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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 at the top.

First of all, we want to welcome all the young people, yourselves included, who are working with their parents today at the Pentagon as part of our annual Take A Child To Work Day. It's estimated that we have somewhere near 10,000 young guests here today, and it's been exciting to have their energy and their voices echoing in the corridors of the Pentagon. I'm pretty sure I've seen a few kids with light-up shoes that make them run faster, so I've reached out to the Defense Innovation Unit to talk about that.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, Secretary Austin will convene the 21st Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting here virtually. The meeting will commemorate the two-year anniversary of the first Contact Group following Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. 

Over the past two years, the Contact Group has shown its unity and resolve, as evidenced by the continuing support and donations made by our international partners and allies. Additionally, the Contact Group continues its work with Ukraine to help it move towards development of a robust, efficient, and self-reliant defense industry. We'll have additional updates to provide following tomorrow's meeting.

Switching gears to Africa, as you've seen the U.S. State Department announce, U.S. Ambassador to Niger Kathleen FitzGibbon and Major General Kenneth Ekman, U.S. Africa Command Director of Strategy, Engagement and Programs, will meet with the National Council for Safeguarding the Homeland officials today in Niamey, Niger to initiate discussions on an orderly and safe withdrawal of U.S. forces from Niger.

Subsequently, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Christopher Maier and Lieutenant General Dagvin Anderson, Joint Staff Director for Joint Force Development, will conduct follow-up meetings in Niamey next week to coordinate the withdrawal process in a transparent manner and with mutual respect. We'll be sure, of course, to keep you updated regarding any significant developments.

In the meantime, the Department of Defense remains committed to countering violent extremist organizations in West Africa. The department will continue to support whole of government approaches to work with African leaders to maintain stability and address terrorist threats in the region, including addressing core issues that drive insecurity.

Separately, as an update for our humanitarian assistance support operations to establish the maritime corridor off the coast of Gaza, I can confirm that U.S. military vessels, to include the USNS Benavidez, have begun to construct the initial stages of the temporary pier and causeway at sea. We're aware of the significant interest in this important effort and we'll provide much more information in the very near future as we work alongside the international community to rush aid to the people of Gaza.

And finally, Friday will be the last day in the Pentagon for acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker. We want to thank her for her superb leadership within the Department of Defense and for her service to our nation. On behalf of the Secretary of Defense, we wish her all the best in her future endeavors. 

And as we previously announced, Ms. Amanda Dory, a civil - a career civil servant who currently serves as the Director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, will perform the duties of acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy when Undersecretary Baker departs.

With that, I'll be glad to take your questions. We'll go to Tara at AP.

Q: Thanks, General Ryder. Back to AFRICOM - so it's almost 8:00 now in Niamey. So have you gotten any readouts on how those initial meetings went? And would this mean the complete, total departure of all U.S. forces or are some of those terms still being - being negotiated?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, I don't have a readout to provide. Of course, again, we'll keep you updated as - as things progress here. And in terms of the withdrawal of U.S. forces, again, really not able to go beyond what I've provided right now, which is that they will begin discussing the orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces. So what that pertains in terms of timelines, numbers, again, we'll keep you updated.

Q: But is the assumption that it will be that all U.S. forces will go, or is - are there - is there still room ... 

GEN. RYDER: I think that's a safe bet as the going in assumption. Yep.

Q: OK. And then on Chad, similarly, have - are U.S. forces withdrawing from Chad? And is this all of the U.S. forces there, approximately 100 or so? And - and why?

GEN. RYDER: So as I understand it, as talks continue with Chadian officials, USAFRICOM is currently planning to reposition some U.S. military forces from Chad, a portion of which were already scheduled to depart. This is a temporary step as part of a ongoing review of our security cooperation, which will resume after Chad's May 6 presidential election. 

So again, we'll keep you updated. I would refer you to State Department to discuss, you know, the diplomatic sides of this, but that's where we stand right now.


Q: A follow-up on Niger and then a different question on - on Gaza and JLOTS.

The withdrawal appears maybe not imminent but at least fairly imminent. Niger was a critical base for AFRICOM ISR in monitoring violent extremist organizations. Does the Pentagon have a location to move those forces? And - and if so, is that location ready or - or are those forces for now coming back to the United States and there is no alternative to Niger?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah, well as I highlighted, I mean, first of all, we are committed to countering VEOs in West Africa. And as you know, we do maintain a robust network of partners, and we will continue to consider all options when it comes to accomplishing our CT mission.

You know, the bottom line is that we will continue to monitor threats throughout the Sahel in order to protect our personnel, our assets, and our interests, as well as the welfare of our partners. So we're going to continue to explore options, understanding that - that this is an important national security interest and a vital mission.

