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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon March 26, 2015

Department of Defense Joint Press Conference by Secretary Carter and Secretary of Defence Fallon in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room


Well, good afternoon. Before I begin, as you know, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was involved in an accident last near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

We know that on-board there were four soldiers from a National Guard unit in Hammond, Louisiana, and seven Marines assigned to Camp Lejeune North Carolina.

So, our thoughts and our prayers are with them and with their families as search efforts there continue.

It's an honor to welcome my counterpart from the United Kingdom, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, here to the Pentagon. This is a first for both of us. His first official visit to Washington, and my first visit to the briefing room as secretary of defense.

And it's fitting that Secretary Fallon is the first counterpart with whom I am holding a joint press conference here in the Pentagon, and that's because 200 years ago this month, last month, I'm sorry, after a little upset in New Orleans, we buried the hatchet and ratified the Treaty of Ghent, which restored as it said, peace, friendship, and good understanding between us.

And since then, the United Kingdom and the United States have indeed become the closest of allies and the closest of friends. We fly each others aircraft, serve on each other's ships, and our soldiers have long served side by side.

And our military collaboration, in so many different areas, from Iraq to Afghanistan, reinforces the fact that our special relationship is a cornerstone of both of our nations' security.

And for me, this special relationship, as I told Michael earlier today, is also a personal one. I received my doctorate from Oxford University, where I studied theoretical physics.

And I have many fond memories of my time there. I not only earned a doctoral degree there but also studied a wealth of other subjects at one of Oxford's most renowned institutions of higher learning, the Lamb and Flag Pub, immediately adjacent to St. John's College, where I was.

Secretary Fallon and I just had a very positive and wide-ranging meeting, where we discussed the full scope of issues on which the United States and the United Kingdom are leading together around the world.

We're leading together in the Middle East, where the UK has been a stalwart member of our global coalition to counter ISIL, contributing to strike and reconnaissance efforts in the air and to training and equipping efforts on the ground.

I told Secretary Fallon that we appreciate the UK's partnership in this critical campaign. As we continue to support local forces, the United States is fortunate to have our British allies by our side.

We're also leading together in Afghanistan, where, since 2001, the United Kingdom has stood steadfast not only with the United States but also with our Afghan partners.

I thank Secretary Fallon for the UK's continued contributions as we have transitioned to NATO's enduring Resolute Support Mission, including hundreds of British troops to help train, advise and assist the Afghan national security forces. Their efforts will be critical to making sure that our progress there sticks.

We're also leading together to reassure our Trans-Atlantic allies and deter further Russian aggression.

The United States has been clear from the outset of the crisis in Ukraine that we support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and we've been very clear that if Russia continues to flout the commitments it made in September and February in the Minsk agreements, the cost to Russia will continue to rise, including and especially through sanctions in coordination with our European allies and partners.

We will also continue to support Ukraine's right to defend itself.

And as you know, earlier today, the White House announced that the United States will be providing Ukraine with an additional $75 million in nonlethal security assistance as well as over 200 Humvees.

This brings U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to a total of nearly $200 million, with the new funds going towards unmanned aerial vehicles for improved surveillance, a variety of radios and other secure-communications equipment, counter-mortar radars, military ambulances, first-aid kits and other medical supplies.

This new security assistance is in addition to our ongoing training exercises in Eastern Europe to reinforce and reassure our NATO allies.

Beginning this week and next, equipment and personnel from the Army's 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, the Rock of the Marne, will be in the Baltics to train with our allies as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

And since Russia's aggression began last year, the United Kingdom has also stepped up militarily, contributing to NATO's Baltic air policing mission and serving as a framework nation for NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

Today, I thank Secretary Fallon for these contributions and also for continuing to honor the commitment that all NATO nations made in Wales last year to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense. It's an investment we all pledged to make, and it's an investment worth making, not just for ourselves but for our entire alliance.

70 years after we declared victory in Europe, our NATO allies and indeed the world still look to both our nations as leaders. And it's clear that the threats and challenges we face, whether they manifest through cyber attacks, ISIL's foreign fighters or Russian aircraft flying aggressively close to NATO's airspace, all of those will continue to demand our leadership.

