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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

May 26, 2016
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook

PETER COOK:  Good afternoon, everybody.

I'm coming out here a little bit late because I was trying to get the latest on two F/A-18s that went down off the North Carolina coast earlier today, if you saw that news.  The two F/A-18F Super Hornets are assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 211 based at Naval Station Oceana.  They were flying off Cape Hatteras about 25 miles southeast of Oregon Inlet when they were involved in an in-flight mishap at approximately 10:40 local time today.

The flight was part of a routine training mission.  All the air crew have been recovered safely and are en route to medical facilities for evaluation.  All four, I'm told, were alert and talking when they were picked up.

We had three Coast Guard helicopters, one Coast Guard C-130, naval vessel Mesa Verde, all involved in the rescue effort.  There were also apparently some good Samaritans at sea at the time who also assisted in the recovery effort.

And a safety investigation will be carried out to determine the cause of the accident.

And we will try and provide more information as we get it regarding this incident involving these two F/A-18s, and there may be more to come from Oceana as well.

I also have an update for you regarding the secretary's schedule.  I want to highlight a couple of events taking place tomorrow and this weekend, including some Memorial Day events.  First, Secretary Carter will travel to Annapolis tomorrow morning to deliver commencement remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy commissioning ceremony.  The secretary will thank the graduating midshipmen for their commitment to service and he will describe some of the challenges and responsibilities that they should expect to face as they begin their military careers.

Later in the day, the secretary and senior leaders from across the department will welcome about 350 family members of fallen service members who will visit the Pentagon as part of the annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, National Military Survivors Seminar, and Good Grief Camp.  For those of you not familiar with TAPS, it provides assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to anyone who has suffered the loss of a military loved one.

Since 1995, TAPS has held an annual week-long event in Washington, D.C. for military survivors, including children.  And on Friday, we will give TAPS the building, effectively, beginning with a welcome from the Secretary and Mrs. Carter, followed by building tours, activities and displays from the services and more.  And that welcome ceremony will be open to the press tomorrow at about six p.m. eastern time.

And of course, we're honored that these families will spend time with us here on Memorial Day weekend.

And the secretary will also this weekend help welcome Rolling Thunder participants to Washington, kick off the annual Rolling Thunder event from here at the Pentagon on Sunday.  And on Monday, he will join the president, the vice president and Chairman Dunford at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day observances.

Memorial Day, of course, is a singular holiday for our nation and for this department; a chance to offer -- to honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate price to secure the freedom we cherish, for the families and friends they left behind, and for all those who are serving today around the world in difficult and dangerous circumstances to preserve that freedom.

And with that, happy to take your questions.

Lucas?

Q:  Bob isn't here.  I'd just like to say on the record on behalf of the entire press corps how much we honor the sacrifice of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines that came before us.

MR. COOK:  Thank you.  Appreciate that.

Q:  On the subject of the Navy and readiness, Peter, earlier today the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing on sea power.  Four Navy captains spoke and some of what they had to say was pretty striking.  The skipper of the USS Normandy said that he had to cannibalize -- 13 parts were taken off his ship; others talked about shortages in the submarine force.  In light of the F-18 crash, the head of the Navy Air talked about not enough aircraft.

How concerned is the secretary with readiness right now?  And how is he planning to address it?  And is he planning to go out to the fleet and see some of this first-hand?

MR. COOK:  Well, first of all, Lucas, as you and I have talked about in the past, you're describing situations obviously that we have concerns about those kinds of reports.  But what we're talking about here with regard to readiness is something that's taken place over time and is a reflection of the budget battles that we've faced here in Washington at the Defense Department for several years now.

We have highlighted what sequester would mean for this department.  And the sacrifices and the adjustments we would have to make accordingly because of the budget battle over the last few years.  The good news is we've had some degree of budget certainty in the last few months, last year or so.  We have the budget agreement in place that has allowed us to finally put in place a budget plan that starts to make a dent in some of these readiness issues.

There is some significant investment in this budget, aggressive investment in terms of trying to deal with readiness issues, but we're not going to solve this overnight.

And that is why the secretary has been quite vocal about the need for continued budget certainty, making investments not only in modernization, not only force structure, but in terms of our preparedness, our readiness going forward.

But this is going to be a problem we're going to fix over time by doing it in an appropriate way, using the resources we have.  We'd all like more money to try to address this right away, overnight, but that's not the reality of the budget situation that we're in.

So, we're trying to do this in the most effective and efficient way possible, and that's what the budget plan represents.

