BRIGADIER GENERAL PAT RYDER: Good afternoon, everyone. Quite a few items to pass along at the top, so I'd ask you to bear with me, and then I'll be happy to get your questions.
First, on behalf of Secretary Austin and the Department of Defense, I would like to offer our heartfelt condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the nine U.S. Army soldiers assigned to the 101st Airborne Division who sadly lost their lives last night when two Black Hawk helicopters crashed outside of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. According to Army officials, the helicopters were performing planned night-training flight operations at the time of the incident. An aircraft safety team from Fort Rucker, Alabama, will arrive later today and will begin an investigation. And again, our thoughts and prayers are with the families, the units and all those affected by this tragedy. And for additional question, I'd refer you to Army Public Affairs.
Separately, earlier today, Secretary Austin met with his Romanian counterpart, Minister Tilvar, to affirm our enduring bilateral defense relationship. Secretary Austin thanked Romania for hosting thousands of U.S. and allied forces to defend NATO's eastern flank, and for Romania's leadership role in the Black Sea region. The two leaders also saluted the 30-year anniversary of Romania's State Partnership Program with the Alabama National Guard. The secretary looks forward to future meetings and opportunities to work with our Romanian allies. A full readout will be posted to defense.gov later today.
On the training front, since Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022, U.S. European Command, U.S. Army Europe and Africa and Security Assistance Group Ukraine have trained more than 7,000 members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Just this week, 65 Ukrainian air defenders completed Patriot training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and have now arrived back in Europe. They're integrating with other Ukrainian air defenders, along with donated Patriot air defense equipment from the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. Once in Ukraine, the Patriot air defense system will add to Ukraine's layered air defenses to provide protection and shield from Russia's wanton, brutal attacks on innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Meanwhile in Germany, at the close of this month, more than 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers and two brigades, one equipped with M2 Bradleys and one equipped with Strykers will have completed combined-arms training and have returned to Ukraine. Additional combined-arms training is currently underway at Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels training areas in Germany, with two motorized infantry battalions consisting of 1,200 Ukrainian Armed Forces personnel. Operator and maintenance training on donated platforms is also ongoing, with more than 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers having completed platform training and 40 different programs of instruction on more than 20 systems since April of 2022. Training for Ukrainian Forces is an international effort being conducted in partnership with our coalition partners, who are currently training more than 11,000 Ukrainian soldiers across 26 different nations. The U.S. will continue to provide training and work closely with our allies and partners to ensure the Ukrainian people have the security assistance they need to defend the country -- their country and repel Russian aggression. We remain committed to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.
Finally, I'd also like to provide a quick update on where things stand in regards to our recent air strikes against Iranian-backed groups in Syria, as well as the status of our forces who were wounded during attacks by those groups.
First, we now assess that eight militants were killed in our strikes against two IRGC Quds Force facilities near Deir ez-Zor by U.S. Air Force F-15E fighters assigned to U.S. Air Forces Central. Again, these precision strikes were taken to protect and defend U.S. personnel.
Second, the six U.S. personnel wounded in the March 23rd attack against a coalition base near Hasakah in northeastern Syria are all in stable condition. Two of the wounded U.S. service members have already returned to duty. One service member was medically evacuated to Landstuhl to receive treatment and two U.S. service members and the U.S. contractor are receiving medical treatment in Iraq. Separately, the U.S. service member injured in the attack against Mission Support Site Conoco on March 24 is also in stable condition and continues to receive medical care.
As Secretary Austin made clear during his congressional testimony this week, we will take all necessary measures to defend our troops and our interests overseas. To underscore, in response to a pattern of Iranian and Iran-backed attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria and the continuing threat of future such attacks, the United States has taken, and as necessary, will continue to take military action against the IRGC and its affiliates. This includes the use of force against IRGC and IRGC-affiliate personnel and facilities and the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility with the intention to convince the Iranians to de-escalate threats against the United States, our interests and our people. Again, we do not see conflict with Iran, but we will always protect our people.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. Go to Associated Press, Lita Baldor.
