Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Good afternoon, everyone. Appreciate your being here today. Let's see, I have several topics I want to cover today.
Let me begin with Syria.
Last week, I observed from this podium, as I had observed privately to Russian Minister of Defense Shoygu the week prior, that there is a logical contradiction in the Russian position, and now its actions in Syria.
Russia states an intent to fight ISIL on the one hand, and to support Bashar al-Assad, and his regime, on the other. Fighting ISIL without pursuing a parallel political transition only risks escalating the civil war in Syria -- and with it, the very extremism and instability that Moscow claims to be concerned about and aspire to fighting.
So that approach is tantamount, as I said then, to pouring gasoline on the fire.
And in contrast, our position is clear, that a lasting defeat of ISIL and extremism in Syria can only be achieved in parallel with a political transition in Syria. And we will continue to insist on the importance of simultaneously pursuing these two objectives. And I would hope that Russia would join us in pursuing these objectives, which they claim to share in parallel, rather than in a sequence that cannot succeed.
During my phone call with Minister Shoygu, I also told him that I was prepared to send a DOD team to meet with Russian defense counterparts, at a location to be agreed upon, to ensure that we avoid any inadvertent incidents over Syrian air space.
And yesterday, I directed my team to proceed with exactly such a meeting as soon as possible -- that is, in the next few days. And our goals for this meeting are the following: To facilitate the flow of information between coalition forces and Russian elements that will help us maintain the safety of our personnel in the region, which is critical. To ensure that any additional Russian actions do not interfere with our coalition's efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. And to clarify that broader U.S. security commitments in the region remain unchanged.
As I've said before, we will deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL. With a global coalition of over 60 nations, we're taking the fight to ISIL across the physical, virtual and ideological battle space.
The coalition has conducted over 7100 air strikes, hampering ISIL's movement and operations, and systemically targeting this terrorist group's leadership. And the coalition will continue to fly missions over Iraq and Syria as planned, as we did today, in support of our international mission to degrade and destroy ISIL.
As we pursue the defense-level talks with Russia on Syria, I want to be absolutely clear that these talks will not, in any way, diminish our strong condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine, or change our sanctions and security support in response to those destabilizing actions.
On that subject, the facts remain. If Russia wants to end its international isolation and be considered a global power, it must stop its aggression in Eastern Ukraine and its occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea, and live up to its commitments under the Minsk agreement.
Next, let me say a few words about the immediate budget impasse that we find ourselves facing here in Washington today. It appears, at this hour at least, that we will avoid the trauma of a government shutdown for now.
But that's not enough. It's not enough for our troops, not enough for the defense of our country, because this is more -- this is about more than just the short-term damage of a temporary shutdown. It's also about the accumulating and lasting damage that comes from a ‘paycheck to paycheck’ approach to budgeting for the defense of our country.
We need to innovate. We need to continue to attract the best people to develop the next generation of capabilities, and to meet the current generation of threats. Yet again, we face the real risk that political gridlock will hold us back.
Without a negotiated budget solution in which everyone comes together at last, we will again return to sequester -- sequestration-level funding, reducing discretionary spending to its lowest real level in a decade despite the fact that members of both parties agree that this result will harm national security.
The alternative to a budget deal, a long-term continuing resolution, is merely sequester-level funding under a different name. And the longer the continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for the full year.
Now, the Department of Defense has done its best to manage through this prolonged period of budget uncertainty -- seven years in a row of continuing resolutions -- making painful choices and tradeoffs between size, capabilities and readiness of the joint force.
But the world has not stood still. Russia and China have advanced their new capabilities, and new imperatives, such as ensuring a lasting defeat of ISIL, have emerged. In this kind of security environment, we need to be dynamic and responsive.
What we have under sequestration or a long-term continuing resolution is a straitjacket. We would be forced to make irresponsible reductions when our choices should be considered carefully and strategically.
Making these kinds of indiscriminate cuts is managerially inefficient, and therefore wasteful, to taxpayers and industry. It's dangerous for our strategy, and frankly, it's embarrassing in front of the world.
Most importantly -- most importantly to me -- for our men and women serving our national defense and their families, it adds an absolutely undeserved element of uncertainty about their future.
And finally, as we plan for the force of the future, I note the reports that will be submitted by service leaders today to the chairman with their recommendations on positions they plan to open to women, as well as any exceptions to opening all combat specialties to women.
