Transcript

Remarks by Secretary Esper in a Joint Press Briefing With U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Wallace

March 5, 2020
Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper; United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Missing the aisle, I guess. Good afternoon, everyone, it's a pleasure to welcome Secretary Wallace to the Pentagon as we continue to strengthen the historic defense relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom.

For more than a century, our two nations have led the fight against tyranny and terrorism from Argonne to North Africa, from Afghanistan to Iraq. The United States is grateful for the UK's continue diplomatic, economic, and military leadership on the global stage.

As a steadfast NATO ally, the United Kingdom exceeds the two percent of GDP expenditure commitment and has been a powerful voice, encouraging other NATO members to contribute more to our shared defense, especially as the alliance considers expanding its role in the Middle East.

During today's meeting, we once again affirmed our shared commitment to the Defeat ISIS coalition and to supporting a sovereign, independent, and prosperous Iraq. On a similar front, we appreciate the UK's commitment to and now leadership of the International Maritime Security Construct as we work together to deter threats to global commerce and safeguard freedom of navigation in the Gulf region.

On Afghanistan, we will remain in close consultation as the peace process moves forward and the all important intra-Afghan negotiations commence. I reiterated to Secretary Wallace that the entire process will be conditions-based; and we will retain in Afghanistan the necessary capabilities to protect our service members and allies and support the Afghan Security Forces.

We will also ensure that any drawdown of U.S. forces is aligned with commensurate reductions by the UK and our other partners. For decades, the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has formed the cornerstone of the international rules-based order and it will remain equally important as we confront this era of great power competition.

In this respect, we look forward to contributing to the UK's integrated review as Britain, like the United States, realigns its military to the security challenges of the 21st century, particularly those posed by China. On this front, we had a candid discussion about the path ahead for the UK's 5G decision and agreed to work together to further reduce Huawei's presence in telecom infrastructure.

Intelligence sharing, particularly through the Five Eyes construct is one of the pillars of our defense cooperation. Opening critical allied networks to Chinese vendors that ultimately answer to the Communist Party could allow Beijing to access, disrupt, manipulate and misuse vital information, thus jeopardizing the integrity and strength of the NATO alliance.

We are committed to working with the UK on a way forward that results in the exclusion of untrusted vendor components from 5G networks. As we join together to address the security challenges of today while also preparing for the threats of tomorrow, I am confident that our longstanding alliance will only grow deeper and stronger.

Secretary Wallace, I look forward to continuing to work with you. Thanks again.

SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DEFENCE BEN WALLACE: Thank you, Mark. Can I just thank you, Mark, for the warm welcome you have given me here today at the Pentagon and indeed in supporting my visit -- the first visit here as Defense Secretary of the United Kingdom.

You know, I often ponder what is the, “special relationship”? And the special relationship is more than politics. It's not only that we have a special relationship between our two current administrations but it's actually because it's about deeper friendship and deeper working relationships.

You know, defense is the best example of that relationship with the United States. Soldiers, colonels, officers, admirals work every day side-by-side. We share operations, we share the same threat, we often share the same tasks, whether that's in the Strait of Hormuz, as we are right now, making sure we protect international shipping and upholding freedom of navigation, or whether that is on counterterrorism tasks elsewhere in the world. That's the real depth of our special relationship. 

I have seen this week projects that we worked upon together for 40 years and that is not something that ever changes. We will still be working together as the United States pivots towards Asia Pacific. We understand the threats that emanate from China. We don't take those threats lightly.

We're going to explore in our integrated defense, foreign policy, and security review the way forward to make sure that we are fit for the 21st century as a defense offering, that we use our place as one of NATO's biggest spenders and indeed one of the leaders in Europe on NATO to make sure that we are ready to face what threats come but also are ready to -- to deal with the threats of tomorrow, because that is one of the biggest challenges, that our adversaries, both in countries such as Russia and China, have managed over the last few years to examine our vulnerabilities, to study them, and in some cases exploit them, and we have not always been up to that challenge.

We're determined to do so, we'll do so with the help of the United States, we're very grateful for the help that we get but also we know that we can help contribute to the United States security in that deep partnership. Thank you very much.

STAFF: First question - Barbara Starr, CNN.

Q: Question -- different questions for both of you gentlemen. Minister, if I may ask you first, I -- I think you're aware there was an interesting letter in the Times this morning by several former senior British military leaders -- General Richards, General McCall, General Parker -- expressing their concern about the Afghanistan agreement, that there were -- it was done in haste, there were secret -- secrecy elements and they advised that they were worried British troops’ sacrifice could be -- must not be in vain, could be at risk.

