October 26, 2016: Secretary Carter’s Defense Ministerial Press Availability

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER:  Okay.

First of all, before I get into the discussion of the NATO ministerial here, I know you’ve received my statement.  And as I’ve said before, nothing is more important than ensuring that our service members are treated with gratitude and respect for their service, and that they get all the support they need from the Department of Defense.

Today, I ordered a series of steps to ensure fair treatment for the California National Guard soldiers who may have received incentive bonuses and tuition assistance improperly as a result of errors, and in some cases criminal behavior by other members of the California Guard.

First, I’ve ordered the suspension of all efforts to collect reimbursement from affected California Guard members.  And that suspension will continue until I’m satisfied that our process is working.

Second, I’ve asked our top personnel official in the Department of Defense, Peter Levine, to assess the situation and to establish a streamlined and centralized process no later than January 1st of 2017, and to ensure that it is capable at that time of resolving all cases by July 1st, 2017.

Our goal is to have a process that honors the commitment of service members and also our responsibility to the taxpayer.

Thank you.

And let me now move to the defense ministerial here — a very important time for NATO, coming out of the Warsaw summit, preparing for the next summit, facing challenges from the east, from the south, from the north, and also from within.

And we’ve had a productive set of meetings today.  They will continue into this evening.  I have briefed already allies on U.S. continuing efforts to strengthen deterrence here.  First of all, we are contributing a persistent rotational armored brigade combat team, and I’ll give you some details of that in just a moment.  But it’s a major sign of the U.S. commitment to strengthening deterrence here.

It’s not the only one.  I’ll remind you that we’re also positioning an armored brigade combat team’s-worth of equipment here.  And that’s on top of the two brigades that are already here in Europe.  Those are part of — those, and especially the rotational armored brigade combat team specifically, is part of our European Reassurance Initiative.  The $3.4 billion of funds in this fiscal year — I remind you that that’s quadruple what we had allocated last year.

This first rotational brigade will deploy to Europe in February.  It will be from Colorado.  And I’ll walk you through its agenda.  It will have an initial exercise in Poland.  And after that, the brigade will send company-sized units to Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states.

Companies will then remain in the Baltics until the NATO battalions arrive.  I’ll say more about them shortly.

In June, the brigade will conduct exercise Saber Strike in Poland and throughout the Baltic states.  And in July, it will move again to Bulgaria and Romania for exercises Swift Response and Saber Guardian, during which one tank company will transit the Black Sea to Georgia to participate in exercise Noble Partner.

And I appreciate all these countries that will host this brigade.  Together, we’re strengthening deterrence here.

Now, in addition, the United States will lead a battalion in Poland as part of NATO’s new enhanced forward presence.  This is on top of what I’ve said already.  This was a decision made by the alliance’s leaders in Warsaw.  The United States will lead a battalion in Poland and deploy an entire battle-ready battalion task force of approximately 900 soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, which is based in Turkey.

We’ll send a headquarters element — sorry?

STAFF:  Based in —

SEC. CARTER:  Based in Germany.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry — sorry.

We will send a headquarters element, three Stryker-equipped maneuver companies with a mobile gun system, an artillery battery, as well as anti-tank, explosive ordnance disposal, and engineer capabilities.  And we’re pleased to announce that Romania and the United Kingdom will provide companies that enhance our battalion’s combat power and its survivability as it performs its forward-stationed deterrence mission there in Poland.

Our battalion will arrive in Poland in April of next year and be positioned near the city of Orzysz in northeastern Poland.

To ensure its readiness, the United States will immediately upon the onset of the deployment transfer operational control of this U.S. battalion to SAC Europe, supreme allied commander Europe, and place it under the tactical control of a Polish brigade.  This is significant.

And we’re encouraging others to make the same kind of command and control arrangements with NATO, so everyone has the structure, the location, the sourcing, the partners and the command and control to NATO for our commitment to enhance forward presence which our president committed to, as the other heads of state did at the Warsaw summit.

We also spoke about how the alliance can bolster deterrence and defense in the southeast in particular, and I want to say something about that as well.

