March 9, 2021
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Afternoon.
MR. KIRBY: No opening statement so we’ll just get right to it. Lita, I think you’re first.
Q: Sorry, I was trying to unmute. John, I’m wondering if you can perhaps update us on the Seoul agreement in any way. Do you have any sense when, if that’s going to be signed or what, if any costs that may have been agreed to?
MR. KIRBY: The full agreement — Lita, are you talking about the National Guard extension request?
Q: No, no. Seoul — look, I’m sorry, Korea.
MR. KIRBY: No, I don’t have an update for you on that. I would refer you to our State Department colleagues. That is a State Department lead. Obviously we share their pleasure at the knowledge that they were able to come to conclusion on that but I don’t have details to share with you today.
Q: OK. And just — could I have a follow up?
MR. KIRBY: Of course.
Q: Yes, and then — and secondly then, also on the National Guard, can you update us on where that is now?
MR. KIRBY: I can tell you that, again, there is an official formal request here in the building that’s — that’s working its way up to the Secretary. As I understand it; the analysis behind that request for assistance has been completed and I would expect the Secretary to — be able to look at that analysis and make a decision very, very soon. I don’t want to get ahead of his — of his decision-making process, but when we have something we can announce and speak to, we certainly will.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: In the room — Dan?
Q: Admiral Davidson today in his testimony — he said that the Chinese nuclear stockpile, if it quadrupled in the next decade, would result a overmatch with the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Does the Defense Department believe that is a serious possibility? That China could quadruple it’s stockpile in ten years?
MR. KIRBY: Well, without getting into specific numbers, we clearly believe that the PRC is pursuing a nuclear triad capability, increasing their delivery options, and they’re working to improve the survivability of its forces. We also believe that they may seek to develop nuclear strength commensurate with a great power. Left unchecked, the Department believes the PRC’s nuclear arsenal could grow commensurately with its regional ambitions, but I won’t go into more detail than that.
Q: And then just to switch topics slightly, is there anything further you have to say about who is responsible or who is likely responsible for the rocket attack on al-Asad?
MR. KIRBY: As far as I know, we’re still working our way through that and I don’t have final attribution to be able to speak to today.
Yes, go ahead.
Q: Hi, John, thanks for doing this. What’s the Pentagon’s analysis of the recent Polish army exercise called Zima20, where the Russian forces took Warsaw — Russian forces took Warsaw in five days. That, of course, is quicker than the Nazis took it in World War II. Has this changed the Pentagon’s outlook on how it’s going to rotate forces into Poland or any permanent facilities of U.S. forces in — and what does it say about — of Poland as a NATO ally? Thank.
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have any specifics about this particular exercise, we can try to get you better information, I just wasn’t tracking this specific exercise. Obviously we consider Poland a terrific ally. We also recognize the importance of improving national security and military readiness in that part of Europe, and I think you will see that continue.
I don’t think I have anything specific, nor would I, to talk to in terms of rotational developments going forward. I mean, you’ve seen us do this in the past, I know of no changes to that training regimen, and I also would just point you to the global posture review that the Secretary is conducting which we expect to be complete mid-summer, which may help inform the process of training events and posture specifically related to Poland coming up in the future.
Q: OK. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: You’re welcome. Sylvie? Sylvie? You there?
Q: Yes. Yes, I am here. I thought you heard me, but do you hear me now?
MR. KIRBY: I hear you.
Q: OK. I — you said there is no decision yet on the National Guard, but I understand that some people are writing that the decision has been actually taken and it’s yes. Can you explain the situation and what is exactly the — the threat?
MR. KIRBY: I have long given up trying to explain what you guys end up writing every day and where you get it from. I’m — I could tell you that there — that the secretary hasn’t signed off on the — on the request for assistance yet. And if and when that changes, I’ll be sure to let you know.
But I can’t — I can’t speak to what you guys are reporting. And as for the threat — so we — we talked about this. You know I’m loathe to get into details of threat analysis anywhere in the world, certainly here at home.
