Department of Defense Press Briefing
delivered 28 August 2019, The Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, VA
SecDef Esper: I haven't seen this room filled this much in a while.
Hey, good afternoon, everyone. It is great to be here with you in the Pentagon Briefing Room.
Since I became the secretary of defense last month, I have had the opportunity to meet with many of you both inside the Pentagon and during my travels. However, I'm especially pleased that the chairman and I can spend some time with y'all here today in the briefing room.
The United States military has a proud history and a great story to tell. It is my commitment to the American people, who entrust us with their sons and daughters, to keep them informed of the work that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Department of Defense civilians do every day to keep our nation safe.
While we have many avenues to engage with the media in today's world, moving forward, I intend to do these briefings to maintain an open dialogue about the department's activities. Our head of public affairs and a representative from the Joint Staff will also begin holding regular press briefings.
My aim today is to give you an overview of my first 30 days in office and to talk about my priorities for the department. In short, it has been a very busy first month for the team and I am very encouraged by the progress we are making.
That said, our direction remains fixed. We are committed to the National Defense Strategy [NDS] and its three lines of effort:  building a more lethal force;  strengthening our alliances and partnerships; and third , reforming the department for better business practices. And  I added line of effort four for me: taking care of service members and their families.
The NDS is a strategy grounded in reality. Strategic competitors such as China and Russia are deliberately building up and modernizing their military forces to challenge the United States and enable their geopolitical aspirations. At the same time, regional adversaries like Iran and North Korea continue to promote instability.
Thus, the department's central challenge is to balance current requirements with the needs of the future. Both require our time and resources, and so to get this balance right, we need to make tough decisions.
To enable this decision-making, we have modified our battle rhythm. Every Monday, all of the department's senior leaders, uniformed and civilians, are now meeting twice in separate sessions as a leadership team to ensure our priorities are aligned and to measure progress towards implementing the National Defense Strategy.
Our policy team has been fully integrated into our planning processes and is leading the NDS reviews, exercising civilian control over those efforts. The idea is to take a hard look at our activities so that everything we do drives towards our strategic objectives, which are designed to achieve our policy aims. If something doesn't, then we ask ourselves, "Why are we doing it?" and "What should we be doing instead?"
We've also begun a Defense-wide review process. The goal of this review is to identify time, money, and manpower that can be reallocated to our highest priorities in support of the NDS.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Norquist serves as my point man for this effort. We have begun this process with a focus on the fourth estate and will eventually address other parts of the Department of Defense enterprise.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the Indo-Pacific region on my first overseas trip. Many of you traveled with me. That region is our priority theater, so it was important to demonstrate my commitment to our allies and partners there and to hear firsthand from my foreign counterparts and heads of state.
Together, we are committed to defending our shared values and upholding core principles such as respect for all nations' sovereignty, adherence to international rules and norms, and to our mutual security.
It is clear that China is engaging in -- in a deliberate strategy to undermine the stability of the region. It is clear the values and behaviors of the Chinese Communist Party do not align with the vast majority of states.
Throughout my many conversations with foreign leaders, time and again they emphasized the need for the United States to continue to show leadership throughout the Indo-Pacific in order to preserve the freedoms we all enjoy.
We will continue to expand our defense activities throughout the region in close cooperation with our allies and partners, while pressing for equitable burden-sharing from them, as well.
Next week, I'll be traveling to Europe to meet with some of our NATO allies to discuss the U.S. posture in Europe and our ongoing efforts to deter Russian aggression.
I had the opportunity, as many of you know, to attend the NATO ministerial this past June, where we discussed a broad range of issues, to include the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, the state of NATO readiness, the future of Afghan istan and how to address continued malign behavior by Iran.
On that last point, I am pleased to report that Operation Sentinel is up and running, with the U.K., Australia and Bahrain joining us in this effort. The purpose of this operation is twofold: first, to provide freedom of navigation for the commercial shipping that is so vital to global economic trade; and second, to deter provocations and avoid conflict in the region.
We remain in discussions with many nations who have had -- who have a stake in the openness of this region and we expect to see the list of participants continue to grow.
I'm also excited for tomorrow's activation of the United States Space Command. To ensure the protection of America's interests in space, we must apply the necessary focus, energy and resources to the task, and that is exactly what Space Command will do.
As a unified combatant command, the United States Space Command is the next crucial step towards the creation of an independent Space Force as an additional armed service.
Additionally, we're making steady progress with Senate confirmations, as we currently have five nominees who will have their hearings in the next couple of weeks, and another eight who are undergoing White House vetting.
Finally, as a personal priority of mine, we remain focused on the wellbeing of our service members and their families.
