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Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder Holds an On-Camera Press Briefing

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAT RYDER: Good afternoon, everyone. All right, a few items to pass along at the top, and then I'll be happy to take your questions.

First, let me go ahead and highlight up front that we are aware of the press reports alleging that two Russian missiles have struck a location inside Poland near the Ukraine border. I can tell you that we don't have any information at this time to corroborate those reports, and are looking into this further. And so when we do have an update to provide, we'll be sure to do so.

Separately, one year ago this month, families on Oahu faced a crisis when fuel spills at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility resulted in contamination of the Navy's drinking water system. The Department of Defense recognizes that the 2021 incidents at Red Hill created a trust deficit between the DOD and the people of Hawaii, and that it's incumbent upon the department to earn back that trust.

On March 7, 2022, Secretary Austin, after close consultation with senior civilian and military leaders, directed the defueling and permanent closure of the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Since then, the department has stood up a joint task force to focus on the safe and expeditious defueling of Red Hill. The JTF Red Hill recently completed a critical preliminary step in the defueling process from October 25 to November 3rd, and removed over one million gallons of fuel from the facility's fuel pipelines. The operation, known as unpacking, concluded without any issues involving the handling, transport or storage of the fuel.

The next phase includes performing all necessary repairs, modifications, and enhancements to the Red Hill infrastructure to reduce risk during the defueling of the Red Hill storage tanks. JTF Red Hill is currently on track to complete defueling by June of 2024. The JTF will continue to work with the Hawaii Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency to find ways to safely reduce and expedite the defueling timeline.

In addition, on November 1st, the Navy announced its plans to accomplish the permanent closure of the bulk storage facility. Following Hawaii Department of Health approval, the Navy will commence fuel tank closures as early as possible, once the joint task force completes the defueling process. It's currently estimated that the facility closure process will take three years to complete. As the Navy moves forward, it will work in lockstep with the local community and closely coordinate with the Hawaii Department of Health to finalize the closure plan and determine a potential beneficial non-fuel reuse for the Red Hill facility site.

Secretary Austin and senior leaders at DOD are committed to ensuring that the Department follows through on its promise of increased transparency and coordination with military families and the citizens of Hawaii. As the secretary has said previously, defueling and closing Red Hill is the right thing to do for our servicemembers, our families, the people of Hawaii, the environment, and our national security.

Separately, Secretary Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley will host the seventh meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group tomorrow. The meeting will be hosted virtually here in the Pentagon and allow -- will allow for the secretary, the chairman, and senior defense leaders from around the world to discuss ongoing efforts to supply Ukraine with the means it needs to defend its sovereignty from further Russian aggression. Additional information will be forthcoming.

And finally, Secretary Austin will depart Friday for a trip to Canada, Indonesia, and Cambodia. In Nova Scotia, he will deliver keynote remarks at the 2022 Halifax International Security Forum centered on the Department's efforts to build a more resilient security architecture in concert with allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific and Europe. He'll also meet with Canadian Minister of National Defense Anita Anand to discuss the close defense relationship between the U.S. and Canada and the importance of strategic investments in defense capabilities.

From there, Secretary Austin will travel to Jakarta, where he'll meet with senior government and military leaders as the United States and Indonesia work to chart an ambitious course in our mutual defense partnership. And in Cambodia, Secretary Austin will participate in the ninth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting, also known as ADMM-Plus, alongside the 10 ASEAN member states and eight dialogue partners. This will be Secretary Austin's first in-person participation at the forum, which was conducted virtually last year due to the -- due to the COVID pandemic, and one which continues a long tradition of U.S. Secretary of Defense representation at the ADMM-Plus.

And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions. We'll start with Associated Press, Lita Baldor.

Q: Hey, Pat. Thank you very much.

I realize this is going to be irritating, but I know you said you don't have any information on the Russian strikes. Is there any suggestion or sense that the U.S. believes this is not accurate? Are you looking into it? Can you give us just some sense of whether or not these reports are deemed believable? And what, if any, calls may be happening right now?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks very much, Lita. So as I mentioned, right now, we are aware of the press reporting on this. We have no information at this time to corroborate those reports, but again, are -- are taking them seriously and looking into them. And so, I will make sure that we provide you with any updates as soon as we have them.

Did you have a follow-up, Lita?

