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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter and Gen. Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Good afternoon, everyone.

After another week on the road, for me it's nice to be home the week of the Fourth of July.

I hope that the men and women of the Department of Defense, and all of you, will be able to enjoy some well-deserved rest, time with friends and family this weekend.

But I also know that some of our service members will be hard at work here and around the world, securing our country and protecting our citizens, friends and allies.

As recent terrorist attacks overseas remind us, those who seek to harm this nation and our friends take no holiday, and neither do we in the Department of Defense.

We need the best leaders to ensure that we continue to meet those threats, and I'm pleased to announce today the president's nomination for commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Bob Neller.

Chairman Dempsey, Secretary Mabus and I recommended Bob to replace our current commandant, General Joe Dunford, who, as you all know, has been nominated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One year ago, Bob took command of the Marine Corps Forces Command and Marine Corps Forces Europe, and he's done a phenomenal job leading the more-than-43,000 Marines under his charge.

Bob is a warrior, a leader, and a statesman. I have known him since our work together when I was deputy, and he was director for operations, the J3, on the Joint Staff.

We collaborated in the Warfighting Senior Integration Group, where we focused on providing urgent support to troops in the field in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so we traveled together, the theater, around this country, where I saw Bob's outstanding relationship with our troops. He loves them, he relates to them, and they light up when he's talking to them.

I know he will be a magnificent commandant for the Marines serving all over the world, and he'll be another strong addition to the Joint Chiefs, where he'll provide his best advice to me and the president.

I appreciate his taking on the assignment, he and his wife, D’Arcy's continued service to our country.

Thank you, Bob, and thank you, Joe and Ray, for joining us today. I appreciate you keeping the chairman and me company up here. Unfortunately, you get to take a seat while we go on to answer questions, but once again, thank you all.

One other personnel note, as we announced last month, our assistant secretary for public affairs, our fantastic assistant secretary for public affairs, Brent Colburn, is leaving us.

Brent has been a source of candor, counsel and humor since I became secretary of defense in February, and I know he's been the same for many of you.

We have a great team coming on board in public affairs, including Maura Sullivan and Peter Cook, who will both be here soon. But I want to take a moment to publicly thank Brent for his service to our country, to the DOD in particular, to me very especially and wish him well on his next adventure.

Brent, thank you, my friend.

With that, I'll turn things over to Chairman Dempsey.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I too have complete trust and confidence in Lieutenant General Bob Neller to lead the United States Marine Corps and would also highlight, as the secretary did, his incredible joint credentials. He knows the entire joint force, and so he'll be a great teammate on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Today, I released the 2015 National Military Strategy of the United States, which describes the way ahead in forging our joint force, and how that joint force will contribute to our national security.

Since the last military -- National Military Strategy was published four years ago, global disorder has trended upward while some of our comparative advantages have begun to erode.

In this context, the 2015 strategy recognizes that success will increasingly depend on how well our military instrument supports the other instruments of national power and how it enables our network of allies and partners.

The strategy continues to call for greater agility, innovation and integration of the joint force. It reinforces the need for the United States military to remain globally engaged to shape the security environment, and it renews our professional commitment to develop leaders who will bring this strategy to life.

As we enter Independence Day weekend, we're blessed to able to count on men and women who safeguard their fellow -- their fellow citizens. I'm grateful to everyone of them and their families for their service, and I also want to thank each of you for what you do for our nation.

And with that, we'll be glad to take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, a question for both of you on the Syria train-and-equip program.

It's pretty clear that you're getting enough volunteers at the front end of the process, but that the number of people who were going into the training and getting through the training is -- are too few at the moment.

I'm wondering whether you would acknowledge that it's trending in the wrong direction and whether you're thinking about making any changes to either the vetting process or some other adjustment that would change the direction of the program.

SEC. CARTER: Well, there are two reasons, Bob, why the -- it's difficult to get large numbers trained at the other end, although we do hope and expect that those numbers will increase. And the two reasons are, one, as you indicate, the requirement which we have, a principal requirement as a country, to conduct vetting -- and only a fraction of those who step forward willing to take this mission on go through vetting and pass through that vetting and that -- again, that's a principal process that we go through.

But it results in quite a diminution in the numbers.

And then the second is the requirement that they be willing, at least initially, to fight ISIL. And that that is the principal purpose of their being trained and equipped. So those are two factors that make the number of those who get through the gates and into our training centers, which do exist and are ready -- and, as you indicate, could accept more, and we want to accept more and I expect in time will be accepting more -- that's why the current numbers are small.

Q: Are you considering any changes to increase -- could General Dempsey offer a thought on that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes, sure, I mean, of course we always look to see how the -- any program can be adapted. And at the end of the day, we need credible, moderate partners on the ground. So we are always looking for the opportunity to develop those partnerships.

We certainly won't take any shortcuts on vetting, however, because of the risk that would pose not only to our own forces, but to the ultimate objectives we are trying to achieve.

