Transcript

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Esper and General Milley in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Dec. 20, 2019
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Good morning, everyone. Happy holidays.

The chairman and I wanted to take this opportunity to meet with you all once more prior to the end of the year.

I want to start by thanking Congress for passing the F.Y. '20 National Defense Authorization Act. We appreciate this strong demonstration of bipartisan support from the House and from the Senate. This legislation is a big step forward and will enable the department to adapt to the challenges posed by great power competitors. I look forward to President Trump signing this into law later today.

Importantly, the NDAA authorizes the establishment of the United States Space Force as the newest branch of the armed forces. I want to thank the president for his leadership of this historic initiative, which will posture us to effectively defend our national interests in space.

The last time we developed a new branch of the military was over 70 years ago when we separated the Air Corps from the Army in 1947, creating the United States Air Force. Back then, we saw how airpower had expanded during World War II, and we recognized the need for a single service to focus exclusively on the air domain.

Similarly, our reliance on space-based capabilities has grown dramatically and today outer space has evolved into a -- into a warfighting domain of its own. Maintaining American dominance in that domain is now the mission of the United States Space Force.

The president will announce the official establishment of Space Force later today when he signs the NDAA, and we will provide additional details in the coming weeks on the implementation plan and timeline.

The NDAA also authorizes a 3% -- 3.1% increase in pay to our service members, the largest in a decade. This is a well-deserved pay raise to the men and women of the military, who continue to make great sacrifices for the nation as they stand watch all over the world to protect America. It will also help ensure that we continue to recruit our country's best talent into the armed forces.

Additionally, there are a number of important provisions directed towards one of my top priorities, taking care of military families. These include programs to offset the costs of acquiring professional licenses for military spouses; reforms to on-base privatized housing; and efforts to increase childcare capacity on military installations. These are all very important to the readiness of the force and follow through on our commitment to take care of our service members and their families.

I also want to thank Congress for passing an appropriations bill before the end of the year. As I've said many times, continuing resolutions cause great harm to military readiness and reduce our ability to compete with China and Russia.

We're looking forward to beginning a number of important modernization programs in areas, such as hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence and directed energy, that have been held back because of the C.R.

As we close out 2019, I'm happy with the progress we have made toward implementing the National Defense Strategy this year. I personally have traveled to the Indo-Pacific, our top priority, twice since coming into office, to meet with several of our strongest allies as well as several of our newest partners. And earlier this week, Secretary Pompeo and I held our second ever 2+2 ministerial with our counterparts from India, where we built upon our growing strategic partnership.

Additionally, our trans-Atlantic alliance with NATO is on the right trajectory following the leaders meeting that occurred earlier this month. We have consistently pushed our NATO allies to contribute more to our shared security and many of them have responded with greater contributions to defense spending and -- and an improved focus on warfighting readiness. This is resulting in a stronger, more capable NATO alliance.

As I've said before, we must deal with the world we live in, not the one we want. As we focus on long-term competition, China and Russia will not lose sight of our national security interests in the Middle East. Our troops deployed throughout the region continue to do great work to ensure ISIS remains defeated and to deter further Iranian aggression.

I want to thank all of our service members around the world, especially those who are in harm's way, for their service far away from home over the holiday season.

Finally, I want to reemphasize the department's commitment to continued reforms as we enter the new year. Our Defense-Wide Review has netted over $5 billion in savings. As we expand this process beyond the fourth estate to other parts of the department, we will continue to free up resources to invest back into our top priorities.

With that, I look forward to taking a few of your questions, but first, I'd ask the chairman to make any opening comments.

Thank you.

CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Hey, good morning to everybody.

And thanks, Mr. Secretary.

Happy holidays to all. And appreciate the opportunity to do this on a frequent basis. We're trying to do it on a monthly basis and -- and hopefully, it's effective for all of you and for us to transmit what we do to the American people, as well.

In November, I visited Indo-Pacific Command and Central Command areas of responsibility to meet with my counterparts and various ministerial officials in allied and partner nations. Our military-to-military relationship in both regions remains very strong, and it's essential to continue our efforts to maintain great power peace in an era of return to great power competition, and to continue our collective efforts to fight against terrorism.