It’s obviously different here — here at home than it would be for forces overseas, of course. It’s a domestic threat that we’re talking about, which means that the information and the intelligence comes from domestic law enforcement agencies and I would you point you to them to speak to it more than me.
The other thing that I said the other day and I think it’s important to remember is that the Guard presence on the Hill, while certainly there to address a requirement that is based on law enforcement’s concerns, is also there to help bolster and support the Capitol Police and — and their capabilities, which may not be at the level where it needs to be, given the fact that we’re in sort of a new environment in this country.
So it’s — it’s — it’s not just about a threat assessment. It’s about assisting and supporting capabilities that the Capitol Police may now lack and may need to look at improving on their own — in their own sense.
And I think that, again, without speaking to the Secretary’s decision here, that I think that’s largely what was behind the extension request was — was — was also a continued enabling support that the Guard can bring to make up for gaps in Capitol Police capabilities, at least in the short term.
OK, here in the room, Abraham.
Q: Thank you. John, turning to the — Admiral Davidson’s talk today, testimony before Congress. Does — how does the Secretary view his budget requests? As you heard there was — there would have to be some shifting within the Department of Defense in order to honor those requests in full.
And how does the Secretary assess? Does he agree with Admiral Davidson’s asks and does he believe that all those things are necessary in terms of containing China and then can you also talk about his upcoming trip yet?
MR. KIRBY: Don’t have any travel to speak to today. As for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, I think I mentioned this the other day; the Department is developing what we call the PDI in fiscal year ’22.
It’s — that development will be nested into the budget process, informed by the budget process, to fund key investments that will maintain a credible deterrent in the Indo-Pacific and reassure our allies and partners as well as reducing operational risk. And I’m not going to get ahead of budget decisions going forward.
Q: If you can’t mention the trip yet, can you talk about the importance of building regional partners and allies in Indo-Pacific?
MR. KIRBY: Well, and the Secretary — let me try this again, this time with my tongue. The Secretary has spoken a lot about the importance of the Indo-Pacific region and the importance of making sure that the Department is prepared to — to meet the pacing challenge that is China with operational concepts and plans and capabilities that enhance our competitive edge.
And while I won’t speak to travel that hasn’t been announced, I think you will continue to see this Department and the secretary put a lot of effort into making sure that we’re postured properly in the Indo-Pacific and that we are properly respecting, utilizing and empowering our alliances and partnerships in that part of the world.
Five our seven treaty alliances are in the Indo-Pacific region and we take that very seriously.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: You’re welcome. Lucas?
Q: John, in the tweets –
MR. KIRBY: Does this mean you’re not going to get the last question? Are you taking your shot now?
Q: We’ll see.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, we’ll see. I know what that means.
Q: In a tweet, Dr. Colin Kahl called the Republican Party, quote, the party of ethnic cleansing. Does Secretary Austin agree?
MR. KIRBY: I think the — Mr. Kahl also spoke pretty eloquently about his Twitter habits in his hearing and — and I think made — made clear, you know, that his respect for members of Congress of both parties and spoke to his Twitter activity. And I think I’ll leave it there.
The Secretary looks forward to having Dr. Kahl installed as the under secretary of defense for policy. He urges the Senate to — to give him a vote so we can get him on board. It’s a key job in this — in this building. It’s a — it’s a critical job in the building to make sure that, as the secretary has said, we have policy that’s matched to the will of the American people and strategy and resources that then can inflow from that policy.
And Colin Kahl is exactly the right individual to help us lead that policy making effort. The secretary, again, looks forward to the confirmation process concluding with a vote for Dr. Kahl and getting him onboard as soon as possible.
Q: Politico is reporting that the secretary reached out to Senator Joe Manchin to urge him to vote yes on Dr. Kahl, is that true?
MR. KIRBY: The Secretary is planning to have a conversation with Senator Manchin today. I’m not going to, as I would never from this podium, talk about the details of the conversations between the Secretary and individual members of Congress.