When I myself review these reports over coming months, I will be focused on the quality of information and the analysis behind the recommendations. I want to hear from everyone, but I'm less interested in who said what, but why they are saying it.
And to be clear, I will carefully review the information and analysis from all four services and Special Operations Command to make my final determination.
As Secretary of Defense, I'm committed to seeing this through, because attracting the best and staying the best means that wherever possible, we must open ourselves to the talents and strengths of all Americans who can contribute with excellence to our force.
As I've said before, everyone who is able and willing to serve and can meet the standards we require should have the full opportunity to do so. So thank you and I look forward to your questions on this or any other topics.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you believe, based on what you have seen and heard today, that Russia has been targeting ISIL in the strikes that they took overnight, or do you believe instead that they attacked perhaps some other opposition forces that are -- have been waging war against Assad? And can you bring us -- can you give -- give us any --
SEC. CARTER: We have, Lita. We have been observing Russian activities, and I don't want to go into detail about that at this time. But the -- the -- the reason -- one of the reasons why the Russian position is contradictory is that -- that exactly the potential for them to strike, as they may well have, in places where in fact ISIL is not present.
Others are present. And this is one of the reasons why the -- the result of this kind of action will inevitably simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria, and why therefore it's ill advised to take this kind of action in support of Assad only, without pursuing a political transition there, and that's why we're trying to get them to that same position.
Q: Is that what you --
SEC. CARTER: But your -- your question on -- exposes exactly what is the fallacy in the Russian approach and why it's doomed to failure.
Q: And is that -- is that just -- I'm -- so I make sure I understood your answer. Is -- are you saying, then, that the strikes were in a place where you believe there were no ISIL fighters, and therefore leads you to that?
SEC. CARTER: Again, I want to be careful about confirming information. But it does appear that they were in areas where there probably was -- were not ISIL forces, and that is precisely one of the problems with this whole approach.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you've been -- you've been dealing yourself with the Russians for years. So a Russian general shows up this morning at the embassy in Baghdad and apparently reads you -- your people a note saying the airstrikes are going to begin in one hour.
What do you make of that? Is that -- as secretary of defense, is that acceptable military-to-military relations with you? And where does this leave you if you sit down and talk to the Russian military about a way ahead? Is this not a little bizarre?
SEC. CARTER: You're right. I have been dealing with them for a long time. And this is not the kind of behavior that we should expect professionally from the Russian military professionally. And that's one reason why I think it's a good thing to have an avenue of communication that is less unprofessional than a drop-in, where we can talk about professional defense matters.
But I think also, and this is something that will occur in diplomatic channels, it's important to see if we can get the Russians in a position where they are coming to understand the contradiction in the position that they now have and the possibility that by seeing a political transition and defeating extremism is something you have to pursue in parallel to succeed in Syria, maybe they could make a constructive contribution. But they're not on the path to doing that in the way they do -- they are acting now.
Q: Where are your concerns for U.S. military pilots right now, flying over Syria?
SEC. CARTER: We're always concerned about the possibility of inadvertent incidents and lack of communication. That's why it's important to have communication in the air and that's the reason for the talks.
Q: Secretary, have you spoken again with your Russian -- why haven't you spoken again with your Russian counterpart, even as all this is happening and as Secretary Kerry has spoken with his counterpart? And getting back to Barbara's question, I mean, given the fact that there is a considerable greater risk now to U.S. pilots carrying out these missions in Syria without direct coordination in any way with the Russians, are you taking any actions to circumvent --
SEC. CARTER: The -- the next step -- the next step and the next dialogue will be in the professional defense-to-defense channel. That's precisely our next step. That's the next step that Defense Minister Shoygu and I discussed when we talked. It's one that president -- our president and President Putin a couple of days ago. I do understand that Secretary Kerry is speaking to Foreign Minister Lavrov. And I think these discussions are good.
It doesn't mean you're going to agree, but it does mean you have the opportunity to try to clarify, in this case, for the Russians, where I think they're making a mistake in how they're thinking through these actions.
Q: Do you feel the need to personally speak again to your counterpart?
