May 3, 2021
PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, a couple of things at the top here. I think you all know we continue to assist the government and the people of India as they continue to struggle with their COVID outbreak. U.S. Transportation Command and its components continue to demonstrate their capability to provide immediate assistance to our partner nations, working with the Defense Logistics Agency and our interagency partners.
Three U.S. Air Force C-5 Super Galaxies and one C-17 Globemaster are continuing to deliver critical supplies. The third aircraft will arrive later today in India and the fourth flight will arrive tomorrow. Once all four missions are complete, the four aircraft will have delivered tons of very needed, critical supplies, both in terms of oxygen generation capabilities and personal protective equipment, and obviously we’ll continue to assess the situation going forward.
We’ll stay in touch with our counterparts in India, should there be a need for additional help. The Secretary was very clear in speaking to his counterpart in India that we’ll — we’ll continue to do whatever we can to help.
On exercises, I think as you also know, the long planned, publicly announced DEFENDER-Europe ’21 Exercise, the — has — has kicked off. The pre-staging for that exercise began back in March. As you know, it’s the — a large scale U.S. Army, Europe and Africa-led multinational joint exercise designed to build strategic operational readiness and interoperability between U.S. NATO allies and partner forces.
It involves 28,000 U.S., allied and partner forces from 26 different nations and it’s defensive in nature, focused on deterring aggression while preparing our forces to respond to crisis and conduct large scale combat operations, if necessary.
The exercise encompasses several different linked and associated joint and multinational exercises, so there’s many smaller exercises nested up in through DEFENDER-Europe, all of — in support of our national defense objectives and NATO’s deterrence objectives. In fact, last week, the USNS Bob Hope arrived off the coast of Albania, in advance of a joint logistics, over the shore exercise — again, one of the exercises nested into the — into DEFENDER.
Tomorrow, the EUCOM Commander General Wolters, along with other DOD leaders, diplomats and Albanian leadership, will participate in a kickoff event in Albania. General Wolters will provide opening remarks, which — with the Albanian Ministry of Defense, and — and EUCOM will livestream so you’ll be able to see that on their Facebook page. It’ll later be posted to the EUCOM website.
The DEFENDER-Europe exercise is going to conclude in June but not before demonstrating joint force readiness, lethality and interoperability, reinforcing the U.S. commitment to our allies and partners and providing an outstanding opportunity to highlight the superb job our men and women are doing every day in the — in the region, the Balkan and Black Sea regions, in particular, and throughout Europe and Africa — and the Africa area of operations.
On another exercise note, on today, the Air Force is kicking off Exercise Northern Edge ’21 in Alaska. Northern Edge is a U.S., Indo-Pacific Command-sponsored, Pacific Air Forces-led joint exercise — joint service field training exercise — I apologize. Approximately 15,000 service members and 240 aircraft are participating in the exercise, which is focused on high end, realistic warfighter training to develop and improve joint interoperability and enhance combat readiness.
So lots of exercises going on in lots of important parts of the world, and with that, I’ll take questions. Lita?
Q: Thanks, John. A question about Afghanistan. There’s been some particularly deadly Taliban attacks in Afghanistan over the last number of days. Is the U.S. concerned about this increase in Taliban attacks? And do you believe there is a threat now to some of the Afghanistan — this — the largest cities in Afghanistan, considering the Taliban have mostly been confined to a lot of the smaller, rural areas?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I — I won’t get into threat assessments about — about what might happen in — in the future. What we’ve seen are some small, harassing attacks over the course of the weekend that have not had any significant impact, certainly not on our people or on — or our resources there and — and bases, and I think you’ve also seen, over the course of the weekend, that we’re — General Miller certainly has at his disposal response options to make sure that he’s protecting our — our troops and our people. So nothing — we’ve seen nothing thus far that has affected the drawdown or — or had any significant impact on the — the mission at hand in Afghanistan.
Q: So if we can stay on Afghanistan, the administration says it’s going to continue to support the Afghan military going forward when all troops leave it on contractors leave. We asked General McKenzie about that. He said they’re looking at innovative ways to support the Afghan military with maintenance. Do we have any sense of the way ahead on that, or when you’ll come up with a plan that you can share with us, number one?
And also, with the special immigrant visas, right now, with the State Department issue, but the…
MR. KIRBY: I can see the smile under your mask.
Q: Right. But you know, a number of retired officers, General Petraeus and others, have said the U.S. has to do more. Are you assisting, first of all, the Afghan translators, and maybe the State Department in — in moving forward on this? Or — anywhere from 11,000 to 30,000 SIV people that would like to get out.
