Media Availability with Secretary Carter in Aviano, Italy

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter


STAFF:  The secretary's taking a couple of questions.  We do have a hard out because he's got an important conversation with the president.

So thanks for being here.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Hi, everybody.

I won't repeat what I said to the troops about the importance of this place, but since I know there are some folks from the local community here, some press from the local community of Aviano, I just want to saw how appreciative we are for our Italian hosts.  We have great relations with the community here.  We're very grateful.

And of course, we're two countries that share a lot of interests in the world.  We protect one another and we protect the things that we stand for and it's a great privilege for the United States to have friends like Italy.

STAFF:  Start off, Bob?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, following up on your announcement about killing the three ISIL leaders in Syria, one wonders about the meaning of this sort of development, given the possibility that -- (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  Well, this is just an up -- an update.  We're doing this all the time, Bob.  And it's a reminder that even as we carry out the campaign to eliminate ISIL in Mosul and Raqqa, that we remain focused on and are consistently operating against those who intend to conduct attacks upon the United States.  That's an important priority, that's the -- that is the priority the president has given us, and I think it's important for people to know that we are carrying out those kinds of operations.

We don't share all of them.  We don't share them all in real time, we don't share them in detail, but it's a very high priority for us.  And these are people who were involved in an attack that many people will recognize.  There -- sometimes, we're taking out people who were involved in plots that -- that never happened because they were taken out.  But a couple of these guys were involved in the Paris plotting, and that is a -- people will recognize that as significant to their own protection.

And we will continue to do this.  We do it all the time.  We'll continue to do it and we have to continue to do it.  At the same time, we're taking out these external plotters.  As I mentioned earlier, we're taking out ISIL's leadership on the battlefield in Mosul and Raqqa too.  That goes on at the same time we take out their external plotters.  So this'll continue.

STAFF:  Ryan

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I'd like to ask you about your comments about the operation in Sirte, Libya.  And I believe I heard you correctly.  You said it was completed?  And does ISIS currently control any territory in Sirte?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, there are -- the -- what has concluded in Sirte is, if you recall, there were those -- the -- as we were supporting the GNA-associated forces at their request and the ISIL fighters there had essentially been bottled up into one little corner.  And since we conduct our -- our air operations, it's worth noting that as a matter or principle, in -- with careful attention to civilian casualties.  We didn't just go in and level that last little corner of Sirte.  And so it took some time before that entire -- all of Sirte was in GNA forces' control.

And that's worth nothing both because of the manner in which we did it, which was very deliberate and respectful of human casualties and because it as over.  That doesn't eliminate ISIL in Libya, and we know that and there -- that was the -- Sirte was the most important single nest and stronghold of ISIL in Libya.  But as other -- it appears other places, we're prepared to take action there, and we're always prepared to take action against those who are threatening the United States.  And we have consistently done that.

But that was the most important location -- single location they had in Sirte and it was important to eliminate them from that and we -- we did that.  And moreover we did that with the care and values that you'd expect of the U.S. and its coalition.

STAFF:  David?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you mentioned Aviano as being part of the effort to reinforce the eastern flank -- (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  Right.

Q:  Today, President-elect Trump named Rex Tillerson -- nominated -- (inaudible).  He's very close to Russia and I guess it raises the question of how confident are you that your European Reassurance Initiative will go forward?  I know that the money’s going to quadruple over the next year but can these countries feel with any confidence that the United States actually will continue with this into the next year?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, the fact remains that Russia has been building up its military and brandishing nuclear weapons, that it is occupying Crimea, that it poses and practices for asymmetrical warfare and hybrid warfare here in Europe, that it's widely regarded in Europe that Russia today, as opposed to Russia of some years ago, is directly threatening to the security of Europe.

And that's an interest that we share with our NATO -- with NATO and our interest are enduring.

STAFF:  (off mic.)

Q:  Yes -- (inaudible).  You said that Italy's a strong ally to the States and to NATO.  Do you -- are you -- do you have any concern now that the prime minister resigned -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER:  It's not for me to comment on changes in -- in government here in Italy.

I'll just say the same thing that I just said in -- in reference to my own country.  Our interests, our values, our friendship, these are enduring things.  They have -- they have -- they began decades ago, they've continued for decades and it's because our people tend to want similar things for their countries, for their children's future and to see threats similarly.  The prospect of Russian aggression, the threat from ISIL, these are things that our people share.

STAFF:  Kent -- Stars and Stripes.

Q:  (inaudible) -- gonna be handing off the -- (inaudible) – successor, whoever that may be.  Are there one or two things that your administration has been supporting and you're worried or concerned may be changing -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I mean, the -- the things we're doing around the world are -- are buttressed by our enduring interests and strategy, and so I'm confident that the logic of that will continue.

Likewise, the things we do to ensure that we have the best technology in the future, to ensure that we have the best people in the future, these are all things that make sense because they are intended to ensure that we protect our people and they're intended to ensure that tomorrow's military is as fine as today's military.

So these are things that make sense, and therefore, I think that they will recommend themselves to a future administration.  I certainly expect to hand things off very smoothly to my successor.  I'm committed to doing that.  But these are things that speak for themselves because they have a logic, they make sense and they're important to do for our country's security.

STAFF:  Dave?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you saw the arrival of the F-35s in Israel last night.  President-elect Trump attacked the cost overruns to that program yesterday in a tweet and suggested that it was a place where you could save billions.  Is it correct that you could save billions by, say, reducing the price of those planes?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, the F-35 is central to the tactical air plans of the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Navy, as well as a number of our friends and allies around the world who are buying the F-35s.  So they all have a very strong interest in continuing to make sure that the program is managed in such a way that they get the best value for their money.

STAFF:  OK, final one -- Jamie?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you mentioned in your comments earlier today that the Syrian forces are within 50 miles of Raqqa, and that follows up on your announcement this weekend of 200 additional U.S. trainers going to Syria.  The Syrian forces that are closing in on Raqqa -- (inaudible) -- infrastructure, tanks, heavy weapons. 

Do you think that the Syrian forces that are closing in on Raqqa will be able to -- to take it back or do you think that the number of 200 might need to be reexamined down the road for a larger -- (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, the -- the -- those forces are continuing to be generated, that is to be identified, to be -- be trained, equipped and planned.  And remember, the people that -- when I talk about the 203 on top of the 300 that are there already, these are the -- these are people who connect our tens of thousands of people in the theater and many more in the coalition military to that growing force for Raqqa.

So they are -- they're not the force itself, they are the connection.  But it was important for us to increase the number of people who were in that special forces connection in anticipation of a larger and more complex operation.  So it had long been part of our plan that when we got to this point in the Raqqa campaign, we would need to increase that element.

Here, as in every other example, when the chairman and I went to the president and described that need, he -- he approved those people.  So this has been long part of the plan and expectation.  But that's their role.

STAFF:  Thank you, everybody.  Appreciate it.  Thanks for being here.

SEC. CARTER:  Thanks, everybody.