Remarks by Acting Secretary Esper in a Press Conference at NATO HQ, Brussels, Belgium

Acting Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper


ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good afternoon, everyone.

I want to begin by thanking Secretary General Stoltenberg for his leadership without -- within our alliance.  He's done a fantastic job.  He was one of the first people I called when I became acting secretary.

As I said to him then, we have had a change in leadership at DOD.  We have had no change in mission.  And we have had no change in our commitment to NATO.

For me personally, it's good to be back in Brussels.  As some of you know, I served in Europe for a number of years as a young Army officer, and participated in a number of NATO exercises during that time.

And less than 10 years later, as I worked in Congress and then in the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary of defense, I had numerous opportunities to work on NATO issues, both in Washington, D.C., and here in Brussels at the old headquarters.  And I must say, this is a much nicer headquarters.

(LAUGHTER)

And so I'm no stranger to the issues or to the players.  Indeed, in some ways, my new role brings me back to my roots, relevant to here at NATO.

Before I comment on our productive work at the ministerial, I want to reaffirm the Department of Defense's path forward.

First, the U.S. National Defense Strategy remains our guiding document.  As it states, we are in a new era of great power competition, and China and Russia remain our long-term strategic competitors.

Second, the department's mission remains clear:  to deter conflict and, if necessary, fight and win on the battlefield.

Third, we will continue to expand the competitive space through three mutually reinforcing lines of effort:  number one, build a more lethal and ready force; number two, strengthen alliances and partnerships, which is why, by the way, I travel to NATO on my second day in this role; and number three, reform the Department of Defense for greater performance and accountability.

As I said, I came to Brussels my first week on the job to introduce myself, to meet my counterparts, and to emphasize the United States' commitment to NATO.

My goal was to strengthen our alliance and improve our readiness.  And as I shared with my counterparts in both bilateral and multilateral meetings -- that begins with increased and more equitable burden-sharing that meets the Wales defense investment pledge.

As the secretary general said earlier, adequate funding underpins everything we do.  And much more needs to be done.

Thanks to President Trump's leadership and ally commitment, we are on track for a $100 billion increase in defense spending by 2020.  This is significant progress, but, again, much more work remains.

We are also moving out on readiness improvements via our 4-30s initiative:  30 air squadrons, 30 battalions and 30 naval combatants, ready to fight within 30 days or less.

As I told allies, our NATO readiness initiative is critical.  More readiness equals more deterrence.  These investments are essential to deterring aggression in Europe and beyond, and to responding if deterrence fails.

As we all know, the instigator of aggression in Europe today is Russia.  Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia still seeks veto power over its neighbors and interferes in the sovereign democratic processes of other countries.  Moscow's military activities in the Middle East, in Venezuela and elsewhere prolong human suffering and provide cover for autocrats.

At the same time, Russia pursues a robust military modernization campaign, to include space and cyber capabilities, as well as plans to spend $28 billion by 2020 upgrading its strategic nuclear triad.

Lastly, Russia reneges on its international agreements, as we have seen in the sad case of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  Here, the facts are clear:  The U.S. has upheld its end of the deal. Russia has not.

Russia now has until August 2 to decide whether to return to compliance.  Should Moscow refuse, the INF Treaty will cease to exist.

This is a dangerous and entirely avoidable reality, but Russia chose it by developing, manufacturing and deploying the SSC-8 missile.  This missile is proof-positive that Russia has been noncompliant with the INF Treaty for several years, and prudence now requires our alliance to take steps to counter this new capability.

Make no mistake:  The U.S. will remain in compliance with the INF Treaty until its very last minute.  We have since we first signed it more than 30 years ago.

Should Moscow choose to walk away from the treaty, we and our allies will move forward, and we will meet the future together.  We will invest and we will adapt and our alliance has done -- as our alliance has done so many times in the past.

The United States will still continue to look for opportunities for effective and variable arms control where it make sense.  Our allies and partners can be confident of our record here.

Whatever the form of Russian aggression, the United States will continue to lead NATO to adapt its deterrence and defense posture, to answer threats from the east and the south, and to confront challenges beyond the alliance's periphery.  These include growing threats in the space and cyber domains and in our communications networks.

No mention of network security can be complete, however, without discussing China's attempts to gain dominance in the 5G realm.  This is part of a persistent effort by Beijing to rework the international order to its advantage.  We have seen this with China's militarization of global comments, its predatory economics and its state-sponsored theft of intellectual property.

NATO is awake to this threat, and we are adapting ourselves as prudence demands.

On Afghanistan, the United States remains fully committed to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission alongside our allies and partners.  NATO has a significant presence and a critical role in developing the Afghan National Security Forces, and we strongly support Ambassador Khalilzad's efforts at the negotiating table.  We never forget our purpose in Afghanistan:  To protect our citizens and our homelands by denying terrorists a safe haven.