Q: Thanks, Pat. One quick thing, and then a question. On Syria, you mentioned U.S. forces that are injured, and also insurgents that were injured. Are there -- and killed. Is that eight militants? Is that the total number of militants that U.S. has killed and/or injured by U.S. strikes altogether during that time period?
GEN. RYDER: That's correct.
Q: And then are there any additional U.S. injuries or other -- anything else that's happened, any other strikes that have happened?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah.
Q: And then I have a question.
GEN. RYDER: Sure.
So no -- no additional strikes than the ones that we've announced, and that -- that is correct. We assess that eight militants were killed as a result of those airstrikes.
In addition to the seven injured service members that I highlighted, there were an additional six U.S. service members that have subsequently been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as a result of the-Iranian backed attacks. Specifically four U.S. service members at the coalition base near Hasakah during the March 23rd attack, and two at Mission Support Site Green Village on the March 24 attack. And as standard procedure, all personnel in the vicinity of a blast are screened for traumatic brain injuries. So these additional injuries were identified during post-attack medical screenings.
Q: And are all the screenings complete?
GEN. RYDER: Those will be ongoing as a matter of standard procedure. So there is always the possibility that there could be additional. But that's where we're at right now.
Q: Okay, then just one quick thing. The White House announced earlier today that Russia has reached out again to North Korea for some additional weapons et cetera, support for the war. Has the Pentagon seen any indication that any other additional weapons or any other military support is either preparing or moving from North Korea to Russia?
GEN. RYDER: We have not at this time, beyond which had been previously announced beyond the shipment that Wagner Group had previously arranged for. But it's, again, something we continue to keep a close eye on.
All right? Let's go ahead and go to Janne and then we'll go to Idrees.
Q: Thank you, General. I have two questions. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has mentioned the review of redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea. What is the Pentagon's position on that?
GEN. RYDER: I'm sorry, Janne, I didn't understand that.
Q: The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has mentioned review of redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons --
GEN. RYDER: Sure.
Q: -- in South Korea.
GEN. RYDER: Well, of course, we'll always continue to work closely with the Congress. Our current policy is the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So at this time that will continue to remain our policy.
Q: (And to need ?) a more stronger extended deterrence in South Korea (inaudible)?
GEN. RYDER: Well, you know, as you know, we are in constant discussion with our South Korean allies and our partners in the region on extended deterrence to ensure that we can deter aggression from countries like North Korea or China. And we'll continue to stay focused on that.
Thank you. Let me go ahead --
Q: THAAD -- THAAD --
GEN. RYDER: No, let me -- let me go ahead --
Q: THAAD is stationed in South Korea recently started resuming training. How do you view it? And do you have a -- other plans to additional THAAD deployment to Korea?
GEN. RYDER: Yes, I don't have anything to announce right now. Let me go to Idrees.
Q: Just on the TBI that you announced. Are the troops still on the bases or have they been medevaced out? And on the helicopter crash in Kentucky, did you have a sense of the ages -- the range of ages of those who were killed? And are you confident in the aircraft? Are -- are you looking at a potential stand down, the Army, that is?
GEN. RYDER: Sure. So in terms of the troops that were diagnosed with TBI, to my knowledge they are being treated at those bases right now. Although there is the potential, obviously, for additional medical care. So I'd refer you to CENTCOM for the status of that.
In terms of the Black Hawk crash, so right now the Army is going through the process of next of kin notification. So it would be inappropriate at this point to release any additional information. Certainly more will be provided as it becomes available.
In terms of any type of stand down for aircraft, none that I'm tracking at this point. Of course, that's certainly, you know, the prerogative of the Army and -- as it manages its aircraft, but again, I'd refer you to them for the current status. Thank you.
Let me go to Fadi and then Ryo.
Q: Thank you, General. I have one follow-up on -- on Syria and a -- a separate question.
So the eight militants that you have confirmation they died in those strikes, are you able to confirm what group they belong to and whether they are Iranians or not?
GEN. RYDER: So Fadi, what I would tell you is, to my knowledge, not Iranians but these were individuals that are associated with the IRGC.