This week I met with my Russian counterpart, that you may realize is Gen. Gerasimov. I met with him in Bern, Switzerland. We discussed Syria, strategic stability and a -- a variety of other operational strategic issues to enhance our deconfliction, improve our understanding, and reduce risk between our two militaries.

I conducted my first discussion with -- as a chairman with my counterpart in China, Gen. Li. And over the phone, we renewed a relationship that was established while I was chief of staff of the Army and he was the head of the PLA Ground Forces. I'm looking forward to meeting with my NATO counterpart shortly in our semiannual gathering over in Europe after the first of the year.

And to echo the secretary, I'm looking forward to a signing ceremony later today for the F.Y. '20 NDAA. I have also -- or, it will authorize the joint force to receive additional resources needed to maintain the priorities of the department and the priorities of the joint force of readiness, reform, increasing lethality and building our allies' and partners' relationships.

Before we look forward to 2020, though, I think it's important that we all take a moment and reflect on the contributions of our men and women in uniform around the world today on freedom's frontier. And whether they're in the air or on the sea or on watch on the ground -- it doesn't matter where they are -- they're all doing great work to maintain the freedoms of our Constitution and the American way of life. They represent, in my view, the best of America, of our values. And they and their families have our deepest gratitude and respect as we enjoy the freedoms that they provide to us with their service and sacrifice.

And Secretary Esper and I are -- are very happy to take your questions at this time.

STAFF: Idrees, Reuters.

Q: Thank you.

You've obviously seen the public statements made by North Korea over the past weeks about the Christmas gift that they may give.

So for Gen. Milley, have you seen any specific indications about North Korea preparing for a long-range missile test or launch?

And for Secretary Esper --

SEC. ESPER: One question.

Q: Follow-up. Mr. Biegun came back from -- or is on the way back from South Korea without having met the North Koreans or getting any deal or promise. Is diplomacy dead, and are we essentially on the path to where it's a potential conflict once again?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to comment on the details of -- of Secretary Biegun's efforts.

Clearly, we think that a political solution is the best way forward to denuclearize the peninsula, and to address North Korea's programs.

I have two functions here, as I've said before. One is to ensure that we are in a high state of readiness, prepared for -- to fight and win tonight, if need be, and I'm confident in that. And -- and secondly, to enable our -- our diplomats.

So I remain hopeful that we could, again, get the process started again and get -- remain on the -- on -- on the diplomatic path. 

GEN. MILLEY: And there's -- and we don't discuss any intelligence or indicators or that sort of thing. We just don't do that.

In the public sphere, though, North Korea's indicated a variety of things, and -- and I think you're aware of all those. So we are -- we are prepared for whatever.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: I would ask you both instead about Army Maj. Matt Golsteyn. He was facing war crimes charges, pardoned by the president. Now he wants his Special Forces tab and Silver Star back. What's your recommendation? Should he get those back?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to comment on any personnel actions in a public domain.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Can you say, is it imminent?

SEC. ESPER: I'm not going to comment on any personnel actions.

Q: Sir, thank you very much. Nick Schifrin, "PBS NewsHour."

Could we go to Turkey, if you don't mind? Do you see any willingness that Turkey is going to go away from its momentum to operationalizing the S-400?

And to ask a specific question about Turkish threats, they have threatened to evict U.S. forces, U.S. assets from Turkey, as you know. Do you take that threat seriously? And then, what impact would that have on -- on U.S. abilities in the region and specifically in Syria?

SEC. ESPER: Well, Turkey is a longstanding NATO ally. They've fought with us from Korea to Afghanistan.

I engage with my counterpart routinely. They have accepted the S-400, which means they will not receive the F-35.

With regard to the comments that were made in the press, I think that's one of the things that I've said earlier that I need to follow up on and make sure I understand, you know, what is driving that and how serious they are.

But, again, our view is that we need to bind them closer to the NATO alliance. They are a very capable military and a longstanding ally, and that's mine.

Q: Have you followed up with them? Have you heard from them on --

SEC. ESPER: I haven't had a chance yet.

STAFF: (inaudible)

Q: Gen. Milley, the Washington Post published what's being referred to as the Afghan Papers, which suggested that public statements being made about the Afghan War were in -- were different from what was being said privately, and that in fact there were people who knew, in this building, that you were losing in Afghanistan.

