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Presenter: Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. October 26, 2017

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room


DANA WHITE: Good afternoon, everyone.

Joining me today is Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, director of the joint staff. As many of you have already reported, last night three U.S. servicemembers and one partner nation member were killed; two U.S. servicemembers were injured while conducting an advise and assist mission in (sic) Niger security forces in southwest Niger.

On behalf of everyone in the department and the secretary of defense, we extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families of the fallen, and those injured in this attack.

We also send our thoughts and prayers to all of our fellow Americans who have been devastated by successive hurricanes and the tragic shooting in Las Vegas this week.

First, I will update you on our ongoing hurricane relief efforts. Second, I'll discuss where we stand on the current continuing resolution and our need for a full F.Y. '18 budget. Then we'll take your questions.

Today, the department continues to support FEMA and hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. To date, the department has deployed more than 11,000 active duty and National Guard troops; dispatched 80 tilt- and rotary-wing aircraft; provided 5.8 million liters of water; 7.3 million meals; 22,000 costs; 11,000 tarps; 278 generators; and more than 100 field trucks and drivers.

Lieutenant General Buchanan, commander, U.S. Army North, has been on the ground for a week, and his team has already opened all nine seaports and all 10 airports. Their work was critical to delivering relief supplies to the island.

On Tuesday, the USNS Comfort arrived with 800 medical personnel, providing patients with a full suite of care, including surgical, pediatric and trauma support, with 250 hospital beds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been on the ground installing generators at critical facilities, to include 66 hospitals; 15 of those hospitals are now operational; and 51 are operating on generator power.

At the Guatajaca Dam in northeast Puerto Rico, the Corps of Engineers is doing erosion repairs. This work is critical to more than 230,000 people who rely on the reservoir above the dam for drinking water.

The department will remain fully engaged in providing humanitarian assistance to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico until we've restored some semblance of normalcy to their lives. As the secretary of defense said in testimony this week, "When it comes to helping Americans, it's all hands on deck."

In addition to our support in Puerto Rico, we are also helping in Dominica, Martinique, Guadaloupe, where we are assisting France and the Netherlands in their relief effort on these islands.

In addition to supporting state and local authorities during these recent natural disasters, the Department of Defense supports a variety of operations around the world, which is why the department needs a sufficient and predictable budget. This week marked the ninth consecutive fiscal year the department has operated under a continuing resolution, or C.R. Over the last decade, the department has operated under a C.R. for over 1,000 days. That's nearly three full years.

The current C.R. funds the government through the first 10 weeks of the fiscal year. Continuing resolutions hurt the readiness of our forces and their equipment. The longer the C.R. lasts, the more damage they do. That is why it is imperative that Congress passes a full-year budget and eliminates the defense budget caps in the Budget Control Act.

As Secretary Mattis testified earlier this year, "No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration."

The department needs the F.Y. '18 budget to strengthen our armed forces and improve lethality. Therefore, we encourage the Congress to exercise the rightful stewardship of the taxpayers' dollars and pass a fiscal year '18 budget before the C.R. ends on December 8th.

And with that, I will take your questions.

Lita?

Q: Dana, I'm looking for sort of an update on the last time we saw you, on some troop issues. At that time, you suggested that the secretary was adamant about his -- his belief that there should be more transparency. And you said that numbers -- some general, broad troop numbers for Iraq and Syria would be forthcoming. I'm wondering if you can update us on the progress of that?

And the secretary also this week said, or acknowledged that because of the broad hurricane effort, that some of the deployment to Afghanistan have been delayed. General McKenzie, I'm wondering if you can give us a little bit more granularity on that. At the time you did your last briefing, we were told there were about 11,000 troops in Afghanistan. This week the secretary and the chairman said there are still about 11,000 troops in Afghanistan, suggesting that very little of this close to 3,500, 4,000 (inaudible) come in.

Can you tell us what the impact has been? How has it affected the actual work on the ground? Because both General Nicholson and the chairman have both talked about this need for additional support on the ground.

MS. WHITE: Well, I'll take your first question.

We are still working on the Iraq-Syria numbers. That is a commitment of the secretary's to be more transparent. And as soon as we have those accounting practices and we -- the principles are the same as for Afghanistan -- we will announce those numbers.

