Transcript

Defense Department Senior Leaders Brief Reporters on DOD Efforts Regarding COVID-19

May 5, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs Of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Good afternoon, everyone.  Yeah, the seats are starting to fill up.  Good.  Well good afternoon, everyone.  I want to begin by expressing my gratitude to the more than 62,000 service members on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus, including over 3,500 medical personnel staffing civilian medical facilities and embedded operations nationwide.

Tomorrow marks the start of National Nurses Week and we salute all nurses, both military and civilian, who have served and are currently serving our nation and our people.  Thanks to many of their efforts, we are encouraged to see the situation improving in several of the most impacted areas of the country.

In New York City, for example, the Javits Center's remaining patients were discharged on Friday, which indicates that the stress on local hospitals is subsiding.  And I'd like to note that I had a very good conversation with Mayor de Blasio last Friday. 

He called to express his deep thanks and appreciation for what DOD provided his city in a time of need and how warmly they were received by his civilian doctors, nurses and others.  So he's very thankful and I said to pass along to the force, those who may be watching or may - may get a readout from this briefing.

Over the weekend, the Comfort returned to Norfolk, Virginia, where it will be reset, cleaned and prepared to deploy to the next potential hotspot as needed.  In Pennsylvania, the Temple Alternate Care Facility discharged all of its remaining patients while expeditionary medical facilities in Louisiana and Texas are returning to Naval Air Station Jacksonville over the next few days to prepare to redeploy if necessary.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to execute FEMA mission assignments in concert with federal, state and local partners.  To date, the Corps has awarded 36 construction contracts for temporary facilities to add more than 14,900 beds to states with critical shortages and 27 of these 36 alternative care facilities are now complete.

At the same time, more than 46,000 National Guardsmen are supporting COVID-19 response efforts at the direction of their governors, to include testing and support through -- as -- as -- as well as providing logistical support through warehousing and distribution of food and medical supplies.

And I had a chance yesterday to talk to a couple of governors, and as well, the Chairman and I had a good conversation with all of the state TAGs, the adjutant generals.  It's been our third or fourth and we were able to review a number of issues, answer their questions and make sure that we are all prepared in the coming weeks for what -- what may lie ahead.

As the situation evolves, we -- and responsive -- we will continue to remain agile, flexible and responsive to stay ahead of the needs of state and local authorities across the country.  From the beginning of the outbreak, I have made protecting our troops, Department civilians and their families a top priority.

We issued our first force health protection guidance on 30 January and have released updated guidance at least eight times since then.  On 20 April, we extended the international and domestic travel restrictions to all DOD personnel and families until 30 June.  This week, I will conduct the first 15-day review to determine if adjustments are warranted as we work to ease the burden on the force as much as possible.

We've already expanded some of the exemptions to the -- to the stop movement order, including allowing certain permanent change of stations moves to proceed.  As such, we are announcing new safety measures through the U.S. Transportation Command to protect our troops and their families during the packing and moving process.

Moving professionals will be required to adhere to the CDC's COVID-19 health protection protocols, which include wearing face coverings, cleaning surfaces and practicing social distancing.  Furthermore, DOD is requiring moving companies to provide certification to service members that their personnel have been screened for illness, in line with CDC guidelines.  USTRANSCOM officials will brief the press tomorrow on this initiative. 

Additionally, as we continue to -- to accelerate and expand testing, I approved a tiered system that prioritizes our forces.  This will ensure they continue training in a safe manner and execute non-fail missions, such as strategic deterrence.

Finally, we are increasing the Pentagon's investments in short- and long-term medical solutions.  As we work toward a vaccine in the long term, we are interested in advancing immediate therapeutic solutions that can protect our service members across the globe.

As we continue to take care of our troops and support the President's whole of nation response, we remain focused on our national security missions around the world.  Many countries have turned inward to recover from the pandemic and in the mean time, our strategic competitors are attempting to exploit this crisis to their benefit at the expense of others.

While the Chinese Communist Party ramps up its -- ramps up its disinformation campaign to try to shift blame and burnish its image, we continue to see aggressive behavior by the PLA in the South China Sea, from threatening a Philippine Navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development.

Last week, two U.S. Navy ships conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to send a clear message to Beijing that we will continue to protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all nations, large and small.

