An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Press Conference Following NATO Ministers of Defense Meeting in Brussels, Belgium

STAFF: Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for being here today. It is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, III. The secretary will deliver some opening remarks, and then have time to -- he'll have time to take a few questions. Please note, I will moderate those questions and call on journalists.

Mr. Secretary, over to you, sir.


Good afternoon, everyone. It's great to be back at NATO for this defense ministerial, which is our last high-level meeting before the 75th Anniversary Summit in Washington in July.

Let me start by thanking Secretary-General Stoltenberg for convening us. He's provided steady leadership throughout the most serious threat to transatlantic security in decades, which is the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022.

Once again, let's remember a key point: Putin's war is not the result of NATO enlargement. Putin's war is a cause of NATO enlargement, and NATO is more resolute and more capable than ever.

We're proud to be joined today by our two newest allies, Finland and Sweden, and the United States looks forward to welcoming Sweden to the Washington Summit for its first time as a NATO ally. At the summit, we will celebrate 75 years of historic achievements, our strong transatlantic bond and the promise of security for generations to come. We'll also continue to forge the alliance's most robust defense plans since the end of the Cold War, strengthening our collective deterrence and defense.

And so today, we moved ahead with our work on those plans, and we're updating NATO's command and control, refining delegated authorities and ensuring that all the required forces and capabilities are ready for any contingency. I'm proud of all the progress that NATO has made in recent years, but we've got more work to do, and it starts with resources. We're all sharing the burden of collective defense more than ever before, but we still need all allies to meet our shared commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense. And let me underscore the words "at least two percent." We urgently need these investments to fulfill our plans and hit our capability targets.

Now, Secretary-General said earlier this year that 18 allies are meeting their two percent commitment in 2024, which is a sixfold increase over the past decade, and we're expecting NATO to publish updated numbers before the summit.

As Secretary-General has also noted, our allies in Europe are investing what amounts to two percent of their combined GDP on defense, including a real increase of 11 percent in defense spending across our allies in Europe and Canada. But that is no substitute for each ally living up to its commitment, each and every single one.

Now, we also need to invest in our defense industrial bases to standardize critical munitions and to improve NATO interoperability. NATO's focus on our defense industrial bases is helping to grow demand and to encourage deeper coordination. It will make procurement more agile. It will improve our transparency with industry. And so investing in defense industrial bases is crucial to the future of our alliance.

Let me also note that the NATO Nuclear Planning Group met today to discuss some key nuclear policy issues. It was a productive meeting, and we remain unified on this critical subject.

And finally, we reaffirmed yesterday in the NATO Ukraine Council our enduring commitment to a free and sovereign Ukraine. Like nations of goodwill around the world, our NATO allies continue to stand up for Ukraine's sovereignty and self-defense, and as we prepare for the Washington Summit, the NATO-Ukraine partnership continues to deepen. The summit will take steps toward a credible bridge to Ukraine's eventual membership, and the United States stands behind NATO's continued support through the Comprehensive Assistance Package, NATO's multiyear program for critical non-lethal aid.

The United States and our allies and partners will stand by Ukraine for the long haul, and we'll also stand by our long-standing alliance commitments. The U.S. commitment to Article 5 remains sturdy, sure and ironclad, and we will defend the sovereignty and the territory of every member in this alliance.

For 75 years, NATO has been the greatest defensive alliance in human history. NATO has prevented conflict, maintained freedom and the rule of law and upheld the principles of democracy and human rights. We still have more work to do together, and as we look toward the summit in Washington and beyond, I am confident that we will continue to make the United States and our world more secure.

Thanks again, and with that, I'll take some of your questions.

STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Our first question will go to NBC News, Julia.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. U.S. intelligence was used in the Israeli operation that kill -- that rescued four hostages, but reportedly killed hundreds of Palestinians. U.S. weapons have been used in other deadly strikes and operations. You've said many times before you've informed your counterpart in Israel that more needs to be done; the U.S. needs to see more effort with regard to reducing civilian casualties.

What specific changes has Israel made in response to heed your warning? And does a red line exist? If so, what is it? And if not, what responsibility does the U.S. bear? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. Thanks, Julia. I don't speak in terms of red lines. But you're right, we have -- I have engaged my counterpart on a number of occasions and encouraged them to be more precise and also make sure that we're protecting the civilians in the battle space.