General?

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.: Sure. Last time I was in here, I mentioned the number approximately 11,000. That's still the number that we're working off. Forces are flowing to Afghanistan. They have been slightly delayed by ongoing hurricane relief efforts. I'm not going to go further in characterizing the nature of those delays. Forces continue to flow, but there has been a slight delay. It'll take a little bit of time to build up a force in Afghanistan.

At some point in the future, we'll come back in and we'll give you a new, approximate number. But right now, it's in the vicinity of 11,000, probably a little bit over that number, but I'm not prepared to give you a number above that right now.

MS. WHITE: And is it accurate that it may -- some of these may be delayed until next year because of the hurricane efforts? I mean, what -- what is -- is it a transport problem? Could you at least give us a sense of what the issues are?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Actually, one of the key points that I noted when I talked the last time in here was we wanted to get away from talking about the flow of forces into -- into Afghanistan, because it does in fact give aid and cover to the enemy.

They're able to calculate what forces are coming in. So I'm not gonna be able to give you additional information on that.

Q: But you can't -- I'm not looking for timelines or specific locations. I'm asking what the problem is -- can you give us a better idea of what the problem is, and whether it's impacting...

GEN. MCKENZIE: Certainly. So let me -- let me characterize it like this. There's a -- there's a finite number of transport aircraft that U.S. Transportation Command has. We're moving things to Puerto Rico, we're doing a variety of things to help down there.

The department has been very aggressive in supporting FEMA and the other agencies of the United States government, given the fact that we have a finite number of transport aircraft that will inevitably slow movement to other theaters.

And that -- the slight delay in the flow of forces to Afghanistan. Just sort of a natural -- a natural component of that, and that's about as much detail as I'm prepared to give.

MS. WHITE: (Hans)

Q: General, if I could a couple -- just on the situation in Niger. Could you kind of describe the advise and assist mission going on there. Are these forces -- U.S. forces looking to engage Islamic militants?

GEN. MCKENZIE: No, we're there on a -- on a security assistance advise mission. This was a -- and I don't have any further particular operational detail on this, but it's a pretty broad mission with the government of Niger in order to increase their capability to stand alone and to prosecute violent extremists in the region.

Q: When they were ambushed, did the opposing force know these were American forces?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't know that they were ambushed. I don't know that we are prepared to characterize this. There was an engagement, I think we're still gathering information on that.

Q: But just one real quick follow-up, did they know that they were Americans?

MS. WHITE: We are not prepared to tell any more details.

(Ryan?)

Q: I just wanted to follow-up quickly on Niger. What kind of risks do the some-800 U.S. forces in Niger right now -- I mean, advise, I know it's an advise and assist mission, but what kind of risk, what kind of environment? Is this considered a combat environment?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think clearly there's risk for our forces in Niger. Anytime we deploy full forces globally, we will look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them.

And that ranges from the ability to pull them out if they're injured, to the ability to reinforce them at the point of -- at the point of a fight if they -- if they need reinforcement. We look at all those things, and evaluate on a continual basis.

I'm not gonna go in any further detail on what's actually happening inside Niger, because we have ongoing partner operations occurring now.

MS. WHITE: (Christina ?)

Q: Thank you so much. There was a report today that the DOD is shifting $440 million into its missile defense budget instead of waiting for next year. Can you discuss why the DOD is taking this step, and what message that sends to North Korea?

MS. WHITE: I don't have any particular details on that, but let me take that and I'll come back to you Christina.

Q: And then just a second question. Congress recently -- Senate Arms Services Committee recently slammed the DOD for not giving it more information on the -- on the plans for Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Senator McCain is holding up defense nominees. What's your response to those actions, and have you taken any steps to engage with the committee since then?

MS. WHITE: This -- the department engages with the committee consistently. As you heard in the Secretary's testimony, we are committed to provide as much transparency in an open or closed session to the committee.

And we are working with Senator McCain's staff to ensure he gets all the answers that he needs, as well as the HASC. The Senator and the Chairman were on the Hill for six hours. So, we -- they are both personally committed to making sure that -- that the committees get exactly what they need.