As Secretary Fallon and I discussed today, leadership takes investment, investment in innovation and modernized capabilities, in prudent reforms, and in the forces necessary to meet our obligations.

These are investments that both our nations and both our defense institutions must not only make, but embrace, in the months and years to come.

I'll now ask Secretary Fallon for his comments before we take questions.


As I've told Secretary Carter, our thoughts too are with the families of those involved in the helicopter crash, a stark reminder of the risks that our armed forces face, both in training as well as in combat.

I'm delighted to be here today with Secretary Carter to review the range of security risks that we face together, risks that pose a challenge to the international rules-based order on which we depend.

I am reassured of the strength of our shared resolve to address those challenges. Ours is a defense relationship like no other, reflecting a shared determination to tackle those risks and those threats through a close and enduring partnership, whether it's Russia's violation of international norms in Europe, whether it's the barbarous sectarianism of ISIL in the Middle East, whether it's the brutality of the Assad regime in Syria, or the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, or whether it's the continuing obligation on all of us to make the defense dollar and indeed the defense pound go further, our choice is to work together.

We're working together, too, as Secretary Carter has said, in Europe, demonstrating our resolve through NATO to protect all members of the alliance, and with the European Union in delivering sanctions that show Russia the cost of flouting international norms.

We are working together in the Middle East, which we both recently visited, building the capacity of Iraqis, Syrians and other partners throughout the region to tackle the scourge of ISIL.

And we're working together, as we have for decades now, to bring new technologies into our armed forces, to find innovative solutions to the national security challenges that we face now and will face in the future.

Britain remains America's strongest partner. I'm delighted to be here and to take your questions.

MODERATOR: We'll take a few questions and begin with Lita Baldour of the Associated Press.

Q: Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, this morning, Chairman Dempsey made it clear that he thought that the Syrian rebels need to have some assurances that they will get some type of protection as they go into the fight.

I'm wondering, do you agree with that, that there needs to be some sort of assurance given to the rebels? Is it dependent on whether or not they are attacked by ISIL or Assad? And what are the parameters that have to be discussed and that are being debated now, that you think need to be considered as you look at this?

SEC. CARTER: No, I do agree with General Dempsey. The forces that we train in Syria, we will have some obligation to support them after their -- they're trained. We all understand that. And we're working through what kinds of support and under what conditions we would do so, to include the possibility that, even though they're trained and equipped to combat ISIL, they could come into contact with forces of the Assad regime.

So that's definitely something that we're aware of and something that we're discussing, as the chairman said this morning and I completely agree with him.

Q: Mr. Secretary, your British forces in Iraq appear to be operating at least initially now under slightly less restrictive rules than some of the U.S. forces, helping to call in airstrikes. I'm wondering if you think that is a broader unmet need in Iraq. Do other countries need to step up and do more of that? And is it -- are you also considering any additional military support for the operations in Syria?

SEC. FALLON: Well, so far as the rules of engagement are concerned, each country sets its own rules of engagement. They vary slightly differently according to our legal framework.

We are playing, I think, the second part in the campaign. Over 170 strikes so far in support of ground operations in Iraq. And we are now beginning, I think next week, to help train Iraqi and Kurdish forces in counter-IED work. We are supplying counter-IED equipment to them, which is one of the -- IED is one of the issues, one of the challenges they have in advancing north of the Tigris, west into Anbar, and that will be the main thrust of our contribution to the building partner capacity operations that are underway.

So far as Syria is concerned, yes, we stand ready to help train moderate Syrian elements, to do so outside Syria itself. We have dispatched trainers to the region to prepare for that task.

Q: On the airstrike, on the calling in of the airstrikes, do you expect to continue to do your forces to continue to do that?


We're flying missions every day, every night, six days a week with our Tornadoes and other aircraft.

And that's an effort we're going to sustain as long as the -- the ground operation demands it.


