Transcript

Secretary of Defense Esper Media Engagement En Route to Sydney, Australia

Aug. 2, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Q:  All right, guys.  We're going to do about about 20 minutes on the record. So, sir, if you want to kick it off with any comments?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:   Yes. So, let me begin by thanking you all for joining me on this trip. My first trip. And as such, I wanted to make sure that I went to what is our priority theater based on the National Defense Strategy, which says that we are now in an era of great power competition. And our strategic competitors are China and Russia, principally in that order. 

So, for those reasons, I want to go out to the theater, visit with some of our longest standing allies, and new partners, and to affirm our commitment to the region to reassure our allies and our partners, and to make sure they understand that it's not just the department's commitment, but my personal commitment and the United States' commitment to this region.

So, as you know, based on my itinerary, I'll be meetings -- spending time in Australia with the AUSMIN, two-plus-two. I will go to New Zealand, and then to Japan, and then to Mongolia, and then to Korea. And at each stop, I will spend some time with my counterparts, defense ministers, and in all the stops as well I will also meet with the heads of state of each country, except for New Zealand. I think we're planning a phone call, because of the distances.

So, I'm very excited about this trip, and what it means to me, what it means to our partners in the region, and I hope to get a number of things accomplished as well while we're out there with regard to some subordinate issues regarding each country. And I'm glad you guys could join me on this trip as well. 

Leading up to that, as you know, we had a good meeting this afternoon with Admiral Davidson, the head of INDO-PACOM. We talked to a number of issues related to this trip and beyond this trip, and it's a good way to kind of set the stage for me with regard to how he sees it as a geographic combatant commander.

OK. So, with that, we'll start with some questions.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, just, on the INF Treaty, just wondered if you could, just maybe, clear up some of the details. Not long ago reporters were told that there were sort of two things in development, long-range - a low-flying cruise missile, and a ballistic missile, and that the long-range cruise missile could be developed within 18 months. 

Now, it sounds like you all are saying it could be years. I'm wondering, can you, kind of, clarify the two programs, and what you see as timelines and whether or not you agree about New START? Do you think New START is also likely to be ended as well? 

SEC. ESPER:  So let me try to answer the best I can with regard to your questions. I can speak to this from my former role as secretary of the Army, that we were developing a long-range precision missile, which, if the treaty was to end, we were prepared to begin extending the range, and to really get at effective range, that would take quite some time. I honestly can't recall whether it's 18 months or longer, but my sense is, it would likely take longer. 

The cruise missile variant is something that was being worked at the DOD level, and I just simply have to get back to you on that one, to give you some sense of timeline. It's fair to say, though, we would like to deploy a capability sooner rather than later. But with, you know, programs like this, it takes time. You have to design, and develop, and test and do all those types of things. 

So, the best answer is, sooner rather later, we want to develop this capability and making sure we can have long range precision fires, not just for that theater, but for the theater that we're deploying to as well, because of the importance of great distances we need to cover, and how important an intermediate range conventional weapon would be to the Asia Indo-PACOM theater. 

Q:  New START? New START?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. I'm sorry. What was the question with regard to New START?

Q:  New START. There's also been a lot of discussion about whether or not that treaty, which would expire in another year or so, whether or not that should be ended as well. What's your view on that? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, my view is, we need to take a serious look at the treaty, making sure it's still within our interests. I think the key thing, and I answered this in my, I think, advanced policy questions for Congress, we need to look at a few things that have changed. So, for example, Russia has added some strategic weapons, since the START was ratified, we would need to look at including them into the treaty. 

Number two, we should look at multi-lateralizing it with other countries, nuclear powers that should be captured by this. If we really want to go after avoiding an arms race, and capture these systems, we should multi-lateralize it. And then third, I think we should look beyond the strategic base of New START, and really engage the Russians on nonstrategic nuclear weapons.  They have thousands of these weapons, as I recall. And I think it will be important to strategic stability to make sure we address them as well. 

So those are some things out there we need to consider. State obviously has the lead on this one, and we'll be working with them as time goes by here in the coming months.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, are you considering at any point in the future deploying ground-based, intermediate-range missiles in Asia? Is that something you're considering? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. I would like to. But let's be clear, I’m talking about conventional weapons.