I want to ask you in a moment your response to that. Do you worry about the sacrifice in vain for British troops? But Mr. Secretary, if I might first on the coronavirus outbreak, can you tell us with as much specificity as you can at this point how you can -- we know you're concerned about troop health but how do you keep the Pentagon open and running? What can you say to the workforce? What kind of measures are you looking at, should it come here, should you have to start doing contact tracing here? How do you keep the place open?

SEC. ESPER: Sure, big question. I'll -- I'll go first, so give Ben a chance to think about his answer. I spent 90 minutes this morning with our senior leaders and several of our combatant commanders to talk about all of our responses to coronavirus and how we stay ahead of the challenge.

I reinforced to them my three priorities. Number one, protecting our service members and their families. Number two, safeguarding our mission capabilities. And number three, supporting the interagency. And I'm assured by them, they feel confident that they have all of the authorities that they need and we're continuing to push more and more resources their way as they need them but they -- they are fairly in good shape at this point in time.

With that said, we did have a good conversation about the Pentagon and not just the Pentagon but other installations where -- where we have things. The Pentagon, Washington Headquarters Services and -- is in the throes of finalizing a plan, a proposal. It'll be presented to me next week. It'll look at prevention measures and mitigation measures, should we have somebody come up positive, if you will, or display symptoms, so some of the things we're considering that have been already proven out in -- in U.S. Forces Korea. 

Right now, we'd like to say General Abrams is the -- established a good model of -- of how to protect the forces. Simple things, like having teams wipe down doorknobs and coffee machines and stuff like that to prevent the spread, changing social interactions, contact, if you will, on a day to day basis, things we can begin now doing to -- to -- to prevent -- to try and prevent the spread.

But we've also got to look at travel -- there's a number of things. Those will be coming up to me next week and we should -- I -- I hope by the end of next week start putting in some measures to address prevention and then of course part of that plan will address mitigation, should we have somebody do that.

But with that said, we also reinforced the fact that we have a lot of capabilities in this building. Our -- you know, our National Military Command Center has the capability to go for weeks at a time if they have to be locked down inside the building, if we -- if we have some type of outbreak. 

So we're fully confident that we can continue to perform the functions that the Pentagon needs to perform if we have some type of outbreak in the building. Again, we don't have that yet -- knock wood -- we -- but we want to be prepared for everything and we're taking a variety of measures. 

Q: I'm sorry, I know you hate follow-up questions, but one has to ask. I guess the question is, in that planning, are you -- I had not thought of this -- are you committed to try and find a way to keep the press corps and the news media here, as you did on 9/11, so we can continue to report on the U.S. military? 

SEC. ESPER: I think the role of the press is vital to our democracy and vital to us speaking to the American people. So yes, we want to -- we want to do that. We want to do it smart, and we want to make sure -- again, I think the first thing would be is protection of -- I say in this context, our service members and their family. But protection of anybody who's working, visiting this building, OK?

Q: Thank you. 

STAFF: Sir? 

SEC. WALLACE: Look, I -- I read the letter. My colleagues, my friends, my regiment who went to Afghanistan, we did so to try and get peace, and we did so to try and rebuild that country. 

And I think the biggest betrayal to the young men and women of all the allies who lost their lives, would be to not try and achieve peace for the investment and the work that's been done. That's what this process is trying to achieve. 

I take reassurance from the fact that it's conditions-based. You know, this is not an unconditional process, this is a conditional process. And the Taliban and the other partners have to make sure they stick to that. I've discussed that with Secretary Esper on a number of occasions, the partners in NATO and other countries who have been engaged and I think we're on the right track. 

But we've got to take it day by day and week by week. We're going to make sure Taliban stand by their commitments, and we're going to deal with the other threats that there are in that country, it's not just about the Taliban. There's I.S. and other forces. 

So -- so let's take it one by one. I've read what they said, but those men and women gave their lives for peace for Afghanistan, and it is our duty to try and get it. 

STAFF: Next question to you, Josh Glancy at the Sunday Times. 

Q: Hi. For the minister, you said in an interview actually with our newspaper a few months ago, that it keeps you up at night, the thought of the U.S. sort of withdrawing from its role as a sort of global military power, and that Britain has to diversify and be willing to fight a war on its own without sort of U.S. support. 

So my question to you is, is can Britain still depend on the U.S. as its sort of most trusted and most important military ally and supporter? 

