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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley Hold Press Conference Following Virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting

STAFF: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here today.

It is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. The secretary and chairman will deliver opening remarks, and then have time to take a few questions. Please note, I will moderate those questions and call on journalists. Given our tight schedule, I'd ask that you please limit your follow-ups to give your colleagues a chance to ask their questions, and appreciate your assistance with that. So with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Austin.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Chris, and good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for being here.

We've just concluded our 14th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, held virtually this time, and I'm especially grateful to Ukraine's Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov for joining us again today and highlighting Ukraine's most urgent battlefield needs. I also want to thank General Milley for his leadership and his deep commitment to the self-defense of Ukraine.

Now, today's meeting of the Contact Group comes at a critical time. We're following on the heels of a highly-successful NATO Summit in Vilnius last week, where many of our closest allies announced significant security packages for Ukraine's defense, and Ukraine is continuing its critical counteroffensive to regain its sovereign.

Now, we're all -- we're seeing Ukraine make progress, and Russia loses -- Russia's losses continue to mount. The Ukrainian people have shown outstanding courage as they fight for their country. As we saw again today, this Contact Group stands united behind them. Today, we recommitted to supporting Ukraine during its crucial counteroffensive and for the long haul, and this is no time to slow down. The United States and our allies and partners have moved mountains to provide Ukraine with critical air defense systems, munitions and more.

And so coming out of today's meeting, I'm grateful to all of our allies and partners for their commitment and their clarity of purpose, and I've asked our friends to continue to dig deep into their military stocks because we're going to do what it takes to support Ukraine's sovereign right to live free today and for the future.

Now, during today's meeting, we talked about Ukraine's ongoing requirements including, as I've said, its urgent need for ammunition. We also discussed plans to ramp up production at both the national level and the multinational level through the European Union's important initiative to produce more ammunition.

We heard from the co-leads of the F-16 Training Coalition, Denmark and the Netherlands. They continue to make progress on a cohesive training plan and to help some very eager Ukrainian pilots learn to fly fourth-generation aircraft. I'd like to thank Minister Poulsen and Minister Ollongren for their leadership, and such initiatives clearly show that members of this Contact Group continue to meet Ukraine's near-term needs, while also working to get Ukraine what it needs for the long-term. In other words, we're going to continue to walk and chew gum at the same time.

For example, Sweden and France have both signed bilateral agreements with Ukraine for defense procurements and more, and that's going to help Ukraine get even more advanced systems, and it will foster deeper cooperation going forward. And both of these agreements demonstrate our long-term focus on building up Ukraine's enduring strength.

And these commitments underscore how badly Putin miscalculated when he invaded Ukraine last year, and three of his blunders are especially clear today. First, Putin thought that he could take Kyiv in days, enforce a new government of Russian puppets on a Ukrainian people. But Ukraine chose to fight back, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces have defended their country with courage and skill.

Second, the Kremlin bet that the world would just live with its cruel assault on Ukraine, but Russia's aggression and atrocities have shocked the world, including even Moscow's long-term partners.

And that brings me to Putin's final miscalculation. He thought that Ukraine's friends would waiver or flee. Instead, nations of goodwill from around the world have stood up for Ukraine's sovereign right to defend itself. And by joining together, we have achieved something extraordinary, and today, this Contact Group stands as united and firm as ever. So make no mistake: We are determined to support Ukraine's fight for freedom for as long as it takes.

And with that, let me turn it over to General Milley.

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary. I appreciate that, and good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for being here.

I want to start by thanking Secretary Austin for his unwavering commitment and leadership to the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, in support of Ukraine in their time of need. This is our 14th meeting, and month after month, Secretary Austin keeps the direction of this 50 nation-plus strong coalition focused on the strategic objectives.

And I also want to express my deep appreciation to the various ministers and chiefs of defense who participated today, whose unfaltering support to Ukraine has been a beacon of solidarity since Russia began its vicious war of choice.

For more than 500 days, Russia has continued their illegal war while Ukrainians have stood strong in the face of Russia's unprovoked attacks and are an inspiration to all free nations. Russia's war of choice, Russia's war of aggression is a frontal assault on the rules-based international order that has prevented great power war for the last eight consecutive decades.

