Transcript

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

Jan. 30, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Okay.  Good morning, everyone.

I'd like to begin by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the three American service members who recently lost their lives in the line of duty.

Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Voss and Capt. Ryan Phaneuf were killed on January 27th in an aircraft accident in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.  We have conducted recovery operations and are investigating the cause of the crash.  And we thank our Afghan partners for their assistance.

On January 24th, Army Spc. Antonio Moore died in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria, during a rollover accident while conducting route-clearing operations.

We honor the service and sacrifice of these three men.  And our thoughts are with their family and their friends.

I'd also like to provide an update on several other fronts, beginning with the coronavirus.  The department is providing housing support at March Air Reserve Base in California to assist Health and Human Services in caring for the nearly 200 State Department employees, dependents and U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China.

I want to thank our men and women for their rapid response and assistance in this important effort.  DOD personnel are not in direct contact with the evacuees, nor will the evacuees have access to any other locations on base outside of their assigned housing.

The Department of Defense continues to work closely with our interagency partners as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority.

With regard to another personnel issue, the department will be providing an update on TBI [traumatic brain injury] numbers later today.  But I'd like to stress that we take this issue very seriously.  DOD is a leading contributor in the treatment and research of brain-related trauma.  We do everything we can to identify, treat and help our service members recover and return to duty.

Turning to news reports about possible troop reductions, I want to reiterate that our combatant command reviews are ongoing and no decisions have been made at this time.  As I've said before, we will ensure that any rebalancing of troops and resources is in line with our priorities under the National Defense Strategy.

Meanwhile, we remain in close consultation with our allies and partners on this and other matters of shared interest.

I would add that the chairman and I had the chance also to do -- to update the chairman and ranking members of the defense committees this week on this issue and several others.

Today in Bahrain, the International Maritime Security Construct conducted a change of command between U.S. Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey and U.K. Commodore James Parkin.

The IMC -- SC is committed to ensuring the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, through which over 17,000 ships and one-sixth of global oil production pass each year.  We welcome Commodore Parkin to this vital endeavor, which represents an international solution to an international problem.

Earlier this week, I hosted the French minister of Armed Forces here at the Pentagon, as you all know, for a productive discussion about bolstering our long-standing defense relationship and encouraging other European allies to do more in Africa and the Middle East.

Tomorrow, I will welcome the Italian minister of defense to talk about burden-sharing and strengthening our cooperation through the Defeat-ISIS Coalition.

And next month, I will attend the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels to further engage with my European counterparts on the future of our readiness and collective security.  I look forward to discussion NATO's expanded role in the Middle East and the importance of alliance unity as we adapt our force to an era of great power competition.

With that, I'll turn it over to Chairman Milley.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY:  Thanks, Secretary.

I don't have an opening statement, but before we get to questions, I want to echo what the secretary said about Col. Voss and -- for his family -- his family, and -- and also for Capt. Phaneuf and -- and for Spc. Moore.  There's no greater loss for any family than the loss of a loved one, and our thoughts and prayers from all of us in uniform are extended to -- to their families.  The -- the remains will be brought back, as you know, to Dover tonight for a dignified transfer ceremony, and the secretary and others will -- will be up there for the event.  So our thoughts and prayers are with the family.

And with that, we'll take the questions.

STAFF:  Bob Burns.

Q:  Thank you.  Question for each of -- of you, if I may.

Mr. Secretary, on coronavirus, are there precautions that you're making or preparing to make with regard to U.S. personnel in, for example, Vietnam or other areas of the -- areas in Asia or Europe, to get ahead of this?  And...

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, I approved a -- a directive that will go out today from OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] apprising our forces about precautions they should take, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the virus, et cetera.  That will be first of probably a few -- again, force protection for our service members, our civilians and their families is a priority, so we want to make sure we stay front of it in -- with regard to information, and then other precautions that will be taken.  I know the INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific] command will also be taking measures, given that -- that this virus is emanating from the theater, so they will be providing additive information, as well.

