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Sabrina Singh, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary, Holds A Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Can you hear me okay?


MS. SINGH: Great. All right, well again, good afternoon. Thanks for joining us today. This is Sabrina Singh, deputy press secretary. I have a few items to pass along at the top, and then we'll be happy to get into your questions.

This morning, Secretary Austin just took off for his eighth visit to the Indo-Pacific region where he'll visit Papua New Guinea and Australia. Secretary Austin's visit to Papua New Guinea marks the first visit by a secretary of defense to the country. Following this visit, he will then travel to Australia and join Secretary Blinken to meet with their counterparts for the 33rd annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations, and then will meet with U.S. and Australian service members participating in the largest military exercise between the United States and Australia, Talisman Sabre.

Also today, the department announced its 43rd drawdown of equipment from DOD inventory for Ukraine since August, 2021. Today's $400 million commitment in security assistance includes additional air defense munitions, artillery and other ammunition -- other ammunition, armored vehicles, anti-armor weapons and other equipment to help Ukraine counter Russia's ongoing war of aggression.

Also today, the White House announced the nomination of Derek Chollet as the department's Under Secretary for Policy. Mr. Chollet brings extensive experience from his time at the White House, his time at the Department of Defense and most recently, as the counselor of the Department of State. The Under Secretary for Policy is the key policy advisor to the secretary and provides vital strategic guidance in support of U.S. national security interests worldwide.

And last week, President Biden announced his intent to nominate four military leaders to key roles, including Admiral Lisa Franchetti to Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Samuel Paparo to be commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Vice Admiral James Kilby to VCNO and Vice Admiral Stephen Koehler to be commander of Pacific Fleet. These military and civilian leaders are currently held up in the United States Senate by Senator Tuberville and as this list of nominees grows, we're continuing to see the impacts on our readiness and national security.

And finally, tomorrow, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of President Harry Truman signing of Executive Order 9980 and 9981, which desegregated the federal government and Armed Forces. The event will be held tomorrow at 10:00 A.M. in the Pentagon courtyard. Speakers will include Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks and other senior Pentagon leaders. Press with access to the Pentagon are, of course, invited to attend the event, but the event will also be livestreamed on

And with that, I'd be happy to turn to your questions. We will first go to Lita, A.P.

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. A question on the overflight of Syria, Russian aggression that just happened again. Can you talk to us a little bit about what the Pentagon thinks is the reason for the increased Russian activity, particularly since it seems to be getting a bit more dangerous with the manned aircraft last week, and now, with the flare that struck the drone today. Is there a sense that this -- what this is related to, why this is happening?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Lita, for the question. You know, I can't speak for the Russians and why they're continuing to engage in this unsafe, unprofessional behavior, but we are seeing, I would say, an increase in that. Just on the 23rd we -- as you mentioned, we had a Russian fighter aircraft fly very dangerously close to one of our MQ-9 drones that was on a Defeat ISIS mission. You know, it's just yet again another blatant disregard of how to operate and flies in the face of operating safely and professionally, and continues to distract from our mission there, which is to defeat ISIS.

And I think we've said this before, but the Russians know where we operate. There's no excuse for how their forces continue to harass our MQ-9s after years of U.S. operations in the area. And so again, we call on the Russians to conduct their ways in accordance with international law.

Okay, Howard Altman, War Zone?

Q: Yeah, so hey, thanks, Sabrina. I just want to go back to a question I'd asked last week and kind of update it. Ukraine says that the Russians are advancing towards the Oskil River near Kupiansk, which is territory they liberated back in September. How concerned is the Pentagon that the Russians can mount a serious offensive of their own in that region? And how could that affect Ukraine's counteroffensive? Thanks.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Howard, for the question. You know, I would let Ukrainians speak to their operations and how they're conducting their operations on the ground. The Ukrainians have been making slow, but steady progress along the east and in the south. But in terms of their operations and where Russians are positioning their forces, I'd let the Ukrainians speak to how they plan to respond and how they plan to (inaudible) counteroffensive.

Q: But what's the Pentagon's sense of how Russia can mount its own offensive in that region?

