Press Gaggle by Secretary Esper and Chairman Milley

Secretary Of Defense Mark T. Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley
January 2, 2020

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:

Well, good morning, everyone. First of all, Happy New Year. I’d note that this is my third meeting of the day, and we’ll – what I want to do on my third meeting of the day is spend it with you all to give you an update as to where things stand and how things look in the coming days.

So these are difficult issues that the country is facing, and it requires, you know, an astute knowledge of what happens and how we operate. And you all have done a good job in terms of covering this. So, I thank you for that.

Let me just say up front, add a little bit to the fact sheet that [the staff] gave us. As you know, last Friday, U.S. forces were attacked by Kata’ib Hezbollah in – at a base near Kirkuk. Thirty-one rockets fired, one American killed, regrettably. Several wounded, and some of our Iraqi partners were wounded as well.

The United States military responded, took defensive actions by striking K.H. bases in western Iraq and eastern Syria, striking a combination of the command and control or weapons caches with considerable effect. The attacks were quite successful.

In the wake of that, as you all know, we’ve seen Iranian-sponsored members of the same militia and others, protesting, taking violent actions against our embassy in Baghdad.  The embassy staff and Marines there performed admirably. We have reinforced our presence, just as a prudent measure, and we continue to reinforce not just their presence but [are] prepared to reinforce other positions throughout the region as – as required over the coming days.

Again, the – the importance of the safety and security of our people always comes first, but we obviously have clear goals in the region. One of them is that Iran become a normal country and behaves like a normal country and stops with its malign activities that they’ve been exercising now for 40 years throughout that region.

This is just the latest example of Iranian bad behavior in the region, in Iraq specifically, attacking U.S. coalition and partner forces, involving themselves in the sovereign government of Iraq and doing other things that upsets the balance and creates turmoil in the entire region.

So with that, we’ll stop, and the chairman and I will take your questions for a few minutes.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah.

Q: Regarding the deployment of the battalion of the 82nd to Kuwait, what is their mission exactly? Your statement just said it was in response to what happened in Iraq, but what are they – what are they doing and have you decided to send additional battalions?

SEC. ESPER: They are deploying to the region to be – to, on order, reinforce our facilities and to protect our personnel in the region as called upon. And obviously, they have the capability to perform other missions as well as need be.

Chairman, do you want to add anything?

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it’s a general-purpose unit. It’s the DRF, the Division Ready Force, the 82nd Airborne Division’s Division Ready Brigade. It’s a rapid-reaction force for exactly these type of situations, so it’s going over there. It’s going to be in Kuwait, and they may have follow-on missions in other places. But their purpose is defensive in nature, to defend U.S. personnel, equipment, facilities.

Q: And my other question, about the additional battalions or additional troops from the division, have you decided?

SEC. ESPER: We take all that on a – as we assess the situation on the ground and the needs of the commanders, we assess these things and we determine whether to deploy them or not. And we’ll take it day by day.

Q: But so far it’s just one battalion?

SEC. ESPER: So far it’s just one battalion.

But the other thing – and I’ve talked to you all before about this – the other thing I’m trying to do is, as I think about implementing the National Defense Strategy, is to be much more flexible and willing to exercise our ready forces.

I’ve talked before about dynamic force employment. This is an example of dynamic force employment, where we’re able to quickly deploy forces and use them as we need to and then redeploy them. Because we have to get much more nimble operationally. So this is a good opportunity for us to do that as well.

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, let me ask. So there’s a variety of echeloned reaction forces throughout the CENTCOM AOR. So what you saw, there were – there were 200 or so contractors, and there was about another – less than a hundred but more than 50 U.S. military personnel at the embassy.

So [the] immediate reaction was a Special Purpose MAGTF, and that’s what you saw going in with the MV-22s and all that. In addition to that, there was unmanned and manned aircraft and helicopters and all that. You saw all that on the video.

In addition to that echelon, even further, you know, the secretary decided to go ahead and the president decided to approve the deployment of the Division Ready Force and Battalion Task Force out of the 82nd. We’ve alerted other forces. They haven’t yet been decided to deploy but there’s a variety of forces that are alerted and prepared, if necessary, depending on the situation as we move forward.

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF: Idrees?

Q: So not just the 82nd?

SEC. ESPER: Let’s keep moving along.

Q: Sorry.

