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Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Ms. Sabrina Singh Holds a Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH:  All right, hi. Good afternoon, everyone. Just a few things at the top here and then happy to take your questions.

So let me start off by saying that our thoughts and our prayers are with all those who were impacted in the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge overnight. Obviously, it is very early in the process, but I can tell you that the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been in touch with the Port of Baltimore, and the department is remaining in close contact with local and state officials and stands ready if any assistance is required.

Given the scope of the situation and this is likely to be a lengthy process, we will of course circle back with any new developments from the DOD perspective over the coming days and weeks to come.

Today, Secretary of Defense Austin hosted Israeli Minister of Defense Gallant at the Pentagon for his first visit to Washington in his current role.  The Secretary and Minister Gallant affirmed their shared interests in defeating Hamas, discussed the importance of prioritizing civilians in Rafah, the dire humanitarian situation across Gaza, and threats to regional security.

The Secretary stressed that the United States and Israel have a moral imperative and a shared strategic interest in safeguarding civilians, noting that any assault on Rafah should not proceed without a credible and implementable plan that ensures the safety and humanitarian support for civilians sheltering there.

The Secretary also urged Minister Gallant to expand entry points for humanitarian assistance and address distribution challenges inside of Gaza.  He also reiterated the department's commitment to establish a temporary maritime corridor to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza.

Separate but related, between March 2nd and today, U.S. Central Command has conducted 17 assistance airdrops into Gaza with more than 470,000 culturally appropriate, pork-free meals and over eight tons of food items, such as rice, flour, pasta, and canned food.

As always, safety is a top priority when planning these airdrops.  Of note, during yesterday's humanitarian airdrop, which included approximately 80 bundles, three bundles were reported to have had parachute malfunctions and landed in the water. 

It is important to note that drop zones are chosen to mitigate potential failures of parachutes to deploy. These humanitarian aid drops occur over water and the wind causes the bundles to drift over to land. In the event of a parachute malfunction, the bundles land in the water.  

While only one part of the broader humanitarian effort, these airdrops are an expedient means to deliver critical aid to Gaza. As you've heard us say, we are exploring other options to increase the flow of aid with our partners, including the maritime corridor which we previously announced.

And switching gears, last year, the department announced policies authorizing administrative absences as well as travel and transportation allowances that would allow service members and their dependents access to non-covered reproductive healthcare.

This type of care includes non-covered abortion and assisted reproductive technology, such as in vitro fertilization, ovarian stimulations, and egg retrieval. These policies ensure that service members and their families are afforded the time and flexibility to make private healthcare decisions, as well as supporting access to non-covered reproductive healthcare, regardless of where they are stationed.

Today, we are releasing data of the cost and usage of these policies from June through December 2023. For the travel and transportation policy, the policy was used 12 times to access non-covered reproductive healthcare services. The number 12 accounts for each instance of an individual using the policy for a roundtrip event.  

So for example, this could entail a service member traveling from their home station in one state or overseas location to a state where they can access non-covered reproductive healthcare services, and then returning home to that home station. Of note, a service member can use the policy more than once.  

The total cost for the department for travel and the total cost for the department for travel and transportation in these 12 instances was $44,791.20. Due to privacy concerns, the department does not track the number of individuals who used the policy or collect data on specific type of non-covered reproductive healthcare services used by service members utilizing the travel and transportation policy.

And with that - I know that was a lot - I'm happy to take your questions.  So Tara, if you want to start us off?

Q:  OK, thanks, Sabrina.  One clean up - June through December of 2023, so just the last six months of the last year?

MS. SINGH:  Yeah.

Q:  And 12 people total or 12 uses total and that could have been that one person went more than once?

MS. SINGH:  12 uses total, so it accounts for 12 times. And a service member can use the travel and transportation policy multiple times.

Q:  OK, thanks.  

Switching back to Israel and Gaza, were there any indications today, because of the abstention vote in the UN, that Israel is now not going to support the distribution or the maritime port access for the U.S. and others that are going to create this port?