Last month, we stood up the PFAS [Polyfluoroalkyl Substances] Task Force that is now working with EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and other government agencies to develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate PFAS contamination on our military installations.
We are also continuing to work closely with our privatized housing contractors throughout our military installations, to ensure our families are living in safe and secure housing that they deserve. I met with the service secretaries just the other day to discuss this issue.
Now, year after year, we are proud that the United States military remains the most trusted institution in America. This is vital to our success in defending the nation, and I'm committed to preserving this trust by ensuring that we recommit to our profession's core values.
I reinforced this shortly after my confirmation by sending out an ethics note to the entire force, and I talked about it yesterday at the Naval War College.
Our relationship with the American people and the Congress remains strong, and we are thankful for the two-year budget deal, which will give us the predictability needed to advance the NDS and protect this great country.
It is vital, however, that Congress passes the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and defense appropriations bills on time for the coming year. As I've expressed to members of the Congress on many occasions -- to include yesterday -- continuing resolutions harm our military readiness and stifle our modernization efforts. As such, I urge Congress to work together in a bipartisan manner to ensure the defense bills are passed by October 1st.
With that, I look forward to taking your questions today. But first, I welcome General Dunford to make his opening remarks.
General Dunford: Okay. Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Secretary Esper spoke about his priorities and his commitment to the lines of effort that are outlined in the National Defense Strategy. Before we take your questions and talk about current events, I want to further address how we have aligned to the NDS and adapted.
There's four characteristics of today's strategic landscape that are driving adaptation across the joint force:
 The return of great power competition, that's addressed in the NDS.
 Changes to the character of war, leaders in the department have been speaking about that for some time.
 The capacity of the force relative to operational commitments, our operational commitments over the past few years have obviously increased.
 And an unprecedented pace of change in virtually every aspect of our profession.
In response, we're adapting how we plan, how we support the secretary to make decisions, how we prioritize and allocate resources, and how we are developing tomorrow's capabilities. And I'll briefly touch on each one of these areas.
First, we have shifted from a traditional focus on operational plans for specific contingencies to plans that are globally oriented on each of the challenges addressed in the NDS: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and violent extremism.
We've also scheduled a series of globally integrated exercises with participation from across the U.S. government interagency to refine our plans and to assist the secretary in making decisions.
And importantly, we've changed the way we prioritize and allocate resources across the combatant commands to better align with the National Defense Strategy.
And given the pace of operations over the past 18 years, we paid particular attention to establishing a more sustainable operational tempo. And this allows us to do what the secretary has identified in his fourth line of effort, and allows us to better take care of our people. And it also allows us to increase readiness.
And finally, to ensure that we have the military we need for the future, we've planned a series of exercises, experiments and war games to better inform how we adapt the force we have today and define the force that we need tomorrow.
And once again, aligned with the NDS, it's important to highlight that we've fully integrated our allies and partners into the initiatives I've described.
And with that brief update, the secretary and I will be glad to take your questions.
Staff: All right, thanks, Chairman.
Question: Thank you. Mr. Secretary and General Dunford, thank you. Mr. Secretary, it's good to hear that you are going to resume regular press briefings. We appreciate it.
A question for each of you, if I may.
You mentioned Iran, you mentioned Operation Sentinel, Mr. Secretary. It hasn't been that long ago that the U.S. almost went to war with Iran, in the sense that there was an attack planned that was called off at the last minute. In recent weeks, it seems to have been relatively quiet. There's been no sabotaging of vessels in the -- in the Gulf. But wondering if -- has the crisis passed?
And may I ask a question of -- of General Dunford on Afghanistan?
I asked if, General, keeping in mind that you are -- are close to retirement and that you've spent a good part of your recent career focused on Afghanistan, at this stage, when negotiators are talking about getting close to a deal that would call for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, I'm wondering how you feel about essentially walking away from Afghanistan with no counterterrorism forces on the ground, as opposed to over the horizon or some other form. Is -- is that a wise course, in your view?
SecDef Esper: So I'll go first.
And I -- I'd admonish you: Don't mention the "R" word again. He's not going anywhere yet.
He's got --
General Dunford: A month -- a month is a long time.
SecDef Esper: He's got a few more weeks.
Look, on your -- on your first question, Bob, we -- we are not seeking conflict with Iran. We -- we want to engage with them diplomatically. You saw over the weekend some reporting. The President once again said that he's more than willing to meet with Iran's leaders to resolve this diplomatic -- diplomatically. And that was -- has been the purpose of Operation Sentinel, was to avoid a situation that would get us off of that track and onto a different one.
