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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook June 24, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room


JUNE 24

PETER COOK: Good Friday afternoon, everybody. I have a couple of announcements here at the top before I take your questions.

I'd like to start with a readout of a phone call Secretary Carter made earlier today with his U.K. counterpart, State Secretary for Defense Michael Fallon. Secretary Carter emphasized that the United States and the United Kingdom will always enjoy a special relationship, one reflected in our close defense ties which remain a bedrock of U.S. security and foreign policy.

The secretary reaffirmed that those bonds endure after yesterday's vote by the United Kingdom to exit the European Union. He also emphasized the United States' unshakeable commitment to NATO, of which the United Kingdom is a vital member and to the vision we share with our allies in the United Kingdom and other European nations.

Secretary Carter welcomed Minister Fallon's commitment to continuing the United Kingdom's active and enduring role in global security issues. In particular, its work within NATO and efforts to accelerate the lasting defeat of ISIL.

The two leaders committed to work together to strengthen international partnerships that have helped ensure security for the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. And you will see that close work together continue in next month's NATO summit in Warsaw, and it's on display every day in the fight against ISIL.

Also wanted to make you aware of a video conference that took place earlier today between department of defense officials and counterparts from South Korea and Japan. The DOD team was led by Kelly Magsamen who is performing the duties of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs.

The video conference was held to share information among the three countries regarding the recent North Korean missile launches conducted on June 21. These and other North Korean missile launches are violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit North Korea's use of ballistic missile technology.

All three countries reiterated their strong condemnation of these launches and urged North Korea to refrain from provocative actions that undermine peace and security and instead focus on fulfilling its international obligations and commitments. The three noted that North Korea's provocations would only strengthen the resolve of the international community.

The United States reaffirms it's ironclad alliance commitments to defend the Republic of Korea and Japan. The United States will continue to work closely with the Republic of Korea and Japan as well as the international community to address North Korea's provocative actions.

And finally, a quick update on the counter-ISIL fight. In Syria, as you know, Arab-led forces are fighting to defeat ISIL fighters holding the city of Manbij. Despite continued ISIL resistance, those forces have begun their push into the city which is surrounded on all sides now and they have begun clearing ISIL defenses in the city's outskirts.

In the past 24 hours near Manbij, eight coalition airstrikes have struck seven ISIL tactical units, destroyed six ISIL fighting positions and two ISIL vehicles. In the last four weeks since the beginning of the ground operation to assault the city of Manbij began, coalition forces have conducted 246 strikes in support of local ground forces.

And cutting off ISIL's access through Manbij means taking away a major foreign fighter hub for ISIL. It's also an important step in our coalition's push towards ultimately targeting ISIL's self-proclaimed capital in Raqqah.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, government forces have cleared more than 70 percent of the city of Fallujah. In the last five weeks since the ground operation to assault the city of Fallujah began, coalition forces have now conducted 100 strikes in support of local ground forces under the command of the government of Iraq.

The loss of Fallujah will further deny Daesh access to a province critically important to its overall goals. It will also reduce their ability to threaten civilians in Baghdad. And of course, all of these operations are being enabled by a global coalition of nations united in the fight against ISIL. The U.K. among the integral members of that coalition and a stalwart ally of the United States.

So on that note, on this Friday, I'll be happy to take your questions. Phil?

Q: Quick question first on Afghanistan, then I wanted to ask you something about Syria. But on Afghanistan, what can you tell us about a strike that was carried out. Any new actions carried out under these authorities approved by President Obama?

And since those were the -- any actions were meant to have a strategic impact when employed under these new authorities, what was the strategic intent and what was the impact here?

MR. COOK: Phil, I can confirm, as I think the folks in Resolute Support have, that there have been operations carried out with these new authorities. But I can be -- I've got to be limited in what I can say at this point because of operational security.

What I can tell you is that the first use of these authorities involved airstrikes and they were in the southern portion of Afghanistan. But Phil, I can't get into much more beyond that in part because, again, these are ongoing operations and they reflect an ongoing nature of -- of the operation and we just want to be very careful in terms of telegraphing what's to come to the enemy.