I want to assure the American people and our allies that the United States military remains fully ready and capable to deter every threat, protect the homeland and safeguard our interests abroad.  Critical to accomplishing these missions are game-changing technologies developed and pioneered by American scientists and researchers, one of those being the Global Positioning System.

On Wednesday, senior DOD leaders will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the FCC's decision to allow Ligado to create a cellular network that could disrupt the GPS signals relied upon by our military and millions of Americans.

The FCC's actions disregard the many objections of industry and the interagency grounded in years of hard data and science.  Ultimately, this will cause harmful interference to the GC -- GPS network, jeopardizing our nation's security, prosperity and way of life.

We urge the FCC to overturn its short-sighted decision and senior department leaders will provide more information on the risks to our security tomorrow on Capitol Hill.  And with that, I'll turn it over to Chairman Milley for his comments.  Thank you.

GENERAL MARK MILLEY:  Thank you, Secretary, and I'll -- I'll just take a minute or two here and I want to reach out and thank the -- all of the men and women of the Joint Force, the total force: Active, Guard, Reserve, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guardsmen.  As the Secretary just mentioned, about well over 60,000 are on the streets of America, many thousands more are supporting them in this moment of national crisis dealing with COVID.

They're deployed in all 54 states and territories, many of them in harm's way, and they are doing just a remarkable job. They are committed to this fight, and they're committed to this fight until it's over.

As the secretary mentioned, he talked to Mayor de Blasio, I had an opportunity to talk to him as well.  And Mayor de Blasio said there are words -- there are no words to describe the gratitude of the people of New York City for the support of the United States military, where we deployed not only the hospital ship but hospitals, field hospitals, and we still have doctors and nurses deployed in the civilian hospitals in the city.

In addition to that, we have -- we have doctors and nurses deployed in other cities around the country, and in 22 other civilian hospitals, embedded within those hospitals, taking off some of the pressure, off some of the health care professionals.

As the situation changes in the locales around the nation, we've tailored our response to meet the need of the various communities, as directed by FEMA.  And as you know, we are in support -- we are the supporting agency.  At the same time, we stand ready—always ready—to meet any threat on land, sea, air, space or cyberspace anywhere in the world. 

Additionally, I just want to close out by echoing what Secretary Esper just said.  Tomorrow is the start of Nurses Week.  This pandemic has made it abundantly clear that nurses have always been and always will be on the frontlines of keeping our American communities and our American people safe, and I want to thank each and every one of them—to include my wife, who's an active nurse—for the sacrifices they endure every single day.

And, lastly, we start this month with Military Appreciation -- Spouse Month, and this Friday is military appreciation -- Military Spouse Appreciation Day.  So to the over 1 millions military spouses that are out there, supporting their soldier, sailor, airman or Marine or Coast Guardsman that's in uniform, the secretary and I just want to say thank you to all that you do in support of our country.

And, lastly, 75 years ago, in just a few days, we are about to commemorate the Victory in Europe Day, which is the half of World War II as it ended, with several hundred thousand U.S. military deaths, 16 million in uniform, and arguably, without question, the most devastating conflict in human history.

We've been seven and a half decades without a great power war, and we need to recommit ourselves to ensure that never happens again.

Mr. Secretary, your questions?

STAFF:  All right, we're going to go to the phones first for a couple.  Just ask everybody, we've got a pretty full room here and a lot of people on the line, so try to keep questions and follow-ups tight.  So going first to Bob, Bob Burns, and then to Phil Stewart.

So, Bob?

Q:  Thank you. 

Secretary Esper, yesterday, during your conversation with Michael O'Hanlon at Brookings, you mentioned that although you don't know yet the origins of the coronavirus that was aboard the Kidd, that you thought it might have been picked up during the counter-drug operation that they were participating in.

I'm wondering if you can elaborate on what you meant by that?  And if General Milley would add his thoughts on, given the fact that the Kidd and the Roosevelt so far are the only two ships that have picked it up while operating abroad, whether you think -- General Milley, do you think the Navy has kind of figured out how to do this without picking it up?  Are they out of the woods now?

SEC. ESPER:  So on the first part of your question, I'll just say this much and then maybe we can have a follow-up with somebody else. But a theory is that they could have picked it up on a counter-drug mission, where they pulled over a -- a vessel possibly carrying drugs, and they board the vessel and may have come in contact with somebody carrying the virus there.  That's all there is to that story.