I especially appreciate the secretary general's leadership here.

Lastly, I offered an update on Iran.  The Iranian regime has been sowing chaos and conflict in the Middle East for 40 years.  The United States is by no means the instigator of recent tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran's hostile actions are an international problem that affect many nations.  They include pursuit of nuclear weapons, a growing ballistic missile program, support for international terrorism, and assaults on freedom of navigation in the Arabian Sea, Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman and in international airspace, as the world saw last week.

But let me be clear:  The United States does not seek war with Iran.

In focused conversations with allies, I discussed the need to internationalize this issue, by encouraging NATO allies and regional partners to voice their opposition to Iran's bad behavior and to help us deter further provocative acts by improving maritime security and demonstrating resolve.

I appreciate the many insights I heard these last 48 hours in response to requests for more information.  I also directed my team to provide a detailed brief to my counterparts on the degree and depth of Iranian malign influence.

The United States continues its maximum pressure campaign to -- to deprive Iran of the revenues it needs to prop up terrorist organizations and to fund proxy groups.  Our goal is to bring Iran to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive, enduring deal that addresses Iran's nuclear program, its ballistic missile development and proliferation, its support for terrorism and other malign activities.

Our strategy is at its core an economic and diplomatic one.   Again, we do not seek armed conflict with Iran, but we are ready to defend U.S. forces and interests in the region.  No one should mistake restraint for weakness.

With that, let me close by saying I am well aware that this year marks NATO's 70th anniversary.  Our security guarantees have been the bedrock of European security for all that time.  Those guarantees remain.

I thank the secretary general and my fellow ministers for our excellent work these past two days.  And I thank all of you.

And so now I will be glad to take your questions.

STAFF:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Lita with A.P.

Q:  Hi.  Lita Baldor with the Associated Press.

Mr. Secretary, you talked about efforts to talk to allies, particularly about maritime -- the maritime coalition in the gulf.  Can you tell us specifically what, if any, commitments did you get from any allies to support this effort?  What was the reaction that you got from the allies when you asked for this internationalization of this effort?  And what more does the U.S. have to do to convince allies to go along with this?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes, so we did have a discussion in one of the sessions, what I did was lay out what we view as the history of this case.

I wanted to make clear up front that, again, the United States does not seek war with Iran.  But I did want to point out that after 40 years in the past two or three months we've seen a noticeable uptick in Iran's activities.

We've had at least six ships attacked by Iran or its proxies.  We've had mortar attacks in Saudi Arabia.  We've had a cruise missile attack on Saudi Arabia.  We, of course, had the shoot-down of our unarmed aircraft in international airspace.  And the list goes on.

And one of the things I committed to my colleagues was to come back, I think it's set for mid-July now, to give a detailed brief of what we see to be the history of Iran and how this is escalating.

What I asked them to do is to urge them to consider public statements condemning Iran's bad behavior and making the point that we need to have freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and other areas, that that should be protected.

And along those same lines, as we map out our own thoughts, to consider joining a group of like-minded countries that in order to enforce the rule of law, in order to support the freedom of navigation, that we look at everything from broader maritime surveillance -- and that should also include air surveillance -- all the way up to a picket line of ships to help protect the international waterways and to include maybe even escorts.

We have to flesh out on our end and we'll see what makes most sense.

I will tell you again, we just had a broad discussion in the ministerial, but privately I had – certainly, broadly, I had all -- most partners in the room acknowledge the challenge that we face.  I think they appreciate that the United States is not seeking war with Iran, that we want to get this off of a military track and onto a diplomacy track.  And privately, I had a few come up to me and express interest in pursuing further what our requests were of them.

And I think over time we will develop that.  It is working through the foreign ministry side as well.

But that looks -- that is our end game, again, is to get this off the military track.  We don't want some provocative action by -- by Iran to lead to an escalation that stays on the military side.  We want to get it into the diplomatic track.  We want to get them back to the negotiating table and resolve this through diplomacy.

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. ESPER:  Not yet, I think, again, we'll work that over time.  This is the early days of this initiative.  Secretary Pompeo is obviously out there working this, as well.

And so we will continue to move forward and I hope we will continue to consult closely with our allies and partners in fora such as this.

STAFF:  Other questions? Teri Schultz from Deutsche Welle.

Q:  Hi.  Teri Schultz with Deutsche Welle.  Thank you very much.

Sir, as you understand, it's complicated for the European nations that are also signatories to the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.  So how are you discussing with them ways to both keep Iran inside that deal, not to re-enrich uranium -- although that already seems to be underway -- to the point of getting a nuclear weapon, at the same time as they may be supporting actions that have at least military back up?

I'm sure they discussed with you the complications of their positions on this.  How do you intend to help?

SEC. ESPER:  It's hard for me to see a conflict between asking a country like Iran to follow the international rules of order when it comes to freedom of navigation, when it -- when it requires them to behave properly as we expect normal nations to do.  I don't see a conflict in that.

