STAFF: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for being here today.
It’s my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, III. The secretary will deliver opening remarks, and then we’ll have time for just a few questions. Please note that I will be moderating and will call on the journalists, and we do have a very tight schedule, so I appreciate your limiting follow-ups.
And with that, I will turn it over to Secretary Austin.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Pat.
Well, good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be back at NATO, and let me thank the secretary-general for gathering all of us, and for his steadfast leadership of this alliance during historic and challenging times.
First, on behalf of the United States, let me again express my deepest condolences to our NATO ally, Turkiye. To the people of Turkiye and Syria and to all who are mourning and suffering after last week’s devastating earthquake, I know that all of our hearts are with the families of the victims, and we’ll continue to work closely with our Turkish allies to meet their most urgent needs and to try to ease the terrible suffering in the region.
Turn to some of the other business that we discussed today. It’s been nearly one year since Russia’s cruel and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and nearly a year since Putin’s reckless war of — war of choice plunged Europe into its worst security crisis since the end of World War II. And the outcome of this tragic and unnecessary war is profoundly important to Ukrainian security, European security and to global security. Putin just — didn’t just assault a peaceful and sovereign and democratic U.N. member state; he also threatened the hard-won system — hard-won system of rules and rights that has made Europe stronger and safer for more than seven decades.
But things haven’t gone the way that the Kremlin planned. Putin expected Ukraine to surrender, and he expected the world to submit. History will record something very different. History will remember the courage of the Ukrainian people, and history will remember the determination and strength of the NATO alliance.
Almost a year after Russia’s imperial invasion of Ukraine, NATO is more unified and more resolute than ever. We are determined to stand with Ukraine’s brave defenders for as long as it takes, and we are also determined to protect every inch of NATO territory.
Putin’s flagrant aggression has changed the security environment for every member of this alliance and for countries around the world. You could see the scope of the global response again yesterday, when some 50 nations of goodwill gathered for the ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
And these challenges were an important part of this NATO ministerial. We talked today about how to ensure that NATO remains prepared to confront the dangers ahead.
At the Madrid Summit in June, NATO leaders agreed on a fundamental shift in our collective defense and deterrence. We are strengthening our capabilities for the long term to deter and defend against all threats across all domains. We’re upgrading our defense plans and putting more forces at higher levels of readiness. Today we discussed the progress that we’ve made since Madrid and our ongoing work as we move towards the Vilnius summit in July.
In Vilnius, our leaders will agree on a new defense investment pledge to ensure that the alliance has the resources to carry out these new plans. We had productive conversations about that pledge and we look forward to working with our valued allies to ensure that we all do even more to invest in our shared security.
We also discussed our progress in building up ammunition stockpiles and boosting defense industrial capacity. And NATO allies have dug deep over the past year, and both President Biden and I are deeply grateful. But we still have much more to do. Even as we rush to support Ukraine in the critical months ahead, we must all replenish our stockpiles to strengthen our deterrence and defense for the long term.
Now, this alliance has always drawn strength from its sheer devotion to the values of freedom, democracy and human rights. We’ve seen it in action over the past year, as our extraordinary allies have stepped up to condemn Putin — to condemn Putin’s imperial aggression, to support Ukraine’s right to defend itself and to — to strengthen our collective defense.
We will not be drawn into Putin’s war of choice. But we will never waver in carrying out NATO’s preeminent task. And that task is to defend this great alliance’s people and their territory.
America’s commitment to that core mission is unflinching. America’s commitment to Article 5 is ironclad. And we’re proud to work alongside our NATO allies to defend the forces of freedom and to build a safer world.
So thank you very much. And I’ll take a few questions.
STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Our first question will go to Tom Squitieri, RedSnow News.
Q: Thank you.
Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.
Sir, in 1914, as troops invading France moved through this very region, those in charge of the defense of Paris scrambled to rush men and materiel to blunt that offensive. They had little time to react and threw everything they could, include taxi-cabs, to get what was needed into the fight to counter that offensive. And they succeeded.