SEC. CARTER: I don't rule that out. Of course, not. I -- I think that these kind of contacts are good. I've done it for many years in the course of my -- my career. That's not the next step, though. The next step is going to be these talks, which I --
Q: Mr. Secretary, a question on --
Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about women in combat, what you had to say about the reports. There are indications that the Marines have asked for an exemption, a waiver barring some women from -- women from some ground combat units, infantry units. Is that true?
SEC. CARTER: Let me just back up. I really don't want to characterize recommendations. There are no recommendations made to me yet. Remember the process here, which is the services are doing analysis. What they owe to, first, the chairman, and ultimately to me by the end of the year, is their analysis, their studies, and their thoughts, both about which specialties, if any, should be left closed to women. And importantly, how they intend to make any adaptations that are required.
So there are many different aspects to this. It's all important. And the only point I want to make at this juncture since it will be some months before I -- these things make their way to me and I do want to give the chairman the time to -- as has been planned for him to look at them. The only point I wanted to make is I am going to be very facts based and analysis based. I want to see the grounds upon which any actions that we take at the first of the year are going to be made. That's the frame under which I'll be looking at.
Q: In their summary that women are less lethal --
SEC. CARTER: I'm really not going to characterize, Tom. These things haven't come to me.
Q: Mr. Secretary, back to Syria. As Secretary of Defense, were you notified in advance that Russian would come back with airstrikes in Syria? Do you have the intelligence that the Russians are moving towards that issue, towards that target?
SEC. CARTER: Well, we've been watching their, and I think it's been widely reported, their deployment of aircraft certainly both in the conversations with our president and our secretary of state and in my conversations with Minister Shoygu, they indicated a desire and an intention to conduct operations. And then you heard about a communication this very morning about the specific activities that happened today. So that's the way we have learned.
Q: Just to follow up sir --
Q: Excuse me the secretary will answer as many questions as he can.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Back to the de-confliction issue. Thank you. Is it equally important now that we tell -- inform the Russians when we're conducting air strikes over Syria? for instance I understand we conducted airstrikes over Aleppo today. Did we tell them? Does that go both ways? Then, are we --
SEC. CARTER: Let's see how what eventuates from these conversations about what exactly the best way and the kinds of information to exchange are Helene. But that's the purpose of the talks to decide exactly what kinds of information it is important to exchange to avoid incidents.
Q: Yesterday Secretary Kerry said Russia's involvement in Syria could be an opportunity for the United States. Do you agree?
SEC. CARTER: Well, what I said it could be but not in the form in which they now conceive it as at least as they stated and have described to me. And I tried to distill that into the contradiction between on the one hand saying we want to fight extremism, and on the other hand supporting Assad. We believe those are in contradiction with one another and that a position that would sustain perhaps two of Russia's objectives in a different way, but they would have to change the position, is one in which they fought extremism which we believe also obviously must be fought, but they backed simultaneously a transition from Assad to a government that can end the civil war and preserve some level of decency and good order in the state of Syria.
But those things cannot occur in sequence. Now, if they came to the position of trying to achieve those two objectives, a political transition and a fighting extremism in parallel, then I think our interests would have some overlap. And whenever you have overlapping interests, you have the possibility of cooperating. So I hope we get to that point. But that would require a change from this current position which is as I said, just not logical. The two pieces of it don't match up.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you see --
Q: Mr. Secretary can you -- just going back to the timing really quickly. Since you just announced that the military to military talks were going to begin, you just announced it yesterday, were you not surprised that the Russians began their airstrikes before the talks even started? And secondly, when the talks do start, how can that not slow down the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS if you have to de-conflict?
SEC. CARTER: They -- it gets back to the previous question. They have indicated for quite some time they were going to begin conduct air operations and we have agreed for quite some time that we were going to get these talks under way just as soon as we could agree mutually on a place and a time. We've agreed upon that now. Those will get under way within days. And I think they'll be very constructive.
To the second part of your question, we intend to continue to conduct the air operations -- the entire coalition does -- to combat ISIL and other extremists in Syria, as we have been doing. We don't intend it to make any changes in our air operations.
Q: You said, Mr. Secretary, that the Russian strikes today were not in an area where ISIS is present, but where others were present. So if it those others are Syrian opposition, as we should assume from what you're saying, U.S. and coalition-backed Syrian opposition, what responsibility does the coalition have to protect those opposition forces, those opposition fighters, from air strikes from Russia?