Q:  And there was some concern from those testifying about China and Russia, and whether the United States can handle that threat.

And my question to you very simply Peter is, is the United States ready to take on Russia and China right now?

MR. COOK:  We're absolutely satisfied here at the Department of Defense that we have the capabilities needed to deter our adversaries, and to confront the national security challenges of the country.

And this budget reflects, again, within the existing resource base that we have, our best plan forward for addressing those national security issues in a way that is consistent with the resource and funding situation that we have in this country at this time.

Q:  Deter?  What about defeat?

MR. COOK:  We are confident that this is a plan -- this is a budget that represents, again, after consultation -- extensive consultation -- you know the budget process, how this works out.  With the secretary hearing from the services directly about their needs, and putting forward a plan that, as he and the chairman have testified, would allow us to carry out the national security mission of this country.

Q:  And finally, is there any concern about the increasing Chinese drone threat in the South China Sea and elsewhere?

MR. COOK:  I think you've heard -- heard us talk at length, our concerns about militarization in the South China Sea, not just by China.  But that -- there are -- there are concerns about what's happening, the tensions in that part of the world right now, because it's such an important part of global commerce, such an important part of the world.

And the United States, for decades, has been a stabilizing force there, and we're going to continue to be a stabilizing force.

So, I think -- you know, our concerns will be consistent with what you've heard the secretary express about rising tensions in that part of the world undermining the success, the prosperity of that part of the world going forward, in a way harms not just players in the immediate region, but to everyone in the Pacific Rim.

Yes, Thomas.

Q:  Hi.  Could you give us a general overview of the situation in Raqqah and north of Raqqah?

Could you also talk about these AFP photos that show U.S. special operations forces about 30 miles outside Raqqah, embedded with YPG?  And they're actually wearing a YPG insignia on their -- several of them on their shoulders.

Is it appropriate for U.S. forces to be identified so closely with the YPG, given the nature of the operation in Raqqah, and the fact that it's an Arab town?

MR. COOK:  I'm -- first of all, you know our policy with regard to our special operations forces, that we're not going to talk very much about their activities, where they are and what they're doing for obvious reasons.

They're carrying out a mission; they are exposing themselves to significant risk.  And I'm not going to do anything up here that in any ways gives anyone the ability to identify where our forces are operating and what they're up to at any moment in time.  I hope you would understand that.

Q:  I do.  And I appreciate that concern.  But this -- these are photos that are now publicly available.  And from the video that I've seen, it appeared that there wasn't any real reluctance to not be filmed, to not be photographed by the special operations forces.

And so here we have something now on the record in the public domain, and it's clearly U.S. forces with the YPG insignia.  So my question is:  Is it appropriate to have a YPG badge on your shoulder?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to comment about specific photos.  What I will say is that special operations forces when they operate in certain areas do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.  And special operations forces in the past have worked with partners, and in the past have conducted themselves in such a way that they -- that they might operate in an atmosphere in which they are supportive of that local force in their advise and assist role.

And they might be, again, for visual purposes, might be blending in with the local community.  So --

Q:  So it's a solidarity thing with that partner?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into describing it other than our forces need to take the steps that they need to take in order to carry out their mission and to protect themselves and take every available step they can take to try and -- and, again, carry out their mission and be safe in the process of doing so -- maintain --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Is that appropriate in the context of the sensitive relations with Turkey?  And also, sorry -- could you also just address the general operations in Raqqah and in the north of Raqqah?

MR. COOK:  Listen, I'm -- I'm not going to talk more about our -- the photos you've described here.  I'm not going to refer to anyone individually photographed for the reasons I've cited.

So, with regard to the operations in Raqqah, I can tell you that there is activity north of Raqqah.  And my understanding is three villages that were held by ISIL may no longer be held by ISIL at this point.  And so it continues to be an effort to isolate Raqqah and to, again, challenge ISIL in as many ways as possible.  And that's consistent with what we've been seeing there and in other parts of the fight against ISIL, whether it's Iraq or Syria.

Q:  Thanks.

One follow-up on Thomas's question.  In the article, the Syrian commander who is quoted noted that the U.S. special operators were not behind the forward line, as we've been told, but they're actually at the forward line working with these Syrian forces.  Could you describe to us where these U.S. operators are?  What sort of protections they have?  What sort of rules of engagement they have?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to talk about location of our forces.  But again, we've told you for -- that we do have special operations forces in Syria; that they are an advise and assist mission with forces that are carrying out the fight against ISIL; trying to lend their support to them; use their skill set and their capabilities to enhance the effectiveness of those forces.

