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Press Gaggle With Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in Singapore


Q: Good morning.

STAFF: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, just a reminder for the ground rules today. This will be on the record, which means you may quote the secretary by name. I will go ahead and give you a heads up when we have time for our last question, very limited on time today, but we'll try to get to all your questions. So I'll it turn it over the secretary and we'll go from there.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks a lot for being with us on a trip, and again, we're probably halfway through this trip, around the world trip. Hopefully you were able to get a lot out of the last two days. These conferences are always a good chance for us to, as ministers of defense, to catch up with each other. There are all kinds of opportunities to do bilateral engagements, trilateral, engagements, multilateral, and we took advantage of that. I know you have had a chance to review my remarks from yesterday, and my intent was to highlight some of the things that we as a team have accomplished over the last two years, especially the last year, and as you heard, it is not insignificant and clearly there's more work to be done, but what's impressive is what we see countries doing with each other. And I continue to hear a strong interest in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region; also continue to see and hear interest in countries modernizing and improving their own defense capabilities., and so we -- this is in terms of DOD.

You know this is -- this region is our number-one focus area. You've heard me describe China as our pacing challenge. That has not changed. We chose those words carefully. "Challenge" is a -- is a word that we wanted to use, and still use. So, and as you look at our budget request, you know, you heard me say this number of times as well. Our budget request is directly linked to our strategy, and you see us continuing to invest in things that are relevant to our efforts in this region, Pacific Deterrence Initiative, you know, what we're doing to invest in high-quality air forces and naval forces, and certainly what we continue to do in research and development. So again, thanks for being with us, and we'll start with your questions.

STAFF: Right. Let's go ahead and start with Matt right in the middle table.

Q: Thank you, Secretary Austin.

Yesterday during your speech you, of course, addressed the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. I wanted to ask you, as we await a Ukrainian counteroffensive, one that might go from an expected spring counteroffensive to an expected summer counteroffensive, are you concerned at all that after all of this time and after the buildup and hype that there's any worry that should Ukraine fail to make significant battlefield gains when it does go forward, that it could shake the will to support Ukraine and continue sending aid, both domestically and from allies and partners in the region? And do you personally expect that when they do go forward, without getting into timing, that they will achieve significant progress?

SEC. AUSTIN: Yes, so I try to remind people all the time that this is war. And so anybody that thinks they can accurately produce any type of outcome in a war, you know, I just have another thing coming for -- to them because it's just -- it doesn't happen that way. There will be stops and starts. There will be things that happen that, you know, Ukrainians didn't anticipate. There will be opportunities for the Ukrainians to exploit. Our goal was to -- and I remind people, that there's no certainty in any of this, and so we need to be prepared to continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. In all of my engagements with our counterparts, that's what I get spontaneously as they're -- they recognize that this could be much longer than anyone anticipated, and so they're going to be in there for the long haul if that's what it takes.

In terms of expectations, I've fought this kind of fight before and I know how things can unfold but I, you know, our goal has been to provide them with the capability so that they have an opportunity to be successful. If you look at, you know, the fact that without this capability they have managed to really inflict a significant damage on Russian forces and destroyed a lot of their equipment. But what we've done is create nine additional motorized and mechanized brigades to add to their combat power, and that's -- if you add that to, you know, what they've already been doing, I think it does -- it will make a difference. In addition to that, we trained an additional three brigades to serve as, you know, reserve or follow-on forces. Those brigades are now in Ukraine as well, so that's a total of 12 brigades. 

We're training three more in Germany and continuing to try to equip them as well. So, but what I convey to our colleagues in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group is, this is - this doesn't end when they cross the line of departure. You know, we've got to be prepared to continue to support, continue to help them maintain and I think everybody has that mindset. Everybody's hopeful that, you know, you'd see overwhelming success but everybody has a realistic, I think most people have a realistic outlook on this. And in terms of my level of confidence, I think what really matters is how the Ukrainians feel about this and as we go forward, I think we're all sensing that Ukrainian leadership is increasingly confident in the capability that they have and opportunities that they may have. Does that mean that, you know, we're going to expel every Russian out of every corner of Ukraine? Probably doesn't but I think, you know, it may provide, it may have the opportunity to begin to change the dynamics on the battlefield and that's really what you're looking for.

Q: Thank you. 

STAFF: Let’s go to Anton. 


