Transcript

Secretary of Defense Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley Press Briefing

May 6, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley; Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Thanks for coming today. Just a couple of ground rules and setting here.

We'll have statements by both the secretary and the chairman, and then we'll open it up for questions. I will moderate, I'll call on you. Please identify who you are and your outlet when you ask. And if you can, limit follow-ups. We don't have a whole heck of a lot of time today, both gentlemen have busy schedules so we're going to try to keep this thing moving.

So thanks again. And with that, Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, John.

First of all, let me start by thanking all of you for coming today, and let me also tell you just how much I appreciate the work that you do. Our free and independent press is one of America's greatest strengths and when you hold us accountable, it makes us better and it makes our country stronger. So thanks for what you do.

It's been a very busy hundred days. We've been focused on my top three priorities, and I'll quickly review what our team has accomplished thus far. Clearly, we have a lot more to do but I'm very proud of the progress that we have made to this point.

As you saw in my initial message to the force, our top priority is to defend this nation and to protect our interests. Today, the most urgent challenge that we face is COVID-19, and so the department has stepped up to save American lives through vaccination. We've been a part of a whole-of-government effort to get shots into arms, and active duty and National Guard troops have administered more than 14 million total shots to the American people.

We've also been moving out quickly to vaccinate the force and our broader DOD family. We've administered more than 3 million shots to DOD personnel, and that's more than 550,000 fully vaccinated service members and more than 644,000 fully vaccinated civilians, contractors and beneficiaries at home and overseas.

We're also working on the global challenge of controlling this pandemic once and for all. In that regard, I should say just a word about the crisis facing our friends in India. We're moving urgently to support India's front-line health care workers and three U.S. Air Force C-5M Super Galaxies and a C-17 Globe Master III have already delivered many tons of critical supplies.

For a sense of some of the wider strategic changes in the works, let me point you to the remarks that I made in Hawaii last week, at the change-of-command for Indo-Pacific Command.

The department is working together on what I -- what I call integrated deterrence, which is a new vision of how we defend the nation in all domains of conflict in a time when technology is changing the nature of warfare. And that's especially important for our priority theater of operations, the Indo-Pacific.

SEC. AUSTIN: We've started a global force posture review to make sure we're positioned well for the challenges that we face around the globe, but certainly there in the region as well. And the China Task Force, which is ably led by Dr. Ely Ratner, is developing an important set of recommendations.

Further afield, we've condemned Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, and underscored our commitment to helping Ukraine's forces better defend their country.

And we're moving to tackle the very few -- one of the very few truly existential threats that we face, and that's the climate crisis.

Our second key priority is taking care of our people, all of our people. And towards that end, Deputy Secretary Hicks has convened the Deputy's Workforce Council, which is a new senior leadership forum that addresses the most pressing people management and personnel policy and total force requirements.

And as you all know, my first directive was on sexual assault, and that was on my second day in office. We established an independent review commission, and I'm going to have an open mind about what they come up with, and the recommendations that they make.

You've heard me say this before, but sexual assault is a problem that plagues us. It is a readiness issue, it is a leadership issue, and we're going to lead real change for real results.

We're also tackling the problem of violent extremists in our ranks and our workforce. We began by ordering a stand down on this issue, we established the Countering Extremism Working Group. And clearly, we've got a lot of work to do, and I want to be blunt. There is no place for hatred or bigotry or extremist behavior in this department or in the military.

This department has an open door to any qualified American who wants to serve. And that's a matter of both national principle and national security. Diversity throughout the force is a source of strength, so we can't afford to deprive ourselves of the talents and the voices of the full range of the nation that we defend.

Third, we brought a renewed focus on teamwork on several levels. In part, that's about outreach to our allies and partners, who multiply our strength and make the world more stable and secure. And as you know, my first trips were all about investing in those relationships, including important business that we've already conducted with the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea and Germany, the U.K., India, Israel, and NATO.

But this is also about how the department fits into the interagency and works with our teammates across the U.S. government. There is no daylight between this department and the State Department on a basic principle, and that principle is that in securing America's interests, diplomacy always come first.

And lastly, teamwork means a new spirit within this building. And so we -- it's time to get back to professionalism and normal order and good process.

And finally, let me end with Afghanistan. The president has decided to end America's involvement in our longest war, and we're going to do just that. And so far, less than one week in, the drawdown is going according to plan.

