DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: All right, good afternoon, everyone. I just have a few items at the top and then I'd be happy to take your questions.
So as you know, Secretary Austin is traveling right now in Germany. He met this morning with German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius to discuss a range of issues, including our bilateral defense relationships and security assistance to Ukraine. We should have a readout forthcoming that will be posted online at defense.gov.
Additionally, tomorrow, the Secretary will convene the eighth session — session of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Ramstein Air Base. The contact group has been instrumental in identifying, synchronizing, and ensuring the delivery of military capabilities the Ukrainians need to defend their homeland against Russian aggression. The Secretary looks forward to meeting with defense leaders from approximately 50 nations that comprises important group dedicated to Ukraine's self-defense.
And finally, you might have seen that the Secretary, in his bilateral meeting this morning, also said a few words about this, but on behalf of the department, we'd just like to echo the Secretary's sorrow and offer our deepest condolences over the helicopter crash near Kyiv that took the lives of more than a dozen people, including Ukraine's Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky.
And with that, I will take your questions. I'll turn it over to Tara Copp.
Q: All right, two. First, yesterday, the Coast Guard put out a tweet on a Russian intelligence ship operating off the coast of Hawaii. Is the department concerned about this? Has there been any sort of communication with this ship? And, you know, this is a — fairly routine. There are Russian spy ships that end up on the U.S. coastline frequently. But is there a bigger concern now because of the Ukraine War?
MS. SINGH: Well, you know, I — I can't say — I can't speak to — to why the Russians are — are sailing this ship right now. It's kind of precarious timing. But I would say that the Coast Guard is still — is monitoring this Russian vessel that we believe is an intelligence-gathering vessel but is operating in international and open waters.
We haven't seen any unsafe or unprofessional behavior, and we expect that the Russians will operate within the region in accordance with international law.
But for any — in terms of interaction with the — with the vessel itself, I would direct you to the Coast Guard.
Q: OK. And second, a different topic. The Germans have indicated they are hesitant to provide tanks to Ukraine unless the U.S. also provides Abrams. Where are we on those discussions? And what is the likelihood that, you know, Abrams would be sent in order to, I guess, work alongside the Germans on this?
MS. SINGH: Well, we're going to have a readout from the Secretary's meeting with his counterpart, Minister of Defense Pistorius, later today, but in terms of the conversations, I think you saw Dr. Kahl really speak to this yesterday.
The Abrams are a — it's more of a sustainment issue. I mean, this is a tank that is — requires jet fuel, whereas the Leopard and the Challenger — the — it's a different engine. They require diesel. It's a little bit easier to maintain. They can maneuver across large portions of territory before they need to refuel. The — the maintenance and the — the high cost that it would take to maintain an Abrams is just — just doesn't make sense to provide that to the Ukrainians at this moment.
As you know, we've provided the Bradleys. We're seeing other nations step up and continue to provide equipment and material to Ukraine that they can. Ultimately, this is Germany's decision. It's their sovereign decision on what security assistance they will provide, so we won't be able to speak to them. But I think that we are certainly doing what we can to support Ukraine in — in what — in what they need.
Q: On the same topic, a senior defense official said yesterday traveling with the Secretary that they're optimistic that they will make progress on Germany with tanks by the end of the week. And yet, a senior administration official here tells us Germany's not budging, and demands tank for tanks. Are you optimistic that you will see progress by the end of the week with Germany? Do you believe that's going to happen, or is it less optimistic at this point?
MS. SINGH: Well, I — you know, I don't have a crystal ball here to say what will or will — won't happen by the end of the week. The Secretary had a productive conversation with his counterpart. The Contact Group is meeting tomorrow, so I'll leave any further announcements from other countries and other nations and partners and allies to them.
But again, you know, we are thankful for what Germany has been able to contribute already. They sent infantry fighting vehicles and a — and a Patriot missile battery system to Ukraine. And we're continuing to work with other partners and allies around the world to see what else can be provided to Ukraine, and that's — that's the whole point of tomorrow's meeting.
Yeah? And then — sorry — I'll come to this one.
