BRIGADIER GENERAL PAT RYDER: Good afternoon, everyone. It's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Mara Karlin, performing the duties of the deputy under secretary of defense for policy, who will provide some brief remarks about the AUKUS Optimal Pathway announced by President Biden yesterday. This is a trilateral commitment phase to phase plan for Australia to acquire conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines. Please note that Dr. Karlin will have time for a few questions afterwards, and then must depart. I'd ask that you please limit your questions to AUKUS, given that's her focus here today, and then after a brief pause, I'll stick around to provide some non-AUKUS updates and answer questions as well, so thank you for your assistance on this.
Dr. Karlin, over to you, ma'am.
PTDO DUSD(POLICY) MARA KARLIN: All right, thanks so much. Good afternoon. It's great to see you all.
Yesterday, you heard from President Biden, Prime Minister Albanese and Prime Minister Sunak on the agreement for Australia to acquire a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability through the Australia-United Kingdom-United States Enhanced Security Partnership, or AUKUS.
Yesterday concluded our 18-month thorough and expert-led consultation period to identify the Optimal Pathway for Australia to acquire this capability while setting the highest nuclear nonproliferation standard. This plan will deliver on that commitment and lift all three nations' submarine industrial bases and undersea capabilities, enhancing deterrence and promoting stability in the Indo-Pacific.
For the last seven decades, our three countries have stood shoulder-to-shoulder, along with our allies and partners, to help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. The Optimal Pathway will sustain that in the decisive decades ahead. As the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy describe, the United States must pursue a free, open and secure world to protect our national interests and those of our allies and our partners. AUKUS advances this goal by building our military capabilities and those of two of our very closest allies, enabling closer military planning and cooperation. It is a generational opportunity to enhance the national security of all three nations.
As the president shared in his remarks yesterday, the Optimal Pathway will deliver deterrence across several phases. Under the first phase of the Optimal Pathway, the United States and the United Kingdom will immediately increase port visits of conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines in Australia, and then as early as 2027 will begin rotating through Australia under Submarine Rotational Force -- West. This deployment will ensure Australian personnel can continue familiarizing themselves with how these vessels operate, how they are properly maintained and how we can continue safely operating together. The increased presence of U.S. submarines will buttress regional stability and support the safe development of Australian stewardship of its own sovereign conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine enterprise.
In the next phase, the United States intends to sell three Virginia class submarines to Australia in the 2030s, with the potential to sell up to two more if needed. This will provide Australia with the conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine capability prior to their enduring sovereign capability coming online. You will see three allied and highly interoperable SSN fleets operating in the Indo-Pacific.
The final phase will be our support for what we call SSN-AUKUS, a next generation, conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine designed and constructed by Australia and the UK and incorporating cutting edge U.S. technologies in the propulsion plant, combat control and weapons systems.
Australia's acquisition of SSNs will bolster the capabilities of one of our strongest allies by increasing the Royal Australian Navy's range, survivability and striking power, thus strengthening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.
Every phase of the optimal pathway will set the highest nuclear non-proliferation standards. Moreover, AUKUS will diversify U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific, offering new locations from which U.S. forces can operate, and AUKUS will strengthen U.S. and allied submarine industrial capacity, which is key to modernizing, innovating and maintaining our military and economic competitive edge today and in the future. Three highly capable allied and interoperable submarine forces will strengthen U.S. national security and buttress stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades to come.
We are also working to modernize our information sharing and export control systems, which is necessary for the effective implementation of AUKUS. As the National Defense Strategy outlines, the capacity to share information with key allies and partners is of critical importance to how the United States deters aggression and succeeds in contingencies.
We will work closely with the U.S. government, including the Congress, of course, and the United Kingdom and Australia to identify obstacles to information sharing and to develop innovative, rapid and scalable solutions to deliver on the President's vision for this historic partnership.
And with that, I'd be delighted to take your questions.
GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much, ma'am. All right, go out to the audience for questions. Yes, sir?
Q: Hi. Have you had any direct communications with other militaries erring concerns or issues about the AUKUS deal? And if so, what have they been?
