Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

June 9, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Hey guys. Sorry I'm late. I've been saying that more and more these days, I don't know. Megan you want to remind me of that, don't you? Keep me credible, accountable, also humble.

OK, some things at the top here. I think you may have seen on Friday, the Navy's M225 stingray unmanned, there's a picture of it there, unmanned aerial vehicle, successfully completed the first ever aerial refueling between an unmanned tanker and an aircraft. The stingray took off and then transferred several hundred pounds of fuel to a super hornet.

This historic flight demonstrates the stingray -- that the stingray can fulfill its primary tanker mission and free strike fighters up for more of the duty of -- from the duty of transferring fuels, sorry. And this also extends the range capability of the carrier airwing and the carrier strike group and it's a great step forward toward manned/unmanned teaming concepts, pretty dramatic image there. Monday, military Sealift command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Patuxent, assigned to the U.S. fifth fleet provided emergency assistance to the general cargo vessel Falcon Line that was in distress in the Gulf of Aden.

You can see an image there of some of the crew being rescued. Upon notification of the situation the Patuxent proceeded at maximum speed to rescue the crew of Falcon Life before the ship completely sank, it sank due to engine trouble after taking on water. Patuxent safely recovered the 15 crew members and provided food, water and medical screening. The fifth fleet is coordinating with the owner of the ship and other authorities to determine the most appropriate locations to debark the crew members.

Over to Europe now, another update on Defender Europe. Today, wrapped up three days of air and missile defense live fire events in Romania as part of exercise Saber Guardian, you see an image there from the exercise. Tomorrow the U.S. Army's 41st Field Artillery Brigade will move to Norway to conduct a live fire exercise as part of Norwegian National exercise Thunderbolt. This will mark the end of the fires shock series of events and will feature multiple launch rocket systems, high mobility, artillery, rocket systems and high altitude balloon operations. And will include U.S. Army and Norwegian Army interoperability exercises.

OK, on to other news, the Secretary is proud to announce today the establishment of a sixth Defense Department Regional Center. This will be the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. The Ted Stevens Center will provide a new venue to collaborate across the U.S. government and with our allies and partners to advance shared interests for a peaceful and prosperous Arctic.

The Defense Department Regional Centers are international academic venues for bilateral and multilateral research, communication and training with the goal of building strong sustainable international networks of security leaders.

And I think you also saw today the Secretary issued a directive to the force that initiates several major department wide efforts to better address the security challenges posed by China as the United States number pacing challenge. These initiatives, some of which will remain classified, are designed to focus departmental processes and procedures and better help department leaders contribute to whole of government efforts to address the challenge of China.

Having completed its work now the China task force will stand down and the Secretary was very grateful in thanking them for their hard work and their efforts to again better align the department to deal with this particular challenge.

OK, with that we'll take questions. Sylvie, are you here? Nope, OK. Jen? -- is she on the phone?

Q: Yes, yes.

MR. KIRBY: Sorry, she is. Sylvie, go ahead.

Q: Hello, hello. I am - can you confirm that the administration is trying to close the Guantanamo Detention Center?

MR. KIRBY: The - the President has been clear, Sylvie, that we are conducting a thorough and deliberate review that's focused on closing the facility. The President was very clear before taking office that this was a goal he wanted to achieve. To that end the National Security Council continues to work closely the Departments of Defense, State and Justice as well as other departments and agencies. And those discussions are ongoing.

Jen?

Q: John, can you explain a little more about the directive and what the Defense Secretary said to the force in light of the task force on China? What was his conclusion? What was the point of his directive? Just if you could explain a little more?

MR. KIRBY: The directive's classified so there's not going to be a lot that I can get into in terms of the specifics. But it - in the directive to the force he basically is telling the department what the recommendations of the task force were and endorsing those recommendations. The best way I can describe it and I kind of touched at this in the opening is that - is that the task force's work was sort of a down and in look at the way the department is organized, the way it's structured and the way we think about the broader issues of China from a security perspective.

It wasn't mean to be an up and out look, so it's not a strategy that is produced here. Really it's an assessment of how the department's doing with respect to truly treating China as the number one pacing challenge.