Q:  Gen. Milley, if I may ask you a question on Iraq and the -- the TBI issue that the secretary raised.  Are there additional or different precautionary measures that can be taken -- should be taken to -- to mitigate blast exposure for troops in -- in this kind of instance or others?  And also, on TBI, as a person who's had extensive experience in the field in -- in war zones, you've seen a lot of things.  Have you seen the manifestation of -- of these kind of concussive injuries that -- that show themselves in behavioral problems, to the extent that people have to be removed from the -- from the field?

GEN. MILLEY:  Yeah, thanks for the question, Bob.

The short answer is yes and yes.  There are a wide variety of extensive experiments in designs and things like helmet design, et cetera.  There's a lot of treatment therapies that were due.  As you know, we -- we put in the MACE test quite a few years ago.  We really started manifesting, I'd say, probably about 10 ago, where we began a -- a series of -- of mitigation actions within the force.  The MACE test is one of them, where they -- we immediately test within the first 24 to 48 hours -- start testing people on neurological symptoms, asking them questions, putting them through some physical exams, et cetera, et cetera.

In this case, as you know, there were thousands of people at the Al Asad Air Base.  Those that were within the distance of the -- of the blast -- these were, you know, 1,000, 2,000 bomb munitions that were coming in with heavy over-pressure, et cetera.  All of those people were screened, and we've got a certain number, and the number's growing.

In this particular case, TBI, that manifests -- it takes some time to manifest itself.  It's not an immediate thing, necessarily.  Some cases, it is, some cases it's not.  So we continue to screen.  Some of them have been evacuated to Europe.  Some of them have been evacuated back to the United States.  So there's a -- there's a layered approach to this; we'll continue to do that with our medical professionals.

In terms of mitigations, in -- you know, the first thing is to mitigate from the actual shrapnel and the blast to prevent physical injury in the sense of, you know, wounds resulting in loss of limbs, et cetera, and that requires early warning, which happened; getting under cover, which happened; dispersal, getting into safe areas, and so on.  All of that is what prevented killed in action, and very seriously-injured, such as amputations, et cetera.

But the TBI piece is different.  Your brain is a very fragile part of your body, even though it's encased inside your -- your skull.  But the over-pressures and -- and the injuries to the brain, the unseen wounds of war, for example, those can be -- be -- be serious, or they can be not so serious.  It depends on the individual.  It depends on the proximity to the blast.  And sometimes they are lifelong, sometimes they resolve themselves within weeks or months.  So it's constant monitoring, and we take a lot of measures within the military to make sure that we screen those out.

In terms of mitigation in the future, as we do that, we're -- we're -- we partner with various organizations and health organizations to try to develop not only therapies, but also preventive measures, things like -- like helmets, for example.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  And one thing I would add is, you know, as Army Secretary, I'm sure the chairman would recall when he was chief, we were working, spending quite a bit of time and resources to understand how we can either change the composition of our helmets or the design, so it could either divert a concussion or absorb it to deflect it.  And as I had travelled throughout the Army, meeting at least with our research labs to understand that.  I think the Army is -- the service, the military is a leader on this issue.  We've partnered, the Army did, at least, with the NFL, to understand this, and it's something we have to continue to working on -- work on.  It's very important, and we have to make sure that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have all the protections they need to, you know, to fight and survive and -- and win and recover quickly in -- in military operations.

GEN. MILLEY:  And, Bob, you asked -- the second part of your question was, does it manifest some in behavioral health?  Well, in -- in some cases, absolutely, yes.  It can trans -- it can become post-traumatic stress.  It can become a wide variety of behavioral/health issues when you do damage to the brain.

Q:  Are you seeing it in this case?

GEN. MILLEY:  It's -- right now, it's too early to tell.  The diagnosis we have so far for all the -- all of the folks that have been diagnosed to date is mild traumatic brain injury.  That's the diagnosis that has been reported to us so far.

SEC. ESPER:  And I -- I -- I -- I'm sorry.  This is just a -- it's a good topic.  We are still learning.  There's a lot more to be learned about these injuries.  We're putting a lot of money into research.  It effects us not just on the battlefield, but look, our - our service members get hurt during training, as well.  They get hurt during, you know, all types of activities.  So we need understand how the brain is affected by -- by injuries to it, whether it's from a concussive blast or other things.  So it's an important field of research we need to continue to work on.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Idrees.