But let me take you back to -- and remind us on how this got started. It started on October 7th with a brutal attack by Hamas, which killed some 1,200 Israeli and American citizens, and took some 200 plus hostages. 100 plus of those are still being held hostage by Hamas. And so Hamas, you know, over time, we've seen them use despicable tactics in terms of, you know, placing themselves among the civilian population, putting their headquarters, you know, underneath schools and hospitals. And so they have used the civilians as human shields to facilitate their operations.

But having said that, you've also heard me say that, you know, Israel has to do everything it can to minimize the number of civilian casualties in the battle space. And the number of casualties has been far too high. You've also heard me say that accomplishing your goals and objectives and protecting civilians in the battle space are not mutually exclusive. Both can be done and should be done.

And protecting civilians, in my view, is a strategic imperative, because at some point in time, you know, we have to make sure that we are separating the Palestinian people from Hamas, the terrorist organization. They are not one and the same, and we know -- everyone knows that, but we want to make sure that we're doing the right things to not only move them out of the battle space if operations are being conducted there, but also provide humanitarian assistance to them so that, you know, they can survive.

So they have made changes. Israel has made changes over time. But again, casualty rates have been far too high.

Q: Anything specific from Israel that you've seen in terms of improvements?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, there are a number of things. And I certainly don't want to detail all those things now. But again, the results are that we still see a number of civilian casualties in the battle space.

STAFF: Next question. We'll go to Agence France-Presse. Max?

Q: Hello, Mr. Secretary. Max Delany, AFP. Two questions. Yesterday, President Biden mentioned that there were commitments from five countries to provide patriot systems for the -- for Ukraine. Can you give more details on which countries he's talking about? And then secondly, Russian President Vladimir Putin today outlined his so called peace demand for Ukraine, which was withdrawing from territory Russia claims and withdrawing its bid to join NATO. What's your response to that -- those demands from Putin? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: So two questions. Which one do you want me to answer? Okay. Let's start with the patriots. And your question was, you know, President Biden had mentioned that there were five countries that were going to provide more patriots. I think you know that I spend a lot of time along with the rest of the leadership, our senior leadership spend a lot of time focusing on doing everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as possible. That includes platforms, that includes interceptors that support those platforms. And, you know, we have made progress. We will continue to work this very, very hard.

And I'll let the countries that will provide that capability speak for themselves. That's the approach that we've always taken. And again, I think that we will see -- we'll continue to see positive results. But, you know, none of these decisions are hard for any country. None of these decisions are easy for any country. And so, you know, I'll let the country speak for themselves.

And the second question, I think, was on Putin's comments with respect to what he wants to see in order to have a change in this conflict or things move towards peace. You know, Putin has occupied -- illegally occupied sovereign Ukrainian territory. He is not in any position to dictate to Ukraine what they must do to bring about a peace. I think, you know, that's exactly the kind of behavior that we don't want to see. We don't want to see a leader of one country wake up one day and decide that he wants to erase borders and annex the territory of his neighbor. That's not the world that any of us want to live in. And so I think, you know, he is not in the -- in my view, not in a position to dictate to Ukraine what it must do to pursue peace.

Putin can end this war today. You know, he started this war with no provocation. He's lost -- he's had some, you know, hundreds of thousands of troops wounded and killed in this unjust and unprovoked invasion. He could end this today if he chose to do that. And we call upon him to do that and to leave Ukrainian sovereign territory.

STAFF: Thank you. Our next question will go to New York Times.

Q: Mr. Secretary, as you mentioned, since Russia's full scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO has expanded to include two new member states. And you have several other countries interested in joining Ukraine among them. Given the dynamics of regular political transfers of power in individual member states, do you think it makes sense to both further expand the alliance and possibly put more tasks like America's leadership of the contact group under NATO's purview, instead of being headed by individual countries?

SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of NATO expansion, I think that's a decision that, you know, 32 members of NATO alliance will make at some point in time. I don't see any desire or indication, you know, that we will pursue expansion at any point in the near future. There will -- I suspect that there will always be countries that will want to join NATO, it's because of the values that NATO embraces, because of the kinds of things that we take on and the commitments that we make to each other, in terms of, you know, our commitment to defend the territory of each country that's involved, that's a part of the alliance.

But again, it is a defensive alliance, and again, I think at this point in time, you know, the members of the alliance would probably want to see things stabilize and settle out as we get the new members on board and continue to refine our plans, as we were doing in this meeting.

