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Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder Holds an Off-Camera, On-the-Record Press Briefing

MAJOR GENERAL PAT RYDER: So first of all, Secretary Austin will meet with Japan's national security advisor, Akiba Takeo, this afternoon here in the Pentagon to discuss the deepening cooperation between the United States and Japan, and we'll issue a readout on that later today.

Second, as was briefed during Thursday's press briefing, Secretary Austin will host Israeli Minister of Defense Gallant here at the Pentagon tomorrow for a bilateral meeting. Again, the meeting is expected to cover a range of topics, to include 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 also ensuring Hamas can no longer pose a threat to Israel.

Finally, I want to flag that acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker plans to step down at the end of April. Ms. Amanda Dory, who is a career civil servant and who currently serves as the director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University will perform the duties of Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy when Under Secretary Baker departs. So you can expect to see a statement from Secretary Austin later today, but we're certainly grateful for Ms. Baker's leadership and incredible support to the Department of Defense.

And with that, happy to take your questions. Missy?

Q: Can you provide any comment on the announcement from the Israeli government that they're going to cancel the planned visit of the delegation to discuss the Rafah operation, and talk about what that may mean for Secretary Austin's talks with Gallant tomorrow?

GEN. RYDER: I really can't. I'd refer you to the Israeli government to talk about their visit. Secretary Austin is still planning to meet with Minister Gallant. My understanding is Minister Gallant has meetings today with several other U.S. officials, and then again tomorrow with Secretary Austin.

Q: Can you — I mean, would you disagree with the assessment that the cancellation, because of the U.S. abstention at the Security Council represents an intensification of the friction between the U.S. and Israeli governments prior to the meeting tomorrow?

GEN. RYDER: So, I'm not going to characterize it. I'm just going to focus on the facts as I know them. Secretary Austin had invited Minister Gallant to visit, so this meeting was separate from the meeting that was to occur at the White House. We obviously have a partnership with Israel and continue to communicate on a regular basis to support their inherent right to self-defense, but we also have been communicating very actively about the things I highlighted at the top. And so, we certainly expect those conversations to continue.


Q: Thank you. What is — what is the secretary's aim from meeting tomorrow with Gallant? Is he — is he going to deliver clear objections to any operation in Rafah?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so I — you know, obviously, don't want to get ahead of the meeting. We'll provide a readout, of course, and we do have a podium brief scheduled tomorrow. But you know, it — it's what I spelled out there at the top, Fadi, in terms of talking about a range of issues, to include a discussion about Rafah and potential alternatives as it relates to any type of addressing of Hamas and the issue of Hamas in that — in that area. So again, I don't want to get ahead of the meeting and talk about things that haven't been talked about yet, but again, more to follow.

Q: Yeah, but from the specifics, when you talk about alternatives, is it the position that — this building that a ground invasion of Rafah is not something that you can support, and that's why you're providing alternatives to the Israelis?

GEN. RYDER: Well, a couple things. So, I mean, I think we — you know, the — and you've heard the White House say this. We think that a ground invasion, especially without any type of credible plan, is a mistake, given the large number of people, displaced people that are there at the moment. And so, you know, we've been talking for a while about, there are ways to go about addressing the threat of Hamas while also taking into account civilian safety. A lot of those are from lessons, our own lessons conducting operations in urban environments. So, I would — I would expect the conversations to — to cover those kinds of things, so —


Q: I know this is a sensitive issue. The Houthis have released a picture of a body. They claim it's an American service member. This comes after a — a sailor was — was declared dead from the USS Mason. Is this — is DOD looking into the possibility that this body may be a U.S. service member?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, thanks, Jeff. I'm aware of those reports, you know, from — from press reporting. We're looking into them. I don't have anything to provide on that. I can't corroborate those claims at this point. Certainly, you know, we'll keep you informed if we have anything on that.

Q: Is it possible to rule it out at this point?

GEN. RYDER: What's that?

Q: Is it possible to rule it out at this point and say —

GEN. RYDER: I — I just, I don't have any information on it, so I can't say either way.

Q: Thank you.


Q: Thanks, Pat. So it's been reported that one of the things Gallant is coming to discuss with Austin is a — a weapons wish list, that he's basically coming with a list of weapons and equipment the Israelis want fast-tracked, or the option to provide more of. I know you don't want to get ahead of the meeting, but what is Secretary Austin's con- — current thinking about the types of weapons Israel needs, should receive, and the timeline, especially given everything going on with Rafah?