MR. KIRBY: Right. So on the first question, General McKenzie’s exactly right. The — the bilateral relationship with the Afghan National Security Forces is going to change once we are no longer on the ground there. The secretary’s talked about this. We’re still working our way through the details of exactly what that relationship’s going to look like going forward. It’ll be largely of a financial nature, because we’re not going to have U.S. troops on the ground in the same assistance roles that they are now. So it’ll — it’ll change, and we are exploring not — not only are, you know, are we exploring over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities to make sure we’re still keeping Americans safe, but what would outside Afghanistan or over-the-horizon support to the Afghan National Forces look like, to include the possibility of some contract support happening outside the country, or maybe even virtually?
Some — obviously, some contract support, as we talked about, is — is — they are — they are reliant on that. They’re — especially their air force, and some of that will likely still have to happen in the country, but it — but — but it will happen in a different contractual arrangement than — than what it exists right now.
Short answer is, Tom, we don’t know all the answers to that, and General McKenzie and General Miller are working hard, as part of their planning process, to provide and tee up options for the secretary to take a look at. But the larger narrative is — is — that General McKenzie stated is — is accurate: We — we are going to continue to support Afghan National Security Forces; It’ll just be a different kind of support, and it won’t be — it won’t be as tactile as it is right now when — when we’re still in — in — in country.
Q: But you said to me you could come forward with a…
MR. KIRBY: No, I don’t have a deadline for you or a timeline on this. I mean, they’ve been working on this since — actually, since the president’s decision, and — and — and we’re still working — working our way through that. I suspect that there will come a time where we will be able to quantify this for you and put more context around it, but we’re just not ready right now.
On your second question on — on the special immigrant visas, I do have to refer to my colleagues at the State Department to speak to that. The only thing I’d add is the — the secretary is well-aware of the support that we received over the last 20 years from Afghan nationals in various capacities. He’s also well-aware of the risks that those individuals took and still take, and their families still take from their support to the — not — not only the United States, but our — our NATO and coalition partners, as well, and he is in conversation with Secretary Blinken about, you know, how we — how we meet our obligations to them and — and to the risks they took on behalf of our country. But I don’t have — again, I don’t have a — specific details on — on how that program’s going to manifest itself, and it is largely a State Department program to speak to.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah.
Back in the back. Joe?
Q: Thank you so much, John. After what we have seen last week, the Navy has released some video footage showing Iranian boats that belong to the I — IRGC harassing U.S. Navy ships. I would like to know from you if the secretary believes that the U.S. military has to have a hotline with the IRGC in order to deconflict tensions in the regions in a similar way that the (inaudible) has in Syria with the — with — with Russia.
MR. KIRBY: Well, to — to some degree, when you’re — when you’re at sea, you — you — you already have a hotline; It’s the bridge-to-bridge radio, radio communications, and there were radio communications throughout those incidents with those IRGC boats and the commanders on those boats, repeatedly warning them about what they were doing.
So you don’t need a hotline with the IRGC to communicate. I mean, you can do it in real time, and the real risk, as we talked about, in a situation like that is the risk of miscalculation. Obviously, this one didn’t become violent, and — and that’s a good thing, but it was unnecessary, it was unsafe and certainly, unprofessional, and it doesn’t lead to better security and stability there in — in the — in the Gulf.
But again, we have direct bridge-to-bridge communications that they — obviously, they didn’t abide by that and they didn’t listen to the warnings. But it’s not like we don’t have an ability to reach out in real time.
Q: Beyond the bridge-to-bridge communications, does the secretary believe that those communications should be on a higher level?
MR. KIRBY: We have — as a government, have made clear through diplomatic channels our concerned about IRGC navy activities. We also understand, and I think you understand, Joe, that the IRGC’s not the Iranian state navy and doesn’t have the same reporting structure as the Iranian state navy. Our interactions with the Iranian state navy have remained professional, but that’s a whole different reporting chain up to the elected government, and the IRGC doesn’t report along those same lines.
So we have made it clear to Tehran our displeasure and our concern about this. We’ll continue to do that, but I don’t believe that there’s a need, nor would there — I — I would suspect no appetite for any sort of operational or strategic communication between us and the IRGC. We have — we have diplomatic channels that we work through appropriately to communicate our displeasure to — to Tehran. I mean, obviously, we don’t have a diplomatic presence there, but there are diplomatic channels that we can avail ourselves of. OK?
Ellee Watson, CBS?
Q: Hi. Thank you. I’m just wondering if you guys have anything on this Chinese rocket that could make an uncontrolled reentry in the next few days.
MR. KIRBY: I’m afraid I’m going to have to take your question, Ellee. I’m not familiar with that issue.
Q: OK, thank you.
MR. KIRBY: We’ll take that one and see if we can get something back to you.
