Media Availability With Secretary Carter, Gen. Dunford, Gen. Votel and Gen. Thomas at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford; General Joseph L. Votel, commander, U.S. Central Command; and General Raymond A. Thomas, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command
PETER COOK: Everyone, the secretary will deliver some opening remarks, and then we'll open it up for questions. We'll try and get to as many questions as we can, and so I'd ask you just to limit your questions so we can get to as many reporters as possible.
And with that, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Good. Thank you, Peter. And good afternoon, everyone. It's a pleasure to be here in Tampa once again with Chairman Joe Dunford, and along with General Joe Votel and General Tony Thomas, our newest combatant commander. I'm grateful to each of them for their leadership, for the tremendous skills and unique expertise they bring to their new positions, and I'm also grateful to General Lloyd Austin for his leadership and his many years of service to this country.
I recognize, and I know all of you do, that these men have key decisions to make as they begin their commands, so we're going to brief, but I do want to make a few points and then I'll have plenty of time for your questions.
For both of these critical commands, this will be a seamless transition, with their new leaders moving full speed ahead on all their missions. At SOCOM, leveraging the unparalleled excellence of our outstanding special operations forces to quietly, expertly neutralize threats that can emerge early and nearly anywhere on earth. And at CENTCOM, delivering ISIL a lasting defeat as well as helping build a more secure future in Afghanistan, countering Iran's malign influence, helping our partners grow more capable against shared threats, maintaining security and freedom of navigation in the Gulf, working with U.S. European Command to help ensure Israel's security, and strategic depth and much more.
Working closely together with our partners, these two leaders will take our counter-ISIL coalition military campaign plan and execute it with the characteristic precision and rigor we've seen from them on the battlefield.
Indeed, since we began accelerating the campaign in October, our pressure and local forces have gathered momentum, inflicting damage to ISIL's military forces, its financial network, its access to foreign fighters, its mobility, and command and control and its leadership. In recent weeks, coalition forces have severed the main artery between ISIL's power centers in Raqqa, Syria, and ISIL in northern Iraq and begun the early stages of operations to collapse ISIL's control over Mosul and targeted ISIL associates who were directly involved in external plotting and training and eliminated key leaders from ISIL's cabinet.
ISIL's now under pressure from all sides, and going forward, with the leadership of these men and the steadfast dedication of our partners, we'll build on this momentum. We'll continue to accelerate this campaign, and we'll be doing more in accordance with our strategic approach and leveraging our unique capabilities, including cyber, special operations, among many others.
President Obama has been clear that accelerating the defeat of ISIL is his top priority, and I'm confident that as we create opportunities against ISIL, we'll be able to seize them.
Now, destroying ISIL's parent tumor militarily in Iraq and Syria is necessary, but it's not sufficient. The complex geopolitical dynamics remain one of the greatest challenges. As I said when I was here in January, we must also destroy ISIL's metastacies around the world and continue to work with our counterparts to protect the homeland, for only together can we deliver ISIL a lasting defeat.
OK, why don't I take a few questions. Peter?
MR. COOK: Great. Again, everyone, if you can limit your questions, we'll get to as many people as we can. We'll start with our traveling press, then go back and forth with the local press. And I was remiss last time in advising you to hit the microphone button before you speak.
Begin with Kevin Baron, Defense One.
Q: Hi, thank you for holding the press conference today and congratulations on your new positions. I'll start with NATO, you can do ISIS next. But simple question to go off of what we've heard from the campaign trail recently, from -- now that we have both the secretary and the chairman here on the record for us. Is NATO very obsolete?
SEC. CARTER: NATO has done important work for our security and for international security since it's original, founding mission, which was to wage the Cold War, was successfully completed in the late 80's and early 90's. NATO took on Afghanistan.
Today, NATO is working in the Aegean. I'm just picking some examples here on the refugee crisis as a mechanism for Germany and Greece and Turkey to work together. NATO has played an instrumental role in Afghanistan and helping the Afghan government and the Afghan Security Forces to restore decency and some stability to that country.
We are working with NATO now on strengthening the deterrence of Russia, Russian aggression, and also so-called hybrid warfare in Europe. We're working with NATO allies on security issues in the Mediterranean that derive from ISIL. We're discussing with NATO the possibility of NATO participating as NATO. Many NATO nations participate in the coalition against ISIL, but participating as NATO.
So, there is a lot that NATO has done and is doing and chairman, if you want to add anything to that.
GEN. JOSEPH F. DUNFORD: (cross talk)
SEC. CARTER: He's good. He should have one.
MR. COOK: Yes, I think I'll be able to come around.