Lucas?

Q: Who carried out the attack in Niger?

MS. WHITE: We don't have any details on that. Remember, this -- our -- our mission there was a security assistance. We've been there a long time in helping African nations build partner capacity.

Q: You must have some suspects.

MS. WHITE: We're -- they're ongoing operations and we're gonna -- no more details right now.

Q: Was there a surveillance drone flying overhead when the U.S. forces were attacked?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm gonna have to just tell you, ongoing operations, we're not prepared to go in any details on them right now.

Q: Would it have made a difference if there was?

MS. WHITE: We're -- we're not gonna talk about any more details. Tara? Carla?, I'm sorry.

Q: That's OK. I just really wanted to quickly follow up on that. Were there any other forces killed during the attack in Niger?

MS. WHITE: Again, they're ongoing operations and we're not prepared to talk any more details.

Q: (inaudible), my question would be on Iraq. There are reports coming out of Iraq saying that U.S. is establishing a base in Mahmoud, and deploying forces down there, as well as some other elements.

Can you confirm that the U.S. is establishing or forming a base, or enlarging any bases in Mahmoud? And what is the reason for deploying forces in -- in these efforts down in Mahmoud?

GEN. MCKENZIE: That's an operational issue. I'm not gonna -- I'm not just not gonna refer to it at all. I'm not denying it or confirming it, I'm just -- it's an operational issue, so I'm not gonna be able to discuss it.

MS. WHITE: In the back?

Q: Military Times. Do you know if U.S. troops were mounted or dismounted when they were attacked, and are U.S. troops in Niger operating at a -- tough armored vehicles or light-skinned tactical vehicles?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Not gonna share the nature of what the patrol's doing, what the operation was doing at the time that it came under fire. I don't think it'd be useful to share that information. I'll have to get back to you on the nature of the vehicles, if any.

Q: Tony Ratuka, Inside Defense.

FYI18 budget question. General Dunford said when he was on the Hill that the building is working on a missile defense supplemental package for F.Y. '18. How big is that going to be? Is it in the billions of dollars or hundreds of millions?

MS. WHITE: I will get you more details specifically on these -- on the programming. But -- but again, our emphasis is that we need a full year, fiscal year 18 budget. The C.R. ends on December 8th, and they -- and the longer they go, the worse it is for all our programs. And it's a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Q: Yes, and this is separate from programming?

MS. WHITE: Absolutely.

Q: This is additional F.Y. '18 money being requested. You can confirm, though, that it's in the works and it's being built?

MS. WHITE: We will -- we will get you more details.

Tony?

Q: Can you add -- give some specificity to the damage being caused to the specific programs under the prepared -- continued resolution, and General, I had a couple for you.

MS. WHITE: Well I can tell you one that both the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force had all planned end strength growth, and that can't happen under a C.R. So that's one implication. But again, the issue is that under a C.R., we can't do new starts.

It's the fact that we don't have a budget horizon, or the fact that we can't predict where things are going. And it wastes millions of dollars in administrative costs because you can't plan. So again, we want the Congress to be good stewards of the American people's dollars and ensure we get a full F.Y. '18 budget by December 8th.

Q: Is there a specific program that would be damaged or delayed?

MS. WHITE: I will -- I will come back to you. Because right now, there are conversations going on with the Hill, and that -- and those conversations are privileged.

Q: General, can you, in layman's language, talk a little bit about the -- the rules of engagement being relaxed, might be the wrong word, but being revised? The secretary tried in his six hours in testimony, but it was somewhat elliptical and cryptic. Can you talk at -- at the ground-level? What will U.S. troops and Afghan troops be able to do under the new construct that they couldn't do this week and last week?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Well, first of all, we believe that today, ROE that our forces applying in Afghanistan, doing all the authorities they need to execute the task that -- that they've been given. That includes the ability to call fire, when necessary, that -- in -- in support of Afghan forces. We're not directly engaged in ground combat, as you know. We're in a train, advise, assist, accompany mission. So we don't anticipate the requirement for U.S. forces to engage directly. They always have the option to engage in a -- with self-defense, should that be required.

