June 15, 2016: Secretary Carter’s Defense Ministerial Press Conference

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter

Defense Ministerial Press Conference

June 15, 2016

 

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter: I told Peter he didn’t need to introduce me, because I — presumably, I was who you thought would be here, which is why you came.

But in all seriousness, good afternoon, and it’s good to be back here in Brussels for my fourth defense ministerial as secretary of defense, and the last one before next month’s Warsaw Summit.

And I have to begin, however, by saying that this gathering comes at a time of tragedy for our country in the United States, after this weekend’s despicable act of terrorism in Orlando, Florida.

And I want to thank all the ministers here who reached out to me to offer their condolences on the occasion of this tragedy.  It meant a lot all of us to have our friends say that to us.

The attack, sadly, we now know touched our Department of Defense, as we now know that Army Reserve Captain Antonio Brown was among those killed in this act of hate.

So, our hearts go out to Captain Brown’s family, his friends, his fellow soldiers, to the loved ones of all the victims of Sunday’s attack.  We need to stand strong with them, as we do with the people of Orlando, the LGBT community affected by this event.

As I told my fellow defense ministers, this only underscores the need for an alliance of principled and like-minded members backed by strength.  That’s what NATO is — and the need to defeat ISIL, defend our people, and counter other challenges to decency and civilized conduct, by both states as well as non-state aggressors.

The counter-ISIL campaign was, of course, a topic of fellow — my fellow ministers, and I discussed over the last day and a half as ISIL’s parent tumor in Iraq and Syria, and its metastasis are among the leading sources of instability emanating from NATO’s southern flank.  There, the United States is leading a coalition to deliver ISIL a lasting defeat, with contributions from nearly every NATO member.

And we need to do more, not only as individual nations, but as an alliance.  The sooner we defeat the ISIL cancer at the source, the safer we’ll make our homelands and our people.

As I said after our last ministerial in February, it’s worth exploring how NATO, as an organization, could make a meaningful contribution to the coalition.  And here, at this ministerial, we discussed some specific ways that NATO could contribute more directly to the counter-ISIL campaign, including by providing NATO AWACS aircraft and by conducting training and defense capacity building for the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq, rather than in Jordan.

I also discussed with my French and British counterparts, recent momentum in the counter-ISIL campaign in Iraq and Syria.  There are three major operations ongoing in which the coalition is supporting local, capable and motivated forces on the ground.  All these operations are putting a strangle-hold on ISIL, applying pressure on multiple fronts.

In Western Iraq, we’re assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in operations to retake Fallujah under the — that is Iraqi operations under the leadership of Prime Minister Abadi.

In Northern Iraq, we’re also supporting the ISF in operations to isolate and pressure Mosul.  And in Northern Syria, we’re enabling Syrian-Arab coalition forces working to envelop Manbij City.

Now, the last one is particularly critical for helping to seal the Turkish border and cut off the flow of foreign fighters in and out of Syria — a challenge that affects all NATO member nations.

Another challenge emanating from NATO’s southern flank is the migrant and refugee crisis, which NATO is helping to address in the Aegean Sea.  And soon, the United States will be contributing to that NATO activity by sending the USNS Grapple to support it.

Let me now turn to Afghanistan, which we discussed earlier today, and where I shared an important decision that President Obama recently made that reaffirms our commitment to security and stability in Afghanistan.

On my and Chairman Dunford’s recommendation, the president decided to grant additional flexibility to U.S. forces in Afghanistan as they carry out our current strategy this year.

Specifically, the U.S. commanders on the ground will be able to maximize the use and effectiveness of our troops and capabilities there in supporting the Afghan forces — especially in those instances where their use can generate strategic effects on the battlefield.

We will say — to say it differently, more proactively support Afghan conventional forces in two critical ways.  One, with more American fire power, especially through close air support.  And two, by accompanying and advising Afghan conventional forces on the ground and in the air.

In practical terms, this means that U.S. forces will have more opportunities to accompany and enable Afghan conventional forces, just like we have already been doing with Afghan Special Operations forces.

As I told my fellow defense ministers, this supports our ongoing counter terrorism and force protection missions there, as well as NATO’s Resolute Support mission, because a more capable Afghan force only makes our forces deploy to their support more secure.  And it will help the Afghans at an important moment for the country, enabling them to improve circumstances on the ground and buying down risk as we prepare for the U.S. and NATO missions in 2017.

