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Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander Holds an Off-Camera, On-The-Record Press Briefing on the Ukraine Defense Contact Group Meeting

Lt. Col. Garn: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to today's press briefing. It is my honor to introduce the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Dr. Celeste Wallander. We'll have roughly 30 minutes for our discussion today, and we will strive to get through as many questions as possible, here and on the phones. If I did not call you by name, and your outlet, please introduce yourself when asking your question.

In her role as assistant secretary, Dr. Wallander facilitated the contact group this morning. And she is here to talk about DOD's support to Ukraine. And so I respectfully request you keep your questions to that topic at hand.

And with that, over to you, Dr. Wallander. Thank you.


Hi. Happy new year for those of you -- I think all of you -- I haven't seen so far.

So let me just make a quick statement. Secretary Austin just wrapped up today's virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. This was our 18th gathering of this contact group, and it was a very productive session. So we're very pleased to be kicking off the new year with new energy.

One key theme was that our allies and partners are making impressive contributions to Ukraine's defense, self-defense. And the United States and our partners will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people. As we heard today, Ukraine's armed forces are defending their country bravely, and Ukraine's troops need and deserve our firm and sustained support.

So it's worth taking a step back, amidst this context, that almost two years ago Russia decided to invade Ukraine. And two years into Putin's war, his attempt to swiftly conquer Ukraine has clearly failed. But Russian invaders continue their assault on the front line in Ukraine's east and south.

Putin's forces continue to target innocent civilians across Ukraine with missiles and drones. But the more Putin tries to impose his imperial vision through violence and aggression, the more Ukraine resists and the more Ukraine's allies and partners come together.

The Kremlin has isolated itself. It is left to seek weapons from ally -- from the likes of Iran and North Korea. And meanwhile you can still see the skill of Ukraine's military in the destruction of a Russian landing ship in the Black Sea last month and in the downing of multiple Russian aircraft in recent weeks.

As Secretary Austin has said, the outcome of Ukraine's fight against Putin's aggression will define global security for decades to come. And the countries that gathered today all know that. And they all know that sitting it out is not an option.

If we fail to counter Putin's war of choice, aggressors and autocrats worldwide will be emboldened. And as Secretary Austin has noted, we refuse to live in a world where tyrants get to decide which countries can be snuffed out.

So we remain determined to stand up for a secure and sovereign Ukraine that can defend itself and deter further Russian aggression. Ukrainians are not asking us to fight for them. They are asking only for the tools to defend their country. So in 2024 we must continue to get them what they need to fight for their freedom. And our allies and partners have shown impressive determination and drive.

We today met in the UDCG. This is a historic defense coalition of some 50 countries from across the globe, not only from Europe. And that coalition has committed more than $80 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, since the beginning of this Russian invasion two years ago.

That is a testament to our unity and commitment. And today we continue to hear from that coalition on more immediate -- additional immediate support to help Ukraine's armed forces make progress on the battlefield. And we intensified our common efforts to forge long-term security for Ukraine.

We focused today, a portion of the meeting, on Ukraine's future force and the standing up of capability coalitions to support Ukraine's defense forces. These important coalitions will build on the extensive work that we've already been doing in the contact group. They will sustain and deepen security assistance in the years ahead, working closely with Ukraine to create a formidable combat force that can defend against and deter future threats from Moscow.

We have already formed capability coalitions focused on Ukraine's Air Force, artillery, maritime security, ground-based air defense, de-mining, and information technology, and today, Poland announced that it would lead the armor capability coalition and Latvia has announced that it will lead a drone coalition.

Secretary Austin is especially proud that the United States is co-leading two of those vital coalitions. Together with Denmark and the Netherlands, the United States is helping Ukraine meet its urgent need for Air Force capabilities.

And alongside France, the United States is co-leading the coalition that will strengthen Ukraine's artillery power and ensure that Ukraine has the artillery systems and ammunition it requires. We're also an active participant in the other coalitions, including ground-based air defense capability coalition, which is led by Germany and France.

So it was a very productive meeting, again, focused on both the immediate requirements and the medium to longer term. So we're going to stay resolute and we're going to stay united, and together, we're going to prevail.

And with that, I'm ready to take questions.

STAFF: I want to thank you, Dr. Wallander. Let's start with the Associated Press, Lita.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this. So a -- a two-part thing. How much discussion was there in the UDCG about the U.S.’s lack of getting additional funding and -- and whether there is a need maybe for the other countries to kind of front-load some of their stuff while there's a -- a U.S. gap?

