Jan 30, 2020
Pentagon News Conference on Iran Transcript – January 30, 2020
The Pentagon held a press conference today on January 30, 2020 on the current situation with Iran. Read the full transcript of the conference right here on Rev.com.
Speaker 1: (12:32)
Everybody, we’re going to get started in just a minute. Remember ground rules. Please, first, silence your cell phones. Don’t be that person. One question with one related follow-up. Both the secretary and the chairman will come out and make an opening statement, and then we’ll go from there. All right, thank you.
Mark Esper: (14:50)
Okay. Good morning, everyone. I’d like to begin by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the three American service members who recently lost their lives in the line of duty. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Paul Voss and Captain Ryan Phaneuf were killed on January 27th in an aircraft accident in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. We have conducted recovery operations and are investigating the cause of the crash, and we thank our Afghan partners for their assistance. On January 24th, Army Specialist Antonio Moore died in Deir ez Zor Province, Syria, during a rollover accident while conducting route-clearing operations. We honor the service and sacrifice of these three men, and our thoughts are with their family and their friends.
Mark Esper: (15:37)
I’d also like to provide an update on several other fronts, beginning with the coronavirus. The department is providing housing support at March Air Reserve Base in California to assist Health and Human Services in caring for the nearly 200 State Department employees, dependents, and U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China. I want to thank our men and women for their rapid response and assistance in this important effort. DoD personnel are not in direct-
Mark Esper: (16:03)
In this important effort. DOD personnel are not indirect contact with the evacuees nor will the evacuees have access to any other locations on base outside of their assigned housing. The Department of Defense continues to work closely with our interagency partners as we monitor the situation and protect our service members and their families, which is my highest priority.
Mark Esper: (16:22)
With regard to another personnel issue, the department will be providing an update on TBI numbers later today, but I’d like to stress that we take this issue very seriously. DOD is a leading contributor in the treatment and research of brain related trauma. We do everything we can to identify, treat, and help our service members recover and return to duty.
Mark Esper: (16:42)
Turning to news reports about possible troop reductions, I want to reiterate that our combat and command reviews are ongoing and no decisions have been made, at this time.
Mark Esper: (16:51)
As I’ve said before, we will ensure that any rebalancing of troops and resources is in line with our priorities under the national defense strategy. Meanwhile, we remain in close consultation with our allies and partners on this and other matters of shared interest. I would add that the chairman and I had the chance also to update the chairman and ranking members of the defense committees, this week, on this issue and several others.
Mark Esper: (17:16)
Today in Bahrain, the International Maritime Security Construct conducted a change of command between US Rear Admiral Alvin Holsey and UK Commodore James Parkin. The IMSC is committed to ensuring the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman through which over 17,000 ships and one sixth of global oil production pass each year. We welcome Commodore Parkin to this vital endeavor, which represents an international solution to an international problem.
Mark Esper: (17:46)
Earlier this week, I hosted the French Minister of Armed Forces here at the Pentagon, as you all know, for a productive discussion about bolstering our longstanding defense relationship and encouraging other European allies to do more in Africa and the Middle East. Tomorrow, I will welcome the Italian minister of defense to talk about burden sharing and strengthening our cooperation through the the defeat ISIS coalition. And next month, I will attend the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels to further engage with my European counterparts on the future of our readiness and collective security. I look forward to discussing NATO’s expanded role in the Middle East and the importance of Alliance unity as we adapt our force to an era of great power competition.
Mark Esper: (18:26)
With that, I’ll turn it over to Chairman Milley.
Chairman Milley: (18:29)
Thanks, Secretary. I don’t have an opening statement, but before we get to questions, I want to echo what the Secretary said about a Colonel Austin his family and also for Captain Phaneuf and for Specialist Moore. There’s no greater loss for any family than the loss of a loved one and our thoughts and prayers from all of us in uniform or extended to their families.
Chairman Milley: (18:53)
The remains will be brought back, as you know, to Dover tonight for a dignified transfer ceremony and Secretary and others will be up there for that. So our thoughts and prayers are with the family and with that we’ll take your questions.
Speaker 2: (19:08)
Thank you. Question for two of you, if I may. Mr. Secretary, on coronavirus, are there precautions that you’re making or preparing to make with regard to US personnel in, for example, Vietnam or other areas in Asia or Europe to get ahead of this?