Q: Okay. And then on -- in the Congress, Congressman Jamaal Bowman is -- is leading an effort calling on the administration to determine -- determine whether any U.S. weapons have been used in -- by Israel to -- in violation of U.S. laws or human rights violations.
So first, does the Secretary have any concerns that U.S. weapons have been -- may have been used in occupied West Bank, in violation of human rights, in light of the recent escalation we saw? And does he support measures to make sure that no U.S. weapons are used to violate the rights of the -- or kill, for that matter, civilians within the Palestinian population? Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Fadi. So a couple of things there. So first of all, you know, as it pertains to congressional correspondence, we of course will respond to Congress appropriately. And so I don't want to get ahead of any kind of response.
When it comes to security assistance to Israel, you know, our commitment to Israel's security is ironclad. We will continue to be committed to their qualitative military edge in the region but you've also heard us say, you know, most recently, when Secretary Austin visited Israel, speaking with Israeli leaders and highlighting that our focus continues to remain on communicating with Israel, with the Palestinians and our partners in the region to try to deescalate tensions, restore calm, and we would call for no action that is going to increase the insecurity in the region. Thank you.
Let me go ahead and go to Ryo and then I'll come back over here.
Q: Yeah, thank you very much. The Taiwanese President Tsai is now in New York and China said China might retaliate. So have you -- have you seen any irregular movement of the Chinese military or any indications of -- of the Chinese preparing major exercises around Taiwan over the last few days?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Ryo. So without really getting into intelligence, I would say we have not seen anything particular concerning or out of the ordinary at this stage. We continue to monitor, of course.
Go to (Kelly ?).
Q: Thank you so much, General. It's Brandi from DefenseScoop.
GEN. RYDER: Oh, sorry.
Q: Considering the number of catastrophic military training incidents in the last decade, does Secretary Austin see the need to launch a broader oversight review that should be conducted across all of the services on aviation and other training mishaps that have put lives in danger?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks for the question. I apologize about getting your name wrong there. So a couple of things.
So first of all, in the United States military, we take safety very, very seriously. Each of the services, each aviation unit, down to the unit level, will have a safety branch whose primary role is to do exactly that, maintain constant situational awareness on safety. And so that is something that is baked into our culture and something that we will continue to do.
I'm not aware of a DOD-wide review. Certainly, any time there's an accident, you know, it is incredibly unfortunate and something we take incredibly seriously, and every single investigation is intended to help us learn from that to prevent future accidents from happening. Unfortunately, a lot of what we do is inherently dangerous, and so, you know, this is something that we're always going to constantly be working out. And -- as in the case of the Black Hawk helicopter crash, as you heard me say, there's a team already enroute to Alabama to begin that investigation.
So again, it's something that we, as a department, will always take very, very seriously and we'll just never let up on that.
Q: Before my other question, the team on the way -- associated with OSD or is that strictly an Army team?
GEN. RYDER: That -- my understanding is that's an Army investigative team.
Q: Okay, so no OSD team?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, and that's standard for these types of crashes. So if -- you know, in the Air Force, for example, if it was an Air Force accident, there'd be a team in the Air Force that's assigned to investigate that.
Q: Sure. I'm just thinking of the Navy crash and how a lot of people seem to be dying in training more than combat lately.
So other question, has Secretary Austin been briefed on the auto abort of the SpaceX SDA tranche zero launch this morning? What are his comments? And do you all remain confident in your plans moving forward?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so the Secretary, as I'm sure you can imagine, is aware of a lot of things. Certainly, you know, has been briefed on that. Just to provide some perspective, not uncommon for space launches to go through a checklist before launch, to make sure that there's no anomalies, given the expense of the payloads and safety and security. So my understanding is that there will be another attempt tomorrow for this launch, and so we'll certainly be keeping an eye on that. Thank you.
We'll go to Liz. Yep.
Q: To follow up on Brandi's question -- so I understand there's no DOD investigation going on with the Black Hawk crash. The investigation that will start as soon as the team arrives, does that have the potential, depending on the findings, to ground other Black Hawk helicopters? Basically what -- depending on what they find, how -- how big of a problem could this be? What does it have the potential to -- to mean?