And my question for the secretary is related, which is, there's been a lot of reporting around D.C. recently, and it's a sort of common thing that's said, that France has actually supplanted Britain as Britain's most -- as America's most trusted military ally, the work they're doing in North Africa. Is that true? Is Britain still America's most trusted military ally and partner? 

SEC. ESPER: The U.K. is definitely our most trusted ally and partner. We have a special relationship that goes back quite a while, and the U.K. can always count on the United States to be there. 

SEC. WALLACE: Well, I'll mirror that. The answer earlier, given by Secretary Esper on the coronavirus, I could literally be saying the same thing if I was asked that question about how we're planning to deal with it. That's similar mindset, as well as similar capabilities in some areas, although at a different scale. 

Look, on -- on the interview I gave to the Sunday Times, I was asked what keeps you awake at night. You know, the U.S., the values it supports, its symbolism around the world is incredibly important. And for that to ever leave Europe, or for the U.S. to not be interested in the security of Europe, would be a big threat for us. 

And that wasn't saying that they are, it was saying that is something that is really, really important to our security, to our global security and the rules-based system that we both believe in. And so of course, we should always make sure we work to engage the United States in that issue. 

And the other part of the interview, about you know, being able to fight things on our own is, you know, we got quite a clear memo from the White House, which was quite right, which was don't take the U.S. for granted, you know? President Trump's done a lot of work with a number of the NATO allies about spending two percent of defense, and we hear that. 

And you know, the U.S. is going to pivot more to the Asia-Pacific. There are questions therefore about what burden we're going to take on, what we're going to share. And we think that's perfectly the right thing to do. 

And in sort of low-intensity or counterterrorism operations, where the threat is much more direct at us, we should always have that ability to be able to do what we need to do to defend the United Kingdom or other countries and our allies. And I think that's -- that is a perfectly legitimate aspiration that I think we've found ourselves not being able to do, and I would like to make sure that this integrated review deals with that issue so we can do more of those if necessary. 

Q: So just as a quick follow-up, does that mean increasing spending? Because there have been concerns on the American side that Britain's defense spending and therefore its capabilities simply aren't up to the task of projecting the power they might want to. 

SEC. WALLACE: Well, the 2.2 billion-pound settlement I got last year was a 2.6 percent real-term rise, in a department that's probably one of the highest of all the department increases, well above our manifesto pledge of 0.5 percent. 

And also, this integrated security and defense review will not be cost-neutral. So this will be about what is our foreign policy goals, how are we going to deliver foreign policy, how are we going to deliver security? And then we have the discussion with the Treasury, which is always exciting, later. 

SEC. ESPER: I'd just add, you don't have the great opportunity to hear me talk about this all the time, as our press corps does. But for nine months, I've been saying, look, don't misinterpret that somehow we are withdrawing from the -- from the globe. 

Because what I want to do is implement our National Defense Strategy, that says these are economy-of-force theaters, therefore either bring the United States troops home to retrain and refit, prepare for a global great power competition. And maybe reallocate to the Indo-Pacific region. That's what we're trying to do, that's what I'm trying to implement. 

It's not a withdrawal from the world, if you will. It's trying to implement our strategy, and I think it's one that we agree on, with regard to the challenges of the future being China, then Russia.

And, look, I'd point out the fact that right now, we have over 20,000 additional United States forces deployed to Europe for Defender 2020, to show the Russians that we're committed to Europe, we're committed to NATO and we're going to deter bad behavior. The first time we've done it in over 25 years, certainly since I was a soldier in the 1980s. 

So I think that alone is a great display of our commitment to NATO, and to maintaining and supporting international rules-based order. 

STAFF: Two more questions, but the minister is light on time so if we could keep them quick.

Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you. 

Mr. Secretary, Secretary Esper, the four-page peace agreement signed by the U.S. and the Taliban doesn't specifically say that the Taliban can't attack Afghan security forces. Can you clarify, have the Taliban agreed to not attack Afghan security forces? 

And Secretary Wallace, in the interview that my colleague mentioned, you raised concerns about the United States' reliability as an ally. Was Secretary Esper able to put those concerns to rest? 

SEC. WALLACE: Shall I -- just to answer the first bit, I didn't actually say that. I said, you can't -- we have to realize we can't always rely on the U.S. being there. That does not mean somebody's unreliable, it means that sometimes we're going to have to do it on our own or we're going to have to do it with other partners. 

So that's -- you know, that's not the same as your question. We of course recognize that sometimes, we are going to have to deal with a threat directed at us, potentially on our own or with another ally, and we've taken for granted in the past that somehow the United States will always be able to be there. 