Q: And would a tweet like this get flagged as extremist behavior in today’s Department of Defense.
MR. KIRBY: Come on, Lucas. I — I — I think when we’re talking about extremist ideology here in the building and in the context of that, I think you know well what we’re talking about. And we’re talking about white supremacist, extremist ideology that is — and gang related extremist ideology that is prejudicial to good order and discipline and can lead to and inspire actual criminal acts against our teammates inside the Department of Defense.
Q: What’s the count now — I’m sorry. Follow on real quick, please. What’s the count now of how many positions are filled? You often give us a –
MR. KIRBY: Yes, well — you know I don’t think I’ve got that. We’ll take that one. That’s an easy one to get back to you on. I think I gave a read out yesterday and I don’t think it changed from yesterday.
Q: But there’s like — they’re still filling some positions but as opposed to the nominated positions as opposed to the other key positions right?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, let me get you a better breakdown. I don’t have it with me right now. Every week we onboard more. We just — I think I just announced another four or five yesterday. I just don’t have it front of me but we can get that for you, that’s — that’s no problem. Let’s see, Lara from Politico.
Q: Hi, John. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you about the rest of the DOD nominations. It seems like it’s taking a really long time and, umm, for the president is behind. Some of his predecessors on naming people to key DOD roles? So can you talk about when we might see those nominations, particularly for service secretaries and under secretaries and what the delay is?
MR. KIRBY: Lara, I think I’m going to take issue with the idea of delay. I mean these are — these are important decisions. And I think nobody wants to rush to. Clearly it’s the president’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to nominate these individuals and I would not get ahead of his decision-making process or ahead of any recommendations that the secretary of defense might be making with respect to those nominations.
It is clearly something that the secretary has been working on and consulting on and feels completely free to offer his recommendations. But I — I don’t know that I would agree there’s a delay.
We’re — we’re in week six here of the new administration, and we have been filling a lot of the positions. Again, we’ve been reading them out to you almost — well, certainly, every week, if not every — every day.
But these are — you know, when you’re talking about some of the jobs I think you’re referring to, some of the — the Senate-confirmed jobs, I mean, these are big jobs with big responsibilities. And it’s — it’s more important that we get it right, and that we’ve properly informed the process so the — the president can make sure he’s getting it right and feel comfortable that he’s getting it right, than it is to do it, you know, against some sort of artificial timeline.
Q: Are there any particular problem areas or areas of disagreement that we might attribute this delay to? Because I — I am going to call it a delay because it is — this president is behind his predecessors, including President Trump, in at least naming these people (inaudible)…
MR. KIRBY: Well, again — again, Lara, I think, you know, it’s — lining it up against a previous administration, that’s sort of an artificial schedule, and we’re not going to be beholden to ourselves to a schedule set by a previous administration. So I — I — again, I push back on your use of the word “delay”. And as for problems, I’m — I’m certainly not aware of any, and if I was, I certainly wouldn’t speak to it at the podium.
Q: One follow-up on the Manchin meeting. Is the Secretary meeting with other Democratic senators on the staff — on the Senate Armed Services Committee besides Manchin, or just Manchin, the concern that he’s wavering in his support? And I had a follow-up on a different congressional (inaudible).
MR. KIRBY: I don’t know of any other discussions, Tony. I’m not aware of any others.
Q: Is he — is he concerned that Manchin may (inaudible)…
MR. KIRBY: I won’t get into the parameters and the — and the specifics of the — of a conversation that hasn’t even happened yet. I just won’t — I won’t — I won’t do that.
Q: OK. One thing that did happen on Friday — the Senate — the House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith took several shots at your keystone program, the F-35.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q: He said he wanted — he didn’t want to start — keep pouring money down a rat hole. Rhetoric aside, what’s the — what’s the Pentagon’s response to his rather strident attack?
MR. KIRBY: Well, what I can say is — and you know this probably better than anybody in the room, Tony. The F-35 remains the premier air system of choice for three of the Armed Forces, seven international partners, six foreign military sales customers. It routinely demonstrates high-end capabilities at the hands of our joint and international warfighters, and it’s performing in combat operations from land and from the sea.