Q: How much is the CT mission setback without something like a general understanding, ready to go?

GEN. RYDER: Well, you know, certainly, when you look at the size of Africa and you when you look at the threats, you know, the preference would be able to have the ability to operate out of places like Niger. But, of course, we have other means and methods that we can do that.

So, all that to say, again we understand the importance of the CT mission. And we will explore options to ensure that we can continue to do that, albeit, maybe perhaps through other means and methods. But importantly, working in close partnership with African partners in the region.

Q: And then a very quick last question. A few mortar rounds landed near the pier site. Has that changed the timeline for construction there? And has it compelled the U.S. to consider a different pier site or different defensive measures associated with the construction?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. The incident in no way delays our efforts to establish the maritime corridor.

Q: Any sense when the corridor will be up and running? You talked about the first week of May.

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So, all indications right now, Tom, are that we're on track. I think, you know, earlier, I'd said probably looking at end of April, early May. I think indications now we're realistically early May. But everything is on course at this point. So, keep you posted.

Liz, did you have question?

Q: My question was asked already.

GEN. RYDER: OK. All right. Let me go to the phones here. Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg?

Q: Hi, Pat, a quick question. When do you think the first munitions for Ukraine will arrive? And will they be the 155 shells or some of the other equipment that has been prepositioned in Europe?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. Thanks, Tony. As I'm sure you can appreciate, I won't get into the specifics in terms of when specific ammunition or equipment is getting into Ukraine other than to say we're moving out already. We've already started the process to move some of the weapons, ammunition and equipment which will be, you know, as I mentioned earlier there within days, if not sooner.

And so, again, recognizing there's a variety of equipment and capabilities on the list that we put out. Some of those things will obviously take longer than others. But when it comes to essential capabilities like ammunition, you know, we're already moving out to make those deliveries.

Q: OK, thank you.

GEN. RYDER: But again, obviously, I just can't get into specific timelines or routes, as I'm sure you can appreciate.

Let me go to Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose.

Q: Thank you. I just wanted to follow up with a question about the incident with the pier. What exactly happened? Did the Hamas fire rockets or mortars at the pier while it was under construction? And if so, was anything damaged? Was anyone hurt?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So, to clarify, so kind of two different things here, Jeff. So, first of all, when it comes to the temporary pier and the causeway, those are being constructed offshore, out at sea in our, you know, essentially nowhere near mortar range. So, that's not what we're talking about here.

You know, we're aware of reports that a small number of mortars landed in the vicinity of the marshalling yard area for humanitarian assistance that will eventually be the delivery site that this pier will support.

It's important also to highlight that this occurred before any U.S. forces, you know, have started moving anything. There'll be no U.S. forces on the ground.

And as I understand it, there's no U.S. equipment per se in this marshalling yard. So, you know, obviously, I'd refer you to the IDF for more granular details, but that's where things stand right now.

Q: But technically speaking, doesn't the pier will lead to the — to the shore? Isn't it connected to the shore to...?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So, kind of think of this in four different parts. And again, you know, we're going to get you much more information here.

But, so you've got Cyprus and then you've got Gaza, right? So, Cyprus is where aid will be stockpiled and loaded on the ships. Gaza is the shore where, eventually, this temporary causeway will connect.

So, what we're talking about here is the marshalling yard where, eventually, in the vicinity of where this causeway will connect to. But the two essential pieces in the middle are the temporary pier, which is out at sea; and then the causeway, which eventually will join land and be anchored, so to speak, so.

Q: And then under a separate issue, probably, you've seen the reports about the mass graves being discovered in Gaza with the hundreds of bodies being picked out daily. Has the Secretary raised this issue with his Israeli counterpart? And does he think these mass graves warrant an independent investigation? 

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. Thanks, Fadi. Well, you know, to say, first off, I mean the reports are very disturbing. To my knowledge, the Secretary has not spoken to his counterpart about this. But, you know, I know that, as Mr. Sullivan highlighted yesterday, the U.S. government has raised this with the Israelis at multiple levels.

I don't have anything to provide from a Defense Department standpoint, other than we do believe that these reports must be thoroughly investigated and taken a look at so, there. Sir

Q: Thanks, General. So, my question is on the additional military advisors that the Pentagon has said it plans to deploy to Ukraine.

Some have voiced their concern that this is, at least, in part what preceded the war in Vietnam where we sent military advisors, continually adding to the list that was there, and then someone would be killed in action. What do you think of that escalation risk the fact that U.S. servicemen are on the ground there in Ukraine?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. I mean I think it's a — I appreciated the question. But I think you'd have to, probably, have a deeper discussion on the history of the Vietnam War. And what we were talking about there, which is a completely different thing, right?