Q: I have two questions. The first one — so Ukraine's defense minister, Reznikov, said that Ukraine could use U.S. weapons to attack Russia's occupied Crimea. Is that concerning to the U.S.?
MS. SINGH: I mean, Crimea's part of Ukraine. We've long held that position. We've said that that is — we certainly support the Ukrainians taking back their territory by any means that they can and what other — whatever weapons they are using. So again, we have not shied away from stating that fact from the very beginning.
Yeah, sorry. Do you have another one?
Q: Yeah, certainly.
MS. SINGH: Sure.
Q: So the U.S. has requested to send munitions from its stockpiles in both Israel and South Korea. Why?
MS. SINGH: Well, again, I mean, we are supplying Ukraine pretty regularly with different ammunitions, materials, capabilities and equipment, and part of that is making sure that we can do so quickly. And we have been working with ROK and Israel when it comes to withdrawing from our stocks and communicating that with them. But that doesn't mean it impacts our readiness. That doesn't impact our capabilities to protect Americans here at home and — or abroad. And so we feel confident on — on what we have been able to withdraw and what we have been able to get to the Ukrainians.
Q: It — so is the U.S. looking to send those munitions from other — its stockpiles in other countries because there's a lack of stockpile here in the U.S.?
MS. SINGH: No, I wouldn't say that. I mean, the Secretary has always said we're not going to drop below our readiness levels. But we also have to pull from different stockpiles from all around the world. That doesn't mean that, you know, everything is here in the United States or everything is in the EUCOM AOR. We have to go to other sources, other places to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs and to also be able to backfill our own stocks and work on backfilling partners and allies.
I'm going to go to the phones, and then I'll come over here. Joe Gould, Defense News?
Q: Thanks, Sabrina. With the Secretary pressing to have transfers of Leopard 2s to Ukraine, obviously, countries are going to have to decide for themselves and make their own announcements. But is it the Secretary's objective to have a pool of countries? They currently operate the Leo — donating that tank and parts and related training? Thanks.
MS. SINGH: Well, there — there are dozens of countries that have the Leopard tanks. I think that the Secretary's objective here is to secure and work with our partners and allies to get Ukraine the capabilities and — and the requests that it has for what it needs on the battlefield.
That's why the Contact Group is so important. Again, tomorrow, it's meeting for the eighth time. And these — what you see when you — when you — when the Contact Groups wrap up is usually some announcements from other nations, including the United States, on other capabilities and commitments to Ukraine.
But again, you know, Germany is just one of many countries that has the capability to provide the Leopard tanks. There are other nations out there that have also been discussed providing other tanks. And so I'll leave it to them to speak to you at the Contact Group tomorrow.
I'm going to take one more from the phone, and then I'll come back in the room. Alex Horton, Washington Post? Alex, are you there?
Q: Sabrina, I – (inaudible), thanks.
MS. SINGH: We can hear you.
Q: Hey, it's asked and answered, so thanks.
MS. SINGH: All right — oh, sorry. Great, thanks. OK.
I'll come in the room. Yes, Janne?
Q: Thank you. I have a question for — on the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons into South Korea. Yesterday, the U.S. Center for Strategic Studies pointed out that South Korea's anxiety over extending the deterrence is growing, arguing that the two countries — I mean, U.S. and South Korea, needed to review (inaudible) exercise in preparations for the possibility of redeploying low-level nuclear weapons to South Korea at some point in the future. How does the Pentagon view the possibility of deploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea?
MS. SINGH: Well, we've been committed, and said this from — for a while that we support the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We've seen North Korea continue to engage in destabilizing tests in the last few months. But our commitment to ROK remains ironclad. We are going to continue to conduct exercises with them, as we do on routine, and not just with ROK, but we've done trilateral exercises before. But our — our commitment, our — our hope is that there is a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Q: But recently, North Korea declared (inaudible) on nuclear power states, and China failure to stop North Korea's nuclear development. Secretary Austin’s visit South Korea next week. Would he discuss this nuclear issues during his visit in Seoul?