The department will continue the low-rate initial production at the planned rate that we’re currently seeing, as directed by congressional authorization and appropriation, and we look forward to working with Chairman Smith and the committee as we work forward to address the needs of the department and the specific advance of this program.
Q: Well, I need to ask you, what does your tip sheet tell you about the problems the program is having though, too? It — it’s having a number (inaudible)…
MR. KIRBY: This is not a tip sheet. This is just helping me answer your question.
Q: Well, (inaudible) challenging issues with sustainment, flat cost per flying hour, avionics software delays.
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have that detail in front of me. I mean, obviously, we’re — we’re mindful of the complexities of this particular program. Development of an updated schedule that addresses all the previous causes of schedule overruns has got to be informed by a detailed understanding of the — of the path ahead and associated timelines. We are continuing an — an analysis here, and we’ll deliver the proposed acquisition production baseline revision when it’s complete.
Q: You dismiss the view that it’s a rat — pouring money down a rat hole, then. You think that’s over the top rhetoric?
MR. KIRBY: I think I was pretty clear in the degree to which the department continues to stand by the F-35.
Q: Fair enough. Thanks.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
OK, Jeff, Task & Purpose?
Q: Thank you. Is there any possibility that the National Guard mission in the Capitol will become an enduring mission?
MR. KIRBY: You know, Jeff, I don’t think anybody can answer that question right now. Right now, we’re really dealing with a specific request for assistance for an additional couple of months extension at a reduced number from what we’re seeing now.
I think there’s 5,100 roughly, on the Hill — and this is an extension for a couple of months of a reduced number from that. And that’s where our focus right now is, Jeff. So I’m in no position to speculate beyond that.
Q: Thank you, but it sounds like you’re leaving the possibility open that it could be an enduring mission. Am I hearing you correctly?
MR. KIRBY: I think you might be over-hearing me. I’m saying what we’re focused on is this focus request — that’s where the focus is right now, and I just wouldn’t hypothesize about this going forward.
I mean, look, as I said in my answer to Sylvie, part of the calculus here is in helping supplant – supplant– helping fill some of the gaps in Capitol Police capabilities on the — on Capitol Hill and at the Capitol complex.
So part of this is obviously valid requirements to have in there, but also to help backfill some of these capabilities. As they look at themselves as an institution and what they need to do for their long-term future.
OK. Back there.
Q: Thank you, John. The Republic of Korea and the United States alliance is important to counter China and North Korea — though you know that already.
MR. KIRBY: Then why did you feel compelled to say it?
Q: Because it is my (inaudible).
MR. KIRBY: OK.
Q: Do you think two plus two diplomatic and defense ministerial meeting is necessary strengthen the U.S. and ROK’s alliance, do you think …
MR. KIRBY: That is a heck of a backdoor to try to open to talking about rumors of a trip to the region.
Q: (Inaudible) not only that one…
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, but I know what you were doing. I don’t have any travel to speak to you right now …
Q: I didn’t ask about it.
MR. KIRBY: I know you didn’t, but that’s what you wanted to ask about.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I know. Look, without getting in to specifics on two plus two, the — we’ve said before this alliance is the lynch pin of security in the region. We believe that, the secretary believes that and we look forward to furthering alliance objectives and goals as best we can.
And you’ve heard the secretary talk about this in numerous venues about the importance of strengthening and revitalizing our alliances and partnerships around the world. And I think you’ll see him continue to make good on that promise.
Q: All right. Thank you.
Q: Today when we heard from Admiral Davidson as well about China, and the folks from this podium and many other platforms (inaudible) also had defined challenging China as a centerpiece of his policy.