You don't have U.S. forces conducting training inside Ukraine of indigenous forces. So, to compare the two, you know, unfortunately shows kind of a lack of understanding in terms of what we're talking about here — apples and oranges.

What's going on in Ukraine, and as we've done for a while, is we have a small presence working out of the embassy, out of the Office of Defense Cooperation.

And those small number of advisers are providing, information and advising on things like support logistics, weapon oversight program, helping with the — ensuring that there's end use monitoring in place, you know, that we've talked about in the past.

First of all, and to clarify the addition of additional advisors, is something that has been considered. No decision has been made. But if that decision is made, a couple of key points.

First of all, it would be a small number. Second of all, those folks would be working out of the embassy under the Chief Of Mission Authority, like the rest of the embassy and wouldn't be subject to the same travel restrictions as all embassy employees. 

Q: Point taken on the differences and there are — there were far more in Vietnam. But I guess you recognized the concern is legitimate at all that there are U.S. servicemen in the — in this country that is an active battlefield. So that, you know, if there was an errant missile that kills one, it could lead to a dangerous escalation.

GEN. RYDER: Well, look, you know, I mean again it's not unusual for the U.S. military to work out of embassies around the world in many different countries, as part of our security cooperation efforts and to help coordinate security assistance.

But it couldn't it, critically, these forces are not in a combat role. They're in a non-combat role. They're an advisory role. And again, we're talking very small numbers. The United States has no intent of conducting combat operations inside of Ukraine, nor are these forces going to be anywhere near the frontlines.

And then the other piece of it is, you know, to your point about danger. You know, of course, we recognize the danger. And any place our forces operate, we take the necessary precautions to ensure that they're — that they're safe, whether it be there or any other hotspots around the world. Thank you.


Q: A question on TikTok. There’s a lot of going on as far as a U.S. national security tech is concerned because of the — it's part or owned by the Chinese Communist Party in China.

So, why are you taking so long to ban the — when everybody knows that this is a national security threat, because India had banned already over two years ago because of the national security threat in India?

So, over 170 million I were told users are there in the U.S., so that mean China have already this much information from these people by the Chinese Communist Party.     So, are anybody using in the department, DOD or Pentagon? And where do we stand now as far as national security threat is concerned?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. I appreciate the question

So, a couple of things. So, first of all, it already is Department of Defense Policy that we will not use TikTok on any U.S. government devices. So, that already is a policy that's in place.

I think what you're asking is the broader question about banning of TikTok writ large as it relates to, you know, throughout the U.S. And again, that's a question that's beyond the scope of my small little place here at the DOD. So, thank you.

Yes, sir?

Q: General, regarding to Rafah, did you receive from your Israeli counterpart any plan about their military operation there? And with your assessment, what do you expect the Palestinian to go out of Rafah?

What we are seeing right now that the IDF like leaving some parts are reentering again to the same parts, and they are still bombing everywhere. So, as DOD, what do you expect these peoples should do?

GEN. RYDER: Yeah. So, as it relates to Rafah and operations in Rafah, I'd refer to the IDF to talk about the specifics in terms of what they are and aren't doing.

From a U.S. standpoint, from a DOD standpoint, we've been very clear that while we both agree that the defeat of Hamas is important, that any operations going after Hamas in Rafah take into account civilians safety and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. 

So, as I understand it, the Israelis have shared some of their thinking in terms of what a Rafah operation could look like. But those conversations are still ongoing as we still have concerns about how they would go about doing that, and taking into account the large number of displaced people and their safety.

So, I know that at the highest levels, Israeli officials and U.S. officials will continue having those conversations. But again, our focus here is on ensuring not only can Hamas be defeated, but that the safety of those impacted by this conflict is taken into account.


Q: Thank you. Just turning the Red Sea. There's been a drop in Houthi attacks. I don't think there's any for a couple of weeks. I believe there may have been some incident. What do you attribute that drop in Houthi attacks? Two, and what do you make of the resumption yesterday?

GEN. RYDER: Well, again, in terms of the Houthi mindset, in terms of why they opted to not conduct attacks for a couple of weeks, that's really something best left for them to address. I would say that regardless, our focus hasn't shifted, which is working with our international partners to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Red Sea. 

And so, as long as there continues to be a threat to international shipping and to the lives and safety of mariners transiting the Red Sea, we'll continue to work with international partners to degrade and disrupt Houthi capability.

Q: Are there back-channel talks going on (inaudible)?

GEN. RYDER: I don't have any — I don't have anything to talk to on that one.

Q: And on going back to Ukraine, how confident is the Pentagon that the Ukrainian military can make up for what's been widely portrayed as a lost six months? While Congress was dithering, Russia made a lot of advances. Are you confident that Zelensky and the military are going to be able to make up for that time?