It is not only an illegal war of aggression, it's also an unnecessary war against a country that presented no military threat to Russia, an unnecessary, unjust, illegal war of aggression for more than 500 days, and yet the Ukrainian people have demonstrated their extraordinary determination to remain free, a freedom they have known for the last 30 years. They fight with grit and tenacity, exhibiting a profound spirit of resistance and resilience.

As Ukraine continues its counteroffensive, we are reminded that real war is not war on paper. Real war is unpredictable, it's filled with fear and fog and friction. Real war is brutal. The crucible of combat has enormous costs, in terms of killed, wounded, displaced persons and refugees, and yet despite the enormous costs, the Ukrainians are advancing steadily and deliberately, braving brutal and bloody battles to reclaim their homeland.

As we publicly said weeks ago, this offensive will be slow, it'll be difficult, and it'll come at a high cost. This battle continues as the Ukrainians fight through dense minefields and obstacles while a robust Ukrainian reserve force lies in wait to be committed at the optimal time and place of Ukrainian choosing.

The Ukrainian Contact Group's assistance to Ukraine goes beyond mere words or symbolic gestures. We are committed to helping them where it matters most.

Collectively, the coalition has trained 17 brigade combat teams for this offensive and more than 63,000 troops, and the United States alone has trained 15,000 of those, with more training ongoing. Training has included individual non-commissioned officers and officers and staff training, along with artillery, air defense artillery, engineers, logistics, medical, and of course, putting it altogether in combined arms maneuver at night. This training has developed tangible skills that have helped create capable Ukrainian leaders and units that are having a measurable impact on the battlefield today.

The United States additionally recently announced an additional security package of up to $800 million. This latest security assistance package includes substantial provision of additional artillery munitions, to include HIMARS and air defense weapons, such as Patriot missiles. It also includes a broad range of artillery systems and munitions, anti-armor munitions, precision aerial munitions, demolitions, and various other supplies that are necessary to keep Ukraine in the fight.

In combination, this training and equipment enables Ukraine to have the capacity and the capability to defend itself. U.S. security assistance to Ukraine now totals over $40 million -- $40 billion, which sends a very clear message.

As President Biden, Secretary Austin, and the various heads of all of the nation states in support of Ukraine at Vilnius stated, we stand firm in our ironclad commitment to provide practical support to Ukraine as it continues to defend its independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.

The Vilnius Summit communique said, quote, "we reaffirm our unwavering solidarity with the government and the people of Ukraine in the heroic defense of their nation, their land, and our shared values." As President Biden said, quote, "our commitment to Ukraine will not weaken. We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes," end quote.

Ukraine's fight is not merely a battle against an aggressive invader, it is a fight for the principles that bind us as a free world -- sovereignty, self-determination, and the rule of law versus the rule of force. Today's gathering of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group underlines our global commitment.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.

STAFF: All right, thank you both. We'll go to questions now. The first will go to Lita Baldor with Associated Press.

Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, good afternoon. As you both know, a U.S. soldier crossed the border into North Korea today after having been released from a South Korea prison. Can you tell us what you know about this case right now? Are the North Koreans forcibly detaining this soldier? Are you concerned about what security breach this could represent?

And for General Milley, there have been a recent increase in the number of very aggressive incidents over Syria involving Russia. What do you think has caused this? Is this a result, do you think, of the Ukraine war pressure on Russia? And does the U.S. need to send more assets to that area?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks, Lita. Good afternoon. Yeah, what I can confirm -- and I would say upfront that, you know, we're very early in this event, and so there's a lot that -- that we're still trying to learn -- but what we do know is that one of our service members who was on a tour, willfully and without authorization, crossed the military demarcation line. We believe that he is in DPRK custody. And so we're closely monitoring and investigating the situation and working to notify the soldier's next of kin and engaging to address this incident.

In terms of my concerns, I'm absolutely foremost concerned about the welfare of our troop. And so we will remain focused on this, and again, this will develop in the next several days and hours and we'll keep you posted, so.

GEN. MILLEY: And Lita, on the Syria piece, there is a bit of an uptick but I wouldn't overstate it too much. I think that our forces have adequate rules of engagement and authorities provided to defend themselves.

And the second thing is that we have a deconfliction channel -- I think you're aware of that -- we have a deconfliction channel that CENTCOM operates on a day-to-day basis in order to prevent any sort of incident or escalation. We're monitoring it very closely.