SEC. CARTER: Your question points up the whole contradiction here in the Russian position, which is that by taking on -- by supporting Assad, and thereby, seemingly, taking on everybody who is fighting Assad, you're taking on the whole rest of the country of Syria.
That is not our position. We believe that, at least some parts of the anti-Assad opposition belong as part of the political transition going forward.
So, that's one of the reasons why -- in fact, it is the central reason, why the Russian approach here is doomed to fail, and I hope that they can over to a point of view where they try to pursue their objectives in a different way that makes more sense, first of all. And second of all, is one in which we can share, to some extent, and therefore work in a common way.
But we're not at that point yet. But I think it's worth trying to get to that point, if possible.
Q: And responsibility for that, for protecting them? As we've heard in the past -- we've heard in the past, I believe you've testified on the Hill that the coalition has a responsibility to protect the opposition forces, specifically the ones trained by the U.S.
But the larger opposition forces, what is the coalition responsibility, if they're coming under air strikes by the Russians? Means that they're coming under strikes by the Assad regime?
SEC. CARTER: Our -- we have conducted air operations against ISIL, Al Nusra and other targets. It is not our practice to conduct air operations against all those who are fighting Assad, for the reason that I've now -- I keep coming back to, which is that to simply defend Assad and not to pursue a political transition, is only going to fuel the opposition and therefore the extremism and the violence.
Q: Let me ask you -- get you on the record. On the National Defense Authorization, in your --you laid out the budget consequences of sequestration and -- CR.
Are you going to recommend to the president that he veto the bill that is going to go up to the floor tomorrow?
SEC. CARTER: I and other advisers already have, and he's already indicated if it were presented to him in this form in which it now appears it is going to be presented to him, it is going to be vetoed. This is the National Defense Authorization Act.
So, yes, that is unchanged, Tony. That is the same position.
Q: The message the country who would hear, and listening to you, the world is basically aflame in a lot of ways, and yet, you're going to -- you are recommending vetoing the defense policy bill? Isn't that somewhat of a contradiction here?
SEC. CARTER: No. What we need, first of all, an appropriations bill that funds the department. The authorization bill contains some of the authorities. At the moment, the authorization bill makes no appropriations at all, as you well know, No. 1.
No. 2, it attempts to evade the question of overall fiscal responsibility with the so-called OCO gimmick which is objectionable to me and to others in other agencies, and I think ought to be to the taxpayer, and certainly to the warfighter.
And then finally, it contains other provisions also objectionable to me. And I'll give you some examples. We have proposed, for several years now, changes in -- reforms that extend from health care to force structure. To better spend the defense dollar in areas where better national security benefit is obtained.
In the National Defense Authorization Act, some of those reforms are key reforms, billions of dollars of year-worth of reforms are disallowed. Not authorized.
That's not okay with me because that is taking dollars which I already regard as short for national defense and using them in a way which we, the department's leadership, has for several years determined is not in the national interest.
So I -- I need to be able to say to the taxpayer both that we need every dollar we're given and that we're using it in the best possible way. And the National Defense Authorization Act, several provisions of it, and this isn't a new thing -- this is longstanding -- do not take into account what has been the judgment of the department about reforms that we think are needed.
So there's actually several reasons why this is not a good bill. And these are not mysteries. We have been very clear right along about all these things. And so I don't think there's any doubt about what our position is with respect to a veto of the NDAA.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
I have two quick questions on Syria. The Syrian opposition groups are saying that civilians were killed in the attacks -- in strikes by Russia today and the Syrian national coalition president is encouraging now more than ever a no-fly zone to protect civilians. Is that being discussed here at the Pentagon?
And then also, you had mentioned that the talks were going to be to avoid incidents and also to avoid actions that would interfere in the fight against ISIL. But isn't the fact that a Russian general would come and ask the United States to stay out of the Syrian air space, isn't that already interfering with the fight against ISIL?
SEC. CARTER: Let's see. You've got several things there. To get to the last part, I'm just going to say it again. We intend to continue our air operations unimpeded. I think you're asking about the possibility that the Russian airstrikes may have hit civilians. I cannot confirm that. And, you know, that would be yet again a reason why this kind of action by the Russians is ill-advised and will backfire.
We are, on the contrary, as you know, very careful to make sure that those whom we are targeting are ISIL, al-Nusra and other extremists of that kind. And furthermore, we are exceptionally careful about trying to avoid civilian casualties. That's something we work hard at, all the coalition partners do. And it's something that requires a lot of care and practice and experience.
