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Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh Holds an Off-Camera, On-the-Record Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: So good morning. Just a few things at the top, and then have you jump in and any questions.

On Saturday, as most folks are tracking, January 20th, U.S. Central Command forces conducted air strikes against a Houthi anti-missile ship that was aimed into the Gulf of Aden and was prepared to launch. U.S. forces determined the missile presented a threat to merchant vessels and U.S. Navy ships in the region, and subsequently struck and destroyed the missile in self-defense. This action will make international waters safer and more secure for U.S. Navy and merchant vessels.

Also on Saturday, January 20th, multiple ballistic missiles and rockets were launched by Iranian-backed militants in western Iraq targeting the Al-Asad Airbase. Most of the missiles were intercepted by the base's air defense systems while others impacted the base. As you know, two U.S. personnel were injured but have since returned to duty, and there was some structural damage to noncritical facilities, and at least one Iraqi service member was wounded.

And yesterday, we regret to announce that after a ten-day exhaustive search, our two missing U.S. Navy SEALs have not been located and their status has been changed to deceased. We mourn the loss of these two brave SEALs, and our hearts are with their families.

As you might remember, on January 11th, CENTCOM Navy forces conducted a nighttime seizure of a dhow conducting -- conducting illegal transport of lethal aid from Iran to resupply Houthi forces in Yemen as part of the Houthis' ongoing campaign of attacks against international merchant shipping. During this expansive search operation, airborne and naval platforms from the U.S., Japan and Spain continuously searched more than 21,000 square miles to locate our missing teammates.

And so again, our prayers are with the SEALs' families, friends, the U.S. Navy and the entire Special Operations community during this time.

Two more items: Tomorrow, Secretary Austin and Chairman Brown will host the 18th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group virtually. Secretary Austin will be taking the meeting from his residence while he recovers from his recent medical procedures. The UDCG comprises 50-plus countries who come together monthly to coordinate security assistance for Ukraine. This Contact Group continues to make real -- a real difference in real-time, which is a testament to our collective resolve to stand up to Russia's assault on democracy, sovereignty and the rules-based international order that keeps us all secure.

And one more item: Just want to welcome Jim Garamond back. We're happy that you have recovered well.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: And welcome back -- welcome back here.


If -- if you want to start us off, you can start us off, too.

Q: No, feel free.

MS. SINGH: No? Okay, never mind.

Q: Go to AP!

MS. SINGH: Okay. I'll -- I'll throw it to Tara then. Go ahead.

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. So with the Ukraine Contact Group tomorrow --

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: -- since the U.S. can't, you know, offer another round of munitions or weapons, what exactly will this meeting be about? Like, how will you continue to support Ukraine if you can't send them anything?

MS. SINGH: Well, as you know, it's not just the United States that has been critical in providing security assistance to Ukraine. Our partners, our allies continue to do that despite the fact that we do not have a supplemental that's been passed by Congress. So this meeting is just another opportunity to convene and to also talk through exactly what Ukraine needs. And as you know, the United States is partnering in leading some of the coalitions, including the training of some of the F-16 pilots that Ukraine sent over. So it will be another opportunity to touch on, you know, certain milestones that need to be met, but also to continue to coordinate on the fact that even though we aren't able to provide security assistance right now, our partners are continuing to do that and it's an important forum to convene and say, "Hey, what else does Ukraine need for the future?"

Q: So can you characterize, like, would there be deliverables from the meeting? Like, would another country step up and say, "All right, the U.S. can't do it right now. We will"? And then since you mentioned the pilot training, can you give us an update on what -- where that's at?

MS. SINGH: I don't have an update on the pilot training other than that it's ongoing. In terms of other countries stepping up, I mean, we know that Ukraine's priorities continue to include artillery, ammunition and air defense. I'm not going to get ahead of other announcements that could come or what other countries are going to commit to, but you've heard the president say we're -- we're in it with Ukraine for the long haul, but we do need Congress to pass our supplemental budget request. Until then, we haven't been able to provide any PDAs since December 27th, but we are looking forward to this Contact Group. It is another opportunity, especially post-the holidays, to get the more-than-50 countries together to discuss what Ukraine needs.