Now, from the NATO secretary general on down, many here have acknowledged that the Russians have even started or will soon begin an offensive of some proportion before the Ukrainians can do the same. So a similar scramble seems to be looming.
Yesterday you outlined a deep and wide range of military support pledged to Ukraine. You just mentioned it again today. But with ports jammed and railways clogged, with some production off pace, how certain are you that this support will get to Ukraine in time, or, as you just said in your opening remarks, how will history record something very differently?
SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Tom.
What we’re seeing from Russia is Russia is — continues to pour large numbers of additional people into the fight. And those people are ill-trained and ill-equipped. And because of that, we see them incurring a lot of casualties. And we’ll probably continue to see that going forward. That’s — that’s their strength: They have a lot of people.
Our goal is to make sure that we give Ukraine additional capabilities so that they can be — not only be marginally-successful, they can be decisive on the battlefield in the — in their upcoming offensive.
And so you’ve seen us move to provide Bradley fighting vehicles. You’ve seen us move to provide Strykers, Marders, Leopard tanks and a number of other things that we’re pulling together to provide them additional capability that I think will make a pretty significant difference in their counteroffensive in the spring.
So we’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability, and not just platforms, Tom. So for every system that we provide, we’re going to train troops on that system, but we’re also going to give them additional training on maneuver, on the integration of fires, on sustainment and on maintenance. And so with that additional capability, better-trained troops, platforms that can perform a lot better in this environment, I think they’ll have a real good chance at making a pretty significant difference on the battlefield and establishing the initiative, and being able to exploit that initiative going forward.
STAFF: Thank you, sir.
Our next question will go to David Boti, Sveriges Television.
Q: Thank you, Secretary Austin. I’m David Boati from Swedish Public Television.
Regarding your session process, do you predict that both Sweden and Finland will be members at the summit this summer? And is there something the United States can do to help make that happen?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, I certainly hope that they will, David, and I know that, you know, all of my colleagues feel the same way. They are ready to join now, and these are two countries that are highly-capable that bring a lot of value to the alliance once they join. We have — we’ve trained with them in the past. They’ve invested a lot in modernization. And so they’ll bring a lot to the table.
Now, when and how they join will be really up to the leadership of both of those countries, and I know that leader — their leadership is leaning forward, and so we’ll see what happens. I don’t — I won’t hazard to predict. I will just tell you that I know all of my colleagues are with me in saying that we’d like to see them join as soon as possible.
STAFF: Thank you, sir.
Our final question will go to Bill Hannigan, Time Magazine.
Q: Sir, in the last 24 hours, we’ve heard that a F-16 shot at and missed a object over Lake Huron, and that the objects themselves may likely be for research or some other benign reason. Given that there’s been no other shoot-downs in the past two days after we had three in a row, is the military now more wary to engage these objects? And then secondly, it seems that the debris is located in some hard-to-reach places, to put it lightly. So how important is the recovery of this wreckage in — to — to deciding the policy ahead?
SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, Bill.
I’m not aware of any additional objects that have been reported operating in the — in the space in the last 48 hours, so —
But in terms of whether or not the debris is important, it’s absolutely important, and we’re going to do everything we can to recover debris if it’s possible. That will help us learn a lot more about, you know, what these objects are. We’re also working with other agencies — NASA, FAA, FBI — and everybody in the community who may have an interest in operating in this space to learn more about, you know, what these could have possibly been.
And so I would just tell you that the safety and security of the American people are — that’s the thing that’s most important to me and to everybody on the — on the DOD team and throughout the interagency. So we’re going to continue to drill until we learn as much as we can about, you know, what these objects are and why they were operating in those spaces, and we’ll — we will always err on the side of caution. But again, there’s a lot to be learned going forward, so —
STAFF: Thank you very much, sir.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have for today. This concludes our press briefing. Thank you.