you say whether the ship was damaged, regardless of the circumstances, and whether it's still in service in the Russian fleet?

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: I'd refer you to the Russian MOD for status update on their vessels. Thank you, though.

All right, let me go to Barb Starr, CNN. Barb, are you there?

Okay, nothing heard. Let me go to Dan Lamont, Washington Post.

Q: Yeah, thanks. On the infrastructure -- in -- infrastructure issues, aside from the power grid, do you -- do you have any read on other things that were hit, be that water, be that other sorts of regular things that the Ukrainians would need? And then -- and then on the Admiral Makarov, I -- just a respectful clarification here. We're often told that we can't trust the Russians on these issues, so when we get referred to the Russian MOD, that becomes a challenge for us. Thanks.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks. Dan, on -- on the latter part, understood. I'm just not going to have any information to provide in -- in terms of a -- a damage assessment. In terms of the infrastructure, by virtue of the electrical grid being impacted, we are seeing impacts in terms of, you know, water supply systems, water treatment, things like that, which is affecting access to water among the civilian population. So again, something that we're -- we're keeping a close eye on. Thank you.

All right, let's go to Idrees, Reuters.

Q: Just for the senior defense official, two quick questions. First thing: How many site inspections have there been in Ukraine for -- for -- for the weapons? And -- and -- and secondly, you mentioned the U.S. government as a whole is looking at how it can bring some of the infrastructure back online. What role would DOD potentially even play in that? Cause obviously troops wouldn't be going in, right? So what are the, I guess, breadth of possibilities the U.S. -- the DOD could specifically do?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. So on the first one, I'm not going to detail the specifics of the site inspections, in terms of numbers, but there have been several of these inspections. In terms of, you know, the DOD role -- so our primary role is to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. So when they have requested from us, you know, equipment that they need to be able to support their operations, say, throughout the winter, we have responded. That's why we've provided, you know, cold weather gear, for instance. But there are -- there are other equipment needs that we might be able to satisfy, should they request that. Otherwise, our role is to support our civilian agency counterparts if they should request our assistance as they support the Ukrainians. But right now, we're in kind of the needs assessment phase and we don't have any specific requests that we are looking at to respond to.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Let's go to Mike Glenn, Washington Times.

Q: Yeah, thank you. This is for either one of you who can answer it. I was wondering if you can comment on these reports that the Wagner Group or some other elements are trying to recruit U.S.-trained Afghan commandos to fight on their behalf in Ukraine? And if you have any idea about the number of similar foreign fighters who are -- who are working -- you know, fighting for the Kremlin in Ukraine, if that's an issue? Simply, the Afghan commando question.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICIAL: Yeah -- yeah, so we've -- we've seen those -- we've seen the press reporting on that. We don't have any specific information to provide. We do know that the Wagner Group does try to recruit foreign fighters, but as it relates to Afghanistan, nothing to -- to pass along. Thank you.

Okay, let's go to Joe from Al Arabiya.

Q: Hey, thanks. For Senior Defense Official, you mentioned the U.S. working actively with partner nations to improve Ukraine's air defense capabilities. Could you elaborate or give any more detail on what the U.S. is looking for allies and partners to provide to Ukraine? And just the second one for either one of you -- have you guys -- could you -- could you confirm, are there any updates on seeing Iranian military advisors or IRGC personnel training Russians on the use of drones inside of Belarus? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, great. So on air defense, let me just put in context your question about the allies and partners by just recalling that so far, the United States has already provided 1,400 Stingers, which is short range air defense, and our allies and partners have also provided considerable numbers of short range air defense systems. The U.S. have also committed eight NASAMS and associated munitions, and two of those will be in Ukraine in the very near future, with six more to be provided later. We also have committed to a suite of counter-unmanned aerial systems, including the VAMPIRE system and other radar systems, since we know that the -- the UAS threat is also a -- a serious threat right now. The U.S. also helped support Slovakia's donation of an S-300 system earlier in the war. This was incredibly important to -- to protect Ukrainian infrastructure at that point in time. And the U.S. also sourced many spare parts to keep Ukraine's Soviet-type air defense -- air defense systems up and running. More recently, in terms of international partners Germany, has committed four of the IRIS-T system. And this is been put to exceptionally good use in Ukraine.So we are, you know, encouraging others to -- to look at providing this system. Spain has responded to the call to provide the HAWK air defense system. And this is also a system that we are encouraging other countries to provide. I mentioned those NASAMS that the U.S. is providing, well, a number of countries have committed munitions for the NASAMS. This is the AMRAAM missile. And we are still encouraging other allies and partners to provide additional munitions. And there's a host of donations of Soviet-type air defense systems that are still coming online. I hope that's helpful.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICER: And then, Joe, on your -- your latter question about Belarus. So, as you know, we did have, you know, indications that Iranians were in Crimea supporting Russian drone operations. But as it pertains to Belarus, I'm not currently tracking anything like that, not on my end. Thank you.

Right. Let's go to Joe Gould, Defense News. Joe?
 
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Don't think he's there.

SENIOR MILITARY OFFICER: Okay. Then I'll try Barbara Starr one last time. Barbara, are you there?

Okay. Thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate your time today.