Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Updates Reporters on DOD Operations

Feb. 2, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN KIRBY: Okay, just a couple things off the top here. Just to give you a quick update, I think some of you have been tracking this. 

The USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is departing the Central Command Area of Responsibility, and they'll be now supporting the USINDOPACOM Area of Responsibility. We want to thank all the men and women aboard the ships in that strike group, and the squadrons who supported Central Command now for more than 270 days, ensuring our national security and deterring conflict in a very critical region of the world. 

Yesterday, we also announced -- I think that you saw the department has awarded two contract actions in support of the coronavirus response efforts, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services. The department awarded a $231.8 million contract to Ellume USA LLC for their COVID-19 home tests, as the first over-the-counter, no-prescription-required in-home test. 

It can be performed in approximately 15 minutes from nasal swab specimen -- from a naval -- naval -- naval, I got Navy on the brain here -- from a nasal swab specimen, with results reported via a smartphone app. 

This effort will directly support the National Strategy for COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness policy by including the procurement of 8.5 million tests to be distributed across the country. The contractor now is preparing a distribution plan. That's due in 15 days, and so we'll have a lot more information -- the company will have a lot more information in a couple of weeks about exactly how they're going to be distributed. 

Additionally under the Defense Production Act Title 3, the department entered a $1.1 million agreement with American Apparel, Inc. to sustain critical industrial-based production of U.S. military uniforms. As a domestic supplier of Berry Amendment Compliant Uniforms, American Apparel intends to use the funds to purchase and install equipment that will increase manufacturing automation. This new equipment will increase production capacity to meet all current contract requirements plus any surge requirements up to 25 percent. 

Now on the personnel front, we've on boarded another 14 employees yesterday; it's great to have these team members aboard, we look forward to their contributions to the department. Among the new arrivals were Mieke Eoyang, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy, and Brent Woolfork, who will be the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for House Affairs. 

Now shifting gears. Over the weekend Secretary Austin directed a zero-based review of all DOD advisory committees to include those not otherwise subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The Secretary was deeply concerned with the pace and the extent of recent changes to memberships of Department Advisory Committees and this review will allow him now to quickly get his arms around the purpose of these boards and to make sure the Advisory Committees are in fact providing the best possible advice to department leadership. The review looks specifically for opportunities to find efficiencies across similar board's works and to balance committee membership, to provide again the best advice to our leadership here. 

The Interim Director of Administration and Management and the Acting General Counsel of the Department of Defense will lead this review. Each component head that sponsors a DOD committee will conduct an in depth business case supported by fact-based evidence for the continued utilization of each committee. I think you know that these boards are sort of nested inside sponsors in the building. For instance the Defense Policy Board that the sponsor of that is the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, the Defense Business Board, the sponsor for that is the Deputy Secretary of Defense. 

These sponsors will also consider each committee's mission and function as it relates to the national defense strategy and through our own strategic priorities. We'll get potential functional realignments to create a single cross-functional advisory committee when it's appropriate and they'll also look at potential legislative changes to non-discretionary advisory committees to align their missions and functions to DOD priorities.

Each board's sponsor will submit their completed reviews by April 30th, the end of that month, and in turn those will incorporate or inform final recommendations that will be made to the Secretary by or of each committee by June 1st of this year, 2021. 

So the recommendations we expect, the Secretary expects will include retention, realignment, termination, changes to mission or functions, membership balance, membership size and possible legislative changes again to the non-discretionary advisory committees.

The Secretary also directed that all members currently serving on DOD Advisory Committees and subcommittees where he or another DOD civilian employee or active duty member of the Armed Forces is the approval authority for members to conclude their service no later than February 16th, this month.

Members appointed by Congress or the president, of course, are retained during the review period. The review will apply to more than 40 committees that currently advise the department of cross-policy, personnel, business, science, education, training, healthcare and memorial activities. And I think if we haven't already we will post obviously the Secretary's Memo, the directing memo to this, as well as the associated list of committees that are being reviewed; and with that I'll take questions. I think Lita we got you on the phone, is that right?

Q: That is correct. Thank you. So two, one follow-up and another question. On the Nimitz, can you tell us what the Secretary thinks about having a carrier in this fleet, in the Gulf? Is he in favor of having one there in a persistent presence or not? Will another carrier be going to the, this fleet to replace the Nimitz?