So to the degree it's been successful, that's good. I'm -- I'm not sure I'm ready to call the crisis over yet, but so far so good. And we hope the trend lines continue that way. And we hope that the parties, that the Iranians would agree to talk -- meet and talk and help us resolve these issues.
General Dunford: Bob, when I -- when I think about Afghanistan, I think about two things. Number one is we don't want Afghanistan to be a sanctuary from which the homeland can be threatened, the American people and our allies can be threatened. And the other is we want peace and stability in Afghanistan for the Afghan people.
I think any of us that have served there have long known that what's going to be required is a negotiated peace settlement, inter-Afghan dialogue leading to that peace settlement. And so when I think about what -- you know, when you say we're going to withdraw, I don't think about it as we're going to withdraw. I think about, we're going to initiate inter-Afghan dialogue, ideally leading to peace and stability for the Afghan people, and again, Afghanistan not being a sanctuary from which we can be attacked.
The President and the secretary have been quite clear to me that as this progresses we're going to ensure that our counterterrorism objectives are addressed. And so I think it's premature.
I -- I'm not using the "withdraw" word right now. I'm using -- we're going to make sure our -- that Afghanistan's not a sanctuary, and it -- and we're going to try to have an effort to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Question: Quick follow to [inaudible] -- Afghanistan
General Dunford: Sure. Sure.
Question: -- real quickly. In your view, will it be possible to achieve that -- preventing Afghanistan from becoming a sanctuary again -- without U.S. counterterrorism forces on the ground?
General Dunford: Well, I -- I -- I wouldn't have been standing here as long as I have if I wasn't a glass-half-full person, right?
So I -- I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo. I think an agreement that can initiate inter-Afghan dialogue and potentially leading to a reduction of violence associated with the insurgency is something that's worth trying, particularly -- and it's important to emphasize this -- any agreement that we -- that we have moving forward -- and the President's been very clear -- is going to be conditions-based. And so those conditions are what make me confident that it's worth trying.
Staff: Phil Stewart.
Question: Yeah, just clearly on that, just to follow up on Afghanistan, I mean, is -- is potentially moving counterterrorism forces over the horizon a solution that -- that this department is -- is considering, planning for?
General Dunford: Phil, I -- I honestly think it's premature to talk about what our counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan may or may not be without a better appreciation for what will the conditions be.
We have tailored our counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan to reflect the operational environment. The operational environment would clearly change in the wake of a negotiation. But I think we'd have to make assessments. I would then make recommendations to the secretary and we'd have a conversation with the President.
But again, I think it'd be premature to talk about any specific posture.
Staff: Barbara, Barbara.
Question: General Dunford, I wanted to ask you about -- to reflect on the environment you have been operating in over the last two years. I am sure you saw today, sir, that Secretary Mattis wrote, and I quote, "We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain."1
Because you are the President's key adviser on threats to democracy -- of the democracy of his country, do you agree with Secretary Mattis, who you've known so many years? Do you believe that there is now tribalism in this country that essentially threatens democracy?
And to ask you to also reflect as best you can on how you see President Trump changing over the last couple of years in his role as Commander-in-Chief. We well know you do not like to talk about the President, but this may be our last opportunity to ask you, so I want to.
General Dunford: Yeah. Barbara, as you know, I've worked very hard to remain apolitical and not make political judgments. And your first question is not in my lane. And I -- I work very hard to provide military advice to the secretary, military advice to the President, other members of the National Security Council and make sure that our men and women in uniform have the wherewithal to do their job, and I'm going to stay in that lane.
And that gets to the second part of your question, which is, I will not now nor will I, when I take off the uniform, make judgments about the President of the United States or the commander in chief. I just won't do it.
Question: So let me ask you this: How do you view the -- because you are the adviser on military matters, we have now seen troops in uniform, active duty, wearing red political hats. We have seen the President come into this building and make speeches discussing the Democratic leadership.
Do you worry at all that we have partisan politics brought into the military?
Do -- and that would be a question, Secretary Esper, as well for you, sir. Does something need to be done about this, or do you -- do you think it's okay just to let it go on? What are your concerns about the emergence of partisan politics into the ranks?
SecDef Esper: So I'll -- I'll take that question, Barbara.
You know, as I answered to Congress during my nomination hearing -- I've said this to some of you before, as well -- my commitment is to keep this department apolitical. And I believe the best way to do that begins with the chairman and I behaving in an apolitical way. And -- and from there, the leadership that we demonstrate, the values we emulate, work their way throughout the force, and to me, that's the best way to do it.
And, of course, we have rules and regulations throughout the services that say you can't wear political items on a uniform, et cetera, et cetera, and we will continue to enforce those standards.