And also, just on the selection of the Virginia class submarines that you -- you will eventually sell to Australia, what's the criteria for which submarines you select and how -- and when you deliver them?
DR. KARLIN: I want to make sure I understand the first part of your questions. When you've talked about communications with militaries, are you citing specific allies, partners?
Q: Anyone at all -- China to ASEAN countries, any other foreign military?
DR. KARLIN: Great. We have had a number of conversations with our allies and our partners in civilian channels, in military channels, of course, throughout the consultative period and then of course in the run up to yesterday's announcement, and have heard a substantial amount of enthusiasm from them for this historic, game-changing partnership.
Regarding engagements with the People's Republic of China, the State Department did do that and I would refer to you -- you -- I would refer you to them for the substance of that dialogue. I would, of course, highlight what you've heard often from Secretary Austin, which is that open communication between our two countries is important for risk management and for understanding what one another is thinking.
And then on your second question regarding Virginia, you know, why -- why we chose that, we looked at a wide number of options. It has been a robust and very busy 18 months of consultations and trying to look at a wide variety of options.
In terms of which submarines specifically will go, that will -- will go to rotate for Submarine Rotational Forces West. That's really going to be figured out through our normal military processes of such efforts.
GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Ryo?
Q: OK, thank you very much for doing this. I have two questions about the Submarine Rotational Force West. Can you say the new Rotational Force will increase the total number of U.S. submarine operating in the Western Pacific compared to today?
DR. KARLIN: And then do you have another question?
Q: Oh, yeah. Then -- then secondly, can you tell us -- can you talk a little bit about the advantage of having a rotational presence of the U.S. submarine outside of the Second Island Chain, in terms of deterring Chinese aggression in the region?
DR. KARLIN: All right, on -- on that first one, having three allies operating capable submarines around the Indo-Pacific is really critical for security and stability.
And I think that really tracks nicely to your next question, which -- look, to be very clear, AUKUS is not about any one country. It is about the need for security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. And our three countries of course have a robust history of collaborating together. This is going to take us to another level of interoperability.
I would highlight the significance of sharing this information with Australia. As you all probably know, the last time we did so, it was 1958. So it's really a sign of just how close this relationship is. For that to really occur in a responsible way, it's important that Australia develop stewardship practices, and that's what we have developed, this multi-phased, mutual commitments approach.
GEN. RYDER: Thank you. Let's go to Will.
Q: Thank you. Just regarding the -- the Virginia class submarines that -- that Australia will purchase in the 2030s, has -- has a specific model been selected or is that something that's a little bit down the road? And is -- will it basically be what's on the production line for -- that the U.S. is purchasing at that point? Will they be equipped with the -- the VPM to increase missile capacity or is it something tailored to Australia specifically?
DR. KARLIN: So first of all, it's worth noting that Australia will get these subs in just about a decade. That is frankly faster than I suspect a lot of folks might have expected when this whole effort was announced just 18 months ago.
Australia will be purchasing a mix of new -- new submarines and old submarines, and it -- right now, it looks like it will be two, with the potential to have -- excuse me, it will be three, with the potential for two more if needed.
As I noted earlier, the -- the cohort of folks looked at a wide range of different options and really came -- came down with Virginia as the right -- as the right approach. And Virginia Payload Module will not be a part of it. I think the three countries saw that that -- that that didn't make sense.
As -- as you no doubt know well, of course, these submarines are going to be especially special though because of their stealth, their range and their endurance. So there really will -- will be kind of a meaningful -- meaningful deterrent in the region.
GEN. RYDER: Let's go to Jim.
Q: Hi, it's good to see you. On the info sharing, going back to the question you answered just -- just a little bit before, is that -- is that a real showstopper? I mean, these -- these countries are all FVEY participants. So you don't really anticipate that being a -- a -- a problem with the info sharing with Australia, do you?
DR. KARLIN: You know, Jim, allies and partners are at the heart of the National Defense Strategy, right? They're a center of gravity for realizing that 2022 National Defense Strategy. And we know we have to lower the barriers to working with them, and information is just a piece of it.
