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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

U.S. Department of Defense

April 14, 2022
Transcript

Senior Defense Official Holds A Background Briefing, April 14, 2022

Senior Defense Official

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, good morning, everybody. Not a whole lot to -- to update you with.

Let -- let me just get the -- the -- the cruiser question out of the way at the beginning, at the top, because I know that's what everybody is interested in today.

We cannot confirm what caused the damage to the cruiser Moskva. We do believe that she has experienced significant damage. Our assessment is that -- that she still appears to be battling a fire on board, but we do not know the extent of the damage. We don't know anything about casualties to her crew, and we cannot definitively say at this point what caused that damage. So I -- I -- I know everybody's interested in that, but that's where we are right now. We -- we hold the ship moving to the east. Our -- our assumption is that she'll be heading to Sevastopol for -- for repairs. But -- but that's -- that's really all -- all we can say.

The only other maritime activity worth noting is that we did note that other Black Sea ships that were operating in the vicinity of her or in the northern Black Sea have all moved further south. They -- they -- they -- in -- in the wake of the damage that -- that the Moskva experienced, so they've all -- all -- all of the northern Black Sea ships have now moved out, away from that the -- the northern areas where they were operating in.

But that's about the -- the -- the most I can give you today. Again, I know this is a big story, but I'm not going to get ahead of -- of -- of what we -- what we believe we know and can speak to definitively.

As for everything else going on the ground, I mean, no major changes in positions for either side over the last 24 hours. We continue to see Russia posture for offensive operations in -- in the Donbas, and continue to see additional equipment arrive in western Russia and in -- in that area to the north of the Donbas that we talked about, Valuyki and Rovenki, including, in fact, we've seen some additional helicopters make their way to be staged in -- in that area for -- for insertion.

We believe -- and we've talked about this yesterday -- that what the Russians are largely doing right now are what we call shaping operations. They're setting the conditions for -- for -- for what the -- they want to conduct in the Donbas region in -- on -- on the ground and in the air, but -- but we don't believe that -- while fighting is going on, clearly, in the Donbas, we -- we don't believe their -- their new offensive has -- has begun, at least not in the -- in the terms that they are trying to -- to define it.

Mariupol is and remains contested. The -- we -- we don't -- we do not hold that -- assess that Russia has taken it. The Ukrainians are still fighting.

In the air domain, the -- the Russian sortie rate is about -- about consistent with, you know, up-and-down movements over the last few days, I mean, a little less than 200, we -- we -- we assessed, and the vast majority of those as yesterday are being focused on the Joint Force operation area -- no surprise there -- and Mariupol -- no surprise there. We've not really observed any airstrikes deeper into Ukraine out of those two areas.

Let's see -- in security assistance, I don't have shipments to speak to today with respect to the $800 million that the president ordered yesterday. We are working as feverishly as we can to -- to fill those shipments out, but I don't have a shipment to speak to today. Again, in the past, our experience has been, certainly since the invasion, that after authorization, it takes us about three to four days to get the first shipment in the air. So we're still within -- well within that window, and -- and -- and again, the secretary's made it clear, his expectations that the department will -- will move out on this package just as quickly as we have on -- on the last one.

On the last one, still believe we'll be able to finish that out by the middle of the month, that -- that -- you know, from -- so from -- from authorization to completion of $800 million-worth of materiel, it'll take us about four weeks total -- total to close out that $800 million. But again, I -- I would point you to the first shipments started to arrive within a week. So we're -- we're still -- we're still closing that one out.

To date -- well, I -- I'll just say it. To date, I mean, since the -- since the -- since -- since the invasion, I mean, the -- literally thousands of Javelins, including another shipment that -- that will arrive today and -- and -- and well more than 1,000 Stingers. So we're -- we continue to -- to -- to move out.

I think that's it. I think we'll stop there.

Bob?

Q: Thank you.