The other thing I would say is, you know, based on a bit of experience in that part of the world, is sometimes there are seasonal factors that contribute to the willingness of young men in the Middle East to stay where they are, with a particular program.

And it's clear -- it should be clear to you that we've got, you know, it's Ramadan; there's a lot of folks that are interested in being with their families during that period, and so we may see after Ramadan that some of the ones we lost may come back.


Q: Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary, General Dempsey.

Something of a follow-up about the question but a bit broader. In Syria, you have fewer than 100 trained graduates, as it were, from this training program. In Iraq, you have one lily pad in place with not the most aggressive growth in numbers from Sunni tribes volunteering to take part.

I just wonder, Mr. Secretary, what evidence do you have that the train and equip strategy is working in Iraq or Syria?

And do you have alternative plans in place to take back territory, rather than just hold ground while you're waiting for it to work?

SEC. CARTER: Let me take each piece in turn, Jim.

With respect to Syria train and equip, the -- our efforts, as I just described them, I should point out that elsewhere in Syria, and besides that train and equip program that we're responsible for, there are substantial gains being made by, for example the Kurds in the north and opposition groups elsewhere in the south, which we support also and support our goals of combating ISIL.

In Iraq, I think your reference is Taqaddum. And just a reminder, Taqaddum is one location where -- which is -- where we're doing training. We actually have a number of training facilities and have trained 8,500 as of now. And in addition, about 2,000 CTS at those sites. Those are Iraqi army and -- that is, Iraqi security forces, and including CTS forces. Your reference I think to al-Taqaddum is Sunni tribal fighters from that particular area, which that is one location, again, not the only one in Sunni territory that is devoted to recruiting Sunni tribal fighters to take to Taqaddum, which is the base that we have basically established now and are building out.

There are 500 Sunni tribal fighters recruited and in training at al-Taqaddum. And of course that's roughly the monthly throughput of the facility that we're trying to set up. And then there's, of course, Al Asad, and then the other training bases around which, just to repeat, have now totaled 10,500, that is CTS and ISF.

And then the last part of your question was: Can this approach work? And I think the important thing there is that the only way to have a lasting defeat of ISIL is to have someone who can govern and secure territory once ISIL is defeated. That has to be a local force on the ground. That's why the strategy calls for the United States to help train and equip, and then help enable local ground forces.

And that's as true in Syria as it is in Iraq and, by the way, elsewhere around the world. And so that is the strategy that will both provide for the victory over ISIL or the defeat of ISIL, and then secondly, and this is very important, for that defeat to stick and endure.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, let me just add.


GEN. DEMPSEY: Okay. Well, maybe I'll just answer that question. No, go ahead.

Q: Attack today in Egypt on Egyptian security forces; the attack in Tunisia on Friday; the attack in Kuwait on Friday. We're seeing ISIS operate with greater capability outside of Iraq and Syria. And I'm just curious, are there plans in place or under consideration to expand coalition military action beyond Iraq and Syria to respond to those threats?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, look, what we've said from the beginning is that ISIL is trans-regional. That is, it's not isolated to Iraq and Afghanistan. You know, there's also groups in Afghanistan that have re-branded themselves under the ISIL ideology and that stretches over to Boko Haram in Nigeria, which has also expressed its affiliation with ISIL. So it's trans-regional.

And what we're trying to do -- you used the lily pad metaphor. We're trying to build a network. Lily pads don't float independently on the water, but you knew that, Jim. They're connected to a sub-surface architecture. And we're trying to build a framework, a scaffolding to address this problem trans-regionally in an enduring way so it actually -- that their defeat lasts, which means there are other lines of effort that have to move along with the military line.

And it's got to be sustainable. We've got challenges across not just from Afghanistan and Nigeria, but we've got a few others things we're working as well. So we're trying to balance all this out.

Q: Sir, I'd like to ask you to -- your -- one of your priorities is the force of the future. I wonder if you could comment a little bit about the lack of diversity in key combat commands both at the Army brigade-battalion level, and Air Force wing level, and whether that's a concern to you and whether you think the services are --


SEC. CARTER: It is a concern. It's got to be a continuing concern to us, both diversity in terms of race and also gender. And so this is something that I monitor very closely, observe the statistics on very closely. I'm watching the generational cohorts, and this bears upon that. And I especially in the gender sense, and less consistently in the racial sense, there is a group of younger officers and senior enlisted coming into the ranks that will be assuming leadership roles.

I would like to see a lot more, but it's something that I monitor very closely and that I feel very strongly about because the force of the future has to be reflective of the country of the future.

QUESTION: Two questions -- a policy question for you and perhaps an operational question for the chairman.

For you, I wanted -- I'm curious, today is a historic day in Washington as the U.S. is reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba and announcing the opening of embassies. Can you envision a time in the future where the United States might be willing to give up the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?

And for the chairman, I'm struck by the attack yesterday in Afghanistan. That's a chaotic scene in the capital. And the New York Times described it as revealing a wellspring of anti-American sentiment there. I'm wondering if you agree with that characterization.