They are not at the front line.  They are, again, in an advisory role to those forces.  And they're going to continue to do that.

Q:  And then, one follow-on Lucas' question.

MR. COOK:  Which one?

Q:  I think it was the first one.

MR. COOK:  I think he had four.

(Laughter.)

Q:  Wanted to get my money's worth.

Q:  We've seen a record number of aviation crashes over the last year, and some people have wondered whether sequestration was the blame, that there wasn't enough maintenance, that there wasn't enough training opportunities.

But is it also potentially that the Department of Defense has committed so much money to the F-35 program that some of these other legacy platforms aren't getting the upgrades or the maintenance that they need to -- and to have their pilots have the training hours that they need to be able to avoid these types of mishaps?

MR. COOK:  I think, Tara, we've -- I mean, we just talked about this.

This issues with regard to readiness -- or the unfortunate issues with regard to readiness are exactly the kinds of issues that officials from this department and elsewhere, members of Congress themselves discussed over the years as we've talked about sequestration and the potential harm coming from sequestration.

Ultimately, there is a price to be paid for budget gridlock, and particularly with the Department of Defense.  And we have -- there have been warnings for some time that readiness would be -- and training would be one of the things to suffer through the course of sequestration and through the course of the budget uncertainty of the last few years.

And again, as concerned as we are about it, we're trying to do something now with this budget, but these are exactly the kinds of issues that I think a lot of people here in Washington warned about some time ago.

And again, they're unfortunate, but they're not necessarily a surprise.  But they certainly are a concern, and they're -- and we're trying to do, and I think the secretary has talked to this at length, this is a budget that tries to invest in readiness, tries to improve that situation after consultation with the services in an effective an efficient way, knowing we cannot do this overnight.

This has to be an investment over time, which is why budget certainty and planning going forward, not just this fiscal year, but going forward, is also so important to this secretary of defense.

Q:  But at some point, should the department look at slowing or pausing the F-35 program in order to inject whatever excess needed funds some of these legacy platforms need?

MR. COOK:  These -- there are decisions that need to be made in every budget in terms of the proper allocation of resources for any particular endeavor or program.  Those decisions were made in this budget, carefully reviewing the F-35 program and other programs along the way.

And the numbers that we settled on in this budget reflected the view of the department as to the best path forward at this time for these individual programs, knowing that in the future, every program will be reviewed, depending on the circumstances at any particular moment in time.

Yes -- (inaudible).

Q:  Just a real quick following up on Thomas' question.

I didn't understand something.  Do you clarify -- do you justify that the U.S. forces can wear other, you know, militia or countries' symbols, flags on their shoulders in order to disguise themselves against the enemy?

MR. COOK:  It -- the special operations forces in the past have, yes, worn -- have worn insignias and other identifying marks with some of their partner forces, yes, that's true.

So.  Austin?.

Q:  Just following up the readiness.  The F-18, in particular, has had a big maintenance backlog.

Is there any indication that maintenance issues played any role in today's mishap?

MR. COOK:  Austin, we're -- the investigation has just started; this happened just a few hours ago.

I think we'll get a better understanding after we've had a chance to talk to the air crews here involved.  But it's too soon to say what -- what led to this at this point.

Q:  Can you give us any more of what you mean by "mishap"?  Did these two planes collide?

MR. COOK:  I've given you the information that we have right now.  Once we have a chance to talk to the air crews, we'll have a better idea.  Obviously, something happened in the air and at this point, I don't want to hypothesize as to what that may have been.  The good news is the air crews have been recovered.  We'll find out what their medical condition is.  But they'll be able to give us the best assessment of what took place.

Q:  Peter, just following up on terrorist questions.  You mentioned that, you know, SOF is in Syria conducting an advise and assist mission.  That's still being characterized as a noncombat operation, right?  These guys are just there doing TAA and they're not out fighting ISIS or any other assorted extremists.

MR. COOK:  It's an advise and assist mission in a country that right now is in the middle of an obviously very active conflict.  It is a dangerous situation to be in Syria right now.  And these forces are there in an advise and assist mission.  And they are also, as you know full well, have to consider their own force protection measures here.  They need to be able to defend themselves.  And certainly, our forces will be able to defend themselves in Syria.

Q:  And just switching gears to Afghanistan, this morning you mentioned that with the new Taliban leadership, they basically have two options:  one, return to the negotiation table or suffer defeat on the battlefield.  The new leader, Mullah Akhundzada, has already come out and said that he will not participate or entertain the idea of peace talks with the unity government.