Just a couple quick follow-ups on the Russian ship status that you described to start off. So can you describe where it was when whether it -- whatever happened happened? And is what you are -- are seeing in terms of the fire, is this in any way consistent with a missile strike, or is it -- are you saying it's possible that it was just in sort of an accident? And -- and also, on the movement, you mentioned the movement of the other Russian ships further south. I assume you're saying that's -- you -- you -- you judge it -- judge that to be as a result of the perceived threat. And how many ships are we talking about there?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: So there's a lot there, Bob.

The -- the cruiser we -- we believe was about between 60 and 65 nautical miles south of Odesa and almost exactly due south, if you were to draw the line. So it -- roughly in that area when it experienced an explosion. I -- I -- I don't -- we just don't know right now, we can't say definitively what caused this explosion and the subsequent fire. We do believe that the ship is still battling with a -- a fire.

For -- for those of you who have covered Navy issues, you know that there -- there's lots of things on a -- on a surface combatant that -- that are combustible and that can cause explosions and cause fires from internal to the ship. I'm not making a judgment one way or the other right now. We're just not able to do that. It could have been the result of a missile strike, and it could have been something else. We -- we just don't know, and I'm -- I'm -- I'm simply not going to get ahead of the information that we have. We're in no position to -- to confirm or deny any of these reports out there at -- at this point, but we do believe that they're still battling a fire on board, and that they're trying to make the ship's way east for -- for likely repairs.

As for other ships that were in the northern Black Sea, I mean, I'd say, you know, about -- about a half a dozen or so were in the northern Black Sea. Not all of them -- you know, I don't want to -- I -- I don't want to paint this picture that -- that they were all nested around the -- the cruiser, that that's -- they -- they were -- they were -- our -- our best assessment, it was that they were fairly dispersed in the northern Black Sea, about a half a dozen.

And we have observed that the -- that those other ships -- so between four and five or so, those that were as close or closer to the -- to -- to the coast than the cruiser, have all moved south. At this point, we -- we hold them no closer than about 80 nautical miles from the coast.

But ships move and I -- I can't predict where they'll be an hour from now. So we've just -- we've just -- I just want to note that as a fact, that in the wake of this explosion, other ships, less than a half a dozen that were also in the northern Black Sea, have moved further away from the coast.

I'll let the Russian Navy speak for whatever decisions they made and why they -- why they made them but that's -- that's the best we have right now.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yep. Let's see. We'll go to -- we'll go to Jeff Schogol first. Jeff, I understand it's your birthday today.

Q: Oh, thank you. I stopped counting at 40.

Just to be clear, is the -- the cruiser, is it under its own power at the moment or is it being towed?

Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, we -- we don't -- again, we don't have perfect visibility on -- on -- on what she's doing. The last assessment that we had was that she was making her own way -- and you might've seen me on television saying that -- but that's the last assessment.

I can't rule out that -- that that might've changed in the -- in the last couple of hours, in that she might be -- you know, she might have to be taken under tow. We just -- we just -- we don't know much -- much more than that right now.

Tom Bowman?

Q: Yeah, one last thing on the cruiser. I was talking to a couple of naval experts. They said it's highly unusual and very rare that a modern warship would have that kind of a serious fire. What do you think about that, you know, from your experience?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- I've served on ships, several of them, and I can tell you that the -- the -- the risk of fire is ever-present and potential for explosions are also ever-present, particularly on a surface combatant, which is designed, in this case, for -- for air defense. So she has -- she has munitions onboard, she has -- she has artillery rounds, she has -- she has missiles on board, and of course, a -- a -- a propulsion plant and plenty of fuel.

So I -- I -- I -- I'm just -- I -- I'm just -- we're just not ready to -- to -- to say for sure what -- what happened here. It very well could have been from an external source, like a -- like a missile, that that range is not out of range for a Neptune -- 60 miles is well within the Neptune's effective range -- but it also could have been something else.