And then secondly, do you know -- so is there -- have all of the weapons that the U.S. has promised gotten there through -- I -- I realize some of the USAI hasn't but a PDA, or are there still some things moving?

MS. WALLANDER: Great. Thanks. Let me answer the first one -- the second one first. You -- there are -- USAI is a procurement facility, so it is longer term. Much of the capabilities that, over the last two years, have been contracted for have been delivered when they're ready, but yes, there is still a pipeline of capabilities that were contracted for either in 2022 or 2023, and those continue to be delivered apace as -- as scheduled for the most part.

You know, every now and then, there's a delay of a week but no fundamental delays in those deliveries. So that's -- so no, there are no challenges in -- in delivery of USAI. And up until December, we continued to announce PDA packages, and those are delivered in a more immediate timeframe, in a -- on a regular basis. So those -- there were no challenges of those. Some of those deliveries continue to roll out because they take weeks -- it's -- you know, to get the -- the capabilities to Europe and then onward to Ukraine, but that's just the normal process from the beginning.

On discussion about the challenge of securing additional funding for U.S. security assistance, there was not a discussion. We, the U.S. side, referenced that we are working with Congress to answer their questions and we continue to aim towards successful achievement of supplemental funding which will enable us to continue that USAI procurement calendar to give Ukraine the sustainable capabilities it requires to continue to fight, given that Russia continues to attack Ukraine.

And we're really focused also on achieving replenishment funding so we can continue to -- we can turn back to also the steady rollout of presidential drawdown authority packages that the replenishment makes possible.

Q: But just to be clear, you -- you said that the PDAs -- that some equipment is still rolling from some of the December PDAs, or has it all arrived?

MS. WALLANDER: I haven't checked before we -- we spoke today but the last package was announced in December. So it would not surprise me if that -- if those capabilities still are being delivered, but I don't have anything specific for you. But I also don't have any flags or alarms that have been reported to me, or concerns.

On allies and partners, your question about somehow gapping the United States, allies and partners have actually continued with their steady pace of announcing new security assistance. Just since October 1st, European countries individually announced new funding for Ukraine's security assistance about -- in the -- in the range of $4.6 billion just since October 1st. That is a period, I'll note, when the United States announced zero additional security assistance for Ukraine.

So that is about -- that is steady with the pace that the European countries have been rolling out security -- new security assistance packages since the early months of this conflict.

STAFF: Lara, Politico?

Q: Thank -- thanks for doing this. I was wondering again on the supplemental if there's been any discussion on the -- in -- amongst you in the Pentagon whether there's some kind of workaround in -- in case there is no -- you cannot -- the Congress and the administration cannot agree on a supplemental? Is there anything else as a backup that the (inaudible) weapons to Ukraine? Has that been a point of discussion?

MS. WALLANDER: In the absence of funding, we are unable to send new capabilities. We can fulfill existing contracts. Those are substantial in 2024. But they would -- the amount that we would be able to provide to Ukraine would not meet the pace or the scale that we have been able to provide Ukraine since Congress first generously passed support to Ukraine in 2022.

Q: So if you were to -- to potentially put something in the -- the budget request so that Congress could -- could pass that, that would not -- that would not solve the problem?

MS. WALLANDER: I won't get into the -- I'm -- I won't get in -- out of my lane, into the sort of Comptroller and OMB lane of how to request funding for security assistance, what the precise facility is. Right now, the focus is on that supplemental, but without funding, we would not be able to match the pace that we have provided Ukraine with since the start of this conflict. And the conflict hasn't died down, and in fact, the intensity remains high, based on Russian activity.

Q: I'm sorry, just one -- just one more. The -- can -- have you heard from specific Ukrainian units or soldiers that they are running out of ammunition at this point?

MS. WALLANDER: We have heard reports from the Ukrainian government that they have concerns -- from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and general staff that they are concerned that they believe that units are not -- do not have the stocks and the stores of ammunition that they require, and that is one of the reasons we have been focusing on the need to answer Congress's questions so that they are able to move forward on a decision to pass the supplemental.

STAFF: Let's go over to this side please. Go ahead.

Q: Following up on that, the -- just to expand on that question, has has the mark of a new PDA been felt on the battlefield yet more generally, not just ammunition, but also in terms of equipment losses? Or has -- has -- has there not been enough time since the last one for that to have trickled down to -- to the front lines yet?

MS. WALLANDER: Well, in the fall, in order to make sure that we were able to continue the steady delivery of ammunition, interceptors and other capabilities that we pull from PDA -- as a -- as a result of PDA, our packages were smaller than they had been earlier in the year, and the Ukrainians have reported that they are grateful for that steady provision of capabilities. But they have reported that the -- the changed pace and volume of PDA packages in the fall did affect their planning and their operations.