You are exactly right, that these are two of our very closest allies who we have stood shoulder to shoulder with for much of the last 100 years or so. Nevertheless, we have processes that have to be figured out and to ensure that both pillars of AUKUS -- right, there are two pillars.
Today, we're very focused on Pillar One, which is the -- the -- the conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines, but there's also Pillar Two, right, this cooperation on advanced capabilities.
We know for that to be realized we are going to need very clear transparent, robust information-sharing practices. It's a great case study. These are exactly the right two allies to make it real. And we look forward to working with our colleagues around the U.S. government, including the Congress, to make that a reality.
GEN. RYDER: We have time for just a couple more. Joe?
Q: Hi -- hi, thanks for doing this. Joe Gould, Defense News. Just a follow-up on Jim's questions. I mean, what are the -- can you drill down a little bit to talk about what are the specific obstacles? Do you have a sense, I mean, after 18 months, do you have a sense of what some of the pieces of ITAR and what kind of information sharing needs to get changed?
DR. KARLIN: You know, Joe, we've spent a lot of time over these last 18 months figuring out how we can ensure that we deliver on this historic game-changing pledge by the three heads of state. And so, we've looked hard at the different changes that might need to happen. But I would say that there's probably more to be done along those lines.
But I can assure you that we will do all we can to both deliver on the submarines and to deliver on the advanced capabilities piece. We are in very close consultation with our colleagues at the State Department on the ITAR piece, specifically, and also with our colleagues in Congress.
But on the whole, I think we've all been pleased to see robust bipartisan support for making this a reality and really recognizing the sort of generational leap that we see in this alliance.
GEN. RYDER: OK. Thank you very much, ma'am. I appreciate your time today.
DR. KARLIN: Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: All right, thank you all very much. Just a few things at the top and then I'll get right to your questions. So, first of all, I would like to highlight U.S. European Command's statement released earlier today confirming that two Russian Su-27 aircraft conducted unsafe and unprofessional inter -- an unprofessional intercept with a U.S. Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Unmanned MQ-9 aircraft that was operating within international airspace over the Black Sea today.
To recap, at approximately 7:03 am Central European time, one of the Russian Su-27 aircraft struck the propeller of the MQ-9 causing U.S. forces to have to bring the MQ-9 down in international waters. Several times before the collision the Su-27s dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless and unprofessional manner. This incident demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.
U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Air Forces Africa routinely fly aircraft throughout Europe, over sovereign territory and throughout international airspace in coordination with applicable host nation and international laws, in order to bolster collective European defense and security these missions support allied partners and U.S. national objectives.
As the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Air Forces Africa commander emphasized in the European Command statement, quote, "U.S. and allied aircraft will continue to operate in international airspace, and we call on the Russians to conduct themselves professionally and safely.
In separate news, Secretary Austin concluded a successful visit to the Middle East region last week, where he met with leaders in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Israel. The week-long trip served to deepen defense partnerships and enable the exchange of views on shared regional and global security challenges.
Specific topics of discussion included ongoing coalition-led defeat ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria, the concerning range of threats posed by Iran, including its destabilizing regional activities in provision of unmanned aerial systems to Russia for use in their unprovoked war against Ukraine, and implementing commitments made by Israelis and Palestinian's senior officials in Aqaba, Jordan, and the importance of de-escalating violence and restoring calm in the West Bank.
The secretary also had the opportunity to talk to a number of U.S. service members currently serving in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility and thanked them and their families for their commitment to mission, service and safeguarding our nation.
And finally, Secretary Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley will host the 10th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group tomorrow. The meeting will be hosted virtually here in the Pentagon and will allow for the secretary, the chairman and senior defense leaders from around the world to discuss ongoing efforts to provide Ukraine with the means and resources it needs to defend itself from Russian aggression. Additional information on tomorrow's meeting will be forthcoming. And with that, I will take your questions.
We'll start with Reuters, Phil?