Q: It is obviously very common for the secretary and chairman to do a press conference after. Is UDCG -- is the secretary going to do one tomorrow?

MS. SINGH: Since he is -- sorry?

Q: At least virtually.

MS. SINGH: Oh. No, since he's -- since he's still at his residence, we won't have a joint press confer- -- or at this moment, right now, won't have a joint press conference with the secretary and the chairman. I think we're trying to make someone available to just talk more about the UDCG either on a background setting or -- or something else. So just don't hold me to it. Just at the moment right now --

Q: But he's, like, well enough to take part in the meeting, but not well enough to do a press conference?

MS. SINGH: He's well enough to take part in the meeting. We're working on when he returns back to the building to get him here in -- in front of you in the PBR.

Q: And second question: Has he spoken with his Iraqi counterpart after the attack on Saturday?

MS. SINGH: I don't have anything to read out.


Q: So ballistic missiles are not a traditional capability for Iraqi militias. Is this -- is it the U.S. assessment that this is something they've had and not used, or that -- that they've been provided in the course of this conflict by Iran? Where -- where did they get this stuff?

MS. SINGH: Well, I think we know when we've been very public in saying that we know that these militias continue to be armed and supported and equipped by Iran, so the general assumption would be that they are getting them from Iran.

Just to dispel any confusion, this wasn't the first time that ballistic missiles had been used in an attack on one of our bases. I think that there might have been some misreporting on that. We have seen these groups use ballistic missiles before. I think what was unique about this is more of the barrage that happened all at one time.

Did you have a follow-up? I'm sorry if I missed something.

Q: No.

MS. SINGH: Okay.


Q: Thank you, Sabrina. I have, like, a technical question specifically about these -- the term "ballistic missile" that is -- is being used. Is it in the traditional, like the -- the -- the real ballistic missiles? Like, what are we talking about exactly? Like --

MS. SINGH: Are there fake ones?

Q: No, no, not fake ones, but from -- from a technical, like, what are we talking about here? Like, is it the traditional ballistic missile like North Korea uses that goes, you know, outside Earth and --

MS. SINGH: I don't have a -- I guess, a more technical definition than the ballistic missiles that we've seen these groups use before. I'm sorry. I don't have, like, more on that to offer.

Q: No, like, explosion -- explosion load. How effective are they? Like, do -- do we have -- do you have information --

MS. SINGH: Well, they were effective enough in that we did see a few able to get through and cause minor damage to structures, and of course, damage -- or injuries to our military personnel and -- and -- an Iraqi service member, as well, was wounded. So they're effective enough. I mean, if -- they do cause, whether it's -- I mean, I'm -- I'm not a technical expert on this, so I don't want to give you any more details on the --

Q: No, no, but can we -- can we get more information in terms to understand --

MS. SINGH: I can try to pull up some more information for you.

Q: Because it's being used a lot, and I don't have --

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: -- an understanding of, what are they using, exactly? They use the term sometimes, and it's been used here, but --

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: -- what -- what types of ballistic missiles are we talking about?

MS. SINGH: Sure. I'm, again, not a technical expert on this.

Q: Yeah, yeah. No, no, if you could take -- yeah.

MS. SINGH: So like, happy to provide you more if I -- if we can.

Q: And you said what was exceptional about this attack was, like, the number of missiles they used. Do you have a -- an exact number?

MS. SINGH: I don't have specific numbers to offer you on that, but it was a larger-scale attack than we have seen before. We've usually seen, you know, one or two missiles that have landed either nearby a base or, you know, have been, you know, not as close as some of these got. It was just a larger barrage of an attack than we had seen.

Q: And finally, today, it seems like there were more attacks, one on Al-Asad in Iraq and two in Syria. Do you have details on those?