Question: Yes, if I could just follow up on Afghanistan, for both of you, are the Taliban wrong in saying that in 24 months all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan? Can you rule that out?
SecDef Esper: Jennifer, I'm not going to make any comments with regard to the diplomatic negotiations going on right now. They're -- they are where they are, and we've got to let this play out, and then we'll be able to answer all of your questions with regard to an agreement, if it ends up being an agreement.
General Dunford: Jennifer, the only thing I'd emphasize, the secretary and I have talked about this many times, it -- some of you may not hear this when you hear bits and pieces that appear to be, you know -- it's mostly speculation. But the one thing that's been clear in all of our meetings is that any agreement is going to be conditions-based. And the President's been very clear about Afghanistan not being a sanctuary from which we can be attacked and that this is going to be done in conjunction with Afghan leadership.
Question: Just a follow up. You were the top commander there and you used to deal with the Afghan government. The Afghan government feels that they've been left out of these talks. Do they have legitimate concerns?
General Dunford: I -- I would tell you this, I leave to the State Department to characterize the specific interaction that we've had with the Afghan government.
I recently visited Afghanistan. I met with the minister of defense, minister of interior, General Miller, Ambassador Bass, engaged with the Afghan leadership in Kabul virtually every day to make sure that there's transparency in this negotiation.
I view any agreement that would be pending as something we are doing with, not to, the Afghan people.
SecDef Esper: Among all parties.
Question: Mr. Secretary, as -- as Israel expands its targeting inside Iraq and Lebanon, can you help us understand the level of your concern about the political blowback for U.S. troops and the Iraqi political environment as a result of those strikes?
And, Mr. Chairman, the military's long been concerned about the -- quietly concerned about the impact these strikes could have on the security of U.S. forces in the region. Can you speak to that, please?
SecDef Esper: You know, on the first part, I'll say obviously we are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and we are there and focused on one thing -- our forces -- and that is working with and through the Iraqi forces to -- to execute the D-ISIS [Defeat ISIS] campaign. And that's where we are focused, and obviously we're concerned about anything that may impact our mission, our relationship or our forces.
Question: The statement that came from DOD the other day kind of really made a point of distancing the U.S. from, you know, some of these operations. I think it put a finer point on the idea that U.S. really wants to stay away from --
SecDef Esper: We -- We remain focused on supporting Iraq and supporting our forces in Iraq to go after ISIS.
General Dunford: Yeah, Gordon -- every -- again, all of our operations are consistent with the agreements that we have with the -- with the Iraqi government. All of our operations, in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Force, is focused on ISIS. All of our operations.
With regard to force protection, we assess force protection across the region virtually every day. General McKenzie is in constant dialogue with the secretary and I about the needs for force protection. He makes adjustments based on tensions in the region.
So you asked are we concerned about it? We're not complacent about force protection. We look at it every day and we're very attentive to the operational environment when we make adjustments in our force protection.
Question: I want to try one more time on Afghanistan. As you know, Ambassador Khalilzad still in negotiations with the Taliban. He said he expects assurances from the Taliban it will not be used in any way by al-Qaida, other terrorist organizations, again. The Pentagon, in a report last month, said we need a robust counter-terror capability.
So just to be clear, do you need both the assurances and the capability, even though we don't know what the capability at this point would look like?
Could you both address that?
SecDef Esper: Well, again, I'm -- I'm not sure which report you're referring to that came out of the department. Lots of reports come out every day, as -- as you -- as you all know.
All I'll say again is that State has a lead on this. Ambassador Khalilzad and his team have done great work. We've been involved with them -- we have people involved with him, as is General Miller on the ground. And I'll, you know, defer to him to comment on what he wants to comment, but we are not going to get involved in commenting on the diplomatic process at this point.
Question: [inaudible] That's not my point. My point is do you need a counter-terror capability in Afghanistan once there is a peace deal is signed?
SecDef Esper: Yeah, I -- I think you answered that already, but I'll actually --
General Dunford: Yeah, Tom, I -- I'm not trying to be evasive, but something I've said, even in testimony, is look, we have enduring security interests in the region, diplomatic interests in the region and economic interests in the region, and the form of our presence to advance our interests in those areas is going to change over time. And so any discussion about capability is going to be benchmarked against the threat, but as importantly against the capacity of our partners in Afghanistan to deal with that threat.
So could we talk conceptually about a -- a time in the future when the Afghan Security Forces can deal with security in their country by themselves? You can. But we're not prepared to have a specific conversation about when that may be or what capability would be associated with what operating environment.
Question: The bottom line is U.S. will need some kind of counter-terror capability in Afghanistan?