So I can give you that big picture at this point. That's my understanding, airstrikes in the southern portion of Afghanistan.

Q: Province -- (off mike)

MR. COOK: I'm not going to be more specific at the specific request of the commanders in Afghanistan.

Q: And can you assure that these are actually designed to have some sort of major strategic intent?

MR. COOK: As you know, the -- the strategic effect is sort of the appropriate test here for the use of these authorities, and that certainly is the -- the goal, and we're assessing -- they did hit -- these airstrikes, my understanding, did hit their intended targets.

It's part of an ongoing operation that, again, the goal of which would be a strategic effect on behalf of the -- the Afghan forces that we are enabling, and that's exactly what they were intended to be used for and that's what the commanders on the ground are -- are doing and that's why they called in airstrikes in this way.

Q: Could you give us an update on the composition of the forces that are carrying out this operation? When it started off, you -- you told us that these forces were led by Syrian Arabs, there were Kurdish elements in there. Is that still the case? What can you -- can you tell us about the composition of these --

MR. COOK: My understanding is that the -- the makeup of the forces have -- has remained the same. This has been an Arab-led force from the start and continues to be, and they are the leading effort, again, pushing into the city at this time.

Q: And do you believe that the YPG elements will stay in the city when the operation is complete?

MR. COOK: My understanding -- again, this is an Arab-led force that's in there, and -- and specifically, these -- in part because this is an area that is -- this is home territory to some of the fighters who are fighting in there, that -- that the plan for these forces was they would hold this territory afterwards.

Lucas?

Q: A few months ago, the head of U.S. Army Europe said that an outvote for the U.K. would mean that NATO could be weakened. Does the secretary agree with his general?

MR. COOK: The secretary is confident that Britain remains a stalwart ally, a NATO ally, of course, and that the -- the NATO alliance itself will be able to address this particular situation. The secretary spoke to this topic when he was at NATO recently.

But we remain very confident that -- that the alliance -- that the core interests of the alliance will continue to be served, that Great Britain -- the U.K. will be a -- continue to be a strong ally within the alliance, a vital ally within the alliance and NATO will continue to perform its very important function.

Q: What kind of message does the U.K.'s withdraw of the E.U. send to Russia? Does the secretary believe that this sends any kind of adverse messages over there?

MR. COOK: This was a -- a vote of the -- the British people, as the secretary noted previously. This reflects a decision made by the British people and you'd have to ask the Russians if there's -- sends any particular message to them.

Tony?

Q: Follow-up on -- focused on the specific system, the F-35. You followed this when you were at Bloomberg doing international economic issues. The British are buying 138. That was a commitment reaffirmed in November. Was there concern in the building today among officials who follow this, that given the -- plunging there may be an affordability issue, that the British can't commit to buying all 138 of these airplanes at this point?

MR. COOK: Tony, you're -- you're looking to the future. We remain -- you know, the United Kingdom is a -- is a key partner in the F-35, has been for some time, the biggest partner, as you know. You know this program quite well. And we have every confidence that -- that they will continue to be a key partner in the F-35 program. We're not aware of any change in the relationship.

This is a bilateral arrangement, of course, with the United Kingdom. Has no bearing on their status within the European Union, and so we would expect their participation in the F-35 program to continue.

Q: (inaudible) -- but will we be watching for signs that they're going to -- they would slow down their buy for affordability reasons?

MR. COOK: We -- we feel confident that they will remain a key partner in the F-35 program. We'll leave it to the -- the British government to explain their own purchases in the future.

Q: I want to shoot -- shoot back to North Korea for one second.

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: Could you clear up for the public that this was not a KN-08 that they've test fired, the intermediate -- the road mobile missile that would -- could hit the United States? This was one of their intermediate missiles. I want you to clarify which type of missile it was.

MR. COOK: My understanding, Tony, is we believe this is one of their Musudan missiles. And again, that's an assessment that we've made at this time.

Q: KN-08, the one that's most concerning, the road mobile that could hit the United States?

MR. COOK: From my understanding, based on the information we have, was that this was a Musudan missile. But again, I believe that -- the North Koreans, if you want to ask what they were testing firing. Our concern here is that they were test firing anything at all. This was a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and does nothing to promote stability in the Korean Peninsula.