The important thing is that the ship is -- she's back in port, and the sailors are being taken care of and all of the proper protocols are being followed to make sure that we get her back to sea as soon as possible.

GEN. MILLEY:  And, Bob, the protocols -- the Navy has instituted a whole series of protocols that are quite strict, and they include isolation and quarantine.  Prior to getting -- embarking on the ship for about 14 days minimum, in at least one case, they stretched it out to 21 days, and in addition to that they do testing and screening and so on. 

So we -- you know, perfect is -- is never something that we're -- we would say is going to happen in every single case, but I'm very, very confident the Navy's instituted some very disciplined and rigorous protocols to protect the sailors on board the ship as they embark.

STAFF:  All right, go to Phil?

Q:  Thanks very much.

Chairman, if you could just -- last time we spoke, you had said that there was nothing conclusive indicating whether or not the -- the coronavirus emerged from this lab in Wuhan.  Have you seen any evidence since we last spoke to indicate that it may have emerged from this lab?

And, to Secretary Esper, you know, there's been this -- what the Venezuelans are calling a failed coup attempt. Is there any view from the department that military or paramilitary force could or should be used in Venezuela for regime change?  Thanks.

SEC. ESPER:  I'll take -- I'll go first and just say, the United States government had nothing to do with what's happened in Venezuela in the last few days.  And otherwise, we are in full support of the State Department's policies with regard -- and the United States government's policy with regard to Venezuela.

Our view remains that Maduro is a brutal, corrupt leader who has oppressed the people of Venezuela.  They deserve better, and we will continue to make the case that he should step aside and allow an elected government to -- to form and -- and take that country in the rightful direction it should go, a very democratic, prosperous path that it was on, many, many years ago, before.

GEN. MILLEY:  And Jeff, this is on the Wuhan -- the Wuhan origin case, I'm not going to discuss any detailed intelligence, but the straight fundamental issues here, one is, is it natural or was it manmade somehow or somehow manipulated by manmade procedures.

As I said the last time -- and I am still where I was the last time -- the weight of evidence, nothing's conclusive.  The weight of evidence is, is that it was natural and not manmade.

Secondly, is -- the second issue is, was it accidentally released, did it release naturally into the environment or was it intentional?  We don't have conclusive evidence in any of that.  But the weight of evidence is that it was probably not intentional.

The third issue is location.  Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan?  Did it occur in the -- in the wet market there in Wuhan?  Did it occur somewhere else?  And the answer to that is we don't know.  And as mentioned by many people, various agencies, both civilian and U.S. government are looking at that. 

It would help a great deal if the Chinese government would open up and allow inspectors and investigators to go there in full transparency so that the world can know the actual, original source of this, so that we can apply the lessons learned and prevent outbreaks in the future.

STAFF:  All right, we'll go, also on the phone, Luis Martinez?

Q:  Hi, good afternoon.  Thank you all very much for doing this briefing, really appreciate it. 

When the Pentagon goes back to normal -- or semi-normal -- what do you anticipate life will be like for the thousands of employees in the building who have been working from home?  Do you plan on incorporating the social distancing, like moving desks?  Are you still going to encourage telework?  At what point do you think the full workforce will be back in?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, it's good to see the press room thinned out like this, we may have to keep that.

(LAUGHTER)

Look, Luis, it's hard to predict at this point in time.  As I said, I think that we will be in a new type of normal for a period of time, measured in months at least, and we're going to take it one step at a time to make sure we do everything possible to protect our people.

And in that case, since you're with us here, you’re our people, so we want to make sure we do whatever is necessary.  I imagine that for the foreseeable future, we will continue to exercise social distancing, we will continue to wear face coverings, at least to the point and time that we figure out other techniques to address that.

As I said earlier, and in -- and previously, that we are working aggressively on both therapeutics and vaccines, and the sooner we can get to that, that gives us the degree of confidence that we could further relax some of our practices. We are dutifully going to follow the guidelines put out by the CDC, by the White House, et cetera, with regard to how you approach lifting restrictions and things like that.

We had a, what, a two hour meeting today about the -- how we do that in the context of lifting our -- our travel holds right now. So we're going to do everything responsibly and we, again, priority number one is taking care of our people and we're not going to jeopardize that.

STAFF:  Alright, we'll go to the phone for one more, from Missy Ryan, and then come back to the room.