Additionally, the commander has the authority to target any group or entity that is taking action against the government of Afghanistan, or coalition, or U.S. forces in the area. Those are actually pretty clear sets of ROE, and we believe they actually give the commander and forces there all they need to continue to prosecute the campaign.

Q: We keep hearing about military options for Korea. How well-developed are the options? Are they -- have final options been presented to the White House? And do most of those options assume ROK participation?

MS. WHITE: You know, again, we are a department all about plans, and we have a full range of options, and the conversations of the secretary has about options with the president are privileged. .

Q: At one -- one -- at one point, when the testimonies, Secretary Mattis said he believed that it was in national security interest to stay in the Iranian nuclear deal. Has he shared that opinion with president directly?

MS. WHITE: The secretary has shared many opinions with the president.

Q: This specific one.

MS. WHITE: There is still a consideration. I think you just heard that there is an imminent decision. I'm not going to talk about what conversations the secretary has or doesn't have, or what advice he gives to the president. He gives his honest opinion about what should be done, and ultimately, the president decides where we're going.

Q: The Washington Post that just came out that said Trump is going to announce next week that he -- he -- he was decertify the Iran nuclear deal, and his national security advisers had said that they were in favor of it. That, of course, go against what Trump -- or, sorry, Secretary Mattis said publicly in testimony. So has he provided different guidance privately?

MS. WHITE: Again, what the secretary talks to the president about is between him and the president. When there's a decision, I'm sure the White House will announce it.

Barbara?

Q: I wanted to go back to the hurricane deployment question for a minute, and delays. Because the secretary this week said on the Hill that it was going to impact deployments of some troops overseas, possibly into next year, because we've interrupted their preparations. So he's talking about delays very specifically; the -- the deployment of U.S. troops overseas next year because of the commitment to the hurricane. So it's hard to see how this is not really having an important, if not significant impact on U.S. troop deployments overseas, if -- if you listen to what -- if one listens to what the secretary says. So could you -- could I ask you, General McKenzie, specifically, as someone involved in military planning, to come back to that question. How do you, with a continuing commitment to Puerto Rico, how do you see this, what the secretary's talking about, impacting troop deployments all the way into next year?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, of course, when the secretary made the comment, he's probably talking about global troop deployments. The question up here that we talked a little bit about earlier was specifically in relation Afghanistan, so we should draw -- so we should -- so we should draw a distinction there.

But I would not actually further characterize it. There are going to be delays. I think the delays are relatively minor. If -- if the secretary said it's going to affect deployments on into next year, then I'll just let that -- I'll let that statement lie, but I'm not going to further elaborate on the nature of those delays.

Q: What is the impact? Iwo Jima is off Puerto Rico. Just took on more helicopters. Obviously, not leaving anytime soon, since it just took on more helicopters for relief missions. Was supposed to go to Japan; take on F-35s, the most advanced fighter in that region, where North Korea is. So what is the impact of the Iwo Jima being delayed on its way to Japan, to take on those F-35s?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I -- I think it's actually the Wasp you're referring to that's on our way to WESTPAC, to -- to that region. And certainly, that is going to -- that's going to slow the deployment of -- of that ship to the -- to the Pacific, and it's going to have a cascading effect. So it could be very likely that when the secretary talked about things that might affect in the next year, that's what he had in mind.

But I would tell you, at the same time, and in the same testimony, and as we've already mentioned here, the secretary said were all in to help Puerto Rico. And there are just going to be downstream effects when you make those decisions. But American citizens are involved in Puerto Rico, and that's a very high priority for this department. So we're probably going to accept some downstream delay as a result of that.

MS. WHITE: Let me -- let me get to Kevin, and we'll come back to Barbara.

Q: Just to follow up (inaudible), is the sanction reversed, if there's delaying redeployments, bringing any troops home from either Afghanistan or Iraq, or other local deployments?

MS. WHITE: No, but again, I think when -- when the secretary says that this could delay some deployments, again, we have lots of options, and the priority, as he said, it's all hands on deck. We will do whatever is necessary to help our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. But we will -- but he is still going -- orders are being signed. There are still forces flowing in, as the general has said, and there will be minimal delay to -- to the strategy. (inaudible).