I wanted to get the department's take on whether or not this is sort of bluster to kind of bring the group together, seal internal fissures?  Or is this just not a road that the Taliban is going to go down regardless of who's -- who's running the group?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to be able to tell you exactly what the deliberations of the Taliban leadership have been.  But the responsible thing for the Taliban leadership to do at this point would be to pursue a pathway to a peaceful resolution with the unity government in Afghanistan.

And again, that would be the responsible thing to do, because the Afghan forces with the support of the United States, our partners there, are going to continue to improve and show more skills and capabilities.  And they're going to continue to be able to work towards ultimately securing the country on their own.

And that's the ultimate goal here.  And they're going to have our support in the process.  And so the wise thing for the Taliban leadership to do would be to -- to factor that into their decision-making and choose a different path.  And we'll wait to see what they do.

Q:  What level of confidence does the department have that they will maybe see the light in a way and --

MR. COOK:  That's a decision for the Taliban.  In the meantime, we're going to do everything we can to support the Afghan forces, to continue to bolster those forces, to make them more capable, more able to defend themselves, to defend the country.

We've talked about the aviation assets that are now coming online; the training that continues for Afghan forces.  And, you know, this is -- this is a difficult situation and this is -- does present an opportunity for the Taliban to chart a new path should they choose to do so.  And we'll wait to see if they do the responsible thing.

Q:  Is the Pentagon trying to kill the new Taliban leader, too?

MR. COOK:  Right now, as you know, we carried out a strike against a Taliban leader who had plotted against the United States forces and had led a group that carried out attacks against U.S. forces.  And we will continue to do whatever we need to do to protect our forces.

Yes, Andrew.

Q:  Peter, on the situation Fallujah.  Can I ask -- will the involvement of the Shiite militias or the PMF, will that restrict in anyway the U.S. ability to support the operation and bring to bear its effects on defeating ISIS in Fallujah?

MR. COOK:  We're continuing to provide air support to the government of Iraq and Fallujah, to the ISF forces that are carrying out this fight.  And at this point, we do not see any reason why our -- the support for the coalition, for the government forces should not continue.  We have -- I think -- I did not catch all of his briefing, but I know General Brown talked about some of the support we've provided and will continue to provide.

And so, I do not see that changing at this moment.

Yes, Luis?

Q:  I've got two follow ups.  If I recall, didn't in Tikrit, wasn't there a suspension of air support because the PMF forces were involved in that offensive?

MR. COOK:  I can't recall exactly the circumstances there.  I think that was before my time, specifically, so I don't want to weigh in on exactly what happened there.

But I'm describing the situation as we see it right now in Fallujah, and we continue to provide support for the government of Iraq forces, for the ISF forces that are there.  And we're going to continue to so until we see reason otherwise.

Q:  There are reports, I don't -- unverified reports you might call them that General Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard visited Fallujah, or is in charge of the operation with regards to Fallujah.

I mean, does that change the construct if that turns out to be true?  And what concerns might you have about the Iranian involvement in this operation?

MR. COOK:  I can't confirm that report.  So, it just more broadly, I can just tell you that we -- our support for the government of Iraq, of course, one of the reasons we are so supportive of Prime Minister Abadi is because of his multi-sectarian approach to not only governing Iraq, but to carrying out this mission of getting rid of ISIL.

And so far, we're confident that the prime minister is true to his word, is carrying that out in the appropriate way, using the forces at his disposal.  And again that is something we're going to continue to watch.  But right now, we are satisfied that the prime minister, the leader of Iraq is carrying at this -- the effort of the fight against ISIL in an appropriate fashion.

And with our support, he will continue to do so.

Q:  And asking a question about the Syria -- the forces inside Syria.  Have their numbers been amended through that 250 additional that we had heard about earlier?

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  I won't give you the exact number right now, but that was the number that was approved.  And again, those forces are continuing to do what has been asked of them from the start, and that is to carry out this advise and assist mission, to give us a better picture of the battlefield in Syria.

And they are doing that quite effectively.

Q:  Isn't that supposed to happen?  Or isit already is happening?

MR. COOK:  I think it's safe to say that the numbers have increased from the original 50, but I am not going to give you an exact number as to how many we have.

Yes.

