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Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh Holds a Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: All right, good afternoon, everyone. I just have a few things at the top, and then happy to jump into your questions.

Yesterday, Secretary Austin spoke with Minister of Defense Gallant regarding the negotiations for the release of hostages and a temporary cease-fire. Secretary Austin also raised the need to consider alternatives to a major ground operation in Rafah while reiterating the shared goal of defeating Hamas. The two also discussed the need to do more to protect civilians and urgently increase the flow of aid into Gaza through land crossings.

Next week on Tuesday, March 26th, Secretary Austin will host Minister Gallant here at the Pentagon for a bilateral meeting to continue their discussions on a range of topics, including efforts to secure the release of all hostages held by Hamas, the need for more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinian civilians and plans to ensure the safety of the more-than one million people sheltering in Rafah, while ensuring Hamas can no longer pose a threat to Israel. 

This bilateral meeting is separate from the meeting announced by the White House following a call with President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the prime minister agreed to send a senior interagency team composed of military intelligence and humanitarian officials to Washington.

In other news, the Bob Hope-class vehicle cargo ship Roy P. Benavidez, a large medium-speed roll-on, roll-off ship, departed its pier in Newport News, Virginia today, carrying heavy equipment and material needed to construct the temporary pier to support the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. The Benavidez is transporting components for a floating modular pier system which will be delivered to the U.S. Army's Seventh Transportation Brigade, who will construct the temporary pier in the Mediterranean. This capability, known as joint logistics over-the-shore, or JLOTS, will allow for ship-to-shore cargo distribution and is part of the broad U.S. government's efforts to provide food, water and other forms of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Gaza. 

In other news, the department extends its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of General Al Gray, the 29th commandant of the Marine Corps, who passed away yesterday in Alexandria, Virginia. As commandant, General Gray made significant contributions to the warfighting capacity of the Marine Corps, most notably, the development of the maneuver warfighting doctrine and the publication of the Fleet Marine Force Manual that remains the foundation for how the Marine Corps thinks about, prepares for and executes all operations. While he was responsible for establishing the Marine Corps University, he was also a Marine's Marine, and he famously remarked that, quote, "Every Marine is, first and foremost, a rifleman. All other conditions are secondary," end quote. 

A full obituary will be released shortly, but for additional information, please contact the Marine Corps' communication director.

And finally, in sad news, today is Ryo Nakamura's last day here at the briefing room. He's been an outstanding international member of the Pentagon Press Corps for more than over four -- for more than four years now, and we appreciate all of his professional work reporting on important issues. Ryo, safe travels home to you to Japan, and best wishes to your family. And I think with that, we should give you the first question.

Q: Thank you. 

MS. SINGH: Of course.

Q: Thank you so much, Sabrina. Thank you very much for your kind words. 

Yeah, I want to ask you about AUKUS. The -- earlier today, the deputy secretary of state, Kurt Campbell said the -- that Japan's participation in AUKUS Pillar II is under consideration. Does the Pentagon assess that Japan has a potential to contribute significantly to advanced cutting-edge defense technology development?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, thanks, Ryo, for the question, and again, we'll certainly miss seeing you here, so you'll have to come visit and stay in touch.

In terms of what you're referencing, I would refer you to State and the White House for any additional information. As you know, Japan is one of our oldest allies in the region. Our relationship right now is closer than ever, but at this time, I just don't have anything to announce.

Q: Similarly...

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: ... on the AUKUS Pillar One, the nuclear-powered submarine...

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: There are growing concerns that the delivery of the submarine to Australia could delay, since the administration reduced the funding request for the submarine area -- area this month. So is the Pentagon still confident that you can start delivering the submarine in the early 2030s, or are you open to revising the timetable, moving ahead?

MS. SINGH: Well, so our commitment to AUKUS is unwavering. In terms of timeline on delivery, I'd refer you to the Navy to speak more to that. But I think this is a good reminder that we are well into fiscal year 2024 and we still don't have a budget. We are in the process of now going through our F.Y. '25 budget proposal to Congress, and we still don't have a supplemental passed by Congress.

So again, I would refer you to the Navy to speak to the timelines of, you know - and - and more specifics, but it all has to go back to the budget. And the quicker, the faster that we can get a budget approved by Congress, we're going to meet those benchmarks and we're going to meet those timelines.

If we experience delays, like we are experiencing right now, we're operating with one hand tied behind our back and, you know, we certainly could fall behind. But for more specifics, I'd refer you to the Navy.