MS. SINGH: So yes, as you mentioned, he is traveling next week — or I'm sorry, not next week — the following week. You know, I'm not going to get ahead of the Secretary and what he plans to say on that trip, but certainly, an opportunity to deepen ties within the region. But as we get closer to that trip, I'll have more to read out then.
MS. SINGH: But I think what you will hear from the Secretary that should be of no surprise is just our deep commitment to South Korea and our commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and our commitment to, you know, continuing to have our — our forces in that AOR.
But nothing for you today to preview on that trip.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Thanks, Sabrina. Does the U.S. intend to make its own announcement about a new aid package as part of the Contact Group meeting this week? And if so, should we suppose that it's going to track with earlier aid packages and have, you know, armored vehicles or equipment that will allow the Ukrainians to, like, shoot and move on the battlefield, similar to what Dr. Kahl described yesterday?
MS. SINGH: I feel like you've seen some of the reporting that I've seen out there. I — you know, I'll be completely frank with you, I have nothing to announce here today. We should expect a — a — another security package coming soon but still nothing to announce from — from this podium at this moment.
I'm not going to get ahead of also what's in that package but we know that the Ukrainians have continued to ask for — one of their main priorities is more armored vehicles, air defense systems. And so each package, as you've seen, sort of matches some of their — their biggest needs and — and requests. And so I'd expect with the next package, you'd see something like that.
Yeah? Great — yes, I'm sorry, I don't think we've met before.
Q: No. Laura Haim from French TV.
MS. SINGH: Hi, nice to meet you.
Q: ... what's happening in Ukraine.
MS. SINGH: OK.
Q: Thank you so much to take my question.
MS. SINGH: Sure.
Q: What is your answer to President Zelensky and the Ukrainians who are asking repeatedly for F-16?
MS. SINGH: So Ukrainians have asked for — for many, many things. With every aid package that we assemble and put together, we are in close contact with our Ukrainian counterparts. Again, we are providing them what we think they are capable of operating, maintaining, and sustaining.
The F-16, this is a very complicated system. So we have been, you know, very careful on — and — and assessing what they need on the battlefield right now, and I think you'll see that in the next package set that's coming soon.
Q: Thank you. Just one quick follow-up on North Korea.
MS. SINGH: Of course.
Q: The — does the Pentagon still assess North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any moment?
MS. SINGH: Our assessment hasn't changed since last summer. We've been — we — we continue to monitor what is — what is happening over there in North Korea and I — standing by if — if there should be such a test. I think they have shown that they are willing to do a test at any time. And we will be ready to, of course, work with our partners and allies in the region in any response.
Q: Do you see any particular reason why North Korea has not done a nuclear test, despite the fact that the preparations seems to be completed more than a half year ago?
MS. SINGH: I don't know that I can get in the head of North Koreans — leaders there. You'd have to ask them why they have not done the test. I have — I have no reason to indicate either way of a reason.
MS. SINGH: Hi.
Q: So the Turkish Foreign Minister was in Washington, D.C. yesterday, and he said that the Greek government is militarizing islands in the Aegean Sea with the help of the United States and deploying U.S. armored vehicles on some of these islands.
First of all, can the Department of Defense either confirm or deny this?
MS. SINGH: I would have to look into that. I'm not — I'm not aware of some of this reporting that you're mentioning, so I'd — happy to take that question.
Q: Does the United States believe that those islands, that Ankara is claiming that should remain demilitarized, should remain demilitarized?
MS. SINGH: Well, we're not seeking to see a conflict in that region. These are NATO allies that we work with frequently. So I — you know, I — I'm not going to speak to that and speak to an opinion of a different country here from this podium.
What I can say is that we'll continue to work with our allies in the region. We have troops stationed very close by. But I — you know, happy to take your first question on that.
Q: Just last one ...
MS. SINGH: Sure.
Q: ... question then. Can, then, the Department of Defense say for sure that — are there any U.S. armored vehicles, personnel, any U.S. equipment that is belonging to the U.S. military on any islands in the Aegean Sea?
MS. SINGH: Well, I think you just asked that question in your first question. I'll take that question — so I'd have to take it back here.
Q: ... question.