At the same time we are shifting to a new bilateral relationship with our Afghan security partners where we'll work toward our common goals in some new and different ways. And I'm grateful for the effort that generals McKenzie and Miller have put into planning for all of this. And, of course, I am enormously proud of the men and women of the military who are now and who have for the past 20 years dedicated themselves to an important mission.

That mission is now changing. But they are meeting the challenge with the same professionalism with which they have met every task assigned to them. As I said in Brussels standing side-by-side with our allies, we're going to do everything that we can to make this drawdown deliberate, orderly, and safe, and to protect our people and our partners.

And so with that, I'm going to hand it over to the chairman to offer some specifics on the drawdown. General Milley?

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary.

And I want to take first, a moment to thank the men and women of the Joint Force, active duty, Reserve, National Guard for their incredible work day in and day out in defense of our nation. I'd like to highlight that in addition to Afghanistan, we're engaged in training exercises, contingency operations, and humanitarian efforts throughout the world. And the Joint Force is committed to global stability and security, defense of the United States. And our service members stand ready at all times to protect our security.

With respect to Afghanistan, our primary military objective at this point is a change of mission to conduct a safe, responsible , coordinated, and deliberate retrograde of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in good order. We will do this in a synchronized fashion, shoulder to shoulder with our allies and NATO partners. And we have been steadily reducing our presence for almost a decade. And we are now in the final phase of that strategic retrograde.

As you know, we have been transferring steadily functions and responsibilities to the Afghan security forces for a considerable amount of time. The president of the United States has given us a window to be complete no later than September. I don't want to here put precise dates in public, or exact milestones because there are many variables that will factor in to the ultimate outcome. I am confident, however, that our ability to meet the objectives in the time frame that the president has directed.

With respect to the Taliban, there continues to be sustained levels of violent attacks, primarily against the ANSF. There have been about 80 to 120 enemy-initiated attacks a day for the past year. And that has also been sustained since 1 May. There have been no attacks against U.S. and coalition forces since the retrograde began on about 1 May. And that is also consistent for the past year.

The ANSF, Afghan National Security Forces, and the government of Afghanistan at this time remain cohesive. And the president's intent -- the president of the United States' intent is to continue to support both the ANSF and the government of Afghanistan.

To date we have closed one base in Helmand. Approximately 60 C-17 equivalents have departed with various equipment and rolling stock, and over 1,300 pieces of equipment have been transferred either to the Defense Logistics Agency for destruction or to the ANSF for their use.

GEN. MILLEY: To maximize force protection, we have bolstered our security with additional firepower. The SECDEF has directed six additional B-52 long-range strike bombers and a package of 12 fighter bombers, F-18s postured to offer contingency support. In addition to that, the SECDEF has extended the Eisenhower carrier strike group.

We came in with our allies, and we will depart with our allies, shoulder-to-shoulder, and together we are all going to execute a fully coordinated, synchronized retrograde in good order.

Thank you, and I'll be happy to answer your questions.

MR. KIRBY: Bob?

Q: Thank you. I have a question for each of you, if I may, on Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary.

General Milley just referred to the high level of violence in Afghanistan, and in some respects the violence has increased in recent days even as you've begun the drawdown. My question really is, what's to stop the Taliban from overwhelming the Afghan forces -- particularly in the south, if not in the whole country, creating instability -- additional instability even in Pakistan? Is there something you can do during the summer to stop that from happening?

If I may ask a quick question of General Milley, the secretary referred a minute ago in his opening statement to different ways in which the U.S. will interact with the Afghan forces to support the Afghan forces in the future. He used the phrase "different ways." I'm wondering if one of those different ways has to do with training Afghan forces in third countries outside of Afghanistan. Is that an option?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: So, thanks, Bob. I think the first part of the question is what's to stop the Taliban? We're hopeful that the Afghan security forces will play the major role in stopping the Taliban. And I know what we're seeing unfold is what we've expected to unfold, increased pressure. We've seen an instance of, down in Lashkar Gar, of the Afghan security forces conducting a counterattack and performing fairly well.

We will continue to support them after we retrograde with funding, with over the horizon logistics. We will remain partners with the Afghan government, with the Afghan military, and certainly we hope through our continued support the Afghan security forces can be effective. But it's -- they have a pretty significant capability, but it's going to -- we expect that this will be a challenge for them.