Q:  If I could stick with TBI, actually.  When -- when you saw the payload of the missiles and how close they came to some of the shelters, at that point, did you expect that there would be TBI, or is that something that surprised both of you?

GEN. MILLEY:  For me, it's not a surprise.  This is -- is -- concussive injuries is a result of any explosive device that goes off.  You can get concussive injuries from hitting your head, from falling, from parachute jumps, et cetera.  So, no, it's not necessarily a surprise.

What we do when -- when we're in contact with the enemy -- we're in a firefight, incoming mortars, rockets, theater ballistic missiles or anything, the very first thing you're focusing on is life and limb.  So when we say "reported casualties," we're really talking about killed in action and -- and serious injuries like loss of limbs.

The TBI manifests itself over time.  It's not necessarily instantaneous.  So not a surprise, necessarily, but the focus immediately is loss of life and limb.

Q:  Just to go on, in retrospect, do you think it would have been better or more forthcoming if you had not initially said there were no injuries?  And -- and do you think the president saying, "They're just headaches," minimizes, sort of, the injuries and TBI?

SEC. ESPER:  The chairman and I spent most the night going over casualties and understanding what happened on the ground with Gen. McKenzie and others.  I think the reporting was accurate.  At that time, as reported, there were no casualties, as -- as -- as the chairman just defined it.

I think, again, over time you learn things and you -- you -- you get reports.  And as we predicted, when the first reports came in several days later, that there would likely be more and more, because I think these things, the TBI manifests itself over time.  So I think we did our best to report no casualties, and I still believe that there were -- that morning, there were no casualties reported.

STAFF: (inaudible)

Q:  Secretary Esper, why have you not moved the Patriot missile batteries into Iraq?  What's the holdup?

And, Gen. Milley, do you need Patriots to protect those bases?  Would they have been able to intercept those ballistic missiles?

SEC. ESPER:  I'll let the chairman speak to the particulars of how the commander positions his forces, et cetera.  But one of the things we need to do is make sure we have permission from the host government, and that's one of the matters we have to work on and work through.

Q:  So they're being held up right now by the Iraqis?

SEC. ESPER:  We need the permission of the Iraqis, that's one issue.  There may be others with regard to placement and things like that, at a more tactical, more operational.  So, it's a combination of things.

GEN. MILLEY:  We're working with the Iraqi government in order to do exactly what you just suggested.  There's mechanical pieces, the science of war, so to speak, of actually moving and bringing in -- Patriot batteries -- a Patriot battalion is not a small organization, it's relatively large.  So the mechanics of it all have to be worked out and that is, in fact, ongoing.

In terms of would-have, should-have, could-have, in terms of if there was a Patriot battalion at Al Asad or Irbil or whatever, could they have shot down these TBMs?  That's what they're designed to do, can't say for certain, obviously, whether in that case, at those altitudes and those ranges, et cetera, if that would have happened.  But that is exactly what they're designed to do, is to shoot down incoming theater ballistic missiles.

Q:  But you do feel you need them?

GEN. MILLEY:  Yes.

SEC. ESPER:  The commander feels he needs them, and our intent is to assess the commander’s requests and determine whether we fill them or not.  In this case, we support the commander …

STAFF:  Luis.

SEC: ESPER: … given what happened.

Q:  Going back to the question on TBI, the president did say that these wounds were not serious, and he characterized them as headaches.  Could I ask both of you, what do you make of those comments?  And given that in your opening statement, you said that the department takes it very seriously, how is that at odds with the department's views?

SEC. ESPER:  I've had the chance to speak with the president.  He is very concerned about the health and welfore -- welfare of all of our service members, particularly those who were involved in the operations in Iraq, and he understands the nature of these injuries.

GEN. MILLEY:  And I would say, there's three categories of wounded in action that we've had for years.  One is VSI, very serious -- and you're probably all familiar with this -- very serious injured; one is S.I., serious injured; and one is NSI, not serious injured.

And, in this case, the reporting to date indicates mild TBI, which would be in the category of not serious injured.  That doesn't mean they're not injured, and it doesn't mean to the individual.  But in the categories that we categorize wounded in action, these individuals are in the NSI category at this time.

That's not to minimize or dismiss or anything, that's just to say that that's how we categorize casualties.