And the task force found some gaps and seams, some things that we can be doing better. And back to your question, the directive issue by the secretary lays out some initiatives and efforts that were recommended by the task force that he wants the department to adopt so that we can improve the way we think, the way we plan, the way we structure and organize ourselves to truly deal with China as the number one pacing challenge.

I think what the secretary's concern was that he didn't want to just say this. He wanted to make sure that we were actually acting on it, this idea of the pacing challenge.

Q: Is it accurate? It's been characterized that his message was that while we've been hearing about the China threat for several administrations, that there was more talk about focusing on the China threat and fewer actions. Is that a correct characteristic?

MR. KIRBY: I think that's a little unfair, Jen. The task force as they worked over the last four months found that there was a lot of goodness in terms of dealing with the challenges posed by China, done by the Obama administration as well as the Trump administration.

They found things that were worth pursuing and continuing. It was really a look at how we're doing right now and that there are ways we can improve. And as we said all along, this institution is all about self improvement.

And so, it's not at all an indictment. Quite the contrary, of anybody in the past, I mean, because there were some - there was some good work done. It's really about stitching it together and making sure that when we say we considered China the number one pacing challenge that we here and in the department, you know, can put resources and structure behind that and make it so.

I would also add just one other point, and that's we very much see the work of the task force and the work that will go forward as part and parcel of a much larger whole of government approach to a bilateral relationship with China.

Again, this was really an inward look at the department. It wasn't an outward look. It wasn't designed to develop a new policy or a new strategy specifically.

Q: Anything concrete that you can point to that was recommended?

MR. KIRBY: There were a couple of things that we can talk to. I mean, one was a tasking to the personnel and readiness department here to come up with recommendations and plans to better include China as a focus area inside the workforce and particularly in the world of training and education and how much are we really looking at making sure we have a workforce or a part of the workforce that can help us better focus on China?

So again, I guess the training and education and proficiency and understanding that nation and that part of the world.

A lot of the work of the task force, while I can't get into the details of it, will help inform both the global posture review, which is ongoing and will be completed later this summer as well as the initial work we're doing to start to build out a new national defense strategy.

So they will help - their work will help inform those two additional bodies of work. And then the other thing was in this directive the secretary tasked himself. He tasked himself in this directive to personally take the lead in being more involved in the development of operational concepts and prototypes, in training and exercises that he will - that, you know, he will share and that he will be personally leading and personally involved in that to a degree that we haven't seen before.

So in addition to tasking the department he tasked himself in this. Did that help? Let's go back to the phones. Tara?

Q: Hello. I'm right on time with the mute button. I have a couple of follow ups, too. Can you tell us what makes this task force finding different than the work that has proceeded it? And then secondly on a different topic, Air Force Acting Secretary, John Roth, yesterday told Congress that for now the over-the-horizon capability to support Afghanistan will be basically from the existing footprint that the Air Force has in the region, and I'm just wondering if that means there haven't been any inroads made with potentially new locations for a - to move U.S. forces to provide that over-the-horizon capability? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Let me start with the second one first. As we've said for quite some time we already have an over-the-horizon capability - counterterrorism capability there and other parts of the worlds, and we are already using that over-the-horizon capability in Afghanistan.

You all reported on the presence of an aircraft carrier. Well the aircraft from those carrier air wings have been conducting missions from the sea and into Afghanistan, and as well we have existing regional bases and facilities to assist us in that - in that kind of effort, and I think that's what the acting secretary was speaking to, that we are already using fixed-wing assets from inside the region and out of Afghanistan to enact this kind of capability.

It doesn't mean that that's the end all be all, and it doesn't mean that that's where we're - that we aren't going to try to explore other options, and we are. And the department is actively supporting diplomatic efforts to discuss potential options in other places in that part of the world.

I don't have any specific announcements to make or agreements to announce today, but I mean, we are actively pursuing additional options, but again I want to come back to the main point which is that we already know how to do over-the-horizon, and we already are doing over-the-horizon kind of - enacting over-the-horizon kind of capabilities in Afghanistan.