Q:  Conventional, but I (inaudible) inhibited (inaudible) …

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, INF range, right, exactly.

Q:  And in terms of timeline, are we talking years?

SEC. ESPER:  That's what we're just discussing. I would prefer months. I just don't have the latest state of play on timelines for either the cruise missile, or long-range missiles, as the Army was preparing it. But these things tend to take longer than you expect. 

Q:  And do you have a sense of maybe where (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  I wouldn't speculate because all those things depend on our plans. Those are things we -- you always discuss with your allies. There's a number of factors that weigh in there, so I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We need to first focus on programs and getting the systems right. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, a couple days ago, President Trump tweeted about the revoking of Navy achievement medals from the prosecution in Chief Gallagher's case. Would you kind of to comment on that? And I understand he is well within the chain of command and, you know, how you view the current state of the JAG Corps following that case.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, that actually was supported by Navy leadership, and the decision was made and implemented. And Secretary Spencer just gave me a brief update yesterday, before I left to prepare for this trip, about his concerns with regard to JAG leadership, and the corps and what's going on. And, you know, he's got to work that. When I get back, intend to follow up with regard to his specific concerns, I think somebody reported in the media today. So he's obviously concerned about the health of the JAG Corps. And if he is, I am, because that we need to get that right. And I don't have anything to add beyond that at this point in time. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Operation Sentinel, I was wondering if you could you give us an update on whether you're getting any traction on that plan yet, either in your (inaudible) or (inaudible) to this trip with our Asian allies? Do you think that will be a part of the discussion? And do you think that countries like Japan, (inaudible) should -- or Australia should contribute more? 

SEC. ESPER:  So I was at CENTCOM the other day. They had a sourcing conference last week. I want to say we had 30-plus countries attend. And we have various degrees of commitment, so I think we'll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days, where you'll see countries begin to sign up. And so that's good news. Our ambition has always been to internationalize it. 

But regardless we will continue to do what we do in terms of providing both air and Navy-based maritime surveillance. Again, the purpose being to maintain freedom of navigation in the straits and to deter some type of unnecessary escalation based on a provocative act, because we are not seeking conflict with Iran at the end of the day. What we want to do is stay on the diplomatic path. And so we want to grow the coalition to help us with that.

Q:  Are you concerned that putting additional resources actually from countries like in Asia to the Gulf (inaudible) is going to take away from the (inaudible) approach to the Pacific (inaudible) and take resources away from (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, that’s one of the things we always have to balance, is near term demands of the world, and the future that we're trying to prepare for. So, what we're trying to do is make this international heavy; make, you know -- by broadening it out, it reduces the (inaudible) on us to provide, either maritime surveillance, or the ISR, the overhead air piece as well. So the aim would be to alleviate that so we don't have to face those tradeoffs, if you will.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, before I ask my question, are any of those commitments, are they Asian nations? Just curious.

SEC. ESPER:  Time will tell. We’ll see in time. 

Q:  OK. And my question actually is, you focused on China as the priority. You’ve said that in testimony. But this is coming amid increasing bad behavior from North Korea, and now Russia, and no longer has the chains of the INF Treaty. So, how do you say that China is still a priority while (inaudible) is still going on?

SEC. ESPER:  The world is always busy and complicated. This -- you can look at any point in history. This is just the nature of things. This is the world we live in. 

You know, I think President Trump's -- the president's actions regarding North Korea have stabilized the situation far differently from what it was when I became secretary of the Army in November 2017. It was far different. The tensions were escalated. But we're right now at a different point, and that's a good thing.

You talked about, mentioned with Russia no longer bound by the INF Treaty. Look, let's face it, Russia has been in noncompliance with that treaty for many, many years, going back to the Obama administration, and maybe beyond that. So, they have not been in compliance. We've been the only ones in compliance of the INF Treaty. So -- and that's been recognized by not just us, of course, but by our NATO allies, by the NATO secretary general. So it's about time that we -- we were unburdened by the treaty and allowed to pursue our own interests, and our NATO allies share that view as well.