Q:  Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you, Secretary Esper, about the letters that, I believe it was 10 Democratic senators, that you, on April 27th including some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and they -- they laid out a case for what they said was slow and disjointed response by the Defense Department to the coronavirus, and they pointed out or they cited things like the delegation to lower levels for interpretation about how restrictions would play out in various bases and installations around the world.

And that the response to the coronavirus -- excuse me -- the response on the Teddy Roosevelt and then also the decision to withhold some details of information about outbreaks on different military facilities. And I'm just wondering if you could share with us your response to that letter and tell us if you have been in touch with those senators or any of them or plan to be in touch with them? Thanks.

SEC. ESPER:  Thanks for the question, Missy. We will be responding, but I will just say here that I'm very disappointed that members of Congress, particularly those who sit on the armed services committee and who receive weekly updates from us would write a letter that includes a number of misleading, false, or inaccurate statements.

I don't think it is a -- really recognizes all that the Department of Defense has done, particularly at a time we have 62,000 American's out there in the streets of America who are, in many cases, risking their own health to protect the American people. I have spoken to nearly -- over three dozen governors, all governors who represent the members who signed that letter.

Each one of those governors just told me, praised DOD's performance and thanked us for what we've done. Every step of the way, we've been ahead of the curve, we've met their needs, and we've done everything we can to help the American people. So the -- the -- statements in that letter don't match what I'm hearing from the governors. I'd also add that the things like we're not sharing data with -- on installations with regard to infectious cases are simply wrong.

We share that data all the time with state, local, and federal authorities so we can -- we are part of these communities. There are a number of things we can go to -- go through, we will respond in due course, but I would just say, again, I'm disappointed in that letter, it doesn't reflect the facts, and I think -- I mean there's this other story that continues to be perpetrated. It's a false story, New York Times is putting it out that somehow we expressed some type of guidance; I gave guidance to the field that commanders weren't allowed to take action unless it was approved in advance. That has been debunked multiple times. The Chairman and I testified it -- about it before the Congress, the secretary of the army testified it, and yet we continue to see others, including in this letter cite a source who, anonymous source once again, who admittedly was not even in the room.

So it's the -- the -- recitation of falsehoods like that that is disappointing.

Our commitment is to ensure that we provide Congress complete, accurate and timely information which we are doing on weekly basis. We are addressing all these issues. I have spoken to the chairman and ranking members of the committees multiple times to include the last several days. So all the information is out there for us to have good discussion.

We recognize Congress has an important oversight role, but it should be an informed oversight role, and we are committed to doing that to address any member’s concerns and most importantly, to make sure that we live up to the three priorities that I’ve stated repeatedly; protect the American people -- protect our people. Number two, make sure that we ensure our national mission capabilities. And number three, provide full support to state and local authorities.

I gotta add -- before I forget too, this continued accusation by some, not the majority, there's a minority, that say that for some reason that we have followed standard military practice that goes back decades, decades of issuing guidance to the field.

The guidance that went out to senior commanders, four-star leaders, service secretaries who have extensive medical staffs, to somehow suggested that somehow the guidance went out to people who don't know how to implement it, is just ridiculous. We issued out nine -- eight or nine sets of guidance, going all the way back to 30 January, just days after the first person in United States was identified with the infection and weeks before unfortunately, the first American succumbed to the virus; that's how far back it goes, and I think the numbers bear out.

At this point in time, we have 3,100 cases of active duty military. We've had fewer than 100 hospitalizations and unfortunately, regrettably we've had two deaths, but those numbers fair very well compared against our civilian counterparts. So I look at the facts, I look at how we've issued guidance in the past, I look at the skill and capability of our commanders in executing as appropriately to their unique situations.

It's the same type of guidance that Dr. Fauci has said that we should be following in terms of applying it to the states and localities, provide broad guidelines and give folks flexibly to working with that. We've been applauded by other outside experts. So for some folks to continue to peddle this narrative is just troubling because it's how, those of you who've been covering on DOD for many years know, this is how we operate. This is how you are more successful, and this is why -- this is one of the reasons why I credit our numbers being so low as they are at this time.

