Transcript

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper Press Availability in Brussels, Belgium

Feb. 13, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  I just want to give you all some color (on the ads ?) with regard to the appointment of the first SFAB to -- to Africa.  Because I know there's a lot of interest in it.

So, as you all know, I've been saying for months I'm looking at the COCOM reviews through the lens of the NDS, the -- the National Defense Strategy. And, so for me, as I've said, I want to make sure that the commands can first execute their war plans, contingency plans, and then next be able to do great power competition.

So in this case, the commander had been asking, had asked about the deployment of the SFAB.  He thinks it's a better fit than what we currently do, what we currently provide him, with regard to the train, advise and assist mission.  And I agree with him.  And -- but there's a double benefit here.

So on one hand, deployment of the SFAB allows that we can deploy troops who are specifically organized, trained and equipped to do the train, advise and assist mission.  I know this because we stood them up during my time as Secretary of the Army, and I had the chance to visit the first SFAB at least once during their time in Afghanistan.

At the same time, what it allows us to do, consistent with the NDS, is to return elements of the 101st Airborne Division back to the United States, right, so that they can -- so that they can train for high-intensity conflict; they can prepare for that important NDS mission, as a brigade.

So what it allows me to do is it frees up over -- collectively, to train -- over 4,000 troops, to -- to do their training back in the United States.

So for me, it's a -- it's a good way forward.  It allows me to do the great power competition on the continent with specifically trained troops and return conventional troops back to the United States again to focus on their high-intensity mission.

So this is the first of many decisions I will make with regard to the AFRICOM review.  And we'll make those over time, as more information comes in.  I think I told you all a few weeks ago Gen. Townsend had -- had come back to me for a second time.  That raised more questions and things to go out to the team to answer.  They're due back to me in, I think, a few weeks now.

So this is the first decision.  I just want to put it out there.  I was anxious to move forward on this one because, the sooner I can get specialized troops in and conventional troops out, to do their NDS missions, the better we are for it in terms of preparedness and readiness.  OK?

Q:  So it's a net reduction?  Because you mentioned 4,000 coming out --

SEC. ESPER:  No.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  No, this is, kind of, the math that you guys are -- the Pentagon press is pretty savvy.  So this is one of these where it's roughly the same number of troops on the continent.  But when you return the conventional troops, the elements of the 101st back to Fort Campbell -- that's my old unit, so I know this pretty well -- they can now train as a brigade, high-intensity conflict, which is brigade -- often battalion-brigade-level operations.

So what it does is it frees that brigade now to focus on its war-fighting mission.

Q:  So it's a net wash in terms of the numbers --

SEC. ESPER:  Roughly.  I wouldn't say it's dramatic.  I'd have to, kind of, dig into the numbers --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- it's a net wash for the continent.  What about for the Sahel specifically?

SEC. ESPER:  We haven't gotten to West Africa yet.  This is for the continent, for the train, advise and assist mission for great power competition.  The Sahel is principally a CT [counterterrorism] mission.

Now, there's elements of -- of great power competition in there because of, you know, it builds rapport and relationship. But the Sahel, in my mind, is largely a CT mission.  We will get to that.

Again, we have some outstanding issues.  I will be talking to the French defense minister again either today -- she and I are going to try and chat today, or at Munich.  But we'll see.  That's going to -- we've got a few more steps to go on that.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you say where -- which countries these forces would be coming --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  No, not at this time.  I -- I think, you know, we have some spotlight countries, as we call them, down there, where we want to either build or sustain important relationships.  And so that's the guidance I've given the commander, to focus on those great -- great power competition areas.

Q:  And then Chairman Inhofe issued a statement immediately after the news, saying that while he's welcomed the deployment of the SFAB, he was not happy to see the -- the withdrawal of the additional forces.

Are you worried that there's going to be, kind of, resistance to this move in Congress?

SEC. ESPER:  I haven't seen Senator Inhofe's comments.  He's a big supporter of the National Defense Strategy, so until I have a chance to talk to him and hear what he has to say, I'll withhold comment.

Q:  In terms of the great power competition, you didn't say specifically which countries but where do you see that being played out in Africa?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, well, it's -- I mean --

Q:  -- the most important countries were --

SEC. ESPER:  Again, I'm not going to put a finger on countries right now because there are a number of them and we can come back to you later on that one.  But it's not focused on one particular region, I know that much.  It's spread around the continent.

Q:  You mentioned bringing them back to train for the high-end fight against China --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, yeah.

Q:  -- but there's a fight for influence on the continent right now --

SEC. ESPER:  Right.

Q:  -- so how are you addressing that?

SEC. ESPER:  The -- the SFABs are specifically designed to do that train, advise and assist mission, which we know partner countries there want.  It -- it enables them to train, advise and assist, whether it's to some degree fighting insurgencies or doing CT work or doing conventional military training.  Again, these teams are organized, trained and equipped to do this mission.

Q:  And the CT fight that you said you're not there yet, you're working through that?

SEC. ESPER:  Yep.

Q:  We were on the continent last year, and the -- this commander from Special Operations Forces said that the U.S. wasn't winning in West Africa, its allies weren't winning.  Will that be taken into consideration?  Is it a possibility that you would put more troops to help with the counterterrorism fight?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not looking to put more troops in that fight.  The French are.  The French have come up to -- come to a similar assessment, that's why they are sending more troops in and that -- why they are assessing the situation on the ground.  They are asking for the European partners to provide more help.  I've encouraged the European partners to provide more as well.