Carla.

Q: On Afghanistan, the new authorities came after some recommendations from General Nicholson. Going further from that, has he mentioned anything about troop numbers?

MR. COOK: So, as -- as you know, Carla, the -- General Nicholson continues to have conversations with his chain of command about the situation in Afghanistan, and those remain private conversations. And they're talking about what's going on in Afghanistan on a regular basis with the secretary, with the chairman, with, obviously, General Votel, and ultimately, the commander-in-chief himself.

Q: Has the Pentagon heard from the White House on any sort of final deadline on when any troop changes or -- or no changes in the troop withdrawal, when that's going to happen?

MR. COOK: There's -- there's no deadline. We know the current policy in place, that remains in place right now.

Yes, Gordon.

Q: Peter, the missile launches, nonetheless showed increasing capability by the North Koreans, that they launch these kinds of missiles.

I wonder if you can just kind of speak to what that means, if it has changed the thinking or accelerated the thinking? And also, could you update us on the THAAD -- the talks to get THAAD to South Korea? And if the -- this has also enhanced or accelerated the push for that?

MR. COOK: I would say that the -- the launches, as you know, and you've heard me just describe our concerns about the launches, and we remain concerned about any effort by the North Koreans to further advance a program that, again, is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Our approach to it has been consistent. We continue to work extremely closely with the South Koreans and the Japanese, as reflected by our video conference today. Our partnership with those allies is critical to our -- our posture with regard to North Korea. And we will continue to consult very, very closely with them.

Now, with regard specifically to the -- to the THAAD system, these are conversations that, as you know, have been going on for -- for several days now, several weeks. And they are progressing well, is my understanding. They still have some details to work out. But again, those conversations with the Republic of South Korea, this is an alliance decision to -- to move forward with the THAAD -- with the THAAD system.

And again, those conversations continue. There are some logistical things that need to be worked out. But those conversations have progressed well.

Q: Is there any indication that they've accelerated because of this last round of launches?

MR. COOK: I can just tell you that the conversations -- obviously, the reason that we are having this discussion about the THAAD system is because of North Korea's most recent actions, and I think consistent with that, we'd like to see the conversations as, I think, the South Koreans would, wrap up in as -- in as efficient and timely a fashion as possible.

Q: Very quick clarification on the Afghanistan strike.

After these current operations are concluded, are you going to be able to provide us like, the number of strikes and some of the information in the aftermath of those as you -- I think as Afghanistan now is doing with the Islamic State strikes, once that authority was provided?

MR. COOK: Gordon, I can tell you that we're in conversation with Resolute Support about being as transparent as we can be about those strikes. So I can't make you a commitment here as to each and every one in part because of operational security. But we're going to make every effort to be as transparent as we can be about those strikes within those limits.

Barbara?

Q: A couple of things. On Brexit, you've talked about what the secretary said when he was in Brussels, but please, leaving aside the -- what you've said about the NATO alliance, I think what the secretary clearly was talking about at the time was the administration's desire for Britain to remain in the E.U.

So related to the E.U. in particular, not NATO, what are the secretary's concerns right now about the national security implications of Britain leaving the E.U.?

MR. COOK: This is a decision, Barbara, as you know, that the British people have made. It is the reality -- this vote is reality and the secretary feels, I think, encouraged by what he heard from Minister Fallon today, the recommitment that Britain, despite its departure from the E.U., will remain engaged on the global stage, will certainly remain engaged as a global security partner of the United States.

We never had any doubt about that and that was reaffirmed by the secretary's call with Secretary Fallon. So --

Q: But… Secretary Fallon will be most likely leaving when a new British government is formed.

MR. COOK: We feel confident that this special relationship, including the special defense relationship we have, will certainly continue and that Britain will play its very important role, not only in NATO, but on the European stage and on the global stage as well. Its been a key partner of ours, as you know, in Afghanistan for example, and a whole host of things in addition to the counter-ISIL fight.

Q: topic...