Q: I -- just one quick, sort of unrelated follow-up to that. We're -- do you have any estimate on the number of Russian troops that are currently in Ukraine? Is it 100,000? Fewer than 100,000? Can you give us any sense of that? And -- and that's it. Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Lita. I -- I don't have any numbers to provide from the podium here. Clearly, tens of thousands of Russian forces still on Ukrainian territory, to include Russian forces that have recently been mobilized. We've seen an increase of those forces being sent to the front lines as replacements recently. But -- but no overall number that I'm able to provide. Thank you.

All right, Idrees?

Q: Could you just -- on the calls -- so is there any call with his Polish counterpart planned at this time?

GEN. RYDER: I have nothing to read out at -- at this point.

Q: I think President Biden has said a few times that the U.S. will defend every inch of NATO territory. If these reports are true, what does that look like for the Administration?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Idrees. So, you know, as I mentioned, we're looking into these reports. Don't have any information to corroborate them at this time. So I don't want to speculate or get into hypotheticals.

When it comes to our security commitments and Article 5, we've been crystal clear that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. Thank you.

Sir?

Q: Hi. Travis Tritten, Military.com. I have a Red Hill question. You said one million gallons of fuel have been removed from the pipes. And just so I understand it -- so is this, like, the residual fuel that was, like, out in the pipes and then...

GEN. RYDER: That's exactly what it is.

Q: ... it leaves the fuel that's actually in the tanks to be removed?

GEN. RYDER: That's exactly right. So the -- the process is known as unpacking, and it's to do exactly that. Before they can remove the fuel from the tanks themselves, taking out that residual fuel from those lines to ensure that there is no environmental damage or hazards and -- and -- or leaks as they conduct that process.

Q: OK. And do you have a -- an amount of the total fuel that's left in the tanks themselves?

GEN. RYDER: I don't have that in front of me. JTF Red Hill may be able to provide that information for you.

Q: OK.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you.

OK. Ma'am?

Q: Hi. Brandi Vincent from DefenseScoop. On his trip to the Middle East this week, Undersecretary for Defense Policy Dr. Colin Kahl is stopping in Bahrain and visiting Task Force 59, which really specializes in maturing the Pentagon's unmanned and uncrewed systems. Can you provide some specifics on us -- for us on what he's seeing, the technology exercises or operations that might be happening there?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks very much for the question. So as -- as you mentioned, the Undersecretary is in the Middle East on a trip right now. We will aim to provide a readout of that trip and certainly can get back with you in terms of some of the things that he was able to accomplish during that time. I don't have anything to provide specifically for you right now, but we can get back to you on that.

Q: Thanks. And since he is the Undersecretary of Policy, can you tell us a little bit about what he is doing to inform policies while he's there as well? Why there and why him?

GEN. RYDER: Sure. Well, it's very common for the Undersecretary and a lot of our defense leaders to travel and to meet with various DOD and international leaders to help better inform the decision-making and the policies of the Department. And so, this is a long planned for trip and it provides him with an opportunity to gain insight into the kinds of key defense decisions that we're making here before we make them. So thank you.

Q: Could I follow that, sir?

GEN. RYDER: Absolutely, Tom.

Q: Thank you. Is he going to attend the Bahrain gathering that -- that Secretary Austin went to last year?

GEN. RYDER: The Manama Dialogue?

Q: Yes, sir.

GEN. RYDER: I -- I will confirm that. I believe that's the case but let us come back to you on that.

Q: And -- and on the -- the task force that Brandi mentioned, is that the same as the -- the unmanned drones that -- that -- surface drones that the U.S. has employed in the Arabian Sea?

GEN. RYDER: The -- the USVs?

Q: Yeah.

GEN. RYDER: I'll -- we'll double check on...

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. RYDER: Thanks.

Oren?

Q: When it comes to Poland, what other information are you looking for to corroborate whether or not this was a -- a missile, or missiles, that landed in Poland? And if, in fact, it is as it appears to be, does that necessitate a military response?

GEN. RYDER: Again, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals or speculate. As I mentioned, we have no information right now to corroborate that there has been a missile strike. Again, we're looking into it. As you know, we have a wide variety of means at our disposal to verify information. And so when we have something to provide, we will. Thank you.

Kasim?

Q: Just a...

GEN. RYDER: Then I'm going to go to the phones here.

Q: Yeah, the (inaudible) -- just as a policy, do you consider these types of -- like, as we see in Poland’s case, these types of landings as a miscalculation or something that triggered the Article 5?

GEN. RYDER: So...