General Dunford: We will need our interests addressed.
Staff: Luis, Luis Martinez.
Question: Thank you again for doing this briefing, sir. I really appreciate it.
North Korea has been launching a salvos of missile tests recently. I know that the White House has downplayed them because they -- they don't violate the agreement with Kim Jong-un. But strategically, I mean, are they a concern for you that they are developing what they call the new weapons? And do you think that they're just pushing the limits of that agreement?
And then just a follow up, if I could, about this new submarine missile.
SecDef Esper: You know, we were -- we -- I talked about this on my trip to the INDOPACOM [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command], I had this -- discussions with both my counterparts and the heads of state in both Japan and Korea about these tests. And obviously we are concerned about their short-range ballistic missile tests. We want to understand what they're doing, why they're doing it, et cetera.
But on the other hand, we're not going to overreact. We want to take a measured response and make sure that we don't close the door to diplomacy.
At the end of the day, this -- we -- we will get to an irreversible, verifiable, complete denuclearization of the -- of the peninsula. The best way to do that is through a political agreement.
So we don't want to close the door by overreacting to -- to their tests and what they're doing.
Question: And if I could follow up just on the -- this development of short-range tests, [inaudible] of a new submarine ballistic missile. We know that they've been developing this capability for a while. Are they on the verge of something that could be a game changer because potentially could be an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] launch?
General Dunford: Yeah, I don't have anything to add to what has already been reported in the open press.
Question: Mr. Secretary, thank you. I'm Tara Copp with McClatchy.
I wanted to get back to what you were saying about taking care of the people. And over the last two decades of war, a number of service men have come in contact with things that are potentially cancer-causing: the -- the air they breathe, the fire -- the burn pits, a lot of the aviation, you’re dealing with the PFAS.
But overall, are you concerned about potential rising rates of cancer within the military and veteran community? And are you looking at any ways to make establishing service connections easier for those veterans as they age and potentially, you know, 10 years down the road, see that they've come to develop a type of cancer that may be because of what -- the air they breathed or the vehicles they were in, et cetera?
SecDef Esper: Yeah, sure. I mean, this goes back to my days in the service. You know, after my tour in the -- during the Gulf War, we had, if you may recall, Gulf War Syndrome. It was out there and still many folks suffer from -- from it.
You know, the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] has the lead on this. I -- I haven't talked to VA Secretary Wilkie in a while. He and I go back many years. He is completely committed to our service members and the veterans.
And those are one of the -- what's -- that is one of the areas where I want to improve and make sure we're doing everything we can to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they transition out of the service into the VA system, and then make sure that we tackle some of the things you're -- that you're talking about.
Question: I had a question on --
Question: -- you answer my question on Iran, please? I want to follow up on Iran.
Question: Two quick follow-ups, actually. One, to Tom's question, General Dunford.
When you said that there might be a time in the future where the Afghan partners have the ability to be the counterterror force, to keep any kind of terrorism out of Afghanistan, that might be in the future, are they capable of that now? Are you ready to say the Afghan Security Forces could secure that country without outside help?
General Dunford: No. In the current environment, the current environment today, at the level of violence associated with the insurgency, I think we and the Afghans agree that some degree of support is necessary. That's why we have forces on the ground inside of Afghanistan today.
But again, I want to make sure, when I spoke about Afghanistan securing itself in the future, I was very clear, I'm not affixing a time horizon to that or specific conditions. I was just answering a question.
Right now, it's our judgment that the Afghans need support to deal with the level of violence that is associated with the insurgency today. If an agreement happens in the future, if the security environment changes, then obviously our posture may adjust.
Question: But that's more than monetary support, it's actual physical military support of them?
General Dunford: That's right.
Those are all -- that's a level of support we're providing today that will change -- one thing I'm sure, based on, even, since my time in Afghanistan, many of you recall, we had 140,000 coalition forces there when I arrived in 2013, and about 15,000 or 22,000, I think, total coalition and U.S. forces today. So significantly different.
The one thing I'm sure of in the future is that our posture is going to adjust.
Question: And then one quick, to follow up on Luis’ question. Secretary Esper, on North Korea, since it seems that these short-range missiles have been a response to the U.S.-South Korean exercises -- computer-based exercises, what does that say about the future for any larger-scale military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea? Will there ever -- will we ever get back to the point where there is a large-scale, tens of thousands of troops, weeks-long military exercises?
SecDef Esper: Well, the key is to make sure we're doing things that we need to do to preserve our readiness. And I've had this discussion a couple times with General Abrams on the peninsula, the chairman may have -- I'm sure has as well; may want to comment.
