Transcript

Secretary of Defense Esper Press Gaggle En Route to INDOPACOM

Nov. 13, 2019
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

STAFF: All right, so maybe about 15, 20 minutes on the record. We’re going to go ahead and get started (inaudible).

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Yeah, so as you all know, this is the beginning of my second visit to Asia as secretary of defense. We have multiple countries that we'll be visiting. Some are longstanding allies. Some are partners in different ways. 

And the purpose, of course, is to reinforce the importance of allies and partners, discuss key issues to make sure that they understand clearly that the INDOPACOM theater is DOD's number one priority. And like I said, to discuss a whole range of issues in this seven-, eight-day trip. 

So I look forward to it. We have a lot of good visits lined up, a lot of good meetings kicking off with the ADMM -- with the SCM process in Korea and then the ADMM in Bangkok, so I'm looking forward to this trip. 

Q: Sir, a question for you about the Korea situation. North Koreans have said that they consider the end of the year to be a deadline for the U.S. to change its approach, which, during this long period of essentially no progress on denuclearization, I'm wondering whether you take that deadline seriously, whether there are any kind of military inducements you're prepared to take to move that forward. 

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think when any foreign country, foreign leader says something, I take it seriously, if you will. You've got to pay attention to those things. But my job, DOD's job is to make -- to retain our readiness, deter conflict and if, for some reason, conflict happens, be prepared to fight and win. 

So we will continue to build readiness, maintain readiness on the peninsula. What that does is, it gives our diplomats the surety that they have our backing and allows them to do their job. I think we need to let diplomacy continue. I know that those talks are -- there's talks about talks are under way. And the best path forward is through a political arrangement, if you will. 

Q: So there's no need, in your view, for any kind of military adjustments in terms of troop reductions or military exercise reductions?

SEC. ESPER: I don't think at this time. We maintain a highly capable set of forces on the peninsula, immediately off the peninsula and of course back in the states. So we're prepared for any contingency at any time. And we will adjust our exercise posture either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require.

Q: So actually, I wanted to ask, the impeachment hearings are starting today back in -- in D.C. And one of the things that's been brought up in the State Department is whether or not they're going to help cover legal expenses for folks who are testifying. I was wondering, have you thought about that issue? Whether or not, you know...

SEC. ESPER: I'd have to...

Q: ... or if Laura Cooper…

SEC. ESPER: ... I'd have to refer you to my G.C. for that. I don't have anything on that. 

Q: ... or the (inaudible)...

SEC. ESPER: I don't -- I don't have anything on that. I just am not tracking that issue.

Q: Do you know whether or not...

STAFF: You're going to have to ask (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I just don't know. I haven't heard anything about this issue, about State Department covering expenses or whatnot. 

Q: What did the Pentagon know about Ukrainian aid being held up?

SEC. ESPER: I'm sorry?

Q: Ukrainian aid being held up, when was the Pentagon made aware of that?

SEC. ESPER: I can't recall the tick-tock on that. I came into the scene in late July when I was finally confirmed. So I can't speak to before or after that right now. 

Q: (Inaudible) Pentagon official Laura Cooper testified that DOD was not given any reason for why the Ukraine military aid was held up. Is that right? Did you not know why the aid was being delayed?

SEC. ESPER: Well, as I said before, I'm not going to get in the middle of this issue right now. We obviously have congressional hearings beginning today on this matter. My role is to keep DOD apolitical. 

I've said what I said on this. And that is that my approach, my view, our view has been to -- as we considered the assistance, was it necessary, important to Ukraine for its defense against Russia? What was the level of corruption? That was obviously a congressional item of interest. And, number three, are our allies also contributing to Ukraine's security assistance?

Beyond that, we got the money out, most of the money out on time. And I'll just leave it at that for now. 

Q: Can I ask about Syria? How many troops do we have in Syria? What's their mission? How long will they be there? And is it -- are -- are -- is it true that we're still partnered with the SDF and supporting them through financial and equipment transfers?

SEC. ESPER: So our mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS. We're going to have about 500 to 600-ish troops there, at the end of the day. We're still moving troops out of northeastern Syria. That process has been under way -- you guys have known that for some time. 

And you had a couple other questions. Yes, we're still partnering with the SDF. 

Q: Still providing them...