Q: What do those delays say about the overall health of the military, though? If several, just 3,000 troops going into Afghanistan are being delayed because of these storms, what if something like major combat op popped up.

Q: Like Korea?

MS. WHITE: Again, this is a building all about plans, and we do what we have to do. We are prepared for all contingencies. We are -- it is not the first time we've had natural disasters and deployed forces. Again, if -- if it's a minor delay, but there are still forces flowing in. General, if you'd like to explain.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. I -- I -- I'm not sure I actually agree with you, that it's a minor -- Puerto Rico was a minor event, and it was a minor response. I think it was a pretty significant event, and you've seen a pretty significant response, not only from this department, but also across the entire interagency. And of course, I'm just really coming to talk about what DOD does.

But -- but again, as -- as we've noted earlier, the large DOD response down there, it -- Puerto Rico is a difficult technical problem, because it's an island. It's physically separate from the United States. Everything has to go there by some mode of conveyance, be it Strat Lift going in, on -- on either commercial or military transport, or on naval ships, or ships that we've chartered to go down there.

So I -- I don't think we should say that that's a small thing. That's a large thing, and so I'm not sure that you can naturally infer from that the force is unhealthy because we responded to a pretty significant natural disaster in Puerto Rico.

Q: I -- I have a question on Niger. Iraq, Afghanistan, there's an infrastructure in place where American troops can be medevaced from battlefield within 45 minutes. Is there a certain -- is there a similar capability for U.S. troops in Niger?

GEN. MCKENZIE: That's an operational issue that I'm not going to discuss.

Q: I don't think that's an operational issue. This -- this is not an ongoing operation. This is a question that U.S. troops are being sent into harm's way, have the ability to be sent to a proper medical facility.

GEN. MCKENZIE: I appreciate your position, but partner operations are ongoing even today, so I'm not going to be able to go into any more detail on that.

Q: We've been waiting for numbers on -- ultimate numbers on Iraq and Afghanistan troops for a while. We can't get answers to things like whether or not there's proper medevac facilities for troops deployed down-range. This is for both special forces and conventional forces. Even last night when troops were killed in combat, it took a while to just get confirmation that troops were killed.

How is the Pentagon being more transparent these days besides talking about transparency?

MS. WHITE: So, I think it's very important to understand that last night, we did lose three servicemembers. And it was a very dynamic situation, and we still have ongoing operations. The reason is takes a little while, and I think AFRICOM did a fantastic job under circumstances -- is that we don't have the benefit of corrections. We have to get it right when it -- when there are servicemembers' lives at stake.

So, we will be as transparent as we can be. But again, the secretary's been very clear we're not going to telegraph information to the enemy. And as the general as said, as we have said, there are ongoing operations.

We can give you information. It was the secretary's initiative to give the full number, an approximate number about the 11,000 in Afghanistan. And it is his commitment to continue to do that.

Q: But what has been done to actually provide transparency? What -- what's more transparent now?

MS. WHITE: We changed -- we changed the accounting rules. So before in Afghanistan, it was reported that there were 8,400 U.S. troops. And now we've told you it's approximately 11,000. So that -- that's a change.

Q: There's 11,000...

MS. WHITE: We had reported in the past 8,400. You all had had that number for years; 8,400. And now with the new accounting rules, it's 11,000. That is a demonstration of our commitment to transparency.

Q: Isn't that less opaque not transparent?

MS. WHITE: Again, it is with the caveat that we are not going to telegraph to the enemy what we're doing.

Paul, you had a question?

Q: Paul, U.S. News and World Report.

Just to follow up on the attack in Niger, has this changed at all the U.S. understanding of extremist groups' ability to target U.S. forces stationed abroad?

MS. WHITE: I would say, listen, we have ongoing operations. Our mission there was train and assist. We've worked in AFRICOM to build capacity among partners for years. We will continue to do that. And as we get more information, we will let you know.

Q: Do you have confidence that you can protect U.S. forces stationed abroad still?

MS. WHITE: Yes, we're confident.

