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Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder Holds a Press Briefing

MAJOR GENERAL PAT RYDER: All right, good afternoon, everyone. Just a few things to pass along here at the top and then we'll get right to your questions.

First, the department welcomes the Hungarian Parliament's vote this week to approve Sweden's application to join NATO, and we look forward to the Hungarian government quickly completing the process so we can welcome Sweden into our alliance.
Sweden is a strong and capable defense partner with a highly capable military, something that Secretary Austin was able to see firsthand during his visit there last year. And we look very forward to formally welcoming Sweden as the 32nd member of the NATO alliance.
Shifting gears, I'd like to spend a moment to underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass the department's request for a Fiscal Year 2024 base budget. As you've heard department leaders and others say, continuing to operate under Continuing Resolutions is unsustainable and detrimental to our nation's national security interests.

Notably, the absence of an appropriation bill for the fiscal year severely hampers the department's ability to plan effectively. We are already well into the fiscal year, now in our fifth month, and unfortunately find ourselves again under a third Continuing Resolution.

The fact is that this uncertainty undermines our military readiness and jeopardizes critical modernization efforts. The cumulative effect of spending years under CRs, dating back to 2011, is deeply concerning. That amounts to nearly five years of constrained funding levels, impeding the DOD's capacity to adapt to evolving threats and innovate to maintain our competitive edge.

Failure to pass a base budget for the DOD not only risks our national security but also obstructs crucial investments in new technologies, equipment, and personnel training, which are essential for maintaining readiness and staying ahead in an increasingly complex global landscape.

In light of these pressing concerns, the department will continue to work closely with Congress and urge them to act now to pass a base budget for the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2024. The bottom line is that a full year appropriation is crucial for safeguarding our nation's security and ensuring our military remains prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Separately, earlier today, the Director of the Army National Guard Lieutenant General Jon A. Jensen announced an aviation safety stand down for all Army National Guard helicopter units to review safety policies and procedures following two recent helicopter incidents. Two separate crashes of AH-64D Apache helicopters in Utah on February 12 and Mississippi on February 23 respectively, drove the decision to ground all helicopters for safety reasons.

In the order, which went into effect on Monday, Lieutenant General Jensen said, quote, "safety is always at the top of our minds. We will stand down to ensure all of our crews are prepared as well as possible for whatever they're asked to do," end quote. For more information, I'd encourage you to reach out to the National Guard Bureau.

And switching to exercise updates, two U.S. Africa Command exercises started yesterday, both of which run through March 8. Justified Accord 2024 is U.S. Africa Command's largest exercise in East Africa, which is led by U.S. Army Southern European Task Force Africa and hosted in Kenya. This year's exercise will incorporate approximately 1,000 personnel and units from 23 nations.

Additionally, Exercise Cutlass Express 2024, conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, will take place in the vicinity of Kenya, Seychelles, and Djibouti. The U.S. forces will work alongside participating nations to improve combined maritime law enforcement capacity, promote national and regional security in East Africa, and increase interoperability between the U.S., African, and multinational partners. And for more information, I'd refer you to USAFRICOM public affairs.

And sticking with exercises, this week in Thailand, approximately 4,500 service members commenced the 43rd iteration of the annual theater security cooperation event known as Joint Exercise Cobra Gold. Cobra Gold is the largest joint exercise in mainland Asia and a concrete example of the strong alliance and strategic relationship between Thailand and the United States, as well as an example of the strong cooperative relationship with other allies and partners participating in the exercise. For more information, please reach out to USINDOPACOM.

And in other Indo-Pacific-related news, on Friday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia Dr. Michael Chase met with Brigadier General D. Gankhuyag, State Secretary of the Mongolian Ministry of Defense, at the Pentagon for the annual Bilateral Defense Framework. Both officials reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.-Mongolia bilateral defense relationship and agreed to advance defense cooperation on shared interests to support a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

And finally, the department would like to congratulate the U.S. Marine Corps. This past Friday, February 23rd, following a rigorous two year audit pilot, and for the first time in DOD history, the Marine Corps received an unmodified audit opinion, the highest audit opinion that can be achieved; or more simply stated, they passed their audit.

The two year audit pilot provided time for the Marine Corps to stabilize its new accounting system and to inventory assets at Marine Corps bases and stations across the globe. We celebrate the tremendous success the Marine Corps achieved in receiving the first clean audit across all military branches, and these results bring the department one step closer to achieving an overall clean report.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. We'll go to Associated Press, Tara Copp.