Q:  So, just a follow up on Missy’s question. I don't think the criticism was what was done after March once things started getting implemented by the military. But my question is, what did you tell the president, and when did you tell him about the danger of a pandemic? Because there was a time from February 1 when the first EXORD and the pandemic response began here in this building, and about five to six weeks before the White House started talking the pandemic in similar terms to what the military. When did you brief the president?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I didn't brief the president on this issue. The president was briefed by his task force which is led initially by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and then eventually by Vice President Pence, who has led the task force. And we've had now for several weeks, months, our Deputy Secretary Defense and General Hyten participating in those task force meetings. Obviously in meetings I've had with the president, this issue has come up. By going back to the early days, that's where it began, and we participated as a supporting member of this.

Keep in mind, for DOD, this goes back all the way to the early days where the State Department chartered flights to bring people back and we opened up our airfields to both receive those Americans and then take care of them on our facilities. Those are the early days when we began initially sending out guidance to our forces, well before any of this really took off. And as you, I think noted, Jennifer, it really took off in this country in March. So we've been at this much longer than folks wanted to give us credit for.

Q:    General Milley, have you seen any signs that the Chinese are trying to steal the vaccines that U.S. companies or the military are trying to produce?

GEN. MILLEY:  Steal the vaccines?

Q:  Yeah, any sort of cyber activity that would cause concern.

GEN. MILLEY:  No. Specifically no. That doesn't mean it's not happening, it just means, you asked me if I've seen it, and I have not.

Q:  Just a quick question of Afghanistan. Sir, you spoke yesterday that there's been no reduction on -- in violence. The command U.S. Forces Afghanistan said they talked with the Taliban and during those conversations, they’d expected an 80 percent reduction in violence; that clearly has not happened. Yet the troop drawdown has continuing apace, there hasn't really been a U.S. response. Is this a sign that the situation in Afghanistan is going the wrong way? And are you worried about that troop presence?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, I said from the early days, rewound the tape somewhere, when I first came back after I visited Afghanistan, I said this would be a long, windy and bumpy road, and it has been a long, windy and bumpy road. I mean, it's not moved as fast as we would like, certainly. We're at the point now where we know that they've been swapping prisoners. I think the Afghan government has released several hundred prisoners. The Taliban of have released some as well.

The key thing at this point in time is that the political leadership of Afghanistan needs to come together and find out a formula by which they can work together; they being President Ghani and CEO Abdullah. And from there based on that, they can form their negotiating team to sit down and begin the intra-Afghan negotiations. Those are the key things, we haven't moved quickly to that point, we're making progress.

I know the State Department is very heavily engaged there on the ground. Our commitment is to live up our commitment. We want to continue to abide by -- abide by what we agreed to, so we continue to support our Afghan partners when they are attacked inconsistent with the agreement. But at the same time, we know that we can continue a reduction. We know that we can do all of the missions we need to do at 8,600, but we are not going to be blamed for not living up to our end of the agreement.

Our role right now is really to focus on getting the political leadership in Afghanistan, the civilian leadership together to form the intra-Afghan negotiating team and then sit down with the Taliban and meanwhile we work with the -- we talk to the Taliban, we urge them, we -- through proxies and elsewhere to do the same, sit down with the Afghan government and let's get on with the intra-Afghan negotiations. That's the key to success. The only way this – this, a, -- conflict is settled is through a political agreement. It's not to be civil by force of arms.

Q:  Are they living up to their commitment?

SEC. ESPER:  Who’s they?

Q:  The Taliban.

SEC. ESPER:  No, I don't think they are. Neither side in this case. Both need to come together and make progress on the terms that have been laid out. The best thing the Taliban can do right now is to live up to the agreement to get to a reduction of violence that is consistent with where we were just prior to the signing the documents.

STAFF:  Christine?

Q:  Thank you for doing this. Can you expand a little bit more on what you see China doing to exploit the pandemic, and what you and the department is doing to push back against that. Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Sure, I'll predicate it with, first of all, we've said -- I've said before, the Chinese have not been transparent from the beginning. If they had been more transparent, more open up font in terms of the giving us access, the reporting, giving us access, not just to the people on the ground, but to the virus they had so we can understand it, we'd probably be in a far different place right now. But where we are now is this, they need to still allow us in, to talk to early patients, to talk to the Chinese researchers and scientists and to have access.

