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Press Gaggle With Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, Pentagon Press Secretary

BRIGADIER GENERAL PAT RYDER:  So first of all, Secretary Austin is going to host the Iraqi minister of defense, Thabet Mohammad Al-Abbasi, here in the Pentagon today for bilateral discussions on U.S.-Iraq security cooperation and we do look forward to hosting the minister and his delegation, and we'll have a readout posted later today.

We're still continuing to monitor the situation in Niger.  At this time, there's been no change to U.S. military force posture in the country, and has been the case, we remain focused right now on a diplomatic solution.

And then finally, several of you have asked previously about the status of U.S. forces deploying into the Middle East region to support deterrence efforts in the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere.  As you may be aware, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command issued a statement confirming that the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit have arrived in the Middle East Area of Responsibility.  They got there August 6th, and this is part of a preannounced DOD deployment.  That statement is available on their website, so I would encourage you to take a look.

And with that, we'll go around and start with Idrees.

Q:  Just on Niger, have you received — the French military received a request for them to leave the country.  Have you received any similar request?  And yesterday, the Italians put out a statement saying they had evacuated 10 American troops.  What was that for? 

GEN. RYDER:  So right now, I'm not tracking any request for the U.S. military to depart the country.  As I mentioned, there's been no change in our force posture.  Again, we remain focused on force protection and on cooperating with Nigerian military on the bases there to keep those bases functioning.  And right now, in terms of any U.S. military departure, we'll have to get back to you on that.  As you know, we did have some forces previously leave for minor medical, unrelated to the situation there on the ground, but I'm not tracking any large-scale U.S. forces departing.  State Department, of course, is overseeing the order departure aspects.  Of course, they'd be in a better situation to talk about any U.S. citizens.  Okay?

GEN. RYDER:  We'll go to Tara, and then I'll come to you.

Q:  So on Niger, how many U.S. aircraft have come in and out of Niger since the hostilities started?  And then also, we're hearing that aircraft are having difficulty getting fuel.  Can you speak to that at all?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, so we don't have numbers available in terms of incoming/outgoing aircraft.  As you've probably seen in press reports, they have closed their airspace, so any U.S. military flights coming in or out are on a case-by-case basis, and so we'll continue working through that process.  But I'm confident that any aircraft we have coming in will be able to go out, as well.

Q:  Have any U.S. military aircraft gone into Niger since the start?

GEN. RYDER:  I'll have to get back to you on that.  I can tell you broadly, again, it'll be on a case-by-case basis. Well, yes, there have.  We do know, for example, that there was a flight last week, but I'm not going to get into the specific numbers of incoming and outgoing other than to say they're on a case-by-case basis.  I'll just leave it at that.

Q:  And are there any concerns about fuel?

GEN. RYDER:  Not that I'm aware of right now.

Q:  Thank you.  So my question is on what's happening in the Gulf.  Why we are witnessing (inaudible)?  It seems like we are seeing and we are witnessing a new rapprochement between the GCC leaders and the Iranian regime to a point that the UAE head of state is planning to visit Tehran and so on.  My question is first, are you coordinating all your moves with the GCC countries?  Second, are you and the GCC countries on the same page in describing the Iranian threats?

GEN. RYDER:  Well, I think the Iranians are the best communicator in terms of the threat posing by their actions when it comes to seizing commercial vessels in the region, and in one case, as you know, firing on a commercial vessel.  So as we have been for a very long time, we're coordinating with our partners in the region when it comes to U.S. military presence because again, it's not just the U.S. military that's out there controlling commercial shipping lanes.  We're working as part of a broader coalition on that effort.

And so to answer your question in terms of why we're sending additional assets, I mean, we put out a press release that highlighted why we're doing that to again, work with partners in the region to deter potential aggression to keep those shipping lanes open, and again, to a long-standing goal of preserving security and stability in the region.  And so that's why we've deployed these additional assets to give us additional options, to speed up timelines, and again, broadly, to ensure stability.

Now all that said, I mean, we do absolutely support any type of discussion in the region that's going to prevent the kinds of actions that have created instability in the first place.

Q:  Just a quick follow-up: Then how do you explain that the UAE military, the medical forces in the UAE is not part any more of the CENTCOM Fifth Fleet's naval operations?

GEN. RYDER:  I'd have to refer you to UAE to talk about their decisions. I know that CENTCOM stays actively engaged in terms of communicating with the UAE, and will continue to do so.  They're an important partner in the region, and will continue to be so.

So let me go to Lara.