AP, Tara Copp?

Q: All right, thank you. First, on Mr. Gallant's visits, what's different about this visit? They talk on the phone all of the time. We still see increased civilian casualties in Gaza. There's still not an open gate for additional humanitarian aid. So why is Mr. Gallant coming here? And how is the Secretary going to push to try and get some of these more strategic goals answered?

MS. SINGH: Well, the Secretary regularly - regularly engages with partners and allies through phone calls and in-person meetings. Minister Gallant was coming to Washington, D.C. This was a meeting that was set up a few weeks ago. So it's just an opportunity to meet face-to-face. Just like when the Secretary travels to the region, he goes and meets with many of the - many of his counterparts that he has regular phone calls with as well.

Sorry, and your second question?

Q: Well - so just to press on that more, I mean, will this - do you think that the in-person visit will make more of a difference than these phone calls have in getting more humanitarian aid through?

MS. SINGH: I think it's another opportunity to discuss the urgent need for humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza. That's something that certainly the Secretary impressed upon Minister Gallant not just in the call yesterday but in every single phone call he has. A face-to-face meeting is just another opportunity to engage. It's a good opportunity for them to see each other in person. 

They will discuss also what is happening in the region, what is happening at Rafah, but again, I just want to remind you that this is separate from that team that's going to be - that is going to come following the phone call that the President had with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Q: OK. And then on the pier, the Benavidez set sail today.


Q: So we've got the pier elements moving forward, you've got the sailors and soldiers are starting to move forward.


Q: What is - what's going to be the Pentagon's role in kind of that final mile? Are you letting contracts for contractors to then deliver that aid into Gaza? What - you know, what's kind of the final piece looking like?

MS. SINGH: So that's still something that's being worked out right now. And - and in terms of the distribution, that's not something that the U.S. military will be involved in. We are, you know, the logistics - setting up, coordinating the movement of the humanitarian aid from either the floating pier or to the - that floating causeway, but that's something that - in terms of how the distribution of aid is going to happen once it gets into Gaza, that's not something that, you know, we're handling.

In terms of contracts or, you know, how that's going to be done, whether it's through partners and allies, NGOs, I just don't have - I just don't have that for you right now. We're - we're going to get there though.

Q: OK. So just to be clear, like - but will the Pentagon actually let the contracts that would distribute that final mile, or is that going to be State, or do we know who's actually going to be handling that?

MS. SINGH: There will be no - I mean, there'll be no U.S. military on the ground in Gaza. So again, who's handling that, I just don't have that for you.

Q: ... the agencies, who's going to be responsible for doing the contracts?

MS. SINGH: I am not - I'm not sure at this time who would be responsible for doing the contracts. It might be, again, a partner or an ally that - it - takes this on. This is an interagency effort, but I just don't have more to provide at this time.

Q: ... and then just one last on Niger ... 

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Assistant Secretary Wallander said today that the CNSP has not officially asked military - or U.S. military troops to leave. Can you give us a status on the conversations with the - the junta? And what are troops doing right now? Are they just staying by the wire?

MS. SINGH: They're - they're still operating as they were from July, when the initial coup did happen. They've - we've consolidated our - our presence to 201. From an interagency perspective, from the department and State Department as well, there are ongoing conversations with the CNSP to discuss the path forward, but I don't have a further readout of those conversations. All I can tell you is that they're ongoing, and when we have more to share, we certainly will. Great.

Phil, yes?

Q: Just on the timeline for the pier, you know, General Kurilla said today that he thought it would be - he - he suggested a slightly faster timeline, that they'd perhaps be in place in mid-April. So can you just give us a sense, has the timeline been shortened or is it still up to 60 days from the original date that it was announced?

MS. SINGH: I think it's - it's still up to 60 days from when we initially announced it, which was, I think, now - go - go - about two weeks ago, approximately. You know, of course if that - if that period shortens or it gets expedited in any way, you know, that's - that's great and we want to see that, but we're allowing ourselves some time to allow those ships to get there. 

So we still - I mean, I think what General Kurilla said is approximately mid-April. That - that sounds accurate. I - I'm not doing the math up here, in terms of, like, 60 days from when we announced, but that - that's about right. Yeah.

Let me go to the phones and then happy to come back in the room. Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose?

Q: Thank you. I just wanted to double check to see if - you were asked earlier if the - if the DOD is making any plannings for a non-combatant evacuation operation from Haiti. I just wanted to see if anything has changed, if DOD is looking into a possible NEO for Haiti? Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Jeff, for the question. So right now, the mission is securing that embassy, augmenting our security, as you saw with the Marine FAST that went in just earlier last - last week. That's the mission right now. There is - the embassy is still open, operating as it normally would. 