MS. SINGH: I don't have details on those just yet. I saw -- I saw some of the reports as I was walking over. So when we have more, I'm happy to share that.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: We'll go to Carla and then Lana and then --

Q: Sorry, just to follow up on a few things -- since there was this major attack against a base where U.S. forces are and where U.S. forces were injured, and -- we're not clear it -- whether or not Austin has spoken to his Iraqi counterpart about this?

MS. SINGH: No, Carla, I said I just don't have anything to announce right now.

Q: You just don't have anything? Cause we -- that's a -- that's a given normally, he would reach out to his Iraqi counterpart when something like this happens and there would be some sort of condolences on their end and a discussion on what happened and what went wrong. If that's lacking days after, we need to know about it, I feel like.

MS. SINGH: Yeah, so I don't have anything to read out from the Secretary but what I can tell you is there are many people that work in this building, including in Iraq, that are in constant communication not only with the Iraqi government but of course -- it's not just the Department of Defense that has equities in Iraq, we also have the State Department that has diplomatic relationships with the Iraqi government. So while I might not have anything to read out from the Secretary, I just want to make sure that it's not to be mischaracterized that there's not communication with the Iraqi government.

Q: But it is U.S. service members and this is -- this is -- you know, he is the person who is responsible for speaking on their behalf in many instances. Moving on, sorry. The ballistic missile, do you have off hand when the last time an Iranian proxy group used a ballistic missile? Do you have that date and when that was?

MS. SINGH: I know that CENTCOM had put out a release around November, when a ballistic missile was used. I think a ballistic missile was used also a few weeks ago, whether that was November, cause a few weeks ago might technically be November, but there are -- there are -- CENTCOM had put out a statement on that. I just don't have the -- that exact date off hand.

Q: Okay, another clean up question. When are we going to get to see the training that's happening right in Arizona with U.S. forces and F-16 pilots.

MS. SINGH: I know that's something that we're working on, I just don't have a date to give you at this moment.

Q: But we -- we are going to get to see some of that training?

MS. SINGH: Again, it's something that we're working on, and when I have more to share, I will certainly share it.

All right. Yeah, Eric?

Q: So you -- you just -- you -- you said you had a larger than normal assault of rockets and missiles the other day. Two got through. You're calling it a barrage. So are you publicly acknowledging that the air defenses were overwhelmed and this could be another -- a way – a tactic they've used before, they could use again to go against U.S. bases?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, so I'm not going to speak more into what our air defenses were able to intercept. I think it was a larger scale attack than we had seen previously, but just not going to get into more on what our air defenses were able to --

Q: Okay, but did -- did -- any -- any indication these air defenses failed or were not fully operating -- operable? Cause they -- this has happened in the past.

MS. SINGH: No, there's no indication that they failed or weren't fully operable. They were able to intercept, you know --

Q: All but two.

MS. SINGH: -- some of the missiles that were coming towards the base. And so I think that means that they were pretty effective, but I'm just not going to get into more details on that.

Q: The statement the other day said that a number of U.S. military personnel were being assessed for -- for effects. You said two have been injured. So it's limited so far to two that have been diagnosed with either TBI or something else, that's it?

MS. SINGH: That's right. Right now, it's two that were assessed -- or that were diagnosed with TBI. They have since returned to duty. That number, as you know, can always grow, but right now, it's just the two.

I'm going to come back cause I said I was going to go to Lara and then I didn't, so over to Lara.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: Two questions. First of all, on the UDCG, what was the reason that no one went in person? I know the Secretary couldn't go because of his health issues but what -- what -- was there a reason the -- the Chairman didn't go and maybe you could have sent Kathleen Hicks or someone else? Like, what was the reason?

MS. SINGH: The Secretary's one of the hosts of the UDCG, so when he wasn't able to travel, it made sense to have it virtually.

Q: Was it discussed to have -- to send others?


Q: Okay. And then secondly, just on -- sort of more broadly, there was the attack on Al-Asad, then you have the two Navy SEALs that died the other day -- well, that you announced that they were deceased yesterday. So is this -- do you consider that this conflict has escalated now? Like, would you -- would you say that larger scale attack, American deaths, would you say that it's escalated?