Since we're discussing these new airstrikes in Afghanistan, can we go back on an issue here, which is you -- the department, you guys, you tell us about airstrikes in Afghanistan. You tell us about airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and ground artillery, if you will, strikes.

Leaving aside the issue of, you know, time, date, place, what units are involved, operational security, we get absolutely no information about when U.S. ground troops in Syria and Iraq are engaged in combat, combat on the ground being defined as firing your weapon against enemy forces.

So what can you help facilitate -- can you help facilitate getting us basic information about the -- no time date and place, no operational security concerns for you, but how can we find out when U.S. troops are in ground combat in Iraq and Afghanistan? We now know there have been over two instances when they've been fighting against 100 ISIS each time.

I'm sorry -- thank you, Courtney -- I meant Syria and Iraq. We have no visibility into this.

MR. COOK: You know that there -- many of these forces are special operations forces. We will continue to provide information on the American forces, they're -- by their support mission both in Syria and Iraq to the extent appropriate.

But you know that with regard, especially to special operations forces, whether they're in Iraq or Syria or elsewhere, that we're very reticent to share much information for a variety of reasons, including operational security. So we will provide information --

Q: Will you even consider providing, I'm just asking --

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: Consider providing any information at all about troops in ground combat against ISIS other than when sadly an American is killed in action? That's the only time we ever are told about it. I think there are broader news - interests amongst the American public to know what the troops are up to.

MR. COOK: We will always be prepared to respond to queries that you all have with regard to U.S. operations. We have to weigh very carefully operational security, as I mentioned, for those forces, the location of those forces. But we're happy to take those questions on a case-by-case basis and respond as best we can to each and every instance, Barbara, that we can.

Q: But we need to ask -- I mean no disrespect, Peter --

MR. COOK: I know --

Q: We need to ask --

MR. COOK: This is -- this is -- we have a -- we have an important balancing act here. Of course provide information to you all, to the American public, and at the same time balance our needs to maintain operational security, to maintain the appropriate protections for our forces at risk right now. And we absolutely understand your need and your desire to have more information and we'll be prepared to provide it as best we can.

Q: So --

MR. COOK: We may not be able to provide you all the information you want each and every time. But we'll do our best.

Q: I mean this not flippantly, consider it a standing question every day. Is there -- to the best of your knowledge, have there been any other major 100-plus ISIS is what we've seen twice now, ground engagements with ISIS on that level or close to that level?

MR. COOK: Barbara, I cannot give you a hard and fast answer here because I just don't know full well. We will continue to try and provide you, as best we can, the information you're looking for with regard to the operations of -- the actions of U.S. forces.

But what has not changed with U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq is, again, the support role, the enabling role that they are playing, and that if they find themselves in a combat situation, Barbara, it's as we've described previously, that was not the intent of that role and they are there in a support role.

But we know, and we've seen evidence, you've reported on it, there are certain circumstances where they might come under fire and we will as appropriately as we can provide information in those circumstances. But I cannot give you a hard and fast commitment to each and every case. And that's just the reality.

Q: Super-fast third question, on THAAD. You indicated that you are down to talking about the logistics of it. So just to make sure I understand, just to make sure, there is now a U.S. decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea despite the ongoing objections by China? That seems to be what you're saying. I want to make sure I --

MR. COOK: There's already been an agreement to begin these conversations, an alliance decision to begin these conversations. We've said all along that there are specific steps that they need to move through, which are not insignificant, to reach a final agreement. They are proceeding through those steps and I think it's fair to say that they are making progress. We do not have something to announce at this time.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Yes?

Q: Thank you, Peter.

North Korean -- missile launch is whether it was intended to target United States military base in Guam. Would the United States have any military action to North Korea?

MR. COOK: Well, you've -- you've seen our reaction to what they've done, our concerns about what they've done. We've condemned what they've done, so have our allies in the region. We will continue to do -- to take the steps that we need to take in order to protect the United States, to further protect our allies in the region.

And so -- and the video conference today is just one more piece of evidence in terms of the coordination -- the careful coordination we're making with our allies in the region in light of the actions of the North Koreans. And we'll continue to do that.

