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

Jan. 10, 2017
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER:  Hi, everybody.

 

      Thank you all for being here.  I appreciate it.  Good afternoon. 

 

      Before my time as secretary comes to a close, I wanted to come here and brief you and do so as always with the chairman at this time of transition, about what the Department of Defense is doing to stand ready to confront the nation's security challenges anywhere in the world as we always do and must do.

 

      Today, we had a meeting of the Senior Leadership Council, and I therefore met with the department's most senior civilian and uniformed leaders from every combatant command and every one of the armed services, and from some of our partners, to discuss how we're ensuring continued preparedness and vigilance in the weeks and months ahead.

 

      We also discussed how we're continuing to confront our five major, unique, evolving -- rapidly evolving challenges we face around the world.  General Scaparrotti, to begin with, discussed the steps we're continuing to take to counter the prospect of Russian aggression and coercion, particularly in Europe, where we're standing strong with our NATO allies. 

 

      And Scap specifically updated us on the arrival in the past few days of the ships carrying the tanks and fighting vehicles of our rotational armored brigade combat team, and his plans to quickly move the entire brigade eastward in the next few weeks, plans that we've been -- set in motion some months ago.

 

      Admiral Harris and the PACOM team reviewed how we're continuing to manage historic change in the Asia-Pacific, the single most consequential region for America's future, even as we strengthen our deterrent and defense forces in the face of North Korea's continued nuclear and missile provocations.

 

      General Votel gave an update on what we're doing to check Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf, and help defend our friends and allies in the Middle East.  And of course, he briefed on how we're accelerating the certain defeat of ISIL's -- the ISIL's cancer's parent tumor in Iraq and Syria.

 

      And there, our coalition and local partners are continuing to achieve significant results.  In these last few days, the Iraqi security forces have reached the Tigris River in Mosul, and our Syrian coalition partners are converging down on Raqqah.  All the while, coalition forces continue to hunt down ISIL leaders. 

 

      And then General Robinson discussed NORAD-NORTHCOM's continued cooperation with our domestic intelligence and law enforcement partners to help protect our homeland and our people.

 

      Many other senior leaders here today contributed to this morning's productive, robust discussion.  The meeting was another reminder that while the world doesn't rest with the transition here in Washington, neither does the Department of Defense.  The American people here at home and our friends around the world can have confidence, and our adversaries should take heed that the U.S. military is full speed ahead in the coming weeks and months.

 

      The Senior Leadership Council is also a reminder of why I feel confident in DOD's ability to meet these challenges and those the future will present as well.

 

      Around the conference room earlier today, there was some of the finest men and women America has to offer.  All those Americans serving around the world right now, each of our leaders, is dedicated to defending this country and making a better world for our children. 

 

      Our military, the finest fighting force the world has ever known, has so many strengths; technological, material, operational experience and more – and another is its leaders.  America's military deserves only the finest leaders and we've got them, whether in the Joint Chiefs, our combatant commands or the services, each of them I know will continue to make an important and lasting contribution to the future of our military.

 

      So will the Marine to my left, General Joe Dunford.  I said it yesterday, I'll say it again today.  Recommending Joe Dunford to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was the best decision I made as secretary of defense.

 

      Joe, you've been a great partner, helping me lead the department, our joint force, advising and supporting the president and accelerating the counter-ISIL campaign, reforming our department to better confront trans-regional and trans-functional challenges and much, much more.  And I have every confidence you'll continue to defend our country and protect our values with excellence in the years to come.

 

      And of course, the president -- the Pentagon Press Corps represents one of those values and also upholds those values one of those values that we defend.  Free and vibrant press is essential to our democracy and the protection of it.

 

      I've known many of you for a long time and I want you to know how much I appreciate your efforts, consistent efforts, to tell the world about our men and women in uniform, our dedicated civilians and what they're doing everyday to defend our country and make a better world.  I respect your commitment to getting the job done, getting the story right, getting it to your audience as quickly as possible.  If -- even when we don't give you all the filing time you'd like.

 

      Lita, if you're listening, apologies for that. 

 

      But I wish you good luck and God speed in the years ahead.  Thanks for your hard work and your dedication.

 

      With that, I know the chairman has a few words and then we'll take your questions.

 

      GENERAL JOSEPH DUNFORD:  Okay.  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

 

      First of all, to Bob Burns, Bob, on behalf -- I get the chance on behalf of the secretary and I to -- to wish you a Happy Birthday.

 

      (Laughter.)

 

      Q:  Thirty-eight long years.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  That's right.  And I understand that's about 80 percent of the reason why we're here this afternoon, so thank you very much.