MS. SINGH:  No, there was not. Part of the conversation that the Secretary had with Minister Gallant was - one of the things that they discussed was about humanitarian aid getting into Gaza, getting to the Palestinian people who need it most. And of course, they discussed the maritime corridor. That's still going to be set up as planned. We're still a few weeks away from that being fully operational but that will still be set up.

Q:  And since we are only a few weeks away from it being operational, do you have an update on how the logistics, how the distribution part of it, the security - what will the U.S. role be versus Israel's role?

MS. SINGH:  Sure. So that's something that did also come up with Minister Gallant.  Israel will play a role in providing some type of security and securing the temporary causeway to the coastline of Gaza, but those details are still going through the process of being worked out.

In terms of the distribution of humanitarian aid, that is also something that is ongoing. I don't have a better answer for you just now.

Q:  And, just to follow up on I guess a question from a couple of days ago...

MS. SINGH:  Sure.

Q:  ... is DOD going to be in control of the distribution contract?  I know no DOD personnel are going to be there, but is this going to be a DOD run effort?

MS. SINGH:  To my knowledge, I don't believe we are going to have a part in the distribution of aid.  Again, we're looking to - I don't want to get ahead of any conversations.  Again, this is something that's ongoing.  We are working with partners in the region.  We're working with NGOs.  

I just don't have a sense of - just yet on how that aid is going to be distributed once it comes off of what you're referring to as the causeway into Gaza.  I just don't have more to provide at this time.


Q:  Just quickly on the airdrop and the...

MS. SINGH:   Yes.

Q:  ... parachutes malfunctioned; do you know if anyone -if there are reports that up to...

MS. SINGH:  Yes.

Q:  ... 12 people were killed as they tried to go into the water to get the aid; have you seen that?

MS. SINGH:  I've seen the reports.  I can't confirm those reports, but I have seen them.

Q:  And then secondly, Syrian state media said, claimed, that the United States carried out airstrikes in Syria last night, did you carry out airstrikes?

MS. SINGH:  We did not carry out airstrikes in Syria last night.


Q:  Thank you, Sabrina.  So, Vice President Harris said recently in an interview that she looked at the maps and she doesn't think there's anywhere that 1.5 million Palestinian refugees in Rafah can go to, however, we still hear from you and she thinks that any operation in Rafah could be abstained .We still hear from you and the Pentagon that for this operation, to go - you know, to go forward, we need a credible plan to protect civilian, move them around.

Which one is the policy of this administration, that there could be a plan to assault Rafah or there can't be a plan because these 1.5 million can't go anywhere?          

MS. SINGH:  I don't think there's any daylight to what the Vice President has said to what the Secretary has said and reiterated at the top of his meeting with Minister Gallant.  We've been very clear that any major ground operation within Rafah that does not consider the protection of innocent civilians that are there - you know that there's over 1 million people that are sheltering in Rafah - can't go forward.

So, we've been very clear.  I think the Vice President made that very clear.  And that's what you saw the Secretary also reiterate in his meeting with Minister Gallant, and something that I read out at the top of - of this briefing.

Q:  Did - did Secretary hear any plan from Gallant about a potential operation in Rafah?

MS. SINGH:  Mr. Gallant broadly highlighted their thinking on how they would approach Rafah.  The Secretary certainly appreciated the opportunity to discuss that with Minister Gallant, but it was at a very high level.  

Again, what we continue to reiterate, both publicly and privately is that any type of operation into Rafah must account for the over 1 million people that are sheltered there and take into account innocent civilian lives and so, what we have said is going forward with an operation in Rafah would be a mistake if - if those lives aren't taken into account.

Yeah, Hailey.

Q:  Thank you, Sabrina.  Just to follow up on Fadi’s question and one other...

MS. SINGH:  Sure.

Q:  ... unrelated, but Secretary Austin, I know he said today that he and Mr. Gallant have spoken nearly 40 times, a defense official said to - earlier today, the two are good friends, that they have become very close.  Yet obviously, there are still concerns in terms of how Israel has carried things out, sort of friction I guess between what we have been advising and what Israel always been saying on the ground in Gaza with respect to civilians.

So, what commitments did Mr. Gallant make in today's meeting when it comes to humanitarian aid getting into Gaza?  And after today's meeting, how confident Secretary Austin that's the - that Israel will be taking the warnings and advice on Rafah seriously and moving forward?

