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Remarks by Secretary Carter in a Press Gaggle at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota

Q:  Mr. Secretary, in your speech you mentioned that the nuclear mission requires unparalleled excellence.  And I'm wondering if you're satisfied that the various morale, performance and leadership problems that came to light in the ICBM force in recent years have been corrected. 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:   Well, it was exactly because of morale issues and personnel retention issues and so forth that we began to make additional investments in the Air Force, in the nuclear mission here in quality of life, in the installations, in the professional development of people who specialize in this mission, in looking at their career paths, at the rank structure, and also I think importantly as I was mentioning earlier today, in helping -- in emphasizing the importance of what they do and the future trajectory of the nuclear triad.

I think that all that helps Bob because it is a mission that requires, as I said, unparalleled excellence.  And you can't take that for granted, it's something that we've enjoyed over a long period of time that the people you saw in front of you today represent. 

But we've got to keep it up.  And we realized I think a few years ago that we weren't doing enough.  And that's why it was important to be doing the things that we began there, we continue to look at it, and obviously we're continuing to make investments in it. 

Q:  Thank you. 

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I wanted to ask you about Syria.  Can you talk about how concerned are you that -- about the potential for Gulf states to step into the vacuum there and potentially supply opposition groups with weaponry such as MANPADs? 

And then secondly, would you agree with the French and British assessment that the Russian actions in Syria constitute war crimes?  Thank you.

SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to second part, I'll let Secretary Kerry and others make these determinations about what things are called, and whatever you call it, what's going on now in Syria is tragic, disgraceful, preventable, and  -- as I think everyone around the world has been emphasizing over the weekend -- Russia and the Syrian regime bear responsibility for the violence, particularly against civilians. 

And the only way to give the Syrian -- end the Syrian civil war and give the Syrian people the respite from this savagery that they so deserve, is a political resolution.  And it's important that Secretary Kerry has been trying to pursue that.  And obviously the signs based on Russian and Syrian behavior and not encouraging in that regard, but the fact remains of their responsibility and of the necessity, especially for Russia to do what it said it was going to do when it intervened in Syria, which was to help put an end to the Syrian civil war through political transition and fight ISIL.  And that's not what it has been doing. 

And with respect to the first part of your question, June, that you asked this question and that others in the region, including Iran, by the way, are looking at this turbulent situation and trying to find opportunities and to deepen the tragedy of the Syrian civil war is not the direction anybody should be headed. 

That -- well, that's not the direction anybody should be headed. 

Q:  Hi, sir.  You're going to have to ask for a budget supplemental for the troops that President Obama wants to send to Afghanistan.  Do you have a plan for when you're going to ask Congress about that?  And do you have a range on what that dollar figure might look like? 

SEC. CARTER:  Yes and yes.  The -- I said way back in the spring, and one should say always that we submit an OCO request at the beginning of the year, which is about the costs of war.  It's in the nature of war that you can't know at the beginning in detail what it's going to cost. 

So I said we were going to be sending a supplemental request.  And it actually reflects a good thing, which is that we are seizing upon opportunity to destroy ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and therefore to add some resources to hasten that.  And we're seeing opportunities to strengthen what we've long been embarked on in Afghanistan with Operation Resolute Support there with our coalition partners there. 

So this reflects the seizing of opportunities by the president, opportunities that are good for us.  So it's a very natural thing to do and a good thing to do, and we will ask.  And there is a range.  And we're going to continue to refine that.  And as I told Congress when I appeared before the -- our committee -- our Armed Services Committee on the Senate, that we would continue to refine those estimates while they were out of session and have a completed estimate when they come back in November hopefully to complete the budget in its entirety, because of course, it's the fiscal year. 

I forget what the date is, the 26th of September now, for the eighth consecutive year in a row, the fiscal year is coming to an end without a federal budget.  So I would be grateful come November not only for approval of an adjusted OCCO budget, but for approval of the budget of the federal government. 

Q:  Congressional sources have said they think it's going to be in the range of maybe $3-5 billion, does that sound correct to you? 

SEC. CARTER:  We have a range, we're going to refine it, and they'll get a refined number when they return in November, hopefully to pass a budget for the federal government.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Several defense officials spoke last week about the potential of sending 500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.  But this is the first time we've had an opportunity to ask you about your thoughts.  Are you planning to request it be plussed up by 500?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I'll say before the same thing -- I'll say again the same thing I've said before, which is, we're constantly looking for opportunities further to accelerate the defeat of ISIL in Iraq.  We're looking for those opportunities.  Obviously the taking of any of those opportunities would need to be, as we do everything in Iraq, with the permission of the government of Iraq, and in particular with Prime Minister Abadi. 