Mark Esper: (19:29)
Yes. I approved a directive that will go up today from OSD apprising our forces about precautions they should take, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the virus, et cetera. That’ll be first of probably a few. Again, force protection for our service members, our civilians, and their families is a priority, so we want to make sure we stay in front of it with regard to information and in other precautions that will be taken. I know the INDOPACOM Command will also be taking measures given that this virus is emanating from that theater, so they will be providing additive information, as well.
General Milley, if I may ask you a question on Iraq and the TBI issue that the Secretary raised. Are there additional or different precautionary measures that can be taken, should be taken to mitigate blast exposure for troops in this kind of instance or others and also on TBI as a person who’s had extensive experience in the field and in war zones and you’ve seen a lot of things, have you seen the manifestation of these kinds of concussive injuries that show themselves in behavioral problems to the extent that people have to be removed from the field?
Chairman Milley: (20:41)
Yeah, thanks for the question, Bob. The short answer’s yes and yes. There are a wide variety of extensive experiments and designs and things like helmet design, et cetera. There’s a lot of treatment therapies that we do. As you know, we put in the MACE test quite a few years ago. We really started manifesting, I’d say, probably about 10 years ago, where we began a series of mitigation actions within the force. The MACE test is one of them where we immediately test within the first 24 to 48 hours, start testing people on neurological symptoms, asking questions, putting them through some physical exams, et cetera, et cetera. In this case, as you know, there were thousands of people at the al-Asad airbase. Those that were within the distance of the blast … And these were a thousand, 2000 pound munitions that were coming in with heavy over pressure, et cetera. All of those people were screened and we’ve got a certain number and the numbers growing. In this particular case, TBI, that manifest takes some time to manifest itself. It’s not an immediate thing, necessarily. Some cases it is. Some cases it’s not. So we continue to screen. Some have been evacuated to Europe. Some have been evacuated back to the United States. So there’s a layered approach to this that we’ll continue to do that with our medical professionals.
Chairman Milley: (21:54)
In terms of mitigations, the first thing is to mitigate from the actual shrapnel and the blast to prevent physical injury in the sense of wounds resulting, loss of limbs, et cetera. And that requires an early warning, which happened, getting under a cover, which happened, dispersal, getting into safe areas, and so on. All of that is what prevented killed in action and very seriously injured such as amputations, et cetera.
Chairman Milley: (22:20)
But the TBI piece is different. Your brain is a very fragile part of your body, even though it’s encased inside your skull. But the over pressures and the injuries to the brain, the unseen wounds of war for example, those can be serious or they can be not so serious, depends on the individual, depends on the proximity to the blast. And sometimes they are lifelong. Sometimes they resolve themselves within weeks or months. So it’s constant monitoring, and we take a lot of measures within the military to make sure that we screen those out.
Chairman Milley: (22:51)
In terms of mitigation in the future, as we do that, we’ve partnered with various organizations and health organizations to try to develop not only therapies but also preventative measures. Things like helmets, for example.
Mark Esper: (23:05)
And one thing I would add is as Army Secretary I’m sure the chairman would call when he was Chief, we were working, spending quite a bit of time and resources to understand how we can either change the composition of our helmets or the design so that it could either divert a concussion or absorb it to deflect it. And as I had traveled throughout the Army, meeting, at least, with our research labs to understand that, I think the Army, the service, the military is a leader on this issue. We’ve partnered, the army did at least, with the NFL to understand this, and it’s something we have to continue to work on. It’s very important, and we have to make sure that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines have all the protections they need to fight and survive and win and recover quickly in military operations.
Chairman Milley: (23:45)
And, Bob, the second part of the question was does it manifest in behavior health? In some cases, absolutely, yes. It can become a post traumatic stress. It can become a wide variety of behavioral health issues when you do damage to the brain.
Are you seeing it in this case?
Chairman Milley: (24:01)
Right now, it’s too early to tell. The diagnosis we have so far for all of the folks that have been diagnosed, to date, is mild traumatic brain injury. That’s the diagnosis that’s been reported to us, so far.