And then your first question, Tara, was on what's new about the task force as opposed to previous efforts. I'm not aware of previous efforts similar to what we established here with the China Task Force, so I can't speak to what previous administrations might have done that are similar to what Secretary Austin put in place.

This was, as we announced when we -- four months ago was going to be a sprint. It was a sprint. It was designed not to develop a new policy or a new strategy but really to take a look at how we're doing inside the department at really making true our concerns about the pacing challenge that China poses.

And so, in that regard it is quite unique the work that they produced and the recommendations that they made, and again I've already talked to some of them. These are - these are new approaches that we're going to pursue, and there'll be other new approaches that will come out of the work that they've done, some of which we'll be able to talk about and some of which we won't.

Pierre?

Q: I believe you mentioned that you are seeking more access to -- and we -- should we understand that we are looking at more deployment and more access to GCC countries around these areas?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into specific discussions of who our diplomats are talking to and what that might look like. We already have, as you well know, a robust footprint in the Middle East that we can rely upon and draw upon. In fact, we are relying upon and are drawing upon to help us with this retrograde.

So there are capabilities already existing in the region that are quite -- quite agile, quite nimble, quite effective. But in terms of what it's going to look like going forward, again, I'm not going to get ahead of a diplomatic process.

Q: (INAUDIBLE) does this go hand-in-hand with the content of the readout of the secretary call -- conference with Mohammed bin Salman last week in Saudi Arabia. When you said in your readout that we are going to help Saudi Arabia defend itself, I mean, are we into like...

MR. KIRBY: I would not draw the line between that conversation and that readout and what -- your first question about, you know, sort of basing and over-the-horizon capabilities. That the readout we offered after that call was accurate for the purpose of that call. I wouldn't -- I wouldn't read more into it than that.

Let's see, Tony from Bloomberg.

Q: Hi, John. I have a couple of quick questions on the China follow-up. Is there -- what systems can you point to in the FY22 budget request that help further the secretary's directive? Two, are there areas in the task force that stressed areas where we could cooperate with China and possibly reduce tensions rather than this continual push that they are the pacing threat?

MR. KIRBY: Tony, the -- again, I think it's important to remember what the task force was designed to do. It was to assess how we're doing in the department in terms of our main obligation, and you've heard the secretary talk about this, our number one job is to defend the nation. And you want to make sure that -- that we can do that in all respects. And that we -- you know, we still consider China to be the number one pacing challenge of the department.

And, you know, he wanted to see -- have the task force take a look at structures, organizations, processes, concepts, to make sure that we are aligned to that -- to that purpose. It's not -- nobody's seeking conflict here. It's really about alignment and getting a sense -- a better sense of the gaps and seams and what we can be doing better here to have the appropriate focus on China.

And, Tony, the work of the task force was not meant to and did not have a budgetary component here. It wasn't about shaping or recommending systems or programs to be put into the FY22 budget. So I don't -- I want -- it's important for me to divorce you from that idea that the task force was sort of informing the budget in any specific way.

Separate and distinct from that, that said, and putting the task force aside for a moment, I mean, I think, Tony, if you look at the at the budget writ large you'll see not only $5.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, but you will see hypersonics funding in there. You'll see funding for microelectronics and 5G technology and missile defense and nuclear modernization.

I mean, there are a host of capabilities and systems that are represented in the budget that do support our desire to make sure that we're ready for the continual challenges that -- that the countries like China pose, not just in the Indo-Pacific region but around the world.

Q: OK. Fair enough. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: Thank you, John. So I have a follow-up on Guantanamo and a separate question. On Guantanamo is there a timeline or a date that the administration would like to basically close the Guantanamo facility. I mean are you looking at a certain date or aspirational even, and can you do that without cooperation from the Congress?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware that there's a target date out there at all, Fadi. There's -- as I said, an ongoing interagency process right now and -- and that work continues and when they're -- when that's over and we can be -- we can read that out, I'm sure -- I'm sure they'll do that but I'm not aware of any particular date.

And as for Congress, I mean of course there will need to be close coordination and consultation with members of Congress as we continue to move forward. What's important here is that the president was serious when he said he wanted to close the facility. The Department of Defense supports that goal.