Indeed, the United States, like many NATO countries, is considering 2017 and beyond.  In this, there should be no doubt about our commitment to Afghanistan because we’ve already made a financial commitment for one thing, which is key.  Our budget planning contains full funding for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

I was pleased today to hear from NATO counterparts the good news that they too intend to provide funding to sustain the ANDSF through 2020 like the United States does.

Regarding U.S. troop levels for future years, the current plan announced last August is for 9,800 American service members to remain in Afghanistan for most of this year.  And subsequently to maintain several locations in addition to Kabul, but to draw down that number to 5,500 by the end of the year.  And since then, we’ve been pleased to have other nations decide to commit.  This has lasted since the president made that decision last year.

Since then, we have been very pleased to have other nations make the decision to commit forces in the future in Afghanistan beyond this year, a very important and welcomed development.  This commitment will be part of NATO’s flexible regional approach to the resolute support mission.  The United States will of course continue to lead the NATO effort in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and we will continue to provide coalition partners with sufficient enabling capabilities needed for their own presence, particularly in northern and western Afghanistan.

I’m sure that the success NATO has had in Afghanistan, the new authorities provided by U.S. forces by the president for this fighting season, as well as planning for future years will all be discussed more at the Warsaw summit next month.

Turning to NATO’s eastern flank.  We also discussed what the alliance is doing to deter and defend against Russian aggression because here too, NATO must do more.  As all of you know after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, NATO took some initial actions like enhancing the NATO response force and standing up the very high-readiness joint task force.

But as I said in February, while these were good first steps, we could be doing more as an alliance to set the condition for credible deterrence.  And so we agreed that NATO would further strengthen its posture to deter and if necessary defeat any aggressor across the full spectrum of conflict.  We’ve seen results since then, for example, in our discussions this week about NATO’s enhanced forward of a four battalions in the Baltics and Poland, it became clear to not only the United States but also Germany and the United Kingdom would be making key contributions.  I expect that we won’t be the only ones.

This is an important alliance commitment to deterrence, one that’s in additional to bilateral efforts like the U.S.-European Reassurance Initiatives.  And I look forward to seeing the details finalized in Warsaw.

Still as I emphasize to my colleagues, more needs to be done particularly to bolster the readiness and capabilities of key NATO units that might be called upon in a crisis.  That requires resources of course.  We haven’t had to prioritize and practice deterrence in Europe for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do.

There are some basic military skills that have atrophied in parts of our alliance over that past quarter century, and we need to rediscover them.

And it doesn’t mean we’ll be using the same playbook NATO used in the 20 — 20th century, though.  Quite the opposite.  Since the Wales Summit, NATO forces have been adapting and writing a new playbook for the 21st century.

We’ve been innovating to counter new challenges, like cyber and hybrid warfare, integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence and adjusting our posture and presence so that we can be more agile in responding to new threats.

And I expect we’ll see the results of all this in Warsaw next month.

Meanwhile, NATO is also helping support the resilience of its partners against Russian aggression and coercion.  IN Ukraine, NATO has stood up trust fund to help the Ukrainian armed forces in areas like cyber, logistics, medical support and countering improvised explosive devices.

Bilaterally, just to remind you, the United States has also provided over $600 million in security assistance to Ukraine since the conflict there began in 2014, to strengthen Ukraine’s internal defenses, support the operational needs of its forces, and promote key defense reforms.

And after my meeting today with Minister Poltorak, and his excellent and far-reaching presentation to the ministers, I’m confident these reforms in Ukraine are moving forward.

Before I take your questions, I want to briefly touch on an area that’s at the intersection of addressing threats to NATO from its southern and eastern flanks, and that is collaboration with the European Union.

We discussed this at Secretary General Stoltenberg’s suggestion last night at dinner.  And it’s clear that the scope and scale of challenges facing this alliance demands a higher degree of partnership between it and the EU.  And the more links between them, from our point of view, the better.

In that regard, I do want to touch on something I discussed with my U.K. counterpart, Secretary Fallon.  While the question of the so-called Brexit is, of course, a decision for the British people, as President Obama has said, the United States supports the U.K. remaining in the European Union.  And I would just note that there’s a strategic reason for that.

Here at NATO, we know the strategic value that unity and cohesion brings to our alliance.  It’s part of what makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  The same is true for the EU.  For the greater unity and cohesion each organization has, the better they’re able to work together in the ways that we discussed at dinner last night, and that makes a strategic difference.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

Moderator: We’ll start with Lita Baldor of the AP

Question:  Hi, thank you, Mr. Secretary.  We understand that during your discussions earlier today, that you indicated that the United States is taking a new look, another look at its troop levels in Afghanistan.