Mark Esper: (24:13)
I’m sorry. This is just … It’s a good topic. We are still learning. There’s a lot more to be learned about these injuries. We’re putting a lot of money into research. It affects us not just on a battlefield, but look, our service members get hurt during training, as well. They get hurt during all types of activities. We need to understand how the brain is affected by injuries to it, whether it’s from a concussive blast or other things. So it’s an important field of research we need to continue to work on.
Speaker 3: (24:41)
If I could stick with TBI, actually. When you saw the payload of the missiles and how close they came to some of the shelters, at that point, did you expect that there would be TBI or is that something that surprised both of you?
Chairman Milley: (24:54)
For me, it’s not a surprise. There’s concussive injuries as a result of any explosive devices goes off. You can get concussive injuries from hitting your head, from falling, from parachute jumps, et cetera. So no, it’s not necessarily a surprise.
Chairman Milley: (25:08)
What we do when we’re in contact with the enemy, we’re in a fire fight, incoming mortars, rockets, theatre ballistic missiles or anything, the very first thing you’re focusing on is life and limb. So when we say reported casualties, we’re really talking about killed in action and serious injuries like loss of limbs. The TBI manifests itself over time. It’s not necessarily instantaneous. So not a surprise necessarily, but the focus immediately is loss of life and limb.
Speaker 3: (25:36)
Just to follow, in retrospect, do you think it would have been better or more forthcoming if you had not initially said there were no injuries and do you think the President saying, “They’re just headaches,” minimizes sort of the injuries that and TBI?
Mark Esper: (25:48)
Chairman and I spent most of the night going over casualties and understanding what happened on the ground with General McKenzie and others. I think the reporting was accurate. At that time, as reported, there were no casualties. As the Chairman just defined it, I think, again, over time, you learn things and you get reports, and as we predicted when the first reports came in several days later, that there would likely be more and more because I think these things, the TBI, manifests itself over time. So I think we did our best to report no casualties and I still believe, that morning, there were no casualties reported.
Speaker 4: (26:26)
Secretary Esper, why have you not moved the Patriot Missile batteries into Iraq? What’s the hold up? And General Milley, do you need Patriots to protect those bases? Would they have been able to intercept those ballistic missiles?
Mark Esper: (26:39)
I’ll let the Chairman speak to the particulars of how the commander positions his forces, et cetera. But one of the things we need to do is make sure we have permission from the host government and that’s one of the matters we have to work on and work through.
Speaker 4: (26:49)
So they’re being held up right now by the Iraqis?
Mark Esper: (26:52)
We need the permission of the Iraqis. That’s one issue. There may be others with regard to placement and things like that are more tactical, more operational. So it’s a combination of things.
Chairman Milley: (27:01)
We’re working with the Iraqi government in order to do exactly what you just suggested. There’s mechanical pieces, the science of war, so to speak, of actually moving and bringing in … Patriot batteries or Patriot battalion is not a small organization. It’s relatively large. So the mechanics of it all have to be worked out. And that is in fact ongoing. In terms of would’ve, should’ve, could’ve, in terms of if there was a Patriot battalion at al-Asad or Erbil or whatever, could they have shot down these TBMs? That’s what they’re designed to do. Can’t say for certain. Obviously, whether in that case, at those altitudes and those ranges, et cetera, if that would’ve happened, but that is exactly what they’re designed to do is just shoot down incoming theatre ballistic missiles.
Speaker 4: (27:37)
But you do feel you need them?
Chairman Milley: (27:39)
Mark Esper: (27:40)
The Commander feels he needs them and our intent is to assess the Commander’s requests and determine whether we fill them or not. In this case, I think we support the Commander, given what happened.
Speaker 5: (27:50)
Going back to the question on TBI. The president did say that these wounds were not serious and he characterized them in headaches. Could I ask both of you, what do you make of those comments and given that in your opening statement you said that the Department takes it very seriously, how is that at odds with the Department’s view?
Mark Esper: (28:08)
I’ve had the chance to speak with the President. He is very concerned about the health and welfare of all of our service members, particularly those who were involved in the operations in Iraq and he understands the nature of these injuries.