We also made a commitment, as the United States, to a battalion from our rotational armored brigade combat team, to associate and train with the Romanian multinational brigade, that as part of the enhanced tailored presence oriented towards the southeastern portion of NATO.

Now, this afternoon — that was the session we already had — this afternoon, we’ll discuss how we can continue to adapt NATO to ensure it is ready for the challenges not only of today, but tomorrow.  And the meeting will continue into this evening.  And I’m sure — and we’ll talk about — there about NATO’s southern flank, including counter-ISIL.

In addition, this place gives me an opportunity to have a number of useful bilateral and trilateral meetings.  I’ll just report I had a very good meeting, once again, with my Turkish colleague whom I visited in Ankara, and that was a very productive, very practical discussion of a whole host of alliance issues.  Turkey’s a very strong ally, of course, of NATO, so we talked about a number of alliance issues.  And of course, we talked, as we did in Ankara, further about the coalition’s activities in — against ISIL, a coalition of which, of course, Turkey is an important part.

We didn’t conclude any new arrangements, but we continued these — these very important discussions with a very good partner.  And by the way, the defense minister himself is a very good partner of mine.

We also had a trilateral meeting with the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who’s purpose was to readout to our Turkish colleague the meeting held yesterday in Paris.  That was very productive.  Jean-Yves gave an excellent summary of yesterday’s proceedings that we could then proceed to discuss it all three of us.

So we all want to keep ISIL under sustained pressure — that’s the key — and defeat it in both Iraq and Syria, and everybody shares that objective.

So that’s pretty much the readout.  Let me now take some questions here.  And I apologize for the length of that.

STAFF:  (inaudible) — Tara.

SEC. CARTER:  There’s a lot of detail involved — (inaudible).

STAFF:  We do have to get him back into the meeting, so — (inaudible).

Tara, I cut you off the other day, so you get the first question.

Q:  Okay.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Just back on the reenlistment bonuses issued.  If I read correctly, there are members of the military that could end up still having to pay depending on the outcome of this appeals process.  Is that true?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, under the law, we have to keep that option opened so that — but the point is that there will be no — collections are suspended now and we will put in place — and there won’t be any more collections until we’ve put in place a process that can expeditiously and fairly deal with these issues, obviously according to the law.

STAFF:  (off mic.)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your discussions with some of the members about — about Raqqah?  We’ve been told that there are some concerns about starting Raqqah right away because of — there may be a desire to wait until there’s some more successes in Mosul so that some of the forces are not strained.  Can you just give us a little bit of an idea of what other countries might be talking about in terms of what they intend to bring to this and your time —

SEC. CARTER:  Well, again, this is part of our plan, so we know that the activities in Iraq and Syria are overlapping.  They overlap today.  They’ll be overlapping as — because we’re conducting them simultaneously.

So in our plans, which are not just U.S. plans, as you know, but coalition plans, and the resourcing of those plans, we’ve taken into account that fact.  So we’ve anticipated — this has been long planned and we have the resources and can — and meetings like the one I had yesterday are times when we make sure we’re all coordinated on providing the resources — aircraft, tankers, and so forth.  And I think we gave you some of the detail of that.

But it’s all oriented towards being able to conduct all the operations we need to in Iraq and Syria, and by the way, for the United States, also elsewhere like Libya and Afghanistan.

Q:  And we were also told that you don’t expect to seek additional U.S. forces.  Is that accurate?

SEC. CARTER:  Our plan now is not to — we don’t have any — according to our plan, we have the resources we need if you’re talking about troop levels.  So that’s our plan.  However, I will say what I’ve always said, which is we’re going to win this.  And so if there’s anything that we need to do to accelerate, I’m prepared to ask for it.  But in our plans, that won’t be needed.

STAFF:  Bill?

Q:  Just to follow up.  So, I think in your interview this morning, you said it would be a few weeks until the start of the Raqqah offensive.  Could you just —

SEC. CARTER:  Weeks.  I can’t be more specific than that.