Q: Yes, thank you. On Secretary Austin’s trip to INDOPACOM and his meeting with Admiral Aquilino, can you tell us anything about that meeting, how the conversation went, what he was talking about, and how the secretary has, in his first few months, strengthened U.S. posture towards China in the Indo-Pacific?
And then secondly, on the Defender exercise, I wondered how the grouping of 30,000 U.S. and allied partner troops on the NATO border near Russia is different from Russia’s massing of troops for exercises on the NATO border?
MR. KIRBY: Well, look, I’m not going to speak to what Russia claims was an exercise. As I’ve said repeatedly, they should have to answer questions about what they are doing. And by the way, Abraham, there’s still quite a few — I mean, there are still a lot of forces arrayed against — are aligned along the border with Ukraine and in occupied Crimea. And it has still never been completely clear what the intentions were. So that’s a great question for Moscow. And I hope you pose a question to them about this.
European Defender, this is a exercise that’s annual. We’ve been doing it a long, long time. And as I said in my opening statements, it’s a defensive exercise. And it’s one that helps us build interoperability.
And here is the other thing that’s different, right? We actually come to the podium and tell you about it. I told you how many troops. I told you how many nations. I talked about specifics in terms of what they’re going to be exercising. And the reason I did it today, Abraham, is because this exercise goes through mid-June and you’re going to get sick of hearing me talk about European Defender from the podium because I’m going to continually talk about what we’re doing. It’s called transparency. It’s a wonderful thing.
And we’re not getting that out of Moscow, and we haven’t. So that’s a big difference right there. It’s a defensive exercise and you will be able to hear us talk about it and communicate to you and to the world what we’re doing and why.
On his — on the secretary’s meeting with the Admiral Aquilino, it was really a chance for the two of them to get to know each other better. They didn’t have a previous longstanding personal relationship. Obviously Admiral Aquilino eminently qualified for this job, coming from Pacific Fleet, just beginning, and I think the secretary wanted to have a chance on his first day to just, again, get to know him better, talk about their — both their perspectives each on the region and on the responsibilities of INDOPACOM.
And it was a very cordial meeting. Lasted, you know, 30 to 40 minutes. And covered the waterfront, no pun intended, of the kinds of things you would think that they would want to talk about. And no question the pacing challenge that is China, and INDOPACOM’s role in helping us meet that pacing challenge was a major topic of that discussion.
Q: Can you speak to any of Secretary Austin’s accomplishments in his first few months to enhance the U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific region?
MR. KIRBY: Well, the most obvious thing that I can point to is the China Task Force that he has stood up and that they are continuing to do their work. We expect the task force to complete their reviews and submit their recommendations to the secretary in mid- to — early to mid-June, somewhere around there, that’s about what Dr. Ratner said it was going to be a sort, sort of a sprint, few months.
They’re still fleshing their work out, so I’m obviously not going to get ahead of that. But I think the China Task Force is the most clear manifestation of how seriously he is taking China as a pacing challenge.
I also think, and I don’t want to get ahead of budget specifics, but you know we’re getting ready to to unveil DoD’s — the president’s budget for DoD. That will come in due time. But I think you will see this larger concern about great power competition and our focus on that part of the world reflected in budget priorities. But, again, I won’t get ahead of the specifics on that.
I also would add, just one last thing — you — not that you need to be reminded, but I will anyway — that his first overseas trip was to the region, and his first visit was to Tokyo and to Seoul, to meet with two important treaty allies about, A, reinforcing our commitment to our treaty alliances and our commitments there in the region, but also to listen to them about what they’re seeing in the region, and the threats from their eyes, and to listen to them about their concerns about China’s increasingly aggressive and coercive behavior.
Q: Thank you, John.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, you bet.
Let me go back here, Lara Seligman, Politico?
Q: Hi, John. I have a couple questions for you. First of all, North Korea warned the Biden administration again this weekend about a hostile policy against the nuclear program, saying that it was a quote-unquote “big blunder.” Do you have a response to this and how will the completion of the policy review change how the Pentagon responds to future missile launches?
MR. KIRBY: Well, look, as — I won’t speak for the National Security Council in terms of the policy review, but I think it’s apparent that the administration is committed to the denuclearization of North Korea, and to greater stability and security on the peninsula, to reinforcing and revitalizing our alliances and partners and the partnerships in the region.
Because the threat from Pyongyang doesn’t just affect the peninsula, it affects our allies and partners and it also affects the safety and security of the American people. But as for the specifics of the policy execution going forward from a diplomatic perspective, I would refer you to NSC and the State Department to speak to that.