So this is -- again, I can't confirm that that occurred, but if it occurred, it's yet another reason why this kind of Russian action can and will backfire very badly on Russia. I'd like to get them in a different place where -- where -- a more sensible place.
Q: Mr. Secretary -- Mr. Secretary, -- (inaudible) -- BBC News. Are you confident the Russians are acting in good faith? Or do you think perhaps they might be messing with you?
SEC. CARTER: I take my -- the Russians at their word. You know, they're exceptionally clear about what they're saying and their actions now seem to reflect what they said they were going to do. So my problem isn't that I don't understand what they're doing. I think my problem is that I think what they're doing is going to backfire and is counterproductive.
Q: But they said they were going to fight ISIL. Do you believe they're fighting ISIL?
SEC. CARTER: I want to make sure I get around.
Q: Yes, thank you.
Mr. Secretary --
SEC. CARTER: I'll come back to you. I just want to --
Q: That's okay.
Q: Mr. Secretary, aside from the sequencing aspect that you've talked about, the -- the bombing of ISIL and then working on a political transition away from Assad -- putting that aside for a moment. Would -- would you and your -- and other U.S. leaders welcome Russian bombing not only of ISIL, but of al-Nusra and the Khorasan Group and other groups that the United States-led coalition has bombed? Would that -- would that also be a good thing?
SEC. CARTER: I -- I think the president has made it clear. It ought to be clear to anybody that if anybody who wants to join in the fight against ISIL or join the coalition of 60 countries that have made that same determination. This is something -- an evil that must be defeated.
Q: Excuse me, you just mentioned --
SEC. CARTER: Well, you're right. It's ISIL and other extremist groups of the same ilk. Yes, those are the ones that we and the coalition are combating. And obviously, we welcome contributions to that.
And again, if the Russians change their approach to one that is -- that doesn't have the contradictions that this one does, that would be a basis of -- actually, a welcome basis of cooperation.
Because it's very easy to understand why the Russians are concerned about ISIL. They have experience with Islamist extremism, also. Sad and bitter experience. So, I can well understand.
On the other hand, I think that this kind of action is only going to exacerbate that tendency for them to find themselves in the bull's-eye.
MODERATOR: Mr. Secretary, just time for one more. Marcus.
Q: Mr. Secretary, back when you were acquisition chief, you had he predicted there would be a lot more mergers and acquisitions among top defense companies -- between mid-tier defense companies in the coming years. We've been seeing more of that, recently, culminating with Lockheed's purchase of Sikorsky.
There have been a lot of concerns that deals like this will eliminate competition. I was wondering, your assessment of these mergers, and are they starting to go too far?
SEC. CARTER: I can't comment on that particular case that is being determined at this time. And I do remember back then.
What I said then, and still believe, is that it was important to avoid excessive consolidation in the defense industry, to the point where we did not have multiple vendors who could compete with one another on many programs. And to the point where we had so-called vertical integration in companies to an extent that made competition among sub-contractors for work on primes less excessive.
So we do need a competitive marketplace to the extent that's possible within the defense industry. We thought that then, I think that now, and at the time, I indicated that I, at that time, in that role, but I feel the same way now didn't welcome further consolidation among the very large prime contractors.
I didn't think it was good for our defense marketplace, and therefore, for the taxpayer and warfighter in the long run.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everyone.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you address Courtney's follow-ups so we under -- so we don't -- make sure?
Q: Yeah, just to be clear, you've been saying that you trust Russia --
MODERATOR: He has to be somewhere --
Q: I'm giving you an opportunity to clarify, just to make sure --
MODERATOR: Okay, one more from Courtney, and then we go.
Q: Do you believe what the Russians -- I just want to make sure that we understand what you said. That you believe that the Russians are being true to their word at this point, with these air strikes in Syria? That you're taking them -- that they are being honest?
SEC. CARTER: They have said -- well, let me just be very clear with you, there is no contradiction there. They have said quite clearly that they intend to deploy forces in Syria and conduct strikes there. And they have done that.
And if you're asking me whether I'm surprised at that, I'm not. Because they have been saying, now, for a couple of weeks they're going to do that. And as many in this room have reported, they have been accumulating the wherewithal to do it.
MODERATOR: Thanks, everybody.
SEC. CARTER: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.