And just, you know, two weeks ago, when I was in Seoul, he and I talked about that. He feels that the training and exercise plan we currently have underway is sufficient to maintain our readiness on the peninsula with our ROK [Republic of Korea] allies.
General Dunford: And, Courtney, what I would say --
SecDef Esper: So that may or may not mean going back to whatever it was. It's -- I trust the commander's assessment on the ground.
General Dunford: Our exercises in the past were designed to do two things: deter North Korea and enhance the readiness of our collective forces -- combined forces.
We made an adjustment to the posture of our exercises, the visibility of our exercises in support of the diplomatic effort to denuclearize the peninsula. When we made that adjustment to have less visible exercises, we found other ways of maintaining high level of readiness.
But I would tell you, you know, representing the leadership in uniform, we've talked a great deal with General Abrams, Adm. Davidson and now the secretary, and we're confident that the exercise and training program that we have in place right now will allow us to maintain the requisite level of readiness.
Staff: Aaron -- Aaron Mehta.
I wanted to ask about Turkey. There's been, kind of, mixed signals about Turkey with the S-400 and the F-35. Secretary Esper, if Turkey was to say, "Hey, we're getting rid of the S-400," or "We're even just going to put it in a warehouse, we're not setting it out," does that qualify them to return with the F-35 program? Is it something the Pentagon would consider?
SecDef Esper: No, not in my book.
I mean, I've been very clear, in both my public comments and privately with my Turkish counterpart, it's either the F-35 or the S-400. It's not both, it's not park one in the garage and roll the other one out. It's -- it's one or the other.
So we are where we are, and it's regrettable. As I've said, Turkey's been a longstanding -- a great partner and ally, and I -- I would hope that they would move -- move back in our direction, and really live up to what NATO agreed to many years ago, and that was to begin divesting of Soviet-era Russian equipment. And they seem to be moving in a different direction.
Question: So if they were to say, "Hey, we want to get rid of the S-400, we made a mistake, we're walking this back," would you be open to them rejoining the F-35 program?
SecDef Esper: They would have to, again, get rid of the S-400 program, and completely out of the country and out of whatever. And then we would -- we could consider that.
Question: And then, General, you've been one of the maybe most outspoken people who've traveled to Turkey. You've been there many times and met with the leadership. In your estimation, what is the relationship between the U.S. government and Turkish government right now?
General Dunford: Sure.
Here's what I'll tell you. This is what I tell my counterpart almost every time we meet. I say, "Look, when I look at Turkey and the United States, it's very clear to me that we have many more areas of convergence than divergence. And many of these areas of divergence are, kind of, near-term issues. Difficult issues, no question about it, but they're issues that we can work through."
And so we try to focus on the horizon and say, "Look, we are allies today. Turkey is an important part of the NATO alliance. Our bilateral relationship is very important."
And so what we do when we meet, is we try to find ways to enhance the relationship and focus on the future which, in my view, if you look at Turkish national interests and you look at U.S. national interests, they're much more closely aligned than with any other interlocutor that Turkey may be dealing with right now.
Staff: Missy Ryan.
Question: Thank you very much.
I just want to follow up with one quick question for General Dunford, and then ask you both a Yemen question.
General Dunford, building on Barbara's question about partisan politics, is it your judgment that some of the events that she referenced -- you know, the MAGA [make America great again] hats, some people would add using military funds for the border wall -- do you believe that those things have damaged the military's -- or jeopardized the military's nonpartisan or apolitical tradition?
And then the question on Yemen would be, the war has continued far longer than anyone expected it to. Civilians continue to die. And now we have a significant development in that the Saudi and Emirati coalition appears to be fracturing. Do you -- and the war appears no closer to a conclusion.
Do you believe that it's time to rethink our military support to Saudi Arabia, the remaining support as it relates to the war against the Houthis?
General Dunford: Missy, notwithstanding any specific incidents somebody would mention, when I look back over the last few years, I'm incredibly proud of the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. And with very few exceptions, they have conducted themselves in a manner very consistent with our ethos and with our values.
And so we take every one of these issues seriously. We address it when it occurs. By and large, many of these issues are addressed by sergeants majors, first sergeants, chief master sergeants on the scene. And they're not things that rise to the level of the secretary of defense or the chairman.
But -- but again, I wouldn't want -- to answer your question specifically, I wouldn't want any of these specific incidents that have been raised to characterize the men and women in uniform. They have done exactly what we've asked them to do, by and large, during a period of time -- and I would acknowledge in Barbara's question -- it has been a very politically turbulent period of time. And yet almost 80 percent of the American people still have trust in the United States military as an institution. And we take that very seriously, to maintain that trust.