The only thing I’d add — and the secretary said this, if you had a chance to listen to read or watch his speech that he gave at the INDOPACOM change of command over the weekend, on Friday — is that we will support diplomatic efforts. We stand in support of the State Department as they pursue peaceful, political, diplomatic options to make the region safer and more secure. And that includes making it safer and more secure from the threat that North Korea continues to pose.
Q: And just a second question, I was wondering if you could comment on the attack in Burkina Faso today, likely by ISIS militants. Do we currently have any U.S. special forces on the ground and how will they respond?
MR. KIRBY: Lara, I don’t have anything on that one. You surprised me with that, and I’m going to have to take that question. We’ll try to get you an answer back. I just don’t know, have not heard reports of that attack.
Q: Thanks. So a couple questions for you, first on vaccines. Last week, President Biden suggested he would leave it to the military to decide whether service members would be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Are there any discussions going on, the secretary considering making the vaccine mandatory for service members?
MR. KIRBY: He’s not made any decisions to change — to change it from being a voluntary vaccine, no.
Q: In circumstances, is it required? Such as, like, the C-5 crew that just went to India because of the outbreak there, would they have been required to be vaccinated?
MR. KIRBY: It’s still a voluntary vaccine because it’s under emergency use authorization.
I would remind that obviously we encourage our — the men and women of the department and their families to take the vaccine. We believe they’re safe and effective, and all the information is publicly available about the efficacy of these vaccines. The secretary continues to want to encourage people to elect to take the vaccine.
I don’t know if the crew members on those aircraft have been vaccinated or not, that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anyway. But I’d also remind, Tara, that in addition to encouraging, informing members to take the vaccine, you know, we also abide by all CDC guidelines in terms of social distancing, the wearing of masks, you know, the — and basic personal hygiene.
And those are requirements that are laid upon the force no matter where you are serving in any capacity. So we still observe those CDC guidelines, the vaccines are still voluntary.
Q: Last one on the budget. You said, you know, coming out soon. Do you have a date for budget rollout and…
MR. KIRBY: I don’t, I’d refer you to OMB. They decide that.
Q: When the secretaries go before Congress, will they be talking to lawmakers without actual numbers? Or is the secretary himself expecting to maybe end up being — testifying before Congress without – on maybe just a skinny budget?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, we have to wait and see, Tara, I can’t get ahead of the — of OMB on this. So I can’t tell you with great specificity when the secretary’s testimony starts, whether or not there’ll be a budget on the table at that point.
As you’ve already seen, the combatant commanders, of course, they always do their posture hearings, oftentimes without a budget necessarily being laid out there. But the service chiefs are already starting to testifytoo, and we fully support the role of Congress in oversight here and — and the requirement for our senior military leaders to be as honest and candid with them about their requirements and what they believe they need to execute the National Defense Strategy.
But again, I just can’t — it’s a hypothetical, I just — I won’t get ahead of OMB, and their timeline nor can I then predict whether the secretary’s first hearing will be pre- or post- the delivery of the budget.
But obviously, take these hearings and Congress’ oversight very, very seriously and with or without a budget on the table, the secretary, the chairman and all the military leaders will and they have been as candid as they can be about the threats and challenges as they see them, OK?
Q: Hello. Will you have any detail on the attack today against the Balad base in Iraq? Do you know who is responsible, do you intend to reciprocate?
MR. KIRBY: So we’re aware of press reports of an attack at Balad in Iraq. I think you know, Sylvie, that Balad is an Iraqi base, there are no U.S. or coalition troops assigned there. There’s a private U.S. company that does have contractors working there, and initial reports that we’ve seen are that there are no U.S. casualties or damages.
I’d have to refer you to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense for more details, because it is their base…
MR. KIRBY: So I have not seen any — I have not seen a credible claim of attribution. And again, this is really a question better put to officials in Baghdad since it’s their air base, OK?
MR. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: How concerned are you with the repeated attacks on Balad? We understand that there are no U.S. forces, but there are contractors. How concerned are you?
MR. KIRBY: Of course we’re concerned about any use of violence by any group in Iraq. And I would remind — again, without speaking to attribution here, because we’ve only seen press reporting on this — that the purpose for the U.S. in Iraq, at the invitation of the government, is to continue to prosecute the war against ISIS, the operations against ISIS. That’s what we’re there for, we’re there to help Iraqi Security Forces as they also prosecute operations against ISIS.
So any — any violent attack on them or us is of concern, and it does show that — again, without attribution, that, you know — that it’s still a dangerous mission.
Q: Can I follow-up on (inaudible).
Q: Yes, but the issue is that General McKenzie, probably you also before, talked about that there is a message that was sent to the — to the Iranians that there is a message that was sent also to the militias. And we thought that would have deterrence. But it seems that we don’t have deterrence.