Q: Just a policy. I'm not asking you...

GEN. RYDER: Right. And again, I -- as I'm sure you can appreciate, I'm not going to speculate about potential ifs and thens, right? I'm going to deal with facts. And so let -- let's get the facts and then we'll go from there.

Q: And then everybody's reporting there is indifference to the U.S. intelligence. So U.S. intelligence has already disseminated the information that actually those missiles ...

GEN. RYDER: Is that a statement of fact or are you asking a question?

Q: No, I'm asking a -- I'm saying that it's a -- it's a -- isn't it interesting that the U.S. intelligence has something the U.S. military doesn't have?

GEN. RYDER: Well -- and I'm telling you, as the Pentagon Press Secretary, that I have no information to corroborate that and that we're looking into it. So just leave it there until we can get more information. Let me go out to the phones. 

       Carla Babb, VOA?

Q: Hey, Pat. Thanks for doing this. Apologies on also asking about the Russian missiles in Poland, but in lieu of these reports, how concerned are you about the force protection of U.S. troops in Poland? Would the U.S. need to adjust its force posture there should these reports be confirmed?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Carla. So again, you know, to answer your first question, when it comes to force protection, we always take the safety and security of our troops, no matter where they're serving, very seriously. And so we're -- we're very confident in any force protection measures that we take, whether it be Poland or elsewhere.

But again, you know, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves here. We're going to get the facts, and -- and when we have more to provide, we will. Thank you.

All right, let me go to Marcin, TV Poland. Are you there?

OK, nothing heard. Let me go to Caitlin Doornbos.

Q: Hi there. Hey, this is happening, this -- the reports of this Polish attack is happening right before the Ukraine defense contact briefing -- or group meeting. I'm wondering if there's any plans to talk about this at that meeting as well?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Caitlin. So the -- the Contact Group meeting will focus on a couple of things. One, our Ukrainian partners will provide an update in terms of a battlefield assessment. What they're seeing on the battlefield. And then the conversation will pivot to a robust discussion on Ukraine's security needs. And so following the conclusion of tomorrow's contact group we'll certainly have much more information to provide in terms of the outcomes of that. But it should be a good discussion and, again, an opportunity to connect with our Ukrainian partners to see how we can best support them in their ongoing fight against Russian aggression. Thank you.

Q: Thanks. Just a follow up on that. When the last contact group meeting happened, the kind of priority was air defense. Is that still the case now? What sort of is the main thing the U.S. is looking to achieve out of this meeting? If there are any more details you can talk about?

GEN. RYDER: Sure. What I'd say up front that in a lot of ways Ukraine will drive the prioritization in terms of what's most important to them. They're the ones that are on the battlefield and they're the ones that continue to press the attack in terms of their counter offensive. And so certainly as evidenced today by Russia's air strikes, missile strikes against civilian targets in places like Kyiv, air defense continues to remain a priority and we'll continue to work with Ukraine on how we can best support them from an air defense standpoint.

But we're also going into winter. So we'll be discussing other aspects in terms of what kind of support can we provide in terms of their ground combat capabilities, their cold weather capabilities, and also addressing what we can do to support them from an energy infrastructure standpoint. Okay? 

       Ma'am?

Q: Yes. Is North Korea still transporting artillery to Russia? And if so, is there other, have they started transporting other things than just artillery? Also is it only through North Africa, Middle East, any other areas?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so I appreciate that. So I don't have any specific updates to provide other than, again, we do assess that Russia is seeking to obtain ammunition from North Korea and that North Korea is looking to covertly provide that. Again, as you highlight through North Africa and the Middle East, but at this time that's about as much information as I'm going to be able to provide.

Q: And a follow up. Would any of our allies be willing to stop this transportation?

GEN. RYDER: That's a great question, but I don't want to speak for our allies. Again, it's something that we'll continue to look at very closely. And again it's just indicative of the fact that Russia finds itself having to deal with countries like Iran and North Korea in terms of replenishing its own stocks. Contrast that to what you see with the United States, the international community in Ukraine in terms of the robust defense industrial base that we have at our disposal to support Ukraine in its fight. Thank you.

Lara?

Q: Thank you. You talked about the (inaudible) on Kyiv today. Was Ukraine able to intercept any of those missiles?

GEN. RYDER: So this is something that we're continuing to monitor. It's still very early. As you highlight, we know that there have been a number of missile attacks. We assess right now that those were launched from airborne platforms, so Russian aircraft. But at this point in time we just don't have any details to provide. So we'll continue to monitor.