MS. SINGH:  Well, it was certainly a frank and direct conversation.  I think you can appreciate that friends can have these types of conversations with each other.  I'll let Minister Gallant speak to what he said in the meeting, but I think our concerns were certainly heard and have been heard by the Israeli government.         

And what you saw from the Secretary is reiterate our concerns in a face-to-face conversation that humanitarian aid continue to flow into Gaza.  We know that humanitarian aid is stalled at these border crossings, so we need to see that aid flow in.  We do not want to see the humanitarian situation on the ground become even worse, and of course, the Secretary reiterated the United States' commitment to setting up that maritime floating peer that will be set up in the coming weeks.  

But it was honestly, a good it was a good conversation to have, not only about Rafah, but just generally about the ongoing Israeli operations within Gaza.  And I'm sorry, I think I missed your second question there.

Q:  No - just how confident Secretary Austin was in the end Rafah, but I had an unrelated question...

MS. SINGH:  Okay, go ahead.

Q:  ... yes, the Corps of Engineers, have they been officially requested to assist yet in Baltimore?  And then also on the parachute malfunction...

MS. SINGH:  Yes.

Q:  ... do you have a - a rough number or exact, if you could on how many other times we've seen those kind of malfunctions happen with the drops that have been conducted?

MS. SINGH:  For an exact number, I would refer you to CENTCOM, but as you know, last week, CENTCOM put out in one of their statements that I believe five bundles had a similar malfunction and that the parachutes didn't deploy.  But for more specifics, I'd direct you to them.     

And then in terms of the Army Corps of Engineers - so, we are in touch with state and local officials.  The Army Corps of Engineers hasn't received an official request.  I believe right now, the focus is really on search and rescue, but once we receive those requests, we'll keep you updated in the coming days and weeks as, those requests come in and the mission could change.

I'm going to go to the phones and then happy to come back in the room.  

Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose. 

Q:  Thank you.  I'm just - routine check, is there anything different about the US footprint in Niger?  Have any US troops left?  Has anything changed?

MS. SINGH:  Thanks, Jeff, for the question.  No, no updates and nothing new since we last spoke or - and briefed earlier this week.   

Next question from Sam, USNI News.

Q:  Hey, Sabrina, are you all seeing any additional action from the Houthis in the Indian Ocean?  That was a big threat that they had made in the last couple of weeks that they were going to be expanding operations to threaten merchant shipping out there?  

And then, have you all had any determination about whether the strike on the Chinese ship by the Houthis was intentional or an accident?  Thanks.

MS. SINGH:  Thanks, Sam for the question.  In terms of expanding Houthi operations into the - into the Indian Ocean, I would direct you to them to speak to that.  We have seen mainly their efforts focused into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and that - that BAM  area.    

But again, we continue to monitor the threats from the Houthis.  You've  seen us conduct dynamic strikes when it comes to seeing their capabilities present themselves.  You saw - we've done that - you know, pretty much on a consistent basis.  But again, I would direct you to the Houthis to speak to any change in their posture or operations.

In terms of the PRC ship, you know, I can't - I can't say that they knew or didn't know that that was a Chinese ship or flagged.  What I can say is that we saw very publicly that they've said that they were not going to attack PRC or Russian ships and yet, they did.

So just another reminder that we have more than 50 countries with equities that continue to transit through the Red Sea. We see, you know, a significant amount of commerce that continues to flow through the Red Sea. This is an incredibly important passageway for ships and for commerce. And through Operation Prosperity Guardian, we continue to stand by and uphold the freedom of navigation. You see that being done almost every single day. And we're very proud of our efforts there.

MS. SINGH: OK, yeah. 

Q: So we have cardinal to be the secretary of state upon the Vatican traveling to Moscow and then Ukraine, and then here in Washington in the past month, try to setup to do an intense diplomatic action to find peace. But nothing really moved. And then we had the Pope a few days ago talking about a white flag in Ukraine. So, like, in a way that Ukraine might need to give up a little bit to go toward peace. So what is — what's the Pentagon believe that the role of the Vatican should be in finding peace or if there is any comment from the Pentagon? 