MR. KIRBY: That you get occasional attacks doesn’t mean that all deterrence measures aren’t working. I mean obviously you want zero. But as the secretary’s made clearer that we take the safety and security of our people over there very, very seriously.
And if and when there’s a need to respond in a kinetic way, we’ll do that. And we’ll do that in a time and a place of our — our choosing. I was — after the — the first attack and then our response a staging based in Syria, you guys asked me the same question after there was yet another indirect fire incident.
Clearly we don’t want to see that happen. But you can’t draw a line from the fact that it happens every now and then right to well, there’s no deterrent capability or you haven’t sent a strong enough message since we don’t know who did this and we don’t know why they did this. So again, this is an Iraqi issue to — to speak to and to investigate, we’re going to respect that.
We’re also going to do whatever we need to do to make sure that we’re adequately protecting our troops on the ground and our national security interest there in Iraq.
Jeff Sullivan, VOA?
Q: Thanks very much for doing this. You, The Pentagon and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have been very clear about the fact that the U.S. will use force if necessary to protect troops as they withdraw.
Can you clarify though what type of help or what type of support — kinetic support is being offered to Afghan forces and have Afghan forces at this point with some of the incidents that we’ve seen over the weekend, have they requesting any sort of kinetic help or any sort of support from U.S. forces?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, Jeff, that’s a better question put to Central Command. I’m not going to get into tactical discussions here at The Pentagon podium. I think you’ve seen General Miller make clear that — that to the degree we can we are going to continue support Afghan national security forces.
Obviously that support will change over time as resources continue to dwindle in Afghanistan but that support is ongoing and we’ve — you know even before the change of mission, even before the president’s decision we made it a habit not to speak to the details of that kind of support in a tactical way. So I would refer you to CENTCOM on that.
Q: One follow-up if I could. Has there been any progress on any of the talks with countries in the region about basing agreements or ways to make the over the horizon counter terrorism capabilities a bit easier, or more effective.
MR. KIRBY: There’s been no decisions made that I’m aware of in terms of overseas basing with neighboring countries. There — there is a lot of work and effort being put in right now to determining what over the horizon counter terrorism capabilities we’re going to have, we’re going to employ.
And options that we’re going to be able to take advantage of and as the secretary has said, we certainly will support any diplomatic efforts to try to pursue options with neighboring nations. But that would really be something led by the State Department.
Q: Thank you, John. On the interceptor missile system, it is reported that the Department of Defense is supposed to develop interceptor missile system to defend this time to nuclear missile from North Korea and Iran. Do you have anything on this?
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have much, Jannie, except to say that there are — you know there’s acquisition planning to — to carry two interceptor contractor teams through what we call critical design review. And once that’s complete, the missile defense agency will make the choice.
As we say in Pentagon language, we’ll down select from the two proposals to one, to a single vendor to proceed with the remaining development testing and production efforts of this kind of capability.
Q: For the next generation interceptor missile system…
MR. KIRBY: Yes, that’s what I’m talking about, yes.
Q: The cost…how are you going to –
MR. KIRBY: I think there’s an initial cost estimate that — and this is life cycle estimate for the next generation interceptor of a bit more than $17 billion. But that’s life cycle. That’s procurement, it’s –
MR. KIRBY: 17 — no it’s — let me just make sure that I — I’ll put my glasses on and make sure I got this right. The total is — is $17 billion, more than $17 billion, life cycle estimate. It’s a life cycle estimate. It’s not — it’s not a budget line item, it’s a — it’s an assessment by cape over the lifecycle of the program to include the research development acquisition and then service support and maintenance going forward. OK. Yes. Yes.
Q: OK. Several times when we ask questions about what’s the force going to be in Afghanistan or Iraq, you refer to the ongoing force study, the world wide study of what the force posture will be. I’m wondering — two things on that.
One is there are timelines when of course that review will be completed. And second, you use the word everything is going to be considered in that for review. Does everything mean Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Space Force or does it also mean like Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. What does everything contain?
MR. KIRBY: Everything means everything.
Q: Well, (inaudible).
MR. KIRBY: So –
Q: Yes, I know it’s — the reason I ask it specifically is the Coast Guard has been involved now in the last three weeks in an incident in the South China Sea in the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea. You know the Coast Guard is being used more and more far from our coast. And so is that — are their assets going to be part of it? The Merchant Marine assets? What’s going to — what assets are considered in the force suppliers?
MR. KIRBY: So –
Q: I’m not asking you to get ahead of it. I’m just asking you to give transparency from like –
MR. KIRBY: Since you guys know what I’m going to say and before you or ask you ask the question, sir, you’re right. I’m not going to get ahead of it. But to your question, and it’s a fair one. So first of all let’s — we need to distinguish because I think when you first asked the question it was Afghanistan is — that — that’s –
Q: (Inaudible) if you would refer to us that’s all going to be taken care of in this big review.
