Transcript

Secretary Esper Holds an In-Flight Media Availability

Dec. 16, 2019
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

STAFF: -- so we'll do on the record for a little bit. Sorry about earlier, but the (inaudible) just a little bit more difficult than what we (inaudible) out of. So we'll do this and then have a (inaudible).

All right, sir? Go ahead. Any comments?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Thank you, 

Well, I think we had a very good day today. It was really emotional to have a chance to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, both Bastogne and up in Luxembourg. And most importantly, the chance to interact with some of the veterans.

So they're all remarkable -- remarkable men with great tales (inaudible) all of us had a chance to hear one of them today, so this has been a great event. I had a chance to get there early in the morning and actually walk the battleground, (inaudible) Easy Company, the (inaudible) actually positioned during the Battle of the Bulge.

So it was good to get out there on the ground, and also talk to some of today's soldiers as well and get a feel for what it meant to them. And it's very -- you know, means a lot to today's soldiers too because it's a link to the past, to their heritage.

So, again, great day today and it's one of those memories you take with you for a long time, so thank you all.

Q: Sir, yesterday, President Erdogan said he could close down Incirlik and another base in Turkey in response to potential sanctions and the Armenian genocide bill this Congress passed. A, is that something the Turks have brought up with you? And is that something you're concerned about?

SEC. ESPER: It's -- it's not been brought up to me before. It's the first I heard of it. But it's -- reading it in the papers, as you just mentioned. And so I need to talk to my defense counterparts and what's -- what they really mean and what this -- how serious they are.

Q: Do you think it's them being more bluster than substance? Because he has threatened things like this in the past.

SEC. ESPER: I don't know.

Q: Do you think it's time to get the nuclear weapons out of Incirlik?

SEC. ESPER: I make no comments regarding where the United States may have weapons.

So like I said, it's -- I think the issue here is -- is, once again, what is Turkey's direction with regard to the NATO alliance, and -- and the actions they're taking on any number of issues that I've mentioned in the past, whether it's the S-400, whether it's the holding-up of NATO plans for the defense of Europe, or other things?

Q: One of the two bases that Erdogan is threatening to close is a NATO base, it's not a U.S. base. So do you think -- I wanted to know, if, first, it's something that the alliance has a vision. What can you do to prevent one country to close a base?

SEC. ESPER: Well, again, the first I heard of it was in the paper. 

And so this is something that the alliance would have to discuss, if the Turks are serious about this. I mean, they're a sovereign nation to begin with so, you know, they have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops.

Again, I think this becomes an alliance matter, and their commitment to the alliance. (inaudible) they were serious about what they are saying.

Q: Can I ask about North Korea? What's your assessment time, going for the rest of the year? I’ve read the reports and seen the comments coming out of the peninsula that there might be attacks, Guam attacks -- are we heading to an inflection point where it's of greater concern to you?

SEC. ESPER: It -- it is a concern, their rhetoric. We have seen talk of tests. I think that they will be likely, if they will (inaudible). We have a team that -- on the peninsula right now that has reached out and is asking to meet with them, as I understand it.

So again, I think you need to let the diplomatic process play itself out.

And my role remains twofold: first of all, ensure that we are in a high state of readiness, and we are, working closely with our ROK partners; and then secondly, help enable the diplomats.

So I -- I'm hopeful. I would like to remain optimistic that we can keep moving forward (inaudible) negotiations but -- because the alternative is not a -- not a positive one.

Q: Is it reasonable to continue relying heavily on (inaudible) rather than large-scale exercises and keep that readiness long-term?

SEC. ESPER: Well, there's a lot in between large -- large-scale exercises -- and it appears we have -- we do things at the tactical level, things at the operational level with our South Korean counterparts, we do it ourselves. So I -- I -- again, I don't -- I'm confident -- and we talked to the commander of Navy Command, that we are -- remain in a high state of readiness, so we just take things one day at a time as this plays out.

Q: (Inaudible) surprised that the North Koreans have (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I think as I said before, I've been watching the Korean Peninsula for maybe a quarter of a -- a quarter of a century now, so I'm familiar with their tactics, with their (inaudible). And I -- I think we need to get -- we need to get serious and sit down and have discussions about a political agreement that denuclearizes the peninsula. That's the best way forward and arguably the only way forward if we're going to do something constructive.