So again, we just -- we're just being -- we're just being careful here, but this is --

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: -- on any given day -- and any sailor will tell you, especially a -- especially a sailor who's served on a surface combatant -- on any given day, that the -- the risk of -- of fire and explosion is real, and that's why we take damage control and fire prevention so seriously on -- on every -- on every U.S. Navy ship. We consider every sailor a firefighter for good reason.

So again, we'll just have to see how this shakes out, and if we can get better context on this and it's context we're comfortable shorting, we'll do that, but I just -- as I've tried to do for the last 50 days, I will not go further than what I'm comfortable talking to you guys about.

Q: Yeah, but again, you know, the -- the experts say it's highly unusual, very rare to have this kind of a devastating fire by an accident. Would you agree with that? And also, they say it's more likely to be a missile.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Tom, I -- I -- I can't -- I -- I just can't go any deeper than what --

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We don't have -- look, Tom, we don't have -- I mean, I'm -- I'm -- I'm sure these naval experts have more information than me but I -- I'm -- I'm -- what -- what we can see, what we can know, what we can independently verify doesn't give me, as a former naval officer myself, the confidence to say that this -- that this is -- this absolutely has to be the result of -- of a missile. It very well could be.

But maybe -- maybe these experts have more data and information than I do, but from what I've seen, we're -- we're just not ready to -- to make such a definitive call. Now, look, it -- it certainly appears, from the -- from -- from what we have been able to see, that the fire onboard her is extensive, it's big, it's not -- I mean, it's not a small fire.

So that could -- that -- but -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that -- that the -- that that -- that a fire is big doesn't necessarily mean that it was caused by a particular munition. Again, these ships have flammable and explosive material on board that can exacerbate even a small source of an explosion or fire.

So again, I just think -- I just think we need to be careful before jumping to conclusions.

Q: Okay, got it. Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah. Barbara?

Q: Two questions. The first one -- I think my phone cut out and I want to make sure I understood you correctly -- back at -- at the beginning, you were talking about a four week close out of one of the arms package -- security packages. Which one was that please? I -- I didn't hear everything you said.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: That was the $800 million that the President approved in mid-March. So he approved it in mid-March and we're closing it out here in the next few days.

Q: So if -- if -- and that did not include heavy weapons. So do you feel you can get this next $800 out the door in less than four weeks?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We are going to do everything we can, as I said yesterday, to get that materiel there as fast as possible. And I would remind that -- that -- that we front load -- you know, the -- the shipments that go are a mix. Every shipment has a mix of materiel onboard.

But we did the best we could with the last $800 to front load the Javelins and the Stingers. We got the Switchblades in very, very quickly. And then we put another $100 million on, as you know, just a week or so ago of just Javelins, and they are arriving -- the -- the -- the last shipment of that $100 million worth of Javelins, that's going to be arriving in the next day or so, and that's really only a week or so away, so -- from -- from when it started.

So Barb, what I can tell you is a -- a -- a package that size is going to take many shipments. I mean -- and the last $800 million, for instance, took more than 20 individual shipments to -- to close it out. We're under no illusion of the size and the scale of this thing but we also are mindful of the clock, we know time is not our friend, and we're going to do the best we can to move this -- to move these shipments as -- as fast as we can and we're going to front load them with the kinds of capabilities that we know the Ukrainians need the most.

That will all be sequenced in appropriately with TRANSCOM. I -- I can assure you we'll -- we'll move with the same sense of urgency that we've been moving with.

Q: Can you also bring us up to date at all, in terms of the Donbas and Russian troop movements, on what you might be seeing about Russian units that left northern Ukraine, moved around to these towns that you have talked about, and are now entering northern -- the northern Donbas? Is, even if the full-on combat operation isn't underway, what can you tell us about how much they are already moving into Donbas? I understand they've been there for eight years but the ones that are now moving in?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We -- we -- we - mostly what we've seen is coming from the north out of Valuyki and Rovenki of, again, shaping kinds of enablers -- so aviation support, command and control, some artillery units, not huge, large formation of troops necessarily. They are still trying to refit and restock the -- the -- the actual BTGs.