Was that your experience? And is it fair to compare the Afghan Papers that have been published to the Pentagon Papers?

GEN. MILLEY: I would say a couple things, Jennifer.

I know there's an assertion out there of some sort of coordinated lie over the course of, say, 18 years. I find that a bit of a stretch. More than a bit of a stretch; I find that a mischaracterization, from my own personal experience.

You're looking at probably hundreds of general officers, State Department employees, CIA, Department of Defense folks. I just don't think that you can get that level of coordination to do that kind of deception.

I know that I and many, many others gave assessments at the time based on facts that we knew at the time. And those were honest assessments, and they were never intended to deceive neither the Congress nor the American people.

I think that these -- the -- there's a very, very good piece of investigative journalism. But I also think it is not the Pentagon Papers. The Pentagon Papers were multiple volumes, I think it was 50 or 60 volumes of these things. And they were contemporary papers written in advance of decision-making.

These, the Afghan Papers, was an attempt by SIGAR [Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] and about 2,000 pages, so -- to do post facto interviews, looking backwards, to determine lessons learned for the force as we go to the future. So I think they're fundamentally different in both nature and scale and scope.

Q: And just to follow up, Secretary Esper, is it time to leave Afghanistan?

SEC. ESPER: We have a mission in Afghanistan. That is to ensure that the -- it -- no -- never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. So, until we are confident that that mission is complete, we will retain a presence to do that.

STAFF: Ryan Browne.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

You talked a little bit about how the Department of Defense has stepped up its efforts to safeguard elections, and we're coming into the election season. Can you talk a little bit about what additional steps are being taken to protect the 2020 elections?

As far as threats are concerned, are there specific countries you're worried about, Russia or Ukraine?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I -- look, I'll just talk broad-brushed because much of this is classified.

But DOD participates in a whole-of-government approach through our Cyber Command and others, and we thought we had a very good 2018 election. We brief Congress often on these things as part of a whole-of-government approach. And so we continue to look and make sure we understand what the threats are out there, and we look at all threats, wherever they may came from.

The critical thing is that we preserve the integrity of our democratic process and that our elections are free from outside influence. And I'm confident we're doing everything we can right now to ensure that going into 2020.

STAFF: Tara.

Q: Thank you.

(Inaudible) Venezuela. The humanitarian crisis in -- in Venezuela is set to surpass Syria's next year. Colombia is looking for additional humanitarian support. What other options does the department have to aid them besides the Comfort? Are you looking at any potential airlift supply?

And then secondly, this week we wrote about a number of the very first Special Operations Forces who were sent to Uzbekistan in the very early days after the 9/11 attacks, and now face a multitude of cancers and they cannot get the V.A. to cover their medical costs. Is this acceptable?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I'm not familiar with the second issue, but let me go to the first one.

On the first one, obviously it's a brutal regime under Maduro. What -- what he's done to that country and the people of Venezuela is just horrific. And I think we join the many, many other countries, particularly those in the region, in condemning his regime and what he's done.

That said, State Department has lead for -- for -- for our actions there. We are fully supportive of what they want to do. We always are prepared and plan to provide humanitarian assistance and whatnot, but this is an issue I talk with Secretary Pompeo, and we're prepared to support them as we think through next steps.

Q: Have you received any requests for specific DOD assets?

SEC. ESPER: Not at this time that I can -- that I'm aware of, if you will.

STAFF: (Inaudible)

Q: Mr. Secretary, the Pentagon Inspector General's office has launched two investigations related to the border operations. One, whether it --

SEC. ESPER: Two what?

Q: Two investigations into the border wall. One, whether it was legal, and two, about the awarding of the contract.

Do you have confidence that the department conducted thorough overviews of whether the operations were legal and whether it should be conducted? And do you have confidence in the awarding of the contracts?

SEC. ESPER: Well, first of all, I'm -- I don't characterize it the way you have.

My understanding is, from my folks who've spoken directly to the DOD I.G., is that he is conducting an evaluation, not an investigation, and his evaluation is assessing whether our troops were properly or adequately trained, et cetera, to do the mission. That was it.