STAFF: Idrees?

Q: Sure. Just – so, Kata’ib said they would retaliate in reaction to the Sunday – or in retaliation to the Sunday strikes. The protest, obviously, was some sort of response. Do you expect them to carry out more provocative behavior, or do you suspect that they sort of are now at a status quo?

SEC. ESPER: Well, let’s go – let’s look at the history. Their provocative behavior’s been out there for months, right? They’ve been – they’ve been shooting rockets, indirect fire, any type of things, attacking our bases for months now. In the last two alone, we’ve nearly a dozen attacks against U.S. forces, against our coalition partners.

So do I think they may do something? Yes. And they will likely regret it. And we are prepared to exercise self-defense, and we are prepared to deter further bad behavior from these groups, all of which are sponsored and directed and resourced by Iran.

GEN. MILLEY: We know that there’s been a sustained campaign at least since October. We know that for certain. We know that the campaign has increased in tempo and intensity. So, in October, there were four attacks. In November, there were four to five. In December, today, up until the 27th, there were six attacks.

We know that the number of rounds have been increasing, from “x” all the way up to 31. We know that the intent of this last attack was in fact to kill American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, whoever was there. It was about a hundred soldiers at that particular compound.

Thirty-one rockets aren’t designed as a warning shot. That’s designed to inflict damage and kill. So this has been a sustained campaign by K.H., who is under the influence, command, control, support, training, advice, et cetera, of Iranian special operations forces. So there’s no doubt in our mind as to what happened here.

STAFF: Tom?

Q: Yeah. As you know, the Iraqis were slow to the scene, and they allowed these protestors to get right up next to the American embassy. Then they, after that, they engaged. What more do you want the Iraqis to do? Can you give us a sense of that?

SEC. ESPER: The Iraqis have a responsibility to the United States and all countries who all – who have embassies in that country, to defend, to provide the outer security for the embassies – embassy, and we expect them to do that. That was communicated to them by our senior leaders, by Secretary Pompeo. They have committed to doing that. I think their performance has greatly improved in the last 24 hours.

Q: What more do you want them to do? I mean, just keep people away from the embassy? What more?

SEC. ESPER: Well, let’s go back to – again, let’s go back a few months, when these attacks, the tempo, et cetera, started picking up, as the chairman just said. I had – you know, I traveled to the region, I met with my counterpart, I met with the prime minister. I’ve had phone calls with the prime minister.

I’ve made the point, over and over again, that they need to do more internally within Iraq to address these Iran-sponsored militia groups and to stop their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. And they need to investigate the attacks and help us bring to account the perpetrators. We haven’t seen sufficient action on that front.

So they certainly need to help reinforce and defend the embassy, but they need to get left of the problem and stop these attacks from happening, and to get the Iranian influence out of their country.

Q: So what kind of agreement do you have exactly with the – the Iraqis on the ground? It’s not a SOFA, is it?

SEC. ESPER: Well, that – I don’t know the full range of written agreements we have with them and whatnot. It’s fair to say it’s – to keep it simple, is this: We are – they are hosting us, we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, we are there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, which we continue to work closely with the Iraqis on by training, advising and assisting them.

We have a good relationship with our military counterparts and we have good – good connectivity with them at multiple levels.

STAFF: Missy Ryan?

Q: Are you asking the Iraqi government to demobilize K.H. and other PMF units? Because there’s been a longstanding plan to put most or all PMF units under government control and have all arms under government control. Are you asking them to take new steps or more urgent steps to do that? And do you believe the Iraqi government has the capability to make that happen?

SEC. ESPER: You know, I don’t think it’s up to us to prescribe the steps they should take. But you’re right, the history, they’ve been trying to get them under greater control. They need to double down on those efforts and to, again, I think, assert their own sovereignty with regard to who’s influencing who within that country, and get these – these Iran-sponsored groups out of the country or under control.

Q: But do you believe the Iraqi government has the capability to make that happen?

SEC. ESPER: You know, the government’s in a lot of turmoil right now. You see – the Iraqi people have been marching in the streets for quite some time now, protesting the fact – anything from corruption to specifically the fact that there’s too much Iranian influence in their country, and they want them out.

And so I think the turmoil right now in that country likely reflects the fact that that hasn’t happened yet, and maybe there is some doubt that it can happen. We need to see more progress.

STAFF: Tony?