Q: Just a follow up. Does the fact that the Russians are using their air force now, are they using their air force now more than they were before? Is that something that is a concern to the Department?

GEN. RYDER: So I think for the duration of this campaign Russia has used a mix of capabilities when it comes to its strikes to include surface-to-surface missile systems, airborne platforms, as well as sea-launched missiles. So that in and of itself is not unusual. But in the situation that we're seeing right now, again we're seeing them employ both ground-based and air-based assets for these strikes today. But again, still early, we're continuing to follow it. Thank you.

Q: Sorry, just a follow up.

GEN. RYDER: Mm-hmm.

Q: But the Department has said that neither side has air superiority in over Ukraine. So the fact that they are dropping bombs from airplanes now, does that indicate that that picture may be changing?

GEN. RYDER: So the air space over Ukraine continues to be contested. Again without going into a lot of detail I would say that we assess that these strikes are probably being conducted outside of Ukrainian territory. So in other words, standoff types of strikes. Thanks.

Alright, let me go to the phone here real quick and I'll come back to the room. 

       Karoun, Washington Post?

Q: Hi. So I know that you don't want to talk in hypotheticals, but the possibility of there having been either an errant or intentional strike on NATO territory has been in the back of people's minds for a long time. Can you walk us through at least what steps the Pentagon goes through to try to verify whether or not you know this is … to try to verify the specifics of what's happening? Like what is going on now? As you try to get more clarity on whether you can or cannot corroborate that these strikes landed in Poland?

And also, is this going to change potentially the ask of what the United States makes at the contact group tomorrow, at that meeting? Do you anticipate that this change is either the … that the pressure on countries to pony up more military assistance or the rate at which that military assistance might need to come together?

GEN. RYDER: Thanks, Karoun. So as far as the contact group goes, I don't want to get ahead of the discussion or speculate, especially since we have no information at this point in time to corroborate the press reports regarding allegations of a Russian missile strike on Polish territory.

In regards to your first question, any time there's a situation, again we have a variety of methods at our disposal in terms of verifying information, to include contacting allies and partners to gather information. And so again, we're looking into these reports and when we have more to provide we'll be sure to do so. Thank you.

Q: Verifying question.

GEN. RYDER: Mm-hmm.

Q: You said you can't corroborate reports of Russian missiles going into Poland. Do you have any reports of explosions happening on the Polish side in that area?

GEN. RYDER: Again, nothing at this point to corroborate those press reports. And again at this point that's what we have are press reports. 

       Yes, ma'am.

Q: How many U.S. troops are stationed in Poland? And how many U.S. troops are at the Polish border with Ukraine?

GEN. RYDER: Let me get back to you on that one. Thanks.

Q: Can I follow up on --

GEN. RYDER: Sure, no. Already got you (inaudible). Let me get some other folks in the room. Then if we have time I'll come back to you.

Q: If I could just follow up on a previous question. I know you don't want to speak for U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East and the (inaudible) region. Just wondering if regarding the South Korean artillery shipment or shipments, just wondering if you could say whether the Department has reached out to counterparts in those countries about potential intervention.

GEN. RYDER: So I don't want to get into specific conversations with allies and partners. Certainly we have flagged concerns about North Korea, and we'll continue to work with our allies and partners when it comes to anything that could destabilize or cause issues in the region. But I don't have any specifics to provide.

Q: Sure. And will Undersecretary Kahl be meeting with Saudi officials during his trip to the region?

GEN. RYDER: Let us get back to you on that one. Thank you. Let me go back to the phone here. 

       Sasha from Newsy?

Q: Hi. Thank you so much. Regarding the Russian missiles in Poland, the hesitancy here to speculate; can you speak a little bit about, you know, fears of escalation here? As was mentioned earlier, the idea of the U.S. defending every inch of NATO territory, is there some hesitancy here because of the fear of that?

GEN. RYDER: Well I think we want to deal with facts, and so again we've seen the press reports. And as I mentioned before I walked in here, no information to corroborate these reports at this time. But again, we're taking them seriously and we're looking into them. And so I think it's incumbent on all of us to get the facts before we start speculating or jumping to conclusions. And then we'll go from there. Thank you.

John Ismay, New York Times?