MS. SINGH: Well, again, we continue to see these attacks from Iran-backed militias. We also haven't seen an attack from the Houthis since January 18th. So -- and then of course -- what tragically happened with our Navy SEALs was, you know, a complete accident as they were, you know, interdicting that ship.

Q: Wait --

MS. SINGH: I don't --

Q: I'm sorry.

MS. SINGH: -- I don't see this as -- you know, we've -- we've continued to see attacks on our forces since October 17th in Iraq and Syria. The attack that we saw over the weekend was just a larger scale attack. But again, we don't seek conflict, we don't want to see it -- this widen out to a regional war, we don't want this to continue to -- we don't want to continue to see our forces being put at risk, which is why we're taking the measures that we are when it comes to degrading the Houthis' capabilities. You saw our actions over the weekend. And of course, our air defenses were able to intercept some of the missiles that were coming towards our forces in Iraq. So we don't seek conflict and we don't want to see it widen out.

Q: Do you assess though that the Iranian proxies are stepping up their attacks, given the -- that this was a larger scale attack?

MS. SINGH: Not necessarily, no.

Yeah, Liz?

Q: Moving to the Red Sea, the drones that the Houthis are using, the Iranian-supplied drones, are those the same ones Russia is using against Ukraine?

MS. SINGH: I'm not going to get into our intelligence assessments on that.

Q: Separately, there was some reporting from over the weekend that the U.S. is -- the Biden Administration is preparing for a, like, longer, sort of sustained conflict against the Houthis. Can you speak to that? Does the U.S. intend to put any more troops over in the Middle East or any more naval assets?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I saw -- I saw the reporting on that. I mean, I would say that as long as these -- and you've seen this -- I've -- not just me saying it, you've seen it from the -- what the President has said, what the Secretary has said -- as long as these attacks from the Houthis continue, we always reserve our right to self-defense and we'll continue to respond as needed. I don't know that that's necessarily -- I can't remember exactly how it was characterized but we will continue to respond if we need to.


Q: So there were two confirmed TBIs. Do you have a rough number of how many were evaluated for TBI?

MS. SINGH: I only have the two that are -- right now, but as you know, that number could go up.

Q: Yeah. And is -- as recently as you know, how many total attacks is this now in Iraq and Syria?

MS. SINGH: As recently as today, I think we're up at 151 total, Iraq and Syria. I don't have the country by country breakdown at the moment. Is that what you were asking for?

Q: It -- I mean, if you guys can, you know, send it in an email or something, that's fine too, but --

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I don't -- I just don't have that but we can certainly get back to you on that.

Did I see -- yes?

Q: Do you have a total number of troops injured in Iraq and Syria since the attacks started in -- around October, the 19th, I believe?

MS. SINGH: I don't have a total number on -- on hand, but as you can imagine with the attack that just happened over the weekend, that we could expect to see the number of TBIs grow. And again, I mean, we could provide numbers but the TBI number does tend to fluctuate, even from attacks that happened in October and November. And so our service members will continue to get reevaluated but I don't have a total number for you right now.


Q: Hey. Can you -- was anybody taken outside of Iraq for evaluation for medical measures --

MS. SINGH: No, and they don't -- the two service members that were treated for TDI did return to duty.

Q: Okay. And did -- do you guys have -- forgive me if I missed this. Can you say where those ballistic missiles were launched from? Was in Iraq?

MS. SINGH: They were launched from within Iraq, but I don't think we gave more specifics. We know it was within Iraq.

Q: Is it possible to get more specifics?

MS. SINGH: I can certainly look into that for you. I mean, for our operational security reasons and what we're, you know -- I don't know how much detail I'll provide but I'm happy to look. Yes, of course.

Oh, okay, let me come back. And then --

Q: Just another --

MS. SINGH: -- okay, Nancy, and them, I'm sorry --


Q: When can we get the names of the SEALs who had died?