SEC. ESPER: We're still providing assistance to them. I think those were your key questions. 

Q: And -- and this protecting of the oil, how does that fit into the larger strategy?

SEC. ESPER: Well, the enduring defeat of ISIS is the mission, right? A way that we ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS is deny them access to the oil fields because if they have access to the oil fields, they can generate revenue. If they can generate revenue, then they can pay fighters, they can buy arms, they can conduct operations. They can do all those things because the revenue enables them. So that's how the mission relates. 

Q: Just one last one on that. Isn't it the case...

STAFF: You've had six questions now. 

Q: I've got to ask one more. Isn't it the case that the Kurds are selling the oil to the Assad regime? So in essence, aren't we actually protecting the Assad regime as well?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not sure how the oil market works in Syria. So we'd have to come back to you on that one. 

STAFF (?): I'd like to keep it just in the Middle East for -- I'm sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: In South Korea, intelligence-sharing between South Korea and Japan, what's going to be your strategy for talking about that when you're in Seoul?

SEC. ESPER: Well, my message will be very clear. It was the same message I delivered when I was here a couple months ago. And that is the GSOMI Agreement must be maintained. And it's critical to sharing intelligence, particularly in a timely manner with regard to any type of North Korean actions. 

And I will urge my fellow ministers to get beyond these issues and let's focus on how we partner as allies to deter North Korean bad behavior. And then, in the long term, deal with the Chinese. 

The only folks who are benefiting from this dispute right now are North Korea and China. And that is all the reason why we need to move beyond this and get back to where we were in terms of working together as partners and allies. 

Q: Do you anticipate on this trip, you'll be able to make progress on that? 

SEC. ESPER: I'm always -- I'm an optimistic person. I hope we will. Again, that would be my message. 

Q: Burden-sharing with South Korea. How are those talks progressing? And there's been some disagreement about the amount. 

SEC. ESPER: So State Department has the lead on that. I'm not going to comment in particular on the talks, but I will be delivering the same message I've delivered to our allies in Asia, in Europe and elsewhere. And that is, there needs to be greater commitment to their own defense. And you know, I've used the metric of 2 percent GDP as the floor.

And then there's burden-sharing, which goes beyond that. And that is, how do we offset U.S. costs for forward-deployed forces? That's the same message I've carried to all of our allies. It's the same message I will carry to South Korea. 

Q: I have one follow-up question on the Middle East and North Africa. There were four strikes in Syria last month -- in Libya in September, military strikes in south Libya. How concerned is the U.S -- the Pentagon about ISIS regrouping in Libya, in the Sahel? Is that a focus of the Pentagon’s attention...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: It is a focus of our attention and operations. My aim is to make sure that we -- that in the context of the enduring defeat of ISIS, that ISIS doesn't rise up and develop the capability, have the resources to strike the U.S. homeland. 

Q: But are we seeing a regrouping there?

SEC. ESPER: I -- there's nothing that kind of pops up as necessarily unusual. We continue -- the phrase that people use is "continue to mow the lawn," right? Pull the weeds. And that means, every now and then, you have to do these things to stay on top of it so that a threat doesn't grow, doesn't resurge. 

Q: Quick follow-up on...

SEC. ESPER: Yeah. 

Q: ... the cost-sharing discussions with the South Koreans. Is it true that the U.S. is asking them for a five-fold increase in their share?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I'm not going to speak to the number. Again, I don't want to get in front of the State Department on this, but we have asked for a significant increase in the cost-sharing for our deployed troops.

Q: One quick follow-up on the -- the Syria. You and General Milley have both referred to 500 to 600 troops. Is that referring to the northeast, not counting the Tanf garrison, where there's a couple hundred people? I just – for clarity...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: No, there's not over a couple hundred. There's less than that in Tanf and that refers to the northeast. About 500-ish or so, and you've got a little more down south. But you can...

Q: (Inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: But you can see that the -- you can see that the number is far less than -- than these anonymous senior DOD officials are reporting out there.  

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I know. Yeah, I know.

Q: Six hundred is a good number (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: All in-country, 600-ish, right? 

Q: Thank you. (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: "-Ish" because it changes on a daily basis, people moving in and out, doing different things, and we have -- like I said, we're still withdrawing folks from Kobane, that area, and that'll take another week or so, I think.