 

      (Laughter.)

 

      Mr. Secretary, you were -- I just -- we had a farewell, I think most of you know, yesterday for the secretary.  But it was really not just for his two years as secretary, this caps really almost four decades of -- of service to the department in just about every capacity.

 

      And Mr. Secretary, this is our last public appearance together, so I want to thank you on behalf of the force for your leadership, first and foremost.  I mean, there's many things we could talk about; the ISIL campaign, putting the department on a path to capability development that will make us maintain a competitive advantage in the future, how hard you've worked to maintain deep partnerships and improve our alliances around the world. 

 

      But at the end of the day, it's been the compassion and the care that you've had for our men and women in uniform and the fact that you've been all about winning that I think we'll remember most.  So I just want to in our last time together, just say thanks very much for your leadership, for your partnership and for giving me an opportunity to make a difference with you.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Thanks, Joe.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  And with that, I think we'll be prepared to take questions.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Birthday boy, first question?

 

      Q:  Secretary, a question for both of you about one of the topics you refer to I think as the big five problems –the department faces, North Korea. 

 

      If and when North Korea does test launch an ICBM, would the U.S. or should the U.S. attempt to shoot it down, not because it poses a physical threat necessarily, but in order to deny North Korea's technical advance that it needs to move toward its ultimate goal of being able to hold the U.S. territory at risk?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  If -- if the missile's threatening, it will be intercepted.  If it's not threatening, we won't necessarily do so.  And because it may be more to our advantage to first of all, save our interceptor inventory, and second, to gather intelligence from the flight rather than do that when it's not threatening.

 

      And Joe?

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  (Off mic.)

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Okay, Barbara?

 

      Q:  Chairman Dunford, I'd like to start with you and then Mr. Secretary. 

 

      Sir, you once testified before Congress that you saw Russia, in your words, "as a possible existential threat," and that their behavior was "alarming" in your words.  So I want to ask you today, what alarms you as the chairman about Russian behavior?  What advice do both of you have for the American people about whether they should trust Vladimir Putin?  Those two questions.

 

      And then, I would like to follow-up by also asking you what you both think the chances are of capturing or killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before the Obama administration leaves office?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  You want me to start?  Okay.

 

      Well, first of all, let me start -- I'll do Russia then Baghdadi.  With respect to Russia, I've been very clear.  We have our serious differences with Russia.  It's not a question of alarm, it's a matter of strategic judgment and we've had serious concerns about their activities in Ukraine. 

 

      I've said clearly I think their activities in Syria have been backwards and counter-productive.  And at the same time, we've worked productively with Russia in -- with respect to North Korea and with respect to Iran.  And therefore, our approach to Russia is one that is both strong and balanced.  Strong in the sense that we're making investments specifically with an eye to being able to continue to check and deter Russia and also making investment in our alliance in NATO so that they can stand strong against -- against Russian aggression.

 

      Balanced --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Let me just finish and then I'll get to you -- balanced in the sense that we should -- we -- with Russia and everybody else continue to look for opportunities where we can make our interests align.

 

      They have not been abundant in recent years, but I remember a time, Barbara, and I've worked quite closely with Russia.  But I've done it at a time when it would serve U.S. interests because I could make our interests and Russia's interests align.

 

      With respect to -- and so here as in strategy and foreign policy, generally it's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of U.S. interests and the pursuit of U.S. interests. 

 

      With respect to Baghdadi, I'll only say this.  I think if I were Baghdadi or any other ISIL leader, I would be quite concerned about my safety.

 

      Q:  Mr. Chairman, if I could just ask you again, following on your previous remarks –to Congress, what alarms you today about Russia?

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Barbara, as I think you can appreciate, from a military perspective, I focus more on their capabilities than I do their intent, not trying to project their intent.  And so when I made that statement, I looked at the modernization in the nuclear enterprise and their public statements about the use of nuclear weapons.  I looked at their cyber activities and their development of cyber capabilities.  I looked at what they were doing for space and anti-space, their maritime capability.

 

      And then, you know, what I also looked at was what I describe as adversarial competition that has a military dimension short of conflict.  That's where you if you use political influence, economic coercion, unconventional operations, military posture to actually undermine our alliance structure and our partnerships in Europe.

 

      So that's -- that probably to me is one of the big concerns.  The secretary mentioned Ukraine.  We saw similar activity in Georgia.  We saw similar activity in the Crimea.  We see similar activity in the Baltic states. 

 

      Q:  Hi, Missy Ryan from the Washington Post.