MS. SINGH: So, the notification to family members happened, I believe, or -- I'm sorry, the notification to family members that the mission has changed to a recovery mission has happened, I believe, earlier or later in the evening yesterday. So, it's standard practice that 24 hours will go by. So, it would probably come later today.

Q: Okay. And there are a couple of questions you can take, Meghann's question, please, on how many were evaluated? Can we get an answer on that --

MS. SINGH: Right now, it's just two. Right now.

Q: I'm sorry, her question was how many were evaluated and determined not to have TBI, if I understood it correctly.

Q: Or are still being monitored?

MS. SINGH: Or still being monitored?

Q: Because they were in the area.

MS. SINGH: We can take a look. But as of right now it's still the -- it's still the two.

Q: And then there are reports that were 17 rockets total fired at the base. Can you take that confirm it? And also, what type of rockets were launched? And lastly, I don't quite understand how OPSEC applies to the general location of where 17 rockets were launched. Is that something we can get more specificity on, please?

MS. SINGH: Yes, I said I'd get -- I said I'd get it –

Q: I guess what I'd like is just to take a question for everyone please.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Thank you.


Q: On the Navy SEALs, is there -- are there any changes or operational pauses as a result of this incident?

MS. SINGH: There are not.

Q: And is the Navy planning to change any equipment loadouts, tactics, in response to this incident?

MS. SINGH: To my knowledge, no. Okay. Then I see two more and then we can -- oh, I'm sorry -- can I go to Mike first and the come back?

Q: Any chance that the Navy's going to be doing an investigation into exactly the circumstances led to the SEALs dying? What went – sort of after action review of what went wrong and precisely how they --

MS. SINGH: There's certainly going to be, they're looking --

Q: And are we going to it -- are we going to get that information as well?

MS. SINGH: So, there's certainly going to be an investigation to what exactly happened. And, of course, right now the focus is on the recovery operations. I don't know more specifics on when that could be released because, obviously, we're still in this recovery stage. But if there's -- when there's more information to provide, we'll provide that. Yes? Tara?

Q: One, is this the first contract group since the Pentagon said it was out of money to provide?


Q: Okay. And has there been any sort of, I guess, communication to the Ukrainians, like to lower expectations, we can’t -- you know, this isn't going to result in anything? Because usually you have one of these contact groups and like that day or --

MS. SINGH: Well, actually, not necessarily. Not every contact group we've had are deliverable. I will say that the Ukrainians are well tracking what's happening in Congress right now. And fully tracking that support for what they need on the battlefield is being held up by Congress. So, you know, and the Secretary, I think it was last week, he had a call with his counterpart just to, you know, further discuss and receive a battlefield update as well. But I don't think anyone is under the impression that we're going to the contact group with some large deliverable from the United States in terms of a PDA. And so, that's something that we are going to continue to use that forum. And going to continue to coordinate with allies and partners there on what Ukraine needs for its war. But right now, unfortunately, the United States is not sending anything off its shelves, and we have not since December.

Q: And just one quick last one. This morning the Fifth Fleet Admiral Cooper told our AP reporter out in the Middle East that Iran is very directly connected to these attacks and is the one supplying and training the Houthis. What more can be done against Iran to stop this, or is it just a matter of, like, increasing interdictions and cutting off the supply?

MS. SINGH: Well, that's certainly one aspect. We continue to message, both publicly and privately, that we don't seek a wider war, we don't want to see this spill into a regional conflict, but we are going to continue to take the necessary force that we need to protect our forces, to protect commercial shipping through the Red Sea, through the Gulf of Aden, and of course to protect our forces in Iraq and Syria.

Did I see -- Okay, I'll do a few more and then we will wrap it up. Yes, Lara?

Q: So you said that there were 151 attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria --

MS. SINGH: Total.

Q: -- as of today. That's a lot more than the 140 on Thursday, right? Is that -- that 11 in three days, is that a lot?

