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Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing on U.S. Force Posture Changes in the Middle East

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Hi, everybody.  Thanks for joining in today on short notice.  What I'd like to do is just offer a few comments off the top about the current situation and what the Department of Defense - what the actions are that we have taken to date, and then look forward to taking your questions.

So first of all, as you heard from Brig. Gen. Ryder, this is an unprecedented attack on Israel.  The Israelis have described this as their September 11th.  As you all are tracking, the casualty count and injury count continues to rise.

I want to differentiate this from other times we have seen conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.  This is ISIS level savagery that we have seen committed against Israeli civilians - houses burned to the ground, young people massacred at music festivals.  

So what has been incredibly a high priority for Secretary of Defense Austin and his team over the last 48 hours or so is to make clear our unequivocal support for Israel's right to defend itself.  We think it's incredibly important that this message of support for Israel's defense be underscored across the region, across all the phone calls you have seen the Secretary of State, the National Security Council, and here in the Department of Defense make to allies and partners, both in Europe and in the region.  And we're also making very clear to adversaries or those that might be entertaining entering this conflict, to escalate it, that they should think twice and not take advantage of the instability.

Secretary Austin spoke to Minister Gallant on Saturday.  He spoke to him again yesterday, Sunday.  We expect those phone calls to continue on a regular basis.  They are exchanging information to receive operational updates.  Minister Gallant has heard a clear message from Secretary Austin of his unwavering support to Israel's security and its right to defend itself and its people.

In addition to the active diplomacy you've seen, the Department of Defense is focused on two broad areas of support to Israel.  The first is ensuring that we are responding expeditiously to Israel's requests for security assistance.  And the second one is posture adjustment.

So let me take those in order.  First of all, with supporting Israel's defense, we are surging support to Israel.  That includes air defense and munitions.  We remain in constant, ongoing contact with our counterparts in Israel to determine and then support their most urgent requirements.  

I am not going to get into specifics on this call but the bottom line is we are working as fast as possible to provide critically needed munitions of various types and other equipment.  We're also contacting U.S. industry to gain expedited shipment of pending Israeli orders for military equipment that otherwise may have been considered routine for movement.  

We're also working across the DOD enterprise, including with U.S. Central Command, to assess what munitions and other equipment are in U.S. inventory that can be made quickly available for Israel.  All of this are actions we're undertaking within our existing authority and appropriations.

Points on the posture adjustments.  Not going to repeat all of the different posture increases ordered by Secretary Austin.  You can reference the statement the department issued on Sunday.  But let me speak a little bit about what these posture adjustments are going to do.

The USS Gerald R. Ford Strike Group includes an embarked air wing and accompanying cruisers and destroyers which will conduct maritime and air operations in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in order to assure allies and partners throughout the region and ensure regional stability.

The versatility and mobility of the strike group, which can conduct a full spectrum of missions, from intelligence collection, maritime dominance, to long-range strike, will ensure the United States is postured to respond to any contingencies and minimize the risk of a wider spread conflict that would threaten stability.

These posture increases were intended to serve as an unequivocal demonstration in deed and not only in words of U.S. support for Israel's defense and serve as a deterrent signal to Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and any other proxy across the region who might be considering exploiting the current situation to escalate conflict.  Those adversaries should think twice.

Let me stop there.  Look forward to taking your questions.

Staff:  Thank you very much.  For our first question, we'll go to Associated Press, Tara Copp.

Q:  Hi. Thank you for doing this.  This is Tara with the AP.  I know you can't discuss what munitions you're going to be sending but is there concerns that with all of the munitions that have been sent forward to Ukraine, there's not the capacity to surge here in Israel's conflict?

And then with the Ford's role, you said that you have the potential for long-range strike.  Is there a scenario where the U.S. would use its own weapons and conduct long-range strike on targets if there are militants either trying to enter Israel or you see activity in Syria?  Any sort of discussions along those lines?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Sure.  On the first question, we are able to continue our support both to Ukraine, Israel, and maintain our own global readiness.  

And on your second question, I know you're going to be shocked - to say I'm not going to get into hypotheticals.  But the the main point of those posture adjustments is that we remain positioned, we're supporting Israel's defense, and the U.S. military can expeditiously deploy dynamic capabilities across the globe to support the defensive needs of our allies and partners.

GEN. RYDER:  Thank you.  Let's go to Jennifer Griffin, Fox.

Q:  Yes, can you speak to reports that there was a meeting between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon that was sponsored by Iran?  Have you seen any evidence that Iran was part of the planning for this operation or participated in any way?  