Q:  So would you say that the president is now better informed than he was when he made those comments?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to comment on that.  I think for many people, this is a learning process and we are -- we are sending teams, briefers to the Hill, if you will.  We're going to have a conversation with many Hill staff today.  I think we need to update Hill staff, members of Congress to understand what TBI injuries are.

They are -- again, this is something we've come to learn about -- the chairman can speak more fluently on it -- over the past 10, 15 years, as we've seen IED attacks on our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.  So, again, this is an injury we need to keep educating everybody about:  the Hill, you, all of you, the American people.  And even myself.  It's a learning process for many of us.

GEN. MILLEY:  Yes.  Some of these -- some of these injuries that, right now, are called "mild TBI," and they're in the NSI category, that might change.  These things are cumulative, too.  So if you get multiple concussions, that can manifest itself down the road.  It could be a year, two years.  So it could – what – what Bob was talking about in terms of behavioral health.

So this -- we're early in the stage of diagnosis, we're early in the stage of therapy for these troops.  We'll continue to monitor them the rest of their lives, actually, and -- and continue to provide whatever treatment is necessary.  And we take great pride in the fact that these are our own and we're going to take care of them.

SEC. ESPER:  The key is to take care of our service members, treat them, not just the immediate, the acute, but also through the -- through their lifetime of service and beyond, and make sure we're doing everything we can to prevent injuries in the future through new helmet designs, other ways by which we can protect them.  And that's -- that's what we're committed to doing.   

STAFF:  (inaudible)

Q:  Hi, sir.  I just have a quick clarification and then a separate question.

Just on the International Maritime Security Construct that you mentioned, that you're changing command and the commander's going to be a U.K. commodore.  Can you just clarify, my I understanding was that this was a U.S.-led effort, is it now a U.K.-led effort, or is there something that I'm missing?

And then my -- my separate question is, the commanders of AFRICOM [Africa Command] and SOUTHCOM [Southern Command] are on the Hill this morning, and lawmakers have raised some concerns about the possible drawdown on those continents, and worries that this will allow the Chinese influence to grow there.  So can you just explain how reducing our footprint in Africa will help better posture the U.S. to counter China?

SEC. ESPER:  On the first thing, it's -- we've described it as a U.S.-led effort, the IMSC, but clearly, we have many partners.  And I think the fact that we have the U.K. willing to step up and take leadership of the IMSC in particular shows that it's an international effort and we're all committed to it.  This is part and parcel what we do in other theaters, if you will.

On the second point -- and I said this -- some of you travel with me to SOUTHCOM -- I know the -- I know the inclination is whenever somebody says, "review," the word that automatically pops up in our head is "reduction," right?  There will -- when we do reviews, I like to say it's -- it is a rebalancing, if you will, a right-sizing.  In some cases, we will increase; in some cases, we won't change; in some cases, we will decrease.

I think in the context of great power competition, as I mentioned to the leaders of the Defense Committee this week, I'm placing, at the top of the list, the commands need to be able to conduct their war plans and contingency plans.

Next, below that, is great power competition.  Those -- and when it comes to great power competition, those are areas in both AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM that I'm looking at increasing our posture, not necessarily reducing our posture.

So I want to make sure that we compete, first and foremost -- when it comes to the NDS [National Defense Strategy] -- in the respective theaters, but it's also a global competition with Russia and China, and we need to make sure that we're well-postured to deal with them, as appropriate, wherever we may find that presence.

Q:  Just to clarify, though, so you said you're looking at potentially increasing force presence in Africa, not decreasing?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, adjusting the presence, right?  Adjusting numbers and how we allocate the personnel more toward global great power competition.  And maybe less towards CT [counterterrorism].

Q:  So -- oh, okay, okay.

Can you -- can you say for a fact that you're not going to totally withdraw U.S. forces from Africa?

SEC. ESPER:  We're not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa.  Economy of force doesn't mean complete withdrawal from any -- any continent.  And we do economy of force in various locations, and it's an important distinction to make, and I've never said it.

Again, I know that's the concern of many folks.  But, again, I'd say no decisions have been made yet.  This is a process.  I had AFRICOM in last week.  What they presented with me raised many other questions that have been tasked out, and I think this is going to be an iterative process with them.