Q: Thanks, General Ryder. Going to Ukraine, are there any other options for the U.S. to provide additional weapons to Ukraine at this point, or is it because the replenishment money is out that there simply isn't anything else that could be sent?

GEN. RYDER: Well, I -- Tara, you know, the bottom line is, you know, we're going to continue to look at ways that we can support Ukraine in their fight for freedom and to preserve their sovereignty. Obviously, funding to be able to provide them with vital ammunition and capabilities is critical. And so we'll continue to work with Congress in that regard.

In terms of specific initiatives or potential future initiatives, I don't have anything to announce today, other than to say you've heard Secretary Austin and other senior U.S. leaders highlight that we will continue to support Ukraine for the long haul.

Q: It doesn't seem like a -- the supplemental is making much progress in Congress. As Ukraine's needs become more dire, is the building considering taking the risk of using funds that don't have the -- the replenishment back fill, like using that leftover $4 billion or so?

GEN. RYDER: Again, I don't have anything to announce. We have said over and over again that Ukraine matters. We'll continue to convene the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. We'll continue to work closely with international allies and partners to ensure that we can meet Ukraine's most urgent security assistance needs, and then importantly, continue to work with Ukraine on its future defense needs, as well. But again, I don't have anything further to announce.

Okay. Quiet group today. Yes, sir?

Q: (inaudible). I have a -- two questions. First of all, each time Secretary Austin called with his Israeli counterpart, he asked to prevent the situation of Lebanon border from escalating. So is the thing we saw that Israel strike deeper into Lebanon in (inaudible). Do you have concerns of any potential for further escalation of the Lebanon border because of that?

GEN. RYDER: Well, I think, you know, we've been very clear from the beginning of this conflict that we've been concerned about potential escalation on the border, and so this -- as you highlight, this is a topic of discussion frequently between the secretary and his Israeli counterpart. And so that's something that we'll continue to stay focused on. I don't have any specifics in terms of Israeli operations. I'd refer you to them to discuss that. But no one wants to see the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza widened into a broader regional war.

Q: And second question, General: Yesterday, we heard from the president that he hopes to have a deal to cease-fire in Gaza by Monday. So how confident are you about that possibility? And from your -- your view, how is it important to have a deal in these days for the stability not just in Gaza, but for the whole of the region?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, well, thank you. As it -- as it relates to those negotiations, I'd -- I'd refer you to the White House, you know. Really not my place to discuss them, other than to say, again, what we've been focused on here is the protection of U.S. citizens and service members in the region, on supporting Israel and its inherent right to defend itself from future and current terrorist attacks, as well as supporting efforts to release the hostages that Hamas took, and then again, as I highlighted earlier, preventing a wider regional conflict from occurring. So that continues to be the DOD focus, and I'll just leave it there. Thank you very much.

Let me go to the phone here. Idrees from Reuters?

Q: Yeah, two quick questions. Firstly, do you have an update on the secretary's health? Has he been back in the hospital? Has he been in to the Pentagon every day since your last readout? And secondly, there have been some sort of speculation that the Houthis may have damaged some undersea cables in the Red Sea. Is -- is that accurate? And do they even have the capability to do that?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Idrees. The secretary's doing well. He continues to recover. He has not been back to the hospital since the previous visit that we read out, so appreciate your interest and obviously, we'll keep you updated on the -- on his health status. In terms of the cables, I've seen those press reports, Idrees, but I -- I don't have anything on that. We're obviously looking in that -- to that, but I -- I can't corroborate those reports. Thank you.

Let me go to Missy Ryan, Washington Post.

Q: Hi. Thank you, Pat. Just wanted to ask a -- a Ukraine-related question. The French president today gave a speech, and he was talking about Ukraine, and he said two things I was hoping to ask you about. He said first of all that the -- the -- the donations of weaponry had sometimes been too late and that they had come behind schedule. He says that -- that -- we have to have the -- that today, we've got to say that we have the humility to realize that we have als- -- often been six to 12 months behind schedule, and I'm wondering if you could comment that.

And secondly, he said he could not rule out Western nations sending troops to Ukraine, to operate in Ukraine. And I'm just wondering, what can you say about that? Is the U.S. in the same position where you could -- where you -- where you wouldn't be able to rule out sending American troops to Ukraine? Thanks.

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Missy. Well, just to be clear, we have no plans to send U.S. service members to fight in Ukraine. The president has been pretty clear on that and -- and that continues to be our position.