And also, can you talk about the impact of having a CR on the Hill?  Have you run out of the annual money that - the $3.8 billion that is provided to Israel in foreign military sales?  Is this CR impacting your ability to continue providing more weapons and support?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL:  Thanks for those questions.  On the first one, I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters today.

And on the second, at this point in time, we have the resources, authorities, and funding to continue our support to Israel within, of course, the Memorandum of Understanding for security assistance.  The current one started in Fiscal Year 2018 and pledged the highest level of security assistance and missile defense funding to Israel ever in the history of our bilateral relationship.

But I think this is a moment to comment broadly on the impact of a CR.  This is a clarifying moment in which we would welcome working in a bipartisan manner with Congress and the Executive Branch to ensure that we're sending a signal to allies and partners across the world that our government, both parties and both branches of our government, are working together to ensure that their appropriate authority and appropriations are available to support and respond to crises and contingencies.

GEN. RYDER:  Thank you.  Next, we'll go to Luis Martinez, ABC.

Q:  Hi, thank you for doing this.  You mentioned earlier air defense.  Obviously, Israel has its own Iron Dome system.  Are you talking additional Iron Dome assets, missiles, or are you talking about different air defense systems that the U.S. could have? And are you considering patriots? And does that mean U.S. troops might be involved? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So, again, I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals. Let me just say at this point, for every request that our Israeli counterparts have made of us, we are able to meet those requests. And one of those areas, of course, is ongoing discussion about the air defense needs they have.

GEN. RYDER: Next we'll go to Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Senior Defense Official. I had a question about the Gerald Ford. Do you know how long the Gerald Ford will be there? Is there a time period that you're estimating to keep it there? And given that there are a million American citizens in Israel approximately, is the prospect of a neo, essentially out of the question, given the scale of it? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks. Thanks, Nancy. Thanks, Wall Street Journal Reporter. So, first of all, on the timeline, let me just say that now that the Gerald R. Ford Strike Group is heading to the Eastern Med, we will continually be assessing this theater as well as other global requirements. And then on the situation of the 100,000 American citizens you noted in Israel, I'm going to defer you to the State Department.

GEN. RYDER: Let's go to Phil Stewart, Reuters.

QUESTION: Hey there. Could you please give us a timeline, if possible, about when some of these munitions you said you're surging to Israel are going to get there? When will the air defenses get there? Are we talking today, tomorrow? By Wednesday? Any kind of sense of timeline there? And then on the issue of the, I realize you don't want to talk about intelligence matters, but other officials, U.S. officials have been quoted saying that Iran had no involvement. Should we interpret your reticence as a signal that perhaps there might have been some sort of Iranian role? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. Thanks for those questions. So, on the first one, I'm not going to go into the specifics of which bucket of assistance. Needless to say, planes have already taken off, and we anticipate seeing continual delivery on some of the requests Israel has made. And on your second question, look, of course, Iran is in the picture. Iran has provided support for years to Hamas and Hezbollah, but we have no information corroborating the specifics of the Wall Street Journal story at this time.

GEN. RYDER: All right. Let's go to Missy Ryan, Washington Post.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks so much. Just really quickly, just two very quick questions. Is there a U.S. military role in determining how many U.S. citizen hostages there may be and what their status is? And is the Defense Department providing or the administration providing any guidance or is there a discussion around civilian casualties and the protection of civilians with the Israeli government as you're trying to provide this additional military support in the form of the deterrence assets that you're talking about or the munitions? Is that part of the conversation at all? Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. Thanks. So, let me take the second question. First of all, let me say that engagement on mitigating collateral damage and civilian casualties is always part of the conversation with all of our allies and partners. It's no different with Israel. But I want to be very clear about this moment in time, and I want to underscore a comment I made up front. 

This is ISIS level savagery, and we back Israel and its right to respond, to ensure that its own citizens and its territory are safe from Hamas terror and recognize that there's going to need to be response for Israel to restore deterrence. And secondly, on your first question, there are continual conversations across the U.S. government with all of our Israeli counterparts about the situation of hostages that Hamas is holding in Gaza.

GEN. RYDER: Go to you, NBC Mosheh Gains. Mosheh, are you there?