I was hoping you could talk a little about that?  And also talk about whether or not this decision to continue the regional approach, you know, adds to that discussion, and gives some, I guess weight to the idea that by keeping the regional phases open, that the U.S. could use additional troops in order to keep that going effectively?

Secretary Carter: Sure.

First of all, just to go back in time, the plan way back was for a Kabul-only presence.  And our president decided last year that that was inadequately taking advantage of the opportunity provided by all of the progress that has been made in Afghanistan.  And for that reason, decided to — as a U.S. decision, to maintain presence in other locations outside of Kabul.

Okay, so that was a while ago.  And what is new in the meantime from that is first of all, so many of these NATO countries have subsequently indicated to us that they would and today confirmed that they would at Warsaw — made commitments also to be present in this constellation so to speak of non-Kabul sites after 2017 which is extremely welcomed from the U.S. point of view.  And I think it is a good decision by the NATO partners.

And in addition to that, the president just made an important decision from the one I mentioned. With respect to making best use of the force presence in Afghanistan during this fighting season which is going on right now, and that is also a welcomed decision made on the basis of General Dunford’s and my recommendations.  But the advice of our SACEUR and EUCOM Commander, and also General Nicholson are important.

Looking forward at the present, our plan is to maintain that lighter than Kabul presence to provide enablers to the allies who have indicated a desire to stay so that we can provide them that enabling support which is essential for them to be able to stay at a level of 5,500 next year.  That’s the current plan.

The president has indicated consistently over this time is that — as history indicates, he is willing to look on the basis of circumstances in Afghanistan, at the U.S. — both authorities and force presence.  I’ll expect he will do that again as the year goes on.  He has expressed a willingness to do that but that was a not a topic of discussion in today’s meeting per se, but I was very pleased to have confirmed the desire of allies to stay the course in 2017.

There is one other thing I should mentioned, we have been talking about authorities and troops levels and locations — there is one other thing which is the critical variable of financial support for the Afghan Security Forces.  That is — I was able to tell them something — we have put in our own budget, but a number of them confirmed that they had done that too for the future.  Remember, that’s really critical.

So all that is an important set of commitments by the allies here in going into Warsaw.  I’m sure that much of that will be confirmed and clarified when we get to Warsaw.  It’s a good thing because it gives us the best opportunity to take advantage of what NATO has done in Resolute Support over these years and the success it’s had in getting Afghanistan heading in a direction to be able to provide itself internal security and also not be a source of terrorism for all the rest of us.

Moderator: Next question is from DPA, Alexander Meyer Goodall.

Question:  Hi, could you say more about the decision that NATO is planning to take at Warsaw as far as support to the anti-ISIL coalition, specially the AWACS deployment?  Are you satisfied with the planned support and would you like to see NATO do more?

Secretary Carter: I’d like to see NATO do more.  And I say that not to — I like the things that we were discussing today, and I hope the heads of state approve both the AWACS and the defense capability building and training aspects.

But I believe there’s still more that NATO could do, even as I believe there’s — there’s going to be more that each of us as individual nations can do to hasten the destruction of ISIL.

As we learn more, as we see more opportunities, as we build the capacity of the local forces that can hold and then govern territory that is now tyrannized by ISIL — as all that occurs, we’re getting more and more opportunities to do more and accelerate the campaign.

And NATO can be a part of that, beyond the things that we discussed today.  So, I hope they get encouragement at Warsaw to keep accelerating as an organization, as all the rest of us are doing individually.

Because the secretary general is very — very articulate about the ways in which NATO as NATO can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.  It has force generation capability.  It has the ability for smaller nations to have a way of plugging into the coalition more easily.

So, there are lots of advantages to having NATO involved in the counter-ISIL campaign.  We certainly welcome that.

Moderator: Kevin Baron, from Defense One.  Right here, in the front row.

Question:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.  To add to that question, can you be more specific on NATO?  Because we’re talking more trainers and AWACS, and that sounds a lot like just a small extension of what the coalition is already doing, not getting NATO into combat more directly.

Is there more specific that you want from NATO?  And did you make any asks of individual member countries, or do you have questions for them beyond NATO?

Secretary Carter: Sure.  Yeah, good both — Kevin, first of all, with respect to the first one, they are — they happen — those two things that we discussed happen to be high value contributions.

