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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Press Conference Following a NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Brussels, Belgium

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: All right, good afternoon, everyone. It's great to be back at NATO. I'd like to thank the secretary-general for gathering us here today. His leadership has helped NATO navigate turbulent times with unity and resolve.

So let me start with just a few words about recent developments in Ukraine. For nearly 16 months, Russia has been waging a cruel and reckless war of choice against its peaceful and democratic neighbor. Putin's invasion has caused the worst crisis in European security since the end of World War II.

But the people of Ukraine continue to inspire the world with their resilience and their courage. Ukraine's brave defenders have now started the next phase in their fight to liberate their country's sovereign territory from Russian occupation.

The United States is proud to join some-50 nations of goodwill around the world in providing Ukraine with vital training and security assistance, and we must be patient as the Ukrainians wage this important campaign. President Biden has repeatedly said we will stand with Ukraine for the long haul.

Now, let me turn to some of our important business at this NATO ministerial. In just a few weeks, our leaders will gather for NATO's Vilnius Summit. As I've noted, they'll be meeting in challenging times, and a summit will be an important opportunity to discuss how NATO will continue to meet this moment. In Vilnius, NATO will have the opportunity to expand its practical, nonlethal support for Ukraine's current fight, and that will also be a chance to lay the foundations for modernizing and reforming Ukraine's defense institutions and making the transition to NATO-standard equipment.

Now, I'm proud that Finland will participate in this year's summit for the first time as a NATO ally. And let me urge all of our allies to support the immediate accession of Sweden, another proud democracy and highly-capable defense partner.

Also in Vilnius, our leaders will agree on an updated defense investment pledge. It will affirm our shared commitment to spend at least two percent of national GDP on defense, with the aim of spending more than two percent to meet the alliance's defense needs. As I've said before, two percent is a floor and not a ceiling, and we need this increased investment to ensure our credible collective defense and to continue to modernize the alliance's capabilities. Our new pledge will also help us to strengthen our defense industrial bases and to standardize critical munitions and improve NATO interoperability.

Now all of this work is part of the fundamental shift in collective defense and deterrence that NATO's leaders agreed on at the Madrid Summit last year. Our updated defense plans will place more forces at higher levels of readiness, and that will deter aggression and allow us to respond more quickly to any challenge to our collective security.

And as we update our defense plans, we're also continuing to move forward to adapt NATO nuclear deterrence to our shifting threat environment. NATO is also deepening its cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific, especially on protecting critical infrastructure and cyberspace, and our work together with Indo-Pacific partners is vital for protecting the roles, rights and norms that make us all safer.

So I'm enormously proud of all the progress that NATO has made since we last came together. The alliance faces historic challenges, but we're meeting those challenges with confidence and above all, with unity. And make no mistake, we will not be drawn into Putin's war of choice, but we will strengthen NATO's defense and deterrence and we will defend every inch of NATO territory and we will continue to defend the open world of rules and rights that NATO has so proudly supported for nearly 75 years.

So thank you very much, and I'll be glad to take a couple of questions.

STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

First question will go to Chris Gordon, Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Q: Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, in what ways would NATO's security be strengthened if Sweden were to become a member of the alliance in the upcoming months? How specifically would such a development enhance the alliance's military deterrence capabilities in the Nordic region and generally? Why is it important?

And if Sweden is not admitted into the alliance soon, what specific steps will the U.S. take to safeguard Swedish security in the meantime? Would there be more military deployments, exercises, training, planning? What will the U.S. do to prepare the way for Sweden's eventual integration into NATO and protect in the meantime?

And if I may ask a related question, sir, did you make any headway in your meeting with Turkey today on winning support for Sweden's accession into NATO? And can the provision of F-16s to Turkey go ahead if Turkey does not agree to Sweden's accession into NATO?

SEC. AUSTIN: Chris, I lost you on about the 10th question there, but --


-- but we'll try to catch up here.

First of all, in terms of the value that Sweden brings to NATO, as you know, Chris, Sweden is a strong democracy and it's a country with substantial military capability. They've invested over the years in modernization. We have trained with them in a number of cases, and so being interoperable in a very short period of time, it would be no challenge with Sweden.

Now, I was just in Sweden in a couple of weeks ago, as you may know, and I had the opportunity to spend some time with the minister of defense and also got a chance to look at some of their capabilities, very impressed with the leadership in their military and the enthusiasm and commitment of their troops.

So what they bring is again, substantial military capability, a modern force. They've invested a lot in their force.

I was also impressed by their domain awareness, maritime domain awareness and the awareness of what's going on in the skies around them as well in the region. So they bring that to NATO, as well. It will enhance our ability to be aware of what's going on in the maritime and the aerial domains.