Q:  So the meeting — so it could be — it could be seven weeks.  You don’t want to be pinned down to a certain, you know, 21 days or something?  You want to be —

SEC. CARTER:  I mean, we know what we’re doing.  This is, as always, a matter when you’re positioning forces and so forth, we have a plan to do that and a schedule to do that.  But — and we’re going to execute to that plan.  And that plan has us generating those forces in a matter of weeks.  That’s really all I want to say.

Q:  Generating — so, you know —

SEC. CARTER:  Generating — generating them, and positioning them for the isolation of Raqqah.

Q:  Right.  So, it would be incorrect for us to go out and report that, you know — because right now, there’s a lot of people picking up on a story saying within three weeks, you know, basically the operation is starting.

SEC. CARTER:  I think it will be within weeks.  That’s what I want to say, and — and not many weeks — (inaudible).

STAFF:  (inaudible)

Q:  Back to the National Guard story real quick.  I understand that there are laws in place.  But is there any internal discussion about forgiving or just kind of letting this go?

SEC. CARTER:  Oh, well, there’s definitely a discussion which — which involves not only the — to me, the paramount issue of fairness, but there is also the law.  And so I think we need to look at that simultaneously.  But we’re — we’re operating within the law and I am operating within my authorities to suspend collections starting now.  And I’m exercising those authorities.

Q:  Can that authority be extended further beyond — (inaudible)?  Or —

SEC. CARTER:  I assume so, and I — but that’s — I don’t expect to have to do that because my instructions are to get this resolved.

STAFF:  Gordon?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Turkey, you said you had productive conversations.  You know, during this week we’ve kind of seen this thing unfold a little bit, trying to get some of this rift between Iraq and Turkey kind of resolved.  Can you give us an assessment of where you felt like it may have gotten?  My read of Foreign Minister — (inaudible) — remarks was he wanted to hear more from Turkey about sovereignty and that kind of thing — (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  Yes.  It’s pretty much as I’ve said before, Gordon.  We — we all agree on the basic principles, which include Iraqi sovereignty; includes Turkey’s role in the coalition.  And we’re working on the practicalities of that.  And that’s what our conversation is — a very professional discussion.  This is among people who have worked together for many years, not just me and the defense ministers, but importantly, our militaries as well.

So we’re working through the practicalities that reflect the principles that — that we share.  And oh — I’m sorry — and also the need to defeat ISIL, which is a threat to all of us.  And don’t forget, Turkey was attacked also and is threatened by ISIL.  And just recently, we killed someone whom we know was planning to — terrorist attacks within Turkey.  We eliminated that individual.

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. CARTER:  We can, I think.  (Inaudible) — I’m not going too far on you —

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  You’re the secretary of defense, sir.  You can say what you want.

(Laughter.)

SEC. CARTER:  Well we — we did.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can you say — (inaudible) — where in Turkey or —

SEC. CARTER:  No.  Already got him.  But I say it unabashedly, we’d do it again.

Q:  (inaudible) — kill someone in Turkey?

SEC. CARTER:  No, no, no, no, no.  This is on the battlefield.  This is somebody whom we know was planning external attacks, to include in Turkey.  I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear on that.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Last one is to (inaudible).

Q:  Mr. Secretary, do you think it would be a good thing for the coalition if Turkey participated militarily to the offensive in Raqqah?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, we’re trying to get to a point where we can work with — and we already are at the point where we’re working extensively with the Turkish military in Syria.  Don’t forget, we’re right now doing that.  That has had a very significant result in the seizure of Dabiq, a very important city in the narrative of ISIL, and that was accomplished by our partnership with the Turks and in the usual way, through capable and motivated local forces.

So we’re looking for other opportunities to — including further within Syria to include Raqqah.  So that’s — that’s been part of our discussions.

STAFF:  We got to get the secretary back in.  He’s caught out of this meeting with the ministers to meet with — (inaudible) — of the press here.

SEC. CARTER:  All right.  Good to see you guys.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. CARTER:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Mr. Secretary — (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER:  Okay.  Going to run in — (inaudible).

Q:  Thank you, sir.

SEC. CARTER:  Thank you.