QUESTION: Hi. Actually, it's a senior NBC News reporter in for Mosheh. Madam senior defense official, you've mentioned several times now that this is ISIS level savagery. And I'm just curious about the terminology that you're using there. Do you have some indication, I know you don't want to talk about intelligence, but just the fact that you keep using that term, do you have some indication that there was some external training or something that these fighters went through that involved other terror networks and that's why you're characterizing it that way? And then also, do you have any indication that some of these fighters that went across into Israel may have been other than Hamas, may have been part of some other group? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you, senior NBC Reporter. First of all, the reason that I'm underscoring the ISIS level style tactics and techniques here is because in some of the reactions across the region and others, I think there's been an instinct to see this as the same kind of tensions or conflicts that we've seen between Palestinians and Israelis or in Gaza with Israelis in general. This is different. It's unprecedented. Hamas militants going across Israel, murdering children in front of their parents, massacring with indiscriminate violence music festivals, burning down entire houses while families sheltered in their bunkers. 

This is different, and we want to be very clear about what that is. In terms of any external support, again, while I'm not going to get into intelligence matters, I am going to refer back to what I said before, which is obviously Iran is in the picture here. And we've long discussed for years Iran's role in equipping training and providing guidance to militant groups. I'm not talking about any specific intelligence that's here, but we've been very clear for years about Iran's role in fomenting instability and inciting violence across the region.

GEN. RYDER: Let's go to Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi. A couple of quick questions. The munitions, I know you don't want to talk specifics, but are we talking air to ground also as well as air defense? And are these weapons, this is resupply of what we've already sold Israel? Then I had a second.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Not resupply of what we've already sold Israel. Essentially, there's different ways in which partners purchase U.S. origin munitions and defense articles. One can be through a foreign military sales contract, another is through a direct commercial sales contract. So, what we're looking at is what was already on the books, which might just be falling in regular, routine delivery. And we're working to accelerate that.

QUESTION: Got it. And are the authorities under this longstanding, this current memorandum of understanding that was signed a couple of years ago, that goes through 2028? Is that the major authority that you're using?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That's actually a commitment for levels of FMF and missile defense funding. So, the authority is existing authorities. We have both just general through direct commercial sales and foreign military sales with a country who receives the most security assistance of any partner ever, and then a variety of other authorities as well to ensure that we are able to respond expeditiously.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Let's go to Wafaa Jabai from Al Hurra.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, ma'am. You've certainly seen the horrific scenes of civilians being killed in Gaza. Has the Pentagon reached out to the Israelis about the necessity of avoiding civilians, or do you have any concerns that Israel will be using the weapons the U.S. will provide to kill civilians, giving the Pentagon strict policy regarding civilians? And my second question would be, you're certainly monitoring the situation in southern Lebanon. I'm wondering if you have any indications about a possible escalation of that situation there? Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks, Wafaa. So, first of all, we hold Israel to the same standards that we hold all partners who purchase U.S. equipment. That includes robust end use monitoring practices and procedures, as well as a constant dialogue engagement and engagement about using our munitions that we sell to others, in accordance with the law of armed conflict. We are in constant dialogue with the Israelis about their operational plans, and I would anticipate that we would continue to do that. 

And on southern Lebanon, you zeroed right in on the concerns we have. We are deeply concerned about Hezbollah making the wrong decision and choosing to open a second front to this conflict. We are working with Israel and with our partners across the region to contain this to Gaza. And it's one of the main reasons why we adjusted our posture so quickly to increase our maritime presence in the eastern Mediterranean, because Iran backed adversaries like Lebanese Hezbollah should not question the commitment of the U.S. government to support the defense of Israel.

GEN. RYDER: Thanks. We'll go to Tom Bowman, NPR.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for doing this. Appreciate it. A couple of things. First of all, do you expect any U.S. support troops to head to Israel to assist on, you know, provide technical support? And also, what are your views about Israel cutting off food, water and electricity to Gaza?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: On the first one, I'm not going to comment on hypotheticals, except to say that we have a U.S. military security cooperation team in Israel that's part of the U.S. Embassy. And of course, we have been working to deepen military cooperation with Israel for years now, and that has been a specific area of prioritization and focus by this national security team. Sorry, your second question?

QUESTION: Yeah. Israel is cutting off food, water, electricity to Gaza. Is that appropriate in this situation, do you think?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I've seen the reports of that announcement, and I would refer you to the government of Israel.

GEN. RYDER: Thanks, Tom. All right, next, let's go to Jared, Al-Monitor.