MR. KIRBY: But I — well, I’ve been clear that — I mean since the president made his decision on Afghanistan that — that draw down process and the removal of U.S. forces, that’s separate and distinct from the global posture review.
Global posture review’s ongoing. Again, as we’ve talked about it, we expect it to be able to wrap up probably late summer, that timeframe. There’s no exact deadline on it. The secretary wants him to do it right, not fast. It will take a comprehensive look at our resources around the world and — and try to look at whether those resources are aligned to our strategy and to the National Defense Strategy.
Now we are still operating under the National Defense Strategy that was released a couple years ago, but there is also an effort inside OSD at the direction of the secretary to take a look at the NDS and revise and be able to craft and develop a new National Defense Strategy.
So these two efforts are ongoing at the same time and are informing one another. To your other question about the Coast Guard, so…
Q: (inaudible) you used the word — well you used the word resources, and that’s what I want to get back to. Are there resources that are being considered as part of this study — my word, not yours — this study just what we would refer to as DOD resources…
MR. KIRBY: Correct.
Q: … or would they include things like the Merchant Marine, the Coast Guard, something else…
MR. KIRBY: Well as you know — as you know particularly the Coast Guard, they do execute certain DOD missions, and obviously the global posture review will be informed by their continued support to the Defense Department, knowledgeable, of course, that they primarily report through the Department of Homeland Security but that they are in support of DOD around the world in some very important places. And clearly the global posture review will be informed by that support and by the likelihood that we’re going to continue to need that support from the Coast Guard going forward. Yes?
Q: Thanks, John. So if you go back to the IRGC Navy, give me the distinction between that navy and the official Iranian Navy? Obviously the U.S. is currently doing – uh, engaged in negotiations with the Iranian government in Vienna. Does that distinction change the way you operate around the IRGC Navy because the end of last month we saw that one ship was actually engaged in warning shots. I mean, what is the — from your own assumptions, what is the IRGC Navy trying to do with U.S. ships?
MR. KIRBY: I think that’s a question that should be asked to Tehran. I am — I am not going to speak to what their intentions are. Our commanders at sea have the right and responsibility to defend themselves against threats, and you’re right. This incident a week or so ago did finally result in what ended up finally breaking the fever, if you were, were warning shots fired. Nobody wants to even see it come to that, and our commanding officers at sea understand the difference between the IRGC naval assets and the way they operate as opposed to the way Iranian-state navy commanding officers operate.
It’s a different — completely different reporting chain, completely different type of assets they have available, and certainly we’ve seen different conduct. And our commanding officers understand the difference there.
But regardless they have very clear rules of engagement, which we won’t talk to publicly, and they have very clear responsibilities to protect themselves, their ships, and their crews, and they’ll do that.
Q: OK. I’m asking this because of Rear Admiral Habibollah thinks he’s the commander of the IRGC Navy, and on Friday to press TV, Iranian TV he said every ship entering the Persian Gulf has to identify itself. Are you planning on having U.S. ships identifying themselves and abiding by this requirement?
MR. KIRBY: I know of no such requirement.
Q: You’re not…
MR. KIRBY: I know of no such requirement, and it’s an international strait, and we continue to sail and operate in accordance with international law and international custom, and we’ll continue to do that. In the back here.
Q: On the recent ISIS attacks especially in the disputed areas in Iraq there have been an increase in ISIS attacks, and the Inherent Resolve spokesperson tweeted that they’re working with the Iraqi and Kurdish government to help them to kind of curb on the ISIS attacks.
MR. KIRBY: Spokesman for who?
Q: Operation Inherent Resolve.
MR. KIRBY: OK.
Q: I’m just wondering what can you do to help both sides to kind of control the area? Kurdish officials see creating a joint Peshmerga-Iraqi army in those areas would use those attacks. Is that something that the…
MR. KIRBY: Those are decisions for Iraqis to make. Again, this is — this is their country and we wouldn’t get involved in those kinds of specific discussions. That’s for Iraqi leaders to decide and to work out.
I did not see the spokesman’s comments, but it sounds like from what you’re telling me it’s very much in keeping with the relationships that we have in the region with government leaders and the focus on making sure that what we’re aligned against and what we’re working towards is counter-ISIS missions and counter-ISIS capability among the Iraqi Security Forces. But again, that’s a question better put to Iraqi leaders.