GEN. RYDER: Well, you're right. I don't want to get ahead of the meeting, but broadly speaking, you know, when it — when it comes to our defense relationship with Israel, you know, you can kind of look at it in a couple different ways. One is the support that we've been providing Israel to defend themselves against future terrorist attacks from Hamas, right? And so there — there's that aspect. But we also have a long-standing security cooperation relationship with Israel through things like foreign military sales, foreign military finance to help Israel maintain its qualitative edge when it comes to its deterrence and its combat capabilities. So, you know, certainly, the — those are topics that our two countries have — or that topic is something our two countries have discussed for many years. But again, I don't want to speak for Minister Gallant, what he may or may not bring up in the meeting. Again, we'll have a readout afterwards.

Q: Has the secretary's mind shifted at all in terms of the kinds and amounts of this kind of weaponry that Israel needs, given — the security relationship, obviously, is long-standing, but given, you know, the fact that Israel has been seeming to ignore the U.S. warnings about Rafah, about greater protection of civilians, has the secretary's mindset shifted at all in terms of what they need?

GEN. RYDER: So, the secretary still believes fundamentally in Israel's inherent right to defend themselves, and that we will continue to support them in that regard, and that that support is ironclad. I'll just leave it there.


Q: Secretary Austin and Gallant used to talk pretty much daily, and in recent months, they've just been talking a lot less frequently. Are we just not getting readouts, or are they just talking less? And if so, why?

GEN. RYDER: No, I think what you saw was shortly after October 7th, when there was still a lot of activity and a lot of questions in terms of what's next. There was a more frequent drumbeat of phone calls, but Secretary Austin, you know, essentially speaks to the minister on a near-weekly basis, and that's pretty much the standard battle rhythm. You know, he also does that, for example, with Minister Umerov in Ukraine. So it — it's more administrative than anything else. I wouldn't read into that.


Q: Could you give us a sense on why it's taking so long to get Derek Chollet to the top job in policy? I mean, we've seen these vacancies pop up in the office for six, seven months now, at this point.

GEN. RYDER: Yes, I really would have to refer you to the Congress to answer that question. Certainly, the sooner that the confirmation can occur, the better. We need to have, in all of our positions that are open, qualified, experienced leaders who can help ensure that the department is carrying out the important work of national security in our department of defense.

Q: I'm wondering if you can kind of give us an update on what the Pentagon sees, like how the Pentagon sees ISIS and the threat of ISIS with kind of the attack in Russia. And kind of is it — it doesn't seem like it's contained to the Middle East at this point. And just if you can kind of give us an update on like where the Pentagon sees the threat at this point.

GEN. RYDER: Yes, so I mean, ISIS, as we've talked about for a while, they still are a threat. You know, I'm not going to characterize that I've seen some press reporting saying, you know, is it a — is a rising threat, growing threat. I would say it's a threat, right, among other terrorist groups. But it's one of those things that you have to stay on top of. Which is, again, you — the United States has been working closely with an international coalition in the Middle East to essentially prevent the spread of ISIS.

But what you saw after the Counter ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria was some of the — some of the elements of that group move to other parts of the world, right? So, you've got ISIS-K essentially coming out of Central Asia. And, of course, you see ISIS elements in Africa as well. And so, it is definitely something that we continue to monitor from a counterterrorism standpoint. Counterterrorism is part of the national defense strategy. And so, it's something that we just have to keep after and not underestimate their ability to conduct these kinds of attacks.

Q: Are there any plans to ramp up any missions against...?

GEN. RYDER: Nothing specific to announce other than, again, I mean this is — you know, it's a threat that we take seriously.

Q: To what extent does the Pentagon access that the threat from these attacks and ISIS-K has been blamed for the Moscow now, it's been blamed for the attacks in Iran, how much of that is emanating from Afghanistan itself, in terms of any direction, command and control? And how much of this does the Pentagon access is coming from ISIS-K cells or networks in other regions beyond Afghanistan?

GEN. RYDER: Yes, I really can't go too deep into intelligence, Jeff, other than to say, you know, as you heard the White House say over the weekend that we had notified Moscow in advance and Russia in advance about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow. And it had also issued an advisory to Americans to avoid going to any public places. And so, you know again, we're monitoring these things. I just don't want to get into the specifics in terms of where we see these cells other than, again, we recognize there's threat there.

Q: Has there been any change in force posture in any areas where the U.S. has bases? And has there been any requests for U.S. help or a beefing up of security at embassies across, whether it's Central Asia or elsewhere because of this threat from ISIS-K in light of the attack?

GEN. RYDER: Nothing more. Yes, nothing more.


Q: Thank you. Just a question on Niger. Can you give us a status update in terms of U.S. troops, our force posture in Niger, are any leaving? And specifically, the (inaudible) will be there any changes to that?

GEN. RYDER: So, as of right now, no changes to force posture in Niger. We still have approximately 1,000 U.S. personnel that are there. You know, as — as you heard us say last week, we're continuing to assess and seek clarification on the statement that the CNSP put out. And so, at this point, you know, there's continuing to be diplomatic discussions, and if anything significant changes, we'll be sure to keep you posted.

