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U.S. Department of Defense

04/05/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 04/06/2021 11:11

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. MR. KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody.

Q: Hello, afternoon.

MR. KIRBY: Hope everybody had a good weekend. Just a couple of things off the top. I think, you know, that today is Gold Star Spouses Day, and I know many of you know some Gold Star spouses and the sacrifice that they and their family have -- have undergone in these last 20 years of war, particularly, and on behalf of the department, the Secretary just wants to recognize the -- the sacrifice that Gold Star spouses have endured, continue to endure, the grief that they still suffer and -- and the -- the resilience that so many of them have shown in the face of -- of tragedy. So it's a -- it's a good -- it's a good day to stop and think about what these families have done for our country and what they continue to do for the country.

Speaking of what families do for the country, April's also the -- designated as the month of the military child, underscoring the important role that military children pay -- play in our Armed Forces community. So we're -- we're grateful, as well, for all that our military children do every day to -- to make our families whole and to contribute in their own way to stability and security and happiness in the military home and we're grateful for all of the moves and all of the time away from mom and/or dad that they -- that they have to endure and we're grateful, as well, for them.

So with that, let's take -- take questions. I don't think I've got Bob or Lita on the phone, so Jen, we'll go with you first.

Q: I have two questions, John. I'd like to follow up on the Fort Sill sexual assault investigation that the Army's carrying out. There were reports that up to 22 soldiers have been suspended. Is that accurate? And some are calling this Fort Hood 2.0. Is that an accurate description? Are you concerned that there's a kind of sexual assault environment down at Fort Sill that could've led to such a -- a serious case?

MR. KIRBY: Well I can tell you the Secretary has been kept informed about the -- the -- the investigative efforts at Fort Sill. We obviously won't say anything from this podium that will get ahead of that investigation. So I'm not in a position to confirm specific actions that the Army has taken.

The Secretary knows that the Army and Army leadership is taking this incident seriously, and as I said, he's -- he's being kept apprised, but it would be really imprudent for us to -- to talk to any specifics about the case being evaluated, as well as jumping ahead and speculating as to where this investigation is going to go and what it might portend or what it might say, you know, more broadly about Fort Sill.

The only other thing that I would add is that -- that he knows -- the Secretary knows that Army leadership is providing the necessary support to the victim and to the victim's family.

Q: And separately, there have been new reports about Russian activities in the Arctic, including some satellite imagery that show new bases, testing of weapons. How seriously concerned is the Pentagon about -- have you seen any tests of hypersonic weapons or what are the dangers of the kind of unregulated testing that's taking place? How concerned are you about Russia's activities in the Arctic?

MR. KIRBY: Without getting into specific intelligence assessments, obviously we're monitoring it very closely. No -- nobody wants to see the Arctic as a region become militarized. We obviously recognize that the region is key terrain, that's vital to our own homeland defense and -- and is a potential strategic corridor between the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the -- and the homeland, which would make it vulnerable to expanded competition, if you will.

We're committed to protecting our U.S. national security interests in the Arctic by upholding a rules-based order in the region, particularly through our network of Arctic allies and partners who share the same deep, mutual interest that we do, in exactly that order.

But I won't talk to specifics in terms of how we assess what's going on there.

Q: You can't say whether Russia has broken any treaties there?

MR. KIRBY: I think I've gone about as far as I'm going to be able to go today. Obviously we're watching this. And, as I said before, we have national security interests there that we know we're going to -- that we need to protect and defend. And as I said, nobody is interested in seeing the Arctic become militarized.

On the phone, Idrees?

Q: Thanks, John. If I could ask about the National Guard troops on Capitol Hill. It does appear that the incident on Friday was sort of a lone wolf rather than, you know, some sort coordinated right-wing attack. Given what happened on Friday, do you anticipate a change in the Guard mission on the Capitol, or you should expect all troops to, you know, actually be removed around mid-May?