GEN. DUNFORD: But the thing I would say is that I think that question is probably is a question that might have been asked 15 years ago. But it's hard to think about asking that question today when you look at the challenges in Europe, both to the east and the south.
So the fundamental question is, is collective security for NATO still a requirement? The answer is yes. Does the United States still have common interest with our European partners in addressing those security challenges, the answer would have to be yes.
And I would foot stomp the secretary's comments about the out of theater contribution that NATO has made. I had the privilege of commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan. And when you think about it, it's pretty extraordinary that for ten years, NATO has formed the core of a coalition in Afghanistan that has stayed together and is still is together today with the resolute support mission, to move Afghanistan in the future.
And again, the secretary mentioned the Aegean. There's also a broad build partnership capacity effort by our NATO partners. We are a part of that as well in North Africa to harden the states against ISIL. So, in my mind, the relevance of NATO is not at all in question. In fact, I think it's a question of making sure we have the right focus because there's a lot of work to be done.
MR. COOK: Howard?
Q: All right gentlemen. Excuse me, congratulations gentlemen for your new jobs. I have a little trouble here. Oh okay. Congratulations on your new jobs.
Gen.Votel, if you can talk to me about your assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces approach to Mosul. Are you satisfied that they have the capacity and the capability to defeat Daesh there. And if not, what do you propose U.S. forces might do?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, thanks Howard. Well certainly I've got a lot to look into, specifically with how the Iraqi Security Forces are doing and I look forward to doing that very, very quickly. But I think some of what you're seeing now is you're beginning to see the Iraqi Security Forces stepping forward and conducting operations and starting to begin to move towards Mosul as we've done over a period of time -- excuse me, over a period of time and continue to push towards that objective after so [long].
I think there are -- there is progress being made, there certainly is more that needs to be done. We need to continue to support them with all of our capabilities and -- and I look forward to a more detailed assessment of that.
Q: Would you recommend that as you get, you know, into the job, would you recommend a greater U.S. presence there?
GEN. VOTEL: Well, I think those discussions are underway here right now and I know the chairman and the secretary have been having some discussion on that, so I look forward to joining them.
SEC. CARTER: Let me -- let me just say that we are looking for opportunities to accelerate the campaign against ISIL. That's the instructions the president has given us. So as we develop those opportunities, we want to do more. So I'll be looking to General Votel, as we looked to General Austin, for opportunities consistent with our basic strategic approach, which is to enable capable and local forces -- capable and motivated local forces on the ground to take and hold territory with strong help from us.
And then I -- also -- (inaudible) it's very important that the Iraqi government be able to continue as it has very strongly under Prime Minister Abadi to provide the -- the overall support to the Iraqi security forces, and to reconstruct in that context is very important. It's not a military context, but as I mentioned in my statement, very important.
MR. COOK: Andrew?
Q: Thanks. Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. Following on the ISIS question, Gen. Dunford, you mentioned that -- the other day that you thought that in the coming weeks, we would probably see an increase in -- in troops over there. And I'm just wondering if you could talk a little bit about why -- why now? I mean, Mr. Secretary, you've talked about offering some support to the Iraqis for several months now. The Iraqis haven't made a formal request for that. Have the Iraqis made a formal request for additional support? Or what else is happening now that makes you think that -- that this is the time to -- to ratchet up that presence.
GEN. DUNFORD: So -- so Andrew, what happened in the -- in the wake of Ramadi was the -- the Iraqi security forces put together a plan for Mosul and continued operations, and so they shared that plan with -- with our commander on the ground, Gen. MacFarland, and then they have a conversation about what enabling capabilities could we provide that would allow the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga to maintain the momentum that we have started to see over the last couple of months.
So -- so the timing of -- of our request, and -- and again, the secretary -- I brought it to the secretary, the secretary will engage with the president on -- on what the president has asked us to do, which is to come to him with ideas that will allow us to maintain that momentum. But the timing really now is focused on the next phase of the campaign, which is towards Mosul and maintaining the kind of momentum that we had in Ramadi.
So -- so it's directly attributable to developing the plan for Mosul, sitting down, coming up with a common plan with the coalition on the ground, led by Gen. MacFarland, and then figuring out what capabilities would -- would best enable -- again, to emphasize the point the secretary made, what capabilities would best enable the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga to be successful in operations in Mosul.
Q: Can you talk to any capabilities in particular?
GEN. DUNFORD: At this time, no, I can't, Andrew. But -- but again, those recommendations are being made and we'll have -- the president will have and opportunity to make some decision here in the coming weeks.
MR. COOK: For the local side, third from the end there. Sir? If you could identify yourself, that would be helpful.