What are they doing? They're trying to capitalize on this by promoting their own image that somehow China is the good guy here because, despite everything they did, or more importantly failed to do, now they want to go out and say:  “Well, here's masks, we'll give you masks, we'll provide this, we'll provide that, we'll provide you funding. Look at all the good we're doing.” Yet, what we know is this, is that they provide masks, they provide supplies, in many cases it is not good. It's -- it doesn't do what it's supposed to do. It's broken equipment. They also are -- the strings attached are enormous in many cases, so they're telling a country here you can take these masks but please, put out publicly how good China is, how great we're doing, et cetera, et cetera.

So there's a number of things they're doing to try and burnish their image. That's just two of them right there. They're also doing a lot of strong-arming behind the scenes. You've seen -- you guys, some of you are covering it in the open press with regard between Beijing and Australia, what's happening there, and I'll be talking to my -- I think my Australian counterpart this afternoon.

So all these activities are going, it's straight from the Chinese playbook. Once again, it's just a little bit more obvious this time of what they're doing and how they're using a combination of compellence and coercion and everything else to try and shape the narrative and burnish the image of the Chinese Communist Party.

Q:  I wonder if you could talk a little bit about military testing and where we are. I think today is like 20,000 plus tests per day. General, you talked about the requirement by the end of May, early June, of 60,000 per day. And also, if you could talk about the supply chain, both governors, military leaders complain about there just aren't enough supplies. Is that supplies across the board or particular supplies, and then Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, chair of the Armed Services Committee wants you to -- or wants the government to do more with the Defense Production Act to crank out more supplies?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I'll go last question first. We are doing a lot on Defense Production Act. We now have the authority to go after medical supplies, so our Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord, has been doing a great job. She's ordered millions of masks and other items that have been out there, so we put a lot of money down, a lot of contracts that are out there, and I think she's already briefed you all on that.

So we're moving out on that front and we're trying to look ahead down the road, months down the road, at what else we can do, and there at -- we're looking at some things with regard to the vaccine piece of this. But on the testing front, we know right now, we've prioritized our forces, you know, from tier zero, which are the people who show up symptomatic on a day-to-day basis.

But then we have tiers one, two, three, and four, it's everything from our critical national capabilities to our engaged field forces to those who are deployed and redeploying and then the others. We know from those first few tiers, all but the last one, that we need, in a given week, at least 56,000. We got to refine that last tier.

Q:  Per week or day?

SEC. ESPER:  Per week, per week. 56,000 per week. So as we've been saying that 50,000 -- and as I told you all, I'll tell you again today. Those numbers will change as we continue to refine our techniques, our practices, and as we learn more. I think I probably told you two weeks ago it was 50,000 a week, we're now at 56. It's going to be higher because we have to flush out that tier four.

Tier four is going to be the broader population by which we do what's called -- or what we're calling sentinel testing, whereby we randomly test groups of people to make sure they're not a -- to understand how many asymptomatic or carriers are maybe out there. So, it's a concept we're developing and eventually it will add to the numbers that we need to test in a given week, if you will.

And then beyond that, we know we have a number of supplies on hand to do so many tests a week at this point in time. We're ordering more -- we're ordering for three purposes. One for our own testing needs. Secondly, for the testing needs of our interagency partners. And third, we got to rebuild our stockpile, so.

Q:  So, as far as testing the entire force, is that -- looking at summer?

GEN. MILLEY:  There's not a need to test the entire force. That would be -- that would not be a good use of tests. Again, when you look at those tier four groups of folks who aren't deploying, are not on a strategic mission capability et cetera, people like us, unless you're symptomatic, you probably don't need a test. Now that's where the sentinel, the tier -- that fourth group where we do sentinel testing where we say OK, well this group out there, we haven't seen anything from them, but let's test just in case.

And we see if there's carriers on any -- it helps us sharpen our focus. So right now, there is not a plan to just automatically test the entire force. We'll catch the balance, that tier four, through this sentinel testing as we're calling it right now.

GEN. MILLEY:  And Tom, the 60,000 you mentioned before, that was an early estimate, based on testing the entire force, but also based on DOD civilians, based upon spouses and children and family members, based on retirees, et cetera, so a much larger number. We've done a lot of refinements since then under the leadership of our medical people, and what the numbers that we're looking at right now, 56, call it 60,000, 60,000 a month that would be the requirement that we're going to build to.

Right now, our capacity is, you mentioned, 20, that what was actually done, a little bit better than that. 30,000 is really our capacity right now, and we're going to continue to build and build and build, but testing the entire force, we're learning as we go here, testing the entire force is probably not a complete requirement.