Q:  Thank you, a different topic.  I am -- (inaudible) -- with TV of Armenia.  According to information I have, sir, this Monday, a high-ranking U.S. military delegation visited Armenia, led by Lieutenant General Frederick Benjamin Hodges, commanding general U.S. Army Europe, and lead a -- (inaudible) -- of Kansas.

I was wondering if you have any comment and information regarding this visit -- more generally about U.S. and Armenia military cooperation, please.  Thank you.

MR. COOK:  I am familiar with this visit.

Lieutenant General Hodges and representatives from the Kansas National Guard were visiting Armenia to have conversations, along with the ambassador as well, State Department representatives, having conversations with their counterparts, with the ministry of defense in Armenia, to talk about not only ongoing projects of military-to-military relations, but also the potential for enhancing the military-to-military relationship.

And again, I believe that meeting took place on Monday.

Q:  (inaudible) -- Nagorno-Karabakh issue I believe as well -- did Nagorno-Karabakh -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of the exact nature of their discussions, but it would surprise me if that issue came up as well.  And I know this is something, again, that -- trying to develop Armenia's bilateral and multi-format cooperation with the U.S. Army in Europe was an area of particular interest of this conversation.

Yes, Courtney?

Q:  Can you go back to the -- the special ops guys, the SOF guys in Syria?  I'm not asking you to give a location or identify or give numbers or anything specific -- I understand your reticence to do that -- but can you explain if there has been a change recently in what U.S. troops are allowed to do and where they're allowed to go in Raqqah?

Because we have consistently been told that the U.S. troops there are far back from any kind of fighting, and in a clear advising role.  And now there is photographic evidence -- I'm not asking you to confirm it -- but there is photographic evidence of a journalist that they are at the forward line of troops, hand in hand with Syrian Democratic Forces fighting against ISIS, and that they're within 30 miles of Raqqah.

So, can you explain whether there has been some change in what they are allowed to do there?  Are they now in a more kinetic offensive role than has been disclosed to the media and the public in the past?

MR. COOK:  Our special operations forces are conducting the same mission that they did in the past and will continue to do so.  I'm not going to get into their location, but the --

Q:  I didn't ask you for any of that.  I didn't.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK:  So, I'm going to give you the answer I can, and that is their role, their advise and assist role has not changed.  They have been meeting and working closely with forces taking the fight to ISIL and will continue to do so.  And they're continuing to meet with the leadership people who are leading that fight and providing the support and resources necessary to assist them to be as successful as they can in their mission.  And that's been the role of our forces, those special operations forces since they got there and will continue to be.  Nothing has changed.

Q:  Can you characterize -- understanding that the SDF is not the same kind of structure as the ISF in Iraq.  But how would you characterize the level at which U.S. troops are embedded with the SDF?  How is it -- can we equate it to them being at the battalion level?  How -- how -- and I'm not asking that -- that -- I'm not asking you to give locations, again.  I just -- just a vague description of what they are -- of what they are authorized to do; what level they are advising at.

MR. COOK:  Courtney, I'm going to -- I've got to be really careful here.  Again, our special operations forces will continue to advise and assist these Syrian forces.

As you know, they've been particularly involved in meeting with leadership personnel, in terms of those forces carrying out the fight against ISIL.  And I can't get into more detail than that.  But they have been doing what our special operations forces have done in Syria over the last few weeks and months, and that mission has not changed.  And it is something that our special operations forces are uniquely qualified and capable of doing with incredible skill and precision, and I'm going to leave it at that.

I'm not going to do anything from this podium that talks more about their operations.

Q:  And if I could just, with your indulgence, one more -- can you just, you know, for the record, confirm or deny -- or do you deny that U.S. troops in Syria are at the forward line?

Do you deny that?  I'm not asking you to comment on the photos or any of that.  I'm not asking you to say where they are.  But do you deny that they are at the forward line of troops with the Syrians, Democratic --

MR. COOK:  I'm going to tell you that our forces, again, in their advise and assist mission, are engaged with forces on the ground that are taking the fight to ISIL.  They are not on the forward line.

They are providing advise and assistance.  And again, I'm not going to get into details, but that mission has not changed, their role has not changed.  They are not leading this fight.  They are supporting those forces that are at the leading edge of this fight, and they are doing it in a very effective fashion.

Okay?  Yes -- (inaudible).

Q:  On the girl -- (inaudible) -- in Okinawa -- (inaudible).  After that, the U.S. government says that the U.S. will do everything it can to prevent such incidents from occurring again.

So, what kind of --

MR. COOK:  I'm sorry.  I couldn't hear what you were saying there.