I began the process last week as well with SOUTHCOM, and that will be -- that will go on.  These things take time.  But at the end of the day, I want to make sure that our commands are aligned to the National Defense Strategy.

And, again, that first begins with ability to execute their war plans, contingency plans.  Second is great power competition.  And then third, depending on the theater, different tasks, right?  In AFRICOM, it's -- CT is important.  In SOUTHCOM, counter-drug's important.  So we've got to make sure that we're appropriately prioritizing, and allocating and positioning forces appropriate to the mission, and appropriate to everything else we have to do as the Department of Defense in the world, okay?

STAFF: Kevin Barron.

Q:  There's been a report this morning on CNN, that there's going to be a policy change on personnel landmines.  Can you confirm the report and give us a reason of why the change now, and does this mean that there will be anti-personnel landmines specifically outside of Korea?

SEC. ESPER:  There will be a change coming out.  I'm not going to comment on it until it is.

STAFF:  Barbara?

Q:  Gen. Milley, I wanted to take you back to the question on mitigation measures for TBI, and especially in Iraq.  So, yes, Patriots, but you can't put Patriots everywhere.  Improvement in the helmet.  But Iran has, you know, managed to injure 50 to 60 American forces through the use of ballistic missiles.

So now that you look back, lessons learned from this event?  It seems to be an extraordinary not-happened-before kind of thing.  Do you need to -- you knew -- and the Pentagon knew that ballistic missiles were a threat.

Should there be -- should there have been stronger bunkers, stronger facilities designed for that intense blast wave, rather than facilities designed just for rockets and mortars?  Is –- is -- is -- should somebody have thought –- have thought about having stronger defenses since you didn't have Patriot missiles?

And can I ask you, you've both mentioned helmets.  Would helmets be -- stronger helmets have made a difference against a ballistic missile blast wave?

GEN. MILLEY:  On the helmets, this is a general comment about mitigating TBI writ large, okay?  Not -- look, a theater ballistic missile that were fired, these were 1,000 to 2,000-pound munitions.  These things have bursting radiuses of 50 to 100 feet, and that's just the shrapnel in the actual blast.  These are very, very significant, serious weapons.

And -- and in -- you know, if you're within a certain range of that thing, there's no helmet or anything else that's going to -- that's going to save you.

But I would argue that the defenses did work, in that no one was killed, and there were no loss of life or limb.  That's significant.  So -- and there were people within range of these things.  You saw the impact -- I think you saw the impact -- points of impact of these missiles.

They were in areas -- and that's still my contention, even today -- that the intent was not only to destroy facilities and equipment, but also to kill people.  And the fact that no one was killed or no one lost limbs, I think that is significant and it speaks, I think, volumes to early warning systems, also to SOPs [standing operating procedures] and scatter plans, and also to the defensive preparations that were done.

Could there be improvements?  Absolutely, yes, and we're taking a hard look at all of that, to include bringing in ballistic missile defense that Jennifer was talking about.

Q:  Can you point -- if you're able to -- besides Patriots, can you talk about any of the other things that look promising to you for additional defenses -- mitigation against ballistic missiles?

GEN. MILLEY:  I'd actually prefer not to talk about that, to talk about what we plan to do in the future in terms of defense or offense, for that matter, in order to defend against any countries' capabilities.  So we'll leave the future to the future.

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

Q:  One follow-up on that.  Are you -- are you looking at any other missile defense or any other kinds of defenses to go into Iraq besides the Patriots?  So not just in -- against missile threats, but there have been problems with drones, other issues...

GEN. MILLEY:  There's a wide variety of tactical capabilities that we have that we will employ, that we'll introduce in various theaters based on the commander's requests and the enemy situation.

To go into any specific capability that we're going to put into Iraq or any other country, I'd prefer to leave that unanswered.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  But you are saying that you've requested of the Iraqi government to bring the Patriots in?

Can I ask just one more on Iraq, too?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  We need to go, thank you.

Q:  It's a quick one on troop numbers.

SEC. ESPER:  You -- you asked your question, so thanks, Courtney.

STAFF:  We'll get you an answer, Courtney.  Thank you.