So we've seen not -- we haven't seen an insertion of a lot of BTGs at this point but what we're -- are seeing is them -- they're -- they're pushing in capabilities that will be ready to support more aggressive ground movements once -- once they're ready to go.

And I would remind you that, as you said, they already have a significant amount of -- of forces in -- in the region. And so the -- the -- they're -- they're -- already are, you know, in eastern Ukraine, I mean, total. And this was a question that Tom asked yesterday that I -- I -- I didn't answer for him -- but we would assess that they're -- inside Ukraine itself, there's -- there's 65 total operational BTGs and they are -- of the 65, they're -- they're really in that east and south parts of Ukraine. There really isn't any operational BTGs outside southern and eastern Ukraine.

I can't account for every single BTG, please don't ask me to tell you where they all are, but there's 65 operational BTGs in Ukraine and they're all focused in the south and the -- and the east. They will try to insert additional BTGs over coming days. We just haven't seen that really, you know, pan out of -- of -- of late. Okay?

Courtney?

Q: I know you guys can't say what caused the explosion but can you rule out, just based on where the fire is on the ship, that it struck a mine?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We can't rule out anything at this point, Court. That's why we're being very careful. And -- and it'd -- it'd be difficult to say, based on the location of the fire, just from looking at it at a distance, which -- all we can do, you -- you can't -- you can't judge the -- the source of the explosion of the fire just based on where the fire is -- is occurring. I mean, it -- it -- it just -- it -- we've -- that doesn't give us enough information to be able to say it -- it was or wasn't a mine. That's why we're being very careful right now. We just -- we -- we know she -- she's experienced damage, we -- we know she's still battling a fire, and beyond that, we -- we just don't have any information.

Q: Thanks.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Dan Lamothe?

Q: Hi, thank you.

A follow up -- the -- the -- this seems well implied but just to see if I -- I can clarify from your perspective, this is the same ship that attacked Snake Island earlier in the war, kind of famously at this point?

And then just a -- a -- a follow up, can you -- can you give us some sense for I guess the level of duress the ship's under? I say that in -- in light of the Ukrainians saying it sunk. Clearly, that's not true, but, you know, is -- is that -- is that -- is that a possibility that it could? Is it -- is it in that kind of jeopardy?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Dan, we don't know the -- honestly, we -- we don't have a -- a -- and I'm not trying to sound facetious on this -- but we -- we don't have a damage control report on the ship to -- to that level of specificity.

And I -- again, that -- that was not meant to be any kind of sarcasm, it's -- it's the truth. We just don't -- we just don't know what the extent of the damage is. It does appear as if this is a -- a significant fire that they're battling but what's underneath that fire, how much -- how much hull damage there is, we -- we just -- we just don't know.

We -- we do assess that she's still afloat and -- and that they are -- she's moving her way east. So we'll just have to kind of see how this pans out.

Sorry, you had a -- another question.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Snake Island. Yeah -- no, we don't know -- we -- we don't -- we can't confirm that -- that this ship was involved with that Snake Island incident or not. We -- we just don't have enough -- enough information to confirm that.

David Martin?

Q: On the additional $800 million, you talk about it as if it's truly a shipment problem, but it's also a training issue here, right? So do you have any estimates yet on how long it's going to take the Ukrainians to be trained to operate some of the stuff it's -- not in its inventory that it's getting for the first time?

And --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: We do not believe that it's going to take long for the -- for -- for the little bit of training that's going to be required on the howitzers, on the counter-artillery radar, the Sentinel air defense radar.

Those are the three ones that -- that are probably going to need some hands-on training. We do not assess that it's going to take longer than -- than a -- a few days max to -- to get them trained up on -- on those systems. It's -- it's not likely -- we -- again, we're still working our way through this.

