Press Gaggle at the Pentagon by Secretary Mattis

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


Q:  Since we have a few minutes of your time, yesterday at VMI, you made some comments about female infantry that have been taken to suggest you don't support women serving in infantry roles. Could you clarify?  

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  That's interesting.  The female cadets took it just the opposite, that the door was open, that granted, we don't have enough females in the infantry to make some kind of quantitative assessment.  They took it just the opposite from how it was written about by the Pentagon press -- by one number of Pentagon press.  So that was interesting.  What else?  Yes.  

Q:  If Iran is such a threat, why are you pulling missiles from the Middle East?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Why am I pulling what?  

Q:  Missiles, the Patriot missiles.  Out of Kuwait.  

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not going to answer that.  That's almost humorous.  

Q:  Ask about China, this increased tensions with China.  There was a continuous bomber presence mission yesterday over the South China Sea, which is going to -- 

SEC. MATTIS:  The planes that we have – Idrees the planes, the ships sailing in South China Sea and all, that just goes on.  If it was 20 years ago and they had not militarized those features there, it would've just been another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or whatever.  Or down to work with one of our partners down there.  So there's nothing out of the ordinary about it, nor about our ship sailing through there.  I've noticed that other nations have also incurred certain diplomatic wrath out of Beijing for sailing their ships through.  

It's international waters, folks.  It's international waters.  

(CROSSTLALK)  

Q:  Are you concerned that it might increase tensions with Beijing -- 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  No, we're not.  

Q:  What about -- they turned down the port visit ?

SEC. MATTIS:  Say that again.  

Q:  What about the decision they turned down the port visit from the Wasp in Hong Kong?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  

Q:  What do you make of that?  

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not sure what to make of it right now.  We're sorting out -- obviously a period with some -- some tension there, trade tension and all, so we'll -- we'll get to the bottom of it, but I don't think that we're seeing a fundamental shift in anything.  We're just going through one of those periodic points where we've got to learn to manage our -- our differences.  

Q:  So you think, sir, that the -- that military to military relationships that you've stressed value on will resume at some point, those meetings?  

SEC. MATTIS:  We -- we certainly maintain the military to military relationship and the level of participation and collaboration may go up and down at times, but there's a strategic relationship there that I think both sides recognize the need for.  

Q:  Do you agree with General Abrams that there's been a slight degradation in the capabilities of the readiness of U.S. forces in South Korea?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, if you -- if you -- if you emphasize the word slight, certainly if you're not training today then you could say there's a slight degradation.  Is it notable?  Is it material?  I think that's why he put the word slight in there.  So there -- there's no -- there's nothing significant to it, if you look at what he said there.  

Q:  Does it enter into calculus for a recommendation for the future or for maybe scaling them down further?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Now, again, I'll -- I'll give my advice to the president.  As you all know, you take risk in war, we also take risk in peace.  We do not believe the risk right now is anything other than negligible.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Sir, one -- one clarifier on the women in infantry.  Just to talk about the issue again, what are your thoughts on women serving in infantry positions?  And also, there are several hundred -- 

SEC. MATTIS:  Now, right now, I -- I prefer just to say that I handle problems when they're brought to me.  I have had -- not had -- problems brought to me.  If you look at other nations that have opened infantry positions to women, you see a very small -- very small number.  We can't even draw statistical performance indicators from other nations right now.  So I don't talk about things that I don't have data on.  Again, I handle problems.  A problem has not been brought to my attention, so there's nothing more I can say on it.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can we come back to Iran for a minute?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Sure.  

Q:  So Mr. Bolton has made a number of very adamant statements about Iran in New York this week, including “hell to pay” if they challenge the United States.  What is your military assessment about the threat that Iran poses right now?  Have you seen them move any missiles, raise their readiness, pose a threat in the Strait of Hormuz?  Are they actually doing anything that concerns you or is this just talk on both sides?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Every time I go to the Middle East in private discussions, in policy discussions -- private being myself and my counterpart or myself and the head of state -- or in the policy discussions where our staff and their staff are together, Iran looms large.  It looms large in my discussions all over the Middle East.  It is a constant concern.  Just take a look at what Bahrain has confiscated recently in terms of explosives and weapons in Bahrain.  

No one can -- can in any way convince me that Bahrain is a threat to Iran, the small island nation there.  And yet here is Iranian subterfuge, Iranian efforts to sabotage, at creating problems there.  So are they a concern?  They're a concern to anyone who wants stability, anyone who wants some kind of prosperity in the Middle East that's not interrupted by the only nation that has threatened to interrupt the freedom of navigation.  So -- 

STAFF:  Sir, the delegation's arriving now.  

Q:  On that -- on that point, do you believe that Iran -- 

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, OK, I -- 

Q:  -- could try and shut down the Strait of Hormuz?  

SEC. MATTIS: I -- I'm sorry.  We'll talk some more here in a little bit.