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In-Flight Media Availability by Secretary Esper

Jan. 22, 2020
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Okay, so just to begin, as you guys know, we're heading to Pensacola today.  Purpose is going to be for me to get an update on the tragedy that happened here -- there on December 6th.  FBI will be -- I'll get an update from the FBI.  (inaudible) some of the first responders.

And then I've got to get a -- a broader overview on training.  I'll be taken (inaudible) international training down here.  So it'll be a -- a busy day.  I'll have a chance to also check on family housing and do some other stuff.

And then we get to SOUTHCOM.  And SOUTHCOM will be a full day, as well, focused on what the command is doing.  My -- it'll be my first chance to talk about -- to talk with Admiral Faller about this SOUTHCOM review with -- with regard to his -- the disposition of forces in the theater, how he employs them, what he's doing, et cetera, consistency of the NDS, et cetera.

And then we'll wrap up and get home on -- tomorrow night.  I think I have a busy day Friday, so you guys, looking forward to the trip.  It should be good.

And I guess we'll open up for questions.

Q:  What kind of resistance are you expecting in -- in Pensacola to reintroducing Saudis on the base?  I know there -- there's been some concern in the community about Saudi military students on (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Well, that's -- that's the purpose of my trip, is to go down there, take a sense -- a pulse of the community, the command, how people are feeling.  And so that's why I want to come down here, to get that -- that granularity.

Q:  There's -- you know, one of their lawmakers has been on the record talking about his concerns (inaudible) Saudi Arabia.  Is that something that's being considered?

SEC. ESPER:  That's something that we'll discuss with the commander when I get down there.  Right now, that's not on direct consideration.

Q:  You have the SOUTHCOM review.  You know, SOUTHCOM's been chronically under-resourced for a long time.  They've basically borrowed the Comfort.  They don't have their own ships.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Is one of the things you're looking at adding particular assets to that theater, or where the -- what do you think might come out of this review?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it -- it could.

Everybody assumes when you do a review that it means a reduction, an elimination, but not necessarily.  What I'm looking at first and foremost is how do I ensure our forces' posture around the globe to (inaudible) with the NDS?  So in places like SOUTHCOM that's competition with China and Russia.

So we'll look at that, and I'll make an assessment based on what the commander tells me.  And I have OSD policy, who's been doing a lot of work on this with me.  Chairman Milley's been doing a lot of work on this.

So that's part of what I want to find out, is what's their focus?  What is their resource that they have available to them?  What can they do?  If they have more or less, what's the return on investment -- those are all the things I'm looking at, just like how do we posture ourselves?

Q:  How heavily does the instability in Venezuela, kind of, shape the decision right now as to what sort of resources SOUTHCOM might need?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I guess the bigger focus is the NDS, for (inaudible) specifically, spotlighting Venezuela right now.  China is involved there.  Russia is involved there.  I think it gives credence to the notion that clearly, Russia and China are in South America.  So that's what I want to look at, is to understand what -- what is he seeing on the ground?  His -- and his -- his folks are deeper into the -- into Latin America.

Q:  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  Then, how do we support competition?  Again, there's only a finite number of dollars, a finite number of troops, so I've got to figure out, where is the best place to put them?  I've articulated in the past that I want to either return forces to the States to improve their readiness, or redeploy others to the INDOPACOM AOR to help us there specifically.  But I also know it's a global competition.

Q:  Along those lines, AFRICOM was, kind of, the first that’s being looked at.  I don't know if he's going to finalize on that, but we've already seen members of Congress, including the chairmen of the HASC and SASC, come out, at the very least cautioned against leaving troops out there.

Are you at all concerned that that reaction is a sign that some of the changes they're trying to (inaudible) are going to be removed?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, every -- everything -- everything you do has some type of folks questioning and having concerns.  And, you know, they're -- we haven't talked to them yet in detail about what we're looking at.  Frankly, no decisions have been made.

But I said for my nomination, my aim was to implement the National Defense Strategy.  Everybody knows what that is, everybody should know largely what that looks like.  I've talked to members of Congress several times.

And -- now once we get through the reviews of AFRICOM, at the appropriate place and time, I will -- I will update Congress as well.

But my next meeting with AFRICOM is Friday, so that will be another chance to -- to, kind of, dig into what they're doing.  Again, same thing, questions, what do they see on the ground, what are they sensing, what's the best allocation?

Mission number one is compete with Russia and China.  So that's one of the things that I'll be looking at for sure.

Q:  Given the congressional concerns that have been raised already about the processing being done, does that change how you, kind of, talk to Congress about it?  Or are you trying to make them understand what you're trying to do here?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, yeah.  We -- you know, I talk a lot to Congress, either -- to the committees or to individual members, and I do try and talk to the ranking members and chairs as often as I can.

Like I said, I think they're just expressing their concern, which I appreciate.  And like I said, as we work our way through this process, we will consult and let them know what's going on.  I hope we meet with chairs and rankings next week, in fact, just discuss the broad array of issues that I'm looking at right now.

Q:  Kind of off that, I mean, proposals that -- you know, again, they're just proposals, but involve withdrawing from -- you know, scaling down from West Africa. I mean, how do you weigh the -- I guess the fight in West Africa versus the fight in East Africa against Shabaab?  I mean, how do you, kind of, confront -- how do you look at the two?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, that's part of what we're going through right now.