Q: (inaudible) but he was saying that they are working with the Iraqi and Kurdish government to, you know, respond to the violent extremism. I just want…
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Again, I haven’t seen the tweet or the statement, so I’m loathe to get into more detail, but it sounds to me like if that’s in fact what was said it’s very much in line with our policy and our approach inside Iraq, and again at the invitation of the government. Yes. In the back.
Q: Al-Qaeda recently issued new threats to the U.S. What’s the Pentagon assessment of these threats and of Al-Qaeda’s capabilities 10 years after bin Laden’s killing?
MR. KIRBY: I haven’t seen the statements that you’re referring to. The president has been very clear. Again, I haven’t seen them, so I’m not — I’m not saying they aren’t out there. I just haven’t seen them, so I’m not going to react specifically to comments I haven’t seen except to say that the president has been very clear that we have an obligation to continue to protect the American people from the threat of terrorist networks, terrorists that can and are willing and able to threaten the homeland.
And we’re going to — we’re going to keep the press up. Nobody is suggesting that Al-Qaeda’s gone away or the threat of Al-Qaeda is gone 10 years after the raid which killed bin Laden were still — is still a threat, and we still have to be focused on that threat. And as I just said in the previous question, ISIS as an outgrowth of Al-Qaeda is also still a threat, and that’s again one of the reasons why we’re in Iraq. Nobody’s taking our eye off the continued challenge that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks continue to pose. It is a greatly diminished threat no question since 9/11, and Al-Qaeda is a greatly-diminished network in terms of its reach and its power, but it still exists. It’s still — it still does pose a threat not only to us but to our allies and partners in the region, and again we’re not going to lose focus.
Q: Do you have concerns that Al-Qaeda might try to return or seek the opportunity after the withdrawal from Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: We have — we always have concerns about threats to our national security interests and to our people and to those of our allies and partners that are posed by terrorist networks. Nothing’s changed about the concern that we have and to making sure that another attack like 9/11 can’t happen. And we’re almost 20 years on, and there hasn’t been one. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of lessons learned and it prevented yet another attack like 9/11, and I don’t think you’ll see anything but a continued focus by this administration on making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Yeah, go ahead.
Q: (inaudible), Turkey’s current — the Turkish military is currently conducting operations in northern Iraq, to (inaudible) (camps ?) over there. Is — in the past we know that the United States provided some ISF support. Is — does the U.S. military currently support this operation, or no?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to speak to operational matters from the podium, no.
Q: On IRGC, we know that in the previous administration designated this group as a terrorist organization, and of course they are harassing U.S. troops and you guys are engaging with those groups, the designated terrorist group. Is it permissible under the law to communicate with a terrorist group — a designated terrorist group?
MR. KIRBY: What group are you talking about?
Q: IRGC. The previous administration had designated IRGC as a terrorist group, as you know.
MR. KIRBY: What I said was, we’re talking to them on bridge-to-bridge radio, in the middle of an incredibly unsafe and unprofessional exercise of — of, you know, hostile activity in the gulf. I mean, that is not — that is not some sort of diplomatic exchange, it’s getting on the radio and telling somebody that what they’re doing is unsafe and dangerous, and they need to knock it off.
And I don’t think that — I mean, there’s certainly nothing to apologize for, and there’s certainly nothing inappropriate about doing it. It’s what Navy commanding officers have to do on occasion, unfortunately, to better protect their crews and their ships. That’s not diplomatic communication, that’s bridge-to-bridge, knock-it-off communication and it’s important.
I’m going to take one from the phone. Let’s see, I didn’t get Megan from Military Times?
Q: So the White House on Friday indicated that they were looking into the possibility of making the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for troops during this emergency use authorization. Has the White House reached out to the secretary or to OSD at all to consult? And does the secretary or OSD have a position on whether making the vaccine mandatory now would be an improvement to current readiness levels?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not aware of any communication from the White House with respect to this issue, Megan, and as the secretary has made clear, it remains a voluntary vaccine under emergency use authorization. We continue to be focused on informing and educating our men and women to make — to make the best decisions for them and for their family and for their teammates.
And as the president said last week — and we would agree, and we’ve seen it in the force — the more and more people who elect to take the vaccine, leads to more and more people also making a similar decision, and that’s where our focus is right now.
Yeah, in the back?
Q: (inaudible) to follow up about North Korea policy review to — just to clarify. Does the review have no direct impact on force postures, capabilities, and military exercises of the U.S. policies in Korea?
MR. KIRBY: The policy review’s complete, and I’d point you to White House colleagues to speak to more detail about — about how they want to see that policy executed. As I said, whatever the outreach looks like to — to help with the denuclearization of North Korea, the department will support that.
We also have compliment alliance requirements on the peninsula with our South Korean allies to continue to make sure we are, as the saying goes, ready to fight tonight. And so that work continues. I mean, we have, from the Department of Defense perspective, one thing that hasn’t changed is our commitment to the treaty alliance with South Korea, OK?