Chairman Milley: (28:22)
And I would say, there’s three categories of wounded in action that we’ve had for years. One is VSI, very serious … and you’re probably all familiar with this, very serious injured. One is SI, serious injured. One is NSI, not serious injured. And in this case, the reporting to date indicates mild TBI, which would be in the category of not serious injured. That doesn’t mean they’re not injured and it doesn’t mean to the individual, but in the categories that we categorize wounded in action, these individuals are in the NSI category, at this time. That’s not to minimize or dismiss or anything. That’s just to say that that’s how we categorize casualties.
Speaker 5: (29:02)
So would you say that the President is now better informed than he was when he made those comments?
Mark Esper: (29:06)
I’m not going to comment on that. I think for many people, this is a learning process, and we are sending teams of briefers to the Hill, if you will. We’re going to have a conversation with many Hill staff today. I think we need to update Hill staff, members of Congress, to understand what TBI injuries are. Again, this is something we’ve come to learn about, the Chairman can speak more fluently on it, over the past 10, 15 years, as we’ve seen IED attacks on our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark Esper: (29:33)
So again, this is an injury we need to keep educating everybody about, the Hill, you, all of you, the American people, and even myself. It’s a learning process for many of us.
Chairman Milley: (29:45)
Some of these injuries that right now are called mild TBI and they’re in the NSI category that might change. These things are cumulative too. So if you get multiple concussions, that can manifest itself down the road. It could be a year, two years. So it could … what Bob was talking about in terms of behavioral health. So we’re early in the stage of diagnosis. We’re early in the stage of therapy for these troops. We’ll continue to monitor them the rest of their lives, actually, and continue to provide whatever treatment is necessary. And we take great pride in the fact that these are our own and we’re going to take care of them.
Mark Esper: (30:21)
The key is to take care of our service members, treat them, not just the immediate, the acute, but also through their lifetime of service and beyond, and make sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent injuries in the future through new helmet designs, other ways by which we can protect them. And that’s what we’re committed to doing.
Speaker 6: (30:42)
Hi, sir. Can I just have a quick clarification and then a separate question just on the International Maritime Security Construct that you mentioned that you’re changing command and the commander is going to be a UK Commodore. Can you just clarify? My understanding was that this was a US led effort. Is it now a UK led effort or is there something that I’m missing? And then my separate question is the commanders of AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM are on the Hill this morning, and lawmakers have raised some concerns about the possible draw down on those continents and worries that this will allow the Chinese influence to grow there. So can you just explain how reducing our footprint in Africa will help better posture the US to counter China?
Mark Esper: (31:27)
on the first thing, we’ve described it as a US led effort, the IMSC, but clearly, we have many partners, and I think the fact that we have the UK willing to step up and take leadership of the IMSC, in particular, shows that it’s an international effort and we’re all committed to it. This is part and parcel of what we do in other theaters, if you will.
Mark Esper: (31:44)
On the second point, and I said this … some of you travel with me to SOUTHCOM. I know the inclination is whenever somebody says review, the word that automatically pops up in her head is reduction. Right? When we do reviews, I like to say it is a rebalancing, if you will, a rightsizing. In some cases-
Mark Esper: (32:03)
I like to say it is a rebalance, if you will, a right sizing. In some cases we will increase. In some cases we won’t change and some cases we will decrease. I think in the context of great power competition, as I mentioned to the leaders of the defense committee this week, I’m placing at the top of the list, the commands need to be able to conduct their war plans and contingency plans. Next below that is great power competition. When it comes to great power competition, those are areas in both Africom and Southcom that I’m looking at increasing our posture, not necessarily reducing our posture. So I want to make sure that we compete first and foremost when it comes to the MDS in the respective theaters, but it’s also a global competition with Russia and China, and we need to make sure that we’re well postured to deal with them as appropriate wherever we may find that presence.
Speaker 7: (32:50)
Just to clarify though, so you said you’re looking at potentially increasing fort presence in Africa, not decreasing.
Mark Esper: (32:56)
Well, adjusting the presence. Adjusting numbers and how we allocate the personnel more toward global great power competition and maybe less towards CT.
Speaker 7: (33:07)
Oh, okay. Okay. Can you say for a fact that you’re not going to totally withdraw US forces from Africa?