As it relates to providing assistance to Ukraine, you know, I can really only speak in broad terms, you know, from a DOD standpoint. As you know, since the beginning of Russia's invasion, we have worked very hard to get security assistance to Ukraine as quickly as possible, and it -- and it's not just a U.S. effort; it's an international effort as exemplified, again, by the monthly Ukraine Defense Contact Group meetings, as exemplified by the Security Assistance Group Ukraine, which brings nations together to help facilitate the delivery of those requests and aid to Ukraine. And so there are literally people working around the clock to ensure that we can get aid as quickly as possible to Ukraine and meet their most urgent security needs.

But again, as I highlighted at the top, you know, nothing gets done without funding, and so right now we will continue to work closely with Congress and continue to urge them to pass not only a supplemental request to ensure that we can provide Ukraine with the assistance they need, but also to pass a base budget, the 2024 fiscal year base budget so that we can continue to fund urgent priorities throughout the department. Thank you.

All right, let me go to Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

Q: Thank you. Is there any timeline for how long all National Guard helicopter units will be grounded? And also, do you have an update of when the Ospreys might be coming back into service? Thank you.

GEN. RYDER: Thanks, Jeff. I do not have an update on the Ospreys. In terms of the National Guard standdown, that's really a question for them to address. My understanding is that when units have completed their safety stand down, they'll be permitted to fly again. But that is -- that's probably better addressed by the National Guard Bureau. Thanks.

Come back to the room. Konstantin?

Q: Thanks, Pat. Sticking with the -- the Army first, like, I mean, this is the -- the Army has had a series of deadly helicopter crashes for -- I mean, there's been a pattern of them. This is the second safety stand down I think they're doing in the span of a year. Does the Office of the Secretary have any concerns about the Army's aviation program?

GEN. RYDER: Well, look, broadly speaking, you know, safety is something that we're always going to be concerned about and take seriously, and I think, you know, not just in the Army, but in every service you will see senior leadership making safety a priority, as evidenced, again, by the fact that the National Guard Bureau recognizes, hey, we need to take a moment here to -- to stand down, review safety procedures and processes and make sure we can look each other in the eye and go out there and do our mission safely.

So the secretary is confident in the service secretaries and chiefs and their leadership in terms of addressing safety concerns.

Q: Is there any plans to have a safety review or anything like that at the Pentagon level?

GEN. RYDER: Nothing at the Pentagon level. Again, the services organize, train and equip forces. The combatant commands operate those forces. Certainly from the DOD level, we provide policy. But again, safety and risk management are something that -- that on every single day is taken seriously throughout the force. Thanks.


Q: Thank you. A couple on Secretary Austin and then one on Ukraine.

Is Secretary Austin able to travel right now? And then also, can you clear up does he still have cancer right now or is -- does he not have cancer anymore?

GEN. RYDER: I'd refer you back to what we provided earlier, in terms of what his doctors have said, that -- that he has an excellent cancer prognosis, that, you know -- so I'll just refer you back to that. And then in terms of travel, I don't have any international travel to announce right now. Clearly the fact that he travels from home to work every day indicates that yes, he can travel --

Q: [CROSSTALK] …does he have any restrictions, in terms of travel?

GEN. RYDER: Not that I'm aware of. Again, my understanding is, you know, he continues to have some physical therapy due to lingering leg pains but, you know, again, he's recovering well and he's been working from the Pentagon every day.

Q: And then on Ukraine, is it the Pentagon's assessment right now that Ukraine needs additional long-range weaponry?

GEN. RYDER: Well, you know, we just convened the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which again provided an opportunity to look at all of Ukraine's needs, both near-term and long-term. And I would say that the top priority continues to be air defense capabilities. And so that's something that -- that we, along with the international community, have been working very actively on to ensure that they have those capabilities.

Q: What about long-range weaponry?

GEN. RYDER: Look, they obviously need all types of capabilities. We have provided them with some long-range capability but we'll continue to actively communicate with our Ukrainian partners in terms of what their battlefield needs are. Thanks.

Q: So two questions on the Red Sea. First, in terms of the undersea cables, I know you've said you can't confirm it yet, but what responsibility does the DOD have to protect those cables?

And then secondly, on Saturday, there was a third of joint strikes with the U.S. and UK. We've -- also saw that there was a couple minor strikes from Central Command forces. What is the DOD's rating of its effectiveness right now in degrading the Houthis' ability to strike ships in the Red Sea?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks. And sorry I got your name wrong, Heather. So in terms of the cables, again, I just don't have anything to corroborate those reports, you know, in terms of commercial cables that are around the world. And so I -- you know, I don't want to get into hypotheticals, in terms of what we may or may not do as it relates to cables globally.