Q: Yes, hi. Yesterday we heard that missile and drone strikes, or sorry, Russia's missile and drone strikes have slowed a bit since the end of October and I was wondering if you could provide any more detail with that, in terms of numbers or say percentage reduction, really any additional detail would be helpful.

GEN. RYDER: Yes. I don't have any specific numbers to provide from the podium here. If you just look at the last few weeks, what we had seen was from, you know, essentially going from the post-Kerch Bridge explosion, an increase in the number of missile strikes against civilian infrastructure and military targets in Ukraine, and over the last couple of weeks since the end of October, those had slowed down a bit. But again, today we're seeing that Russia continues to target civilian infrastructure and is using missiles really as a tool of terror to strike civilian infrastructure, especially as Ukraine goes into the winter. So again, something we'll continue to monitor closely. But that's really about all I can provide you on that. Thanks. 

       Let me go to Anton from the Economist.

Q: Thanks, Pat. Can you say, do you know, have you reports that the parts of the power grid in Moldova have been knocked out as part of this wave of Russian strikes? And secondly, on the explosions in Poland, how long do you think it would take you to ascertain what the case is, whether it was a deliberate attack, an accidental one? A stray missile going off? Or sort of something hit by Ukrainian air defenses?

GEN. RYDER: Thanks, Anton. So nothing to provide on Moldova. In terms of how long it will take to look into these; I mean we're looking into it right now. I'm sure that many of your colleagues as will you, are reaching out to the government of Poland as well, to see what they may have to provide on this. But again, when we have an update to provide we'll aim to do that as quickly as possible.

Alright, let me go to Nick Schifrin, and I'll come back in the room here.

Q: Pat, can I go back to Lara's line of questioning? Can you talk more about standoff strikes, the nature of the missile strikes that we've seen in Ukraine today? Can you confirm some of them did attack Lviv? Obviously close to the Poland border. Anything unusual about these strikes and do you have a sense of what the Ukrainians say, which is this is probably the largest number of strikes in a couple weeks, upwards of a hundred; is that a number that you can confirm give or take?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks Nick. That is not a number that I can confirm at this point in time. Again, you know these strikes started today. I know that it's something that we'll continue to watch closely. We are aware of the strikes in Kyiv and in other locations. So when we have more to provide in that regard, we certainly will. But again, at this point in time, it's -- it's something that we're watching closely, and again, we'll keep you -- keep you updated, as able. Thank you.

Q: Quick follow: Can you just confirm even that there were strikes that you're tracking in the western part of the country, near Lviv?

GEN. RYDER: I -- I cannot from here because I don't -- I don't have a real-time update. But again, we'll try to keep you as best informed as we can. Thank, Nick -- thanks, Nick.

Luis?

Q: Last week, there was reporting that the United States and South Korea have worked out a deal for the United States to purchase artillery shells from South Korea, and then potentially pass them on to the Ukrainians. Has there been any progress in that, just to your other statement that we got last week on that?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so what I would -- would say is that the U.S. works with a lot of different countries in terms of working with their defense industrial base to identify opportunities to purchase munitions when it comes to not only providing them to Ukraine, but also replenishing one another's stocks. And so I don't have any announcements to make right now, but if and when we do, we'll be sure to do that. Thank you.

Q: So there will be an announcement when a deal is concluded? Is that what you're saying?

GEN. RYDER: If and when we have something to announce, we'll do that. Thank you.

All right, got time for a couple more. Yes, sir, and then I'll go to you, Tom.

Q: Thank you, sir. Gary Raynaldo with the Diplomatic Times. Question of the U.S. defense posture in the Horn of Africa: In May, President Biden authorized the Pentagon to redeploy American troops into Somalia. Can you tell us how many U.S. troops have actually deployed to Somalia as of yet, and what are their role? And also, on these USAFRICOM airstrikes in Somalia, where are they originating from? Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: So as you highlight, the U.S. does have a defense relationship with Somalia in terms of advising in a -- and training. In terms of the numbers, I don't have any specific numbers to provide. But again, this is an important counterterrorism relationship, and we'll continue to work with the Somali government in terms of addressing terrorist threats like Al-Shebaab. Thank you very much.

All right, and Tom?

Q: Yeah, just wanted to follow up what you said. Tomorrow, that you might talk about some winter supplies for the Ukrainians, and last week when Sabrina briefed, she mentioned that there was supplies from winter there. Could you at some point break that down for us like you did the first time, what exactly that you're sending up?

GEN. RYDER: Sure. Absolutely.

OK, thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate it.

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