And then second, do you have any update on the FEMA vaccine request? You don't have to go into all of it but just any update from it?

MR. KIRBY: Right. I don't have an update on -- I’ll take your second one; I don't have an update on the requests that we have received from FEMA for administration support and by administration I mean the administration of vaccines; I don't have an update for that. That is still being analyzed. Again we're working hard on this, we understand the sense of urgency and I suspect we'll be able to tell you more in relatively short fashion but I don't have an update today.

On the Nimitz, obviously the Secretary is concerned about making sure that the Defense Department and our forces and fleet forces overseas have the capabilities they need to deter conflict and to respond if needed. It is as you all know a balancing act between requirements and the capabilities on hand. The Secretary believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East to respond. It's a constant discussion that he has with the Central Command Commander as well as the Combatant Commanders in other parts of the world to properly meet those requirements and to balance the risk and I don't have any announcements today with respect to carrier presence in that part of the world and you know obviously if and when we do have something to announce in that regard we certainly will.

Q: Let me follow up on this.

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead.

Q: So was this decision to remove the Nimitz, was it based on any assessment of the security situation in the region, especially in the Gulf area and should Iran read this as somehow, you know, a signal from the Biden administration of their willingness to engage more in diplomacy instead of just a show of force?

MR. KIRBY: Well every decision that we make with military forces; air, ground or Naval and certainly decisions they can make with respect to a capital asset like an aircraft carrier and its associated supporting strike group is a decision driven by a frank assessment of the operational need, the threats in the area and also a frank consideration of the capabilities themselves and so absolutely the Secretary was mindful of the larger geostrategic picture when he approved the movement of the carrier strike group from the Central Command area of responsibility to the INDOPACOM area of responsibility.

Also and I'd be you know I would be irresponsible if I didn't remind you that this particular carrier and the strike group have been at sea for quite some time, a much longer deployment than is typically required and so there are those considerations to make as well.

Right now the carrier is moving to support the INDOPACOM area of responsibility and that's the focus right now. I won't get ahead of future schedules. The other thing I would remind you is, and I think you guys know this, that your Naval assets are mobile and they're agile and they're flexible and as you know the Navy likes to say, they don't need permission slips to operate in certain parts of the world so I think the Secretary understanding all that is you know remains obviously focused on the threats in the region and will continue to address it day-by-day about what the requirements actually are.

Q: John, can we get back to FEMA issue? First of all, exactly what are they requesting? Is it administering the vaccine? If that's the case are we looking more at military medical personnel as far as the support? And also are we looking at hundreds or thousands? Ballpark on the effort. I know you haven't come up with final figures yet.

MR. KIRBY: That's right, Tom. But I think I can help bound this a little bit and I'm glad for the opportunity. The request is largely for assistance with administering vaccines. So these would be people, professionals that can help actually put shots in arms. So following that you can imagine there's -- what we're looking at is a blend of clinical and nonclinical personnel to do that. And I'm reticent to get into specific numbers because we're still working our way through this.

Now as for total numbers and again I'm reluctant to put something on the wall here because the analysis is still going on, but I would you know I think it's safe to assume that we'd be talking in the thousands eventually. But how high and where I just don't know yet. And I you know I beg your forgiveness; we're working on this now and I think we'll be able to have more detail for you soon but we're just not there.

And the other thing I'd want to say if you don't mind while I (LAUGHS) filibuster here is it's important to remember that this is the DOD support to FEMA and to governors and to civil officials around the country; this is not, we are very much a supporting element here and not trying to drive the actual system itself.

Q : Presumably we're looking at active and reserve because the governors can get the Guard from their own state. Right?

MR. KIRBY: You know again I don't want to be too specific about sourcing but as I said last week, I think it's certainly as we look at capabilities we're looking across the joint force, which would include Reserves as well; whether that ends up being part of the sourcing solution I don't know yet but it would be irresponsible for us not to look at the whole joint force. Does that make sense?

Q: Yeah. 

MR. KIRBY: Jen?

Q: Thank you very much, John. I'm your (inaudible). 