MS. SINGH: I will -- I don't have the full breakdown of the day by day. We can get that for you. But I just -- I don't have what I have in front of me.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Have you seen -- just to follow on Tara's, have you seen any indication that Iran is getting this message that you are publicly and privately sending for them to stop?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I'm not going to get into our own intelligence assessments of what Iran is receiving. We are just going to continue to send our message, both in a very public way, as you've seen when our military conducts -- whether it be strikes or interdictions, and privately through diplomatic channels.

Q: Okay. And I just want to follow up on Lara's escalation question cause, you know, the -- has the conflict escalated, that you haven't seen an attack from the Houthis since January 18th, but, you know, you -- U.S. has been striking missiles that were ready to launch in Houthi territory. So I feel like that's an apples to orange comparison. Attacks went up from 140 to 151, they used ballistic missiles -- multiple ballistic missiles in what you said was the largest -- larger scale attack than seen previously. How is all of this not an escalation? I just can't follow that.

MS. SINGH: We are not under any -- I'm trying to think of the right word -- we certainly understand that tensions in the region are high. We have said that, we've acknowledged that. We continue --

Q: Are they higher now than they were last week?

MS. SINGH: -- let me finish -- let me just finish my sentence --


MS. SINGH: So in terms of attacks on our forces, we continue to see them, we continue -- we have continued to see them since October 17th. We have seen the Houthis continue to attack our forces since November 19th. We are going to continue to respond.

We do not seek an escalation, we don't want to see it escalate. "Is it escalating?" is your question. We don't -- we don't want to see that happen. It is really up to the Houthis, to these IRGC-backed militias, to stop their attacks on our forces, on commercial shipping, on innocent mariners that are transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. And what you've seen is this is not just the United States saying that, this is a multilateral effort with -- it was, I think, last January 11th when we took action with a host of other countries to respond to the Houthi attacks. So again, we -- we don't seek escalation, we don't want to see escalation continue in the region, and that's why the Secretary made the decision that he did not only to position our assets and our forces in the region but to respond the way we are.

I will take one more. Hi. Yeah?

Q: Thank you Sabrina, so you just said you've seen the Houthis attacking our forces since November 19th. The U.S. --

MS. SINGH: I believe it was since November 19th when they started the attack.

Q: -- and as long as the Houthis' attacks continue, we preserve the right to self-defense before. The complex attack on Tuesday, January 9th, the Pentagon wasn't sure whether U.S. forces were being attacked by the Houthis. It seems now you have a new assessment. So my question is how many times did the Houthis -- out of more than 30 times attacking shipping in the region, how many times did they attack U.S. forces?

MS. SINGH: I think it -- so some of this goes, Fadi, to -- and I think General Ryder explained this when he was at the podium last week -- when the Houthis launched some of their attacks -- some of their missiles, they land in the vicinity of five or six other ships. So it's hard to say for some of those missiles was it -- was the intention a U.S. ship or was it another commercial vessel or a partner nation's ship? We have some assessments that they were targeting ours but I can't necessarily give you a fulsome number because sometimes the missiles just land in the vicinity of and it's unclear who the intended target was. Does that make sense?

Q: So which is to say what the U.S. is doing is not strictly in self-defense, because self-defense implies you're being hit, there's damage or not, you were able to intercept the attack, and then you respond, right?

MS. SINGH: Well -- well, in some of these cases, we believe that our ships were the intended target, and we have spoken to that and that's why these strikes are in self-defense, because of U.S. forces.

Q: So -- so other than the January 9th -- that Tuesday, there were more attacks that were targeting U.S. forces?

MS. SINGH: Again -- and what I've said is it's hard to assess when a missile is coming towards you and to understand the intended target if five ships are around you. And the commander in that moment has to make the decision "we're going to take this down because I don't want my ship and my personnel to be injured."

So again, it's something that is made in -- a decision made in real time, assessing the threat of the missile to that ship. And so we believe some of these attacks -- yes, our U.S. ships have been in the proximity where our personnel could have been injured.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Okay. All right, thanks, everyone.