Q: (inaudible) -- take these actions, but the --

MR. COOK: I'm sorry. I missed the beginning of that.

Q: (inaudible) -- take these issues, but what is it -- Excuse me. is the view of these reactions on this?

MR. COOK: On the U.N. Security Council actions?

Yes, well of course, we have our own U.S. -- U.N. ambassador there representing our interests at the U.N. And again, the U.N. resolutions that North Korea continues to -- to violate remain the most obvious concern we have about their -- their actions. They are out of step with the international community and I think the U.N. votes -- the U.N. actions represent that.

And we will continue to do -- take the steps that we need to take with our allies and partners, including the conversations we had today, to try and bolster again our own defense against North Korean provocations and to bolster our allies at the same time.

Yes, Andrew?

Q: Peter, I'd like to ask you about the -- the Russian attacks on the border town in Al Tanf on June 16 and the communications that the DOD and the Russian military have had since then. Is the secretary satisfied with the response that the Russians have provided? And is he concerned at all about the -- there -- this incident weakening the MOU as it stands?

MR. COOK: I think you can tell, Andrew, from our reaction thus far, the -- the video conference that took place already, that we clearly have concerns with what happened and we still -- I don't believe the secretary is satisfied with the answers we've received up to this point from the Russians.

They -- this was a target that -- again, this was a location that contained fighters fighting against ISIL and there was no reason to target that location. And so yes, we continue to have concerns, but we continue our conversations with the -- with the Russians about trying to strengthen the MOU and -- and try and prevent that kind of situation, the breakdown in communication, improve that line of communication if we can to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future.

Q: Just -- just to follow up, does this situation suggest that the Russian activity in Syria is -- is putting the U.S. troops that are operating in Syria at risk in any way?

MR. COOK: We are -- the MOU itself, as you know, Andrew, is an attempt to try and make sure that our air crews are as safe as possible, and -- so there's always a risk there, but we're trying to minimize that risk. That's the whole point of the MOU.

And so we would hope that this dialogue, this conversation that's happening to strengthen the MOU will bolster the protections for U.S. forces further, and that would be the -- that's the goal of those conversations. So yes, they remain at risk, but we're trying to minimize that risk, to try and reduce that risk, and that's been the point of the MOU all along.

Yes?

Q: Thank you, Peter.

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: With respect to -- (inaudible) -- referendum, how do you evaluate the impact on the security environment in Europe? I mean, do you think there is no negative impact on its environment?

MR. COOK: Well, obviously we're -- the NATO alliance, we believe, remains strong. The U.K. remains a strong and vital ally within NATO. This is something that we've been reassured by the United Kingdom, by the state secretary of defense, Michael Fallon, of Britain's continued role in terms of his role not only in Europe, but on the global stage.

This is a key security partner, not just for the United States but for -- but for other countries as well. And we see the United Kingdom continue to play that -- that role. Their exit from the European Union is something that they need to work out with the European Union over the next two years. This is going to take time.

And obviously, we'll be working very carefully not just with the United Kingdom, but with our allies and partners in Europe to make sure that there is no suffering in terms of the defense posture in that part of the world.

These are defense relationships that we'll continue to maintain and to bolster, and obviously, this is something we have to adjust to as well and we'll continue to do that working, again, not just with the United Kingdom, but our -- our allies and partners in the European Union as well.

Yes, Phil?

Q: Quick follow-up on that, though. When we were in Brussels with the secretary last week, he spoke of his concerns about a strategic impact from a Brexit. So how do I reconcile -- how do we reconcile those comments then with what you're saying now?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary made clear that he thought, I think as the president has, that the -- that a European Union with the U.K. in it would give the U.K. a stronger voice. That was how the secretary phrased it, something along those lines. And the reality is the British people have spoke and we have to respect that decision.

And now, as a key ally of the United Kingdom, the United States is going to do everything it can to make sure that the defense relationship, the security relationship not only with the United Kingdom, but our relationship as well with the European Union and European Union members, adjusts to this new reality. And we will.

Q: And did the secretary express -- I know he -- he had good words with Secretary Fallon, but did he express any disappointment with the vote?