Q: Thank you. A question to you both if I may. I mean, senior U.S. military officials for some time have been expressing growing disquiet about the budgetary pressures on the UK's armed forces, one general going as far as to say he believes soon it may be that British soldiers will have to fight inside U.S. units rather than alongside them.

Would it be better, more candid, to accept that budgetary reality rather than to deny it?

And Secretary Carter, if I may on a separate question, obviously the Iranians are playing -- the Iranian advisors are playing a -- we believe pivotal role in the climax of the battle for Tikrit.

As we have progressed towards the evermore significant battle for the liberation of Mosul, it seems that Tehran and Washington won't be just de facto allies, but they may actually be fighting the same battle at the same time.

How do you plan to choreograph that?


SEC. FALLON: You want me to start with the first one? Well, all of us face budget constraints. These aren't unique to any particular country. But let me just make it clear, we are still able to put a division in the field with -- with notice and the way that we used to, and our global reach, I think, is well-demonstrated this year.

We were able to just 10 days notice to send a ship and helicopters and 700 men down to Sierra Leone to deal with Ebola at the same time, as we have 600 involved in the campaign against ISIL in the Middle East and 500 more in support of the Afghan forces in Kabul and surrounding area.

So, we still have that global reach, and are able to support our allies where they're needed.

SEC. CARTER: On both your points, first of all, we have our budget challenges as well in the United States.

And just to repeat what I've said over the last few weeks, if we don't straighten out in our own country our own budget circumstances here, there is going to be an impact on this department and this institution in our military that's going to be very substantial.

And so we need to end sequester. That's our issue.

On the UK side, I just want to say that we're very grateful for the commitment to the Wales target of two percent of GDP, and say one other thing that I think that aligns with what Michael said, which is that the power is not only measured in one number.

One of the things that we have valued for a long time in the UK military is the ability to act independently, to be a force of its own in the world.

We need that, because we need as many kindred countries in the world as we can who are capable of wielding their own influence independently of us. As it so happens, usually we're aligned. But that's important, and that's tied up in the two percent goal that the UK has, and is a feature of the UK military that we very highly value.

You asked about the battle for Tikrit and the presence of Iranian advisers on the ground. That is something we're watching very closely. It is something that is concerning to us, in particular because the sectarian danger in Iraq is the principal thing that can unravel the campaign against ISIS.

That's why it's so important that the -- that none of these battles -- and you named one, which is Tikrit -- there're actually several important battles going on, in some of which, the Iranians play no role at all.

But wherever they are, it's important that sectarianism not rear its ugly head as ISIL is pushed back outside of Iraq. So we're watching that very -- very closely, very carefully, and it's a return to sectarianism that would concern us very much in Iraq.


Q: Mr. Secretary and Mr. -- Secretary Fallon also, I want to follow up on both Syria and Iraq. Let me start with Syria.

Mr. Secretary, it seems, since the president has ruled out ground-combat forces, especially in Syria, your language opens the door -- if the rebels come under attack by Assad forces, I don't know how else to interpret it other than you, today, have now opened the door to U.S. and coalition airstrikes in Assad-held territory, which puts you in touch with his air defenses.

So let me ask you first if you are promising to protect the rebels against potential Assad attacks. How should we read that other than you have opened the door to U.S. and coalition airstrikes in Syria in his territory?

And second, on Iraq --

SEC. CARTER: Can I just take that one (off mic) --

Q: Thank you.

SEC. CARTER: another -- another subject.

Just on that subject, that eventuality is one that we are looking at, that is foreseeable, and we are still working through how we would react to that eventuality.

So I'm not describing the conclusion of those deliberations there; I am acknowledging that that is an eventuality that obviously follows from our objective to train and equip Syrian forces and have them on the ground in Syria. And we haven't decided yet in what manner and in what circumstances we would respond.

Q: But sir, you either protect them from the ground or from the air. It seems to be the only two options, given the physics of the situation.

SEC. CARTER: Well, we, again, have -- it's a situation we have foreseen, and it's not a situation that -- where decisions have been made exactly how we would react.

It would depend very much upon the situation and the circumstance.