GEN. MILLEY: So Bob, I mean, there's 300,000 plus Afghan army, Afghan police, it’s their country, so they've been leading the fight for several years now, and we've been supporting them for sure -- but they've been leading the fight. And I'm a personal witness, as well as many of us, that the Afghan security forces can fight and they're fighting for their own country now.

So, it's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls or any of those kind of dire predictions; that's not a foregone conclusion. There's significant military capability in the Afghan government, and we have to see how this plays out with respect to our support in different ways the secretary just mentioned over the horizon we're going to -- intent is to keep an embassy open and to keep supporting the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces with financial aid and money.

We'll also continue to take a look at training them in perhaps other locations -- but no, we haven't figured that out 100 percent yet. But also things like maintenance support, and perhaps C.T. support from over the horizon. There's a lot of ways to do that and we're very capable of doing it, and we're working on those plans right now.

Q: The training in other countries is an option you're ...

GEN. MILLEY: It's possible. I mean, there's a lot of different options out there, and we haven't settled on one of them yet, but when we get some finalized plans put together, we'll brief those to secretary for approval.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Helene?

Q: Thank you. This is for both of you. I'd like to address the issue of air support in Afghanistan. Afghan commanders, as you both know, are pleading for more air now in key regions that are under attack. At what point do we turn off the spigot? Do we wean them off, or do we make them, you know -- or are we going to make them go cold turkey once all of our troops are out? And I have a follow-up for General Milley.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Helene. Again, our focus is currently on, you know, the task that the president has assigned us, and that is to retrograde safely and orderly our -- our troops and -- and those of our allies, and -- and -- and protect them while doing so. I think General Miller has, you know, adequate resources and capabilities to protect themselves, and he has the authorities -- to protect himself and -- and -- and our troops, and he has the -- the authorities to protect our allies, as well, the Afghans. So in terms of when he does what, there's a reason that he's a four-star commander, and -- and certainly, he'll make -- he'll make the call on the ground of what he needs to do and when he needs to do it. My focus is just to make sure he's -- he has the resources.

Once we've left, again, our focus is on providing -- or maintaining a C.T. capability over the horizon and supporting the Afghans with -- with monetary support and over-the-horizon logistics, where possible.

GEN. MILLEY: And Helene, you probably already know this: The -- the Afghan air force does 80 to 90 percent of all air strikes in support of the Afghan ground forces. We're -- we're actually doing very few air -- we do some, but very few, relative to the Afghan air force. The key will be the Afghan air force and their ability to continue providing close air support for the Afghan remaining.

You've got a follow-on, you said?

Q: Yes, that is exactly my follow-up, is how are we -- are we planning, then, on turning the contracts -- our contractors over to the Afghan military -- to the Afghan air force, to the Afghan government then to provide the maintenance on the planes and stuff for the Afghan air force? How are we going to do that?

GEN. MILLEY: Well, that -- that's one of the key questions, and -- and I will tell you that the final crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s of that plan is not yet settled. But maintaining logistic support to the Afghan air force is a -- is a key task that we have to sort out doing it over the horizon, but also in country. It could be done by contract, because a lot of that's going to be dependent on the conditions, the security conditions on the ground. But the intent is to keep the Afghan air force in the air and to provide them with continued maintenance support.

MR. KIRBY: David?

Q: This is for both of you. What -- what is the latest estimate of when and where this Chinese rocket will come down? Do you consider it a potential threat to the U.S.? And do you have a plan for shooting it down, if necessary?

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, David. The latest estimates -- estimates of that scene is somewhere between the eighth and ninth, you know, and -- and the experts are still working on that at this point. We -- we don't have a plan to shoot the rocket down. We're hopeful that -- that it will land in -- in a place where it won't -- won't harm anyone -- hopefully, in the ocean or -- or someplace like that.

I think this speaks to the fact that for those of us who operate in the space domain, that there is a requirement -- there should be a requirement to -- to operate in a safe and -- and thoughtful mode, and make sure that we take those kinds of things into -- into consideration as we plan and conduct operations.

Q: Do you even have the capability to shoot it down?

SEC. AUSTIN: David, we have -- as you know, we have the capability to do a lot of things, but we don't have a plan to -- to shoot it down, as we speak.

MR. KIRBY: Let's see -- Jen?

Q: Secretary Austin, you said that COVID-19 is your priority. It's your greatest threat right now. Given the amount of vaccine hesitancy in the military and among military families, why won't you order troops and their families to get vaccinated? Isn't this a readiness issue?