MS. SINGH: No, I'd have — I'm going to have to get back to you on that. I just don't have an answer for you from here at this time.
Q: Thank you.
MS. SINGH: Yes?
Q: Thank you. My question is about U.S.-Japan Security Consultative Committee, also (inaudible) the 2+2, held last Wednesday. The joint statement issued after the meeting didn't mention the need to revise the guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation, which provides a framework of laws and missions of U.S.-Japan alliance. What would be the U.S. position on whether it's necessary to revise these guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation after Japan changed its strategic documents last year?
MS. SINGH: Well, we were very pleased and welcomed the — the Defense Strategy that Japan recently announced, just before the visit here in the United States. We welcomed the release of — of their national security documents and we see that as an opportunity to build on the — the strong alliance that bolsters regional deterrence there. And, you know, the announcements that were made at the — at the 2+2 just last week I think highlight that.
We have no plans to update the defense guidelines at this time but, you know, as you saw last — last week, it's a very deep alliance that we have with Japan, and looking forward to working with them in the future.
Great. I'm going to go to the phones and then I'll come back. Lara Seligman, Politico?
Q: Hi, Sabrina, thanks for doing this. I have two questions. One is about the combined arms training in — in Germany. Is that training going to incorporate these new tanks from Britain and any other countries that may be donating them, as well as the Bradleys?
And then my second question is on long range — longer range munitions. Is that something that is still off the table?
MS. SINGH: In terms of your first question, our European allies and partners have been doing their own training, when it comes to training Ukrainian troops. So our combined arms training is, right now, just focused on the Bradleys. I don't anticipate that it would incorporate other tanks or — or other equipment at this time, but if that changes, you know, I'd — I'd be happy to follow up with you.
And then in terms of long range capabilities, I mean, we've provided the Patriot, as — as you've seen, we've provided Ukrainians with a layered defense of air capabilities, from short to long range, and the Ukrainians are using those well, they're using them effectively, or — and — and especially when the Patriot is in country, they'll be able to knit those together to create a very highly defensible air that — I — I think they're — they're doing so effectively as they are right now, but with the Patriot there, it will be an added capability that can help protect major cities and — and innocent civilians in this war.
I'm going to take one more question from the phone. Howard Altman?
Q: Yes, thanks. I have a question and I have a request. The question is the — the Wagner Group claims that it has captured the town of Klischiyivka, which is about five miles south of Bakhmut. Can you confirm that and tell me how that might affect the defense of Bakhmut and Soledar? And then I have a request.
MS. SINGH: I'm sorry, you — you — Howard, you sort of — or for me, at least, cut out on — what city or town did you mention that was specifically captured?
Q: It's — it's Klischiyivka. It's a small town about five miles south of Bakhmut.
MS. SINGH: I see, OK ...
Q: — request.
MS. SINGH: I'm sorry. Howard, you sort of — or for me at least, cut out on what city or town did you mention that was specifically captured.
Q: (Inaudible). It's a small town about five miles south of Bakhmut.
MS. SINGH: I see. OK. I don't have an update on — specifically on — on that — on that town but what I can say is that we're still continuing to see intense fighting on both sides from the Ukraine's and Russians in and around Bakhmut and Soledar.
It is — it is blocks to, you know, kilometers everyday that continue to change hands. But the Ukrainians are — are not giving up their fight and neither are the Russians. They're really dug into the ground right now, to the battlefield.
And right now we — we know that the weather in Ukraine, the — the — it is icy, it is wintry. So the roads are — are — or the ground is a bit more frozen over, which allows for vehicles to move around a bit more with more maneuverability. But again, this is a grinding fight that we're seeing in the east.
And I — I don't have more — really more to update you on that. It just continues to be a grinding fight.
I'll take — sorry, I'll take one more from the phone here. Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.
Q: (Inaudible). Can — can the Pentagon do something by providing communications for those of us who are not in the building during the time that the PBR is closed? I mean you've got a budget of $800 billion. Is there any way to find some money (inaudible) hoping to provide, you know, secure communications so that we can participate in briefings going forward?