MR. KIRBY: You do whatever you need to do.

Q: Thank you very much. How will the United States get involved with Burma’s military coup? Do you know (inaudible) right now? So how would you --?

(CROSSTALK) 

MR. KIRBY: Oh, in Burma. How is the military going to get involved? I don't believe we foresee right now with what's going on there, a U.S. military solution or action required; we certainly have viewed with great alarm what has happened in Burma, but I don't see any U.S. military role right now. Jen?

Q: One more quick, has there ever been any sign or movement in a military coup in the United States, over the past few months.

MR. KIRBY: Can you -- can I ask you to do that one again? 

Q: Is there any sign or movement of military coup d’├ętat in United States over the past few months?

MR. KIRBY: Have I -- have we seen a --

Q: Yes, in the United States.

MR. KIRBY: -- the movement of a military coup in the United States? 

Q: Yes, because of the last Trump administration is --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: No. I -- I -- no. The United States military is one of the most trusted institutions in this country, and I think you were all here and watched Chairman Milley and the Joint Chiefs, how they performed and how they made it very clear that there wasn't going to be a political role for the U.S. military. I -- I -- no. 

Jen? 

Q: Is the secretary comfortable with the number of National Guard troops that are up at the Capitol right now? Is it overstaffed, given the threat levels? Are there any concrete threats that have been presented?

And what happened to the 12 National Guard who were sent home because they were flagged by either FBI or Secret Service prior to the inauguration? Are they being prosecuted in some way? Is it a chain of command issue? What happened with those 12 and what were there -- have the investigations found that they either committed any violation or broke any laws? 

MR. KIRBY: So on your -- let me go second first. I would refer you to the National Guard, Jen. That's not information that -- that we would necessarily have here, that the National Guard, in this case the units would be -- excuse me -- I think better served to address that. 

As for the mission itself, we have a little bit more than 7,000 right now. As you know, not all 7,000 are out at any given time, they work in shifts. The secretary had the opportunity on Friday evening to go spend some time with them. He was very impressed with -- with the work they're doing, thanked them for that, promised them his support. 

I won't get into -- and I wouldn't -- get into specific threat analysis here from the podium, but I would tell you that the department still considers this a valid requirement based on the requests for additional support, continued support, I should say, that we've gotten from federal and local authorities including the Secret Service. 

And that it's a -- that we're -- every day, we're reviewing the status of the mission. So right now we have more than 7,000. I don't want to get too predictive about what it's going to look like, forward. I think -- but to go back to what -- you know, the secretary, he -- as he told the National Guardsmen Friday, I mean, he very much wants to get them back home and back to their lives and to their jobs and to their families as soon as possible. 

But we also have what we still consider to be a valid requirement for their assistance, and we're going to have to, you know, continue to meet that. And I wouldn't get more predictive -- you know, more than that right now, more specific. 

Let's see, we'll go to David Martin. You are on the phone, is that right? 

Q: I am. I think you said in the statement on advisory committees that the secretary was concerned about the pace of change. Can you tell us that this -- this review was a specific reaction to all of the dismissals and appointments in the final days of the Trump administration? 

MR. KIRBY: There's no question, David, that the -- the frenetic activity that occurred to the composition of so many boards in just the -- in just the period of November to January, deeply concerned the secretary and certainly helped drive him to this decision, yes.

Let's see, maybe we can do another one on the phone, I have to keep remembering to do this. Tony, Tony Capaccio? 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Hi -- hi, John. I have a quick question closer to home.  On recusals, the issue came up today, the deputy secretary Hicks' nomination hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Has the secretary laid out programs he will definitely recuse himself from that are Raytheon related? 

F-35, Ground Based Strategic Deterrents, and the Long Range Stand Off Weapon. Those last two came up today in the written questions from the Senate to Ms. Hicks. 

MR. KIRBY: So thank you, Tony. As I think you saw, the -- the secretary commit to, that he will recuse himself from Raytheon-related decisions, not unlike, in fact, the -- the same way that the previous secretary, Secretary Esper, did. And as a matter of fact, he intends to use the same sort of decision-making, vetting process for Raytheon decisions that Secretary Esper had in place. 

