STAFF: Good afternoon. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for being here today. It is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III. The secretary will deliver some opening remarks, and then we’ll have time for a few questions. I will call on those journalists, and would ask to limit any follow-ups, since we do have a limited amount of time available today.
With that, over to you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Pat.
Good afternoon, everyone. It’s great to be back at NATO, and let me thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for hosting all of us this week and for his steadfast leadership of this alliance.
Today was our first meeting at the ministerial level since the historic Madrid Summit in June, and it’s been a very productive day. President Biden’s newly-released National Security Strategy underscores the profound importance of NATO and working with like-minded allies and partners to magnify our strength and bolster our shared security.
You know, it’s always great to get to spend time with our outstanding allies, and that’s especially true at moments of challenge. For more than seven decades, this great alliance has made all of our proud — proud democracies both stronger and safer, and in the face of Europe’s largest security crisis since World War II, NATO stands more unified and more resolute than ever. I think some of you have heard me say before that I actually started working with NATO back in 1975 as a young lieutenant, and I have never seen it so united.
Today, this proud alliance of free countries stands together to condemn Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. You know, Putin thought he could easily conquer his peaceful neighbor, yet the Kremlin’s war of choice is now in its eighth month. Putin’s mobilization effort is bellicose rhetoric. His cruel attacks on civilian targets and his hollow attempt to annex Ukrainian territory all show how Ukraine’s courage and skill have disrupted Russia’s hope for a quick war of conquest.
NATO continues to make clear that we will not be dragged into Russia’s war of choice, but we will stand by Ukraine as it fights to defend itself and we will continue to strengthen NATO’s collective defense. NATO has responded robustly and decisively to Russia’s imperial invasion, and our determination to protect every inch of NATO territory is unwavering. Allies have placed tens of thousands of troops under direct NATO command, along with significant air and naval assets, and I’m deeply proud of the progress that we’ve made in the past several months to protect all allies from Russian aggression.
Today, we discussed the work that we’ve done since the recent NATO Summit, and I know that we are laser-focused on implementing the decisions taken by our leaders in Madrid. We discussed additional steps that the alliance is taking to strengthen our collective defense, and we had frank and productive conversations about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affects allied security. We discussed our efforts to address the critical issue of ammunition stockpiles and defense industrial capacity, and I’m confident that our work here will help ensure that our allies maintain credible deterrence and defense, while we continue our stead — our steadfast support of the brave citizens of Ukraine, and we all know that we all share the responsibility to procure, prepare and provide ready capabilities and forces to prepare this alliance for challenges to come.
Now, we were joined today by Finland and Sweden, two proud democracies that are close to joining NATO. Their decision to apply for membership is an historic step. It reflects the power of NATO’s core democratic values and NATO’s critical role in upholding the rules-based international order, and their membership will greatly enhance the alliance’s capabilities and strengths. So I encourage all of our valued allies to ratify the protocols for accession as soon as possible so that we can welcome both of these highly-capable democratic partners into the alliance.
Let me say again, NATO poses no threat to Russian and seeks no confrontation with Russia, but our defensive alliance will, as it always has, protect every inch of NATO territory. NATO’s preeminent task has not changed: to defend each and every ally’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and America remains profoundly committed to that task and to our NATO allies and to Article Five.
I want to thank you all for being here today, and with that, I’m happy to take a few questions.
STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Our first question will go to Phil Stewart from Reuters.
QUESTION: Thank you.
So a senior NATO official said on Wednesday that Russia — that a Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine would potentially provoke a physical response — those are the quotes — “physical response” — from NATO itself. Are the U.S. and its allies prepared to potentially respond with force against Russia, should it use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? And how did Russia’s threats of a nuclear strike factor in today’s meeting of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group? Did NATO agree to any changes to its nuclear policy or planning as a result?
SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of what we’re planning for any potential event that could happen, Phil, you know, I — I never speculate on — on — on what could — could happen, and so I won’t — I won’t bother to walk down the road of trying to answer a hypothetical question.
But — but it is the business of NATO to ensure that we have the ability to defend NATO, and so that is the — the topic that we always discuss whenever we meet. We’re always looking to ensure that we have the right capabilities and the — in place to not only defend NATO but also to sustain our efforts going forward.
In terms of Russia’s comments, you’ve heard me say a number of times and also our leadership say that irresponsible and reckless rhetoric is dangerous. And so as we’ve witnessed nuclear saber rattling, we don’t think that’s very helpful, and again, it’s — it’s dangerous.