General Wolters is -- is very aggressively work -- working out how we would provide a sort of "train the trainers" approach to this so that we're -- we're not pulling out of Ukraine an exorbitant number of fighters, but they're -- they're still working their way through that but they don't think that this training is going to take very long to conduct.

And we would -- the -- the -- the approach that we're looking at taking now would be to -- to train soldiers that -- that are either already skilled in these sorts of weapons systems -- they know how to operate radars, they know how to operate artillery, that kind of thing -- rather than just generic training -- you know, bring a group out, train them on all three things and then send them back in there. We're looking at a more tailored approach so that it could be much more timely and effective.

But we just don't have that -- the details all ironed out and -- and we're working on that. Even as we're working to identify the -- these actual systems, where they are and how fast we can get them there, not all of them -- as -- as we talked about yesterday, not all of them will have to come from the States, some will probably -- could -- could very well come from pre-positioned stocks that are elsewhere, and we'll -- we'll -- we'll work that out.

I mean -- but I don't want to leave you with the impression that -- that every single item on -- on the $800 million is going to have to come from the United States.

Q: The -- would the training occur in Europe?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Most likely it will occur in Europe, that -- that is -- that is the -- that's the -- the working plan right now. And it -- we'll see -- we'll see what -- what flushes out.

Let's see, Joe Gould.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this.

A follow-up on the unmanned surface vessels. Do you have any -- any further information about what type they are and -- and I noticed that they've not been included in the equipment that's going to need additional training. Are they so simple to use that the Ukrainians won't need to be trained on them?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I'm not going to provide more detail about the -- about the USVs and I would not that part of the training that those Ukrainian soldiers that were already here in the states they -- they -- they did receive training on that particular system. So some of that training has already occurred.

Liz Friden, I'm sorry, Liz -- Liz from Fox.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thank you. My question has been asked and answered.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Thank you. Mike Glenn.

Q: Yeah, thank you.

I was just wondering, is General Dvornikov, is he already sort of set up there to command within the Ukraine theater at this point now? And also I was wondering if you could confirm or if you know what the status of Defense Minister Shoigu is?

I know there -- you're seeing these reports that he had a heart attack. I was wondering if you can confirm anything about that, either one of those?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- I don't have any information on Shoigu's health.

General Dvornikov -- just to remind everybody, he was the southern military district commander so he has been involved in the war in Ukraine since its beginning back in late February. So he -- he never really left the -- the theater of operations.

And again, we don't -- it -- it's difficult to say with any certainty, you know, what impact he's going to have. I know everybody's focused on his prior history, and I understand all that. But you know, it's not as if -- it's not as if the Russians weren't brutal in and around Aleppo and Syria before he took over there.

And it's not as if they haven't been brutal already inside Ukraine. We think that this is an effort to simply improve their command and control, which they know they have suffered with in the last month or so. And it remains to be seen whether it's going to be able to have that effect or not.

But it, you know, one man's ascension to this job doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to be able to fix all the problems that they've had. Logistic, sustainment, command and control, unit cohesion, maneuver, there's -- there's an awful lot that they still have to -- that they -- that they still have to improve.

And you know I -- I don't think anybody's -- anybody here is thinking well, Dvornikov's going to fix all that. So we'll see.

Sylvie?

Q: Hello. I have a question about the weather. You remember at the -- at the beginning of the war, the weather was a factor, the fact that the ground was not frozen for the Russian tanks to use roads. And it was a weakness for them. Is the weather in Donbas right now a factor?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Well, with a sense of humility that I'm not a meteorologist, I would just say that as -- as things warm up it makes it much tougher for them to -- to operate off of paved roads. It is a -- it's very flat, a -- a plains-like environment. I -- I -- we -- we described it yesterday as somewhat like Kansas, which means it -- it lends itself in -- in ways better than the north to maneuver warfare, use of tanks and -- and armored vehicle. But the -- but you -- they are definitely somewhat limited in their resupply efforts on the ground by -- by staying on paved roads.