I’ve got time for a couple more here. Steve Losey, Military.com?
Q: Hi. Regarding the announcement about the cancellation of the border projects, can you describe, is there any more of a picture on how much money exactly the Pentagon might be expecting would be — would become available again as a result of the cancellation of these projects?
MR. KIRBY: Good question, Steve, we’re working our way through that right now. I don’t have details for you on specifically what this is going to mean in terms of reinvested dollars or dollars sunk that can’t be recouped, we’re still working our way through that.
Paul Shinkman, U.S. News?
Q: Yeah, hi, John. Could I ask you to take the question about whether the Defense Department is doing any reviews about a potential mandatory order for military forces to take the vaccine?
Jake Sullivan talked about this on Friday at the Aspen Security Forum, and he said — and this is a quote — “That is something the Defense Department is looking at in consultation with the interagency process.” So that sounds different than, like, what you just said earlier.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I mean, Paul, I’m happy to take the question, but again, I know of no such change in our policy. We continue to focus on informing and educating the force. And again, our acceptance rates are getting better with each passing week, but I’m happy to take that question.
Q: Yeah, it just sounds different, so I just wanted to be sure that we understood what you were saying.
And then, going back to Afghanistan, the special inspector had a fairly troubling report last week about some statistics for the ANDSF including that insider attacks have increased by 82 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the first quarter of last year. I wonder how concerned the department is about that trend, and whether it believes there’s anything that the U.S. and the coalition can do about that before it leaves by September 11th.
MR. KIRBY: Obviously we have concerns about the insider threat, and we have for quite some time. Sadly it’s not a new threat, and it is of concern. And as the secretary has made clear, as Generals McKenzie and Miller have also said, that in this — in the period between now and our complete drawdown, we’re going to continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces in whatever way we can.
And that relationship will change after we’re out of the country and we’re — and after the Resolute Support mission is over. But in the time that we have remaining, to the degree that we can assist the Afghan National Security Forces, we’ll continue to do that.
So, yes, it’s of concern, and it’s also of concern to Afghan National Security Force leaders. I mean, it’s not like they’re not aware of this as a potential problem for them, going forward.
No, I already got you, Jannie.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, he has his hand up too. You’ve already had a question; Tony hasn’t.
Q: Last one, please.
MR. KIRBY: You want Tony to get the last one?
MR. KIRBY: You want to get the last one?
MR. KIRBY: Tony, it’s up to you, what do you think?
Q: Go ahead.
Q: OK. (inaudible) the China Task Force? When it’s complete, what are your plans, in the interest of transparency, to brief on its…
MR. KIRBY: I love how you do air quotes on transparency.
Q: (inaudible) skeptical.
MR. KIRBY: You’re skeptical.
MR. KIRBY: So I think there will be — we will, obviously, be as transparent as we can be about the results of the China Task Force. I don’t think it will be a shock to you that there will be some things that the China Task Force comes up with that we’re not going to want to talk about publicly. But to the degree that we can lay out what they found and their overarching recommendations to the department — again, remember what this is about is about helping the secretary to organize the department, resource the department, develop the right operational concepts to meet the pacing challenge.
To the degree we can be transparent about those recommendations, we will be. Exactly what that’s going to look like, Tony, right now? I don’t know. I mean, is it going to be a piece of paper we give you? Am I going to be able to bring Dr. Ratner up here to the podium? We haven’t worked out the specific details of that transparency, but we obviously are going to want to be as transparent with you and the American people as we can.
Q: On the budget, when the budget does come out, one of the items that’s going to get a lot of scrutiny is the F-35 fighter. Two weeks ago Congress had a hearing — two congressional committees had a hearing, nobody from OSD was invited. But can you talk a little bit about the level of scrutiny the aircraft program has received in the ’22 budget drill, not specific on numbers but the level of scrutiny it’s receiving?
MR. KIRBY: Again, without getting to specific budget issues, this is a critically important program to the department. You know that. And the department remains committed to the F-35 going forward, as do so many of our allies and partners. The secretary and the deputy secretary are certainly mindful of problems within the program. We take those problems and those challenges seriously. And, again, I think you will see reflected in the budget going forward our continued commitment to this program.
And, again, without getting into specifics, I can assure you that program difficulties are being fleshed out and dealt with in the budget preparatory process, OK?
I think that’s all — you had one more one, right?
Q: When will development be completed — I mean interceptor missiles so when would the bottom line be completed like…
MR. KIRBY: I’m not prepared to speak to specifics about completion. We’re just — we’re not at that stage yet, OK?
All right. Thanks, everybody.
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