Q: That was that screening process he set up so staff would be able to winnow through programs that may or may not be Raytheon-related? 

MR. KIRBY: That's correct, Tony, same screening process. He's committed to doing that, he's made that direction to the staff so that he can be absolutely, 100 percent committed to abiding by his agreement to recuse. 

Yeah. 

Q: May I ask you, is the F-35, though, the Pentagon's largest program, Raytheon makes the engines for it. Will he specifically recuse himself from decisions on that program? 

MR. KIRBY: You know, Tony, let me take the question and get back on the -- the aegis here. I -- but before I do that, just re-enforce that he takes very seriously his recusal responsibilities from Raytheon-related programs and systems. And so I can assure you that he'll do that. What you're asking is a broader question, and I owe you a better answer on that. 

Go ahead. 

Q: Thank you. 

Q: I have actually one follow-up on Nimitz, and two on Syria. 

So on Nimitz, does the -- does it have anything to do with the rising tension between China and India that you deployed -- deployed the ship to INDOPACOM? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into specific rationale for why a ship is moved, you know, from one area of responsibility to another. We certainly have legitimate requirements for naval power in both areas of responsibility. And there is a finite number of aircraft carriers available at any given time. So this is a constant balancing act that the leadership here, the secretary has to perform in terms of meeting requirements with capabilities. 

I would be -- it -- I would not characterize this as a response to a specific issue or event or public comment by a leader here or there, it is very typical for us to move naval assets from one area of responsibility to another to meet a plethora of different missions. Sometimes it's just training, sometimes it's transit from one place to another.

In this place, the Nimitz is at the end of a very, very long deployment. So I wouldn't read too much into that. But -- but that's the justification. 

And you had another question? 

Q: Yeah, on Syria, that there have been several terrorist attacks in northwest Syria, on civilians. And State Department yesterday, of course, condemned those attacks. But Turkey has been accusing YPG for those attacks. And YPG's the leading force of SDF, which is supported by the United States. 

So, would you rule out that YPG is somehow behind those attacks?

MR. KIRBY: I am not familiar with the -- I'm not familiar with the operational assessments on this and I'd refer you to the State Department, that is -- that's not really something that would be in our privy at the U.S. Military to talk about.

We'll go back here and then -- and then I'll go to another one on the phone, go ahead.

Q: Okay. Thank you very much. I wanted to ask you about the negotiations for a new coastal sharing agreement for hosting the U.S. Troops in Japan and South Korea. The previous administration said the coastal sharing agreement was not fair to the U.S. and they said that the ASEAN allies should assume greater share of the burden. What do you figure a function on this issue? Do you think that ASEAN allies should spend more for U.S. troops? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: I -- I don't -- right now we're I think looking at, as I said last week, sort of a global posture review. We're in the midst of taking a look at our force posture around the world and the contributions that we're making.

So, I'm not prepared to give you a specific answer to that right now. The secretary certainly looks forward to discussing with our partners in the Pacific, ASEAN members as well, you know that it's -- that that's an important part of the world for us. But I'm not -- I don't have anything to read out specifically today in terms of you know dollar figures in terms of cost sharing.

The only thing I would say writ large is that the secretary remains committed to re-invigorating our alliances and our partnerships around the world and our friendships because he -- as he said on day one, nobody can do this alone, we all need partners and friends, and you know five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Pacific, I'm not assuming -- I'm not suggesting ASEAN is one of those, it's not -- but my point I'm trying to make is that is that we have many partners and allies in that region, it's a critical part of the world.

You heard the secretary talk about the focus that we need to the stronger focus we need to apply to the Asia Pacific region and I think you'll see him over time continue to bear that out with decisions and policies that we're putting in place.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go -- let me go to the phone -- let me go to the phone. Carol Rosenberg?

Q: Thank you, Admiral. Can you see whether all the 15,000 troops at JTF-GTMO who wanted the vaccine got a vaccine? All the prison staff who wanted to be protected, already protected? It looks like they're now offering them to schoolteachers, bartenders, and commissary workers down there.

MR. KIRBY: I can't answer the first question, Carol, I don't know and I certainly refer you down to either to the Navy or to Southern Command just to speak specific numbers. I do know that they had begun the vaccination of men and women who work down at Guantanamo Bay on the base and with the JTF and they were moving along the previous departmental vaccination schema in terms of priorities.