STAFF:  Alright, we're going to go back to the phone, we'll go to Sylvie, AFP.

Q:  Hello, thank you. Iran, it's a question for the Chairman, Iran sent a satellite last month in space. Is it your assessment that this satellite represents a threat to U.S. interests?

GEN. MILLEY:  I'll be candid, I'm not sure I understood the question.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Do you consider it as a threat?

GEN. MILLEY:  Was the Iranian satellite launch into space a threat to U.S. interest, was that the question?

Q:  Yes.

GEN. MILLEY:  Well, let me put it this way, they launched a satellite vehicle, I think we publicly had stated it was tumbling. So the satellite itself, not overly concerned about it, but the missile technology, the secondary and second and third order missile technology and the lesson learned from that, that is a concern because, you know, different missiles can do different things and one can carry a satellite, another can carry some sort of device that can explode.

So, the bottom line is yes, it is a security concern any time Iran is testing any type of long-range missile.

STAFF:  Alright, we'll go to phones, Tony Capaccio.

Q:  Can I follow-up?

STAFF:  Sure, go ahead Sylvie.

Q:  Any increase of activity from Iran recently?

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MILLEY:  Any recent, what activity?

STAFF:  Any increased activity?

GEN. MILLEY:  Well, it depends. It depends on what you mean by increased activity is. Cyber, space, naval, ground, special operations, working through surrogates, there's lots of activity. We have monitored -- we monitor Iran very, very closely, as you can imagine, as we do many, many other countries. Right now, we keep them -- we keep our forces on high states of alert and we're ready for whatever happens in the Middle East.

SEC. ESPER:  I would say -- it’s fair to say that Iran continues its malign behavior throughout the region. It's really disappointing because at a time when the Iranian people are struggling as a result of this COVID, and not just the COVID, but their failure to act on COVID in a timely manner with the proper policies, if they would just spend more time and money and effort focusing on taking care of their people, the Iranian country, the people themselves will be in a whole lot better shape.

But again, the Iranian government continues to export terrorism, continues to export this malign behavior from the Houthis, up into Iraq across into Syria, you name it. We continue to see them export trouble, and it's all we ask is that they be a normal country.

STAFF:  Alright so Tony, still on the phones?

Q:  Hey, Mr. Secretary.

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.

Q:  I have a bunch of questions for you. Under a flat budget projection, what modernization programs would be at risk of reductions? You've already signaled that nuclear modernization is the top priority of the department, so would naval ship building, tactical aviation, land systems, what systems -- what would be at risk in a in a -- in a flat budget over the next couple of years?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, Tony, we're going to look at those things in due course and be very deliberate about it.  You’re right we’re not going to risk the strategic deterrent, we need to certainly modernize that in -- in all things -- and you covered my time in the Army, we prioritize programs.

Frankly, my inclination is not to risk any of the modernization programs, it's to go back and pull out more of the legacy programs.  We need to move away from the legacy and we need to invest those dollars into the -- into the future.

And we have a lot of legacy programs out there right now.  I could -- I could pick dozens out from all branches of the service.  So that is where I would start.  What that would mean is probably accepting some near term risk but I think that's important, given the trajectory we see that China is on and -- and we know where Russia may be going in the coming years. 

So, that is one place where I would begin, but we're going to be working through those courses of action.  We've already had discussions about the budget, what it could be.  We do this every year, by the way, it's -- it's nothing new, but it -- it is a little bit more acute because, as some of you heard me say yesterday, we -- we -- we recognize the fact that the Congress has generously put, what, $3 trillion into the economy in the past couple months and that puts a tremendous load onto the debt -- the national debt and that puts a strain on the economy.

So we're aware of those things and we're taking that into our planning considerations, as well, as we consider our POM and our FYDP for the coming years.

STAFF:  All right, we'll do one more from the phone and then come back to the room for the last question.  So Sam LaGrone, USNI News?

Q:  Can you theorize, why do you think FCC approved the decision, given the unanimous course of government officials, including yourself that this could engage with the GPS system?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I -- I don't know.  I -- I don't want to speculate.  I -- I think that's a great question for the FCC to -- to find out, so.

STAFF:  All right.  Sam?

Q:  Fair enough, thanks.