As to reason why there's a little bit of an uptick, I'm not really certain. We've got analysts trying to figure that out. I don't know if it's connected to Ukraine or not. Right now, there's nothing to suggest that it is. But we are adequately protected and our focus is always on our own force protection.

Q: So does the U.S. need to put more forces in that region, considering a lot have been shifted to Asia?

GEN. MILLEY: We've got adequate capabilities to defend ourselves.

STAFF: All right, thank you. The second question will go to Idrees Ali with Reuters.

Q: Thank you. Chairman Milley, we're now entering the fifth week of the counteroffensive, so going into the sixth week. And you publicly have talked about, as have others in the U.S. government, about how the counteroffensive is going slower than expected. I appreciate the realities of the front lines, the mines and the situation there, but has the counteroffensive stalled? And how is this not a failure so far?

And, Secretary Austin, you talked about the alliance and the contact group being together. But publicly, there seems to be a bit of fraying. Defense Minister Wallace last week said that he had told his Ukrainian counterparts that, quote/unquote, "We are not Amazon, and that they should show us some appreciation."

Do you agree with the sentiments that Secretary Wallace expressed?

And what exactly do the Ukrainians need to, sort of, break the front lines and the security zone and make the progress that you had expected them to make?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, first, thanks, Idrees. And I'll answer first, and then the chairman can chime in. You know, we're just off of -- just back from the summit in Vilnius, and what I witnessed in Vilnius was indeed unity and cohesion, in every meeting that I sat in.

And so I would -- it's the same thing that I witnessed today as I talked to ministers of defense and chiefs of defense. That unity is still there. There's no question that we have provided Ukraine a lot, we, the international coalition. Ukraine is in a fight, and we have to remember that, when you're in a fight, you want everything that you can get your hands on. And so that's to be expected.

Ben Wallace and I have worked along with coalition partners over the last year or so on this particular issue, and Ben has done a lot to enable and to help the Ukrainian military. And so he's been a great partner. But, again, I continue to see unity and cohesion. I continue to hear ministers say that we're going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

And I heard their leaders say the same thing in Vilnius last week. This is more -- much -- this is about much more than just Ukraine. This is about the rules-based international order. And I think people realize that. People around the globe realize that. And, you know, it's about the ability of a country to protect its sovereign territory. And so there's an interest across the -- around the globe to ensure that Ukraine can be successful in defending its sovereign territory.

GEN. MILLEY: So, just, I would say a couple things. First of all, the Russians have had several months to put in a very complex defense in depth, the linear defense in depth. It's not quite connected trench lines like World War I, but it's not dissimilar from that, either -- lots of complex minefields, dragons' teeth, barbed wire, trenches, et cetera. They've got a very extensive security zone in depth, and then they've got at least two, perhaps even three main defensive belts.

So they've had a long time to prepare that. Now, they suffered a lot of casualties, the Russians did, to date. So they've also done that mobilization, you know, from months ago. So the troops that are manning those Russian lines are poorly trained, poorly equipped. Their sustainment and logistics is not high. Their morale is low. And now, recently, because of the Prigozhin mutiny, the command-and-control apparatus at the strategic level is certainly confusing at best and probably challenging in many, many other ways.

At the operational, tactical level, they've had significant casualties among their officer corps. But in addition to that, the recent events of Prigozhin has also led to, and you're reporting it in the media, about various folks being replaced.

So the Russian situation is not very good, even though they've been fighting a fight because of the minefields. What the Ukrainians have, though, is a significant amount of combat power not yet committed. And I will not say what's going to happen in the future because that's going to be a Ukrainian decision to -- as to where and when they commit their reserve, et cetera.

Right now, they are preserving their combat power and they are slowly and deliberately and steadily working their way through all these minefields. And it's a tough fight. It's a very difficult fight.

It started about five or six weeks ago. And the various wargames that were done ahead of time have predicted certain levels of advance. And that has slowed down. Why? Because that's the difference between war on paper and real war. These are real people in real machines that are out there really clearing real minefields and they're really dying.

So, when that happens units tend to slow down and that's rightly so, in order to survive, in order to get through these minefields. So, they're working their way through it. It is far from a failure, in my view. I think that it's way too early to make that kind of call. I think there's a lot of fighting left to go.