So, they -- there are certainly members of the military that have been vaccinated and again I'd remind you that it's a voluntary vaccine, you -- we cannot compel it. But I know that there were -- there were members of the military that had been vaccinated down there.

The exact numbers, Carol, I'm just not -- I don't have in front of me right now but I'll tell you what, we'll take that question but we'll also make sure that it gets properly staffed through the Navy and through Southern Command.

Yes, Dan.

Q: Can we just go back to the Nimitz just to be clear, was there a reduction in the threat level and that was part of the rationale for that decision or is that not the case?

MR. KIRBY: The Nimitz?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Again, Dan, I'm really reluctant to get into specific discussions of threats and intelligence. We don't make decisions like this lightly and there's a lot of factors, particularly when you're dealing with a strike group that has been at sea and deployed for as long as -- as it has been.

I mean, ten months or it's about to be ten months, and so you have to consider the wear and tear on the ship itself, as well as the effect on sailors who are incredibly resilient.

So, there's a lot of factors that go into this and again I would -- I think it would be imprudent for us to look at this and think, well this is based on a specific piece of intel, on a specific part of the world, it's about balancing capabilities against the requirements and there are requirements for Naval assets in many places of the world.

And then there's a limited number of aircraft carriers. What -- but I want to pull back, again, to make a larger point that we haven't a lot of military capacity in the Central command AOR, that area of responsibility.

And we are constantly working with Combatant Commanders and in this case, General McKenzie, to do the best we can to meet their requirements for additional forces for as long as possible, you know, against the requirement.

And I just don't want to get ahead of the secretary's decision space with respect to future Naval assets that may or may not operate in that part of the world. We're constantly watching the threat; we're constantly trying to meet that threat with proper capabilities.

The secretary's very comfortable that that process of evaluation is ongoing and he is connected to the Combatant Commanders, these two in particular, and this decision was made in consultation with them and with the -- the Navy. So, I --

Q: (inaudible) --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Let me -- let me, sir --sir, hang on a second, let me get Dan and I've already gotten you so just give me --

Q: I was wondering --

MR. KIRBY: Hang on just a second, sir.

Q: In the CENTCOM AOR in Afghanistan you've talked about troops levels and the considerations last week, what -- is the secretary ruling out the possibility of any minor additional forces because of the situation there either for force protection reasons or other requests from the Afghan government?

MR. KIRBY: The secretary's not ruling anything in or out, Dan, I mean he's mindful of the need and he's mindful of the threat and we're constantly evaluating that, almost on a daily basis. There are a lot of resources in the region, there are other resources that can be mobilized if needed. But I just don't think we're you know -- I wouldn't want to get into the specifics of how that's -- of how that's being done.

Again, I want to go back to he's -- he's made this -- this decision to allow this transfer into a -- into a different area of responsibility in consultation with both Combatant Commanders and with the Navy and frankly with the chairman of the joint chiefs as well, and his belief is that this move is in the national interest and he's always going to fall back on that as he makes these decisions. And again, I just wouldn't want to close down his decision space in the -- in the future.

Q: And on Afghanistan, he would not rule out the idea of considering at least the idea of enlarging the U.S. footprint there to some degree?

MR. KIRBY: Again -- again I don't want to get into hypotheticals as I said last week, any future -- there's no -- I don't have any future force posture decisions to read out or to announce. Future decisions about force posture in Afghanistan are going to be conditions-based. 

Q: Abraham Mahshie, Washington Examiner. I wonder if I could go back to the Guard force posture in the Capitol --

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: -- and your cooperation with FBI in support.

MR. KIRBY: Sure. 

Q: Can you say whether or not the FBI has sent you more alerts which come when there is an arrest of service-members or there is information about service-members, active duty or veterans related to the Capitol riots January 6th? And also the acting army secretary spoke to us recently and did give us -- characterize a little bit of what the threat assessment is in the Capitol. I wonder if you could provide us an answer: Is there even a threat anymore? When you say you're going to review it on a daily basis, could you downgrade the Guard presence in the Capitol, is that possible? 