Q: Is the secretary or anyone else in the U.S. military reached out to his Russian counterpart or anyone else's counterparts from Russia? And regarding the MQ-9, you know, what can you -- detail a little bit more what its mission was and where was it being piloted from?
GEN. RYDER: Yes, sure. So, in terms of Secretary Austin talking to his counterpart, not at this time, to my knowledge. DOD officials have not spoken specifically to Russian authorities on this particular incident. I do know that the State Department is raising our concerns about the incident directly with the Russian government. So, I'd refer you to them for details on that.
In terms of the -- the mission of the MQ-9, as I mentioned, it's an ISR platform. You know, these -- these aircraft have been flying over the Black Sea region for some time, to include before the current conflict started. It is an important and busy international waterway. And so, it is not an uncommon mission for us to be flying in international airspace.
Q: And so, what kind of precautions will you be taking going forward? And have an armed accompanying aircraft or -- and was this aircraft armed?
GEN. RYDER: So, I'm not going to get into the specific profile of this particular aircraft. As you know, the MQ-9 does have the ability to be armed. It was, again, conducting an ISR mission in international airspace, something that we've been doing for some time.
In terms of the types of tactic techniques and procedures that we take to protect our aircraft, I'm not going to get into the specifics. I think the key point here is that while intercepts in and of themselves are not that uncommon, the fact that this type of behavior from these Russian pilots, that is uncommon and unfortunate and unsafe. And so, again, would echo General Hecker's call on the Russians to continue to fly safely. Thank you.
Q: Thank you, Pat. Thanks. Was this collision itself an accident on Russia's behalf? And is the U.S. responding as such?
GEN. RYDER: So, you know, we are continuing to assess exactly what happened. But I think, based on the actions of the Russian pilots, it's clear that it was unsafe, unprofessional. And I think the actions speak for themselves. What we -- what we saw, again, were fighter aircraft dumping fuel in front of this UAV and then getting so close to the aircraft that it actually damaged the propeller on the MQ-9.
We assess that it likely caused some damage to the Russian aircraft as well, to our knowledge. What -- we know that the aircraft -- the Russian aircraft did land. I'm not going to go into where they landed. But again, it just demonstrative of a very unprofessional, unsafe airmanship on the part of these pilots.
Q: Thank you. One -- one more question, sorry. Will the U.S. try to recover this drone?
GEN. RYDER: So I'm not -- I don't have anything right now to provide in terms of recovery operations. If we have any updates to provide, then we'll be sure to do that. Thanks.
Q: Is there video of the incident? Are you going to release the video? Where in the Black Sea did it happen? How close to Russian airspace? And did you say that this particular Reaper was unarmed?
GEN. RYDER: Again, I didn't say whether it was or was not. I'm not going to get into the particular mission profile of this aircraft. It was conducting an -- an ISR mission.
In terms of the specifics, David, I'm not going to, at this point, be able to get more specific, other than the Black Sea region in international air -- airspace, well -- well clear of -- of any type of -- yeah, it was in international airspace.
And then I'm sorry, the other part of your question?
Q: The video.
GEN. RYDER: The video, yeah. So we are going through the -- the declassification process now and we'll keep you updated on that front, in terms of imagery associated with this incident.
Travis? I'm laser-focused on your question here.
Q: No, this is just a very quick one. You haven't said Reaper but he said Reaper. Is it accurate to say it's MQ-9 Reaper?
GEN. RYDER: I'm just going to stick with MQ-9. Yep, thanks.
Q: Hi. Thanks so much, Pat. The -- an MQ-9 potentially contains sensitive technology. Is the U.S. military undertaking any effort to recover the MQ-9? Is it in the -- is it in the waters of the Black Sea? Has Russia recovered it? Is there a U.S. naval asset in the -- in the region that could undertake that recovery? Thanks.
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so I'm -- again, I'm not going to get into the specifics of what's on this particular aircraft, other than, again, it's an ISR platform. Because of the damage, we were in a position to have to essentially crash it into the Black Sea.