MS. SINGH: Jeff [sic], I'll have to get back to you on that one. I — I know that we are doing some updates to this lovely Pentagon briefing room and, you know, we'll follow-up with you offline on that. I'll come back into the room.
Q: Thanks, Sabrina. I've a follow-up on Ukraine and then a question on a new topic.
MS. SINGH: OK.
Q: On Ukraine, did Dr. Kahl meet with or was Secretary Austin supposed to meet with any of the Ukrainian officials — the internal ministers who perished in the helicopter crash and did that affect the Contact Group meeting in anyway?
MS. SINGH: I'm not aware that it — it affected the Contact Group. I mean the Contact Group was going forward but of course we offer our deepest condolences. As — as we've seen the reports that more than a dozen people were killed and many more injured. So I wouldn't be able to say any — anything more than that.
Q: Thank you. And then this is sort of a two in one. Politico reported that Pentagon officials and officials from other agencies are attending an even hosted by NASA right now, I think, this week on their ongoing UAP investigations.
And they reported that DOD's AARO office has partnered with Enigma Labs, a start-up that uses machine learning to make sense of UFO data. And so can you tell us who from the Pentagon is attending that NASA event, and what does DOD aim to get out of this new partnership with Enigma Labs?
MS. SINGH: I would have to take that question. I'm sorry. I don't — I don't have the answers for you on that one. So I'll take that and get back to you.
Yes, over here.
Q: Hi. I've a question on Ukraine and the Japan question. Earlier this week the Netherlands announced that they were also sending a patriot battery. So that makes three. Is going to the — the Contact Group meeting tomorrow, is the U.S. going to be scouring trying to get other operators to donate more batteries, and how is that discussion focusing on training? Has the U.S. worked out with the Netherlands to provide more training inside the U.S.?
MS. SINGH: Well, I don't want to get ahead of the discussions. They're happening tomorrow, as you just mentioned. I think we welcome any additional commitment when it comes to giving Ukraine more air defense capability from any country or any partner.
And so in terms of the training and — and whether our — our teams would train on the — the — a patriot battery provided by the Netherlands, I just don't have an answer for you on that.
Many countries do conduct their own training, as we've seen from the beginning of this war. So I think what the Secretary is looking for tomorrow is further commitments from other partners and allies to help Ukraine and that is up to those sovereign states to decide what — what commitments they can give.
But of course we know that air capability is one of them or air defense is one of them.
Q: Do you if the three committed ones are all the same variant ultimately?
MS. SINGH: I don't. I don't know.
Q: OK. And on Japan do you — sorry — in the meetings last week we had heard about the Marine — new Marine regiment in Okinawa.
MS. SINGH: Yes.
Q: At the same time the Air Force has pulled out its F-15 unit in Kadena. Do you know if that came up in the discussions, the future of the U.S. air presence in Okinawa?
MS. SINGH: I don't — I don't know that that came up but I think that you saw last week the deep commitment that we have to the region and part of that was — was discussed in the Secretary's meeting and the Secretary of State's meeting at the Department of State. So that does not impact the relationship or the readiness or the threat in that region, yeah.
Q: Thanks. I just had a quick follow-up on an earlier question about the combined arms training, the Ukrainians in Europe. I'm not sure anybody from the podium has confirmed whether that's begun or not?
MS. SINGH: It has begun.
Q: It has begun. You can confirm that?
MS. SINGH: Yes. It has begun. It's about 500 to 600 Ukrainians that are being trained in Grafenwoehr. And that, I believe, started this weekend. Just this past weekend. Yes.
Q: Yes. So on — on long range munitions you mentioned (inaudible) in your answers. So it's — (inaudible) are surface to air defense and missiles. But can we — can you confirm that longer range surface-to-surface missiles with more offensive capabilities are on the table or off the table?
MS. SINGH: Well, I have — I'm not going to confirm anything. We haven't taken — as these contact groups and as these presidential draw down authorities packages come together, nothing is on or off the table. It's a discussion that we have here at the Department and across the interagency to determine what the Ukrainians need and to also maintain our own readiness.
So I just don't have anything further to add at that point.