In terms of what we would like to see NATO take on in terms of greater responsibilities, I think you heard the Secretary General say recently that they will -- NATO will help with -- some of the tasks that the UDCG is doing right now in terms of coordinating training, ensuring that we have standardized equipment, and that we will be interoperable at the end of the day. And I see -- I think NATO brings tremendous value to those efforts.

And so, you know, we look forward to NATO coming onboard and taking on some of that, but the UDCG has performed magnificently over the last two-plus years. It has enabled -- you know, has been one of the things that has enabled Ukraine to do what it's done. I mean, it's faced a far superior combat force and really prevented that force from achieving any strategic goals in two and a half years.

And even in the last seven month period where the world was unsure as to whether or not the United States was going to continue to provide security assistance -- I was always confident that we would -- but even in that period, as Russia continued to push hard, it could not achieve any significant goals.

So Ukraine has done, I think, a remarkable job of holding its own. I think it -- as NATO looks to come onboard and help with coordination for training and standardization and interoperability, I think that adds value to the overall effort.

Q: If I may, just one brief follow-up to that about the Contact Group. You have countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, and Moldova who have been at every or almost every meeting of the Contact Group for the (past two ?) years. Have they or others in the group proved to you that they're ready for NATO membership or possibly to be given major non-NATO ally status of the United States?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, that's -- as you know, there's a process that -- there are conditions that countries have to meet in order to become a member of NATO, and that's a pretty well-defined process.

And so -- and I won't try to assess any one country's progress, you know, along those lines here today, but again, I think that there will always be countries that will aspire to being a member of NATO. And NATO has a policy of open doors. And so, you know, at some point in time, if the 32 members decide that they want to bring on additional countries, then that's for us to vote on, so.

STAFF: Got time for one final question. We'll go to (Teri Schultz, Deutsche Welle ?).

Q: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Following on the question of interoperability and standardization, also accountability in -- in the Contact Group, Secretary General Stoltenberg has been increasingly vocal about being concerned that some of these pledges are not being followed up with actual delivery to Ukraine, and that's one of the rules that he believes you -- that NATO can take on and -- and help with the follow-up. I'd like to know what you think about that because you're very good at -- at drumming up the pledges. But then what happens after that?

And in terms of interoperability and standardization, Ukraine has been left to somehow piece together these -- these different systems. And on -- on those lines, I wanted to know what you thought about France's offer of Mirage jets when you've been so focused on getting F-16s there first. Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: You know I -- thanks. I would say that we're not just good at drumming up pledges. You know, we have provided some $98 billion worth of security assistance to Ukraine. It is the primary reason why Ukraine has been successful in defending its territory thus far.

And a part of the overall process is, you know, we have countries that pledge, but there is frequent engagement between staffs of those countries and my staff, and engagement between me and the ministers of defense.

Now, some of these things take time, even some of the things that we provide take time to provide. So, you know, if you're going to provide, for example, you know, new HIMARS systems, even if I spend the money today to get those HIMARS systems, it takes time for those to be delivered.

So we are deliberate in terms of our follow-up, but every bit of help that we can get in terms of encouraging countries to move quicker, you know, I welcome that. And so I -- you know, I think, you know, the Secretary General can be instrumental in that, and I welcome his willingness to help out with that, but again, I think countries are digging deep and providing as much as they can when they can.

So -- but we need for everyone to do a bit more. You know, we're at a pretty key point in this fight, and Ukraine has done very, very well. The -- they have to -- going forward, they have to reconstitute some of their combat capability -- you know, bring on more -- enlist more forces, equip those forces, and then make sure that, you know -- with all of the ammunition and materials that we're providing, that those things are flowing to the right place as well, so.

Q: -- interoperability on the Mirage?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, we're working hard to get Ukraine an F-16 capability this summer, and I think -- you know, I'm optimistic that that will happen. And I also welcome France's contribution because every bit helps.

We have to make sure that, you know, we have all of the things in place to manage two complex systems and protect those systems at the same time. And so great capability, and again, every bit helps. We just need to make sure that we knit together the sustainment, and make sure that, you know, those systems are interoperable as used in Ukraine.

And I'm sure that, you know, once the training is complete, and once all of the coordination has been done, we'll see some good results, but every little bit helps.

STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen --

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, everybody.

STAFF: -- that concludes our press briefing. Thanks for being here today. Thank you, sir.