And so I think the trend is such that we are able to provide ammunition and interceptors that were contracted for in 2022 and 2023 under USAI, but those levels are not -- are not at the same level when we were able to provide on a regular basis ammunition and interceptors and other capabilities funded both by PDA and by USAI. So without USAI, we're not able to sustain the same levels of provision of capability to Ukraine. We look forward in 2024. Precisely when this -- the -- what the numbers would be, I would have to refer you to the Ukrainians. That is, you know, their -- that is their -- they're tracking. It's their responsibility to assess their stocks and how they use that in their operations, but we are hearing that from them.

STAFF: Bill, go ahead.

Q: Hi. Have you seen any evidence that the Russians are -- are trying to seize on any opportunities for ammunitions or -- and air defense shortfalls? And then secondly, is there any consideration of perhaps -- I know that the DOD's -- prefers replenishment, but perhaps seeking additional aid for Ukraine without that replenishment?

MS. WALLANDER: So on Russian actions, we have seen surges in Russian air activities against Ukraine. We've seen them not only continue to use ballistic missiles and cruise missiles and UAVs, but we have seen periods in which they are using coordinated barrages of those capabilities, probably two -- two intentions clear. One is to try to overwhelm Ukrainian defense capabilities in a particular location, but also to seek to force the Ukrainians to use ammunition to create vulnerabilities in Ukrainian civilian and critical infrastructure targets, but also front lines in order to be able to try to exploit those potential vulnerabilities. They've not succeeded so far. The Ukrainians have a lot of practice- -- have a lot of experience over the last two years in how to cope with these kinds of Russian assaults, and we have been able, with the coalition and with this -- with the past deliveries from USAI and PDA to provide the Ukrainians with what they've needed.

So we haven't seen it succeed, but I think if you look at the -- the ebb and flow of Russian air assaults, that that is what they are trying to do. And they have also sought to concentrate their focus on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine in some particular localities where they have sought to use some of their sources of ammunition from some of the countries that they've been receiving ammunition from, including the DPRK, to try to break through. They -- again, they've not succeeded, but your question was, have we seen the Russian forces try, and yes, we've seen them try.

On -- on using PDA without replenishment, from the very start of this conflict we have first and foremost created our packages based on what the Ukrainians say they need, what kinds of capabilities they need, what kind of effects they're trying to achieve, and work to find the right capabilities in our stocks to provide to Ukraine, and that is measured against our own readiness. That has been true since February of 2022, and it's true today.

So when the secretary decides what he can recommend to the president, readiness is absolutely a bottom-line concern, and that is -- you know, that is require -- that is a responsible policy choice because the U.S. Defense Department has to make sure that American forces have the capabilities they need to fulfill their missions. As, for example, we're seeing the U.S. is called upon in the Red Sea right now to defend American warships, to protect American commercial ships and to defend freedom of navigation and the freedom of commercial shipping to be able to operate in international waters. So the world isn't stopping because Russia's fighting Ukraine, and the United States has global requirements and responsibilities.

STAFF: So we'll do a couple more in the room, then we'll go to the phones. Let's do Oren, CNN.

Q: Oren from CNN. How much concern was there on the part of the other 50-or-so countries there about the lack of the U.S. ability to contribute now? The U.S. normally announces fairly large PDAs around these. How much of a hold is there to fill, even with other countries stepping forward? And then I have just a couple more questions.

MS. WALLANDER: We were able to brief on what is in the pipeline from USAI and to make clear that that steady stream, if at a different level, will continue. We heard from a number of countries and allies that continue to find sources and to fund sources of ammunition production. We heard from at least three very major European countries how they are working with their defense industries to -- their indus- -- defense industrial base to expand their production of especially ammunition. So they are stepping up to help to provide Ukraine with the capabilities that they need. So there was an awareness that the United States right now is still working on getting that supplemental so we can plan to be part of that at the full level that we have been in the past. But it was a coalition approach and a -- a -- a determination to work together to reach up to the numbers that the Ukrainians need for their current operations.

Q: But is there still a gap there? I mean, is it -- would you need the Europeans to step forward with another billion dollars or so of -- of equipment to fill what the U.S. would normally fill?

MS. WALLANDER: It isn't a definable gap. There are multiple ways to fulfill the requirements, and the creativity and the multidimensional nature of the coalition has -- has helped us. For example, some of the ammunition is NATO-standard ammunition. Some of the ammunition that is being contracted for by European countries is actually Soviet-legacy ammunition, which the Ukrainians can still use and put to good effect because they have so (inaudible) capabilities.

