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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Holds a Media Availability, Fort Jackson, South Carolina

STAFF: All right, everyone. The secretary's going to give some brief opening remarks, and we'll take some questions and wrap up.

Over to you, sir.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, good afternoon, everybody. First of all, for the traveling media, thanks for joining us on this trip, and for local media, really appreciate you joining us this afternoon, as well.

It's been quite a day. As you saw earlier, I had the opportunity to deliver the commencement address at South Carolina State. It's always exciting to see young graduates get a chance to, you know, be recognized for four years of hard work. In some cases, there are some that probably worked more than four years to get there. But as important, to see the proud parents in the stands, and so that was a real special, special event. As is every graduation.

Today, this afternoon, what we're going to do is really take a look at some of the elements of our recruiting process. I'll begin this afternoon's activities by talking to a number of noncommissioned officers, and those noncommissioned officers work in the fields of some recruiters, and then we'll have some noncommissioned officers that are part of the MEPS station here. And then we'll have some noncommissioned officers that actually work at Fort Jackson, and they are charged with training new enlistees as they join the military.

So we'll see three legs of the triad come together, and that should be a pretty interesting discussion. I look forward to hearing from them in terms of what the current challenges, you know, and any good ideas and initiatives that they'd like to see put into place.

And then I'll administer the Oath of Enlistment to a number of youngsters who are volunteering to serve their country, and that's always exciting as well, and so I'm looking forward to that.

Later today, we will go visit the leaders who are running the Army's Future Soldier program, which is a program that prepares young men and women, both physically and mentally, to be able to, you know, meet the standards to actually enlist in the military. That's been a pretty productive program thus far. I think the Army's put some 20,000 or so people through that program, and so that just demonstrates that there's quite a pool of people out there who really want to serve, but may not initially -- be able to initially qualify. But if you can help them by ensuring that they're physically fit and they're doing the right things to prepare themselves to pass the ASVAB and that sort of stuff, I think those people typically turn out to be good troops.

So that kind of outlines the day, and I'm going to stop there and take your questions.

STAFF: Great. Matt, can you kick us off?

Q: Sure. Thank you so much, Secretary Austin, for talking to us today.

On Israel, you and other administration officials have repeatedly said that you were against any large-scale attack on Rafah unless Israel can provide a credible plan to protect the civilians. But administration officials have also noted that Hamas deliberately embeds itself within civilian populations, using them as human shields. So, are you able today to give us a specific idea of how Israel could possibly achieve a decisive, permanent victory over Hamas that would also meet your standards for protecting civilians? Do you believe that that's possible?

And relatedly, Axios reports the Israeli security cabinet has approved an expansion of operations in Rafah. There are other reports the IDF has encircled eastern Rafah. And with the growing humanitarian concerns expressed across the Biden administration, would you still characterize this as a limited operation by Israel?

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, so thanks, Matt. I think if the question is, is it possible to conduct effective operations and protect civilians, absolutely, it's possible. You know, we clearly believe that, and that's what we endeavor to do in any operation that we conduct. The Israeli military is a professional military and again, they have the ability to do both of those. There’ve been far too many civilian casualties thus far. We would like to see that trend change. So that's really our focus. And in terms of how long it takes and when that happens, that -- that'll be determined by the Israelis. But again, we want to see civilians that are in the battlespace moved out of harm's way as they conduct those operations.

STAFF: Caitlin, Post and Courier?

Q: Hi. I'm with the local media here, and I'm writing a story on recruitment. And so, I want to know the challenges when it comes to recruitment, and how those challenges are being addressed?

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, so I would say, Caitlin, that recruiting is -- has always been challenging. I know that because I used to be a recruiter many, many years ago as a young captain. It was a tough business then, and it is a tough business now. What's made it a little bit more tougher here in recent years is that a couple of years ago, you know, we were faced with the conditions of COVID, which disallowed us to get into high schools and interact with high school students, and it also didn't allow us to engage centers of influence in a community like we typically do.

And when you couple that with the fact that this is the lowest unemployment rate that we've seen probably in our lifetime, and that's been that way for several years, it makes for a more challenging environment. And as I talk to leaders of industry, they are challenged with making sure that they can recruit and retain, you know, the right people.

And you know, what we've demonstrated, though, is that once we bring people on board, they like serving. They like being a part of this great team, and that's evidenced by the fact that our retention rates in all the services are higher than they've been in a long, long time.

You recruit individuals, you retain families, so that means that our families, or you know -- they are pleased, by and large, with many of the things that we're doing.