MR. KIRBY: Well, there's an investigation ongoing and certainly we're not going to get ahead of that. I don't have any changes to the mission of the National Guard troops that are on Capitol Hill to announce to you -- to announce or speak to today.

And, again, we, as the secretary said on Friday, certainly extend our condolences to the family of the officer who was killed. And, again, it's a reminder of how important our law enforcement people are, our personnel are. And we're grateful for the support that the National Guard is still able to provide and was able to provide that day.

But as for specific outcomes that might come of this in terms of National Guard mission, we're just not there yet.

Tom?

Q: John, you said the secretary would be meeting with the chiefs this week now that the stand-down is over to get their sense of what they heard, what's coming up from the services. Do we expect any readout from his meeting with the chiefs? And also, what are the next steps here, if any?

MR. KIRBY: So the meeting hasn't happened, you're right. The secretary does expect this week to meet with the service secretaries and service chiefs, as he does normally. But what we expect, at least a topic of conversation in this meeting, will be to get their feedback on how they conducted the stand-down, what they learned, the experiences that they -- that they can pass on to him, and whatever lessons they might want to offer.

I won't get ahead of the secretary's decision space here. I'm sure that what he hears from the services will help inform whatever decision he makes going forward. You also asked will there be a readout. I fully expect that I will be providing some sense of how that meeting went and just in broad terms what the secretary learned.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Terace?

Q: Yes, sir. They just asked the question about the National Guard, there being any changes. But my question is not as far as the Guard goes but as far as the fencing around the Capitol, has there been any word on any changes? Are they going to put more fencing up after the incident that happened or is there no changes to that as well?

MR. KIRBY: I'd refer you to the Capitol Police for that question, Terace, that's not a question for the National Guard or for the Pentagon, but for Capitol Police.

Barb?

Q: On Afghanistan, so we now know a few days ago there was another Taliban attack that that they claimed credit for at FOB Chapman, which is a well-known location, since the CIA lost so many people there. And there were in fact U.S. personnel at Chapman when the indirect fire attack occurred.

Where does this leave -- thoughts about whether it's even possible to trust the Taliban since this is only the latest in an apparent series of attacks against bases where U.S. troops are. But in terms of this one alone, you're trying to negotiate, you're less than 30 days out, and they conduct another attack against a base where U.S. personnel are. Where does this leave the interest level in trying to negotiate with them and trying to even think about getting out by May 1st?

MR. KIRBY: I certainly won't speak for our negotiators and for the diplomats at the State Department. They -- that process still continues. We still want to see negotiated settlement to the end of this war. And it's clear to us here at the Department of Defense that our colleagues at the State Department and our negotiators are taking this seriously. And they continue to try to press for a diplomatic solution.

I think clearly, as the president himself has indicated, it's going to be tough to meet May 1st as a deadline for the complete withdrawal, logistically just tough to make. That said, the review is ongoing. The president hasn't made a decision one way or the other about force levels in Afghanistan or missions in Afghanistan. And as the secretary himself said when we were Kabul just a couple of weeks ago that he is confident that whatever the decision is, if that decision involves a withdrawal, that General Miller and General McKenzie will be able to do so in a safe, orderly, and effective way.

Q: Let me follow up on two points. Still, the Taliban are now openly attacking bases where U.S. personnel are located. Does that concern you? And you also just said there hasn't been a decision on missions. Is the actual...

MR. KIRBY: On follow on our future missions. I mean, they're still conducting the mission that they've been assigned now.

Q: Well, are you -- is that mission open to being rethought in this process of some other mission in Afghanistan and what you are doing now?

MR. KIRBY: I won't get ahead of the secretary's decision-making.

Q: And how concerned are you now, given what happened at Chapman just a few days ago, while these negotiations are going on, that they're continuing to attack bases where U.S. personnel are located?