We are part in parcel of this interagency process and we're going to continue to work at that.

Q: And on Saudi Arabia, the official Saudi news agency reported yesterday that a joint military exercise started between Saudi forces and American forces in the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia and they published photos supposedly showing American troops being deployed. What can you tell us about that military exercise?

MR. KIRBY: I'll have to take your question. I don't have information on that particular exercise.

Q: Because I asked earlier and --

MR. KIRBY: You asked me earlier?

Q: No, no; someone at the DOD official.

MR. KIRBY: OK.

Q: -- and they denied knowing of any such training. And this is creating some kind of confusion because it's out there with photos.

MR. KIRBY: I'll do what I can to clear up the confusion. Let me just take the question rather than try to spit ball here. That usually gets me in trouble.

Ms. (Zheera?).

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome.

Q: I asked, John, about Afghanistan; unfortunately Taliban increased their attack on everyday Afghan people, dying in Afghanistan. And NATO director, general director, was here. Did you discuss anything about Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY: We certainly did. Secretary General Stoltenberg was here. We issued a read out of it and in that read out talked about the fact that Afghanistan was absolutely on the agenda when they met. Secretary Austin and the Secretary General, and the Secretary reaffirmed our commitment to doing what we can to help our resolute -- resolute support partners as they retrograde themselves out of Afghanistan.

And so to the degree we can be supportive and helpful in that the, secretary made sure that the secretary general knew that. There was also a reaffirmation by both leaders that as the secretary general very eloquently put it. We went in together, we changed our operations together throughout the last 20 years, we adjusted together and we're going to go out together.

And that still remains the fact, yes. Mike, did you have your hand up?

Q: No.

MR. KIRBY: OK.

Q: Thank you. Two questions. First, I want to (inaudible) about the China task force. Based on the recommendation, is there anything that the United States expects the allies in the region to do more in order to maintain peace and -- peace and stability in the region?

MR. KIRBY: The task force was designed to help us and look at ways we can better leverage alliances and partnerships and -- and better contribute. To be better contributors, too, on alliances and partnerships. It wasn't about tasking them to do anything different. That -- that wasn't the purpose.

Q: Separate question, the secretary's trip to Singapore was cancelled due to the COVID-19 unfortunately. The secretary --

MR. KIRBY: The entire conference was cancelled.

Q: Yes. And the secretary lost the opportunity to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to the Southeast Asia. So how will the secretary make up for it? Is the secretary planning alternative opportunities to engage with partners in the region?

MR. KIRBY: I mean the secretary was disappointed, I think, clearly that we couldn't make the trip to Shangri-La work but we understand, certainly respect the decision by authorities to cancel it, given concerns over COVID, perfectly valid reason to do so. So we're disappointed but we will continue to look for other ways to engage our allies and partners in the region.

And I think you'll see that, I don't have anything specific to announce today but you'll see it over time and I have no doubt that the secretary will be willing and able to travel back to the region just as soon as practical. But I just don't have anything specific to speak to.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: OK. Tom Squiteri?

Q: Hi, John, thanks. My question was about the Arctic Center, you answered that in your opening remarks. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: All right. Thank you. Paul Shinkman, U.S. News?

Q: John, do you have anything -- I have two questions. First on Afghanistan, do you have anything on the deadly shooting yesterday of the 10 mine clearing workers in Baghlan Province, specifically that the perpetrators belong to ISIS and that the Taliban helped the aid workers in the aftermath of the attack?

MR. KIRBY: Paul, I don't have anything on that. If you'll allow me to, I will take the question and we'll get you a response back.

Q: Thank you. And then separately on vaccines. Is -- does the military now or is it planning to have any role in President Biden's plan to purchase and distribute internationally the 500 million Pfizer vaccines?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any specific plans to speak to today, Paul, but as you've seen, we have contributed to U.S. government efforts to -- to transport vaccines as well as personnel protective equipment to nations in the past; India, Bangladesh we just talked about yesterday.