In terms of the -- the strikes that -- that CENTCOM conducted on Saturday, they're continuing to evaluate, but initial assessments indicate that 17 targets at the eight locations that we struck were destroyed or functionally damaged. And then as I -- I highlighted yesterday, that included underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one-way attack unmanned aerial systems, air defense systems, radars, and a helicopter.

So more broadly speaking, since the first coalition strikes on January 11, we assess that we've destroyed or degraded at this stage more than 150 missiles and launchers, including anti-ship land attack and surface-to-air missiles, plus numerous communication capabilities, UAVs, unmanned surface vessels, coastal radars, air surveillance capabilities, rotary wing aircraft, underground facilities, to include weapons storage areas and command and control buildings. So degrading and disrupting a significant amount of capability.

Q: Just to quickly follow up -- like, in terms of what we're seeing, does this -- do you think that this means that we might see a -- a week-long pause in what -- their -- their ability to hit ships, or should we expect that they're going to be firing, you know, today, tomorrow, the next couple days?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, again, I'm not going to try to predict the future. We've stated what our goals are, which are to safeguard international shipping and preserve freedom of navigation, and that's what we'll continue to be focused on. Clearly, we do not want escalation. We're not looking for conflict, we're simply looking to save lives and livelihoods in this region.


Q: Thank you. A PBR question -- could you give us an update on whether the rollout of that budget request is at all contingent on the passing of a full appropriations for F.Y. '24?

GEN. RYDER: The -- you're talking about the F.Y. '25 budget rollout? I don't have anything for you on that right now. Obviously we'll keep you updated -- you know, we'll keep you updated on that front, so.

Q: -- second question on Ukraine -- could you just give us an update, speaking of updates, on the delivery of F-16s and the coalition that's providing those? Any timelines too?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, I don't have any timelines to provide. As you know, there is an air capability coalition that the United States is co-chairing, that is looking at how to provide Ukraine with that air combat capability. And so we do project, again, that F-16s will be delivered this year, but I don't have any further details to provide at this stage. So again, we'll keep you posted.


Q: Thanks, General Ryder. Back in October, Central Command announced that it was going to be transferring thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition that was seized from the Iranians to the Ukrainians. And I'm just wondering if there are any more of those kind of interdictions that are then going to be transferred to the Ukrainians? Given the shortages that they're facing, is that one option that is under consideration, to kind of do that more frequently?

And I'm also wondering separately if you can give us an update on the Rubymar, which was, I believe, sinking as of last week and leaving a pretty big oil --

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So in terms of providing Ukraine with seized ammunition, I don't have anything to announce on that front. Again, you know, we're going to continue to look at ways that we can support Ukraine. You know, you've heard us say nothing's off the table, but I don't have anything specifically in regards to that -- that approach.

In terms of the Rubymar, I'd refer you to NAVCENT for more granular update. My understanding right now is that some vessels associated with the company that owns that ship is looking at some recovery options. But again, they'd be in a better position to talk about specifically what those are. To your point though, you know, as CENTCOM has highlighted, there is oil leaking from that ship, creating environmental impacts, which again just highlights the reckless and irresponsible nature of these Houthi attacks. Thanks.
All right. Last question. Yes, ma'am?

Q: Thank you. Does the Pentagon assess that the Houthis are going to be a long-term problem or is it the assessment that they're going to stop attacking commercial shipping if there is a ceasefire, like the one that -- at least a pause in the fighting, like the one -- like the one that's being discussed?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, look, I mean, that's really a question for the Houthis to answer, in terms of what their motivation's going to be and in terms of internal decision-making. You know, we are focused on preserving freedom of navigation, we're focused on saving lives and livelihoods in the region, as it relates to the international challenge that these attacks have presented. And so as I highlighted, we're not seeking any type of escalation, we're not seeking to go into a conflict with the Houthis. What we're simply seeking to do is ensure that international mariners can transit this vital waterway safely and securely, in accordance with international law. It's a freedom of navigation issue, and importantly, it's also a health and economic issue, especially for those in -- in the region. And what we've seen these attacks do is essentially -- you know, contrary to their stated aims, the Houthis are wrecking their own neighborhood with their indiscriminate attacks, which harm Middle Eastern economies, cause environmental damage, threaten the fishing industry, coastal communities, and imports of food supplies. Thank you.

And then finally before we close, I'd like to welcome our guests from American University. Is that right? All right, welcome. You guys will be up here on Thursday briefing, so, Okay, all right. Thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate it.