This is also a military that tends to sustain itself using existing rails and railroads. I mean, that -- their -- their -- their normal way of logistics is to use intrinsic capabilities and/or -- to -- to resupply, and that -- and that's paved -- paved roads and -- and rail. That's predominantly how they do this, and -- and you've seen them do that so far, although not very effectively.

So the weather will certainly be a factor in war, as it always is, and the fact that the ground is softer will make it harder for them to do anything off of -- off of paved highways. But -- but again, we'll just have to, you know, we'll -- we'll have to see how this plays out.

The other -- the other aspect of the weather is -- is -- is the -- the ability to see things from the air, and -- and -- and weather has definitely -- we -- we -- we know has -- has played a role in -- in -- in limiting everybody's situational awareness from -- from the air because -- because of cloud cover. So you know, sometimes when we tell you we -- we can't see everything, we don't know everything that's going on, it's sometimes we're even impacted by -- by the weather over the -- over the area.

Q: So what you're saying is that the weather is rather favorable to Ukrainians -- to the Ukrainians.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I -- I think the weather affects both sides, I mean, as -- as you would imagine. But I mean, so the Ukrainians will have to deal with -- with weather impacts, as well. I mean, weather's always a factor in war all throughout history, and -- and -- and this war's not going to be exempt from that factor. It -- as -- as the -- the -- the -- as, you know, obviously, the ground warms and becomes less conducive to -- to track vehicles, then that certainly makes things more difficult, but it makes it more difficult for -- for -- for everybody.

Yeah, let's see. Last question to -- to Kasim.

Q: Yeah, thank you.

So, I know you have answered a lot of questions on the ship. Over the course of a week, have you seen any naval movements by Russian Navy moving toward -- closer to the coastal areas, including that ship? Were they just -- or -- or were they just sedentary, waiting at --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, I mean, no, Kasim. Look, we've -- we've been talking about the maritime environment every day, every day, and every day, I've told you that, you know, we haven't seen any -- any signs of an imminent amphibious assault or naval attacks on Odesa or in the northern Black Sea. This -- the activity we've seen in the Sea of Azov has been largely replenishment/resupply efforts and -- and support elements by -- by surface ships in the Sea of Azov. I mean, every day, we've been talking about this. I -- I don't --

Q: Okay.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: I don't have anything new to add other than what we've said today, which is we know one cruiser has -- has sustained some damage. We're not sure exactly what caused that damage, and that the other ships in the northern Black Sea have -- have moved further south.

Q: Yeah.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Other than that, I -- I don't really have anything more to update you on.

Q: And then on -- on the east, on Donbas area, do you have a sense when a major Russian offensive might start? In a matter of days, weeks, or a month?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, we don't. We -- we don't. As -- as I've said many times, we -- we don't have perfect visibility into the Russian plan. They are -- all I can do, as I've said before, is tell you what we're seeing today, and what we're seeing today is what we would call shaping operations. They are -- they are -- they are setting the conditions for what we believe will be a -- a -- a heavier offensive in the Donbas region. So what -- so what does that mean? It means putting in place artillery units, moving them in, moving in command-and-control enablers, moving in aviation support. I've talked about the fact that we -- we -- we saw some more helicopters being staged to the north of the Donbas in Russia just in the last 24 hours. The -- they're doing the things that -- that -- that we believe they believe they need to do to set the proper conditions for a -- a renewed ground offensive. But we have not seen a great influx of additional battalion tactical groups into the region yet.

So it's very difficult for us to tell you with certainty that -- that, you know, that -- that it's going to be -- that -- what -- when D-day is for this. We -- we do think that in general, that they want to achieve some physical, tangible objectives in the Donbas within the next couple of weeks, but how far they'll go, what that means, whether that's the end of it we -- we just don't -- we don't know that much detail right now.

Q: Thank you.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Okay, everybody. I think we'll be talking again later today, and so we'll -- we'll see you later. Bye.

https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/3000301/



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