MS. SINGH: Again, I -- I think I answered that one, Howard. Again, I'd let the Ukrainians really speak for themselves and how they are conducting their operations on the battlefield.

Our focus is, again, on providing Ukraine with the security assistance that they continue to need in their counteroffensive, and also in the long term. You heard me announce at the top of this call that this is the 43rd presidential drawdown of equipment. They're receiving more artillery, more air defense, and that's what we're really focused on. So I'll go ahead and leave it at that.

Okay, next up, Phil Stewart.

Q: Hi. Could you -- we saw the readout from the call between Secretary Austin and his Israeli counterpart. Could you give us a sense whether the Secretary is concerned about military readiness in Israel as a result of the unrest and protests there? And could you elaborate a little bit about his message to his counterpart about acting against settler violence against Palestinians? Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Phil. So in terms of our readiness or any force posture changes, nothing has changed on our end. We still view Israel as a partner in the region. So nothing has changed in terms of our presence and how we conduct operations or exercises with Israel.

In terms of what else was said on the call, I'd let the readout speak to itself. I know that is probably not a satisfying answer for you but I would just let the readout speak for itself and if you haven't gotten it, it should be on our website as well.

Q: Thanks --

MS. SINGH: -- I'm sorry, did you have another question?

Q: No, I was just more interested in -- in the Secretary's view on Israeli military readiness. Does he believe that, you know, protests by, you know, Israeli reservists and things -- you know, are undermining their own military readiness and this controversy there could undermine Israeli military readiness, not U.S. readiness?

MS. SINGH: I'm sorry.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah, sorry if I misunderstood that. You know, I'd let the Israelis speak to their own military readiness. I can only comment on our own and our partnership with Israel, and nothing has changed. You know, we remain a committed partner to the region and ensuring stability, and so I'd leave it at that.

Okay, next up, we'll go to Will Dunlop, AFP.

Q: Hi, Sabrina. Two questions. First, just following on from Lita's question, do these unsafe incidents over Syria have the potential to kind of spiral out of control into conflict between the U.S. and Russia? And I'm just trying to get a sense of how dangerous are they?

And then second, there was a report from Germany today that the country only has 20,000 155 millimeter rounds in its inventory. Is this a source of concern for the United States, that those numbers would be that low? Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Will. On your first question, I mean, again, we are seeing increased incidents or increased activity with Russian aircraft and our own military aircraft but, you know, what I would say is we do not seek escalation, we do not seek war with Russia, but there's no excuse for Russian forces' continual harassment of our MQ-9s, especially after years of operating within the region and after years of also being very clear on what our goals are, which is the enduring defeat of ISIS.

So we will continue to urge Russian forces in Syria to cease their reckless behavior and adhere to standards of behavior that are expected of a professional Air Force, so that we can resume our focus on the enduring defeat of ISIS.

And on your -- I'm sorry, your second question was on Germany and an announcement that they made? Could you repeat that question?

Q: So actually, there was a report out of Germany that -- from Der Spiegel that the country's artillery shell inventory was down to 20,000 155 millimeter rounds. Is that -- is that a source of concern for the United States?

MS. SINGH: Well, you know, I -- I'm not going to speak for what Germany has on stocks and -- or on their shelves. What I can say is we've seen an incredible commitment from Germany, from the United States, from other allies and partners in the region on making sure that we are flowing aid and security assistance to Ukraine at an incredibly rapid pace. We know that that has certainly stressed our defense industrial base but we are confident in terms of what we have.

And the Secretary has -- is comfortable with the 155 ammunition and readiness for both U.S. training and for any future contingencies, and we continue to work with the defense industrial base to ramp up production but also work with our allies and partners in the defense industrial base to help increase our stockpiles.

Great. I will go next to Caitlin Kenny.

Q: Hi, thank you. Kind of a similar question -- on the military aid drawdowns, have any of the military services recently raised concerns to OSD that they would soon not be able to provide more munitions or equipment because their stockpiles were getting low to the point that it was getting to the reserves for training and conflict contingencies? Thanks.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Caitlin. Every package that is put together is done so at the table with all of our services involved. We have meetings where our services can weigh in on what they have available on their shelves, and then of course the Secretary and the Chairman have conversations with the President, with the White House on what we feel comfortable in getting to Ukraine.