That is, what — so, let me take the defense capability building.  And what Iraq is going to need in the future is the capability — let’s take Fallujah.  Or in the past now — or still in the present, Ramadi, Hit, Rutbah and so forth.  As these places are retaken by the Iraqi Security Forces, there’s going to be a need for the ability to sustain that progress.

That’s the only way you make — you don’t create the conditions for something else like ISIL, to come back again, which none of us wants.

So, that’s a pretty critical role.  I only say that because — in no way, to me, is that a secondary role.  And it happen — and it’s a critical one, and it happens to be one that NATO is very good at.

So, I think that’s very important.

And same, also, with AWACS.  And you know, if you’re flying an air — an AWACS airplane around in a war zone, I’m sure that feels risky.  And we certainly consider that we put people at risk in all of these circumstances.

But that’s really important, too, because it’s very important for all of us to have a continuous air picture there — both as an alliance, because Turkey is on the border, so there’s a border issue, and because of our air operations in order to make sure that they’re safe and effective.

And so, for both of those — those are important contributions.  Now, I’m willing — I’m — there’s more we could ask for.  Yeah, yeah, thing — well, things that — that the — the logistics combination — sorry, the NATO combination will be uniquely good at.  Logistics is another one.

So — so, these are important contributions.  And I — I only say that, because you’re suggesting that they’re peripheral in some way.  They’re not.  They’re — all this stuff is very important to getting victory and sustaining victory.

Moderator: Tomas Belasky

Question:  Secretary, could you confirm please the details of the U.S. contribution to the NATO’s enhanced force presence in Baltic state in Poland?  Is it going to substitute what the United States have been doing in this country until now and what was announced by the U.S. before as a,for example, the increased European Reassurance Initiative?  And would the U.S. be the framework nation for the NATO battalion in Poland?

Secretary Carter: Okay, a lot in there.

Let me back up to the beginning.  Enhanced forward presence, and what is the United States already committed to doing, and then we will get on to the decision making in Warsaw about the — I think what you’re getting at in the latter part of your question is the four battalions issue.

But let me start — just to remind you as you probably know, for everybody’s benefit that the United States through the European Reassurance Initiative  — which is four times in the budget we’ve requested from Congress what it was last year.  So we have quadrupled the spending on that.

Among other things, a continuous persistent presence of a additional brigade — and armored brigade combat team in Europe on a persistently present basis, that’s a new capability.  They are on top of the two brigades already in Europe.  Additionally, a combat aviation brigade likewise on a persistent rotational presence in Europe, that’s new.  And finally, the propositioning of the equipment for an armored brigade combat team.  So those are the things — among many other things, but they’re the big ones affecting ground forces to which I think is your question — funded by the ERI, although the ERI funds lots of other things besides presence, it exercises the capabilities, and investments, and all kinds of things.

Now to get to the four battalions, and NATO has agreed that to have four persistently present NATO battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland, that much has been decided.  And I’m sorry, it has also been decided — the United States has decided and has volunteered to be a framework question to get to the last part of your question.  And Germany and the United Kingdom I believe are considering that also, I’m sure there will be a fourth.

And a number of countries have indicated a willingness to be part of the sourcing, and that gets to the second part of your question, it hasn’t been decided what the sourcing of all those battalions.  That will be a NATO decision made possibly before Warsaw, but I’m not sure.  But the point for certain is that they’re going to be four NATO battalions, that’s where they’re going to be, that decision has been taken and the United States firmly supports that decision as it has agreed to be a part of that.

It hasn’t been decided which of the framework nations in which country, that’s the kind of thing that will come with sourcing decisions and all of the participants are identified.

Moderator: We have time for one last question right here.

Question:  Radio Romania Public Station.

Sir, you are talking about four battalions, but you — we have a decision for a battalion, a multi-national framework for it in Romania for safe — for a NATO presence in the Black Sea.  You know, the — (inaudible) — which comes from Moscow, for Romania, who has also Deveselu, you know, the anti-ballistic missile.

What is the position of the United States on this decision?  We will decide it — you will decide in Warsaw or this battalion in Romania?

Secretary Carter: The — that decision, I believe — and I’m going to have to get confirmation on that, for you.

I believe that decision has been taken by the alliance as a whole.  I’ll get you the details on that, but I don’t think there’s anything new on that.  But since it’s your particular interest, I’ll make sure Peter gets you an answer on that.

Moderator:  All right, thanks, everybody.

Secretary Carter:  Thank you.