GEN. RYDER: Well, look, it's a tough situation right now in Ukraine. It's a tough fight. But I think anybody who tries to count the Ukrainians out obviously has not been watching what's happened over the last couple of years. And so, as Secretary has said, Ukraine matters. What happens in Ukraine from a security standpoint impacts not only Ukraine, but European security and international security.

So, we're going to continue to support them, not only to defend the territory that they've defended from Russian occupation, but also to take back their sovereign territory, and we're going to do that for the long haul. All right. 

Q: Going back to the humanitarian pier in Gaza. just to clarify, you said that pier itself, the U.S. is going to build, or is building, is out of the range of the mortar fire. But what about the causeway?

GEN. RYDER: Well, again, what I'm saying right now. So, there was this mortar attack today on shore. Right? So, what I said is that initial construction has begun of the causeway and the temporary pier at sea. So, they're not constructing that anywhere near the shore at this point in time, if that makes sense.

Q: And you said there were no damage to any U.S. assets. Were any Israeli assets damaged?

GEN. RYDER: I'd have to refer you to the Israelis on that. Sir?

Q: Thank you, General. Two questions, and one is, my colleague already asked you two days ago, U.S. and South Korea having the discussion on the sharing the cost of American troops in South Korea. I think they finished the talking, so do you have any readout on that discussion? And also, why are you guys having this discussion at this time?

GEN. RYDER: I appreciate the question. I don't have anything in front of me. Let me take that question, and we'll get back to you. OK?

Q: Also, on China, actually, this is Secretary Blinken is on the trip to China right now and expected to give a warning to the Chinese side, not commercially supposedly building the Russian defense industries. From point of view, do you have any specific concerning areas of the coordination between Russia and China?

GEN. RYDER: I won't get ahead of Secretary Blinken and anything that he may be putting out, as you've heard us say and as you heard the president recently say, we are concerned about some of China's activities as it relates to supporting Russia's defense industry. 

And again, essentially, by doing so, enabling them to conduct or to develop capabilities that are being employed against Ukraine, in their occupation of Ukraine. So. Yes, sir? And then I'll come back to you.

Q: Thank you, General. A couple of questions. The United Nations representative to Syria says Syria has become a (focal ?) conflict with (Zernin among ?) superpowers for their interest. So, how do you see the situation in Syria now?

GEN. RYDER: Well, look, I mean, Syria has obviously had some significant challenges going all the way back to 2011, which I know you're very familiar with. Unfortunately, you have a significant area of ungoverned space in Syria which has allowed groups like ISIS in the past to essentially exploit that and use it toward sowing instability, death and destruction throughout the region.

And so, from a U.S. military standpoint, obviously, our focus right now when it comes to Syria, is focused on working as part of the international coalition for the enduring defeat of ISIS. And so, that remains our focus. But I think, of course, more broadly speaking, when you see these types of ungoverned spaces, they, of course, present threats regionally.

And so, that's something that we obviously consult, not only with our partners in Iraq, but also allies like Turkey and others, to address those regional threats.

Q: One more question on Syria. As (DOD ?), do you expect any Turkish ground incursion into Syria, as Turkey claims?

GEN. RYDER: Would have to refer you to Turkey on anything that they're doing. Thanks. (Laura ?)?

Q: So, just on the pier and the attacks on the marshaling area, to clarify, were you confirming the attacks themselves, or just originally you said you were aware of the reports, and then later you spoke as if you were confirming that report.

GEN. RYDER: Yes, I mean, I think it's fair to say that we're tracking some type of mortar attack causing minimal damage in the vicinity of the marshaling yard area. Yes, minimal. Minimal damage. Yes, in terms of what specifically was damaged, I'd have to refer you to the (IDF ?). Thanks.

All right, let me just take one more, Heather, from USNI.

Q: Thanks so much. So, just on the Red Sea, the Houthis attacked the Maersk Yorktown. I was wondering if we can get more information on which coalition ship protected that, shot down the (anti-type ?) ballistic missile. And then, the Houthis said that they were also targeting a U.S. Destroyer. And I was wondering if there's any information on whether or not a Destroyer was attacked today or yesterday.

GEN. RYDER: Yes. Thanks, Heather. On your first question, the only thing I can provide on that was that it was a coalition vessel. So, we'll allow our partners to speak for themselves in terms of what action they took. 

And then, I'm sorry, your second question?

Q: The Houthis claimed that they were attacking a U.S. Destroyer, and I was wondering if you've had any reports of a U.S. Destroyer being targeted either yesterday or today.

GEN. RYDER: At the moment, I'm not aware of that. As you know, CENTCOM puts out updates every day, but I'm not currently tracking a U.S. destroyer being attacked. But again, if we have updates, we'll put those out through CENTCOM.

All right, thanks very much, everybody. Appreciate it.