MR. KIRBY: Again, reticent to get into hypotheticals. So let me just try to parse this out here. I would refer you to the services for any notifications that might come from civilian law enforcement to include the FBI, because that wouldn't come in to the office of the secretary, that would go to the services. And I'm not aware of any additional notifications by the FBI for additional investigative work on other members. I'm just simply not aware of that and I would point you to the services for that. 

As I said in my answer earlier, we're constantly reviewing the force posture here, the presence of the Guard in the Capitol Region. We understand that they left jobs and homes and families, and they want to get back to them. But from the secretary's visit, it was pretty clear to him that they also -- they believe in what they're doing. And they believe it's a valuable mission. 

For as long as it is a valuable mission, for as long as it is required, this request from civil and law enforcement authorities, the Department of Defense will continue to source it and to meet it. And when that ends, I don't know. How and at what pace it tapers off, I don't know, because we're constantly looking at this. 

But to go back to what I told you earlier, the secretary made it clear to those soldiers that he doesn't want to keep them out there any longer than they need to be, because he knows, you know, they're making an enormous sacrifice, and so are their families. And it's cold outside. And that is not fun work. And he recognizes that as a former soldier himself. So we're going to just keep -- every day, you know, we'll keep looking at this. 

And on the threat assessment, I'm just reticent to get into that. That's just not -- that's not a healthy thing for me to do at the podium, is to talk about specific threats and intelligence. 

Let me go back to the phone for a second. Let's see. Paul McLeary, Breaking Defense? 

Q: Hi, John, thanks. I wanted to ask a kind of in-house question about the executive order from President Biden last week about the climate crisis. Who is leading the charge at DoD to kind of marshal all the -- you know, get everyone together and submit that report to the White House? And what kind of effect do you think this new order is going to have on acquisition and operations, things like that, going forward? 

MR. KIRBY: I missed the question. It was -- I missed the first part of your question, Paul. It was a directive about what? 

Q: Climate crisis. 

Q: Yes, climate change, executive order. 

MR. KIRBY: Oh, climate change. Okay. I'm sorry. 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I know. I didn't get that. 

So, taking a couple of steps back, I mean, the secretary has made it clear, you saw his statement. He believes climate change is a national security issue. It affects our facilities and our infrastructure. It affects things like, you know, Navy ship piers and our bases around the world as a result of the extreme weather that climate change contributes to. 

It also is a driver of people. It's a driver of refugees, which also contributes to instability and insecurity in places where oftentimes the military -- U.S. military then has to deploy to support allies and partners around the world. And, of course, it requires many times the use of the military for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, you know, driven by severe weather, which is, of course, scientists have shown is -- lately has been driven by the changing climate. 

I don't have specifics, Paul, for you in terms of how that breaks out into, you know, dollar figures right now. I mean, previous estimates have been in the many millions of dollars in terms of the effect it has on the U.S. military. As you saw in the president's executive order, he wants and tasks the secretary to factor in climate change into not only resourcing allocations, but operational concepts, even war-gaming. 

And so the secretary has made that very clear to the department that he takes that tasking very seriously and will do the spade work to do that by the deadline, which I think was 60 days, what the E.O. said. 

So we'll have, I think, more specifics to put on that, Paul, once we get further down fleshing out what we've been tasked to do. But, you know, again, it's a national security issue. He takes it that seriously. He knows it has a dramatic and specific effect on the U.S. military and our capabilities around the world.  

Yes, Meghann.

Q: Another Fifth Fleet question. So Nimitz has made its way out. Eisenhower is basically next in line for deployment. And it would be also less than a year, it would only be a few months, since they came back from their last deployment. Has the secretary, in considering these requests from CENTCOM to have a persistent carrier presence in (inaudible), has he considered the wear and tear on the ships, the wear and tear on the crews doing so many back-to-back deployments or these extremely long deployments the way Nimitz has? 

Is it possible that you could let some time lapse in Fifth Fleet without a carrier to shore up the readiness and the morale of some of these crews? 

MR. KIRBY: Well, without getting into the specific decisions based on force presence in Central Command, the short answer to your question, Meghann, is, yes, the secretary obviously factors in the wear and tear on the fleet and on the ships and the sailors just as he would the resilience and the wear and tear on military units of all different stripes. It's absolutely part of his calculus. 