MS. SINGH: You know, I don't really have much to add here. All I can tell you is our efforts when it comes to Ukraine, should we get a supplemental package from Congress, we are going to continue to arm Ukraine with what it needs on the battlefield as it continues to fight for its sovereign territory. 

Q: So there's no — what the role of the Vatican, you know? 

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I'm just — I can only speak on behalf of the Department and — sure. 

Q: That means that now it's about Poland. 


Q: Poland said about shooting missiles from Ukraine — from Russia. It was on the news in Europe. What is the position of the Pentagon about a foreign state like Poland bring the NATO maybe in war if they shoot a missile from Ukraine — from Russia on Ukraine? 

MS. SINGH: I'm trying to follow. I haven't seen exactly what you're referenced. What I can tell you is that what this administration has said repeatedly is that we will defend every inch of NATO. Should a NATO ally be attacked, we certainly don't want to see that, but we will defend every inch of NATO. Our priority right now is making sure that Ukraine has what it needs on the battlefield. 

As you know, we pushed out an emergency presidential drawdown authority a few weeks ago to give Ukraine an urgent need of security assistance. We are hopeful that Congress will pass a supplemental. Congress did just pass a FY24 budget, so we're hoping that we can also pass the Ukraine supplemental that we need in order to continue to arm Ukraine with what it needs on the battlefield. 

I'm going to move on. Yeah. 

Q: Thank you, Sabrina. A couple of questions on Iraq. As the talks continue between you and your Iraqi partners regarding the future security and military relations known as HMC, do you have any updates where the talks are now? I mean, what progress has been made in this regard? 

MS. SINGH: I don't have any updates for you on conversations with the HMC. Again, we are committed to the HMC to continuing that dialogue, but I just don't have an update for you today. 

Q: OK. I've been hearing from you as optional  saying that ISIS is still a threat, even as of today, in his meeting with Iraqi counterpart, Secretary of State Tony Blinken said that ISIS remains a real threat. And so regardless of how the talks go, don't you believe that that requires the U.S. forces and alliance staying in Iraq and Syria? 

MS. SINGH: Yes. ISIS does remain a real threat. And that is exactly why we are in Syria and Iraq for that very mission to ensure the defeat of ISIS. That is exactly what our service members are doing there. And so absolutely having our presence there in the region has helped defeat ISIS, but we certainly value the partnership whether it'd be the Iraqi security forces or the SDF in our efforts to defeat ISIS. Janne.

Q: Thank you, Sabrina. Regarding the transfer of wartime operational control, General Paul LaCamera, commander of the U.S. and ROK Combined Forces Command, said at the Congressional hearing last week that the transfer of wartime operational control is in threat. Does this mean that all conditions for South Korea to receive the transfer are met? 

MS. SINGH: I'm sorry, Janne. I'm not sure I understand the question. Could you repeat that? 

Q: General LaCamera said that the — I mean command of the USFK.

MS. SINGH: Yeah, of USFK, yup,

Q: — CFC has said that Congressional hearing last week, that the transfer of wartime operational control is on track. Does this mean that all conditions for South Korea to receive the transfer are met? 

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I don't have anything else to provide. Sorry I asked you to clarify. I don't have anything more to provide than the comments that were offered at the hearing. We certainly value our partnership with ROK. That's something that we continue to deepen each and every day. And I'll just leave it at that. 

Q: Why he said that kind of issue certainly this time because if not South Korea not met in conditions, that will not be transferred operational?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I just don't have more to provide, sorry. 

Q: North Korea announced that they are preparing to launch a new reconnaissance military satellite. Do you have any information on how you prepare them for, you know, new satellite launch?

MS. SINGH: Yeah. Without getting into intelligence, Janne, as I'm sure you can appreciate, I just don't have a comment. We continue to obviously monitor what happens on the Peninsula, but I don't have more to add at this time.

Q: So are you going to provide the technical activities?

MS. SINGH: Look, we continue to monitor the relationship between Russia and the DPRK. It's something that certainly concerns us as the DPRK has provided Russia with military support that it's using to kill innocent Ukrainians, and certainly as Ukraine continues to defend its sovereign territory. But I just don't have more for you to — more at this time. Yeah. 