Q: My very other quick follow-up, on Iraq, you -- you, General Dempsey -- everybody talks about Iran and the potential for sectarian violence.

But the two questions are, your specific concerns about Iraq essentially becoming an Iranian client state at this point, given the fact that Iran's involvement seems to be quite welcome, if there -- and it's not really hypothetical. You've raised the issue of sectarian violence.

The question is, what would you do about it if they were to engage in this? You've said it's not acceptable, but what can you do to stop it?

SEC. CARTER: Well, we have been working with Prime Minister Abadi on a political approach and a manner of governing that is -- tries to reverse some of the sectarian trends of recent years.

We work with the Iraqi security forces to restore them to a multi-sectarian force.

So we're working with -- at the end of the day, this is going to depend on the Iraqis. But there are ways that we are working with them and can work with them to promote that objective. And as I said, it's a key objective, because it's one of the reasons why ISIL was able to gain the territory that it did last summer.

Q: Mr. Fallon, do you think that Iran could be restrained in its influence in Iraq? Does the UK have specific concerns about Iran's growing influence inside of Iraq?

SEC. FALLON: Well, I want to follow exactly what Secretary Carter said, because he summed it up, I think, very well.

We have been working to ensure that the Iraqi government is genuinely inclusive, and where they are able to retake ground from ISIL, that they can hold those towns and villages with the consent of the local people.

And that means in the training and support we're giving to the Abadi government, that means -- that means that they have to carry through the reforms that they're planning to the army. They have to carry through the national guard legislation. And they have to make sure that their approach is properly comprehensive and that Sunnis, Shias and Kurds have the right -- the right stake in the future of their country.

MODERATOR: Finally from the BBC, Mr. O'Donoghue.

Q: Mr. Carter, here we have a general election in the UK in a couple of months. To get back to the question of spending, did you get a specific assurance from Mr. Fallon here that the UK would spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense spending after 2016, which is when their current promise runs out?

And, secretary of state, can I ask you, given what the defense secretary here has said about sort of the war gaming over what might happen with Syrian rebels on the ground, if you're reelected, are you prepared to go back to Parliament and ask for authorization to be involved in such operations in Syria?

SEC. CARTER: Well, to take -- I'll just take your first part. We discussed the issues that each of us has in military spending. The commitment I referenced is one that was not made by this minister to this minister today, it's one that was made publicly some time ago by the UK government. I welcomed it, because I think it's important.

And we want an ally that, as I said, is strong, capable of independent action around the world, and capable of being another member of the community of nations that shares our values and shares our objectives.

I'm gonna let the minister speak for the UK government's commitments.

SEC. FALLON: Well, let me make it very clear that we are meeting the 2 percent target this financial year. We're going to be meeting it next year.

You know, Gary, that there is a spending review process we go through every three years and we will be part of that.

But within the 2 percent commitment, the 2 percent spending that we're doing at the moment, let me just remind you that we have also committed, the prime minister committed again just yesterday, to keeping the regular army at the size that we've planned.

Secondly, that we have an equipment program, committed 10 years ahead now, 164 billion pounds' worth of spend, including two aircraft carriers, seven hunter-killer submarines, 600 armored vehicles, and the announcement very recently of nearly a billion pounds of expenditure on our future frigate program. So that expenditure is planned ahead.

And I have announced earlier today an investment of some 285 million pounds in further design work for the next generation of nuclear deterrent submarines, replacing the Vanguard class in the next decade.

We are also committed to modernizing our independent, continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

So it isn't simply the 2 percent target. You have those additional commitments to expenditure that show you that we will be playing our proper place -- proper part in the -- in the alliance and as a partner to the United States.

So far as Syria is concerned, you're right, we don't have parliamentary authority to conduct military operations in Syria. We are making a very large contribution to operations in Iraq, second only to the United States.

But, again, the prime minister has been clear that in the end ISIL has to be defeated in both Iraq and Syria. ISIL does not respect the border between those two countries. And, in the end, ISIL has to be defeated in both.

STAFF: Thank you very much.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you all very much.

Michael, thank you.


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