MR. KIRBY: Obviously we all think the violence is too high. And the secretary has said that himself. And clearly this -- the attack on the on Forward Operating Base Chapman is of concern. And I want to correct my last entry, I said I wasn't going to get ahead of the secretary's decision-making. I meant to say the president's decision-making. The president gets to make this decision. That was my bad.

Yes, ma'am. In the back.

Q: I have two questions. First, do you have concerns regarding the situation in Jordan, the stability of the kingdom? And also, did you reach out to any of the Jordanian officials?

The second question, I understand that there is no decision about the troop levels in Iraq, but can you please update us on when or where we are in the process? Did the secretary present his recommendations yet to the president? Is the president now like that -- he needs to make the decision? Where are we in this process?

MR. KIRBY: As for the president's decision-making process, I would prefer you to my colleagues at the White House to speak to that. And I certainly am not going to make it a habit of speaking here publicly about the secretary's counsel or advice to the commander-in-chief. That's just not something we're going to publicly speak to.

There's still a review ongoing. The president hasn't made a final decision about troop posture in Afghanistan. We are still very much executing to the mission that we had been assigned and what our troops are still there executing. And if and when that changes then that we'll adjust. I won't get ahead of that process.

On Jordan, obviously, we're watching the situation closely. It's really a question better put to the State Department. The U.S. government has been in touch with Jordanian officials.

We have a very strong military-to-military relationship with the kingdom. We obviously -- our focus is on making sure that that relationship and our shared security interest in the region remain foremost in our minds.

Okay, Abraham?

Q: Yes, thanks, John. Two questions. One, Southern Command announced the movement of some detainees at Gitmo to consolidate. So I wanted to ask if the secretary has any update regarding the NSC process, evaluating how that -- how Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility might be closed. DOD presumably has a role in that.

Can you describe what DOD has been doing for the past two months regarding that process? And then separately, can you talk at all about the Russian troop buildup on the Ukraine border? Has there been any determination made as to if that is training, if that is offensive, do you have anything new to report on that?

MR. KIRBY: On Gitmo, the secretary fully supports President Biden's desire to close the facility -- to close the detention facility there. The -- the -- the thinking behind that, the process of reviewing, how to do that is -- is one being led by the National Security Council and by the White House. And so, the secretary is -- provides his views in his council, and I won't get ahead of that process over there. But clearly, the secretary agrees that it's long past time to close that detention facility.

Your second question, I knew I'd -- oh, Russia/Ukraine, right? Russia/Ukraine. I don't have any additional assessments to talk to today. As you know, we're not going to speak about intelligence matters. The secretary, as you know, was in touch with the minister of defense of Ukraine, and he pledged in that call, and we pledged publicly, to standing up and supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and calling on Russia to respect that territorial integrity.

Q: I got a couple of quick follow-ups. Is the secretary -- is the Department of Defense sharing intelligence with Ukraine to assist them in that process?

MR. KIRBY: I won't talk about intelligence issues from the podium.

Q: And then on Gitmo, presumably, DOD is doing something on that review, or is this fully handled by NSC?

MR. KIRBY: No, no, no. Of course, we have a role to play, as I said, and we're a participant in that discussion. There's no question about it, but I simply won't get ahead of our colleagues at the White House in terms of how that process is ongoing.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. Peter Loewe?

Q: Hi, John. Thanks very much. There was a question about an hour ago in the State Department briefing about rejoining the Ottawa Treaty and landmine ban. And while that would be a question for the administration, the State Department did say specifically on the use of landmines, we would refer you to the Department of Defense. So I'm following up on that and wondering what is the current Department of Defense landmine use policy. And why does the department need/use them? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Let me get back to you, Peter. I'm going to take that question. I wasn't aware that that question had been raised earlier today at the State Department. And rather than try to wing it here, I'm going to take that question, and we'll get -- we'll get you an answer back.

Q: Thanks very much.

MR. KIRBY: You bet. Jared?