And on the other hand we see that China is currently control — controls one of the largest port in Israel. And then recently Israel refused to — refused the U.S. request to inspect that Chinese port in Haifa. How are you going to challenge China, and how are you going to handle this issue with Israel given — ?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have any details on the issue you’re talking about with respect to Haifa. The Secretary has said, and said it in that strategic document you saw him lay out that the Department perceives China as the chief pacing challenge.
And we stood up a China task force, Dr. Ratner was down here talking to you about that a couple of weeks ago — to help him flesh out how the department is going to better address that challenge. Here at DOD, with respect to operational concepts, and policies, and force posture thinking.
And so we’re going to let that work continue and we’re going to continue to focus on that part of the world as we should. But I don’t have anything specific with respect to your question on Haifa.
Q: The other question (inaudible) Greek media is reporting that the U.S. has donated a bunch of military equipment to Greece. Do you have any detail on that? Can you confirm it?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t. I don’t have any — first I’ve heard of this. I will take the question, but it’s likely that you’re probably — if there’s anything to it, you’ll probably get a better answer out of our State Department colleagues, but I just don’t know anything about that.
Let’s see, Peter Martin, Bloomberg.
Q: Yes, hi there, John. We reported earlier that India plans to buy 30 armed drones from the U.S., I wondered if you have any comments on that or any broader comments on U.S. military ties with India?
MR. KIRBY: Sorry, missed it. You — that India what?
Q: India plans to buy 30 armed drones from the U.S.?
MR. KIRBY: That’s a question put to the Indian Ministry of Defense. I wouldn’t be able to comment on that one way or the other.
Q: Thank you. I want to ask you about the U.S. Japan relation. March 11 will mark the tenth anniversary the very disruptive earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan in 2011. The U.S. forces provided humanitarian support …
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: … and disaster support to the Japanese people. And those efforts called Operation Friendship. Do you think that Operation Friendship demonstrates this strong alliance with Japan? Do you have any comment about the U.S. efforts to help Japan to become (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: To help Japan what?
Q: To help Japan recover from (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: Recover. I remember that. And I remember visiting Japan not long after and flying in a helicopter over some of the devastated areas. It was quite something to see — quite stunning. And the United States was proud to be able to help the Japanese people begin to recover from that devastation. And I suspect that devastation is still being felt by many of them in those areas hard hit. And certainly it’s a testament to the strength of our alliance.
But more importantly I think it’s a testament to the strength of our friendship with the Japanese people and how much they mean to us. And goodness knows nobody wants to be called in to have to do that again, or see that happen to anybody again. But I hope that the Japanese people will always know that the United States military will be ready, able, and willing to assist should the need recur.
Q: Hey, John. Just going back to Colin Kahl’s nomination. Whether he passes through the Senate or not, is the Secretary concerned about the lack of bipartisan support he’s been getting at least in the Committee level, and then I have an unrelated follow-up.
MR. KIRBY: Well we’re certainly mindful of the concerns that some members have expressed. We value the oversight, the advise and consent responsibility of — of the committee, and the Secretary looks forward to continue to work with the committee, and to — to help address any of the concerns that they might have. I will go back to what I mentioned to Lucas, this is a critically important position here at the department, and Dr. Kahl is eminently qualified to — to fill it.
The secretary fully supports his nomination and wants him installed as soon as possible, and again, we — we’re — we’re grateful that the committee scheduled the hearing and conducted it. Again, mindful of the concerns expressed by some of the members, and we look forward to working with them through the confirmation process, and to seeing Dr. Kahl get voted in and get installed here at the Pentagon.
Q: On military vaccinations, I was wondering if there was an update of the opt-in rate or is that holding about two-thirds, and is there a number on opt-in rate for officers versus enlisted?
MR. KIRBY: Oren, you know, the — the — again, the two thirds that — that keeps getting cited was anecdotal, you know, and we’re not using two-thirds as a — what did you call it? An opt-in rate? What I can tell you is that we’ve had a million and a half doses delivered to DOD and we’ve administered 1.3 million. So, about almost a 90 percent rate of delivery, so these vaccines are not waiting on shelves very long before we’re finding arms to put them in.