Q: I'd like to ask you about the speech by the Chinese defense minister with whom you shook hands but did not extend many words. How did you -- what's your response to his speech, the tone and the specific content of what he said, in particular, the notion that the Americans are being provocative, not transits of innocent passage but intended to provoke the Chinese? And of the best thing that could happen is for the Americans to mind their own business, you know, pull back from – and in light of those comments, how do you interpret the way they intercept American aircraft and warships? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Well to be truthful, I've not had a chance to read his speech yet and so -- but I certain will. I would just say that, you know, it's interesting to listen to what they say -- what he says, what's most important is, kind of, watch what they do. And what you heard me say in the last several weeks, and especially the last couple of days, you know, I've voiced my concern about the irresponsible behavior we've seen with close intercepts and the coercive behavior that we see in the waterways. And so that continues, and as we were coming in, as you know, you saw an example of one of our aircraft being intercepted by one of their aircraft at a very dangerous distance there, and so a very, very close proximity. And just recently, just in the last day we've seen another incident where one of their ships crossed in one of our ships, probably 150 feet or something like that and that's extremely dangerous.

So, you know, I call upon the PRC's leadership to really do the right things, to reign in that kind of conduct because I think accidents can happen that could cause things to spiral out of control. And we, you know, we all remember the accident we had with one of our P-3's many years ago and, you know, in those days we were talking to the PRC and it was still very difficult to manage that crisis. Imagine now if something happens and we don't have clear communications, how difficult that's going to be and what could happen in the short term. So, it's interesting to always hear what they say, but you know, I think we have to judge them by what they're actually doing and that dangerous activity continues. You know, we -- there's no question in my mind, as I have engaged our allies and partners here and in other places, they’re -- everybody has the same desire to be able to sail the seas and fly the skies in international space. So what we've seen from -- continue to see from the PRC is very concerning.

They should be interested in freedom of navigation as well because without that, I mean, it would affect them. I mean, they are big on commerce, big on, you know, the international space, the international waterways, the international airways. They have to use those as well, and so if there is no -- if there are no laws, if there are no rules, things will break down for them very quickly as well.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Let's go ahead and go to Nancy.

Q: Thank you sir. I'd like to back to Ukraine. As you know the U.S. has put restrictions on Ukraine's ability to use weapons provided by the US to fire into Russia. But we've seen Russia increasingly fire missiles into Ukrainian territory and the Ukrainian unable to execute counterstrikes. My question to you is, do you think that restriction can and should hold and is it unintentionally giving Russia an advantage -- a battlefield advantage to strike increasingly into Russia -- into Ukraine? 

SEC. AUSTIN: Nancy, I don’t, I wouldn't characterize Russia has having an advantage right now. I think they're a much larger force with, you know, overwhelming numbers, superior equipment and they've been at this for a year and have been highly unsuccessful. Putin has failed strategically. He's lost a significant number of people as you -- as you guys continue to point out and it's absolutely true. If he, you know, if the war stopped today and I certain hope it does but it probably won't, it would take a long time for him to rebuild the capability that he had prior to the commencement of this. Now, you know, our goal is to provide Ukraine with the capability to defend its sovereign territory, and they've been -- we have provided them with the right things and they've been highly successful. So that will remain our focus and I think again, we certainly want to see Ukraine continue to focus on what they have set out as an objective and that is to take back as much of their sovereign territory as possible.

STAFF: Let's go to Will. 

Q: Mr. Secretary, also on Ukraine. What are the main things Ukraine needs to do to succeed in its upcoming offensive? You know, what needs to go right for it to make significant gains and on the tactical level, what will Ukrainian troops have to do to break through heavy Russian fortifications that they're going to face?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well I don't want to give you a laundry list of things that they have to do to be successful. I want the Ukrainian leadership to fight this fight as they want to fight it. What I most want is to make sure that they have, their troops have the ability, the means to be successful. Now what we've done is not only provide higher end platforms like the Bradley fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and Strykers and some other things. We've trained them on a number of things in terms of maneuver. One of those things is breach, you know, in anticipation of, you know, have them to encounter complex obstacles in -- as you've, kind of, seen these obstacle belts be constructed by the Russians. You know, I'm confident at the mid-level and lower level that the troops know what to do in order to be successful in breaching those kinds of obstacles, and I just hope that, you know, they'll be able to put into play, all those skills that they've learned. 

Now the other good news is, as you know those brigades have been in Ukraine for some time now, weeks. Well they haven't been sitting around watching their equipment rust, they've been actually rehearsing and training and maintaining. And, one of the challenges that you face when you have higher end platforms, is that the maintenance of those platforms becomes increasingly difficult, which is always a concern on our part, on my part and so we've been working hard to make sure that, you know, we keep those platforms in fighting condition. Even when you're training in the assembly area, you know, something can happen to make a turret go out or, you know, cause you to lose part of the electrical system or whatever. 