Q:  After the incident in Okinawa.

MR. COOK:  Yeah.

Q:  And the U.S. government say -- it did address that the U.S. will take everything it can to prevent such an incident from occurring again.

So, what kind of measures are you considering to take right now?

MR. COOK:  I think there are a number of things that, again, our forces are always doing in Japan and in particular, in Okinawa, with regard to this situation where they can bolster -- whether it's training, whether it's messages from the command leadership to our troops there, to our civilian employees.

I think a number of things are under consideration for how to better communicate, first of all, our concerns about what has happened and preventing this kind of thing from ever happening again.

But these are, I think, actions that commanders there, in Japan, are in the best place to try to determine the best course of action in terms of anything that could be done to prevent this kind of thing -- the risk of this ever happening.

Yes, Luis?

Q:  Just following up on Courtney's points here.  What exactly is the forward line of troops definition that you're using?

MR. COOK:  I mean, I think -- again, I think that's a good question.  Which one -- yeah, which one is -- which --

Q:  I really want to know.

MR. COOK:  Yeah, this is a fluid --

Q:  This front row here is the forward line of troops and I'm right here, I am not on the forward line of troops.

Is that the definition that you're using?

MR. COOK:  Luis, there's no specific measurement that I'm using here.

But I think, again, our forces in Iraq and Syria, their instructions, their mission is clear that they are not at that leading edge.  They're able to defend themselves, but they have to be in a position to be able to provide the kind of advice and assistance needed to help these forces, these local forces succeed.

So, they're doing that understanding their mission, and their -- the limits placed on them.  And they're doing that in an effective way, and they have to, of course, be cognizant for their own personal safety and force protection of their fellow teammates.

And they're doing that.  These folks are incredibly good at what they do.  And so, there is no -- I don't have a yardstick measurement for you.  And again, this is a fluid situation where the forward line of troops can be moving.

And so they're doing their best to adjust to the circumstances on the ground, carrying out their mission in an effective way as possible.

Q:  My understanding of forward lines is that as -- as the -- I'm sorry -- the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to push south from -- towards Raqqah, that as they clear an area of ISIS and they, you know, quote/unquote "take that territory back," then the forward line continues to move south with them.

But I think the thing that perhaps -- (inaudible) -- and I, maybe others, are -- are -- is surprising to us is that we've consistently been told that these 250 or 300 U.S. forces that are there are back; are back, you know, in some sort of a more hardened base or structure a facility or something, doing their advising.

But now it's clear from this AFP reporting that they're actually moving south with -- they're moving south towards Raqqah with the SDF, as opposed to staying in one fixed location.  And I understand that you can't confirm, but -- but there's photographic evidence from an esteemed, you know, journalistic organization that proves it.  So you don't even have to confirm it.  It's true.  We consider it true in the photos.

So I guess that the question is, now the U.S. troops they are, rather than staying back and doing their training, they're -- they are now moving with the Syrians, moving forward with the Syrians towards Raqqah.  I guess that's -- and that seems to be a change from our understanding of what they were doing in the past.

MR. COOK:  We haven't talked much about forces on the ground in Syria for all the reasons I've described.  And I'm not going to get into it further here other than to tell you about their mission, how they've conducted themselves.  This is a dangerous situation for them.  We're not going to do anything to expose them to greater risk at this point.

They have been in close communication with the local forces on the ground, those commanders that they've been able to establish relationships with, and they're going to continue to do so, carrying out their mission.  And again, not putting them in the lead of this fight, but providing that support role to those forces.  And they're going to continue to do that.

Q:  (inaudible) -- I think it's clear they're not in the lead in the fight, but it seems like they might be in the chase vehicle right behind the fight at this point, from the -- that's what the photos seem to show.  But they're right -- they're right there forward with the Syrians.

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it for you to characterize what you see there.  I'm just telling you what our forces, what their mission is, what they're doing.  And that they're going to continue to carry out this mission and they've been effective in what they've done so far.  And we have every expectation they'll continue to be effective.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK:  Yes, Lucas?  Can I say no?

Q:  President Obama will be visiting Hiroshima.  And I was curious if Secretary Carter had invited his counterpart to join him in Pearl Harbor?

MR. COOK:  If we have future invitations to share with you, Lucas, we'll be sure to do so.

Q:  Would the secretary want the Japanese to visit Pearl Harbor, like a quid pro quo situation?

MR. COOK:  Again, Lucas, if we have future invitations, we'll be sure to let you know.

But thanks -- thanks for thinking of it.