And General Milley, there was recently a DIA report suggesting that al-Qaida's top leaders are in Iran. Who is in Iran? And where is Zawahiri?

SEC. AUSTIN: That was quite a swing of -- of subject matter there, Jen. Thanks.

(Laughter.)

Regarding the -- the COVID vaccine, as -- as you know, Jen, it's still under the emergency use authorization. We've been constantly reviewing our performance and our -- and our options, and we look at the data every day. We -- we still believe that the right focus is to provide the best information available, and -- and this will help our troops to make informed decisions. It's certainly, you know, the approach I took when I elected to take the vaccine very early on when it was available. I think armed with the -- with the right information, accurate information, troops will make -- will make good choices. And -- and so our plan currently is to continue on the path that we're on. You know, we have -- we're using about 80 percent of the vaccines that we're -- we're provide -- we've been provided, and going -- vaccines are going into arms at a -- at a good rate. So I think, you know, the -- the -- the wise thing to do is to continue to evaluate and -- and follow the course that we're on right now.

GEN. MILLEY: And Jen, I'm not going to, obviously, comment on intelligence reports on who is in Iran, not in Iran, et cetera. And -- and with respect to Zawahiri, if I knew where he was, he would be the first one to know that.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY: Meghann?

SEC. AUSTIN: I -- I would probably be the first one to know if he knows that...

(Laughter.)

But then, certainly, him after that, Jen.

GEN. MILLEY: He would be the first. Sorry. It's my bad, my bad. Just [CROSSTALK].

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. Yeah, oh, yeah, there's the president. That part -- yeah. Absolutely, the president would be the -- the first of everybody to know, so...

GEN. MILLEY: Correction. Correct the record.

(Laughter.)

MR. KIRBY: Meghann?

Q: All right. Secretary Austin, your independent review commission has recommended taking sexual assault out of the military chain of command. General Milley has weighed in and said that he agrees with the idea, and the Senate has said they think they have enough votes to get that passed legally. So have you formed an opinion on the matter? And if you haven't, what is holding you back from forming an opinion, given -- given all of that advice that you've gotten so far?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, first -- first, I -- I think you know that the commission is still doing its work. There are several lines of effort that it's -- it's focused on. The accountability line of effort was the very first, and so they provided me an initial readout of -- of their work on it -- on -- on that line of effort. And of course, you know, I'm taking that into consideration.

But what I want to do is to provide the service chiefs and secretaries an opportunity to also review it, and I want to engage in a dialogue with them and make sure that, you know, I have their input, their thoughts. I've always found, in the short period of time that I've been associated with the military that that's -- that's the best path to follow to make sure that you have a good dialogue with the stakeholders because at the end of the day we're all -- whatever's decided, we're all going to have execute it.

Q: Quick follow-up, has that never come up that if you never come up in any of the meetings that you've had with the service secretaries or the chiefs in the time that you've been in your position?

SEC. AUSTIN: I've given them specific guidance in terms of my desire to have them review the recommendation and then I want their feedback on that and then we're going to -- we're going to discuss it. So yes.

MR. KIRBY: Tony.

Q: So on Afghanistan, the U.S. has been spending about $40 billion a year for the last three or four years on the conflict. Do you expect a budget gain, a reallocation from those dollars that you won't be spending out after September 11?

And for General Milley, has that been a discussion in the tank at all with one of the chiefs that we're going to have extra dollars because we're not going to be in Afghanistan, how do we handle the extra money? Mr. Secretary?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, thanks. As you know, a great deal of the funds that we use to fund our efforts not only there but in Iraq was funded with OCO rather than base budget. Certainly anytime you stop doing something that's -- that's this important and this -- this big, it creates opportunities and so we'll look at what the possibilities are going forward as -- as opportunities are created.

Certainly we'll be cited in on our overall strategy and making sure that we prioritize our resources to match the strategy. And -- and so you know more to follow but we're in the middle of a -- of a -- of the final stages of really outlining the budget for '22 and then we'll get busy on the -- on the '23 budget and beyond.

Q: Will the '22 budget reflect some of these reallocations from Afghanistan to other areas?

SEC. AUSTIN: Again, I don't want to try to get ahead of the budget process and this is -- and I'm not making a budget announcement from the podium today. But -- but you know again, the basic logic is, and I think you would agree with this, that anytime you stop doing something that's at large then it creates opportunities to -- for other areas.