But the world has got far less secure, not more secure. That means we are all more stretched, we all have to find, you know, the capacity and the capabilities to defend against it. We can't all be at the same place -- you know, one place at the same time. Or many places at the same time. 

SEC. ESPER: But the agreement says that, as I recall -- I may be mistaken, but as I recall, the agreement says is once signed, we would begin -- continue a reduction in violence that will continue downward, and as part of the intra-Afghan negotiations, we would move to a comprehensive cease-fire across the country, and so that's what we're committed to implementing.

At the same time, part of the agreement states that we are -- always have the right of self-defense and to defend our Afghan partners, which we've done in the past couple days and we'll continue to do. That was the purpose of my presence in Kabul on Saturday -- to reinforce our commitment to the Afghan government and to the Afghan National Security Forces that we will continue to support and defend them.

Q: I'm going to be very quick. The words "reduction in violence" do not appear in the four pages. So once again, where have the Taliban signed up?

SEC. ESPER: So I -- I -- I'd have to look through it again. There are also two implementing arrangements that are not available to the public that addresses things such as the Taliban's counterterrorism commitments and with the withdrawal of forces, and it may be in there. I just don't -- I don't have a photographic memory when it comes to agreements like that, OK? Thanks, Jim.

STAFF: And last question. (inaudible) Channel Four. I'm going to keep it brief (inaudible). Thank you.

Q: Yeah. Secretary, sir, could you give us any details around the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan? And sort of to both of you, although I have a separate question for Mr. Secretary. What -- what happens if the agreement fails? I know we've touched on that now, but what would constitute failure? Many people would say that the airstrike that we've seen this week would potentially constitute failure. 

And Mr. Secretary, you talked about China and technology, that the U.K., as you know, has already implemented an agreement with Huawei on our 5G networks. Does that -- has that had any impact on the U.K.-U.S. intelligence relationship at all?

SEC. ESPER: We had a good discussion about that today at lunch. I had -- the minister was able to give me a better understanding of your approach. Obviously, we disagreed with the approach, but I have a better understanding and a better -- better appreciation for the path ahead. But as I've said, if Huawei technology is found in the -- is -- is adopted by our partners and allies we're going to have to assess each on a case-by-case basis. I have not yet been told that it's a problem right now with where we stand, but it's something we'll continue to assess, and we're going to continue talking about it, as well. 

But we both understand the threat of Chinese technology in our systems. The U.K. feels very strongly that -- that the mitigation measures put in place will address that, and we need to work with them to understand that. But we both recognize the threat, and it's not just a -- today. It's going to continue to increase in the future. 

SEC. WALLACE: Yeah, I mean, first, there are differences on approach, and not because we have a different view of China's threat to us. It's -- it's based on a different technical interpretation. And -- and you know, it -- the -- it can be summed up that our aim is to ban, which we already have done from our very core sensitive networks. They're not in our networks like that -- to cap them in the more commercial edge of our networks at 35 percent, and work to cutting them out of the networks. So it -- it is -- it is a ban cap and cut, and that's the direction we're going.

Look, on -- on the Afghanistan thing, first of all, we already had an example of where it paused. If you remember, an American contractor, sadly -- I think it was a contractor -- sadly, lost his life. The president was very front-footed and said, "That's it. Enough of that." And -- and it was -- you know, the message was clear to -- to all that -- that -- that doesn't go forward. 

It's conditions-based. I think that -- that is the reassurance that I take. There are it -- it's -- it's conditions-based. We are -- the numbers are going to be drawn down. They're not going to be all taken away as the conditions change. I mean, we -- we still have a threat that we have to deal with. We will continue to deal with those threats. But you know, I -- as I said earlier, it is definitely a week-by-week or a day-by-day examination of the Taliban adhering to those conditions, and indeed, working with the Afghan government because they're also as -- as important in this process to make sure that they can continue to secure their country and -- and help develop and grow it. 

SEC. ESPER: It's going to be a long, windy, bumpy road, lots of twists and turns, ups and downs. But look, we are committed to peace. The -- the best, if not only path forward is through a political agreement, not a military solution. And so we're going to keep pushing this. We have our special envoy on the ground right now. We've got to keep bringing these parties together and keep working this problem. It's -- it's too important not to, and we're going to hang in there as -- and -- and -- and make all the right choices. And as we've said together as NATO allies, I said it with our great Secretary General Stoltenberg, you know, we went in together, we'll adjust together, and we'll get out together. But we're going to do it based on conditions on the ground. 

Thank you all.

SEC. WALLACE: Again, thanks.