And that's why before he makes a decision like the one that he just made, he consults with the service, in this case, the Navy, and with the combatant commanders that are affected by this decision. And it is -- in many cases, it's a balancing act. You have X number of requirements. You have Y number of capabilities. And you want to try to meet those requirements as best you can. 

And you're no stranger to the building. You're no stranger to this issue. There are some times where you can't meet all requirements every day, and you've got to balance what you can apply to those requirements. And that is the -- that's the business of national security decision-making that the secretary is in. And I -- you know, we saw that process play out here with this particular decision. 

I'll take Lucas, and then I'll go to the phone. Go ahead.  

Q: Question on nuclear weapons. The head of U.S. Strategic Command recently said in an issue of Proceedings, quote, "There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons." Admiral Charles Richard went on to say, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from nuclear employment is not possible to nuclear employment is a very real possibility.

Does the secretary agree with that statement?

MR. KIRBY: The secretary, as I think you've heard him say, certainly considers our nuclear capabilities and their modernization a key priority. He's also said that the -- we don't want things to escalate to conflicts, certainly not of that scale. And so his job, he believes, is to protect and defend the American people. And that means having a broad mix of capabilities that -- that are ready to do that. And that includes nuclear strategic capabilities.

And he's committed to, as I think you've heard him say, conducting a Nuclear Posture Review, to better understand the state of modernization and the need for innovation and research and development of -- you know, of improving those capabilities over time. So I think he certainly shares the admiral's concern that -- that these capabilities are important. 

And that -- and you've heard him talk about both Russia and China. China being the pacing challenge of this Department and Russia clearly posing a threat on many fronts, and he takes those -- he takes those seriously.

And as he -- as he works through the posture review of nuclear capabilities and as he works through the Global Posture Review, I think you'll see those things sort of integrate and come -- and come into focus about what kinds of long-term posture and capabilities we're going to try to put in the field to make sure, again, that we can defend the American people.

Q: Are tensions among nuclear-armed nations the highest they've ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis?

MR. KIRBY: You know, I try to stay away from superlatives, Lucas. I mean, again, he views China as the biggest pacing challenge for this Department. Nobody wants to see things end up in conflict, certainly not on that scale. But it's his job and it's the Department's job to help deter -- to prevent that kind of conflict, particularly on that scale. And I would just say that -- you know, that's where his head is, rather than getting into, you know, the specifics of most this or most dangerous that.

Clearly there is much work to do and you've heard Secretary of State Blinken mention this just the other day, there's much work to do with our bilateral relations with China and with Russia. But our job here at the Defense Department is to make sure that we can protect the American people from threats.

I'm going to -- let me go to the phone. Let me go to the phone. Lara Seligman?

Q: Hi, I have a question actually about Guantanamo Bay. Can you tell me please, who made the decision to begin vaccinating the prisoners? Was that something that was in the works in the previous administration or was that something that the Biden administration initiated? And can you tell me why?

MR. KIRBY: Why what, Lara?

Q: Why was that decision initially made? What was the reasoning?

MR. KIRBY: So I think as I referred to earlier, the -- there -- and you guys know this better than me because you've been here longer than me -- that the Department had a vaccination plan, a schema if you will, for phasing in the vaccination of American men and women who support the military, their workforce -- different phases. The goal being, of course, to vaccinate those that needed it the earliest and the fastest -- you know, health care workers and the supporting staff to them, for instance, were -- you know right at the top of the list.

And because it's a vast bureaucracy, you know, millions of people -- literally hundreds of commands around the world, they -- some areas -- some commands moved through those phases at a faster clip than others. But these phases were put into place and developed in the previous administration. Again, the focus was clearly on trying to get the vaccines to the people that needed it the most.

And so, the -- to your specific question, the vaccination plan underway was underway before President Biden took office, before Secretary Austin took office. That's not an -- that's not to impugn that decision-making process at all but just to answer your question that that was -- that scheme was already underway and being executed.

Q: (OFF-MIKE) Just a follow-up on Guantanamo --

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Dan.

Q: -- Wouldn't it be for the sake of the health of the U.S. personnel there, wouldn't it make sense to vaccinate the inmates -- the detainees?