GEN. MILLEY: Missy, your question is – I – I think I – I’d expand it even further – capability and will. The capability, in my view, having spent a fair amount of time in Iraq – they have the capability. It’s a question of will. It’s a question of political will, and that’s not for us to decide; that’s for the internal political dynamics of Iraq.

Q: And Mr. Secretary, back in December 7th when there were reports of up to 14,000 U.S. personnel going to the region, you said we have sufficient capability now to deter what we need to deter. Is that still the case, or are these one battalion, two battalions – this is portending a major increase in U.S. forces?

SEC. ESPER: Well, the – the forces we’re deploying right now are – are deploying specifically to make sure that we have sufficient forces on the ground to defend our embassy, our consular sites, you know, our DOD facilities – things like that on the ground – our people, personnel, material. So that’s their specific mission there.

We – we talk. I spoke with the commander just yesterday about his readiness. He feels like he’s in good shape, and as I’ve said always, we will deploy more forces as needed in anticipation of what may come or what may not come. We – we retain that.

Q: But the – the public shouldn’t see this as the beginning of a major tranche of U.S. expansion over there, like was discussed earlier.

SEC. ESPER: Well, we – we already have 60,000-plus forces over there.

Q: Right.

SEC. ESPER: So we have a lot of capability already in the region, and you know, we had that deployment of additional forces in October. And like I said, depending on how the situation unfolds, depending on the needs of the commander, we take a look at that and we will resource them or not. But we want to make sure that we’re prepared for any contingency and – and – as this unfolds in the coming days and weeks.

Q: Thanks.

STAFF: David Martin?

Q: I wanted to change the subject to North Korea.

SEC. ESPER: Sure.

Q: Have you made any changes in the alert status, juxtaposition of forces as a result of Kim Jong-un’s speech?

SEC. ESPER: I’ll let the chairman chirp in on this as well, but there’s nothing specific, but we – we stay – we stay at a high state of readiness on the peninsula with U.S. and our ROK counterparts, and we’ve been monitoring the situation very closely. Clearly, everyone is aware of – of the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, so we’re – we’re conscious and we watch and we survey, and we make sure that we’re prepared for anything that happens.

GEN. MILLEY: And I’d probably just leave it at that. The – the forces on the peninsula are always in a high state of readiness, so I – I’m very confident in the readiness status across the board for air, naval, ground forces, et cetera. And – and if the question is are there additional forces on alert, we’re not going to comment, but in – in a – I – I would say the alert statuses are at sufficient level that we can respond to anything that happens.

Q: But he was talking about a new strategic weapon.

GEN. MILLEY: Yeah, sure. All right. We’ll see what happens.

Q: The implication being something that could strike the United States. So the question is, have you taken any steps to increase the defenses of the homeland?

GEN. MILLEY: Our military defensive capabilities are adequate to defend the homeland.

STAFF: Tara?

Q: Thanks. Have you received any assessments to the damage done to the embassy complex? And are you considering any additional force protection measures for these additional – for the other training sites and consulates in Iraq?

SEC. ESPER: You know, I – I haven’t assessed any damage. I leave the State Department to do that, and I spoke to Secretary Pompeo this morning and he – you know, he feels that they’re in a good position right now. But we both agree that as events unfold on the ground we will make adjustments as necessary.

Q: Is there any sense of the – any sort of damage done to the embassy [that] makes it more difficult to defend for the Americans that still work there?

SEC. ESPER: No, I don’t think so. I – I think the – the integrity of the – of the embassy is in good shape. It’s – you know, it was built in the past, what, 10, 15 years so it’s pretty – pretty sturdy, pretty easy to defend in many ways.

GEN. MILLEY: It’s a big compound, too, remember – 180 acres. This is bigger than Vatican City. So the – the, quote, embassy is a very large compound, so what you saw, essentially, in my mind, anyway, having been over there is a show, a – a demonstration, so to speak – in the sense of for the cameras as much as anything else.

And – and the guys that were doing it were K.H. They were those guys were in uniform. They had a command post set up and all that. So – and they were throwing Molotov cocktails, making flames, doing smoke and – and all that kind of business in order to get lots of attention, which they did.

Having said that, we are very confident that the integrity of that embassy is strong, and it is highly unlikely to be physically overrun by anyone. There is sufficient combat power there, air and ground, that anyone who attempts to overrun that will run into a buzz saw.