You ask about increasing activity with Sweden. We’ve done that already. We've increased a number of exercises and ship visits and a number of other things with Sweden, and so you know, I think we've continued to make progress and increased our opportunities to work towards greater interoperability, so very -- I think, very encouraging.

Now, you mentioned my interaction with my Turkish colleague. You know, he's a brand-new minister, recently installed. So my purpose in meeting him today was an introductory meeting just to congratulate him on being installed as the minister of defense, and of course, you know, seize every opportunity to encourage them to move forward and approve the accession of Sweden, but it's a very short meeting and I don't have anything to report out from that encounter.

STAFF: Thank you, sir.

Next question, go to Politico E.U., Lily.

Q: Thank you very much.

I have two brief questions. The first is: What is your message to allies who still haven't made concrete plans on how to reach the two percent defense investment target, in particular, Canada and Luxembourg?

And my second question would be there were reports that the U.S. is now in favor of waiving the membership action plan for Ukraine. Do you think that such a move would be sufficient to meet the expectations of all allies, including those allies who want a clearer path toward membership for Ukraine at the Vilnius Summit?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, in terms of the action plan, I'll let the secretary-general speak specifically about that. But I think we're at a point in time where you've heard me say that we're confronting historic challenges. And so what we've learned over the last many months as we've watched this unprovoked and illegal invasion of Russia into Ukraine, what we've learned is that countries have to invest in their defense, and I think -- and I say "we" -- I think we know that already and most everybody knows that already. But it became real as we saw this unfold. And so countries are leaning forward, in, and more than willing to invest in their defense.

And as we continue to discuss this, I think there is broad agreement that the 2 percent investment, two percent of GDP investment should be a floor and not a ceiling, and there are many countries that are anxious to exceed the two percent, and there are many countries that are on the glide path to get there in a reasonable amount of time.

In terms of the specific countries that have not yet made it there, I would defer to them to talk about their plan to get there. But you know, I see broad agreement that this is a goal highly worth pursuing, and we'll continue to encourage our allies to meet that goal because it's really, really important. We have to continue to invest in weapons and munitions and replace the weapons and munitions that we've provided to Ukraine in many case, and it's going to take increased investment to make sure that we are where we need to be across the board with NATO.

We also have to standardize munitions. We've learned a lot there as well, and so our armaments directors are working together to make sure that, you know, where possible, we're engaging in joint procurement activities and so a number of things that are really good things have transpired as a result of our efforts here, but a lot of that's taken place under the auspice of the UDCG.

STAFF: Let's go to Ellie, CBS News.

Q: Thank you for doing this.

As you know, Secretary Blinken is traveling to Beijing this weekend, and one of his stated goals is to improve military communications. How would you describe the current mil-to-mil communications with China? And have you reached out for a meeting with your counterpart since Singapore?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Ellie.

As you know, I have made an effort prior to going to Singapore and while in Singapore to engage my counterpart, and I'm confident that over time that's going to happen. We're going to meet at some point in time, but we're not there yet not because we didn't try, and that we won't continue to try.

As you know, I was in Singapore a week and a half ago. I've been on the road quite a bit, and so I've not reached out since. But again, the door is open, and my phone line is open, and so they can pick up the phone and call at any time and we will continue to work to make sure that we have open lines of communication.

Ellie, you've heard me say a number of times that I think it's important that countries with the significant military capacity and capabilities have the means to talk to each other so that we can manage potential crises and you know, make sure that, you know, things aren't allowed to unnecessarily spiral out of control.

You know, the kind of relationship that we want to have with China is one of competition and not one of contention, so we'll continue to work to make sure that where and when possible, we open those lines of communication.

STAFF: We have time for one more question. Let's go to Elena from (inaudible) Ukraine.

Q: Secretary Austin, thank you very much.

First of all, recently it was some information that appeared in the New York Times and several other American media that US may offer Ukraine some so-called Israeli security model. Can you explain in more detail? What exactly does it mean? And do you think it is viable idea and it will be valuable for Ukraine as some kind of security guarantees? Although I guess, you know, that it's not the same security guarantees as the Ukrainians would like to receive.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Elena.

I won't speak to any type of security arrangement at this point in time. What I've been focused on, what I remain focused on is making sure that we're providing Ukraine the security assistance that it needs to be successful in this fight, Elena, and it's really important that we and our partners that are fighting the fight remain focused on this. And we'll have a bilateral relationship with Ukraine going forward, as you would imagine. That's, the people who will hammer out those kinds of arrangements are talking to each other. But again, my focus remains on making sure we get the right kinds of security assistance to Ukraine so they can be successful. And I think this is a really critical time point in time on the battlefield, but thanks for the question.

STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you for coming.