Q: Yes. (inaudible). Hi, this is Susan Katz Keating. I'm with American Media Institute. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for doing this, and congratulations on your new positions. That's great.
We've read in recent operations that it appears that on ISIL home territory that they are on the run or at they're at least being -- (inaudible) -- fair amount of grief, it appears that we're prevailing against them on their home territory. However, can we expect them to strike back outside of their home territory in increasing aggression?
SEC. CARTER: Well, I do understand that yes, we are gathering momentum in Iraq and Syria. That's necessary. But as your question indicates, it's not sufficient. ISIL has aspirations to strike outside, either by inspiration or varying degrees of direction and enabling.
Europe has seen that already. Obviously, we are concerned about that. So it's -- we do have to combat ISIL elsewhere. And as I said, I fully expect that we will be successful in Iraq and Syria at defeating ISIL. But they're the metastasize around the world and there's the homeland fight itself.
All of those need to be waged in parallel.
Q: Can I have a follow-up question?
MR. COOK: Can we move on? I just want to make sure everyone gets a question. So here and then Paul.
Q: Yes, good afternoon. I'm Paul Schenker U.S. News and World Report. Can you talk a little bit about the Russian assistance to the Syrian armed forces in retaking Palmyra. Do you see that as a positive step? And looking more broadly, at some point, is the U.S. going to need to coordinate with Russia on military activity as these borders begin to close up as you say?
SEC. CARTER: Well, two things. I mean, first of all, what we really need the Russians to do is to advance the political solution. They have unique leverage there because of their relationship with the Syrian regime. And what we really need is an end to the civil war, so I'm hoping that that's what comes out of Geneva and I hope that's where the weight of the Russian effort lies.
And I'm sorry, the second part of it was?
Q: At some point, is the U.S. going to need to coordinate with the Russians?
And Gen. Dunford, you talked about how you had spoken to your Russian counterpart recently.
I wonder, Gen. Votel, if you've had any contacts with Russian leaders?
SEC. CARTER: We have actually quite often, professional discussions aimed at making sure that there are no incidents as we pursue our operations. Nothing Russians done in Syria has impeded our fight against ISIL. And so our discussions have had the purpose of making sure there was no possibility of an incident between Russian forces and U.S. forces.
Those discussions continue. And they're very fruitful. They're very professional. And so are we're satisfied with them, but that's as far as it goes.
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: Trevor Cutterfield from Bay News Nine here in Tampa.
Q: That's not for me.
Congratulations generals, first of all. I have two questions actually. One, I wanted to know what yours and the president's expectations are of this new command structure. And generals, yourself. What you expect of yourselves in this new command structure? Also, with the recent terrorist attacks we've seen abroad, it's -- it brings more and more concerns here at home about not if, but when it will happen here.
What reassurances can you give the American public that you're doing everything you can to keep it from happening here?
SEC. CARTER: Well, with respect to expectations, I think that if I and the president didn't have high expectations of these two officers, they wouldn't have been nominated for confirmation by the Senate and by the way, the Senate wouldn't have confirm them. So our trust and confidences is complete.
That's why they are where they are. I mean, that said, we all know we have work ahead of us. But these are the right guys to do that. So for the trust and confidence is right -- is there. As far as the broader campaign against ISIL is concerned, we will defeat ISIL. I'm confident of that. It's going to require effort in Syria and Iraq, it's going to require effort around the world, and yes, it's going to require protection against the homeland.
But we -- I mean, look at the tremendous strength and power behind the organizations that these guys are taking over today. That will prevail, together with our coalition, but we've got a lot of work to do -- (inaudible) --
GEN. VOTEL: I would just add as kind of -- as a guy who's coming from SOCOM to CENTCOM, here, one of the things I -- I hope to be able to do is really -- is to take what I've -- what I've learned at SOCOM as kind of a transregional commander looks more globally and really apply that to the problems that we're dealing with in CENTCOM.
Certainly, we can't just be insular to ourselves and look at the problems in Iraq and Syria. We have to recognize that the problems that emanate from that area affect other areas, so we have to work very closely with all of our partners whether that be European Command, Africa Command, SOCOM or a variety of others to do that.
So I think, for me, that will be one of the things that I'll be trying to pay a lot of attention to early on.
GEN. RAYMOND A. THOMAS: And not to invert what General Votel just said, but my intent as the new SOCOM commander will be to support him regionally in the -- in the CENTCOM AOR, obviously some very strong investments there, as well as to continue to refine these transregional strategies going forward for the secretary and for the president.