Mark Esper: (33:15)
We’re not going to totally withdraw forces from Africa. Economy of force doesn’t mean complete withdrawal from any continent and we do economy force in various locations and it’s an important distinction to make and I’ve never said it. Again, I know that’s the concern of many folks, but again, I’d say no decisions have been made yet. This is a process. I had Africom in last week, what they presented with me raised many other questions that have been tasked out and I think this is going to be an iterative process with them. I began the process last week as well with Southcom and that will go on.
Mark Esper: (33:48)
These things take time, but at the end of the day, I want to make sure that our commands are aligned to the national defense strategy. And again, that first begins with ability to execute their war plans, contingency plans. Second is great power competition and then third, depending on the theater, different tasks. At Africom, CT is important, in Southcom, counter drugs important. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re appropriately prioritizing and allocating and positioning forces appropriate to the mission and appropriate to everything else we have to do as a department of defense in the world.
Speaker 8: (34:21)
There was a report this morning was CNN that there’s going to be a policy change on personnel landmines. Can you confirm the report and give us a reason why the change now? And does this mean that there’ll be anti-personnel landmines specifically outside of Korea?
Mark Esper: (34:36)
There will be a change coming out, I’m not going to comment on it until it is.
Speaker 7: (34:41)
General Millie, I wanted to take you back to the question on mitigation measures for TBI and especially in Iraq. So yes, patriots, but you can’t put patriots everywhere, improvement in helmets. But Iran managed to injure 50 to 60 American forces through the use of ballistic missiles. So now that you look back, lessons learned from this event? It seems to be an extraordinary not happened before kind of thing. Do you need to… The Pentagon knew that ballistic missiles were a threat. Should there have been stronger bunkers, stronger facilities designed for that intense blast wave rather than facilities designed just for rockets and mortars? Should somebody have thought about having stronger defenses since you didn’t have patriot missiles? And can I ask you, you’ve both mentioned helmets. Would stronger helmets have made a difference against a ballistic missile blast wave?
Chairman Milley: (35:58)
On the helmets, as a general comment about mitigating TBI, writ and large. Again, look at a theater ballistic missile that were fired. These were a thousand to 2000 pound munitions. These things have bursting radius’s of 50 to a hundred feet and that’s just the shrapnel and the actual blast. These are very, very significant serious weapons. And if you’re within a certain range of that thing, there’s no helmet or anything else that’s going to save you. But I would argue that the defenses did work in that no one was killed and there were no loss of life or limb.
Chairman Milley: (36:36)
That’s significant, and there were people within range of these things. You saw the impact, I think you saw the points of impact of these missiles, they were in areas and it’s still my contention even today that the intent was not only to destroy facilities and equipment but also to kill people. And the fact that no one was killed or no one lost limbs, I think that is significant and speaks I think volumes to early warning systems also to SOPs and scatter plans and also to the defensive preparations that were done. Could there be improvements? Absolutely, yes. And we’re taking a hard look at all of that to include bringing in ballistic missile defense that Jennifer was talking about.
Could you point if you’re able to, but besides patriots, can you talk about any of the other things that look promising to you for additional defenses, mitigation against ballistic missiles?
Chairman Milley: (37:33)
I actually prefer not to talk about that, to talk about what we plan to do in the future in terms of defense or offense for that matter in order to defend against any country’s capabilities. So we’ll leave the future to the future.
Speaker 7: (37:48)
We’ve got time for one more question. Courtney.
One follow up on that, are you looking at any other missile defense or any other kinds of defenses to go into Iraq besides the patriots? So not just against missile threats, but there’ve been problems with drones, other issues.
Chairman Milley: (38:04)
There’s a wide variety of tactical capabilities that we have that we will employ that we’ll introduce in various theaters, but based on the commander’s request and the enemy situation, to go into any specific capability that we’re going to put into Iraq or any other country, I prefer to leave that unanswered.
But you are saying that you’ve requested of the Iraqi government to bring the patriots in. Can I ask just one more on Iraq too?
Mark Esper: (38:29)
We need to go. Thank you.
It’s a quick one on troop numbers, the President’s-
Mark Esper: (38:32)
You asked your questions, so thanks Courtney.
Speaker 7: (38:34)
We’ll get you an answer Courtney, thank you.