Nov 17, 2021
Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin Pentagon Press Conference Transcript November 17
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a press conference at the Pentagon on November 17, 2021. Read the transcript of the full news briefing here.
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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (00:01)
… have made financial struggles even tougher. With the holidays approaching, I know that this is on the minds of our military communities, and it’s certainly top of mind for me. So today, I’ve directed the department to take several steps to strengthen the economic security of our force. First, we’re providing some immediate relief. The Department of Defense has temporarily raised the basic allowance for housing in areas that have had a 10% increase in rental costs this year, and in places with housing shortages, we’re extending temporary lodging expense reimbursements, so that families have more time to find a home that fits their needs. And when it comes to making sure our people have enough to eat, we’ve created a new toolkit that will help leaders identify service members who are struggling, and connect service members and their families to resources, and support programs, and more. I’ve also directed the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop a strategy and implementation roadmap within 90 days to strengthen food security across the force.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (01:29)
Now, the steps outlined in today’s memo won’t solve all the economic worries that our military families face, but they are important steps, and we’re committed to getting this right. Our men and women in uniform and their families have enough to worry about. Basic necessities like food and housing shouldn’t be among them. This is a readiness issue, and that’s why I’m focused on making sure that our service members and their families have what they need to thrive, so that they can focus on the hard work of defending our nation.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (02:11)
Now, I’d like to say a few words about my trip to the Middle East, starting later this week. I’m looking forward to being back in Bahrain, where I’ll speak at the Manama Dialogue, a major security forum that will be meeting in person for the first time since the pandemic began. It’ll be good to connect with partners and allies in the region and beyond. Let me underscore two themes that I’ll discuss. First, the United States is deeply committed to the security of the Middle East, and we continue to strengthen our partnerships there. And second, we understand many of today’s most pressing security challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere transcend borders, so we must meet these shared threats with shared solutions in lockstep with our friends, who also come to the table with formidable capabilities.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (03:15)
You could see the strength of our network of partnerships on full display just to a few months ago. As we wound down our 20 year military mission in Afghanistan, our partners in the Middle East stepped up to help us evacuate more than 124,000 people, and we couldn’t have done it without partners like the United Arab Emirates, which another stop on my trip, and I’m looking forward to discussing our two countries’ common defense priorities.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (03:48)
Now, it’s not lost on me that this trip comes at a time when Iran is stoking tensions and undermining stability in the region. We remain deeply committed to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and I’ve said before, no problem in the Middle East gets easier to solve with a nuclear-armed Iran, and that’s why we fully support the president’s efforts to achieve a new diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. But of course, Iran presents serious security challenges that extend beyond that program, so I’m going to continue to be very clear. We will defend ourselves, and our partners, and our interests against threats from Iran or its proxies.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (04:39)
Now, one last thing before I take your questions, and this gets to the issue of civilian casualties, which I know is on your mind. It’s on my mind as well, I can assure you. As you know, we conducted an independent review, an investigation into the August 29th airstrike in Kabul, an airstrike that tragically killed 10 innocent civilians, including seven children. I know that Lieutenant General Said briefed you on his findings. I also asked the commanders of US Central Command and Special Operations Command to come back with me with their plans for how to implement General Said’s findings and recommendations, and they’ve done that, and I’m working my way through their recommendations.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (05:33)
We’re also looking for rigorous outside thinking, and I think you know that we’ll soon be releasing a civilian harm study by Rand that Congress ordered, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, and there’s another Rand study on civilian casualties in Syria that is working its way through a security review. I look forward to reading these two studies and to benefiting from them as we conduct operations going forward. The American people deserve to know that we take this issue very seriously, and that we are committed to protecting civilians and getting this right, both in terms of how we execute missions on their behalf, and how we talk about them afterward. We have more work to do in that regard clearly, and I recognize that, and I’m committed to doing this in full partnership with our military leaders. And for now, I’m ready to take your questions, and I’ll start with Bob Burns.