Q: And then a follow-up question. Earlier this week, a senior official from the CIA said at a conference at G.W. that he expects there to be some sort of provocative activity from North Korea on Columbus Day, which coincides with the anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party. Do you have any indication that North Korea is planning anything for that day? Have you taken any additional precautions?

MS. WHITE: I'm not going to begin to predict what North Korea is going to do.

Corey?

Q: Can you talk about why is the Iraq and Syria numbers taking so much longer than what the Afghanistan numbers took for? What's the process for the new accountability?

MS. WHITE: Well, first of all, each command and each operation is different. So there are different factors that factor into how -- how we come to those decisions. And again, we said during that first -- last time that we also take in consideration, you know, what are the forces, what are they doing.

So again, we will give you those numbers. Joint staff is diligently working on that. That when we have those numbers, we will -- we will let you know.

Barbara?

Q: I want to come back to another question over here. I want to be very clear. I am not asking about ongoing operations. I would like to ask a Defense Department policy question about how Secretary Mattis and the chairman view the following -- policy question, not current events.

Are they committed around the world to the golden hour for wounded troops? It's pretty much, with all due respect, a yes or no question. Is this department committed to the golden hour for wounded troops?

MS. WHITE: We are committed to always protecting our troops. That is our first priority.

Q: General Mckenzie can I ask you, you're very familiar with what that is on the battlefield. Are -- it's a question for military families. I think they deserve -- they might be very interested in the answer. Is the U.S. military committed to the golden hour to get U.S. troops to trauma care with an hour of being wounded?

GEN. MCKENZIE: The department puts vast resources against that problem. It is one of the primary considerations for each geographic combatant commander. It's a signal concern of the chairman and the secretary as well. Whenever possible, we seek to achieve that goal.

There are occasional times when operational events, maintenance problems may cause you not to meet that goal. But it is our goal to be as rapid as possible in taking our casualties off the battlefield.

Q: And does that include West Africa?

MS. WHITE: That includes all of our troops.

Q: So that does include West Africa.

MS. WHITE: It does.

 

Q: (inaudible) Korea (inaudible). What topics will be addressed this time?

MS. WHITE: What topics will we raise? So, the big topic will be how we curtail North Korea's provocations. Remember, this is a global threat. And we need global support to address it.

Kevin?

Q: Two things. One, we -- I think we learned either today or just very recently that the COCOMS were in town. Are we going to see them in the briefing room like we used to see more often in the past?

MS. WHITE: There is no plan to have any in the briefing room at this particular moment; but they do come periodically. This is a part of a gathering of senior leadership meeting. But I will take that under serious assessment.

Q: Why not have the COCOMs speak to the press as often as they have in the past?

MS. WHITE: The COCOMs often speak to the press. We just had Admiral Tidd here giving a briefing on SOUTHCOM's effort. So the COCOMs do speak. General Votel was here as well. So...

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE: Yes, so...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: OK. Same question. Russia just had a major exercise along the European borders (inaudible) in the last month. Have you -- do you have any kind of a readout or assessment of what you saw, what the concerns are, what the U.S. response-reactions might be?

MS. WHITE: Our concern with the exercise is, as it's always been, is that Russia just isn't as transparent as we'd like. What is there and what has been reported are not the same. And what -- so therefore, we would ask Russia to be as transparent as possible with respect to all of their -- their exercises.

Q: First, about last week's attack in Kabul. There was a missile fired from a U.S. helicopter that malfunctioned, killed four people and I think injured two. Has the Defense Department paid condolence payments to those families?

MS. WHITE: I don't have any details about that. I will -- but I will come back to you regarding whether that has happened.

Ryan?

Q: Just one on Syria real quickly. Russia has said -- accused the United States of being the number one encumbrance in the fight against ISIS in Syria. There was an episode a little while ago where Russian air forces bombed positions where U.S. troops were. I know there have been some high-profile meetings, but is there a concern that Russia is being increasingly -- representing increasingly a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria? Is there any steps -- additional steps being taken to kind of prevent Russia from taking offensive action against U.S. forces?

MS. WHITE: We continue to work with Russia to de-conflict. It's a complicated area, and we are still working with Russia to deconflict in the area. General, if you'd like to expand...