Q: Hi, John. Thanks for doing this. We've seen reports in the -- in the White House that said that the strategic dialogue with Iraq will -- is supposed to be commencing this week. Have any department officials spoken with Iraqi officials ahead of the talks? And is the presence of 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq on the table for these discussions?

MR. KIRBY: We routinely talk to our counterparts in Iraq, as you know, because we do have 2,500 or so troops there that are in a counter-ISIS mission in -- which requires a deep partnership with our Iraqi Security Force partners. I'm not aware of any specific conversations that have occurred here from the Department with respect to this strategic dialogue. It is really a process that is being handled by our State Department colleagues.

But again, we share the Iraqi goal of having a security force that's capable of defending Iraq's own sovereignty and denying terrorist groups the use of Iraq as a base for operations. The coalition continues to support partner forces in Iraq and in Syria with advising air support, provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and conditions-based equipment divestment.

Though ISIS is, by orders of magnitude, not the organization with the capability they once were, they are still a threat, and we are still on the ground in Iraq assisting and advising our Iraqi partners at their invitation to be there.

Pierre?

Q: How should we see the movement of the carrier Eisenhower going to the CENTCOM area? And part of it seems that they are joining or thinking of joining the fight against ISIS ?

MR. KIRBY: You saw that over the weekend, the USS Eisenhower and her associated Strike Group ships and aircraft formally enter into the Fifth Fleet, the Central Command -- Navy Central Command area of operations, and they're there to support a myriad of tasking that General McKenzie might have for them there. And I won't get into the specifics of what that tasking might be over time, but it's a multi-mission set of capabilities that a carrier strike group brings. It also brings great flexibility.

Yes?

Q: Thank you. I want to ask you about North Korea policy review (inaudible) North Korea policy review.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Last week (Inaudible) advisors of the United States, Japan, South Korea has (inaudible) to complete the review. In the joint statement mentioned, they agreed to work together to enhance the deterrence on their Korean Peninsula. Do you expect (inaudible) capabilities after actually finishing this review?

MR. KIRBY: Well, the review's ongoing, and so, it'd be premature to speak to specific outcomes of that. Obviously, we're all committed to the denuclearization of North Korea and to security and stability on the Peninsula. We always take a look in any normal year about the degree to which, the frequency with which and the scope of military training across -- around the world, but certainly there on the Peninsula as well, to make sure that we're as ready as possible to deter and, if deterrence fails, to defeat any threat.

We take our commitments to the alliance that we have with the Republic of Korea very, very seriously. And I -- I just won't get ahead of a review that isn't complete yet. But we're all committed. And I think you saw, coming out of Annapolis that our counterparts in Japan and South Korea share that same commitment.

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Jared?

Q: Hi, John. I don't have a second question.

MR. KIRBY: Oh, did I already ask you? Tom?

Q: Hey, John. Thank you very much. I have two questions today. The first one comes from one of my superiors and one of my -- one of my hosts in a station in Wisconsin in regards the stand down. He asked me to ask you if you have to remind people to follow their oath, doesn't that tell you the scope of the problem?

MR. KIRBY: Okay, and your second question?

Q: Second question is a more broad one, no regard to any specific incident at the moment. As a formal officer -- I'm speaking to you -- and thinking of your conversations with your colleagues, what is your reaction to when an order or directive is issued and is ignored, flaunted, or not obeyed?

MR. KIRBY: Those are two very interesting questions, Tom. I think -- and we've said this before, extremism in the ranks is sadly not a new problem and, to some degree, there's been elements in the ranks since the Civil War.

And what happened in early January, as I've said before, was something of a wake-up call for all of us here in the Pentagon given that there was a population of veterans and at least one reserve officer that we know of that participated in an attack on the Capitol while Congress was in session, conducting the people's business.

And so it would be responsible for us not to take that seriously. And as for the oath -- well first of all, to you other question about what does it say about the scope, we do not understand the full scope of the problem.

