Transcript

Adm. Charles Richard Holds a Press Briefing on the Efforts of U.S. Strategic Command During the COVID-19 Outbreak

March 17, 2020
Admiral Charles A. Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command

STAFF: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining us today for this press briefing via telephone.

On the line with us today is Admiral Charles A. Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Today, Admiral Richard will speak about the efforts of U.S. Strategic Command during the COVID-19 outbreak. Following his opening statement, we will take questions from those in the room and those dialed in. Today's remarks will be on the record.

And with that, Admiral Richard, sir, over to you.

CAPTAIN BILL CLINTON: Real quick, Uriah, this is Captain Bill Clinton, the PAO for STRATCOM. Also in the room I -- I have our J3, Major General S.L. Davis, and also, our command surgeon, Colonel John Cotton.

At the end of this if we have any follow-on questions, please call my office and we'll -- we can give you more information, if need be.

At this time, Admiral Richard will start taking questions. Thanks. Sir?

ADMIRAL CHARLES A. RICHARD: All right, good morning, everyone, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. As -- as previously mentioned, I'm Chas Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska.

First and foremost, what I would want to assure everyone on the line here, as well as the American people and our allies, is our strategic nuclear forces remain ready to execute the nation's strategic deterrence mission. And to date, to point, to this point, we have had no -- no impact to our ability to accomplish our mission.

That said, this pandemic has our full attention, and we are taking all necessary steps, fully implementing the department’s guidance, in particular, how we do it with strategic forces, in order to ensure the safety, security, and effectiveness of our forces.

So in addition to following Centers of Disease Control and Department of Defense guidance, we're constantly looking at the environment, working with our subordinate commands. I'd like to compliment Air Force, Navy, Army, in terms of the way they have turned to, to -- to attack this to ensure the health and safety of our members 24/7 as our operations continue.

This -- you know, we in STRATCOM, we in the Department of Defense, the potential for a contagious pandemic like this is not novel to us. We had plans in place that we have updated and are executing.

So with that, I'm ready to take your questions. Over.

STAFF: Thank you, sir.

For the media on the line, as a reminder, please keep your phones muted until you are called upon for your question. And for the media, please identify yourself and your outlet.

And we'll start with Tara.

Q: Thank you. Sir, Tara Copp with McClatchy.

As part of your strategic plans in advance for some sort of pandemic, do you have on hand how many ventilators you have?

And we have heard reports that there are companies out there who are trying to provide the Department of Defense ventilators at DOD's request. Could you please let us know what your role is in making sure that this strategic supply is safe?

And then, I have a few other questions.

ADM. RICHARD: With regard to medical supplies specifically and medical more generally, I am a supported commander. I am a customer of the Department of Defense's medical establishment. And so I don't have a role in the supply side of that.

I will tell you that, both here at headquarters and at my components, we have had no issues in any respects, receiving sufficient medical support for us or our dependents to this point.

It's probably useful to note that right now, both at headquarters in Strategic Command as well as in the components, we don't have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 and only a very small single-digit handful of people that are even in a protective cell quarantine at this point.

Impacts have been very minimal. It is just that we are watching to make sure we understand the trajectory of where this goes and being ready for whatever path it may take. Over.

Q: And then a quick follow-up, do you have tests on hand? Are you having to rely on the local community to provide those tests for you?

ADM. RICHARD: Again, I am the customer. The people that provide that are the Department of Defense's medical community establishment, the clinics. And to date, we have had no issues getting any tests that we require to accomplish our mission. Over.

STAFF: Okay, we'll go to Bob.

Q: Hi, this is Bob Burns, Admiral, from A.P.

A question for you about your personnel who are securing and operating the force, I understand that your personnel in the missile fields, for example, are being quote/unquote isolated, and I'm wondering if you can spell out exactly that that means. Are they being kept in the field for, like, two weeks at a time or -- as opposed to one day? Or how are you accomplishing that?

ADM. RICHARD: So in general, across all elements of the triad, we're thinking through very carefully how we make sure we maintain maximum mission capability. So that includes not only the people that are required to accomplish those missions, as well as the command centers and all the places we have to operate, and so we are simply executing plans.

Remember, my organization is designed to be able to operate, isolated for long periods of time. And so, we are taking prudent steps to make sure that our personnel will be available.

I'd rather not go into -- it would be best for me not to go into any specific details in terms of how we're accomplishing that. Note that I also have great confidence in my subordinate commanders to take the particular threats that they face at their particular installations and modify their operations accordingly.

Q: A quick follow-up from Bob Burns again. Let me ask that a slightly different way. For example, missileers normally do 24 hours at a time and then return. Is that no longer the case, are they doing longer-terms?

ADM. RICHARD: It -- Bob, it would be better if I didn't get into specifics. Again, in terms of how we’re operating, you can obviously see the advantages to other people if they knew that.

Know that, while what you described isn't a normal mechanism of operation, we have a number of different strategies that we have available to us depending upon what we think the threat is. Over.

STAFF: Okay, we'll go to Idrees with Reuters.

Q: Idrees from Reuters here.

Part of your job is -- is to look at the strategic forces of other countries. What you are seeing in terms of the missile forces of Iran and North Korea and the impact coronavirus has had on them?

ADM. RICHARD: So you're -- you are correct, and that's an important point that the strategic deterrence is not a static mission. That is something that we look at every single day for every single potential threat to this nation. To date, we have not seen anything beyond what I would describe as normal or day-to-day operations by anyone. Over.

STAFF: Okay, and we'll go out to the phone line.

We'll go to Amanda Macias from CNBC. Amanda, do you have a question for us today?

Q: Can you hear me? Amanda from CNBC.

STAFF: We got you.