And we -- we'll have to define what those opportunities are and prioritize the opportunities.

Q: So has that become a discussion in the tank?

GEN. MILLEY: No, we're not really focused on the budget part of that; the joint chiefs are focused on the execution in fulfilling the president's intent right now.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go to somebody on the phone here and -- Missy Ryan.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I have a question -- a follow-up question regarding Afghanistan and then a question for you, General Milley. So my follow-up on Afghanistan is building on the earlier questions about air support.

If I understood correctly, that the U.S. post withdraw will be providing funding and over the horizon logistical support but not routine air support to the ANSF? Does that mean that if there was a scenario where cities are being advanced upon by Taliban forces that the United States will not provide over the horizon air support in some way to the Afghan forces?

And then my question for you, General Milley is regarding the interpreters who have worked with the United States in Afghanistan and there's been a discussion about the special immigrant visas and the backlogs of applicants who are waiting at the United States prepares to withdraw.

I know that this is a State-led question but give your own service in Afghanistan and that of the -- the men and women that you command in uniform, what is your perspective on the fate of Afghans who are hoping to get visas to come to the United States through that program? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: Hi, Missy. I think you heard me say earlier that -- that again, our focus is on making sure that we can retrograde our resources, our troops, our allies in a safe and orderly and responsible fashion. Beyond that, you know, we look to establish some over-the-horizon CT capability, and some over-the-horizon logistical support capabilities. We'll continue to support the Afghan government and the Afghan military with financial support, with the help of Congress.

In terms of what we would do on – in any one given the situation to respond to something that was unanticipated or may have been anticipated, but I don't think it's helpful for me -- for me to get engaged in any kind of hypotheticals today. But -- but I certainly appreciate your question.

And, General Milley, over to you.

GEN. MILLEY: On the -- Missy, on the interpreters and others that have worked closely with the U.S. government, the intent is -- with the State Department in the lead -- is to make sure that it's a really, a moral imperative that we take care of those that have worked closely with us if their lives are in danger, et cetera.

But I would also caution some folks on some speculation here. It's a bit early to tell what the outcome's going to be. There are some obviously bad outcomes that have been discussed, but none of that is preordained, none of that is absolutely inevitable.

Again, this is a significant sized military and police force. The government, under President Ghani, is still a cohesive organization. There are a lot of factors at play here, and I think it's -- we're working through the SIB process through the State Department but I think it's a bit early to really sound the alarm on getting everybody out just yet. That's my own personal opinion, but I think that's based on some pretty good knowledge of what's going on right now.

SEC. AUSTIN: Major General Austin and Colonel Milley were in Afghanistan together when we stood up -- when Colonel Milley helped to stand up the first battalion of Afghan forces. And so, as he mentioned today, there's over 300,000 Afghan Security Forces now, which is -- which speaks to the great work that your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have done over the years.

And for -- and as large in a military of a number of countries, but -- but it's -- they have been operating principally, you know, providing much of their support on our own in recent months. So we're hopeful. We all want to see the Afghans succeed, and again, once our roles change here a bit, we'll continue to provide support, you know, in terms of logistics and -- and financial support and we'll focus on our over-the-horizon CT capabilities.

MR. KIRBY: Time for just a couple more. I'll go back to the phones, Phil Stewart?

Q: Thanks. Just a clarification, Secretary Austin, were there orders to withdraw all U.S. contractors? I know there's orders to withdraw all U.S. troops.

And for General Milley, do you have any estimate on what will happen to ANSF attrition rates following the U.S. withdrawal? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, so we're going to responsibly retrograde all of our capabilities that we're responsible for. The contractors fall in that -- in that realm as well. So I mean, as you know, contractors have the ability to -- to renegotiate contracts if they so choose, going forward in the future. But yeah, we're going to account for all the people and the resources that are working with us. So.

GEN. MILLEY: Your question on the attrition rates has to go with the, "can the Afghan Security Forces sustain a fight at current attrition rates?" Attrition rates have been at an average over the last year or so. Again, I would say that we have to wait and see, in the coming months.

We know what their attrition rates are in killed and wounded, we know what the desertion rates are. We also know that the Taliban have suffered significant attrition rates as well.