That's one of the things we're trying to get our arms around is how deep and how broad and how menacing the problem might be inside the ranks. We think it's probably less than what the headlines might suggest and more than what we're comfortable with.

But as the secretary said, even a small number can have an outsized effect on morale and cohesion and certainly the behavior that this kind of ideology could espouse could have a direct impact on good order and discipline, as well as the safety of our teammates.

We make no apologies for taking time over the last couple of months to pause and consider the oath that we take and asking during the stand-down for people to reconsider that oath isn't an indication that the vast majority aren't, quite the contrary.

In fact, the secretary has made that very clear; 99.9% he says served with honor and dignity and character and respect that oath, but that doesn't make it wrong -- doesn't mean it's wrong to take a moment out and read it again, revisit it.

There's some great active verbs in that oath and maybe just focusing on some of those verbs is a good thing. It's a healthy thing. Many of us -- and I'm no longer in uniform, but certainly over the course of my military career I had to take that oath many, many times.

And every time, even when I attended a promotion ceremony, where I wasn't the guy being promoted, when it was being given to the individual being honored, I still took a moment to just think about those words and what they mean.

It's a promise to the American people and it's a promise to support and defend the founding document and there is absolutely nothing wrong, in fact there's everything right, about taking a few moments out and reconsidering it. And the fact that we did this during the stand-down and we asked people to reconsider it, isn't an indication of a lack of faith or trust in them, it's quite the contrary.

It was a chance to restore -- not restore -- to revisit that faith in confidence. And then, I'm sorry, your second question was more personal about me. What was it?

Q: Well it was about you and other officers, you know, when you give an order or give a directive and that order is ignored or flaunted by the -- by the troops or those in the ranks, what is the reaction of the officer corps or an officer?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, that's a question that I don't think, you know, I have anywhere near the requisite time here today to talk about, Tom. I mean, the -- one of the foundations of military services is the importance of the chain of command and the duty that all of us have, when I was in uniform, to obey lawful orders given by your chain of command.

And when those orders aren't obeyed, there are repercussions for that, some more serious than others given the order, given the circumstances. But there is certainly repercussions for that. It's, again, lawful orders being obeyed and promptly and effectively is one of the hallmarks of military service.

It's one of the things that makes us so effective on the battlefield and effective off the battlefield. It's something that we all take seriously.

Q: Thanks a lot.

MR. KIRBY: Dan?

Q: You mentioned veterans being involved in the January 6th event. Has the department been in discussion with either veterans groups or the Department of Veterans Affairs to try and get at that aspect of the problem, since obviously you don't have authority over former service members?

MR. KIRBY: We don't, you're right. We don't have authority over veterans. I know that the -- Secretary Austin and Secretary McDonough have had a conversation about this general problem. I would refer you to the VA for their thoughts on this. But we do have purview while individuals are still in the ranks, and one of the things that we're looking at is what are we doing to help prepare them for the transition to civilian life.

And -- we know that some of these groups are actively recruiting veterans because they know they have leadership skills, they have weapons training, they are good organizers. And so, we're asking ourselves what we doing to better make sure that as we prepare for future veterans that they're able to make that transition in an informed, educated way about who and what is waiting for them on the other side.

Barb?

Q: Can I just ask a quick question about hypersonic, well-known the Air Force is about successes first, hypersonic Air-launched missile. And you've seen the Russians and the Chinese devote a lot of their funding to developing hypersonics. How important are hypersonics, that go five times the speed of sound, for the U.S. military?

MR. KIRBY: It's an important capability that, as you rightly pointed out Barbara, that we are involved in exploring and resourcing and better understanding the research and development side of this.

So again, I won't get into specifics here, other than to say we're mindful of the importance of this capability and we're also mindful of the pursuit of this capability by other nation-states that would -- that would potentially challenge our national security interests. Okay, thanks everybody.