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Press Gaggle With Sabrina Singh, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary



MS. SINGH: OK, great. All right, thanks all. Happy Monday, and good afternoon, everyone. So I'm going to just have a few items here at the top to pass along, and then I'd be happy to take any questions.

So today, as we mentioned last week, the secretary departed on travel to Vilnius, Lithuania as part of the president's team for the NATO Ministerial. The summit provides an excellent opportunity to meet with our NATO allies at a critical time to discuss our collective security and bolster the alliance. The secure -- the secretary will also convey the importance of NATO nations pledging to spend two percent of their GDP to ensure the alliance has the resources it needs to meet our mutual defense needs. And finally, the secretary will also reinforce our unwavering unity and resolve to support Ukraine's efforts to defend their nation and sovereignty from Russian aggression.

Changing topics, we want to congratulate the first three Royal Australian Navy officers on their graduation from the United States Navy's Nuclear Power School, marking a significant step in AUKUS implementation. The Naval Nuclear Power Training Command and Nuclear Power School trains officers and enlisted sailors in the science and engineering principles that are fundamental to the design, operation and maintenance of naval nuclear propulsion plants. These Royal Australian Navy sailors' graduation marks an important step in Australia's plan to operate conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered attack submarines.

And lastly, before I jump into taking questions, before the secretary departed on his trip he hosted the Relinquishment of Office ceremony for General David Berger, the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps at the Marine Barracks in D.C. As all of you know, here on this call, Senator Tuberville has placed an indefinite hold on our general and flag officers. So as of today and for the first time in more than 100 years, the U.S. Marine Corps is forced to operate without a Senate-confirmed commandant. General Eric Smith will be the acting commandant until a -- until a successor can be confirmed, meaning he will be doing two jobs at one time. 

But the issue extends far beyond today. Tomorrow, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for General C.Q. Brown, the nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, the SASC committee will hold a hearing for General Randy George, who is the nominee for chief of staff of Army -- sorry -- chief of staff for the Army. 

Hundreds of well-qualified military leaders are now being held up by Senator Tuberville. As the sec -- as the secretary said in his speech today, smooth and timely transitions of confirmed leadership are critical to the defense of the United States and to the full strength of the most powerful fighting force in history, and stable and orderly leadership transitions are also vital to maintaining our unmatched network of alliances and partners. They are cru- -- they are crucial for our military readiness. The longer these unprecedented holds remain, the greater risk the department runs in experiencing knowledge and expertise gaps in certain critical and often difficult-to-fill positions, and the downstream effects will continue to impact the readiness of the force. We urge Senator Tuberville to lift his hold and urge the Senate to confirm these exceptional general and flag officers. 

And with that, I'd be happy to dive into questions. I'll go over first to Dan De Luce, NBC.

Q: Could you speak to allegations in North Korea that a U.S. military aircraft allegedly entered into North Korean airspace or ventured near North Korea, and then the subsequent threat they've issued?

MS. SINGH: Sure, thanks, Dan, for the question. I -- I've seen those comments coming out of North Korea today. The United States, as always, remains committed to safely and responsibly flying, sailing, operating anywhere that international law allows and alongside our allies and partners. I just don't have anything more to say on those comments or those threats coming out of North Korea. We operate responsibly and safely in international waterways and -- and airspaces wherever -- wherever we can.

Q: So just to follow up, it -- it's accurate to say that the U.S. did -- military did not have an aircraft in North Korean airspace?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I -- again, we op- -- op- -- we always operate responsibly and safely and in accordance with international law, so those accusations are just accusations, and I'll leave it at that.

Great. Next, we'll go to Jeff Seldin, VOA.

Q: Sabrina, thanks very much for doing this, and I have a couple of things. First, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's proposed removing the requirement for a -- a MAP -- Membership Action Plan -- for Ukraine to join the alliance. Does the Pentagon have a position on that proposal of the U.N. on that? And also, over the weekend, CENTCOM announced that a drone strike killed a -- a senior ISIS leader, and he's from Syria. Do you have any more information on that leader, Usamah al-Muhajir? And also, CENTCOM said that the drones that did that strike had earlier been harassed by Russian jets. Does the Pentagon have any sort of assessment on how Russia's conduct in the skies above Syria has damaged the Defeat ISIS mission? Have Russian actions like this allowed other high-value ISIS targets to escape?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Jeff, for your questions. I will take the last one first. 

So as you -- as you -- or probably, as you did see, CENTCOM put out a release over the weekend that confirmed the successful operation taking out a key ISIS leader. In terms of more details on who that individual is, I will refer to CENTCOM for that. 

But just going to the -- the larger point that you bring up on -- on Russian harassment of our MQ-9s, again, we have been very clear and very vocal that our mission in Syria remains to defeat ISIS. 

The Russians know that, they know exactly where we operate, and so there is no excuse for Russian forces' continual harassment of our MQ-9s after years of U.S. operations in the area aimed at ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS. And it is almost as if the Russians are now on a mission to protect ISIS leaders. 