We are always going to maintain a level of our readiness while also being able to support Ukraine, but the services absolutely have a voice at the table and weigh in when it comes to packages, weigh in on what capabilities can be flowed to Ukraine, and continue to -- we continue to assist Ukraine with what it has.

And, you know, one of the things that the President continues to say and the Secretary continues to say is that we are with Ukraine for the long haul. And so we are going to continue to assess -- continue to assess what we can flow to them without dropping below our own readiness levels.

Q: Great. I'm asking, in those conversations, is it coming to the point now where the military services are saying "hey, we can't give any more spare parts of X, Y, or Z or certain munitions" kind of in, like, the next couple of drawdowns that you might be planning?

MS. SINGH: Well, Caitlin, I'm not going to get into private conversations that happen at the table here at DOD but what I can say is every service is represented at that table and weighs in with their concerns and considerations, and that goes directly to the Secretary and the Chairman and they make those decisions along with the services on what they can -- what they can take off their shelves and what they can get to Ukraine or, in consideration for future security packages, like long term packages, such as USAIs, that we just rolled out one last week, and I'll leave it at that.

All right. Turning to Lara Seligman, Politico.

Q: Hi, Sabrina. Thanks for doing this. Two questions. One, do you have an update on Private Travis King? Can you give us an update on whether you've heard back from the North Koreans about his status?

And then two, separately, I'd like to ask just about the F-16 training for Ukrainians. Do you have any timeline on when that training will begin and also when the aircraft are slated -- you expect they will arrive in the country?

MS. SINGH: Hey, Lara, thanks so much for the questions. So -- I'm going to take your last question first. 

On the F-16 training, as you know, Denmark and the Netherlands have announced this -- their coalition, that they would begin training Ukrainian pilots. They're hoping that it will start this summer and will likely take place in Europe. But beyond that, I just don't have much of an update in terms of timing.

And I know you're probably already tracking this, but just in case, the United Kingdom did say that it would deliver basic flying and language training, which will begin within a few weeks. But in terms of any aircraft delivery or any additional timelines, I just don't have anything for you today.

In terms of Private King, unfortunately we have not heard anything back from the DPRK on how he's doing, on his well-being, on where he is. We -- our priority is to bring him home. We want to bring him home. We are working, through the interagency, to do just that. But, unfortunately, we have had no contact with the DPRK on anything in regards to Private King.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah. Janne?

Janne, are you there?

Q: Can you hear me?


Q: Yeah. Thank you, Sabrina. I have two questions.

North Korea invited the Chinese Communist Party delegation and the Russian defense minister to an event on the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement on the 27th. Do you see the gathering of North Korea, China and Russia as something to be concerned about?

And I follow up with second question.

MS. SINGH: Okay. In terms of the gathering that you're referring to, again, the DPRK is of course entitled to invite whoever they want to, to their country. We remain concerned about their continued violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions. But that's one of the reasons why you know our alliance with the Republic of Korea is so strong.

But I would, you know, let DPRK speak to their intentions more about that meeting.

And I'm sorry. You had another question?

Q: Yes. On the -- Private King, it's a tradition, the deputy commander of(the UNC started talking with North Korea through the JSA (inaudible) phones. Is there any possibility that dialogue will progress to negotiations soon?

MS. SINGH: Well, thanks, Janne. As I mentioned to Lara, there has been no progress in terms of any negotiation or any type of communication with North Korea. Our priority, as I know you've heard me say, but I'll say it again, remains to bring Private King home. But we have not had any contact or outreach from North Korea at this time.

Q: According to -- we're informed that North Korea say they not responsible for repatriating Private King, who was not abducted and voluntarily chose North Korea.

How will you respond to this?

MS. SINGH: Sorry, Janne. I would just -- again, I have nothing more to provide at this time. We remain concerned about Private King and of course continue to try and work through not only our building but through the interagency on engaging with the DPRK but have had no response or no outreach back them at this time.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Okay. I'm going to move on to Chris Gordon.