Q: Okay, I just wanted to ask if there was anything -- based off of yesterday with Mr. Hoffman saying that DepSecDef and SecDef were going to be separated, I wanted to know if that was being sort of a directive within STRATCOM of doing teleconferences between staff.

STAFF: STRATCOM, did you hear that one?

ADM. RICHARD: Not at all. I hate to turn this into a military net, but can I get a relay? Over.

STAFF: Yes, sir. So the question was, here in the building that the secretary and the deputy secretary have separated themselves to do VTC meetings and things like that, the question was whether similar actions have been taken at STRATCOM.

ADM. RICHARD: Well, again, the answer is yes. And again, an organization that is designed to go into combat, that's why I have a deputy commander to begin with. And so we have taken steps internal to the command to separate -- the nuclear forces, both people and equipment, have tremendous redundancy and reliability.

We have taken full advantage of that. In fact, one thing I'm excited about here is the possibility that we may find some better ways of operating day-to-day, utilizing some of this incredible communications capability that we have. That may take us to a new normal where we find more efficient ways of accomplishing our business. Over.

STAFF: Thank you, sir. We'll go to Barbara in the room.

Q: Barbara Starr from CNN.

Admiral, I -- I hate to keep pressing you, but I do want to go back to Bob Burns' question.

If you want the public to be reassured that all of your strategic assets are ready to go and uninterrupted, I don't really -- I guess I don't understand what the concern would be about some adversary knowing that any of -- any of the particulars what knowledge that could give any adversary.

Is there any one example you could give us of what you are doing to protect the force? Or can you better explain why it's such a concern to you that you couldn't communicate any of that to the public?

ADM. RICHARD: Well, I mean, I can, Barbara, give you an example.

And the strategies are pretty similar. One is, you look across and you -- we're kind of hyping or jumping on the I.C. fields. But it's -- I mean, you could do the same example here in my headquarters, in terms of the way that we have minimized contact on critical watch bases, we're not doing tours down on them anymore, we're looking to see to make sure that we minimize the cross-section for exposure.

You go into pre-screens on your people that are going in. You have contingency plans to pre-quarantine or separate out people, pre-isolate them to make sure that they have minimum risk of infection. And then you make sure that you can continue to execute those off the long term.

So that in general are some of the things that we either have done or are ready to go do. We look through logistically to make sure that we have all the places and stuff necessary to do that.

So it is -- again, I have confidence in what we're doing here in the headquarters down those lines. I've checked on it personally myself. And again, I've got component commanders at the four-star level who are taking equal measures that are specific to that particular platform or that particular leg of the triad.

Q: Couldn't you also -- just a quick follow-up.

Can you say -- you said, I think, you had a handful of people in protective self-quarantine. I wasn't sure if that was across all your components, across the entire command, just at headquarters. Can you give us any better numbers on how many people in self-quarantine? And within STRATCOM, have you had anyone test positive?

ADM. RICHARD: Yeah, so we have zero people in STRATCOM headquarters or in the components that have tested positive, so I have no cases of COVID -- COVID right now. I have less than 10 in headquarters, and we are very cautious in the way -- very leaning forward in terms of the protective self-quarantines. And in each of the components right now -- Air Force and Navy -- it's less than 20. Over.

Q: Is that -- sorry, is that 20 each, 20 together? And what is it that led these people to need self-quarantine? Was it contact? What led to this?

ADM. RICHARD: Yeah, it's less than 20 each, so Air Force and Navy. For my components, I'd respectfully ask you to talk to the services about that. Headquarters is just where you looked at somebody coming back off of travel or something like that, where you wanted to just be in an abundance of caution, making sure that you gave them a chance to see if they would go symptomatic. Over.

STAFF: Sir, we'll -- we'll take one more from the phone line.

Dan Leone with Defense Daily?

Q: Yeah, hey, everybody. Thanks for adding the call here.

Just real quick, what changes have STRATCOM made to the way you all are interfacing with your civilian partners at the National Nuclear Security Administration while you guys cycle weapons in and out of DOP custody during routine repairs, other modernization programs?

STAFF: Did you hear that question? If not I can relay.

ADM. RICHARD: Yeah go ahead and relay it, please.

STAFF: Yes, sir.

So the question was, what steps are you taking to protect the civilian workforce that you're interacting with, be it at NSA -- NNSA as you're doing weapons custody transfers and things like that?

ADM. RICHARD: Yeah, operationally, we have not had a need to modify anything, so our operations continue normally.

Kind of take me back down more of an administrative line, right? So there have been some meetings that have been canceled, where we're doing them over VTC right now. But those are much -- you know, longer-term things, impact, really, I -- as it manifests itself.

Anyway, operationally, we've had no issues with that.

STAFF: Okay, and we'll take one more question from the phone. Aaron Mehta with Defense News?

Q: Yeah, thanks very much for doing this.

So a couple weeks ago, on the Hill you testified, that any delays to NNSA or the Pentagon delivering modernization efforts could lead to gaps down the road in the nuclear capabilities. So how concerned are you going forward over the next months, weeks, whatever, about work stoppages and how that might cause delays, given that you said there's basically no margin for error in the schedule already?

ADM. RICHARD: Well, and I think I'm pretty much out of time here. I would just like to, again, thank everyone for asking these. These are very good questions.

We'd want to make sure that everyone has confidence. I certainly have confidence that the forces are -- are ready to execute their strategic deterrence mission. We are -- you know, full attention on this thing. We have plans in place, and I'm confident that no matter what trajectory it takes, we have thought through what we need to do to be able to accomplish our mission.

Thank you all very much.

STAFF: Thank you, sir, for your time.

And thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

Aaron, we'll get back to you on that question.

Q: All right, thanks.