I would like to emphasize, though, that the threat of external attacks is out number one priority and our ability to disrupt that. So among the many threats out there, that is a clear focus and effort on our part to disrupt any -- any external threat.
MR. COOK: Jeremy?
Q: Jeremy Herb with Politico. Generals Votel, Thomas, congratulations. I want to ask you guys if you could talk a little bit about balancing secrecy with the need for public information in (inaudible) as they increased and particularly as we -- the U.S. looks to target and potentially capture more ISIL leaders?
GEN. VOTEL: I'll start, and then Tony can jump in here. You know, I -- I've had a discussion with the secretary and others here about this. I think this is an important issue. I think what we want to try to do is -- we certainly recognize the public needs to understand what's happening and they need to understand where we're having progress, they need to understand what the status is of the things that we're -- that we're doing in the name of our country. But what we also are very keen to do is protect our approaches and provide our people on the ground a maximum opportunity to accomplish the missions that we're -- that we're asking them to do.
And -- and -- so I -- I think that requires a very careful balance. I've been very pleased with how the department's been approaching that here lately, and I think we're doing a good job -- (inaudible) -- trying to tell the story, but yet not tell so much that it takes -- takes away the advantages for our -- for our people on the ground.
GEN. THOMAS: I'd offer while our (inaudible) necessarily secret, we are absolutely committed to the accountability we have to the American people and the president of the United States. So there's a balance there, and certainly, the American public have a need to know what we're doing and that we're doing it in the right way, consistent with American values.
So we accept that that's a challenge in terms of information, but as General Votel mentioned, I think where we do have concerns is where it starts to imperil the tactics and techniques that we employ, and more importantly, the people involved. We've had a (rash of true ?) name disclosures here recently, which I don't see serving any purpose other than to put those people in jeopardy.
SEC. CARTER: I just want to fully support what they both said. Absolutely.
Q: I'm Richard Danielson with The Tampa Bay Times. This question initially is for General Votel, although I might like to hear from the secretary as well. Last year, within Central Command, there arose some concerns about the quality of intelligence being produced by its analysts how that was being handled, how it was being presented. And I am curious what your plans are coming in, to ensure that you're getting good intelligence and you're in a position to present that to all the other people you work with, with confidence. And that the analysts have confidence in and how the organization treats their work.
SEC. CARTER: Can we do it the other way around?
SEC. CARTER: And the reason is, Joe, you absolutely speak to the question. I just want to say that in the matter that you're referring to, that's a matter that's been referred to the Inspector General of the Department of Defense.
I have a lot of confidence in the Inspector General and their ability to get to the bottom of that and I can't -- I want to make sure it's clear, we can't comment on that.
I'll just -- speaking for myself, I don't think it's different for anybody else. I depend upon and demand good information of all kinds. But that includes intelligence information. So I want intelligence people to tell us, give it to me straight. And that's the only way that you could responsibly make decisions.
So, with that said, and the past behind, Joe for the future?
GEN. DUNFORD: Secretary, you've got it. Thank you. You nailed it there. I just think extraordinarily important. You know, as I mentioned a few moments ago when -- in my remarks after the change in command in CENTCOM. The most important resource that CENTCOM has is our people. And we rely on their experience, we rely on their expertise. We rely on their ability to help us think through and work through and understand difficult problems.
And so, what we've got to have is we've got to continue to nurture and we've got to continue to encourage an environment that allows people within the organization to come forward and put out the information so it can be absorbed by commanders and other leaders. And we can we can assess that and we can use that to help inform our decisions and recommendations. So I look forward to really supporting that kind of approach.
MR. COOK: Last question to Jacqueline please.
Q: Hi. Jacqueline Kilmas with the Washington Examiner.
I'm wondering if any of you can provide an update about the investigation into intelligence manipulation in Central Command and when we might expect to see results of that.
SEC. CARTER: Well, that gets back to the previous question and that's a matter that is now with the Inspector General of the Department of Defense. And therefore I can't comment on that except to tell you that it's under investigation by the Inspector General. And that's, I think, the right thing and I have confidence in that.
To the more general issue, I'd only repeat what I just said, which is that we've got to have intelligence told to us straight. Otherwise, you're not going to be able to make the right decisions. You need good information.
And by the way, it doesn't just come from intelligence. Obviously, we read year around reporting and we talk to our people in the field. So there are lots of sources of information. But in so far as intelligence is concerned, it's got to come straight. And so I want our intelligence folks to know that, that we expect that. And I'm sure that's true of all the guys behind me as well.
MR. COOK: Great. Thanks everyone for being here. I know it's still a big day ahead for the Generals here given the ceremonies. Thanks very much.