All of the other stuff that you're referring to is not consistent with what I've been briefed. And we can get you -- we can get you offline and explain what that is.

STAFF: Sylvie.

Q: Thank you.

The President say that he doesn't want forever wars. So it's a question for both of you on a political -- from a political point of view and from an operation -- operational point of view. How long do you think you will need to stay in Syria?

SEC. ESPER: Well, it's -- that would -- that would -- that's a crystal ball that I don't have.

I -- I think we're there as long as we can ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS or we get other allies and partners to step in and help offset us, or -- that -- the real metric for us is that the -- ISIS can be controlled -- its elements can be controlled by local police or security forces. So -- so that is a metric by which we look.

The -- the broader landscape is -- is -- is what I refer to -- is we -- we have a National Defense Strategy. It says we are now in an era of great power competition. Our principle challenges are China, then Russia. And so my aim, whether it's Syria or Afghanistan, is how can we reduce our presence in other parts of the world to either return troops home to retrain, refit, et cetera, for those bigger missions, or I -- we reallocate them to the Indo-Pacific. That's my principal aim.

Q: So you think in terms of months, years?

SEC. ESPER: It's -- it depends on -- you mean in terms of where troops are? I think they're -- all the situations are different, right?

Q: And Gen. Milley?

GEN. MILLEY: I would say that none of us want forever wars, mostly those of us in uniform who serve in these wars and have taken care of our wounded and buried our dead. So none of us want forever wars.

It has to do with national interest. It has to do with a realistic appraisal of what adversaries and enemies of the United States of America are doing, and what their threats are to America. And we weigh the costs, the benefits and the risk associated with that. And that's why we are where we are in the various parts of the world.

Specifically with respect to Syria, we are there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. And when that condition is met, then I think the president will be apprised of that. And then at that point, we'll probably come out.

STAFF: Tom.

Q: Thank you.

Good morning, sir. Happy holidays.

A year ago, at the Army-Navy game, President Trump announced that he would nominate you, General, to be in your present position. And since that year has ensued, both of you have assumed your current jobs.

Looking back on that year, how would you characterize it for the Defense Department and the Pentagon? A lot of surprises, a lot of steadiness? I would like to hear from both of you, if you don't mind, how you look at the year that -- and the roles that you inherited in that past year.

SEC. ESPER: He can't escape me and I can't escape him, for some reason.

(LAUGHTER)

GEN. MILLEY: Well, for me, I mean, it's deeply humbling and it's honored -- it's an honor to have been nominated and then confirmed.

And -- and spent my final year as the chief of staff of the Army, focusing on the Army's business. And then a month or two in preparation specifically for this job. Had a very, very long, professional and personal relationship with Gen. Dunford, my predecessor, and we did a very professional handoff. And -- and so that's how I spent the year, so.

SEC. ESPER: Look, I -- to me, I had a great pleasure working with Chairman Dunford before -- before I assumed this position, and then certainly after. And I think the transition between he and Chairman Milley has been seamless. And, of course, the chairman and I come together after having a lot of time together at the Army, so it's been relatively seamless in that regard as well.

I think we have strong teams across the department now, in each of the departments. And last night, we got three more senior DOD officials confirmed, so it's good to have that. We have more in the pipeline at various pieces.

So -- but -- but the constant churn is -- it happens. It's the nature of these jobs; they're demanding jobs, they burn people out very quickly. And -- and so it's something you have to continue to deal with. But I think we have a strong team, happy with the -- with the commanders we have out in the field as well. So, everything looks good.

STAFF: Courtney.

Q: Secretary Esper, I just want to follow up on the discussion on the border. So, I happen to have the letter on this, and it does talk specifically about the use of military personnel on the border. The request was specifically whether there could be a potential violation of Posse Comitatus and how they interact with the DHS professionals there.

So I just want to ask again, do you have any concern that the active duty U.S. troops who are working on the border could be in any way violating Posse Comitatus as this evaluation, as you called it, might find?

And then, Gen. Milley, I just want to follow up one more time on North Korea. I know you don't want to talk about intelligence, obviously, but they're -- they do seem to be telegraphing that there could be an ICBM launch.