SecDef Esper: This is one of the things, when I spoke to the students at the Naval War College yesterday, I spoke to them about maintaining our ethics and our values. Because we are regarded by society, very high, probably the highest institution in America, but it's a fragile thing and we have to safeguard it. And we safeguard it by practicing, on a day-in, day-out basis, our professional values and our ethics.
So it's something that he and I will continue to push forward.
Question: And then on Yemen and Saudi Arabia?
SecDef Esper: Yeah, I almost forgot the question. Look, I -- what was your specific question? Yeah.
Question: My question is, is it time to rethink the remaining military support to Saudi Arabia, as it relates to the war against the Houthis in Yemen, given the fact that the war has not -- our continued support has not helped the war get, apparently, closer to a conclusion --
SecDef Esper: Our support has been very limited, and limited to helping them on the -- for their defensive purposes.
So, you know, you've outlined some things, we'll see where it goes. You know, I think with most of these conflicts, they best end -- they often end in a political agreement. And we'll see if the parties are -- are ready to move to that stage.
Staff: Laura [inaudible]
Question: Hi there.
Mr. Secretary, as you said, you were in the Indo-Pacific region --
SecDef Esper: Yeah, with you.
Question: -- recently -- yes, exactly. So -- and when you were there, you seemed pretty hopeful that you would get some kind of resolution to the South Korea-Japan spat. Obviously, we saw South Korea pull out of that military intel-sharing agreement. So I'm wondering if you see -- what you see the path going forward. Do you see that there's a possibility of resolving this with little impact to military operations?
And then, General, for you, are you seeing any impact to military operations due to getting out of that pact?
SecDef Esper: So, yeah, at the time, I was and I remain very disappointed that -- that both parties are engaged in this. And I expressed that to my counterparts, as I met with them in Tokyo and Seoul, and of course encouraged them, urged them to work it out between them.
And, look, I am a half-glass-full person as well. I'm hopeful that they'll get beyond this, because, as I articulated to them, look, we have common threats facing us, North Korea and China, and bigger threats, and we're stronger when we all work together.
And I think -- again, when you look at the ledger, we share more interests and values and things in common than we do not. And I -- I want to build upon that, and hopefully resolve this quickly, move forward and get back on the important track we need, and that is really thinking about North Korea in the near term, and China in the long term, and how do we work together, how do we broaden our partnerships, strengthen our alliance and make sure we're prepared for the future.
General Dunford: And, Laura, to answer your question, I haven't seen an impact on military operations right now, but I share the secretary's disappointment in what I view as a setback in the relationship between South Korea and Japan.
I think that's a very important relationship. Adm. Davidson works on that hard, every day. I've worked on that for the entire four years I've been a chairman, to have a good relationship.
And I think it's in our collective interest -- meaning Japan, South Korea and the United States -- for us to have an effective relationship amongst the three of us. And we're going to continue to try to work and make it get back in a positive direction.
Question: To follow up on that, if there is some impact, do you have contingency plans to deal with that, if some of this --
General Dunford: We have other ways of sharing information. Obviously, none as effective as a very strong bilateral information-sharing agreement between the two countries, but there are other mechanisms in place to allow us to deal with alliance crisis or contingency.
Staff: Jeff [inaudible]
Question: Thank you.
Secretary Esper, President Trump has said repeatedly the U.S. could win the war in Afghanistan at the cost of millions of Afghan lives. Does the United States retain the right to use nuclear weapons against the Taliban?
SecDef Esper: Jeff, we reserve the right to keep all options on the table.
But, look, clearly, we have a plan, going forward. The key to resolve this conflict is a political agreement. We're on that path right now, and we're hopeful that we can reach some type of conclusion that would result in a political agreement that can get us on -- on the right trajectory.
Question: Mr. Secretary --
Question: Helping --
Question: -- question on Iran, please.
Question: Well, does it help the ongoing negotiations when the President repeatedly says that the United States could kill millions of Afghans to end the war?
SecDef Esper: I think this administration is committed to finding a path forward that, again, achieves certainly a few things. One, of course, being that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States. And -- and secondly, one that results in an inter-Afghan agreement that allows all the stakeholders there in the country to move forward on a different trajectory than what they're on -- on now.
Staff: Lalit Jha.
Question: Thank you. Thank you.
Mr. Secretary, [inaudible] you had a phone conversation with the new Indian defense minister. Can you give us a sense what kind of relationship you want to build up with -- with India?