What I'm looking to do is to deal with CT threats -- CT threats that are -- that threaten the homeland.  And that's one of the -- part of the assessment is evaluating what those threats are, what level they present to the homeland.

Q:  And since you mentioned that, al-Shabaab has been identified by AFRICOM officials as the one that wants to attack the homeland.  So how are we --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'm not sure where you got that -- I'm not sure where you got that information.

Q:  You disagree with that, then?

SEC. ESPER:  I have not seen a final assessment on that.

Q:  I don't mean to get into minutia, but I'm just trying to explain this to readers.  Can you give us a sense in terms of roughly how many numbers from the 101st are coming off the continent, and as I remember the SFAB is about 300, am I -- is that the number going in?

SEC. ESPER:  No, SFAB is around 850 people total.  So the whole SFAB won't deploy at once, because what we need to do is plan for a sustainable presence so you can rotate persons from the SFAB without burning it out, without breaking it, if you will.

Q:  Sure.

SEC. ESPER:  And then I said, the infantry brigade from the 101st is over 4,000 people, I'm told.  And -- but there aren't --

Q:  They're not all there --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Most of them aren't -- yeah, most of them aren't there either.  But if you're going to train and fight for high-intensity conflict, you need the entire brigade to do that, yeah.

Q:  No, I appreciate that.  I don't -- again, I don't mean to get into minutia, I'm just trying to -- if I can say to a reader, this many troops are leaving, this many troops are coming in.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  I don't have the exact numbers, and I hesitate to give the exact number.  It's in the low hundreds, I think, but it -- but I don't want to give you a number because I don't recall right now.  And once people get hooked on a number, you can't unhook them from a number, right?

Q:  Low hundreds there, or going in, or both?

SEC. ESPER:  Definitely going in.

Q:  OK.  And then I wonder --

SEC. ESPER:  A couple hundred or so.

Q:  Couple hundred.  Forgive me if you addressed this in the past, but you know, this is Africa -- the issue about troops in Africa, kind of one of the few that sort of draws bipartisan interest, right?  And -- and support for keeping troops there.

And I was wondering if you could address why this is something that you're willing to sort of go up against, like -- senators like Inhofe and Graham.  It seems like -- I'd just like to hear your explanation about why you think this is such an important issue, given the sort of bipartisan pushback.

SEC. ESPER:  I've yet -- I've yet to find an issue that I've had to deal with that hasn't attracted some attention from the Hill.  This is AFRICOM; it's first because I had been fluent -- more fluent in AFRICOM during my visit there as Secretary of the Army and whatnot, and -- and they had some requests on the table.

When I get to SOUTHCOM, you will see similar interest from other members.  That's fine, that's good, we need to explain that and tell the story.  But there is widespread, bipartisan support on the Hill to implement the NDS.  This is what NDS implementation looks like.

It began under my predecessor, Secretary Mattis, who identified certain theaters as economy of force.  He -- he had not yet got to the implementation phase, and now I'm getting to the implementation phase.

Q:  Can I give you a chance to clarify?  Because --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, yeah.

Q:  -- I just want to go back -- because I know you said you hadn't seen that al-Shabaab would like to attack the (inaudible), but Gen. Townsend has mentioned in the couple of press releases that he's done, I think he also mentioned it on the Hill.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'm -- I'm just talking -- going to get into intel with you.  Again, that's unclear and -- and I'll just leave it at that.

Q:  You said that you wanted to encourage European countries to do more in Africa.  Have you done that?  And has there been any positive --

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I've raised it broadly, but the French have -- have approached a number of countries directly and privately.  And I'll let you -- I'd refer -- obviously let them get detailed with you.

Q:  Sure.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah?

Q:  Sorry to ask you another numbers question, I just want to make sure I've got it right in my own head.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  You mentioned to Nancy that roughly a couple hundred are going in.  Would you say --

SEC. ESPER:  To the -- yeah, to the theater.

Q:  Yeah.  Roughly a few hundred or a couple hundred going out?  Or can you give anything --

SEC. ESPER:  I just can't recall, Bob, I'm sorry, off the top of my head.

Q:  -- because what you were saying, because of the (inaudible) --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  I'll be safe and say roughly the same.

Q:  Okay.

SEC. ESPER:  Maybe a little bit more.

STAFF:  We can double-check on that.

SEC. ESPER:  But -- but maybe a little bit more, I just don't -- I don't keep those numbers bouncing around in my head.

Q:  The -- the SFABs have been going to Afghanistan on a regular --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah.

Q:  -- is this going to impact kind of the nature of the forces that go to Afghanistan --

SEC. ESPER:  Not -- not that’s been raised to my level.  I mean, this is part of what we've got to do, it's sustainability.  I've still got too many units that are less than a 1:2 BOG [boots on the ground] to Dwell.

That's -- that's the reason why we're trying -- I'm trying to look at force structure in all these theaters, because we're burning out our units, whether they're, you know, Army for sure, other services are -- you know, certain units are facing the same challenges.  So I've got to get on a sustainable -- so somebody asked me about the number, I said, it has to be a sustainable presence that we can -- we can manage over time, so.

Q:  Can you -- could I ask maybe on background or whatever basis, you can help us understand where things stand with the big story of the week, which is Afghanistan?  Any aspect of --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  Is there anything else on SFAB?  Then we can go kind of off the record.

Q:  Yeah, that's fine.

SEC. ESPER:  OK.

STAFF:  Are -- would you rather do off the -- well, off the record --

SEC. ESPER:  Just go off the record.

STAFF:  Stop fine?  Yeah.

SEC. ESPER:  Because I -- I have yet to consult with all the allies and (inaudible).