Bob Burns: (06:42)
Thank you, sir. Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you a couple things about Russia, recent developments on Russia. One is the buildup of Russian forces and military structures in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border. The other is the Russian anti-satellite test that they conducted recently, which this administration condemned as reckless. Now, on Ukraine, I’m wondering, as a career military officer, what do you make of what you’re seeing of the Russian activity near Ukraine? Does it look to you like preparations for an invasion or some sort other kind of incursion, and on the anti-satellite test, what is it would you say that’s so objectionable about what they did? Does it point toward conflict in space or weaponization of space?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (07:32)
Well, overall Bob, and thanks for those questions, we continue to see troubling behavior from Russia, and you’ve highlighted two key issues there. First, the troop buildup near Ukraine and their recent anti-satellite test, and none of this activity is helpful to the security environment, and it causes us deep concern. And so, we’ll continue to call on Russia to act responsibly and be more transparent.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (08:05)
On the buildup of the forces on the boarder of Ukraine, we’ve watched this very closely, and I’m in regular and frequent contact with General Wolters, the EUCOM Commander. The truth is, Bob, we’re not sure exactly what Mr. Putin is up to, but these movements certainly have our attention, and I would urge Russia to be more transparent about what they’re up to, and to take steps to live up to the Minsk Agreements. Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity remains unwavering.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (08:49)
You asked about the anti-satellite test as well, and what’s most troubling about that is the danger that it creates for the international community. It undermines strategic stability. As you know, there’s a debris field there now that’ll be there for forever, and it’s a safety concern. And so, we would call upon Russia to act more responsibly going forward. I mean, they have the ability, they know exactly what kind of debris field they’re going to create, and so, we wonder why they would move to do such a thing.
Bob Burns: (09:36)
[inaudible 00:09:36] a step toward weaponization of space or conflict in space?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (09:40)
Well, certainly, we are concerned about the weaponization of space, and we would certainly call upon Russia and all countries to act in a responsible manner in this regard, so. Let me call on Eric [Schmidt 00:09:59].
Eric Schmidt: (10:01)
Thank you, Mr. Secretary. On the issue of civilian casualties, military operators have used the justification for the strikes not only in Kabul on August 29th, but also a strike on March 18th in 2019 that we reported on Sunday, and The New York Times did. The justification they used was self-defense. My question is, how concerned are you that over all these years of military activity going up against organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, how concerned are you that military operators are using self-defense perhaps too casually, even deliberately, as a way of circumventing the steps around the measures that have put in place to mitigate civilian casualties? And then I have one follow-up after that.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (10:53)
So that’s three questions and one follow-up there, Eric, so. Just kidding. At the outset, Eric, let me just highlight that we do work very hard to avoid causing harm to civilians, every civilian casualty is a tragedy, but I would also say that I have no doubt that we can work harder, and I’d go beyond that and say we must work harder. I’m committed to adjusting our policies and our procedures to make sure that we improve, and I’ll be holding all our senior leaders responsible for putting those policies and procedures into effect as we go forward. In terms of whether or not we are taking things casually, we take every strike very serious, Eric, and I think, again, it’s incumbent upon us to look at our procedures and our policies to make sure that we continue to refine them, and where we see we’re not doing things as well as we could, we should adjust, and my goal is to make sure that we improve upon our performance going forward.
Eric Schmidt: (12:16)
You mentioned, this is my second question that leads into that, you said you’ve taken responsibility and the military has taken responsibility for the casualties, again, both on August 29th, as well as the ones in Syria and many others, but it’s very rare when the military actually holds anyone actually accountable, or there’s administrative action or some kind of other disciplinary action. To what extent are you personally committed to holding people accountable now for these kind of actions?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (12:47)
Well, I believe that leaders in this department should be held to account for high standards of conduct and leadership, and that’s who we are, and I believe that our troops understand that, and for my part, as Secretary of Defense, I have every intent to uphold that standard. Again, when we have a civilian casualty, we investigate that by standard procedure. Again, we’ll look at our policies and procedures and make sure that we are as tight as possible going forward here. Let me call on Jen [Griffith 00:13:24].
Jen Griffith: (13:26)
Thank you, sir. What, in your opinion, is the significance of the recent Chinese hypersonic weapon test? Some people in the Pentagon have said it’s a Sputnik moment. General Hyten said, “It did not create the sense of urgency it should.” Was this a Sputnik moment?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (13:43)
Well, those are terms that I wouldn’t use, I don’t personally use Jen. You know that we have concerns about military capabilities that the PRC continues to develop. I’ve highlighted the PRC as our pacing challenge, and we continue to do everything that we can to develop the right capabilities, and also, the right concepts that we think that will be necessary and will be effective in any kind of contest going forward. That includes China, Russia, or any other country that would want to take us on. We also have to maintain the capabilities to defend ourselves. You’ve heard me say a number of times that it’s my job to defend this nation, and I think that very seriously, this department takes that very seriously, and so, we’re working as hard as we can to ensure that we can defend ourselves against a range of threats going forward.
Jen Griffith: (14:47)
And just to follow up, why have the Chinese been able to field a medium range hypersonic weapon, and the US has not?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (14:56)
Jen, I don’t know if they’ve fielded those weapons, but they’re testing those weapons.
Jen Griffith: (15:01)
I believe General Hyten did say that in the interview with CBS.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (15:04)
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Well, we continue to move fast as we can to develop capabilities, and again, we look at our full range of capabilities, and not just one specific capability as we look at our adversaries, and I believe we have robust capability across the board, so yeah. Let me go to Wafaa Jibai.