Q:  Thank you.  On Friday, the State Department announced that the government's pausing certain foreign assistance programs benefiting the government of Niger.  It says that some operations are continuing, including security operations, but I was wondering if you could lay out, what are we still doing?  What response in terms of security assistance?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, Lara, I'm not going to be able to go into the specifics on particular programs other than to say, as we've highlighted earlier, that when it comes to things like training, you know, we're not doing that right now for obvious reasons while, you know, the situation continues to remain fluid and evolving.  And so when and if we have any updates on that front, we'll certainly let you know.

Q:  So flights out of Agadez, military flights…are those still paused?

GEN. RYDER:  So for opsec reasons, I'm not going to get into discussing potential operations in the region.

Q:  Thank you.  On the weekend, Chinese forces on ship interdicted a Philippine resupply mission in the South China Sea.  Is the Pentagon willing to persist in (inaudible) the supply mission to Second Thomas Shoal by sending ships or (inaudible) on the Chinese maritime activities?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, so I don't have anything to announce right now in terms of sending any type of additional assistance.  To my knowledge, the Philippines have not asked for additional assistance.  Certainly, you saw our comments over the weekend in terms of highlighting this type of behavior by the PRC, and that we stand with our Philippine allies in terms of their right to be able to supply/resupply the ship on the Second Thomas Shoal, and that will continue to be our position. Okay?

Yes, ma'am?

Q:  I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about the meetings with the Iraqi delegation taking place today and tomorrow, and also if we should expect any announcement regarding the future of the U.S. presence in Iraq?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, I'm going to beg your indulgence to wait until those meetings conclude and again, we'll have a readout but certainly we're looking forward to those discussions, as it relates to the U.S.-Iraq security cooperation, in particular U.S. force presence in Iraq, which of course we're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, in support of their counter-ISIS effort.  So we'll have much more to provide later today.


Q:  Going back to the Middle East, is the U.S. still considering putting U.S. service members on commercial vessels?  Is that something that's still being explored?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, so I've seen the press reports.  I don't have anything new to provide beyond what I read out on Thursday, which is that I have no announcement to make.  And so if and when we do, certainly we'll let you know.

Q:  Is DOD talking to the State Department about that or other countries?

GEN. RYDER:  Again, I don't have any further details to provide.


Q:  Ukraine last week struck a couple of Russian vessels with sea drones.  I wanted to get the Pentagon's take on how concerned are you about escalatory implications of these kind of strikes and also just in terms of Ukraine's threat — is this kind of operations endangering commercial shipping within the region, similar to the Russian threats?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, so again, I've seen that reported in the press.  I'm not going to get into talking about Ukrainian operations or alleged Ukrainian operations.  I'll let them talk about it.  I will say again we recognize Ukraine is in the middle of a fight right now against an occupying force.

We continue to remain focused on giving them the security assistance they need, Eric, to be able to conduct their counter-offensive and defend their territory, but as it relates to press reports about drones beyond the frontline, I'm just not going to have anything.

Okay.  Yes, ma'am?

Q:  Now that we're getting closer to the M1 Abrams' early fall delivery timetable, are we any closer to getting a decision on the depleted uranium rounds?  Is that going to be made before the tanks are sent?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, I don't have anything to provide, no announcements to make regarding any type of tank ammunition at this point.

Yep — did you have a follow-on?

Q:  I was just going to say, if you (inaudible)?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, I don't want to speculate, so.

Yes, ma'am?

Q:  Could you kind of talk through this issue of Travis King possibly being designated a POW?  I mean, where would that designation come from?  Is it possible for him to get that designation, even though he, you know, apparently, from what you all have said, gone over in his own, you know, free will and in civilian clothing?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, thanks, Hailey .  I think the key aspect of the article highlighted that that's all still under discussion right now and that that's just one possibility.  There are others.  And so those discussions continue right now, in terms of how best to address this.  As you know, there continues to be a look at what exactly happened.  So as we gather more facts, we'll be in a better position to let you know going forward.

I would say though, you know, from a DOD standpoint, from a U.S. government standpoint, the primary goal right now is just ensuring that Private King is Okay and he's being taken care of.  And so that continues to be the top priority.

Q:  And separately, is there any plan for the Secretary to speak with Senator Tuberville again any time soon?

GEN. RYDER:  I'm not aware of any scheduled calls.  Of course, the Secretary and the department will continue to remain in close contact.  Again, we think that it's very important that these holds be lifted for all of the reasons that we've talked about.  But I know, broadly speaking, our office here in the OSD will continue to communicate with the Senator's staff.  Thank you.