Q:  Yeah, hi, Sam LaGrone with USNI News.  Gentlemen, the ongoing Navy investigation into the circumstances around the Theodore Roosevelt seems to be contained from the command structure of the aircraft carrier up to the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Does there need to be a broader look involving the COCOM in terms of the -- the chain of command relationships related to the outbreak on the TR?  Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Well let's -- let's back up a little bit, just to give you the recitation of some basic facts here.  And I know -- I think Secretary McPherson spoke to this about a week ago or so.  But, you know, the Navy did a preliminary inquiry and it's important we get these -- these terms are important.

It's -- they did a preliminary inquiry, it took five days, dozen -- dozen or so interviews and I think the preliminary inquiry was successful in terms of what it was intended to do.  It's -- intent of a preliminary inquiry is to decide whether or not a further investigation is warranted.

And I think as Secretary McPherson -- Acting Secretary McPherson rightly stated, that it raised a lot of questions -- unanswered questions and so his determination was that a -- a -- a full-up investigation is required.  So we now know that is underway.

I think you -- if I recall what you said, you scoped it properly, my guidance to him -- and it -- again, it was his decision, it's being conducted by the Navy, is pretty simple -- do the right thing and follow the facts wherever they go.

If we reach the point where his investigation exceeds the scope of -- of how he is bounded right now or his authority, then he knows he can come back to me and I'm going to be diligent in terms of, again, following the facts.

I think whatever -- wherever this investigation comes up to -- and I've said this privately and -- and maybe publicly with some of you all, is it -- we've got to be able to hold up to ourselves, to the American people, to the Congress. 

It has to be able to survive the scrutiny and all of the questions that are out there so we know that we know everything that happened and -- and -- and we hold folks accountable as need to be accountable and that we learn from it.  The important thing is learn so that going into the future, we're a much better organization either writ large but the Navy in particular.

So we'll -- we've got to let that play out and that's all I'll say to that at this point.

STAFF:  All right.  And the last question here, Meghan?

Q:  So for the Chairman ...

SEC. ESPER: Chairman you have anything to add on that last one?

GEN. MILLEY: No I agree.

Q:  Do you have an update on how far through the tiers you’ve gotten in terms of getting all of tier one, tier two, tier three tested, how long that might take?  And then for the Secretary, as some of these states lift their shelter-in-place orders, what's your advice -- not necessarily policy guidance but advice -- for garrison commanders who are trying to negotiate that in Texas, Georgia, Florida?

GEN. MILLEY:  Sure.  So on the first question, for the strategic forces you can rest assured that they're -- they're all squared away and -- and readiness is there and they've all been tested and screened for COVID.  We're working our way through tier two.  Tier two is a much larger population and we're still working our way through that.

SEC. ESPER:  And on the -- the -- the other question, Meghan, what we're developing now -- and it's 80 percent there, if you will, is what that guidance would look like.  We're going to look at things on -- at two levels.  One is the states, how states are doing with regard to meeting the administration's guidelines, the CDC guidelines with regard to opening. 

You know that's a 14 day trend downward, et cetera.  That's something that will not be made by installation commanders.  We're going to have to elevate that some so it's made at a state level because as -- as many of you know, we have -- we could have an Army base, a Navy base or an Air Force base in one state. 

So it's situations like that where you don't give guidance all the way down but you -- you drop it to the lowest level capable and competent of making that.  So there will be a level at which it'll be made -- a decision will be made at the state level.

Then there will be another set of criteria -- guidelines probably be more -- more apt -- by which the installation commander will have to apply at his or her installation because as you said, you could be -- an installation in one state of -- in one part of Texas may be different than what they're experiencing in another part of Texas -- just -- I'm picking a random state.

So the -- the -- at that point in time, it'll be more of an individual unit.  The installation commander will have to make those decisions.  Again, we'll provide clear guidelines and then those -- those two pillars, at least right now, will form the basis of how we start looking at lifting the extension -- the travel restriction orders and we'll provide that same type of criteria as we look overseas.

It's a little bit more difficult but we're going to do that, as well.  Again, we had a long conversation this morning with the service secretaries, the service chiefs and the combatant commanders on this to make sure we get it right and it's clear enough and it's enough that we have good confidence that we're -- we're taking due diligence in terms of protecting our people as we look at opening up this summer.

STAFF: Thank you very much guys.

SEC. ESPER:  OK, thank you all very much.  Thank you.