And I'll stay with the what we've said before, this is going to be long, it's going to be hard, it's going to be bloody. And at the end of the day, we'll see where the Ukrainians end up, vis-a-vis the Russians.

SEC. AUSTIN: And Idrees let me just tag onto what he Chairman said. I absolutely agree with everything the Chairman said. What I would remind you that we -- this is not over. We continue to generate combat power. We're training three -- training and equipping three brigades in Germany right now and there's other training ongoing around the region, as the Chairman pointed out earlier.

Countries continue to provide platforms. And, you know, we talked about the additional Leopards and infantry fighting vehicles that are on the horizon, as well as artillery pieces. And so, we're going to continue to generate combat power. We're going to continue to push in additional Bradley fighting vehicles, and also Strykers and artillery pieces. And you heard the Chairman mention that earlier. So, our work continues. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure that Ukrainians can be a success.

STAFF: All right, thank you. Third question will go to Missy Ryan at The Washington Post.

Q: I have two Ukraine related questions, following up on Idrees'.

First, Secretary Austin, for you. I wanted to follow up on the G7 statement that came out last week regarding that framework for providing security assurances to Ukraine. President Biden has publicly referenced the Israel MOU model. Do you believe that -- is there a possibility that the United States could help Ukraine achieve or secure some sort of parallel qualitative military edge? Or could the United States provide a mutual defense agreement to Ukraine as part of that security assurance? And do you expect that it's politically feasible to have the kind of agreement that we have with Israel for Ukraine?

And then for you, Chairman Milley, you know, Ukrainian military leaders have said how grateful they are for U.S. support. But at the same time, the various leaders, including General Zaluzhny, who you talk to regularly, have said that they don't think it's reasonable for the United States to be -- for Ukraine, excuse me, to be conducting this kind of major offensive, and especially, do combined arms maneuvers without the ability to have greater air power and provide air support to the troops.

And they say, you know, NATO would never dream of asking its forces to do that, even given the Russian air defense system that's there. What is your response to that? And can you help us, sort of walk us through your thinking about why Ukraine is able and should be able to conduct this offensive without the greater air power that some of the Ukrainian leaders are asking for. Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Missy. I counted about 12 questions. But we'll do our best to get to --

First, on the agreement with Ukraine, we can expect -- and you saw evidence of this with the G7 announcement at the end of the Vilnius Summit -- we can expect that countries will execute bilateral agreements with Ukraine going forward, and certainly we will as well, and that's a work in progress. But I would tell you, our part of that, the chairman and I are focused on not only making sure that Ukraine has what it needs to be successful today, but we also have to make sure that they have a capability to defend themselves in the future and to deter aggression in the future. So while we're doing what's necessary to make sure that they can be successful today, we're also going to have to work with allies and partners to do -- to build a future force.

And so that's the hard work that's got to happen, and right now, we're kind of at that -- at that point where we're doing both simultaneously. So you see that in some cases, we've invested in some things that because they have to be produced, they won't materialize until a couple of months down the road, or in some cases, a year down the road. But those kinds of things help provide the capability that Ukraine's going to need in the future.

So the core of any agreement will be their ability to defend themselves and deter aggression, and they've got to have the combat power to do that, and that's what we're focused on. And then around that, you know, the bilateral agreement will certainly be formed and this is going to have to be work that nations take on together, not one nation alone. And so I look forward to working with my colleagues and working with State and other foreign ministers to develop the way ahead for Ukraine, so --

GEN. MILLEY: So Missy, the -- I'd offer two things. One is, you know, what's the military problem to solve here with the air power? And it's control of the airspace, and you can do that two ways. You can do that air-to-air or you can do that from the ground to the air.

In terms of the most effective and efficient and cost-effective way to do that right now for the Ukrainians is from ground to air through air defense systems, and that's what they've been provided from the beginning if this war 'til now. And that's important, because what you want to do is protect those assault forces from Russian close-air support and/or attack-helicopter support, and they've got air defense systems, the Ru- -- Ukrainians do, that can do that.

The casualties that the Ukrainians are suffering on this offensive are not so much from Russian airpower; they're from minefields, minefields that are covered with direct fire from anti-tank hunter-killer teams, that sort of thing. So it's minefields. So the problem to solve is minefields, not the air piece right this minute. And that's what the coalition is trying to provide them: additional mine clearing, MICLICs, line charges, Bangalores -- that sort of thing, in order to continue to work their way through the minefields.