Q: (Inaudible) expressed your concern about the (inaudible) U.S. (inaudible) what kind of (inaudible) are you going to (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I did speak with the Iraqi prime minister. We had a very good conversation.

Of course, I'd -- I'd like to speak first about the partnership between our two countries, the progress we're making and the fact that we -- what we want is a -- a strong and independent Iraq and (inaudible) Iraq's sovereignty.

That said, I -- I noted my concern about the uptick in -- in attacks on the bases in Iraq, where U.S. troops, materially may be, and that we were -- we -- we have a right of self-defense. That we would ask our Iraqi partners to take proactive actions, if you will, to get that under control because it's not good for anybody.

Q: Who is behind these attacks?

SEC. ESPER: Well, my suspicion would be that Iran is behind these attacks, much like they're behind a lot of malign behavior throughout the region, but it's hard to pin down. So again, we need their help in terms of getting the security situation under control and stabilized, but we also still retain our right of self-defense (inaudible).

Q: There's a report in the New York Times that some people at the Army-Navy game were maybe flashing some white supremacist symbols. Have you heard anything about that? Do you think white supremacy in the military is an issue at all?

SEC. ESPER: I don't believe it's an issue in the military. There is no room whatsoever for anybody to have -- to be -- to be a white nationalist or to be a member of any hate group whatsoever or harbor anything like that.

I know in my days as secretary of the Army, we screened -- we screened very closely and diligently the new recruits coming into the service, and if -- you're not allowed to come in if you have those leanings and if we (inaudible) while you're in, you know, you go before the UCMJ, (inaudible).

That said, I -- I understand some -- (inaudible) displays were made. I also understand that both academies are investigating these and we'll see what comes out.

Q: All right. Can we get you on the record on Afghanistan?

A recent report that there has been some question about whether or not the (inaudible).

Is that true? Do you see there being any kind of change soon?

SEC. ESPER: I didn't hear the first part.

Q: When it comes to Afghanistan, there was a report over the weekend --

SEC. ESPER: Right.

Q: -- that there might be a withdrawal order or effort within the week. Is that the case?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I can say, for quite some time now, that I think we can go to a lower number in Afghanistan because the commander believes that he can conduct the all-important counter-terrorism mission and train, advise and assist so that we ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.

So he's confident that he can go down to a lower number. I would like to go down to a lower number because I want to either bring those troops home, so they can refit and retrain for other missions or/and be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition that's vis-a-vis China.

So, anyways, we'll see. There -- you know, there are a couple paths to get there. I think, again, today the best solution for Afghanistan is a political agreement. But I think we could go down to a lower number with or without that political agreement.

And I have -- I have issued no orders yet to do that. We'll just take this a day at a time and see how things play out in the coming weeks. This is a conversation that has to be had between me and the secretary of state. We want to consult closer with our allies, but at the end of the day it will be the commander in chief's decision.

Q: Did you speak to Speaker Pelosi at all today or the congressional delegation?

SEC. ESPER: I did. I had a number of good conversations with Speaker Pelosi. I -- I thanked her for the NDAA, National Defense Authorization Act being passed, at least by, you know, both chambers. It's going to be signed, I think, this week by the president.

And then I, you know, of course expressed the importance of getting the appropriations bills passed as well. And she thinks we're on a good trajectory right now to get that done also, so I thanked her for that -- you know, just chit-chat about the importance of Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge and veterans.

And as we left Luxembourg, I had a chance to talk with several members of Congress to thank them for attending, showing bipartisan support for our veterans.

Q: Can I ask you about Space Force in light of the NDAA?

It looks like there's at least a vision there to move pretty quickly on it.

How do you see that going in the first quarter or half in '20?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, it's a good question. I don't have a solid answer for you right now. I need to sit down with the chairman of the Joint Staff, the Air Force, and work through next steps.

These things take some time. We were talking about setting up a service, if you will. And so we have to think through all the manning, training, equipment, all the Title X functions that go with that.

But it's an exciting time. I think it's -- you know, it's an epic moment in terms of another big change for America's armed forces, akin to the Army Air Corps being pulled out of the Army in 1947. So I think it's an historic moment.

Q: Do you think you could have a functional service of some kind, in some small capacity, this coming year?