To my knowledge at this point in time, the Russians have not recovered that aircraft, but again, in terms of our recovery efforts, don't have any updates to provide right now. I'd refer you to NAVEUR, in terms of what assets they may have in that region. Thank you.
Q: Thank you, General. Regarding the -- North Korea's submarine-launched strategic cruise missiles recently, North Korea has announced that it is possible to mount a nuclear warhead on a -- strategic cruise missiles. What is the readiness of the United States against escalated provocations, such as the nuclear provocation by the -- North Korea?
GEN. RYDER: Let -- let me just make sure I understand. What's the readiness of the U.S. to respond to a nuclear provocation by North Korea? Well, I think we've been very clear that were North Korea to employ a nuclear weapon, it would be the end of the North Korean regime.
But again, our focus continues to be on working very closely with our allies and our partners in the region to deter aggression, to preserve security and stability in the region, and that will continue to be our -- our focus.
Let me go to Carla.
Q: Just a real quick clarification -- what did the fighter jet -- what did he -- he strike the -- the MQ-9 with? Was it the wing, was it the tail ...
GEN. RYDER: ... the -- I can't tell you specifically what portion of the aircraft but it -- the fact that it essentially ran into the MQ-9.
Q: OK, thank you.
And then just separately on Ukraine, there's reports out there from the -- the battlefield that the Ukrainians are running out of munitions, they're having shortages. Is that a concern for the Pentagon? And what's the Pentagon doing to alleviate that problem?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so as we've been doing since the beginning of this campaign, we're continuing to do everything that we can to ensure that we're meeting Ukraine's needs, whether it's ammunition, whether it's air defense, armor. You know, you've heard us talk extensively about that.
Tomorrow's discussion, of course, will be another opportunity to bring the international community together to focus on Ukraine's most urgent needs, to include ammunition. And so again, that will continue to be our focus and -- and you've heard Secretary Austin and others say that we're committed to making sure that they have what they need to be successful.
Q: Is there an assessment on why they're running out of -- I'm sorry, thanks -- is there an assessment that the Pentagon has on why they're running out of ammunition? Is it just because they're expending it too fast, is it not making it to the battlefield in time? What's your assessment?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, really -- so I'd have to refer you to the Ukrainians to talk about their specific efforts to supply their individual units. Again, we're working very closely with them and our international partners to get them what they need.
And -- and I think it's also important to kind of take a step back and look at the progress that has been made, while recognizing the fact that there still is a tough fight ahead, particularly as we go into the -- the spring and summer.
And so our -- our focus, again, is going to be working with national armaments directors, with the Ukrainians, to get them the ammunition they need and get that to the front line units as quickly as possible.
Let me go back over to this side of the room. Yes, sir?
Q: Thank you. Can you guide us through the time -- sorry, thank you -- can you guide us through the timeline of the MQ-9 intercept? We heard that the aircraft was struck at 7:03 Eastern Time but how long were the Sukhois with the aircraft beforehand? And were there any radio calls between -- radio communications, either from the Russians or from the United States?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so on the latter part of your question, no, none that I'm aware of.
And I would ask that you go back and confirm this with EUCOM, but -- but based on the information I have here, it seems like approximately 30 to 40 minutes they were flying in the vicinity of this MQ-9, and then at 7:03 is when the -- 7:03 am Central European Time is when they collided, causing it to crash, so.
Q: (The U.S. forces has -- had to bring down the -- the -- the aircraft. Does that mean that you -- United States piloted it to the crash site or ...
GEN. RYDER: Yes.
Q: ... was it struck by a missile or ...
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, we brought it down.
GEN. RYDER: Yep.
Q: And -- and -- and then also, is there any U.S. naval assets currently in -- in Black Sea?
GEN. RYDER: Again, I'd -- I'd have to refer you to NAVEUR for any details on particular assets in the region. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Thanks. Can you talk a little bit more about the damage to the MQ-9? I mean, was it unflyable and -- and that's why you had to bring it down?