I would also remind folks that there's still an active Department of State-led negotiation effort ongoing. So that is also another avenue that is being actively pursued by the U.S. government, to come up with a negotiated settlement between the government and the Taliban. That is also not -- that door's not closed yet, so there's a lot of possible outcomes here.

MR. KIRBY: Last one, Tara?

Q: Thank you . This question's for both of you. General Milley, last week, you shared a bit of how your thinking has evolved on taking sexual assault out of the chain of command, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. What prompted that change of thought for you?

And, General Austin, as you have -- sorry, Secretary -- habit again -- Secretary Austin...

SEC. AUSTIN: You'll get me in trouble if you say that, so...

Q: I got myself in trouble probably. You know, as you view this recommendation, I guess the question is why not take sexual assault investigations outside of the chain of command? At this point, it seems like nothing else has worked and there have been a number of military sexual assault victims who have been failed by the current system.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. You should know that as I -- as I've said before, that this is very important to me and it's very important to this entire department. And we're going to stay sighted on this until -- until we find ways to improve.

I think, you know, the -- the accountability piece of it is a very important piece, but it's not the only piece. You know, there are climate issues, there -- there are, you know, how we take care of victims’ issues, there are a number of things that the independent review commission are looking at, that will add to this entire picture here.

I think it's the combination of those things that will cause us to begin to move forward on this. So if -- you know, as we look at what's been presented, you know, it could be perfect, perfect recommendation, or it may be -- you know, there may be a recommendation that we would choose to -- we may choose to go another path. But I think -- I think it's worth having my leaders, our leaders engaged in discussion on this.

Now, I think, you know, we've done things a certain way for a while, and I think, you know, we really need to kind of broaden our horizons and begin to look at things differently, and be willing to take different paths to -- to improve things.

Q: So does that mean that your thinking also might have evolved on this, and that you're open to taking it out of the chain of command?

SEC. AUSTIN: You know, I said when we started down this path that you know, all options are on the table and -- and I want to hear from the review commission, good recommendations that we think that can make a difference. And again, I think we have to let the review commission do its work and I would like to do our work in terms of engaging our leaders and making sure that -- that we have outlined a good, effective path for the department, going forward.

GEN. MILLEY: And for me I'm going to wait until the final results of the review commission. But I was the Chief of the Army for four years, then the Chairman for coming up on two. And frankly what's -- you asked me what has caused me to have a change and I did a lot of hard thought. We had to move the needle, that's the bottom line.

We haven't resolved this issue. According to some pretty solid data we think, we estimate based on some surveys that were probably 20,000 men and women who were sexually assaulted in the United States military last year. That's one percent of the force.

If we had 20,000 killed or wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq, those are casualties, that's huge, that's significant. And that number hasn't significantly been reduced over time. And we keep saying -- people like me keep going behind a microphone in front of committees saying, we need to do this, we need to do that, we need to do this, we need to do that. And it hasn't changed.

So we need to take a hard look and I welcome the Independent Review Commission and their views, I want to take a hard look at them. They're going to be evidenced based and we're going to move in directions that are going to fundamentally change this and try to resolve it. Every one of us wants it solved.

But 20,000 is a huge number and it's just not -- we can't tolerate that. We can't tolerate that level of divisiveness in our force. These are assaults. These are blue on blue assaults. It cannot stand. It has to be resolved.

So yes, my mind is very open to it. And then the other thing that changed or that influenced me significantly is the data that I saw over the last, I don't know, several months about the confidence in the chain of command by junior soldiers, men and women alike, and their ability to deal successfully with sexual assault.

And we, the chain of command, we the generals, the colonels, the captains and so on, we have lost the trust and confidence of those subordinates in our ability to deal with sexual assault.

So we need to make a change. What that change is, we'll see what the Independent Review Commission comes up with in terms of the recommendations and we'll take a hard look at it and we'll have discussions with the secretary and so on.

But absolutely, my mind is completely open to all kinds of opportunities to change here.

SEC. AUSTIN: And once we make decisions and head down a path that's not the end of the day. We will continue to work this until we approve. And then we'll stay sighted on it to make sure that we have the right things and the environment, that we're taking care of our troops, men and women, and that we're doing the right things. So --

MR. KIRBY: That's all we've got time for folks. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Q: Any comment on former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher basically admitting to murder?

SEC. AUSTIN: I'm sure the – well, I know that the -- that the Navy is looking into that issue. And so I don't have a comment on it for you this afternoon.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you. Thank you.