Wafaa Jibai: (15:36)
Thank you, sir, for taking my question. We’ve seen lately a pattern of provocative actions from Iran against the US Navy that ended safely so far. Is the US exercising self-restraint to avoid any escalation or to make way for diplomacy, and what are the red lines for the US patience in that sense?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (16:06)
Yeah. Well, Wafaa, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about red lines, but I want to be clear on a couple of points. You mentioned Iran’s activity in the maritime domain. We continue to see unsafe and unprofessional actions as they operate and as we operate in the Gulf, and I think that kind of behavior affects everyone, and it’s very troubling. It certainly impacts freedom of navigation, and everyone loses by these dangerous and disruptive actions, and I know that we share those concerns with our allies and partners. You heard me say at the top that we won’t hesitate to defend ourselves and our partners, and we’re committed to that, we have the capability for that. And so, in terms of how we behave, we’re always very prudent about what we do, but again, let no one mistake that we will defend ourselves, our interests, and our partners.
Wafaa Jibai: (17:19)
If I might follow up. So our understanding that your priority, your number one priority in the Middle East is to deter Iran, but still, Iran continues its so-called malign activities, whether in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, in the Gulf. So how do you evaluate your policy of deterrence, and is Iran taking it seriously in that way?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (17:47)
Well, it’s not just us who are concerned about Iran’s behavior in the region, it’s all of our allies and partners in the region, and all of our allies and partners, quite frankly, around the globe. The choke points and waterways that are in this region are very important to the international community, international commerce. And so, we’re going to continue to work with our allies and partners to ensure that we communicate to Iran that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated, and again, we are prepared to defend our interests and our partners going forward.
Speaker 6: (18:29)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (18:30)
Let me go to Meghann Myers.
Meghann Myers: (18:35)
[inaudible 00:18:35]. So Secretary Austin, the border mission is into its fourth year now. I understand you have ongoing discussions with the Homeland Security Secretary about their needs and your ability to meet them. What is the goal that you guys are working toward, and is there a point at which you would decline their next request to bring more troops, to continue to put troops down there?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (19:00)
Yeah. Well, thanks Megan. As you know, and as you’ve indicated, our troops are there in support of the Department of Homeland Defense, or Homeland Security. So, we continue to work with the leadership to make sure that we’re doing what we can to enable Air Forces. I’ve talked with the secretary on a number of occasions, and we both agree that our goal is for them to develop the capability to conduct operations on their own. And so, over time, you’ll see our presence diminish, and you’ll see Homeland Security take this over on their own.
Meghann Myers: (19:51)
So are they meeting those, are there benchmarks?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (19:53)
Meghann Myers: (19:53)
Are they meeting that progress, and anything-
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (19:55)
They are. They are making progress, and I don’t have a specific date to put a pin on at this point in time, but I would tell you that we’re moving in the right direction. And time for one last question there. I’ll go to Tony Capaccio.
Tony Capaccio: (20:14)
[inaudible 00:20:14]. Sir, you started off talking about the measures you’re doing to relieve financial strain on soldiers. You’re in the 12th year, 12th continuing resolution of the last 13 years, fiscal years. What’s been the damage to date for over the first two months, and as there’s talk on Capitol Hill of extending it for a whole year, what are your budget people telling you will be the greatest areas of major impact?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (20:45)
Well, Tony, I think you heard me say many months ago as we were rolling out our budget, that a long-term continuing resolution is not helpful to anyone. It creates uncertainty, and it limits our flexibility. When we have a long term CR, we can’t create any new starts, so we can’t invest in the cutting edge technologies and capabilities that we’re looking to bring on board, and the reason for that, obviously, is we’re straddled with last year’s budget. Also, when you consider things like the fact that a raise has been authorized, a well-deserved raise has been authorized for our troops, we’ll have to take that, absorb that raise out of the current budget. And so, that creates less flexibility for us to do other things, and for example, some of the things, initiatives that you mentioned, we’ll be fine with the initiatives that I’ve announced, but again, I don’t want to infringe upon our flexibility to do other things going forward.
Tony Capaccio: (22:03)
Are you lobbying the GOP members who are holding up the bill and threatening a full year continuing resolution? Are you personally calling some of the members saying, “Help us out?”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (22:14)
I continue to, as you would expect, Tony, to communicate with our congressional leadership on a routine basis, and then quite frankly, I think that they get it as well. They understand the concern, the severity of the impact, and I really believe that they’re really working hard to help us in this regard, and we’ll continue to have those conversations, but I thought I heard you say “lobbying” when you were talking to the Secretary of Defense. Is that…
Tony Capaccio: (22:47)
It was a slip of the tongue, sorry.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin: (22:49)
Okay. All right, all right.
Speaker 9: (22:49)
All right. Thanks, everybody.
Speaker 10: (22:49)