SEC. ESPER: Well, yes. But we have a functional service now. We still have space capabilities, all of that. So we're not going to lose any readiness there or anything like that. But it will take time to -- to set up, you know, all the key parts, the staff, everything that goes with it, and have a -- have a smooth transition. These things take time.

Q: (inaudible) on Syria, what is your way ahead in Syria? What -- what do you see, in the next few months, the U.S. troops do in Syria?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we're going to continue with our mission, the enduring defeat of ISIS. And we'll do that hand-in-glove with our SDF partners on the ground.

I think the way ahead is to continue to grow our coalition, the Defeat-ISIS coalition. We have 81 members, a combination of mostly states and -- and other organizations. And we need to grow that and go to them for political support, for military support with more troops, and monetary support. And so I think the more we can move along those three lines of -- lines of reference -- excuse me -- the better.

Q: Would you like more (inaudible) military support on the ground in Syria?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I think the more we can multilateralism it, the better. This is not a U.S.-only mission, it isn't right now. But I think we need to multilateralism it, as I feel with many things. We should -- we should operate as coalitions as often as we can. And I think Syria is a -- is a very good place to do that.

Q: So it's not multilateral enough right now?

SEC. ESPER: No, I think the more we can multilateralism it, the better.

I mean, we have, you know -- we have a couple dozen-plus other NATO allies, going to be 30 once the next state gets in here. So there's a lot of other countries that can contribute to that mission as well.

And so I think, again, the more we can multilateralism that mission, the better. That puts less stress on the United States to -- to bear most of the load on the defeat-ISIS matter. So yeah, I think the more we can multilateralism it, the better.

Q: You spoke with your French counterpart a couple days ago.

SEC. ESPER: Right.

Q: Did you tell her about -- or did you talk about the maritime coalition in Turkey needing (inaudible), essentially?

SEC. ESPER: We talked about that previously, but we did not talk about that on our -- on our phone call, we talked about other things.

Q: (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: (inaudible) right now.

Q: You've (inaudible)?

Q: We've heard in the last week or so, a number of your senior folks starting to leave, Randy Schriver, et cetera.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah.

Q: When you came in, there were a lot of vacancies. You filled a lot of those.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah.

Q: It seems like you might be getting a new wave of those --

SEC. ESPER: Yeah.

Q: -- based on the timeline, or people just having done this for a while. To what degree is that a concern for you? And how much energy do you think you need to put into bringing in new expertise (inaudible) here?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, that's a great question.

And, you know, many of you have been around here for a while. I've been in D.C. for 25 years now, so I know how things -- how the rhythm works.

So you're right. When I came in, we had a lot of spots empty on the -- on the senior end, in terms of the two service secretaries, the deputy secretary of defense, the CFO, et cetera. Those are all either filled or will soon be filled, so I felt pretty good about that.

When I looked at our roster, I went through the entire list, and not only what do we have filled, but also what was there -- what were their plans.

And so I've known for some time that Randy was going to leave. I've known Randy for many years. He and I also, actually taught together, a graduate course on China. And so he and I have been friends for a long time. He has a wonderful time, and he's been at it hard from the beginning. So I knew he was probably going to leave. I tried to hold onto him, but, you know, he has a lot of demands on his life.

And Jimmy Stewart has done an exceptional job as acting secretary of defense, so he stepped in to do one role and was (inaudible), but the point, number one, he's just done an exceptional job.

So we're going to lose -- we'll lose those two. We have a replacement in place already for -- for Jimmy Stewart. You'll probably see another couple of -- some more announcements are coming up soon. Again, that's a normal rotation, folks have been at it hard for two years now, two-plus years. You have this happen even last year, at my annual meeting, (inaudible) positions, get people in place as quickly as possible. If not confirmed, at least acting. And -- and and keep moving them -- you know, the Pentagon forward.

Q: Knowing the importance of Asia to you, do you have anybody in mind for Randy's job?

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I'll -- I'll keep those cards close for now. 

Randy's hard to replace. I mean, he's a -- you know, foremost expert on Asia and he's -- like -- like myself, he served in the military, he -- he served in previous administrations, so somebody like that -- a talent like that, who has a great record in Asia, is hard to replace.

STAFF: All right, guys.

(CROSSTALK)