In the past whenever we have seen such opportunities, President Obama has always approved them.  And so has also Prime Minister Abadi.  And so when the time comes, we'll follow the same process to seize the opportunities going forward as well, because this is a good thing when we have the opportunities to hasten the defeat of ISIL. 

Q:  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  America is recapitalizing its entire nuclear triad, and Russia also is accelerating its expenditure on its own nuclear force.  Is this the start of a new nuclear arms race? 

SEC. CARTER:  No, it is not.  And I can say that because the Russian nuclear activities which are not only different in size but in their nature in some respects from the past began before the United States made any decisions about recapitalizing its triad. 

And second, the other -- the second piece of evidence is, as I noted in my speech, that for 25 years the United States has not built new nuclear systems to replace the ones that are here.  That's why it takes such heroic effort by such skilled people, as you see here at Minot, to keep weapons systems that are 30 years and older going. 

So the United States has not in fact been doing that.  So it can't be the cause of anything that takes place in Russia or China or North Korea.  And so the facts belie that proposition. 

Q:  Yes, in that vein, the Air Force is planning to buy 80 to 100 B-21s, although some, including the head of Global Strike Command have said that that number might not be enough for the missions needed in the future.  Is that a number that should be reevaluated?  And how likely is it that more Raiders could be produced? 

SEC. CARTER:  That's the number we're planning on now.  It's perfectly reasonable that it will -- I'm sure it will be constantly evaluated and reevaluated as the program continues.  I'll just remind you that the B-21 program was largely conceived of, including the size of the buy, but the nature of it, not just with the nuclear mission in mind. 

It was for conventional missions.  And we decided also to give it the capability to execute the nuclear mission.  But it's dual purpose and both purposes would go into it -- go into determining the size of the program as we now foresee it. 

STAFF:  You guys, we've got -- if you're quick we can sneak it in.  Bill.

Q:  Yes, I just wanted to get your opinion of the ICBM force in the wake of the scandal that hit two years ago.  I wanted to know what you thought of how the force improvement program had been going.  And also your mentor, Bill Perry recently commented that he would like to do away -- he would like to see the ICBM force come to an end.  So I would like to get your opinion on that. 

SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the force improvement program, that was, as I said earlier, an essential thing for us to embark on.  I think it came out of a recognition that we had some force management issues here that we needed to address and address promptly.  That decision was made a few years ago. 

What I can tell you on the basis of my visit today was that in talking to airmen here, they very much appreciate and feel the effects of that.  And that tells me that the reasons that it was put in place by the Air Force and why we're carrying it out are bearing fruit.  And I explained some of that earlier about the necessity to do it. 

With respect to the recapitalization of the ICBM force, that is part of our plan.  We do intend to recapitalize the ICBM forces.  You've seen it here.  It's still performing excellently and is a strong deterrent, but it is getting older.  And so as the president has indicated, we do intend to recapitalize all three legs of the triad. 

We have plans to do that and to do that affordably, which we will do in both the case of the ICBM lag, and has been discussed a little bit, the ICBM and lag -- I'm sorry, the SLBM lag, the ICBM lag.  And by the way, the bombers and the cruise missiles on the bombers, which I'll just remind you, were developed some decades ago, in light of the need for an assured deterrent to be able to penetrate air defenses.  That's one of the ways that it is assured and therefore deterrence is strengthened. 

 
Those arguments were good then and they stand up now.  And that's why the president's budget begins those recapitalizations.  And with that Peter, thank you. 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER:  Oh, sorry, I didn't...

Q:  Thank you.  You've worked within the field of nuclear since the beginning of your career.  I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what role nukes play now versus they did in the past, and how that deterrence has changed.  Critics of enhancing the nuclear program have said that there are other options.  There are new weapons that can fulfill the same roles that they used to play.  How do you respond to that?

SEC. CARTER:  I do not think that as long as nuclear weapons exist that there is a replacement for nuclear deterrence.  That's the foundation of our view, and the president's view, which I cited, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States needs to have a safe, secure, and reliable deterrent. 

The world has changed, of course, and as I indicated, there are some in -- whom I grow concerned about as I put it in the speech there, understanding of what has kept us safe for so long.  And I think it is stable deterrence that has done that.  And I think, as I also indicated in the question I was asked about President Kennedy's legacy early on that nuclear non-proliferation, combating nuclear terrorism, making sure that our deterrent remains as it is today, safe and secure as well as effective. 

I mean, all of those things remain as the years go by as well.  So it's not just deterrence, but it's the need for excellence, for perfection, and the profoundest respect when it comes to matters like nuclear weapons, there's nothing else like them on earth.  And that's what this place and its tradition exemplifies, and that ain't going anywhere as long as there are nuclear weapons. 

Thank you. 

STAFF:  Thanks, everybody, appreciate it.