Q: Are they still doing the training mission there, or what — what are — exactly are U.S. troops doing in Niger right now?

GEN. RYDER: Right now, they are there and, you know, obviously monitoring for any force protection issues, but they're not conducting any training with Niger. So again, it's (inaudible).


Q: Pat, you mentioned the — the warning the U.S. relayed to the Russians in advance of the — of the attack back on March 7th. Are there — are there other communications that continue to — to go back and forth between the U.S. and Russia on other security matters, Ukraine aside, (inaudible) deconfliction line in — in Syria that's been existing? Are there other things, are there other duty to warn notifications that have been made to the Russians or any other communications that still exist despite the tensions?


GEN. RYDER: — so Eric, I'm not aware of anything in particular. Probably would be a good question for State Department. We obviously maintain regular communications with Russia via the embassy there and — and other channels. But I'm not aware of any other specifics as it relates to — to duty to warn.

And again, the — this is probably something for State Department or DNI to address, in terms of when they identify those threats —

Q: Right, I'm just thinking of other theaters operationally, like the — the deconfliction line in Syria that's been — is it — is that still operational —


Q: — are there other areas where U.S. and Russian security interests might overlap, where there's communications — routine communications, whether it's at a tactical or operational level?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, I'm going to speculate here a little bit because I — again, I don't have anything to provide specifically, other than, from a policy standpoint, as you highlight, the duty to warn. If we become aware of a potential threat, particularly something that could harm civilians, there is a policy of a duty to warn, and either law enforcement or intelligence services would reach out through the appropriate channels to make sure that information is passed. So that unfortunately is all I’ve got.

Joseph ?

Q: Just a quick one, a follow-up on Natasha's question, have you guys asked for or received any assurances or clarifications that Israel is using the U.S. — U.S.-provided weapons within international rules — rules of conflict or war?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so I — I'd have to refer you to State Department, Joseph. Again, that's — I know that's something that Secretary Blinken has been working, and I just don't want to get out over my skis on — on that. But I've — I believe State's doing a briefing this afternoon, so they're going to have more —

Q: And then just another one. In the Red Sea, are there any plans to swap out the Ike with any other carriers or any other strike group?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, so, you know, as I'm sure you can appreciate, we don't discuss timelines when it comes to our assets coming into or out of the theater. So, nothing to announce today, but obviously when, you know, you look big picture when it comes to force management, that's something that we, you know, are always thinking about and working through, on how to sustain our — our footprint.

I'll take a few more. Courtney?

Q: The — assuming this meeting happens on Wednesday at the White House with the Israelis, will Secretary Austin and the Chairman attend? Are they on the — is it on their schedule?

GEN. RYDER: So, Courtney, what I would tell you right now, if a meeting happens, we'll — we'll come back to you. We should have more information, you know, possibly by tomorrow on what that would look like, in terms of DOD participation. I just don't have anything to provide.

Q: So it's not on their schedule at this point? At this point, they're not —

GEN. RYDER: Correct — correct.

Q: Okay. Thanks.

Q: Can I follow up? Do you — could you update us on the planning for the pier causeway, where those ships are and if there's any update to plans regarding the logistics of who's going to deliver aid and who's going to provide security?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So right now, my understanding is we're — we're on track to meet the timeline that we previously briefed, right, so — that the pier would be operational within approximately 60 days of departure, if not sooner.

So, can't give you a specific location of the U.S. vessels, where they're at right now, other than to say all indications are that we're on schedule to be in theater on time to start doing that. We're also continuing to work — CENTCOM is continuing to work through the logistics piece.

Again, we'll have much more to provide in the near future. So, I don't want to get into specifics but making progress in terms of the onshore security, as well as making some progress as it relates to the concept of operations, in terms of how aid will be loaded and then taken off the — off the pier into Gaza for distribution.

But can't get ahead of that process right now because those discussions are still ongoing, but we should have much more in the near future here for you.

Okay, I can take one more.

Q: So just trying to clarify the position on the Rafah operation — and you said you heard the White House say this, "we think that a ground invasion, especially without any type of credible plan, is a mistake." Does the Secretary support a ground invasion if the Israelis were to provide a plan that could be satisfying to you, or is it off the table from — from his perspective, his point of view?

GEN. RYDER: Well, look, again, you know, what we're saying is that given the large number of people, refugees that are — that are living — displaced persons that are there at the moment, and considering the humanitarian situation, any type of ground invasion that is similar to the types of operations we saw further north, you know, in Gaza City, in north Gaza, it — it would exacerbate the situation and, you know, be a mistake.

So again, we're going to continue having those conversations and discussing alternatives, again, based on our own experiences, with the understanding that we all share the common goal that Hamas is defeated and can no longer pose a threat to Israelis or Palestinians in the region. Thanks.

Okay, thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate it.