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, I would just tell you. There are a variety of deconfliction channels with the Russia. We're working pretty aggressively. As you know, we're limited in the context and scale and scope we can have with the Russian federation, and we scrupulously adhere to the intent as well as the letter of the law when it comes to that. I would simply say that, Russian -- recent Russian comments about U.S. activities is probably not helpful. We believe that we and our partners, and our coalition partners, as well as our partners on the ground, are in Syria to go after ISIS.

We're having great success closing out on Raqqa, heading further south, even now. And so, I think it's a good news story. I do believe though, that as Syrian state forces supported by Russia have moved to the West, they have found it increasingly difficult actually to provide a hold force. They're unable to hold the ground they've taken, which sort of tells you of the relative affection for which the Syrian population bear for Assad and his government. Whereas we're actually not experiencing those problems in areas that we've actually cleared and come further south. So I think, I don't want to minimize the nature of the problem. I would simply tell you, there are a variety of procedures that are in place to ensure that we don't get into a problem by miscalculation or error on the ground.

Q: Just a follow-up really quickly, would the U.S. prefer to see its backed forces take places like Myadine versus Syrian regime troops, given, as you said, the proven ability to hold areas, more so than regime forces?

GEN. MCKENZIE: The priority is, completing the elimination of ISIS in the Euphrates river valley. I think we're neutral on who actually does that work as long as the work is accomplished, and it's effective.

MS. WHITE: Lita?

Q: Can you -- I guess, General, for you -- you've probably got a lot more broad experience in this, AQIM -- can you give us your assessment of the strength of AQIM in the Niger-Mali region, and perspective on what you've seen? Have they grown, have they become more lethal, what have you seen over, say, the last year? Does this represent a greater lethality on that?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So, the campaign against violent extremists is a global campaign. We're having enormous success in Iraq and in Syria. In fact, we're squeezing the life out of the caliphate right now. It's in its dying last days. It is inevitable that people will try to go, what we call, the coldest corner in the room, go to other places. They tried to go to Libya, it didn't work out real well in Libya. And I don't want to make Libya into a model success story, but they've been unable to establish themselves there.

They've also tried to fly into -- flown into Sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb area down there. And I think we're having success in there as well. I would not, at this time, draw any particular conclusion from the incident that happened yesterday. I think that it does reflect the fact, though, that we're having enormous success against the core, the very heart of this movement. But we're going to be operating across the service of the entire globe, for quite a while to complete these operations. This is simply a manifestation of that.

Q: Do I interpret -- can I interpret that as that you've seen more ISIS, or at least some ISIS, moving into the Maghreb, and that may be part of what's going on there?

GEN. MCKENZIE: No, I'm not -- I would not -- I would not assert that. I would not.

Q: So you haven't seen it?

GEN. MCKENZIE: No. Well, I'm not prepared to comment on that one way or another. That would be an intelligence question better answered by someone that's not me.

MS. WHITE: OK.

Bill, in the back.

Q: Has the incident in Niger caused the Pentagon to reassess the defense posture there?

MS. WHITE: Again, this was a mission in which we were training and assisting. The mission we've -- the Department does partner capacity-building across Africa, and it's to help partners combat the scourge that is terrorism, and violent extremism. That was the mission, that is what we'll continue to do.

Q: Understood, but there's three dead soldiers now. So, are you reassessing the way that our forces are being protected there, in light of these events?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So we -- we continually reassess force protection posture of our forces globally. And the Commander AFRICOM, who's the first senior officer in the chain of command to do that, is undoubtedly doing that right now. And I'll just -- and that's as far as I care to go on that, but we look at that all the time.

MS. WHITE: Travis?

Q: Travis Triton, the Washington Examiner.

I had a question about your decision to bring up the C.R. today.

The current CR just kicked in and has until December, and I'm wondering if there's something that happened or you have some reason to believe that, come December, Congress is not gonna reach some type of a budget agreement and they're going to pass another continuing resolution into the new year.

MS. WHITE: Well we've been talking about the CR for -- the Secretary has talked about it in his testimony, it's a consistent drumbeat for us. Obviously the current CR was developed to avoid a government shutdown.