I -- I think what they need to message is to -- for Iran to stop these activities, to de-escalate from their side, and to meet with the United States and its partners to discuss the way forward.  The president has been very clear.  We will meet with them anytime, anywhere without precondition.  It's -- it's hard to get a clearer or more -- or more open outreach to the regime than we have done.

And so I think that's what we need our European partners to message to Iran is that, look, the United States is willing to sit down and talk with you.  You should come to the negotiating table and let's begin a dialogue.  Let's have a discussion.  Let's get off the military track.  Let's get on to the diplomatic track.

STAFF:  Other questions?  Reuters, in the second row?

Q:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.

So just getting back to your announcement, I think, that you're going to come here in July and -- and -- and brief on -- on the history of this Iranian threat and apparently, you know -- can you flesh that out a little bit?  Did you call that meeting?  Is it going to be -- is it going to be with the entire alliance?

And then, also, could you explain a little bit about how you see the alliance as a whole participating in this maritime safety mission?  Would it be just individual countries who choose to engage in it or would it be a NATO mission?  Thank you.

SEC. ESPER:  Well, again, let's go back to the purpose.  The purpose here is to avoid war with Iran.  So what we want to do is get it off the -- again, the military track and on to the diplomatic track.

We obviously have a lot of -- all of our allies are here at NATO and we have partners here as well, at least in the last 48 hours.  And so the purpose of the briefing was to come in and give them our perspective on what's happened, certainly in the last two or three months, and how we see the uptick in Iranian provocative activities, whether by themselves or by their proxies, and how -- demonstrate our concern that this could escalate out of control if we don't get it back in the box.

And so, obviously, we'd want to open up -- open that up to our allies.  We would want to -- we want to continue to consult closely with them and inform them.  And again, at the end of the day, what our ask is here near term is publicly condemn Iran's bad behavior, privately message to Iran or publicly message to Iran the need to get back on the diplomatic track.  And in the meantime, in order to avoid a military escalation, help us maintain the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz, and the -- and in the Persian Gulf and wherever, and put us in a defensive posture so that we deter any type of further bad behavior by the Iranians.

STAFF:  We have time for one more question.  In the back, NTB?

Q:  Thank you.  It's (inaudible) from the Norwegian News Agency, NTB.

So regarding the INF Treaty and your response to Russia, one of the options that was mentioned by Secretary General Stoltenberg yesterday was to look at your missile defense and can you tell us more about what exactly you are discussing?  And earlier on, when it comes to your existing missile defense, the -- the message as far as I understand has always been that it's not directed towards Russia.  I'm -- I'm sure that will change now.

And also, being Norwegian, I would also like to ask, we have two ships that have been attacked in the bay of Oman -- Gulf of Oman.  Is there anything you can say on your dialogue with Norway on that issue and have you invited Norway to join your coalition?

SEC. ESPER:  Sure, I will answer both on this one, you know, and I'll take your last question first.  Clearly, Norway was in the room when we had this discussion.  And you're right that Norway has suffered the attacks, and Norway does a lot of shipping through the straits and I certainly think that they and other countries want to avoid further attacks by Iran or its proxies.

So I think that's a good reason -- a very good reason why, certainly, regional partners in -- in that area and other countries outside the region who rely on the freedom of navigation, who rely on those straits or the gulf for commerce, should join us, again, in voicing opposition and condemning the Iranian behavior and encouraging Iran to get back to the negotiating table.  And then further, to the degree they have the capability, assist us as we flesh out this idea, again, about helping us deter further Iranian aggression in the strait.

With regard to the INF treaty, again, we had discussion on that this morning.  I think everybody appreciated our -- our perspective on it, and our vigilance and, certainly, our continued compliance.  And again, we remain compliant up until the last minute the treaty expires.  It's unfortunate, but it is what it is.  And by the way, this -- we've -- we've known about this for years, Russian noncompliance.  So -- but we will remain compliant up until the end.

That said, we do -- as a NATO, as an alliance -- we need to discuss our options going ahead with regard to what we do.  Missile defense would obviously be part of it.

From the United States' perspective, I can tell you that, while we have remained in compliance with the treaty, we have begun research and development on what would be INF range missiles, conventional missiles -- not nuclear, conventional missiles to help us deal with any threats.  And obviously, we need to build our missile defenses to deal with any type of Russian cruise missile threat which would come against alliance partners.

And -- and I think, as the secretary general said, European nations are currently, presently under the threat of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from Russia.  And so, as an alliance, we need to prepare to defend against that.  And so that's what we need to do as an alliance, a very consultative process going forward, moving together as -- as one and that would be our aim in the coming weeks and months.  Okay?

STAFF:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  This concludes --

SEC. ESPER:  Good.

STAFF:  -- the press conference for today.

SEC. ESPER:  Thank you all.