Q: So there's presumably its above 500 or 600 (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Well, yeah, but those are withdrawing. That's right. I said -- when the first question was asked -- I said the end state.

Q: Right, right.

SEC. ESPER: You go back, (inaudible)

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Right. 

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: But even at just -- you know, you've got to be flexible in these situations. Things change. Events on the ground change. We could have, for example, partners and allies from Europe joining us. If they join us on the ground it may allow us the ability to redeploy further U.S. forces out there. So these are always fluid situations, and the people who are telling you guys behind the scenes that it's this number or that number are just mistaken, and I think they're giving you all false information.

Q: You would know.

SEC. ESPER: I hope I would know.

Q: You know, these (inaudible) in North Korea, when -- when Bob was talking about this end-of-the-year deadline, I think a lot of us are wondering whether or not, you know, we should expect another concession from the military, you know. And I know you may not see the downscaling of these (inaudible) as a concession, but that's not what we're seeing, I think, on the peninsula. And so I'm just wondering, is there -- (inaudible) if the goal is to reach a negotiated settlement, isn't there some flexibility on the way that you guys position troops on the peninsula or the way the U.S. exercises, that could allow for an extensive diplomacy, or is that not something you are contemplating?

SEC. ESPER: Well, let me rewind a little bit. I think job number one for us is to remain ready, ensure that we're in a proper readiness posture in case the worst happens so we can conduct our wartime missions. We do that jointly with our Korean partners and allies, and as we consider adjusting, either dialing up or dialing down exercises and training stuff like that, we want to do that in close collaboration with our Korean partners, not as a concession to North Korea or anything, but again, as a means to keep the door open to diplomacy. And I think that's important. 

You know, the president has said this. Others have said this. When I came into office in fall of '17 as secretary of the Army, we were on the path to war. It was very clear to me because the Army was making preparations, and I think it's due to President Trump's initiative diplomacy that we were able to dial that back down, and we did that through a variety of means, one of which was dialing back exercises at certain points.

So I think again, if we can do those things without jeopardizing our long-term readiness, you do those things to keep diplomacy open, to get talks flowing again, I think that is the proper way for it. I'm all for diplomacy first.

Q: All right, so -- so it'd be fair to say that you'd be OK with some additional alterations if it's necessary?

SEC. ESPER: I think we have to open to all those things and empower and enable our diplomats to sit down with the North Koreans alongside -- with our South Koreans partners and move the ball forward to a negotiated settlement of the issues that we put on the table.

Q: Mr. Secretary, just on North Korea, is it fair to say that as of today, North Korea has taken zero concrete steps towards denuclearization?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I couldn't comment on that. I'd defer to the State Department because they're working on a day-to-day basis.

Q: Is it fair to say that as North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles that its capabilities are increasing?

SEC. ESPER: I think anytime you test, you learn something. I mean, it's -- whether it's us or any other country, you learn something. What I've always said on the launch of short-range ballistic missiles, which the North Koreans did around the time I visited here previously was that, you know, we take them very seriously and we watch them very closely, but we're also not going to overreact and do something that, for example, could close the door to diplomacy. So I'll leave it at that.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: OK.

Q: I just wanted to follow up on Phil’s question...

SEC. ESPER: Yeah.

Q: ...to make sure I understood your answer correctly -- when the -- the question about whether you're open to the idea of, in some way adjusting or downscaling or continuing the scaling back of exercises. Are you saying you're open to those or some additional kind of moves?

SEC. ESPER: I think DOD is open to doing any number of things that will help enable diplomacy.

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: But at the -- at the end of the day we've got to make sure that -- that I'm confident that we can maintain the long-term readiness of our forces on the peninsula in case diplomacy breaks down.

Q: So what might that be?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to -- I won't speculate, right? We just take these -- I take them as they come, and we consider options to help, again, our diplomats.

Q: Are you...

SEC. ESPER: And we do that in consultation with the South Koreans, right? It's a partnership on the peninsula.

Q: So are you inclined -- in Korea, are you expecting another launch of short-range missiles? Are you seeing preparations for kind of similar activity or...

SEC. ESPER: Nothing has popped up. We'll see what happens. These things are often unpredictable, right?