Again, this is something that is -- is very known, on where -- where we operate and -- and our mission in Syria, and while Russian forces did harass and -- and try to -- well, I guess "harass" will probably be the best word to describe what they were doing to the MQ-9 aircraft -- the mission was still a success.

So while I can't speak to other missions, if they have been deterred by Russian actions, what I can say is that CENTCOM was able to successfully execute this mission despite what the Russian forces have been trying to do in the air, and -- and not just the one over the weekend but a few days prior to that, I think you saw some of the video that was released. I mean, you can just see how these Russian forces are trying to disrupt these operations.

Going to your earlier port -- earlier point I think that you had raised on -- and I -- I don't exactly remember your entire question, but just when it comes to Ukraine and NATO, I think -- I think the Secretary laid this out well, as he said before, that, you know, each NATO aspirant has their own path to membership, and the -- the U.S. will always continue to support NATO's open door policy.

But it is the -- it is the right of the -- each state to choose, you know, its ascension -- ascension path, and certainly, you know, it -- it -- it takes various forms but we will always continue to support NATO's open door policy.

OK, with that, I will move on to Oren from CNN.

Q: A question about the Senator Tuberville holds. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said earlier today, and I'm quoting here, "I'm also confident that the U.S. Senate will meet its responsibilities and I look forward to welcoming an outstanding new Commandant for our Marine Corps and adding many other distinguished senior leaders across the Joint Force."

Has he -- sort of where does that optimism come from, that -- that there will be some sort of movement on the Tuberville holds? Has he or have Legislative Affairs have further conversations with either Senator Tuberville or the Senate Armed Services Committee? And -- and -- and do you see an end in sight to the holds? And if so, why?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Oren, for the question. So our -- our -- our Office of Legislative Affairs, the team upstairs continues to engage with Senator Tuberville's office and Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. I think what you're seeing from -- within Senator Tuberville's own party is displeasure with these holds. 

All we can do as a department is continue to remain engaged with the Senate, which is -- I think is why you saw the Secretary express optimism that, once Senator Tuberville does release his holds, that the Senate would confirm these nominees -- and these are exceptional general and flag officer nominees that we have awaiting confirmation -- that they would confirm them quickly.

We don't have an indication right now of what Senator Tuberville plans to do. Unfortunately, he has put a blanket hold on our general and -- and flag officers, which is going to impact the readiness of our force, and that's already what you're seeing today with the -- with the -- General Smith having to occupy two positions as the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. 

Two positions that require two different people to be in those roles will now be a dual-hatted position, which of course is going to impact the U.S. Marine Corps, and -- and this is going to happen not just for the Marine Corps but other services.

So we continue to engage, we continue to remain hopeful, but I think what you have seen is that Republicans within Senator Tuberville's party are -- are displeased with this. And we're -- again, just to reiterate -- and I know -- I know you know this -- but these are nonpartisan general and flag officers that, at a time when our nation is facing rising challenges and threats all around the world, from Russia in Ukraine to the -- the growing pacing challenge in China, we need the best of the best in those positions, in the positions that they were nominated for.

So it's incredibly important that, once Senator Tuberville does lift the -- his hold, that these -- the ladies and -- the -- the women -- the men and women as -- is -- nominated in these positions are -- are confirmed quickly.

And I'm sorry, did you have another question? I -- I'm sorry if I missed that.

Q: No, that's it. Thank you.

MS. SINGH: OK, great. Missy Ryan, Washington Post?

Q: Hi, Sabrina. Thank you. I just wanted to see -- and -- and I hope -- I don't think I missed this on -- on Friday with -- with Dr. Kahl's briefing but can you provide any information about -- now that the DPICMs have been authorized, about the -- how -- where things stand in terms of getting them to Ukraine? You know, are these things that were pre-positioned in Europe or a -- do they need to be transported from the United States? Anything on how quickly, ballpark, this could come into play on the battlefield would be helpful.

And then also just to clarify, regarding the Secretary's travel, is -- am I right to understand that he's just going to Vilnius and back, that he's not going on to Finland or anywhere else? Thanks.

MS. SINGH: Yep, sure, Missy. Thanks for the questions. On -- on the last one first, that's right, he's just going to Vilnius and then will be returning back later this week, I believe on Thursday.

On your -- on your first questions on -- on the cluster munitions, for operational security reasons -- and -- and Dr. Kahl did, a little bit, get into this -- I'm just not going to get into a timeline of delivery, of when they will be expected in Ukraine. 

What I can say is that, with the announcement of the package last week, we are flowing equipment and systems into Ukraine almost within -- from one to two days of a package being announced. So we are -- we are making sure that the DPICMs arrive at a time when they are most needed in the counter-offensive. That is exactly why we announced it when we -- when we did last week.

I'm not going to detail the exact date but they will be arriving for the counter-offensive to be -- to be used on the battlefield.

Great, OK. I'm going to go to Meredith Roaten from Janes. I hope I got your last name right, apologies if not.

Q: That's correct. Thank you so much for doing this. I wanted to ask a follow-up question on the cluster munitions as well. I know Dr. Kahl that he can't speak to really the -- the mix of variants that are going to be sent to Ukraine but I was wondering if you can at least say how many different variants of these cluster munitions are going to Ukraine?