And then can you say a little bit more about how often this kind of thing happens in -- over the Black Sea, that Russian aircraft harass U.S. drones and -- and other aircraft?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so I don't have any statistics in front of me, in terms of intercepts, but again, as I highlighted, the fact that intercepts of aircraft are not uncommon in and of themself -- so it's -- it's not obviously a daily occurrence -- the vast majority of those intercepts are what we would consider safe and professional. Just wanting to see what's there, right? You're flying alongside it to -- to be able to see what's there.
In this particular case, though, again, they collided with the aircraft, damaging the propeller and essentially putting it in a situation where it was unflyable, uncontrollable, so we brought it down. Thank you.
Time for a few more. We'll go here and then to Fadi.
Q: Hi, sir, thanks. Just wanted to check to confirm -- any communication with allies, such as Turkey, about potential recovery of the drone? And is there any concern that Russia could provide the drone to Iran if it recovers it?
GEN. RYDER: So that -- that would be a hypothetical. Again, Russia does not have the drone, so that would be a hypothetical question.
In terms of working with allies and partners, I don't have anything to announce here but if and when we do, we'll be sure to let you know. Thank you.
Go to Fadi and then we'll come back over here to the last two. Yep?
Q: Thank you, General. So on -- I know you don't want to share lots of information, especially intelligence information, but are you able to say whether the MQ-9 was flying near Ukraine or near the Crimea Peninsula?
And then I -- I believe you said, if I heard right, that the Russians did not recover the -- the drone. However, have you seen any effort by the Russian Navy to try to recover the drone? Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: Yeah -- yeah, so on -- on your latter question there, Fadi, I'm not going to get into that.
In terms of where it was flying, it was well clear of any territory in Ukraine. It was over international -- in international airspace, over international water, so. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. During Secretary Austin's visit to Egypt, he held meetings with officials, even though all press were banned from covering it. Past defense chiefs, when they've been in a similar situation, have refused to proceed.
Given that the Biden administration has said that one of its key pillars in terms of foreign policy is that one presented with the -- a choice between autocrats and democracies, that it stands with democracies, can you help us understand why the Secretary decided to proceed with those trips, given the ban, and should we expect that going forward? Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: Thank you. So our relationship with Egypt is obviously a very important strategic partnership. The Secretary did appreciate the opportunity to meet with his counterparts and talk about that.
I will tell you, when it come -- when it came to the press coverage of that portion, having looked further into it, the Egyptians lived up to what they had agreed upon. Some of the lessons learned out of that was in terms of making sure that we were on the same sheet when it came to understanding press access. And so we will continue to work that.
Q: I'm sorry, could you clarify -- the U.S. had agreed beforehand that there would be a ban of journalists?
GEN. RYDER: We did not agree to a ban on journalists. We -- we agreed to have official photographers. We did have one reporter come into one of the sessions but then a portion that was going to be open to the press was subsequently not held and therefore there was not an opportunity to cover that.
But again, sometimes these meetings are -- are very small, sometimes there's not the opportunity for media to come in, but again, it's something that we've noted and we'll continue to work closely with governments as we visit to ensure that there's press access. Thank you.
Q: Just regarding the budget, for the last few years, the services have pursued a divest to invest strategy and Congress hasn't necessarily bought into that. This year, the Air Force is looking to retire more than 300 aircraft, double the amount last year. Again, Congress last year didn't give that full amount.
Is there a sense that things have changed on the Hill, that there's a willingness to approve greater divestment or is this now becoming kind of a cat and mouse game of shoot with a higher number, knowing you're going to get less, to try to get to where you want to be?
GEN. RYDER: Well, when it comes to the Air Force budget specifically, I of course would refer you to them to talk in specifics. And -- and I don't want to answer for Congress.
What I will say is, having observed this process, I do think, like anything, there's a continuing dialogue, in terms of what the services require to meet their mission requirements and -- and working closely with Congress and with the Department of Defense to identify what those offsets might be in order to ensure that we can modernize, you know, throughout all of the services.
And so I think, in a lot of ways, as that communication has increased, you're seeing some of the -- the fruits of that labor, but again, I'd refer you to the Air Force for specifics on their budget.
OK, thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate it.