And should there be additional tasking of the Defense Department to assist in these efforts to help citizens around the world, the secretary has made it very clear to Department leaders that he wants us to be able, willing -- able and willing to lead in in that regard. But I just don't have anything specific to -- to speak to today.

Q: Thanks, John.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think it was yesterday, right, when I talked about Bangladesh. So I mean we are actively participating in those efforts. OK. This means I got something wrong right. No, actually it doesn't mean I got something wrong. OK. We'll go to Mallory.

Q: Thanks, John. My questions on the china task force. The Chinese have been quite open about their strategic priorities in the Western Pacific and the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps has of course released a very detailed and publically available strategy about how he sees the potential competition with China.

What -- what can you say about the naval component of the China task force's recommendations and how these direct -- how these directives could triple down to the services and naval strategy?

MR. KIRBY: Well, Mallory, without getting into specific detail beyond what we've already done today, as I've said the -- the work of the task force will inform both global posture review as well as the new national defense strategy.

And on the former, I mean, that global posture review is really all about, as the secretary says all the time, matching resources to strategy and strategy to policy.

And what he is expecting out of the global posture review is a sense of, you know, the footprint, among many other things, but the footprint. You know, how many resources do we have, how many ships do we have, how many people do we have in any one part of the world and is that right, is it the right number and are they in the right places to do what we need them to do?

And so, backing that all up, the China Task Force, their work will help inform that process. Again, without getting into specific -- I couldn't give you a specific, you know, number today but, clearly, their work will help inform that.

Q: We're still tracking that for later this year? The posture review?

MR. KIRBY: The global posture review is in progress and we expect it to be complete somewhere around late summer, maybe early fall.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Jared, you had a question?

Q: Hi, John, thanks. Just a quick one on Turkey then a brief follow-up if possible. Turkey's defense minister said Monday that they would take over security at Kabul Airport if conditions were met and that they were awaiting a response from their allies on this. Has DOD communicated with the Turkish Defense Ministry on this since Monday? And is DOD prepared to fulfill those requirements?

MR. KIRBY: Not familiar -- I'm not familiar with those comments by Turkey and I don't have the latest lay down in terms of where the discussions are with the -- the Turks. Let me take the question and we'll see if we can get you something more detailed.

I would just say broadly we, obviously, have had ongoing discussions with Turkish leaders about their plans for security at the airport. Obviously, this is a -- a national decision that -- that President Erdogan has to make and we respect that.

But we have had some preliminary discussions, obviously, and then just more broadly as we've said before, I mean, security at the airport in whatever form or fashion it takes is going to be important for not only the United States but for other nations to be able to maintain a diplomatic presence there in Kabul.

But you asked a very specific question for which I did have a specific answer. I'll do the best I can, I can't promise you a whole lot of detail right now because I'm just not familiar with the -- with those comments by the Turks. But I'll -- I'll take a look at it.

Q: I appreciate it. And if I could just follow-up real quick.

MR. KIRBY: I think I got a couple more here. Jeff Schogal?.

Q: Thank you very much.

Defense Secretary Austin recently demoted an Army two-star general to second lieutenant after this former general officer pleaded guilty in federal court to sexual assault. I wanted to see, does the Defense Department have any avenues to also take away all of his retirement benefits because at the moment he is receiving retirement benefits commensurate with his lower rank.

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, that was a decision made by the Department of the Army and I'd refer you to the Department of the Army for -- for your question. I'm not in a position to answer that. It wouldn't be appropriate coming from us.

Q: Thank you. What I was told was this a Secretary Austin decision?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I'm going to refer to you to the Department of the Army. OK, Kris Anderson? OK, I thought she was there. Couldn't get her. OK, thanks, everybody.

Q: Do you have anything on the active shooter situation in Joint Base San Antonio?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I've seen press reports today just before walking out here, Fadi. I'd refer you to the Air Force on that. I, I mean, I've -- I've seen their statements that they had an active shooter situation. As I understand it there are no reported injuries. But as I walked out here the base was still on lockdown and I think really much better for you to go to the Air Force on this as a developing situation. They'll have more information, and I'm sure they'll be transparent as things unfold and they're able to say more they will. OK. Thanks, everybody.