The State Department has contracted some flights for American citizens who are looking to leave, but that is - you know, if - that is their decision, that's not that a NEO has taken place. Again, our focus right now is just the embassy and embassy security, and that's what our folks on the ground are doing.

Heather, USNI?

Q: Hi, thanks so much. So wanted to get some information about the Red Sea. I'm seeing reports by the Houthis that they have targeted an Israeli ship and an American ship, but that didn't come out in the CENTCOM releases. So I wanted to see if you've heard anything about Houthis targeting this - I think it was the ‘Motto’ and the ‘Pacific 01’ were the two ships that they announced that they were targeting - if you've heard anything on that?

And then just in terms of the CENTCOM briefs, I wanted to see if it would be possible to get some more information when we get those briefs? It seems like we're getting less and less information each day.

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Heather. So I'm certainly happy to look into the information that you're looking for and - to provide any more details that you need.

In terms of the targeting of an Israeli or U.S. ship, I - if it's something that just happened earlier today, it's likely going to be included in, you know, our daily roundup that we do of our engagement, whether it be these dynamic strikes that we do or any action that we've taken to shoot down any UAVs that the Houthis shoot towards commercial ships or our ships. 

But I just don't have more for you on what you specifically referenced, so happy to get back to you on that.

And then last question from the phone and then I'm happy to come in the room. Eric Schmitt, New York Times?

Q: Sabrina, you mentioned in Niger the U.S. forces are continuing to do what they were doing. Does that include the -- the drone flights for force protection? Are those continuing out of 201?

MS. SINGH: Thanks, Eric. So we are continuing to fly ISR for force protection but it is only for that reason. Thanks, I'll come back in the room. Yes, over here.

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. I have a couple on Ukraine, we hear more and more talks on the Hill both providing aid to Ukraine as a (loan and even some Democrats are saying that they might be open to this idea. Do you consider such an option providing military assistance to Ukraine as a loan?

MS. SINGH: As a loan? That's still something that's still being worked out through Congress. I'm not going to get ahead of that process. I think I spoke to this recently but Ukraine is, right now, in the fight of it's life and every day trying to fight back for it's sovereign territory, very difficult to also burden a nation that's in the middle of war with a loan program.

That being said, that's something that's being worked out with Congress. I'm just not going to get ahead of that process. 

Q: I have another one.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: So the Atlantic reports that the Ukrainian military believes that Russia is using satellite imagery provided by private U.S. companies to conduct its missile strikes on Ukraine. Have Ukrainian counterparts raised this issue with the Pentagon and if yes, is there anything that could be done to limit access to satellite imagery over Ukraine?

MS. SINGH: I've seen those reports, I just can't confirm that at this time. We'll continue to look into that and then when I -- if I have more -- I'm happy to get back to you on that.

Yes, Brad.

Q: Yes, there are reports that U.S. troops are stationed permanently in the Taiwan Strait. Can you confirm that at all and like say anything about what their role is and how many troops are there?

MS. SINGH: I don't have anything for you on that. We maintain a presence in the region. Again, we conduct different Taiwan Strait transits at times but I just don't have more for you on that. Luis?

Q: You mentioned the Gallant visit but will there be a DOD component to this visiting team. Will -- in other words will there be a visit to the Pentagon. Will there be military members or representatives of the DOD will partake as part of those discussion?

MS. SINGH: Yes. No, thanks for the question, Luis. I just don't have more for you at this time on that meeting. It's still coming together. I, of course, don't know exactly who will comprise the Israel delegation. So when we have more information I'll be happy to get back to you on that.

Q: There is a possibility that the DOD could participate in those discussion?

MS. SINGH: I think the -- the Department would be involved in some way but I can't tell you if there are going to be discussions here, if they're going to be at the White House. This is an interagency -- this is going to be an interagency conversation. 

Yes, great. Yes.

Q: The White House announced the first trilateral U.S./Japan/Philippines leaders summit on April 11th, so given the Chinese provocation in the South China Sea, what kind of trilateral defense cooperation among these three countries do you hope to promote in …

MS. SINGH: Are you -- are you referencing the state visit that's happening later this month -- or sorry, next month?

Q: Yes, from Japanese prime minister and the Philippines president.