Q:  So what's the biggest threat from the Chinese?

Q:  To follow up on the Sentinel, Operation Sentinel, are you -- the Europeans have been less than enthusiastic in joining the operation. Are you disappointed, or do you understand their concerns about the risk of being drawn in a conflict with Iran?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, nobody wants to be drawn into conflict with Iran. That's why we first proposed the idea of a coalition of like-minded allies and partners, if you will, getting together in the Gulf and in the Strait, figuring how again we can escort shipping, so that the Iranians will not take provocative actions. That came in the wake of what, you know, Iranian proxy attacks coming from Yemen and elsewhere. Of course, we know the story about the placement of mines on ships, and then eventually it led to the seizure of a U.K. ship. 

So, I think, we all recognize that Iranian bad behavior in the Gulf is continuing. And so, look, it's -- ideally we all work together.  If we all work side by side, that's good, too. I think again, I think the key is that we are -- there is a unity of effort, a shared commitment, if you will, to preserving freedom of navigation in the straits and the Gulf, and deterring provocative behavior that could lead to a miscalculation that could escalate into a conflict. We want to avoid that. 

Q:  But if they don't join the coalition, it's OK?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it's their call. Again, I think, if we all share the same values and views that we protect freedom of navigation, that we don't want conflict in the Gulf, then the more nations participate to deter that and to support those values, the better, particularly if you rely heavily on commerce in the straits.

Yes, Dan?

Q:  If I could follow up on the INF, when you look at this, I mean, we’re (inaudible) immediate after your statement went out today, lots of media, think tanks, et cetera, raising the concern about this kind of pushing this in the direction farther of an arms race. Do you see any concerns in that regard, or do you kind of see that that ship sailed already anyway?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes. I mean, I really love those reports. I've worked arms control in the past, and so I -- in some ways I think I understand what they're concerned about. But I don't see an arms race happening here. I mean, Russia has been racing, if anybody, to develop these systems in violation of the treaty, not us. You know, the traditional sense of an arms race has been in the nuclear context. 

Right now, we don't have plans to build nuclear-tipped INF-range weapons. It's the Russians who have developed, non-compliant, likely, possibly nuclear capable weapons.

So, I don't see an arms race happening. I do see us taking proactive measures to develop the capability that we need for both the European theater and certainly this theater, the Indo-PACOM theater. And at the same time, we need to now develop defensive capabilities to make sure that we can deal with the Russian threat of cruise missiles wherever they may appear. So, I don't share those concerns right now with regard to some of those folks that were raising, and the United States has remained compliant with the treaty. It’s the Russians that broke the treaty, and who have forced us out of it, and we remained compliant up until the final day. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Yesterday, it was reported you had (inaudible) a review of the Pentagon's JEDI contract.

SEC. ESPER:  Right.

Q:  Can you explain your reasoning for that, and was that a direct request from the White House to (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah. I think I mentioned this to you guys like a week or two ago, when down in the press room, that I had heard a lot of concerns from the Hill and elsewhere. You know, you read in the paper, many of you are reporting on this. And I know I have to do two things here with regard to the JEDI contract. I know it's very important to the warfighter that we get -- we get into the cloud, and facilitates artificial intelligence, which I've said publicly is probably a top technology for us. So we need it for the warfighter. 

But on the other hand, I need to make sure that the cloud that we build, is -- that the process was done fairly, properly, it was competitively bid, and all those things, because I have a responsibility to the taxpayers to be a good steward. So I need to do those two things. Coming new into the program as SecDef -- I'm now what, nine days on the job or so? I need to give it a good, thorough look to make sure I'm comfortable with what has transpired over the last, what, months or years on this project, before I decide to go forward, go in a different direction, whatever the case may be. I have a responsibility to take a good look at it. 

Q:  Was this a review pushed by the White House? 

SEC. ESPER:  What's that? 

Q:  Did the White House direct this?

SEC. ESPER:  I was not directed to do it. Again, I'm looking at all the concerns I've heard from members of Congress, both parties, both sides of the Hill. I've heard from people from the White House as well. I mean, with all of the -- and I see what you guys are reporting from companies and industry and all that again, there's so much noise out there, that it deserves an honest, thorough look. And I would do it with any program that raised this much consternation, if you will.