Q:  Pat, how many times has he spoken with the Senator?

GEN. RYDER:  There has been, since March, three phone calls.  So the last one was on the afternoon of July 18th.

Q:  Any other officials, the DepSecDef or the Chairman?

GEN. RYDER:  We can look into that.

Okay, time for a few more.  Yes, sir?

Q:  Sorry, following up on the Tuberville questions, I know there was a memo last week, I believe, from the Secretary regarding some steps that can be taken to mitigate, you know, the impact of this hold.  Can you share any more details on that and kind of what the conversation, like, with the Senator may be going forward, given that these steps might —

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, we can share a copy of the memo with you guys. I mean, again, I think we've been very clear about the potential impact of these holds on military readiness.  And so that continues to be the Secretary's position and we'll continue to do what we can to provide any information that the Senator — Senator's office requests, as it relates to why we would hope that these holds could be lifted.


Q:  Just to follow-up on that, are you able to move any of these officers that are holding and their families right now or is everybody frozen in place?  Like, can you do any PCS moves for these guys?

GEN. RYDER:  It’s really situation-dependent, depending on the position, where they're at.  Largely speaking, if it's a Senate-confirmed position for example, three to four star there would be a lot of situations where you would hold in place until you're confirmed, unless there's permission to act in an acting capacity.

Q:  And one and two stars?

GEN. RYDER:  Again, situation-dependent on where they're at and what it would entail, in terms of changes of command, hiring of staffs, whether or not the person that's the incumbent is in a retirement position or staying on.  So again, the bigger issue here is the uncertainty that it creates in a system that requires constant rotation of officers and leadership.

Okay, ma'am?

Q:  Thanks, Pat.  I know last week and I think over the weekend, the head of the I&S for OSD Ronald Moultrie and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency was in Israel.  You guys put out a readout, it's pretty short.  You all discussed security challenges in the region.  Can we get anything more about that trip, why it happened, and any sort of new things that are coming out of it and major takeaways for Moultrie while he was there?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah.  I appreciate the question.  Given the fact that we're talking about intelligence and intelligence sharing, that's about as specific as we're going to be able to get.

Q:  Not even a little bit on technology or why right now?

GEN. RYDER:  That’s about as specific as we can get.  So thank you.

Yes, sir?

Q:  On the Russian and Chinese flotilla around the Aleutians recently, I wanted to ask firstly was that an extension of the joint exercise they kicked off in the East China Sea last month?  And secondly, given that they've done this at least three times over the past eight years or so, do you view their presence there, jointly or separately, as becoming kind of a new normal that you have to deal with?

GEN. RYDER:  Yeah, so I'll let the Chinese and the Russians characterize their activities.  And what I would say is that NORAD and NORTHCOM monitored their presence.  They were in international waters.  At no point in time were they deemed to pose a threat.  And so like any country, they are free to conduct exercises in international airspace, international waters.

We will continue to monitor but, you know, I think that it's no surprise to anyone that China and Russia continue to look at ways to cooperate and we'll continue to monitor this situation and act appropriately, Okay?

We've got time for one more.  Yes, sir?

Q:  Hi, just a follow-up on that. Has that prompted any change in status, deployment of units?

GEN. RYDER:  No, not that I'm aware of at this time.

GEN. RYDER:  Yep, last question.  Yes, sir?

Q:  Sorry, just a follow-up — does the Secretary support the proposals to potentially offer regional states the potential to have (inaudible) embark on commercial ships?

GEN. RYDER:  You may have come in a little bit late, but again, I don't have anything right now.  Again, I'm aware of the press reports speculating that that's something we may be looking at doing.  Again, I don't have anything to announce, and when and if we do, we'll be sure to let you know.

Okay, thanks.  All right, thanks very much, everybody.

Q:  A quick question.

GEN. RYDER:  Quick question.

Q: On the Syrian-Iraqi border, could you confirm some local reports saying that the U.S. military has closed the two entrances to main entrances between Iraq and Syria?

GEN. RYDER:  The U.S. military has closed?

Q:  Yeah.

GEN. RYDER:  I mean, we'll look into it.  Generally, to my knowledge, we're not into border control, but we'll take that question.

Q:  Okay.

GEN. RYDER:  You know, our focus there, as you know, is on the defeat ISIS mission.

Q:  I know.

GEN. RYDER:  So that's what our force posture is there for, but we'll look into that.

Q:  All right, thank you very much.

GEN. RYDER:  Thanks.