One metric I've laid out is, is I want to make sure, as we look at counterterrorism, that I, first and foremost, am addressing threats to the homeland.  That's my first priority.  So I want to understand that.

Q:  And then in Afghanistan, we've, kind of, moved along in the peace negotiations there.  I mean, I know (inaudible) diplomat-led, but you know, kind of, where -- where do you see it going and how does it sit -- sit with you, going forward?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, again, our purpose right now is to make sure -- make sure that Afghanistan never becomes a threat or a safe haven for terrorists threatening the United States.  And the second part of that mission is train, advise and assist with the ANDSF.

We'll continue those missions.  I am convinced, because I've talked to commanders, I've visited there, that we can accomplish those missions at lower force levels.


Q:  What are our force levels?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, you've heard that 8,600 number out there, that's one number that we've talked about.  But I'm confident we can go to that number and not -- and not affect our mission.

Q:  Are -- are we at that number, or --

SEC. ESPER:  No, we're not at that number.

Q:  Where -- where are we?

SEC. ESPER:  We're not at that number right now.

Q:  This one's, kind of, a (inaudible) question, but a few lawmakers sent you a letter last week, asking about the contamination levels at the Uzbek base where forces were after 9/11, because the base itself had radiation, chemical weapons.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  Have you had a chance to begin that review in response, or your staff (inaudible) that response to the lawmakers' questions?

SEC. ESPER:  I haven't seen that letter yet --

(UNKNOWN):  (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  There you go.  So.

Q:  I figured, but.  And then separately.

SEC. ESPER:  I get a lot of letters.

Q:  I -- I would assume you do.

Speaking of a letter, 31 Democrats sent you a letter yesterday about the border wall funding and the $7.2 billion programming.  Because you're having to shift resources and, kind of, make hard decisions, how can you make the argument to them that there's $7.2 billion to reprogram for the wall?  They're -- they're asking for the justification for it.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, the first mission of the -- the DOD is -- is protection of the homeland.  The -- the mission on the southwest border is a -- is a -- is a security mission, and the president's declared it a national emergency, and as DHS needs support, we will support DHS.

So we -- we -- we went through this last year.  Congress had the chance to provide DHS with the funding they need to build the southwest border, and they chose not to, but also gave the president -- the president the means by which to -- to do the intra-government transfers.

Q:  The (inaudible) has been making the argument right now, the president's declaration of a national emergency, if they took that declaration away would this request be justifiable? 

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I -- that's a -- that's a legal question.  I'd have to dig back into -- I'd have to come back to you with the answer on that.

But again, it's a security issue.  We recognize that it's as such that -- Chairman Dunford* recognizes it as such, so.

Q:  (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER:  (inaudible)

Q:  No, I was going to ask, if the Coronavirus still not an issue (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  It's just -- I just saw it on the news last night, so I'm not tracking that.

Q:  Thanks.

SEC. ESPER:  I mean, I'm sure my people, in terms of working it out (inaudible).  One person, affected in the United States (inaudible).

Q:  The budget comes out in a couple of weeks.  It's the first budget since you've taken over.  I assume it will have a lot to do with the NDS, but can you preview a little bit thematically, and areas (inaudible), like, R&D to increase, perhaps?

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.

I mean, obviously, I -- when I was confirmed in late July -- and, of course, by that time, the services had already built their budgets.

Q:  Right.

SEC. ESPER:  So I had -- I had some ability to affect the direction, but not as much as I will have the next go around.

So I mean, the bottom line is I -- I think when we look at our defense-wide review, we found over $5 billion.  That money is going into -- into lethality and readiness and stuff like that.  So I think that's something that -- that we can take ownership of, and I think that's -- I'm not sure that's been done in the past.

So the priorities are going to be as we've discussed before.  You know, the -- the strategic deterrent is number one.  So resources put in there.  Resources put into space, resources put into the modern weapons we need for future fights such as hypersonics, A.I., directed energy -- things like that.

So thematically, that's what you'll see, is this continued pivot to the capabilities that we need for the -- for strategic competition today and in the future, again, (inaudible) had another question.

STAFF:  And I'm getting the wrap sign.  One more question, because we've got to land.

Q:  Yeah.  Why are you so hesitant to disclose how many troops are in Afghanistan?  I thought that's, kind of, like a well-known thing.

SEC. ESPER:  If it's well known, then you wouldn't need to ask me.

Q:  Well, that's (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I don't -- I don't give -- I follow (inaudible).  General Mattis had a policy:  We just don't talk specific troop numbers where we have, wherever they are, so I follow that.

STAFF:  So you just (inaudible).  We don't give specific numbers.

Q:  Well, then what’s the range?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it's -- it's 12 to 13.

Q:  Okay.  That -- all right.

STAFF:  Is that sufficient?

Q:  Yeah, that -- that's sufficient.  Yeah, I just (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Okay.

STAFF:  Then we'll get you guys more time later.  I'm sorry.  They're (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Okay, thanks, folks.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

[*Eds. Note: The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is Army Gen. Mark Milley.]