SEC. CARTER: Easy, the first part, with no anticipation and no plan with respect to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba.

GEN. DEMPSEY: No, I don't perceive a well-spring of anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan. And -- you know, but at times and places where the Taliban re-emerge and for periods of time take back control, there's always this notion that somehow we could have -- we could have prevented that.

But I think all of us in uniform and all of the secretaries with whom I've worked have always pointed out that Afghanistan's future will be one of conflict for some time until they reconcile their internal differences. The key is that the central government can maintain control. So if a district center falls, it has to be recaptured. And to this point, in every case, the ANSF have proven themselves capable of doing that. But they still need help.


QUESTION: I had a question about Iran and military strategy supporting national goals. The media has -- there's been a frenzy of stories lately about Plan B -- if the talks fail with Iran, bombing their nuclear facilities. And a lot of it's focused on the massive ordinance penetrator. The narrative is this is a new -- is a wonder weapon that can destroy if we need to.

Your predecessors have said since 2009 -- you were here, you've been here for part of it -- the best you can do is delay from one to three years, maybe two to four now is the current estimate. You said on CNN a couple of months ago that we could set back, destroy Iran's nuclear program and they know that.

Give us a reality check, though. What is the current thinking about the best -- the utility of the military strikes, delays for several years, or do we now have the capability to do a lot more damage?

SEC. CARTER: The basic facts have not changed recently. That is, we continue to have the tools to do that and continue to maintain the military option, because the president has instructed us to, because his determination is that Iran not have a nuclear weapon, and that -- while he's obviously -- and Secretary Kerry is working on this right now, looking to get a deal -- a -- no deal is better than a good deal (sic). And therefore, we are under instructions and have been -- you're right -- for years to do that.

And the facts are as you say. Namely, it sets back an Iranian nuclear program. But obviously anything like that can be reconstituted over time. And so a military strike of that kind is a setback, but it doesn't prevent the reconstitution over time. And that's the -- that basically has been the case as long as we've had those instruments and those plans, and I don't think there's anything substantially changed since then.

GEN. DEMPSEY: If I could, Tony, yeah. Just -- the assumption sounds like it's that we would only do that once. I mean, the military option isn't use once and set aside. I mean, it's -- it remains in place. And so we will always have military options, and a massive ordinance penetrator is just one of them.

STAFF: Mr. Secretary, we've only got time for one more.

SEC. CARTER: Okay. Jim?

QUESTION: We're coming up on Fourth of July, Mr. Secretary and General Dempsey. And the Department of Homeland Security has warned Americans to be especially alert this Fourth of July for a possible threat from ISIS.

Do you -- either of you believe that ISIS has actually become more of a threat to the American homeland now, if not kinetically, psychologically, to America than al-Qaeda ever could be? And how -- and why can't the U.S. seem to be able to combat the kind of social media campaign that ISIS has managed to spread worldwide?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I mean, we are coming into a holiday time. We're always vigilant at holiday time, we're always vigilant as an institution about force protection and protecting our people, and ISIL is another reason and a -- and as I'm sure Homeland Security has indicated for vigilance. It does have to do with the social media angle, Jim, that you spoke to. And what that suggests is that in a -- the era of social media, a phenomenon like ISIL, unlike al-Qaeda of the old days, there doesn't have to be and won't necessarily be a command-and-control relationship between somebody who instigates an incident and ISIL as an organization.

They are self-radicalized, self-organized people on social media.

Are we concerned about that? Absolutely, we're -- we're concerned about it. And -- and that has been seen in Europe, so that's a sign that in the United States, as in Europe and other places in the world, we have to be concerned about it, and we obviously are.

QUESTION: Quick follow-up on that, sir.

But do either of you feel, as -- as those responsible for the U.S. military -- in regard to the ISIS campaign and potential threats, do you ever feel that you're powerless or defenseless against that kind of insidious threat?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I'll -- I'll say one thing about that, and then -- then, Chairman, you jump in.

We are not powerless. The only thing I'd say is that that is one of the so-called lines of effort in the strategy against ISIL. It just happens not to be the responsibility of the Department of Defense, although we participate in that.

It is an intelligence community and homeland security and law enforcement mission, which they take very seriously and very persistently, and I think the warning that you indicated shows they're doing that at this holiday time for America.

GEN. DEMPSEY: This also coincides with from Ramadan, and the call went for increased attacks during Ramadan, which is why you see us maintaining a -- a higher alert status.

No, we're not powerless. In fact, I think the very things that threaten -- you know, we're a significant threat to ISIL, because everything we believe in is completely opposite of what they believe in -- every bit of freedom, every bit of diversity, every bit of civic freedoms and religious freedoms, is exactly opposite to what they espouse.

And we will keep pressure on them, and they will eventually collapse under the weight of their own contradictions with a little help from coalition partners, partners and stakeholders in the region and military power.

SEC. CARTER: And with a little reminder, as that is, of why we celebrate the Fourth of July in the first place. Happy Fourth of July to all of you. Thank you.