 

      I have two questions -- one for you, Secretary Carter.  Lawmakers, including Senator McCain, have called the Russian hacking activity an act of war, suggesting that it requires a more aggressive response.  Do you agree with that assessment?  And do you think that the U.S. response to the hacking activity has been inadequate? 

     

      And General Dunford, I'd like to ask you about the civilian casualties issue in Iraq and Syria.  And the new administration has suggested that it might intensify the bombing campaign.  And I know you don't want to comment on future policy, but given that military officials have said that after the acceleration of the air campaign last year, that they were hitting everything they could that wouldn't incur civilian casualties.  Is your judgment that the air campaign can be intensified without killing more civilians?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the Russian hacking issue, I don't have anything to add to what the FBI and the intelligence community said in the report.  They obviously did a meticulous job of analyzing the data.  They reported their conclusions quite clearly.  I think they just as clearly called for a response.

 

      And here, that response can be across a broad range.  It doesn't have to be a similar response, that is a cyber response.  Some responses have been made.  I think you should regard that as a start and not the end.  Or as I've said before, a floor and not a ceiling. 

 

      Q:  Once again, you don't want to comment on whether it's an act of war or not?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, I think whatever you call it, it's an aggressive act. 

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Missy, I've having a hard time answering your question directly because to me, the pace of our bombing is driven by the pace of operations of our partners on the ground.  So we're providing air support that's consistent with the progress of the Iraqi security forces in the case of Iraq.

 

      I think last year about this time, you can remember we had a conversation about why isn't air campaign have high tempo.  And we said the Iraqi security forces aren't conducting operations at a high tempo.  And that's going to drive greater air support.  That's what happened in Ramadi about this time last year.  That's what's happening right now in Mosul and the surrounds.

 

      And the same thing is true in Syria.  The tempo of our air campaign in Syria is directly linked to the pace of operations of the Syrian Democratic Forces that we're supporting.  So, the issue of civilian casualties -- I mean, if someone puts that in there as though that's the driver of the air campaign, I guess what I'd tell you is no, that's not been the driver of the air campaign.  The driver of the air campaign has been our ground partners and will remain so.

 

      Q:  But potentially you could intensify?  You could potentially accelerate or increase -- (inaudible)?

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  The air campaign will accelerate as the operations of our partners accelerate.

 

      Q:  Mr. Secretary, your counterpart in Russia, Defense Minister Shoygu, came out with some remarks today saying the United States had not only achieved a zero result in Syria -- I think he said -- the words -- the words were "had a negative result in Syria."  I'm just wondering, looking ahead to another administration which wants to partner with Russia, potentially, in Syria, how do you -- how do you see that relationship?  What are the -- what are the possibilities for improvement?

 

      And to the chairman, if possible, you warned Congress last year about the dangers of sharing intelligence with Russia.  How has your thinking evolved in these many months, especially as U.S. and Russian forces have come into greater proximity just to do the evolution of the campaign?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Sure.  Well, I'm realistic about our concerns about Russian behavior, not just in Syria, but I've also spoken about Europe as well.  I've also said that it stands to reason and has long been American practice with respect to Russia and other countries that we would cooperate and align ourselves with other countries when and if their conduct and their interests made that in our national interest.

 

      There haven't been a lot of opportunities in the last number of years.  Again, I told you I remember a time when it was different.  And of course, we'd all like to see that time return, but that would require behavior on the Russian part that was more congruent with our interests.  You certainly haven't seen that in Syria.  I said that you certainly haven't seen that in Europe.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  I actually have a very similar answer.  Last year, when I spoke about intel sharing, it was based on my assessment of a misalignment of our objectives and our priorities in Syria.  So unless on that -- unless that would change, then I wouldn't see a change in my recommendation in terms of intel sharing.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Okay. 

 

      Q:  Yes.  Can we expect any more Guantanamo transfers in the next nine days now?  And then a second part, you both have been speaking about the role of Turkey and Russia.  Do the Turks -- and Mr. Secretary, you spoke about this a lot on that trip, on the importance of constant communication with your Turkish counterparts.  Did the Turks inform you that they would be working with the Russians on al-Bab?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the second -- I'll let the chairman clarify that as well -- we don't see that occurring.  So --

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- that there was -- that there were overflights in al-Bab by Russian planes.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  We -- they have -- they have de-conflicted their operations like we do.  But more than that, we haven't seen. 