MR. KIRBY: The health protection of our forces remains a top priority, Dan. 

And I think one of the things -- the main reason why we've got a temporary pause here -- down there is to just better understand how they move through their scheme, how they move through their phases, and just to take a look to make sure that -- that we better understand that process. Again, as I mentioned over the weekend in keeping with our desire to make sure that -- that the -- the health and well-being of our troops and their families really are foremost in mind.

I think I've got time for one -- one more. Sir, I'll get you -- you in the back. Go ahead.

Q: (inaudible) Tanabe from Nippon Television, very nice to meet you. And --

MR. KIRBY: Nice to meet you.

Q: -- I'd like to ask you about the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative. And President Biden and Prime Minister Suga the other day agreed on the importance of the -- this initiative in the last phone call.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: So I'd like to ask you, how does the DOD recognize the importance of this and how do you plan to develop this, especially in order to counter China?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we don't have time for me to answer that. There's a lot there. Except, let me just again reiterate the secretary's focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the many opportunities that are there, not just challenges. Again, we have the bulk of our treaty alliances are there. We've got serious security commitments in the Indo-Pacific region that we intend to meet and to take seriously.

And I think you'll see, as the secretary gets situated and begins to flesh out what will be the first budget that he under this presidential administration submits here in the coming months, and as he begins to evaluate the National Defense Strategy and, as he said in testimony, begin to flesh out what changes there might be, I think you'll see this theme come back again and again, this -- this understanding by the department that that area of the world is vital and we'll -- and must remain vital. We're a Pacific power, and we have responsibilities there. 

I think you also heard him say, though, just so there's no question, that in the -- in the main muscle movements of the existing National Defense Strategy, with respect to great power competition and in particular the challenge that China poses, that he agrees with that, okay? 

I'll take -- take a couple more here. Ellie Kaufman, CNN? No, you don't have a question? Or do you? I have to remember to look over here where it says, "Question, yes or no?" And that one was a no. 

Tara Copp? 

Okay, we lost Tara. I'll take one more from in the room. Ma'am, you haven't had a question. 

Q: Yes, I have two questions on Iraq actually. 

MR. KIRBY: On what? 

Q: Iraq. 

MR. KIRBY: Iraq, okay.

Q: The first one, if you can give us some details on that operation that killed Abu Yasser al-Issawi last week. Was it like a joint operation between the international coalition and the Iraqi Forces? 

MR. KIRBY: So as I understand it, from Operation Inherent Resolve, it was a partnered mission. I am -- I'm not going to get into the specific tactics of what that looks like, I'd refer you to them, that really wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak to from the podium, but it was a partnered mission. 

Q: And the second question is, is the review, the strategy review that the Pentagon is conducting in Iraq, would consider the troops' level there? Are we going to see a significant change of the number of troops that you have had in Iraq now? 

MR. KIRBY: I think the current level in Iraq is around 2,500. I have no changes to that to report out to you today, no decisions about force posture there have been made one way or the other. 

The secretary wants to get a chance to examine the mission and the strategy there and make sure that -- that we are executing the right strategy, a good strategy, and that we are properly resourcing that strategy. But he is not in a position now where he can make any specific decisions one way or another, so I don't have any changes to force posture to read out to you. 

Q: Afghanistan, one question? 

MR. KIRBY: One more. 

Q: Thank you very much. So in response to your statements last week here, Taliban basically vow to fight U.S. troops if they remain in Afghanistan beyond next May. So the first question, do you think the U.S. has enough troops in Afghanistan to deal with such a situation? 

And are you willing -- I mean, are you taking that risk assessment into your consideration in this review of Afghanistan, regardless of whether Taliban is basically living up to their commitments or not? 

MR. KIRBY: Look, I mean, the -- we are committed to a political settlement in Afghanistan, one that includes the Afghan government. As we've said many times, an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process. And we -- we're going to continue to support the achievement of a political settlement. No force posture decisions have been made, and I wouldn't speculate beyond that. 

We have long believed that political resolution is the best way forward, and the secretary and the department are committed to that. 

MR. KIRBY: Okay, thanks, everybody, appreciate it, thank you very much.