MS. SINGH: Thanks -- thanks for the question, Meredith. Unfortunately, just for operational security reasons, I'm not going to get into the types of -- different types of variants. All I will say is that the DPICMs that we are sending average a 2.35 dud rate or below, based on our recent studies and tests on them. And in -- that's all I'll speak to on that front. 

Q: If I could follow up.

MS. SINGH: Yes, sure. 

Q: I'm sorry, if I could follow up.

MS. SINGH: Go ahead. 

Q: -- just follow up really quickly on that. And to clarify, does -- because the DPICMs have a 2.35 or less dud rate, I just wanted to clarify that that means that there are DPICMs going with dud rates that are less than 2.35. 

MS. SINGH: Yes, that's -- I mean, I think that -- I think you might have just said that as well, but that is correct. So, what we are sending Ukraine are DPICMs that have been tested and have a dud rate of less than 2.35 percent. That's exactly what we're sending. 

Q: OK, thank you. 

MS. SINGH: No problem. Brandi Vincent, DefenseScoop. 

Q: Thank you so much, Sabrina. Two lines of questions for you. First is another follow-up from the briefing with Dr. Kahl last week. Does DOD plan to send more ISR assets to Ukraine to try to mitigate the risks of potential civilian casualties from these cluster munitions or to help with targeting for Russian forces?

MS. SINGH: Hey, Brandi, thanks for the question. So again, we've been rolling out presidential drawdown packages and Ukraine security assistant packages for, you know, almost every week. You see what is listed in those packages and we have them posted online, on some of the capabilities that we have been providing. What Ukraine needs right now in its fight is artillery. And one of their -- that's one of their main priorities and also more air defense. And so, that's something that you've seen that we've been providing in all of our packages. 

And we continue to provide. And we will continue to have more and future security packages in the coming weeks. I don't have anything to announce today. But as we roll out more security assistance, you know, you'll certainly be aware of that when the time comes. 

Q: Thank you so much. And then just one other question on Deputy Secretary Hicks' travel to Hawaii. I was wondering if you could provide some color or a little bit more details about what she's learned from meetings with INDOPACOM's AI and data accelerator operational data team. What are the actual use cases with AI that she's seeing where INDOPACOM is really integrating it to tackle data challenges?

MS. SINGH: Hey, Brandi, thanks so much for the question. I just -- I would need to get back to you on that. So, I'm happy to take that question and follow back up with you. 

Q: Thank you so much, Sabrina.

MS. SINGH: Great. And our last question is from Sam LaGrone from USNI.

Q: Well, hey, how's it going, Sabrina? Real quick, is there OSD Policy yet on how you all are going to handle some of these vacancies or the extensions for these positions that are still awaiting confirmation? And then, how many positions are still pending confirmation? Thanks.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Sam, for the question. So, as of -- as of last Friday, I believe, there are 265 general and flag officer nominations that have been -- that have -- that have been submitted and are currently impacted by the hold. And that, of course, ranges between -- between the services. 

So that's -- that's currently where it stands, but between now and the end of the year, we could have as many as 650 vacancies in -- or -- or approximately 650 general and flag officers that would require Senate confirmation.

And the fact that we have -- we have 852 general and flag officers in our military, there are approximately 110 other positions that will be forced to be dual-hatted to allow for other officers to retire -- so we're looking at about 89 percent of all general and flag officer positions that could be vacant or require a Senate confirmation, again, at a time when we are facing rising challenges from all around the world.

Does that get to your question? I'm sorry, I think you had one other and I -- I -- I'm blanking on the -- the third one.

Q: No, I mean, is -- so are you extending people in some of these jobs? Are you allowing them to retire and have a deputy? And -- and -- and how are you all adjudicating, like, these positions and how they're going to get filled and how that works, going to get done while this hold is ongoing?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, because the hold is ongoing, we are having to ask people to delay their retirements and continue to stay in their positions. We are also asking officers to assume the duties of a higher grade while remaining in their current rank but not actually being able to pay them of that -- that rank that they occupy because they cannot receive that pay unless they are Senate confirmed.

So this is going to have a huge impact across -- across the force, and again, just to -- just to give you, you know, some insight here, it's not -- it's not just our general and flag officers that are -- that are being impacted in our force, it is their families as well. 

I've heard cases of two students who were -- who dis-enrolled from their current school because they were supposed to move with their family for a change of station move but now they can't enroll in a new school because they don't know when they'll be able to relocate.

I have another -- I've -- I've heard another story of a -- a teacher who was a teacher at the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and she recently ended her contract with her previous employer but has been unable to start a new job at another school because she doesn't know when her spouse will be relocated.

So again, this is having a -- an incredible impact not just to our general and flag officers but to our families, and we -- we certainly urge Senator Tuberville to -- to lift these holds and -- and allow these general and flag officers to be confirmed.

With that, thanks all for joining the gaggle today. We will be back briefing on Thursday and look forward to talking to you then. Thanks.

Q: Thank you.