Our goal is to ensure that the Congress provides us with a full -- full funding in a F.Y. '18 budget in advance of this CR expiring.

Q: Do you believe that, at this point, they won't reach an agreement, though? Is that your concern?

MS. WHITE: My concern is that the longer a CR goes on, the more damage it does to the department.

Carla?

Q: Thank you. Last week, they -- an Air Force General basically came up at the Air Force Academy and addressed racial slurs that had been posted on a message board, telling -- telling the airmen that if they can't treat somebody with dignity and respect to get out.

I was just wondering what is the Secretary's stance, and where does he think race relations are in the U.S. Military at this point?

MS. WHITE: I think the Secretary has said that military is a model. It is a -- it is the most respected institution right now in America. And together in the military, people of all races, creeds, and religions work together for a common mission, which is to defend this nation.

So the Secretary is very clear about that and will continue to be.

Lucas?

Q: Just one more on Niger. Would you say in the last few years the United States has increased its military presence in that country?

MS. WHITE: I'll let you take that.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Yes, I would say that over the last few years we have increased our military presence in that country. It depends on how far back you look. I don't have the exact numbers, but yeah, because Niger is an important partner of ours.

We have a deep relationship with them. We have a great opportunity there to do train, advise, assist, to do a variety of things with them to help them stand on their own two feet. So we're committed to that relationship, we believe that they are, as well. In fact, it's -- I think it's a very good success story.

MS. WHITE: Tony?

Q: The Secretary signaled late in the HASC hearing that he's gonna visit Islamabad. Can you give a sense of when his trip to Pakistan might be?

MS. WHITE: I -- I don't have a sense of that, but it will be -- but as he said, he will visit Pakistan soon.

Q: Soon. In the next month or so?

MS. WHITE: I don't have any specifics.

Q: foreign policy. Was yesterday the first time U.S. troops have been involved in combat in Niger, in what you described as combat?

MS. WHITE: I wouldn't -- again, what they were doing in Niger was a train, assist, and advise mission. Obviously anything that our troops do, they are in harm's way, and again -- but that mission was a security assistance mission.

Q: Are there other firefights that U.S. forces have been involved in in Niger?

MS. WHITE: Not to my recollection.

GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't believe so. I would just add, I'm not gonna parse the language with you. Certainly to the soldiers in the fight, it was combat. So, I'm -- you know, I don't want to dance around that.

I mean, it was certainly a remarkable experience for those -- for those people that were actually there. I'm not aware there's been any -- there's been any incidents of that nature in the recent past. We -- we will look back into several years going back. But I'm just not aware that there's been anything there.

Q: Just for clarification purposes, you said 11,000 troops active duty and National Guard are in the Caribbean or in Puerto Rico specifically for Hurricane clean-up efforts?

MS. WHITE: The -- it is that there are 11,000 active-duty and National Guard troops in Puerto Rico.

Q: Lieutenant General Cannon has said that there isn't enough equipment or troops, he said this last week. Has he requested any additional troops or do you anticipate sending anymore?

MS. WHITE: We have had -- we are still fulfilling requests. Again, there's a process, but yes there are still assets flowing in. As you know, Tuesday, The Comfort ported in Puerto Rico, so again, we will get -- as the secretary said, it's all hands on deck. We will fulfill whatever needs that FEMA has requested of us, and we will provide whatever they need.

Q: How many troops are you anticipating sending down?

MS. WHITE: I don't have a number right now. I don't have it. But as they flow we will keep you updated. There are daily press briefings from Puerto Rico, and we will keep you abreast of those operations.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Maybe we have time for one more question.

MS. WHITE: Wall Street Journal, Dan?

Q: Today, Mac Thornberry sent a letter to the White House with 153 signatures that said that we commend the president's explicit endorsement for funding National Defense's $700 billion this year during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly. This $700 billion, is that a number that the Pentagon agrees with, and has -- yeah is that a number that you all endorse as well?

MS. WHITE: We support the president's budget -- what -- when we will always especially appreciate the chairman's assistance in ensuring that we get what we need for our service members. The most important thing is that we have predictability in our budget, so we welcome the Chairman's leadership in ensuring that we get that. Thank you all very much.

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1336094/



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