QUESTION: Hi, ma'am. Thanks for doing this. Just wanted to ask, you mentioned some of the capabilities that the Forward Carrier Strike Group has, and you also mentioned that the U.S. has the resources and authorities to continue to support Israel. I'm wondering, forgive me, this is, I don't mean this to be an obtuse question, but are Hamas and Hezbollah included under the administration's interpretation of the 2001 AUMF? And would this be needed, say, if Hamas, or excuse me, if Hezbollah were to open a new front against Israel, or say, if it were determined that U.S. citizens are among the hostages in Gaza?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So, on the first question on the 2001 AUMF, the President has determined that it is al Qaeda or successor organizations to al Qaeda, such as ISIS. So, no, Hamas and Hezbollah are not included under the 2001 AUMF, as they are not assessed by our legal community to be successor organizations to al Qaeda. And sorry, Jared, your second question?

QUESTION: Just wondering if that would change at all if, say, for example, are there conversations ongoing right now about a potential U.S. military role in recovering U.S. citizens? Should they be deemed to be among the hostages in Gaza?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about future military role. Thanks.

GEN. RYDER: We have time for a few more. Let's go to Barbara Usher, BBC.

QUESTION: Thank you. You're talking about your deterrence with the aircraft carrier group largely as a regional message, largely to Iran, but is it primarily in Lebanon, is it also in Iraq that you are worried about some kind of Iranian activity related to this? And you've been talking about protection of civilians, discussions with the Israelis, and also about how this is an unprecedented situation with 900 dead and so on. And we all know that a lot of Palestinians are going to die. So, is there any sense of where the U.S. will draw the line at some point, or is that really just up in the air at the moment?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Let me take the first question first. So, broadly speaking, we have been very clear publicly about our concerns about the Iran cultivated, equipped and funded network across the Middle East that is the key driver for instability in a variety of countries. So, Iran's partnership with Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as its cultivation of militia groups in Iraq, as well as its supply to Houthis, et cetera, all remain concerns.

So, right now, we are monitoring across the region for any indicators or warnings that these groups would consider piling on or entering this conflict in a way that escalates it. And again, that's why we worked so fast to adjust our posture. What we're doing across the U.S. government is, one, flooding the zone with high level phone calls and engagement to make clear our desire to contain this conflict, support the defense of Israel. So, we are postured in monitoring, for any adversary, that would consider entering this conflict and escalating it. 

And on your second question, look again, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. We are always urging our Israeli partners, as we do any partner, to avoid civilian casualties. And I would note here that's absolutely something that Hamas did not do.

GEN. RYDER: Let's go to Lara Seligman, Politico.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Just one question. You said early on that DoD is able to support both Israel and Ukraine, but there are several examples I can think of, just off the top of my head, of where there's impact between the two. For instance, the War Reserve stockpile. I know the president directed some of that to Ukraine earlier this year. Also, the same defense company, Raytheon, makes both Patriot and Iron Dome. So, just realistically, can you give us sort of more of a detailed answer about what impact you expect the U.S. support to Israel to have on support to Ukraine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. Let me start out first by just stating the obvious. Israel has a very strong military, and we have provided a significant, in fact, the most historic amount and levels of security assistance ever to Israel, including through that historic memorandum of understanding from fiscal year '18 to '28 that we spoke about previously on this call. So, number one, while we are providing and will continue to provide a significant amount of support to Ukraine, we are careful about ensuring we can also respond to other crises and contingencies, support other partners and maintain our own military readiness and our ability to support others. 

And with respect to your question on the stockpile, we maintain stockpiles globally, and we are constantly assessing those levels and are confident that we're going to be able to both maintain the readiness of those stockpiles and support allies and partners in need.

GEN. RYDER: Our last question will go to Jeff Seldin, Voice of America.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. Wondering if you can give us a quick update first about when the carrier strike group is going to reach the eastern Mediterranean. And once it's there, is it going to help Israel with its siege blockade of Gaza at all? And also, given what Hamas was able to accomplish, is the Pentagon reassessing the threat or the capabilities of all the Iranian proxies across the region? Has Iran been able to train these and equip these better perhaps than you initially anticipated?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thanks for those questions. So, on the arrival of the Ford Strike Group, the short answer is very soon, but I don't want to talk specifics on this call. And with respect to your second question, look, we're always continuously and continually assessing our understanding of the Iran backed terror network across the region. And we've been very clear for years that Iranian support to a variety of militia groups, the sophistication of weapons it's providing has been increasing. This is not something new. It's been going on for years.

GEN. RYDER: Thank you very much. Thank you to you all again for joining us. As a reminder, today's discussion was on background attributed to a senior defense official. We will post a transcript to the DoD website later this evening. Thanks very much everyone.