My goal is to make sure that we continue to do more things -- reduce costs for our troops and families and provide them more resources. And that's why you've seen me go after pay raises in recent years. We asked for a 4.6 percent pay raise in 2023 and Congress supported us with that. In this last budget, 2024, we asked for a 5.2 percent pay raise. That's the largest pay raise in 20 years, and then in the next budget, the budget that we're -- that we're addressing right now, another 4.5 percent pay raise.

So that, combined with the fact that we're working to reduce the costs of goods in the commissary, reduce the costs of moving from station to station -- we're doing a lot of things to take care of people. And that's why the retention rates are as high as they are. But we want to take the very best people and turn them into better people.

That's what we do in the military, and again, there will always be challenges to work through. Having been a recruiter, I know that. But I think we're doing the right things to recover from that COVID period and the fact that we're faced with some very low unemployment rates.


Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for doing this. I know -- on the subject of Ukraine, I know you speak with your counterparts pretty often there, and we do know from the last few days, Russia has made a concerted effort to, in their words, try to take advantage of the fact that Ukraine is still waiting to get some of the key weapons and capabilities they need from the U.S. after the PDA was signed by the president. Can you characterize the situation from the U.S. perspective right now, especially considering last night, there was -- supposedly, Ukraine said it's reinforcing -- sending reinforcements to the Kharkiv area because of concerns that Russia's trying to take advantage of them not having the weapons they need? And maybe how soon they might start to see these weapons and capabilities make a difference.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks. And you're right. I do talk to Minister Umerov, my counterpart, every week. And again, I would have to commend them on the recent work that they've done to shore up their defenses across the board in Ukraine. And so, the weapons and systems and munitions that we're providing them will complement the work that they've been doing and allow them to be more effective in defending their territory.

Now, over the years -- over the last two years, we have developed the means and the processes to be able to move things very quickly into theater once a decision's been made. In this case, anticipating that we could possibly get a supplemental, we leaned forward a bit, and we had -- we pre-positioned some critical things that we knew Ukraine would need -- air defense interceptors, artillery munitions, HIMARS munitions and those kinds of things. Our goal was to flow those in as quickly as possible, and that's happening right now. But if you kind of think about what has to happen as you begin to move things into theater, they have to go into country, and then they have to be redistributed to the point of need, and that point of need's going to be determined by the Ukrainians. If they believe that their most urgent need is in the Kharkiv area, then certainly, that's where they're -- you know, they're going to begin to put most of -- most of the resources that we're providing.

So we're in constant contact. We're going to try to address their needs in every way that we can, and we're doing it in an urgent fashion, so a number of things have to be done going forward.

But you know, it's fascinating that this is a country that's a small country with not very much military capability initially, and they were invaded by the most powerful land force in Europe, and they've held that land force off for two years. And again, they've done it themselves in terms of the fighting.

They've been able to do that, though, because we have provided them the security assistance to be able to do it, not only just the United States, but also countries from NATO, and also countries from around the world. You know that I convene a group of some-50 countries every month, and typically, as ministers of defense that come together, and we're talking about what Ukraine's most urgent need is, and we're moving as quickly as we can to meet those needs.

STAFF: Thank you. Our last question from Steve from

Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, what's your confidence level that each of the services are going to hit their recruiting goals this F.Y. [fiscal year]?

SEC. AUSTIN: Oh, you know, there's never a certainty when it comes to recruiting. You just need to make sure that you're doing the right things to be able to enable you to meet your goals.

Now, what we're seeing today, and this year, is a much different story from what we were looking at last year. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Space Force have all projected that they're going to meet their year-end goal. In some cases, services are, you know, meeting -- can meet their objectives on a quarterly basis. In some cases, take, for example, the Army. They'll ship more people towards the end of the year than they -- than they did in other months. We can anticipate, you know, that -- to see that happen again. It happened last year, and again, I think they feel pretty good about achieving their goals and objectives, and I do, too. And so, I feel really good about it, and we're going to keep doing the right things, you know, making sure that we have the right recruiters out there doing this. Making sure that we're advertising in the right markets. Making sure that we're providing the right information to young people so that they can make the right decision.

And my view, if people are provided with the information that kind of educates them on the opportunities that are available with service, they typically make the right decisions, and parents make the right decisions -- as important.

So, I remain very optimistic, but with recruiting, it's always -- you know, you can never be absolutely certain that the -- that one thing or another is going to happen. But I feel good about the things that we're doing in the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Space Force. So the -- their projections, I think, are probably going to come true.

Thanks a lot, everybody.

STAFF: Thank you all. Thanks, everyone.