MR. COOK: Listen, the -- the secretary respects the -- the will and the vote of the -- the British people. We've seen the outcome and I think his -- his conversation with Secretary Fallon reflected the outcome. And everything we can do to work closely with the United Kingdom to make this transition in terms of the security relationship, the security issues to minimize whatever, if any, impacts there may be.

And we're going to do that -- we're going to work just as closely with the European Union as well.

Yes, Louis?

Q: Who initiated the request for the call? Did it come from Secretary Carter or did it come from Secretary Fallon?

MR. COOK: Secretary Carter initiated the call today.

Q: Getting back to your previous comment, what did it? -- actually the practical impacts in the short-term of the Brexit decision? I mean, is there any practical impact at all? And -- or what is the potential long-range impact?

MR. COOK: You're talking from a security standpoint?

Q: I imagine your mil-to-mil is not -- there's not going to be an effect whatsoever.

MR. COOK: No. We have a very strong, as you know, bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom. That will not change in any way. Likewise, we have a very strong relationship with the European Union, with European Union members.

And as for -- this will play out over time, but there are issues, obviously, the European Union and the United Kingdom will have to resolve in terms of commitments that are -- that are current right now. But those are issues that they need to resolve, not necessarily items for the united -- for the Department of Defense to be involved in directly.

We'll work with both, we'll try and do what we can to make sure that the security relationship does not suffer and that's what allies do, that's what we'll do. We'll do whatever we need to try and make sure that that relationship, both with the United Kingdom and with the European Union, remains as strong as possible.

But there are clearly issues that they need to resolve themselves in terms of commitments that the United Kingdom has to the European Union and to defense in that part of the world.

Q: Specifically, like the refugee mission or what other missions are --

MR. COOK: Yes, I mean there are specific roles that the United Kingdom has in terms of security missions right now. You mentioned one of them. But my understand is there's no immediate change right now. This will play out over a period of time and these are issues that the United Kingdom and the European Union will have to resolve and I'll -- it's best for them to speak to exactly how that's going to happen.

Lucas.

Q: On those Afghanistan strikes, can you give us any color around them? Were these guys in a car? Was it a group of armed Taliban fighters?

MR. COOK: I can tell you -- I've shared about as much as I can, Lucas. Again, there's a specific request of commanders who consider this an ongoing operation and would prefer not to provide any additional message to the enemy as to what might be coming.

Q: (inaudible) -- Taliban fighter, armed fighters?

MR. COOK: I think it's fair to say that these strikes did target Taliban positions. I'll just leave it at the Taliban writ large, so.

Q: Also on a lighter note, the Army is --

MR. COOK: A lighter note?

Q: A lighter note. The Army is testing a new uniform policy down in Fort Hood about allowing soldiers to roll up their sleeves. I was wondering if the secretary had an opinion about that.

MR. COOK: I will ask and check, but I'm not sure he does. But I'm sure he thinks that the commanders that have allowed that are doing the right thing, but I'll ask to see if he has any particular opinion.

I haven't seen him roll up his sleeves very often, recently.

Q: Because the Marines have been doing it for years. It gets pretty hot down in Fort Hood.

MR. COOK: Apparently it does, yes. So, I will -- I'll take that one for action. How about that?

Q: (off mic.)

MR. COOK: I'm happy to ask. So, one more for Louis.

Q: Following-up on the airstrikes. I think when the announcement came down about these expanded authorities, it was that airstrikes -- (inaudible) -- support of when American personnel were partnered -- conventional forces were partnered were the Afghan conventional forces.

Is that what occurred in this incident? And has that partnering of conventional forces already begun?

MR. COOK: The airstrikes, as I understand it, Louis, my understanding is they did not have to happen simultaneously with U.S. forces being with Afghan forces. They could -- they could be separate. I'm not going -- I can't -- and my understanding is in this instance, that they were -- there were no U.S. forces in that -- in that position at that time, so.

Q: (Inaudible) -- already since the authorities began?

MR. COOK: My understanding at this point is that that partnering has not begun.

All right. Thanks, everybody. I'm off for a few days next week, so I'll see you in a few.

Have a good weekend.

-END-

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