MS. SINGH: Yes. So I'm not going to get ahead of that visit that's happening soon. There will be, of course, engagement from the Department and some of those meetings taking place. But until those meetings happen I'm just not going to get ahead of that. I'm sure you can appreciate that. But when we have more to share, we will.

Yes, hi.

Q: In Europe today as the world talks about -- still talk about what President Macron said about sending troops to Ukraine, a lot of obviously European states don't agree in that. Do you have anything to -- to say from the Pentagon side?

MS. SINGH: So I can only speak on behalf of this Department and you've heard the President be very clear that we're not putting U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine. We continue to support Ukraine through different presidential draw down packages.

We did just do an emergency draw down package a few weeks ago. But, you know, consistently we had packages going almost weekly to Ukraine and that stopped in December because we don't have any more money left because we don't have a supplemental.

But that's the best way we're supporting Ukraine. We know Ukraine right now is having to make strategic decisions about having to withdraw from certain areas in order to fortify their defensive lines. Those are really hard tough decisions and decisions that they're having to make because we are not able to supply them with the capabilities, the systems that they need because we don't have that authorization from Congress.

So, the best way we can support Ukraine is to have Congress pass a supplemental so we can continue to draw down these packages. And you've heard the Secretary of Defense, he was just -- he just convened the Ukraine Defense Contact Group earlier this week and he said very forcefully that we're not going to let Ukraine fail. And we're not but we do need Congresses help in order to get Ukraine what it needs.

Q: Yes. So no sending -- there's no intention to send in the -- in the near future at least, any troops?

MS. SINGH: President Biden has been very clear that there will be no boots on the ground in Ukraine. Yes, of course. Yes, and then I'll come over to you. Yes. Go ahead.

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Sabrina. And Iraqi delegation headed by the deputy prime minister and foreign minister is visiting Washington D.C. To your knowledge do they have any scheduled meeting with the secretary or any defense official about HMC? 

MS. SINGH: I don't have any meetings to preview or announce today. Yes. Sure.

Q: Quick follow-up on the JLOTS plan. Is there an estimated budgets of what this is going to cost yet?

MS. SINGH: I know a few of you have asked and I haven't forgotten about this question, I promise. I don't have that in front of me right now. I'm happy to take that question and we will -- we will answer it.

Q: Great. And would you need more supplemental spending than already requested to help pay for it? If you could like let us know the details of that when you --


MS. SINGH: Sure. Well, what we -- what we actually need is a budget. So we're six -- yes, we're halfway into the fiscal year, we still don't have appropriated funds for FY '24. You saw we've had over, I think, a dozen engagements on the Hill either today or in the last 48 hours of our commanders giving their budget proposals of what they need for FY '25. So great question when it comes to budgeting and the reality is that right now these services are paying for all of this and having to make decisions about programs or other, you know, items to fund in order -- because we don't have a budget yet. 

So that's what you're seeing across this administration, urging Congress to pass a budget. We certainly welcome the progress that we saw. We saw bill text come down early this morning. We're continuing to review that but we would just urge Congress to give us the FY '24 appropriations so we can continue on and fund programs like whether it be replicator or the office of strategic capital to, you know, making sure that we can get this floating pier set up outside the coast line of Gaza. Yeah, of course. Yes, in the back.

Q: Thank you. I'd like to ask about the Secretary’s meeting with Israel’s Gallant.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Are they going to have a press conference after their meeting next Tuesday or are you going to issue a statement or readout?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, we usually do a readout following any bilateral meeting. I don't have anything to preview on any type of press event, but usually with all bilateral meetings, we have a press spray component that's open at the top of the meeting.

Yeah, great. All right. Short briefing. Oh, yeah, we've got one more, OK. Yeah, no problem.

Q: Sabrina, Kimberly Underwood from AFCEA’s SIGNAL Magazine. I wanted to ask if the Secretary or Deputy Secretary Hicks have any reactions to her trip to Project Convergence Forward, and kind of what they saw in the technologies and kind of experimenting at the joint theater level, and what they're - what they were, I don't know, I guess, pleased with from the exercise.

MS. SINGH: Are you talking to me - the Deputy's travel earlier in the week? 


MS. SINGH: ... last week? Yeah. I think there was a readout from that trip. I would direct you to that. I just don't have more, but again, the Deputy's very focused on some of the issues that you mentioned, but I just wouldn't be able to go beyond the readout that was issued. All right?

Thanks, everyone. And Ryo, again, congratulations and look forward to staying in touch. Thanks, everyone.