Q: My question is about Secretary Austin's meeting with Japan's National Security Advisor Akiba yesterday. In addition to the readout, could you give us a sense of what kind of topics were discussed and — especially whether they discussed how to strengthen the command structure of the U.S. Force Japan ultimately?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I know, this is not going to be a satisfactory answer, but as you can appreciate, I'm not going to go too much beyond the readout. The meeting offered another opportunity for us to talk to our ally in the region, but I would just let the readout stand for what we put out following that meeting.


Q: The Navy is requesting $2.2 billion to Congress to make up for the lack of a supplemental and FYI '24 not being passed to fill that gap in funding. Can you explain some of the shortfalls that the U.S. Navy is facing, you know, through this funding like ship building, missiles for the ships in Red Sea?

MS. SINGH: I will let the Navy speak to the more specifics on that.  What I can tell you is that we operated under a short-term CR or multiple CRs for I think over six months — will certainly set us back not only in what we were able to spend but in new programs that we're able to start off.  Essentially, operating under a CR is like operating with one arm tied behind your back.  You're just not able to do it effectively.

And so, for more specifics on what the Navy is looking for and for their programs, I would direct you to them.  But just broadly speaking we are six months late into having an FY24 budget.  We're heading into FY25 to — you've seen many people testifying on the Hill in terms of their posture hearings.  We still don't have the supplemental.  So, all I can say is that we continue to urge Congress to give us an on-time appropriations.


Q: Going back to Baltimore.  There had been no request from many of the other services?  And has the Maryland National Guard have been providing any kind of assistance as well?

MS. SINGH: Well, for the Maryland National Guard, I would direct you to Maryland to speak more to that.  From a department's standpoint, we haven't received formal request yet.  We are in touch, as I mentioned.  The Commanding General of the Army Corps of Engineers is in touch with the Port of Baltimore.

Right now, the mission that they are focused on is really search and rescue.  As things develop and change, when we get those requests, we'll keep you updated in the coming days and weeks on what our assistance looks like.

Q: Then going back to your opening statement about the healthcare numbers for out-of-state visits.


Q: I think the Secretary instituted that policy in October of 2022. Your numbers are from June to January.  Is that right?

MS. SINGH: So, the numbers are — what I read out was approximately six months and it was from June through December 2023. So, this falls.

Q: This number is from January to June 2023?  Or is it just the first time that you're disposing these numbers?  

MS. SINGH: The actual travel policy when it was announced, you might remember followed the Dobbs decisions.  Services had around August to start implementing how they would track these policies.  But some were able to do it earlier than that formal deadline.  So, that's why it's approximately a snapshot between June and December 2023 of that reporting period.

Tara?  I'm sorry.  Wait, hold on.  I'm sorry.  Do you have a follow up?

Q: No, no, you kind of clarified it because it seemed to have been like a six-month, seven-month lack…

MS. SINGH: Right.

Q: ...between information.  Yes.

MS. SINGH: Yes.  Sorry.

Q: Is it accurate...


Q: … to say that all of those holds by Senator Tuberville were basically over 12 uses of DOD's policy?

MS. SINGH: That's correct, for six months.

Q: And the policy included just — it's been a while since you talked about this.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Is the travel cost or any sort of airfare or hotel?  Or can you just what the...?

MS. SINGH: It was to travel just out of state.  So, it was — if a service member needed to travel from — well, I gave that example, like a home station to another state to receive care and back, it's just that travel portion.

Q: Okay.  But did the DOD cover hotel costs or anything like that?
MS. SINGH: Not to my knowledge.  It was...


Q: …how that 40,000 is calculated.

MS. SINGH: Let me take that question just for any more specifics on what that — if there's like a further breakdown I can provide.  But to my knowledge it's just the actual transportation and travel.

Q: Okay.


Q: Just one more on..

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: clarity. Does not mean these were 12 abortions this could have been someone getting IVF or...