Q: And then just, can you update us on F-16 training, where that process stands?

MS. WALLANDER: So the -- one of the elements of the UDCG today -- UDCG today was an update on the Air Force Capability Coalition. The -- the coalition leads, and some of the member countries reported on where we stood with training, which is it is on track. Ukrainian pilots are being trained and are working through the -- the training program. We are working as a coalition on ai- -- we are aiming to provide an initial operating capability for Ukraine with its F-16 program in 2024, which would entail trained pilots, the platforms, but in addition, trained maintainers and sustainers, infrastructure, and spare parts, ammunition. All of these pieces is what the coalition's responsible for, and so we gave a briefing on where that stood this year.

STAFF: All right, let's do one more in the room, then we'll go to the phones. Let's go Luis.

Q: Has the Secretary made a -- a pitch for more air defense systems? You mentioned USAI. There was -- there was a -- a flow of NASAM purchases under USAI back in 2022. All -- has all of that gone in or do you -- or is that still in the pipeline and then that -- will that be arriving here in 2024?

MS. WALLANDER: Some of those units have been delivered. Others were -- the procurement was for production. So those are still being produced and they'll be delivered and rolled out as they are -- as they come off the -- I know it's not actually a production line, but as they come off the equivalent of the production line, those would be delivered.

Q: But the need is more immediate right now, right? So, I mean, will -- what is currently in the USAI pipeline --


MS. WALLANDER: -- immediate need right now are the interceptors. And so -- and procurement also involves procuring interceptors for different kinds of systems, the variety of systems the Ukrainians have, including what we're -- we call the FrankenSAM project, which is creating new Western -- or NATO standard interceptors that can be used on Soviet legacy launchers for the most part.

So all of those things -- some of those have already been put on contract with previous tranches of USAI. Some of them, coalition partners are procuring. Some of them, coalition partners are refurbishing from old stocks. So it's kind of multi-source to provide those interceptor capabilities.

STAFF: All right, thank you. Let's go to the phones. Howard Altman, WarZone?

Q: Thanks. A couple questions. Given the -- the slowdown in U.S. arms provisions to Ukraine and -- and -- and the -- the -- only a fraction of the artillery that's been promised to Ukraine has been delivered, did the Ukrainians talk about how long they can -- they can hold out with, you know, a reduction in -- in the supplies?

And then can you go on a little bit -- talk a little bit more about the -- the -- the drone coalition? What -- what's the -- what's that going to -- you know, what's the goal of that? Thanks.

MS. WALLANDER: I -- I am not aware that only a fraction of what the United States committed to provide Ukraine, in terms of artillery capabilities --


MS. WALLANDER: -- some delivery timelines that still, you know, require packages to be delivered. But that -- that is not the challenge right now. The challenge right now is some of those artillery systems, including those -- are provided by other allies and partners, need to be repaired, and -- and that is a -- that means they have to be taken off the front lines and repaired, but there is a system in place for maintenance and repair, and funding being put into purchasing spare parts and being able to repair those.

And then there's the ammunition challenge, which is -- I suggested really is rooted in increasing defense production. And we have been working with allies and partners to expand their production of ammunition. So we're seeking to meet that.

But again, you know, in the end, the United States is going to need the supplemental to be able to do those procurement contracts and to be able to consider possibly additional PDA packages. So that is a concern but it -- it is something we're working on.

I'm sorry -- and your other question? I'm so sorry, I forgot.

Q: It was about the drone coalition. Can you provide some more details on --

MS. WALLANDER: Oh yes-- great question, thank you for asking the question. Look, what we are seeing in Ukraine and in Russia's operations in Ukraine and Ukraine's defenses and also its own strikes against Russian capabilities is how the quickly evolving -- the -- the quickly evolving role of uncrewed aerial vehicles and it -- and -- and of -- ranging from large capabilities, which are largely used for ISR, for -- for surveillance and reconnaissance, down to strike UAVs, which can be -- you've seen, you know, small is a -- a foot or two across.

The technology is evolving quickly, the techniques -- techniques -- the -- the tactics, techniques, and procedures are evolving very quickly. The Ukrainians have been incredibly creative with how they use these drone capabilities. And then the Russians also adapted and learned how to use these capabilities.

And so the idea of the drone coalition is to look at these multi-domain and multi-functional aspects in which drones or, you know, uncrewed aerial vehicles play a role in different requirements operationally on the battlefield.