 

      And with respect to the first part of your question -- I forget -- oh, no, I don't expect to see any more -- any more requests come to me to consider the prospect of transferring detainees, because there is a period of time of congressional notification.  So it will to my successor to make future decisions.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Just to confirm, we have not seen any indication of Russian-Turkish coordination.  We have seen Russian strikes take place in and around al-Bab.  There's no evidence that those are coordinated with the Turks. 

 

      As you may know, I speak quite frequently with my Turkish counterpart.  He's very open and transparent about the communication that he's had with our counterpart, Gerasimov.  But he's also said that the Turks at this time are not cooperating and coordinating, conducting operations in conjunction with the Russians.

 

      Q:  Have they asked the Russians to stop, then?  I mean, if this is their area?

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  I can't -- I can't comment on that.  I really don't know if they've asked them to stop.  But -- and I'm not aware that those strikes have been anywhere near proximity to Turkish forces or put them at risk, either.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  (Off mic.)

 

      Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Over the last two years as the U.S. forces have died in Iraq and Syria, this Press Corps has repeatedly asked about were they in combat and you have said they're in combat situations but not in a combat role.

 

      And I just wanted to know, you know, as you are departing the office, as you're thinking on that change, as U.S. forces get closer to --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      SEC. CARTER:  -- my thinking wasn't what you said.  I said I remember when Josh Wheeler was tragically killed in a heroic action.  And somebody asked me whether it was combat and I said of course it was combat.  Unequivocal, in that regard.  You bet Americans are -- are in combat and at risk.  Not just -- I think you mentioned, Iraq, but I mean, there's Afghanistan and so forth.  And it's the most serious responsibility I have as -- as secretary of defense.  So I -- this isn’t a matter of semantics.

 

      Q:  So are those trainers and advisers in a combat role?

 

      And then General Dunford, you've said when asked that women have been proving themselves in combat for years and the argument over women in combat, it's you know, it's semantics.  Could we -- should we expect then that in the new administration, all roles would remain open for women in combat?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  I -- oh, go ahead.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Yeah, no I can't talk to the next administration.  I mean, right now, I know what the policy is and we've been implementing the policy.  I certainly can't comment on anything that might happen in the future.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  And the first part of your question, the role of our forces, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, our strategic approach in all of those areas is to work with and to enable capable and motivated local forces.  That's important, but it certainly puts our people in harm's way. 

 

      And with respect to women in service, what matters and for the future of the all-volunteer force is that we emphasize attracting and retaining the most qualified people who can meet our standards.  That is the criteria, not other criteria.  That is the criterion that will ensure excellence in the all-volunteer military.

 

      Let's just see, Tony?  Tony, sorry.

 

      Q:  How close is United States and the coalition to defeating ISIL?  In 2014 –Dempsey and I think Hagel said it could take three to four years.  Just how close is the military defeat of ISIL at this point?  And do you both see a potential need to retain a U.S. residual force in Iraq after ISIL is militarily defeated?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, this is a war, so one doesn't know.  I'm confident that it will conclude.  We want to conclude it as soon as possible.  I'm not prepared to put a date on it and haven't -- haven't been.

 

      We know what all the steps are, we know the steps that we have laid out in the plan and we're -- we take each of those as rapidly as we and our partners are able to do. 

 

      And what was the second part, Tony, again?  I'm sorry.

 

      Q:  Do you both -- do you see the need for a residual force in Iraq --

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Oh --

 

      Q:  -- after ISIL is militarily defeated?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, that'll be up to the government of Iraq, first of all, and Prime Minister Abadi.  I wanna say that.  But that is something that I've discussed before and that we've discussed with the government of Iraq.

 

      It'll take some time to consolidate Iraqi security, even after the fall of Mosul, which will occur like the defeat of ISIL will occur.  But there will be other cities and towns lesser in Iraq that where -- where the government's control will need to be secured and reconstruction and stabilization will begin -- need to begin.

 

      And there will be an ISIL tendency to go underground and to go to more isolated regions and continue to try to mount counterterrorist operations, and that'll require a sustained effort.  And I think the United States and the other -- and the international coalition, everybody's realistic about that.

 

      When I was in London with all the defense ministers and the coalition partners about a month ago, we discussed this and there wasn't any question in the room that ISIL would have a life after Mosul and that we would all need to be -- continue to be in the business of protecting our people.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Tony, the only thing I'd say and I don't mean to be evasive, but that's obviously a question I'm gonna have to make a recommendation to the future administration in terms of our long-term presence in Iraq.

 

      And I think the secretary said something very important, that it also has to be done in conjunction with the Iraqi government.  So for me to speak about that publicly right now would be -- would be inappropriate.

 

      Jen?