GEN. RYDER: So -- great question. Again, you know, any commander anywhere has the -- depending on the situation, has the ability to stand down equipment or call for those kinds of things. I don't want get into hypotheticals or get ahead of ourselves. We need to allow time for this investigation.
But it -- for example, any time there is the potential for a fleet of aircraft to have some type of systemic issue, then certainly, again, those fleets can be stood down. You've seen us do that with other types of aircraft in the past.
Again, I'm not aware of anything like that right now for the Black Hawk. We need to allow time for the investigation to run its course. Again, without getting into hypotheticals, during the course of that investigation, were something to become -- were we - to become aware of a need to do that or if there was something that was systemic, then certainly that is a step that could be taken, but again, we need to allow time for this investigation to run its course. Thank you.
Q: Just a very quick question on the Ukrainians being trained, the numbers you gave there. The Ukrainians who are currently in training, is there an effort to get that training completed before an anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive? Is that sort of the schedule you're working on? And are there subsequent plans to bring more troops in, following this group on the combined arms training and -- and other systems?
GEN. RYDER: Were you trying to ask me for the date of a Ukrainian counter-offensive? I'm just kidding.
Q: No --
GEN. RYDER: I'm just kidding. Yeah. So -- so a couple of things there.
So first of all, again, I'm not going to talk about potential future operations, I'm not going to talk about timelines. You know, this training -- this program for the combined arms training began in January, and at the time, we announced that -- the course for the -- battalion level courses would take about five weeks each as we cycled forces through. So that is on schedule as these tranches of forces come through to provide that mechanized brigade combined-arms training. That is all on track and on pace.
In terms of additional Ukrainian forces, as has been the case from the beginning, that is a iterative discussion with the Ukrainians in terms of what their needs are, and then you know, keeping in mind that they need to be able to ensure that they have the forces they need on the actual battlefield. So you know, we'll continue to train them, continue to have those discussions on what kind of future training might they need. But in terms as it relates to any type of potential future operations. I'm just not going to be able to talk about that. Thank you.
Q: Well, last week, the secretary said that they -- no one, no group could strike the U.S. and U.S. forces with impunity. So can you help us understand why there hasn't been another retaliatory strike in Syria as a result of the three attacks that happened over the weekend, one that injured a U.S. service member? And -- and now, we're hearing -- and caused at least two TBIs. Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so again, you know, we took action. We struck two IRGC Quds Force targets, as I highlighted, and that was proportionate action, and it was deliberate action in order to, again, send a message that -- to your point, that U.S. forces will not be attacked with impunity. And so as I highlighted in my topper, we will continue to take appropriate action at a time and place of our choosing to ensure that our forces are protected.
As it pertains to, you know, potential or speculative future operations, again, I'm not ever going to talk about potential future operations or speculate on those things, other than to say that we mean it when we say it. We will take appropriate action to protect our forces and we will always do so at a time and place of our choosing. Thank you.
We'll go to the back of the room there.
Q: Thank you. Just a follow-up about a visit of the president of Taiwan on Chinese threats. Did the -- did the United States military have to take any precautions, additional precautions because of this visit?
GEN. RYDER: So really, I mean, just again, to put this in a perspective, a president-sized transit of the United States, you know, the Department of Defense, of course, were monitoring that for obvious reasons, but really not -- playing much of a role in that regard. So again, we'll continue to keep an eye on the Indo-Pacific region, and I'll just leave it at that. Thank you very much.
Q: A couple questions on classification issues. This week, a new Washington, D.C. organization called the new -- Nonproliferation Policy Education Center issued a very scathing report in over-classification. The Wall Street Journal and Stars & Stripes picked it up, so troops are reading about it. It was pretty critical, and it says here that over-classification -- an over-classification epidemic is killing off our nation's common defense, not protecting it. Can you broadly address that claim?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so Tony, I don't necessarily want to comment on somebody else's report. When it comes to classification -- and we've talked about this in the past, you know, certainly, as DOD members, we're all required to take training, regular training on the appropriate classification of information, and that's something that we continue to work at and something we know we can continue to do better. As we've talked about in the past, there is an ongoing review, and certainly, when that review (inaudible) but on that, but again, it is something that we are aware of that we need to address and work on.