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. Does the Pentagon believe there's any cooperation with Iran and Russia to harass U.S. forces in the CENTCOM region? How deep does Iran and Russia's military partnership go?

And then, secondly, could some of the forces headed to CENTCOM due to Iran and to deter Iran be used in Syria to protect U.S. forces there and deter Russia?

MS. SINGH: In terms of the coordination, on your question, between Iran and Russia, I don't have anything to speak to in terms of that these are coordinated events with our MQ-9 aircraft and Russian pilots or Russian aircraft. I don't have any indication to -- any indication that says this is a coordinated effort between Russia and Iran.

In terms of assets to the region, again, the assets were moved to the CENTCOM AOR, specifically to address what is happening in the Strait of Hormuz and the continued activity that we're seeing by Iranian Navy ships harassing vessels, commercial vessels, other countries' ships and, you know, as we've said before, this pattern of destabilizing behavior is contrary to international law, and it's incredibly disruptive to regional security.

That's why we announced the deployment of additional assets to help support maritime security. Now, of course, you know, it at the commander's discretion how, if he feels that these assets need to be moved or need to be used in a different way in a different part of the region, of course that is at the commander's discretion. But the reason these assets were flown, or flowing in, into the region right now, is specifically to address what is happening in the Strait of Hormuz.

Q: Okay, thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah, no problem. Heather, with USNI?

Q: Thanks so much. I saw the drawdown came out today, and I wanted to see what conversations are happening between the U.S. and Ukraine about what's going on with the Black Sea and the grain deal, and if the U.S. has any additional comment about whether or not they'll be sending anything to help with keeping grain flowing from Ukraine?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Heather, for the question. I'm glad you brought that up. At the -- again, at this time, we continue to urge Russia to return to the grain deal. By withdrawing from the deal, Russia's putting an incredible -- I mean, millions of people at risk of going food-insecure and increasing food hunger. And we've already seen the ramifications of Russia withdrawing from the grain deal, with prices spiking.

And so we have urged Russia to return to the grain deal. But there is not a plan in place to have U.S. assets move into the Black Sea.

Again, Vladimir Putin continues to choose to engage in an unjust, unprovoked war in Ukraine and is going to put millions of lives at risk by withdrawing from this grain deal. And we're talking about, you know, many of the countries in the global south that already are food-insecure.

So we're going to continue to urge Russia to return to the grain deal. And, you know, again, as I mentioned today, our focus is on making sure Ukraine has what it needs on the battlefield. So as you saw, we rolled out our 43rd presidential drawdown package, and that's what we're going to continue to focus on.

Q: Has Ukraine asked for any assets for the Black Sea?

MS. SINGH: Again, we're in consultation with Ukraine on any type of security assistance package that we put together. So every package is done in coordination with Ukraine, but I'm not going to get into more specific conversations on that.

Tony, Bloomberg? Tony, are you there? Okay. Last question we have is from Konstantin, Military Times.

Q: Thanks, Sabrina.

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: On Private Travis King, obviously, you know, you're -- it's been a week and you guys have not heard anything. I guess my question would be -- does the Pentagon have a next step, an escalation if next week we're still in the same place of nothing heard?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Konstantin. Look, I'm not going to get ahead of anything -- any hypotheticals or anything that we haven't announced. We continue to pull all levers of government in our diplomatic channels to try and engage with North Korea.

You've heard from my NSC colleagues that there's been contact through Sweden. We continue to engage through UN Command to, you know, see -- to further engage to see if the DPRK will respond to our ongoing outreach, but unfortunately, we just have not heard back anything at this time.

Q: Got you. And just a quick follow-up -- are you able to offer any more detail on the timeline or the sense of events that led to Private King sort of leaving the airport and ending up at the DMZ in the first place?

MS. SINGH: So that's -- those are great questions. I would refer you to Army for more information. As I mentioned, I think last week, Army counter-intelligence is conducting an investigation, in partnership with USFK. So I would direct you to them for more information on the timeline of events.

Q: Got it. Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Great. All right, thanks, everyone. Really appreciate the time today, and have a happy Tuesday.