SecDef Esper: Yeah, as -- as -- as you all know, I -- I don't like to talk about private conversations I will -- I've had with folks. It's a -- just a good rule of thumb I've always lived by. But I will say that we had a very warm conversation, we talked about our mutual strategic interests and then discussed some next steps by which we can work together more closely.
Question: Thank you, Mr. Secretary and Mr. Chairman.
A question for you, Mr. Chairman, on Turkey and Syria, and then for you on the border wall.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria have said that they’ve began withdrawing from two towns because of this safe zone. I -- help explain to us what exactly has the United States military agreed to. Are there going to be joint patrols for this safe zone? Get us up to date -- speed.
General Dunford: Yeah, no, Carla, thanks.
Look, to -- to put in context, there's two things we're trying to do, right? Number one, we're trying to maintain continuity in our campaign against ISIS in Syria. And -- and number two, we're trying to address what are legitimate concerns by the Turkish government for the border between Turkey and Syria. So we're trying to balance those two ends.
And -- and as many of you know, we've -- we've been having conversations with all parties now for two and a half years, working our way through this.
We recently agreed -- some of -- some of the specifics, we recently agreed to set up a coordination center. So right now, in Ankara -- this was set up in the recent days -- United States European Command, Central Command, Turkish General Staff are now in a coordination center inside of Ankara. We've also made agreements to -- to immediately address some of the threats along the border between Turkey and Syria, removal of heavy weapons and those kind of things.
With regard to your specific question, combined patrols and those kind of things, that's all being worked out in the coordination center. So what we've agreed on is the threats, we've agreed on a broad approach. The secretary has spoken to his counterpart, I've spoken to my counterpart on a broad approach to address that area along the border between Turkish -- Turkey and Syria.
But honestly, every day, we're going to grow this capacity. And the whole purpose of setting up the coordination center is so we can drive down to the appropriate tactical level between commanders the specific actions we'll take every day to eliminate the threats.
Question: [inaudible] for when -- oh, and I have a border -- do we have a date on when the joint patrols are going to start?
General Dunford: No.
And then on the border -- the border wall, sir, why did you agree to build an additional 20 miles of border wall? Can you elaborate on your decision? And how much has this cost DOD total -- the deployments and everything?
SecDef Esper: Yeah, I don't -- I don't have a total number for you in terms of cost. We can get that for you.
On -- On the first part, as I recall, the -- the reason why we were able to do 20 miles is because the Corps of Engineers were -- successfully negotiated lower prices than expected, which freed up money to do more miles. It was as simple as that and that's my recollection. If I'm mistaken, Jonathan will clean it up afterward.
Staff: All right, we're going to go Joe Tabet here, and then last question, Meghann from Military Times.
Question: Thank you.
Secretary Esper, my -- my -- my question is for both of you, Secretary Esper and Chairman Dunford.
Have you seen any evidence that Iran's military capabilities or Iran's military readiness, either the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] or the Quds Force, have been diminished, weakened because of the U.S. military buildup in the region and because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran?
SecDef Esper: I -- I don't talk about intelligence matters, first of all.
I -- I would say it's fair to -- to state that between our presence and the presence of our allies and partners in the region, I -- I think so far -- the point made earlier, we've -- you know, further bad, provocative behavior has been deterred and that's a good thing.
Because again, as we continue to reach out -- I've said many occasions, we want to talk with Iran and -- and talk about a diplomatic path forward.
General Dunford: And -- and I wouldn't, today, draw a correlation between the forces we've put in the region and -- and degrading Iranian capability.
The forces that are in the region that the secretary approved are to deter aggression and to provide the President with options in the event that deterrence fails. So it hasn't had a material effect on the actual capacity of the Iranian forces or their proxies.
Staff: And Meghan for the last one.
For Secretary Esper, are there plans to send more troops to the border mission or to withdraw any of the ones that are still there? And is there a possibility that this wall might end up being built piecemeal completely with DOD funds and under DOD supervision?
SecDef Esper: Well, I -- I don't know about the second part, it'd be speculative.
I -- I think on the first part, you -- our -- our response in -- in terms of providing more resources and more troops depends on DHS [Department of Homeland Security] needs, and we look at them on a case-by-case basis.
So nothing comes to mind immediately. Maybe I'm missing something, but -- but we -- we flex that force based on DHS' needs at the border. And of course their needs at the border ebb and flow based on what they see approaching the border, trying to handle folks and whatnot, so.
Staff: All right, guys, thank you.
SecDef Esper: Okay, thanks, everyone.
1 Mattis, J. (2019). Duty, democracy and the threat of tribalism. Op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal. Broader quotation: "What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness...We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions...Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment [in democracy]." [Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/us/politics/jim-mattis-trump-pentagon-book.html]
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