So I -- early on in this effort I asked our guys to lean into this, to make sure that we push sustainment forward so that, you know, as we encounter problems with maintenance, we're able to quickly recover from that. So we want them to have the highest operational readiness rate that they can possibly have as they cross the line of departure. When that's going to be? I don't know. I will tell you that one of the major challenges has been weather and, you know, weather cuts both ways obviously. It's bad for the other guy if it's bad for us, but when you're trying to maneuver large, mechanized forces, you know, in the mud it takes away some of the advantage if the conditions aren't good. So the last couple of days we've seen that weather improve and, you know, hopefully, you know, they'll have windows of opportunity to conduct operations. Now it's not just a trafficability on the ground, it's also, you know, do you have clear skies so you can get -- you can see, -- you can get some ISR up there and help you out.

I do think what the other thing that's been happening is -- this has enabled them to employ their reconnaissance elements and really began to look at those fortifications that the Russians have put up. These fortifications extend hundreds of miles and I know enough about putting in a defense to know that, if you have a, you know, if you're defending along a front that long, than you cannot be strong everywhere. So, you know, their task is to figure out where they're not strong, where there are opportunities and identify and exploit those opportunities. That's basic Warfighting 101 and so, I don't know how well the reconnaissance has gone but I would tell you that it has provided them an opportunity to do that. So, we'll see. 

STAFF: Go for our last question. Peter. 

Q: Yes. Thanks so much for doing this. I want to give you a chance to respond to some of the points that PRC delegates have made, both in General Li's speech but elsewhere across the forum this weekend. So one of the points that they've been hammering is this reference to regional powers, which seems to be an idea that excludes the U.S. in a way that they are talking about Asia. And the second one is this talking point which they used to for many years about the need for mil-mil ties the same time on the basis of equality, and I wondered if you worry about the sanctions, which I understand there are, you know, a big decision of another agency, but I wonder if you worry that the sanctions have inadvertently given them a -- a proof point for that -- the idea, that the U.S. is not engaging with on a basis of equality?

SEC. AUSTIN: The U.S. is not engaging --

Q: -- with China on the basis of equality.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yes. You know, sanctions don't prohibit people from talking to each other. I am sure that I am -- I am personally sanctioned in Russia. 

Q: Right. 

SEC. AUSTIN: But, I can, if I want to, talk to the Russian minister of defense, most often I can. I've not talked to him in a while but that's just a -- that's a false narrative. That's, and they know that and they're, you know, when they -- when they're ready to engage, they will engage but it's also important to note that the mil to mil channel is not the only channel. You know, the State Department is engaging in their channels. Their national security advisor is engaging. You know, in terms of the region, what I hear a lot of is that, you know, we're -- countries tell us we're really glad to have you here. This region is more secure when you're here. We -- your presence means a lot, and this is coming from key countries in spontaneous fashion, and so they want the same thing that we want. You know, freedom to sail the seas and fly the skies but, you know, some of them are really concerned about their economic exclusion zones and you know, encroachment on their zones.

If you're a country like the Philippines or Vietnam, you know, your people make a living by fishing, and if they can't access their own fishing waters for whatever reason, it's a big deal. And so, you know, I think, you know, there's always an effort to create a false narrative that will take you one direction or another. There's a NATO narrative -- the Indo-Pacific NATO narrative that, you know, some in the PRC would like to convince people of but it's just not true. You know, and we've said over and over again that ASEAN has centrality in this region and we, that's been our focus and I think our partners and allies really appreciate that and they really appreciate the fact that we respect them. You know, we respect and we want to help them protect their rights and so it's not like the United States coming in and crushing smaller nations and compelling nations to do anything. But that's what they do, you know, they would, through economic coercion and other things, that's exactly what they're doing. We have worked hard to strengthen our relationships here in the region and I think we've done a pretty good job at doing that in the last two and a half years. And we will continue to work this because it's really, really important.  

Q: Mr. Secretary can I just ask one clarifying question before we let you go? What -- there were no meetings between U.S. military, your delegation and the Chinese or any sort of lower level meetings of any kind, is that correct? Other than the handshake, there was no interaction. Is that -- is that (inaudible) sir? 


Q: Thank you. 

SEC. AUSTIN: We're willing to meet, and I think we should be meeting, Nancy, and again, you know, we've been pretty clear about that, and we'll see what happens, but I think, you know, they will change their position on this and hopefully soon, we’ll see. If they don't, we'll continue to do -- continue to work with our allies and partners in the region and towards that common vision that we talked about yesterday.


STAFF: Thank you very much.

Q: Thank you. Thank you.