And to get ahead of the curve -- the idea is to get ahead of the technological curve, to get ahead of the production curve, and to get ahead of the operational curve to be able to help the Ukrainians as they find new ways to use drones and as they confront new ways that the Russians are using them against them.

STAFF: All right, folks, I want to be sensitive of Dr. Wallander's time. We have time for a couple more questions. But as you know, General Ryder has a press conference at 2:30, so if we don't address everyone's questions, we'll get to you.

Courtney Kube, NBC?

Q: -- North Korean ammunition --


Q: -- by Russia and --

MS. WALLANDER: North Korea has been providing ammunition to Russia.

Q: But -- but did you say that?

MS. WALLANDER: I said the Russians -- I believe I said, but if I didn't, thank you. Let me correct that the Russians have new sources of ammunition and they are taking advantage of where they have artillery ammunition, and one of their sources has been North Korea.

Q: I'm just curious -- so are -- I mean, are -- is there evidence that North Korean ammunition and artillery are now being used by Russia in -- in Ukraine? Is that -- I -- we know that -- I think the --


MS. WALLANDER: -- have any evidence that they're being delivered in the -- in the sense that you're asking.

Q: Okay, well, let me ask it again. Like, is -- is -- do you -- is -- is -- is North Korean ammunition or artillery being used by Russia in Ukraine?

MS. WALLANDER: I cannot be specific and confirm that.

Q: And then I just want someone to be clear on a couple of other things. The -- the -- well, you've -- you've mentioned a couple of times in the past where you've heard, like, the ministers of -- of defense -- Ministry of Defense and general staff talk about concerns about stocks and ammunition stuff, but was that something that was actually reiterated today during the meeting? Did the Ukrainians talk about concerns about ammunition today? Can you give us any -- since we're on background, can you give us any -- any sense of -- of how concerned they were about that or if they give any sense of -- of –Garron will be fine with you answering the questions.

Q: Well, -- well, actually, I'll ask it anyway. She's (inaudible) on the record. If -- can you give us any sense of -- of whether that was something that was brought up specifically today, concerns about ammunition, and then -- and did they -- in the briefing, did they talk about these surges in air activity by the Russians? I mean, were those things that were actually briefed today in the contact group?

MS. WALLANDER: These are things that the Ukrainians have talked about publicly, that they have concerns that their -- their frontline troops are reporting that they've -- they are reporting to their leadership that they feel that they are constrained and they are asking for more ammunition.

This is not new. The Ukrainians have been asking for substantial amounts of capability throughout the conflict and the UDCG. So that's -- is -- that was part of the conversation. And we need to hear that from the Ukrainians so that we as a coalition can work -- look at what haven't we been procuring? Where -- where could production be ramped up? How could we get those requirements to them more quickly?

So, yes, that was part of the conversation, but that has been an element, broadly speaking, of UDCG's from the very first UDCG.

STAFF: All right. Thank you. Let's go to the last question from the phone, Heather Mongilio, USNI?

QUESTION: Thanks so much.

So the United Kingdom tried to send over a minesweeper, and that was blocked by Turkey and the Montreux -- Turkey, using the Montreux Convention.

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on whether this is something that's going to continue to be an issue if the U.S. or its allies try to send over things like minesweepers, and if this is -- you've seen any other similar incidents where aid has been blocked from getting to Ukraine?

WALLANDER: So I would note that Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have publicly announced that they've -- they're joining together in a de-mining -- Black Sea de-mining operation. And we welcome that, because that's going to be really important, not just for Ukraine but for commercial shipping and shipping in general in the Black Sea, which is an international water -- body of water.

So we want to work with the littoral countries of the Black Sea, including Turkey, on conditions under which we can move away from the state of -- state of conflict in which Turkey decided to -- and as the, kind of, guardian of the Montreux Convention, invoked that provision of the Montreux Convention.

I would just note the reason why they invoked it is because of war -- Russia's war against Ukraine. And so what we need to do is help the Ukrainians continue to defend themselves against Russian attacks so that there is a permissive environment in which we can effectively re-open the Black Sea to commercial shipping completely. The conditions are better than they were because Ukraine has been able to move out some -- some grain, some commercial shipping, in large measure because of its success in pushing back Russian naval capabilities and strike capabilities in the Black Sea.

But the real key towards beginning to build a return to commercial shipping and to Ukraine being able to operate as a navy, as a maritime power, as is its right under international law, as a littoral Black Sea country, is for Russia to end its war against Ukraine.

STAFF: All right. Thank you for your time, Dr. Wallander.

That's all the time we have for today. Thank you.