And I'm just curious, when you talk about, you know, being ready and everything, have you increased your readiness level? Is there -- you know, a belief or a concern that they will actually do something? Or is this rhetoric, do you think?

SEC. ESPER: So on the first thing, I -- I don't have any concerns that they're violating Posse Comitatus in any way, shape or form. I -- we make that explicit in the instructions we give to the commanders.

That said, let's see where the evaluation goes. And you learn things in terms of evaluations. I don't shy away from them. If we learn something, then we will improve our training. That's -- you know, I'm -- I'm used to that. That's -- that's -- we'll just see where it goes.

But in terms of the orders, the instructions, the communications I've had with our commanders, I feel fairly confident, but we'll see where it goes.

GEN. MILLEY: And from a military perspective, on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is -- is one of those places in the world where we’ve always maintained very high levels of readiness. And today, we have very high levels of readiness. And the motto for the U.S. forces in -- in Korea is "fight tonight." We stay shoulder-to-shoulder with our ROK -- our Republic of Korea counterparts militarily, and it's a close bond, also, with the military of Japan.

So the tripartite alliance, if you will, between Japan, the United States and -- and the Republic of Korea is rock-solid, and -- and I think it's prepared to defend the interests of the United States, Japan and South Korea at a moment's notice. It has been for quite some time, and it is today.

Q: So you would say readiness levels are -- are increasing --

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF: We've got time for one more question.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Thank you very much.

Gen. Milley, I just wanted to follow on my colleague's question from Fox News.

The Afghanistan Papers revealed that senior officials have been far more pessimistic in private than in public about the prospects for a military victory in Afghanistan. Now, you've had several comment (inaudible) to Afghanistan, so I ask this with greatest respect: Has the United States been throwing away American lives?

GEN. MILLEY: Absolutely not. The -- not in my view; and I'm one who was there and as you said, many, many times.

Our original objective going into Afghanistan on the 7th of October, 2001, was to prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a platform to launch terrorist attacks on the continental United States. And that's what we set out to do, and to date that has been successful.

And that's not the only criteria, but I do not -- absolutely do not. I could not look myself in the mirror. I couldn't answer myself at two or three in the morning when my eyes pop open and see the -- see the dead roll in front of my eyes. So no, I don't think anyone has died in vain, per se.

As far as military victory, for years we have clearly stated that there is not going to be a rational, reasonable chance of a military victory against the Taliban or the insurgency, something like signing the surrender documents on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. President Bush said that early on, before Christmas in 2001, and that remains true today. There's only one way that this is going end, and it's in a negotiated solution with the Taliban, and it's going to have to be an Afghan-to-Afghan solution. That's what we've been saying for years.

Militarily, this has been at a state of strategic stalemate, if you will, where the Taliban cannot defeat militarily the regime, the government of Kabul, so long as the United States and its allies maintain some degree of military support; and the regime is not going to militarily defeat the Taliban or the -- the various other groups over there militarily so long as they have sanctuary in Pakistan, and that they have some small degree of popularity amongst the people, which is rated at about 10 to 15% or so in some of the rural areas.

So this is a very difficult, complicated situation; but at the base of it, for the United States of America, it has to do with our vital national security interest to protect our people. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who have given their lives in Afghanistan have not given their lives in vain, in my view.

SEC. ESPER: I'd just add, before we wrap up here and -- and say this much: For 18 years now the media has been over there. You -- many of you have traveled multiple times. The Congress has been there multiple times. I was probably on the first congressional delegation to go there in the fall of 2001, and -- and have traveled there multiple times after that. We've had the -- the SIGAR there. We've had I.G.s there. This has been a very transparent -- it's not like this war was hiding somewhere and now, all of a sudden, that there's been a revelation.

So I think between all the folks looking at this conflict over the years, the -- the some type of insinuation that -- that -- that there's been this large-scale conspiracy is just, to me, ridiculous. And -- and -- and I certainly echo the -- the chairman's comments on that front.

You guys have been reporting this. Many of you have been over there. You -- you -- you know. You've talked to the commanders. There've been congressional hearings. We can go all the way back to day one. So I -- I -- history will continue to evaluate this war, and -- and it'll be looked upon for decades from now.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: Okay, thank you. Have a happy holidays.