STAFF: Courtney?

Q: One follow-on on North Korea. Are you seeing any indications that they are preparing to test anything imminently? And then back to Iraq. I’m still unclear on the 82nd because the – there’s a number of special – special-purpose MAGTF Marines and MSG guys who, their job is to reinforce embassies and consulates and whatnot in these kind of cases after Benghazi. So I still don’t understand why the 82nd was selected, as opposed to using the MAGTF or MSG Marines.

SEC. ESPER: Well, the – you’re – you’re right in terms of the capabilities of the MAGTF. But the quantity is its own quality, right? When you – when you start looking at the number of sites where we have either U.S. personnel, diplomats, military personnel, they’re – the special-purpose MAGTF can only go so far, and so the – the 82nd brings in, again, additional soldiers to augment that as needed. And why them? It’s because they maintain an 18-hour readiness status. It’s – it’s unique in our military, so that’s why them.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: So it was a show of – as much a show of force as anything, did you say?

SEC. ESPER: No, it’s not a…

GEN. MILLEY: (Inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: … not a show of force. It’s a – it’s a reinforcing capability that we can employ not just in Iraq, but throughout the region as things – and – and we can redeploy them as – as tensions ease.

GEN. MILLEY: So one of the things you do in the military operations – any time you commit the reserve, you reconstitute the reserve. Special-purpose MAGTF is McKenzie’s reserve. He committed the reserve to defend the embassy. We need to reconstitute it for him, so we’re sending over the DRF to go to Kuwait to be prepared for any contingency anywhere in the Middle East region – for McKenzie to use as he sees fit.

Q: And on North Korea, are you seeing indications of an imminent test or launch or anything like that?

SEC. ESPER: Not – not – I’m – obviously, don’t talk about intelligence matters, so…

STAFF: Carla?

Q: Thanks.

SEC. ESPER: Hi.

Q: Hi. Good morning. Two quick questions: Has Iraq asked you or any – has your Iraqi counterpart asked you to scale down U.S. troop presence in Iraq since these attacks have occurred? And then my second question since deterrence is a primary goal – We’re sending these additional 14,000 troops, and now we’re sending more. Is it safe to say that deterrence isn’t working? Eleven attacks, two months. Is deterrence not working against Iran?

SEC. ESPER: Well, on the first one, we – we haven’t had any requests from the Iraqis with regard to like, what you just said.

With regard to deterrence, you always try and find where that – that level is. I can’t tell you yet whether we’re there. That’s why we have sufficient force in the reason – region. That’s why we’re doing some reinforcement, but it’ll take time to see whether – where we are exactly. There – there are some indications out there that they may be planning additional attacks. That’s nothing new, right?

We’ve seen this for two or three months now. So, if – if that happens, then we will act, and – and by the way, if we get word of attacks or some type of indication, we will take preemptive action, as well to – to protect American forces, to protect American lives. So the – the game has changed and we’re prepared to do what is necessary to defend our personnel, and our interests and our partners in the region.

STAFF: And then one more question. We’ll go to Gordon.

Q: Sorry, just – there were reports that you’re thinking about reducing troops in Iraq, and I wondered if you wanted to comment on those. But also, just – can you give us a sense of what the scope of these forces who are onto the (inaudible), kind of – and alerted to potentially go over, like, what’s the – what’s the scoping thing to this?

SEC. ESPER: I’ll let the chairman speak to the second part.

On the first part, as you know, I’ve begun a number of reviews with all the combatant commands to look at how we can reduce forces to allocate them toward our – our long-term strategic challenges, which is China, then Russia.

With regard to the – the mission, the train, advise and assist mission in Iraq, we will continue to look at that. If there are opportunities to scale that down we will certainly scale it down to become more efficient. That’s separate and distinct from our ability to respond to contingencies like this that we have right now in – in Baghdad [in] particular, and the broader part of the country.

GEN. MILLEY:  Yeah, Gordon, as a – as a matter of course, it’s never a good idea to talk about future deployments of forces, on scales and scopes. Suffice it to say that the United States of America has a very, very capable military. We have lots of depth, and we have sufficient forces arrayed in depth to respond to anything that occurs in the Middle East or elsewhere – Korea or elsewhere.

SEC. ESPER: Thanks, everybody.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Thank you so much.