Q:  Can we go back to the Iran, kind of, PACOM versus CENTCOM balance? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Can you, kind of, help us understand, characterize your thinking thus far on how you achieved that balance. But also, is it possible to potentially restore some capabilities back to CENTCOM without diminishing the NDS, or what you're trying to do out in this region now?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think CENTCOM has what it needs right now to continue deterring Iranian bad behavior. And we'll adjust that based on how the situation changes in the Gulf, if you will, and based on my continued discussions with General McKenzie, the commander. But again, at the same time, it's this tradeoff between near-term and far-term, between the challenges you face in each theater. And that was my discussion with General David -- I'm sorry, Admiral Davidson. What do you see? What do you need, as we try and compete?  I mean, we're in a compete phase right now with China when it comes to this theater. What assets so you need? What resources? 

So, that's the tension right there, and it's not just between those two, but it's between all the combatant commanders, and the various demands we're placing on the system, depending on where they are, right. We talked a minute ago about Russia and the European Command. That's another command out there that has wants and needs. AFRICOM, same-same. So that's my challenge, with the assistance of the Joint Staff, OSD, the chairman of Joint Staff is helping me pick through that, so we're making the right -- the right calls. 

Q:  How do you expect China to react when they hear the U.S. is considering putting INF-range weapons in (inaudible)? They obviously won’t be too happy. How do you expect them to react? Do you expect them to up their INF-range weapons as well (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  They should be unsurprised, because we've been talking about this for some time now. And they have -- I want to say that 80 percent-plus of their inventory is INF-range systems, so why would -- that shouldn't surprise them that we would want to have a light capability, not because we are trying to, again, deter conflict. What we want to do is deter conflict and compete with China and other countries in the economic realm, and diplomatically, if you will as well. So that should not surprise me. 

Q:  Is China going to be a part of any additional INF Treaty?

SEC. ESPER:  There is no INF Treaty.

Q:  I mean, (inaudible).  (Inaudible) should China be included.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, again, if you have -- if you're a country that possesses weapons of a certain range and capability and a number of powers are looking to develop an arms control agreement then I think all that should be considered. Now this gets back to the question on START, right. Why wouldn’t you think about multi-laterizing START if you now have more than two countries who has strategic range systems, so. But again, that's starting to get into the hypothetical (inaudible). We're not there. But, you know, China should obviously (inaudible).

Q:  Back to the arms race question, what about Europe and potentially (inaudible)?  (Inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, so the only reason why you should have a need to build up missile defenses is because you're (inaudible). And so, you know, when I was at Brussels several weeks ago, we talked about that among the allies. What are we going to do if China -- I'm sorry, if Russia doesn't come back into compliance? At that time, we had six weeks left, or something like that. You know, we all agreed that we would look at what capabilities do we need. And a combination of things, such as more robust, capable (inaudible) missiles defenses (inaudible). Because cruise missiles operate differently than ballistic missiles. And we also talked about the development of our own long-range missiles (inaudible), so. 

Again, this is avoidable if Russia had just remained compliant with the treaty, after us and our allies for many, many years telling them get back into compliance. And so, this is not something that we caused; it is something that they caused. 

STAFF: Anybody who hasn’t asked a question yet? (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  OK, last one.

Q:  (Inaudible) Afghanistan question. There was a comment made by Secretary Pompeo the other day about withdrawal from Afghanistan by the 2020 election, which got some reaction. People sort of saw this as a political move as opposed to conditions-based.  What do you think of election 2020 as a deadline for the withdrawal? 

SEC. ESPER:  I didn't -- I actually did not hear him say that, and I haven't gotten a report on that, so I don't want to comment on the specifics. But again, you know, our view has been, what I've said publicly is, the only way to solve the situation in Afghanistan is through a political agreement. And  our -- we need to stay focused at the end of the day on making sure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorists, and that any political agreement coming out between the parties should be conditions based. And that's kind of DOD's perspective on this for some time now, and remains mine as well.

OK?

Thanks for inviting (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)