Q: May -- may I follow up? The review was -- by Secretary Hicks was supposed to be done by, like, January 30th, according to the Appropriations Committee legislation last year. She hasn't -- the Pentagon hasn't sent it over yet. Why the delay? And when might it be completed?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, let me take that question. I'll come back to you.
Q: Okay, thanks.
GEN. RYDER: Thank you.
Q: Feel better.
GEN. RYDER: Thanks. Is it that obvious?
Q: Thank you for taking my question. My question is related to Ukrainian aid. So last week, Republican lawmakers sent a letter to President Biden urging the administration to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions. So does DOD support using cluster munitions in Ukraine?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so again, I'm not going to get ahead of any announcements that we're making, so I don't have anything further on that. Thank you.
Go here, and we'll go there.
Q: Christina Anderson. Thank you, General. As Russia assumes the chairmanship of the U.N. Security Council, are we -- is there -- are you tracking any potential for them to use this as an opportunity on the battlefield in Ukraine or elsewhere around the world in some contested areas?
GEN. RYDER: Yeah, I am not -- that's probably a question better addressed by the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Again, you know, we've seen in the past Russia attempts to use some of its international positions to, obviously, advocate for its position on things. But from a DOD standpoint, I don't have anything to provide on that.
Q: And a follow-up, if I may? Regarding the helicopter crash in Kentucky, it seems that training incidents are part of the risk of -- that service members must bear as part of the service to the nation. As we go forward in a world that's fairly contested, as it seems it's more contested -- feels more contested every day, can we anticipate perhaps additional risk that the service members must assume in training, or is this something that we hope to mitigate? Thank you.
GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So when it comes to military training, we're always going to try to take into account mitigating some of the risks associated with that training. As I mentioned before, a lot of the training that our service members do is by nature dangerous, right, whether it's live fire exercises, whether it's aircraft training, whether it's, you know, training on ships at sea, there are many dangerous aspects of that. And so writing into training plans efforts to ensure that safety is taken into account, as I mentioned, our safety offices work very diligently every day trying to identify potential hazards in order to mitigate and reduce risks.
That said, that risk will always be there. And so again, this will be one of those things that we're just going to always have to work at and just never be satisfied with. And so we're obviously committed to doing that because at the end of the day, it's about ensuring that we have U.S. service members who are ready to go wherever we need them to go, when we need them to go there to do the important work that we're asking them to do on behalf of our nation. Thank you.
Time for just a couple more. Next -- last question. Yes, ma'am?
Q: Thank you. Yesterday, Secretary Austin agreed that there hadn't been any accountability for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. I'm just wondering if you can clarify that statement. Did he mean be -- it's because -- is -- is it needed, or is there more actions that need to be taken in DOD or somewhere else in the -- the White House, the executive branch to -- to review person's actions? Or, I'm just -- can you expand a little bit more on what -- what he meant with that statement?
GEN. RYDER: I mean, when you say "agree there was no accountability," what do you -- I don't recall him saying that.
Q: He was -- he -- yet he said "I agree that there's no accountability." He said "I agree."
GEN. RYDER: Okay. I think the context here -- you know, in terms of Secretary Austin's view of the situation in Afghanistan and how the withdrawal went -- so first of all, the Secretary was -- you know, his views on the performance of our service members, our men and women during a very chaotic time -- and he felt they performed magnificently under incredibly trying conditions.
You know, obviously, very regretful, in terms of the fact that we lost 13 service members in a suicide attack during that event, but we had a mission to do, it was to withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, and again, despite incredibly chaotic situations, we were able to evacuate more than 124,000 people from that country and we did it in a way that the United States military only could, working very closely with our partners and our allies, again, in a very, very challenging situation.
So again, I think that's the important context to understand here, is that the Secretary is incredibly proud of the way that our men and women performed in a situation that was obviously a very trying and chaotic situation. So thank you.
Thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate it.