And it’s important to remember that we’re still operating largely on the force through tier 1A and tier 1B, these are front — frontline healthcare workers, deploying and deployed troops, I mean, the bulk of the workforce hasn’t even been given an, you know, an option to — to take the vaccine.
So, we’re — we’re comfortable that, you know, we’re not waiting around, as we get vaccines, they’re going into arms. And that, you know, as the Secretary said, we certainly, have to continue to press on providing context and information to everybody in the workforce so that they understand that these vaccines are safe and effective. OK.
Jeff, Voice of America.
Q: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. Two questions, one on the National Guard. Have any other cities been putting in requests for National Guard support, kind of like what we’re seeing the U.S. Capitol? There have been concerns and what if anything is being done to make the information sharing — the threat information sharing easier so that the Defense Department has a better understanding of what the requirements are as they come in?
Second question, any reaction from the Pentagon to Russia reportedly extending invitations to key parties in Afghanistan for a three-day conference on March 18th, especially given how in the past the Pentagon has said Russia’s provided arms to the Taliban, and, of course, there was the — the allegations of the bounties.
MR. KIRBY: On your second question, I’d point you to my colleague at the State Department, that’s really more for them to speak to, that’s not — that — that’s clearly in the diplomatic lane. I might have gotten confused on your first question, were you talking about National Guard support to COVID vaccination efforts or to physical security efforts? I’m sorry, I got — I got a little…
Q: No, no worries, I meant with the mission to the U.S. Capitol and, of course, there were concerns about security at other points — other U.S. capitols earlier on this year. So, in terms of a security mission, any — anything that’s been done? Any more requests that have come in from any places other than the U.S. Capitol and Capitol Police? And is there anything being done to facilitate the sharing of threat information?
MR. KIRBY: There’s no other request for assistance that I’m aware of for National Guard assistance. As you know, the — under Title 32 with this — which this mission is under that’s — that’s, you know, driven by the governors and their authorities over the National Guard.
So, if there are — if there would be deemed similar needs in cities and towns across the country, it would really be the governors of those states to make that decision and to — and to — and to deploy those forces. So, it’s not — it — it — it wouldn’t be uncommon for us not to have visibility on that here at the Pentagon.
We do have, of course, visibility over the Capitol complex situation because of the unique command and control requirements of the DC National Guard up through the secretary of the Army. And again, the only request that we’re tracking is the one I’ve spoken to, which is — is up for the secretary’s decision here relatively soon. So, I — I don’t have any more updates on that.
David Martin, CBS.
Q: General McKenzie did an interview with Al Jazeera in which he’s quoted as saying “we did a number of things to help defend the Kingdom against this latest Houthi missile and drone attack, that we have helped them a lot over the past weeks.” So, what is he talking about? And specifically, did the U.S. systems in — in Saudi Arabia engage any of those Houthi missiles?
MR. KIRBY: I would point you to General McKenzie for more detail about what he’s referring to there, and again, I’m loathe to get into operational details here too much from this podium. The only thing I’d add, David, is a — is what we’ve said before, and we — we have security commitments with Saudi Arabia to help them defend their territory against attacks, which have as we’ve seen as recently as the weekend continue to happen. We take those responsibilities seriously but as for the details, I’d point you back to General McKenzie.
In the room, last one.
Q: Does the secretary believe that one’s Twitter feed is a potential liability?
MR. KIRBY: The secretary fully respects and supports freedom of speech, and he recognizes that Twitter is one way to exercise one’s freedom of speech.
Q: You never answered my question there, John…
MR. KIRBY: Yes I did.
Q: Does the secretary believe that the GOP is the party of quote, “ethnic cleansing,” as Dr. Kahl said…
MR. KIRBY: Of course he doesn’t, of course, he doesn’t, no. I — I didn’t think that that needed to be said so clearly. The secretary looks forward to working with the committee in a bipartisan way to see Dr. Kahl get confirmed, and get installed at the Pentagon.
Thanks everybody, have a great day.
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