MS. SINGH: That's right.  So, the policy — and I think I might have mentioned this at the top, but that's correct.  It does not necessarily mean that this was a service member using this travel transportation policy for an abortion.  This could have been IVF treatment, egg retrieval, basically any type of non-covered reproductive health service that the departmentdoes not cover and is not available in his or her state.

Yes, one more question at the back?  And then happy to come back here.

Q: One question on Iraq.  Do you have any discussion with the Iraqi government about the past U.S.-led global coalition discussion or relationship?  Because what we're hearing from the Iraqi Prime Minister's office about his visit to the White House, he said that we're going to Washington to talk about the past relations between the U.S. and Iraq, that the past U.S.-led coalition.  Is there any discussion on that?

MS. SINGH: I don't have anything more for you.  We are committed to the HMC.  You've seen us continue to engage in those dialogues.  I just don't have more for you at this time.

Q: They’re not discussing about the past U.S.-led global coalition or they're just talking about the evolution of that mission?

MS. SINGH: For the White House you mean?  I'll direct you to the White House for more specifics on that.

Q: With the HMC meetings, is that — talking about the evolution of that ISIS mission, defeating ISIS mission.  Or it's something about — talking about the past defeating ISIS?

MS. SINGH: Yes.  Again, I think we've been pretty clear that there are certain parameters that the HMC is going to be used to address.  When those conversations started, we read those out at the top from here at this podium.

One of those was our relationship with the Iraqi government, the security environment in Iraq, and of course, the partnership with Iraqi security forces.  Again, these conversations continue to be ongoing.  We're committed to the HMC.  I don't have more for you at this time.  I'm going to move on.

Yes, Liz.

Q: On the healthcare travel policy that we talked about earlier.


Q: Is the breakdown of what procedures were accessed, will that ever be released?

MS. SINGH: No, for the privacy of individuals, we're not going to provide — and we don't ask for a breakdown of what that person needs.  What this track is how many times that policy was used.  So, it was just 12 times that this travel transportation policy was used by service members.  And again, a service member could use it multiple times.


Q: So, Secretary Austin discussed today with the Minister Gallant the shared goal of dismantling Hamas battalions in the Rafah.  Does Secretary Austin think that this objective can be achieved without a major Israeli operation in Rafah?

MS. SINGH: Yes.  Thanks, Fadi.  I think I answered your question earlier, but I'll try it again for you.  Just to reiterate, I think the Secretary has been pretty clear that we don't believe a ground incursion into Rafah without taking into account the 1 million people that are there, or any type of operation into Rafah that does not take into account the 1 million people that are there would be a mistake.  And I'll leave it at that.

Q: I'm not thinking about that part, though.  I'm thinking from — my question is about from the military perspective, and based on the Secretary's experience, the war experience.  Does he think that Israel can achieve the goal of dismantling Hamas in Rafah without actually conducting a major invasion?

MS. SINGH:  Well, we share the goal with Israel that we want to see Hamas dismantled. I mean this is a terrorist organization that brutally killed over 1,000 people. So we should — certainly share that goal. How that operation is conducted within Rafah is something that we are going to continue to discuss with the Israeli government.

That's what you saw the Secretary discuss with Mr. Gallant today. We shared our concerns. We have our concerns. Is there a way to do it, that's what we're having this conversation about. 

I don't have that answer for you right now but we certainly share the goal of dismantling this terrorist organization but also protecting the over 1 million people that are there.

Laura and then I will end. Yes. 

Q:  Is it accurate that Israel has asked the U.S. to approve additional F-15 and F-35 fighter planes? And if so, is that something the U.S. is considering doing?

MS. SINGH:  Yeah, so I don't have more specifics to read out from the meeting. Security assistance was discussed. That is something that we have committed to providing to Israel. But on more specifics, and I think what you're referring to it also would have to — falls under FMS, which is what the State Department would handle. So I also direct you there for them to talk more about that. Last question over here.

MS. SINGH:  Sure.

Q:  About the Baltimore bridge. There were some report about potential cyber attack on the ship. Does the DOD rule that out or investigating —

MS. SINGH:  I just don't have anything for you on that, unfortunately. I saw some of those reports but I — I can't confirm those. 

All right, thank you everyone.