Q: Do you feel that the Iranian situation's calmed down a little bit in the Gulf? Do you feel like the U.S.'s troop presence in Saudi Arabia, in the Persian Gulf at the moment, and how do you assess what's happening with the Iranians at the moment?

SEC. ESPER: No, I -- let's go back a few months. I lose track of time here but let's go back a few months when they were -- they were putting mines on ships, they were shooting down drones, they were doing other threatening actions, and then we stood up the International Maritime Security Construct, and that has died down, right? That's a good thing. We think we've defended the international rules-based order that spoke to freedom of navigation, freedom of commerce in the strait, and that's a good thing, and that's what we intended to do. So that's fine. And then it seems like since the Saudi Aramco attacks that were sponsored by Iran occurred, we flew -- we flowed additional forces into the region. We -- seems like we've seen a downtick with regard to Iranian actions, and that's a good thing, too. 

The message remains this: We are postured to defend ourselves, to help defend our allies and partners, and to defend the international rules-based order in the region, and the Iranians should not mistake our restraint for weakness. We are prepared to act as need be, and will act to defend those things. The reason why we haven't increased presence in the region is not just to do that, but to signal to them that the path forward is through diplomacy, not military action, and the door remains open to sit down with them anytime, anywhere to discuss the way forward diplomatically.

Q: Is it clear from (inaudible) the drones came from? On -- in northern Syria, southern Iran, or...

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to speak to any of that. Again, you know, we've given -- the Saudis have taken the lead on doing the forensics that speak to that, so I'd refer you to them. 

Q: Can I ask about Turkey?

SEC. ESPER: Sure.

Q: So is it your analysis that the Turkish government is upholding its commitments under the cease-fire agreement with the Kurds in Syria? And when you see Turkish and Russian forces patrolling Syria in the place where Turkish and American forces were patrolling just a month ago, what does -- how does that make you feel?

SEC. ESPER: Let me go -- what was the first one again? Are they...

Q: Are they upholding their -- the ceasefire...

SEC. ESPER: I think generally, we -- you know, you tend to see infractions on different sides of this. But I think generally, it seems to be holding up. I haven't read anything in particular in the last couple days or so. But again, I -- just generally. But that's -- that's what I've seen so far. 

Q: And on the Turkish and Russian military jointly patrolling Syria, doing the very mission that U.S. and Turkey used to do just a month ago, (inaudible)? How does that make you feel?

SEC. ESPER: I think our mission was never to conduct patrolling between the Kurds and the Turks on the Syrian border. Our mission was, is and remains the enduring defeat of ISIS. 

Q: But the Turkish and Russian militaries are working together in Syria, our adversary and our NATO ally. 

SEC. ESPER: Well, I've spoken with...

Q: How did we get here? What does that mean?

SEC. ESPER: I've spoken before to my concerns about Turkey, its arc, its trajectory moving out of the NATO orbit. And I've said that publicly on many occasions, and that we need to work hard to make sure they get back onto the proper path and whether it's actions like this or other things they've done, the purchase of the S-400, is not the right way forward. 

 And we need Turkey back in the fold. They've been good allies for many years, all the way back to fighting alongside the United States in the Korean War, up to, you know, a presence with us in Afghanistan. 

So we need to continue to build the ties, particularly at the mil-to-mil level, to ensure we can have an enduring relationship that will get us through this tough period right now. 

Q: Follow-up to Phil's question about a potential missile. Obviously, test firing would send a message. What kind of message do you think visiting South Korea sends to the North Koreans from our side?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think that my visit to the region and South Korea in particular is this. Number one, we're committed to the U.S.-ROK alliance and we're committed to make sure we maintain our readiness on the peninsula in order to defeat North Korean aggression if need be, but to deter it more importantly. And then, as we discussed, enable our diplomats to do both of those. 

And we're going to be having -- you know, myself and my counterpart, General Milley and his counterpart, side by side in these talks. So I think that is the sign that the alliance remains strong. 

And then the broader message is that we are postured to deal with China in the long run. We see -- as you know, the National Defense Strategy says China is our number one priority in this new era of global -- of great power competition, and we want to make sure we're postured around the world, around this theater in particular to make sure we can deal with that in the years ahead. 

STAFF: All right, guys. 

SEC. ESPER: OK? Thanks, everybody.