Q: No, so on Crimea, you say — you didn't specifically mention that United States — because the story is coming out that the United States and Ukraine are discussing a potential Ukrainian plan for taking on Crimea. But you said OK, Crimea is part of Ukraine and generically the United States supports Ukraine taking back its territories.
Specifically is there any kind of U.S. advice, with respect to taking on — with respect to launching an offensive on Crimea to take back the territory from Russians?
MS. SINGH: Are you asking if we can — if the Ukrainians are consulting with us?
Q: If you're giving your advice — endorse such an operation on Crimea?
MS. SINGH: Well, we don't dictate to the Ukrainians how to run their operations. That has been said by multiple people here at this Department. The Ukrainians make the decisions about their operations and when they conduct them.
Crimea is part of Ukraine. We've made that very clear from the beginning. If they decide to conduct an operation within Crimea they are well in their bounds. That is a — that is a sovereign part of their country that was illegally invaded by Russia in 2014. They have every right to take that back.
Q: And the United States is also ready to support that operation on that specific chunk of land?
MS. SINGH: Well, I mean, what do you mean by support their operation? We're not on the ground. There are no boots on the ground there. So what do you — what do you?
Q: Militarily. Militarily, whatever capability needed to take that chunk of peninsula back from Russians, the United States is going to be there.
MS. SINGH: You've seen the United States be there for Ukraine and the — this department has said that we will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes. If that includes an operation in Crimea that is a — that is a sovereign part of their country and they have every right to — to take that back.
I'll take one more than we'll wrap up.
Q: Thank you for doing this.
MS. SINGH: Yes.
Q: (Inaudible) I just wanted to ask real quick. On the subject of air defense batteries for Ukraine — it was reported last month that the U.S. would seek to source NASAMS from the Middle East. I'm just wondering if there's any deliberation in the department or any effort underway to source additional air defense assets from that region for -
MS. SINGH: I wouldn't comment on where we're sourcing some of this. I mean, the NASAMS were part of our USAI package, so those go under contract and then get delivered into Ukraine. There are already two operating right now in Ukraine. And I believe our commitment has been a total of eight. So, I just wouldn't be able to comment any further on that.
Q: And I could just ask, the National Security Advisor was in Israel. I think, probably still is at the moment, to discuss top in the agenda the, you know, threats by Iran. Just wondering, it was mentioned previously that one of the issues that were going to be discussed was tactical differences with the Israelis on how to deal with the same strategic threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. I'm wondering if you can tell us anything about those tactical differences and whether the department has been informed if there's been any progress from those discussions.
MS. SINGH: I would direct you to the White House, as you just mentioned. Mr. Sullivan is there now. I would direct you to the White House for further comment.
OK, great. Thank you. Oh, I'm sorry, Luis. Yes, I'll take one more. Fine.
Q: So, at the previous briefing General Ryder took a lot of questions about the back pay issue with COVID. Has there been any progress on that? And also, maybe one question, I think is, did the Secretary ever consider whether to enable back pay for service members who refuse to take the vaccine?
MS. SINGH: I mean, as a matter of policy, DOD is not reviewing or is not — is not going to implement a policy of providing back pay to service members who are separated for refusing the vaccine. So, nothing has changed since what General Ryder said on Tuesday.
Q: But, you know, there was quite a long period of time between the passing of the signing of the legislation and when the guidance eventually came out. So, did the Secretary ever consider, during that time, whether to facilitate, as part of the review process, whether to enable back pay for service members?
MS. SINGH: Again, providing back pay for service members that were separated from the department for refusing to take the vaccine was not something that was under consideration. And that's not something that is our current policy.
Great, OK. Thank you so much. Oh — oh, do we have. OK. OK.
Q: Just one last question on Crimea.
MS. SINGH: All right.
Q: What is the strategic significance of recapturing that for Ukraine?
MS. SINGH: Well, I mean, I think you'd have to ask the Ukrainians that. I mean, that's part of their country — a part of their country that was taken by Russia. So, in terms of the significance that they see, I would direct you to them. But from an objective standpoint, I think it's pretty clear that recapturing part of their sovereign state is something that would send a huge message to Russia.
OK, great. Thank you all.