So I'm confident that they can do this, and especially if they execute the tactics, techniques and procedures that they've been taught, which they are doing, and execute these operations at night, which would deny the Russians the ability to use any of their airpower anyway. So the real problem is the minefields. It's not right now the airpower.

Now, having said that, just do a quick math drill here. Ten F-16s are $2 billion, so the Russians have hundreds of fourth- and fifth-generation airframes. So if they're going to try to match the Russians one for one, or even, you know, two-to-one, you're talking about a large number of aircraft. That's going to take years to train the pilots, years to do the maintenance and sustainment, years to generate that degree of financial support to do that. You're talking way more billions of dollars than has already been generated.

So the key thing is to focus on air defense, focus on the blocking-and-tackling sort of offensive combined arms maneuver, which is artillery, as both long-range and short-range artillery, and then get in your engineers and your mine-breaching equipment. That's the kind of stuff they need. That's what they want. That's what they're asking for. When I talk to Zaluzhny, that's what he's asking for, so --

STAFF: Final question, I'll go to Jennifer Griffin with Fox News.

Q: Thank you. Defense Secretary Austin, I'd like to ask you about Senator Tuberville's hold on military nominations. Are you prepared to meet him halfway? And isn't the current policy in violation of the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, even if technically, you're not paying for abortions, you're paying for travel for potential abortions?

And General Milley, you say that you have enough assets in the Middle East to counter Russia, to deter Russia. But last week, Russian planes loitered over the At-Tanf Base, where U.S. military personnel are based. And just today, almost daily, they're countering U.S. military aircraft, including a manned aircraft today. Why can't you deter Russia in the Middle East?

GEN. MILLEY: Well, like I -- oh, go ahead, Secretary. You can answer the first one. I'll take the second one.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Chairman.


SEC. AUSTIN: Jennifer, I think we have to keep things in perspective. One in five of my troops, our troops, are women. They don't get a chance to pick where they're assigned. They're serving our country. They're sacrificing each and every day, and they deserve, in my view and in the view of our leadership, they deserve to have access to noncovered reproductive healthcare, and that's what this policy does. And it focuses on healthcare, non-nonreproductive healthcare, which includes other things like IVF and some other things.

So it's important that our troops, our women understand that we care about them, that, you know, we understand that they don't get a chance to choose where they're assigned. And so this policy helps them maintain access to that healthcare. And you know, the importance of the health and welfare of my troops is really, really important to me, and we're going to continue to do what's necessary to ensure that they have that access.

And there's -- I know Senator Tuberville has said that it's illegal. It's not illegal, and we've made that point a number of times, and we point to the fact that there's a -- an opinion that's posted on the DOJ's public-facing website that really details this issue.

And so this is a readiness issue. The fact that Senator Tuberville is -- maintains this whole -- on the promotions of our senior officers, it cascades, it creates friction throughout the entire chain. It disadvantages families. We've talked -- you've heard us talk about the impact of that. And so I would ask Senator Tuberville to lift his hold.

And you know, as you think about this, Jennifer, I would imagine our adversaries would look at something like this and be pretty happy that we create this kind of turbulence within our force, so --

GEN. MILLEY: So Jennifer, as I said before, we have rules of engagement. Our pilots are extraordinarily-well-trained. They're empowered to change -- the commander empowered. The secretary has granted the authorities necessary for them to defend themselves. If at any point in time any of our troops sense that it's a hostile act, a hostile intent, they will protect themselves. So that's point one.

Secondly, if there's unsafe or unprofessional acts, that's a different issue, and we try to work that out through the deconfliction channel that's done at the tactical level so that we don't have an inadvertent air-to-air accident or incident.

But I am quite confident that General Kurilla and all of the forces in CENTCOM know how to protect themselves and will protect themselves.

Q: But it doesn't seem to be stopping the Russians.

GEN. MILLEY: Well, it's not going to stop them from flying in the airspace, that's for sure, but if they're a hostile act, hostile intent, or if they're acting unsafely or unprofessionally, then we'll work through that, but we will protect ourselves if there's any sort of challenge in that regard.

STAFF: All right. Thank you, Secretary Austin and General Milley. That's all of the time we have. Thanks, ladies and gentlemen.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, everybody.