      Q:  Thank you.  Mr. Secretary, what would be the impact on the changes you've made to women in combat if the next administration were to roll back some of those changes, close some of those positions to women?  What message would it send to the all-volunteer force?

 

      And for both of you, when were you made aware that the Russians were hacking into the U.S. election?  And should the U.S. have responded sooner?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, with respect to the first part, I'll just repeat what I said, which is it is important.  It is essential to the excellence of our military that we put first, foremost, the ability of an individual to do the job better than anybody else, to be qualified and to meet the standards.  That's why we're the best in the world and that's what we need to do to stay the best in the world and there's no substitute for that standard. 

 

      And I'm sorry --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      Q:  When were you made aware that the Russians were hacking into the U.S. election?  And should the U.S. have responded sooner?

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Oh I -- well, I -- I think that it's clear that there were indications of this kind of Russian activity not just in the United States, but in other countries going back quite some while.

 

      But the evidence accumulated that resulted in the intelligence community making its judgment, which you've now seen, only after they were comfortable that they had the evidence and had made the judgments.  And that was a decision they made, not that we made.  But I respect their -- their analysis.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  It was shared with us -- Jennifer, it was shared with us definitively in October.  So as the secretary said, we had seen, you know, some reports -- (inaudible) -- discussion, I think you all saw many of those even in the open source.  But I think a definitive conclusion was drawn in October.

 

      STAFF:  You have time for one more -- .

 

      Q:  Thank you, secretary.  You have been personally involved with -- with U.S.-India defense relationship during this period of defense -- (inaudible).

 

      Q:  Now, we have the largest -- (inaudible) -- together.  You and Mr. Parrikar have been meeting frequently.  Never in the past has that happened.  What should be the future of -- what is sort of the next step for India-U.S. defense relationship?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Well, I think we're on the right path.  It's just a matter of taking those steps.  And they involve deepening our cooperation in lots of ways.  I mean, there's exercises and other kinds of operational activities. 

 

      There is something that I think Prime Minister Modi and Defense Minister Parrikar have been equally intent upon as President Obama and myself, which is the development of defense relationships for new technology, which involve technology sharing, co-production, and so forth.  We have a great number of projects.  I was in New Delhi not long ago and discussing all these, and there are many of them -- so too many to enumerate.

 

      All of them on course.  They all have their own schedules and sort of technical timelines to them.  But this is a relationship which is, I've said many times, is destined for the future because of the nature of our two societies, the values that we share; the human relationship between our peoples.

 

      Peter, we can do one more if you -- I've got to do our holiday party, which I don't know -- are you all invited to the holiday party?  It's going to be nice -- a nice holiday party.  Put it on Peter.

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      SEC. CARTER:  He's having a separate party.

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      STAFF:  One more.  We'll go to Gordon Lubold in the back.  How about that?

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Hello, Gordon.

 

      Q:  Thank you -- a question on U.S.-Russia-Syria.  Kind of following up on Phil's question.  As you know, obviously this MOU between the two countries over de-confliction and what -- there's also a proposal to elevate the level of dialogue and exchange between U.S. and Russian military over Syria, short of coordination or intel sharing.

 

      I'm wondering, to the extent you're tracking this, Mr. Secretary, what's your assessment of it?  What are the up-sides and down-sides of it?  And also you, Mr. Chairman, if you would.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Go ahead, Joe.

 

      GEN. DUNFORD:  Gordon, you know, you've obviously got some people that have shared something with you.  I wouldn't describe that as a proposal.  We haven't talked about that outside the building.  We're constantly looking at the Syria campaign; constantly looking at what's happening on the ground.

 

      First and foremost, with the desire to make sure we have the proper framework to protect our people.  That's number one.  Number two, to make sure we have the proper framework within which we can accomplish our objectives.  So, what you describe is not very mature.  There's been some conversations we've had.  I have not even gone to the secretary and asked him to make a decision on that.

 

      So this is -- this is something that, again, I would put that in the context of many, many other ideas that we've bounced around.  Again, with how do we make sure the campaign progresses with our people on the ground safe; our aviators safe; and making sure we can accomplish our objectives.  That's where I'd put that right now.

 

      SEC. CARTER:  Okay.  Listen, again this is my last time with you, but once again, just the deepest respect for what you do and very great appreciation and admiration for your reporting over this time.  Many of you I've known a long time.  I hope I continue to know you for a long time.  Keep up the good work and thank you.

 

      And once again, we couldn't be luckier or better served than in Joe Dunford, and he will be at this table in the future.  And it's a good thing for the country that he will be.

 

      Thank you.  Happy new year to all of you also.

 

-END-