NATO, again, does not pose any threat to Russia. This is Russia’s war of choice. And as we look at things and as I look at indications and warnings, I don’t see any need to make any changes to — to what we’re doing right now.
But this is the thing, as you heard me say yesterday, that we’re focused on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So if there is a need to make changes, then we’ll certainly do that.
I would also say that one change that could be made today is that Russia could choose to deescalate and could choose to end this war because Putin started this war by — as a matter of choice and he has the — he has a — certainly has a choice to — that he could make to — to — to cease his aggressive behavior and redeploy his forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.
STAFF: Thank you, sir. Next question, we’ll go to Lili Bayer, Politico EU.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I have two brief questions.
The first is there has been a big focus over the past days on ramping up production of weapons but are you also asking your European partners to raise long term defense spending targets?
And the second question is when it comes to air defense systems for Ukraine, when can we expect new systems designated for Ukraine to actually be delivered and be fully operational? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: In terms of new systems that are being — that we are focused on providing, as you know, we — we’re providing systems that can meet the immediate — the immediate needs and we’re also procuring systems that will take longer to — to produce and — and introduce into the — into the theater.
Some of these systems could take weeks or months, other systems may take years. For example, you heard us mention a couple of days ago that we’re going to provide Ukraine with 18 additional HIMARS. We’ll purchase those — we — we purchased those HIMARS but it’ll be a couple of years before they’re actually produced and introduced.
In the meantime, we’ve provided four HIMARS systems that can be — that will be introduced immediately, and that’ll give them additional capability to the one — to the capabilities that they have right now. And by the way, they’ve been using that capability very, very effectively.
And the first part of your question again was?
QUESTION: About encouraging European partners to potentially spend more.
SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, you’ve heard us say that, you know, two percent of — of their…
SEC. AUSTIN: GDP — thank you — is — is what we would expect that the — they would invest, but as we see things develop, we — we would encourage countries to go above that two percent because we’re going to have to invest more in expanding industrial bases and — and — and making sure that we’re doing the right things to replace those things that — some of those things that we’ve provided to Ukraine.
STAFF: Thank you. Our next question will go to Liz Friden, Fox.
QUESTION: Thank you. Secretary Austin, today, referring to the U.S. National Security Strategy, you called China the most consequential challenge the U.S. is facing. It’s a — China’s a priority for the U.S. Is it a priority for NATO? And if so, how is NATO going to respond to China’s rise?
SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. So you have heard me talk about — or describe China as a — as a pacing challenge and we’ve described it — I’ve described it as a challenge. You also see it addressed in our newly released National Security Strategy, and I think you heard the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan talk about this most recently.
Again, China has the — the economy, it has — it has invested in technology, it has, you know, the military capability to challenge the status quo in a — in a number of places. And so we see that as a longer term challenge.
You know, China is addressed in our — our strategic — strategic concepts document as — in NATO. So certainly, that’s the thing that NATO countries have — have been focused on. Of course, the most pressing issue right now is Russia, and it — as it has invaded Ukraine.
But — but certainly China is a thing that — that we, the United States of America, will focus on as we — even as we deal with the tough — very tough problem that Russia has presented us with and presented the alliance with.
And again, China is addressed in the strategic concepts document for NATO, so.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. And a follow up on (inaudible) question actually, is there a chance that — you said HIMARS, some of them, could take years to get into Ukraine. Could it become a forever war in Ukraine?
SEC. AUSTIN: Well, I — I certainly won’t speculate on how long the war is going to last, and certainly we don’t want to see a forever war. This war could end today, as you heard me say earlier. It’s the choice of one man, Putin. And so I would call upon him to — to change his decision and cease what he’s done to terrorize and — and — and murder innocent civilians, so.
STAFF: Thank you, sir. Our next question — final question will go to Illia Ponomarenko from Kyiv Independent.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, what is the reason behind the U.S. not providing Ukraine with artillery pieces like M198? They are pretty old but still they are good, not as modern as M777 but they’re more and they’re good and there’s so many of them and they are going out of operation of the U.S. Armed Forces. So why not (inaudible) them while Ukraine is asking for as many artillery pieces as possible? And the quantity also matters for its growing military. So why not (inaudible) them too?
SEC. AUSTIN: Great question. I think you’re testing my knowledge of our tactical systems here, right? OK, you may be aware of the fact that the M777 is a — is a superior weapons system, in terms of its ability to fire long — at — at longer ranges, and it is a very accurate weapon systems and the Ukrainians have — have been very happy with that weapon system and the effects that they’ve been able to — to create — to create using it.
They’ve also been provided a number of other 155 howitzers from various countries. We’ve seen countries, a lot of NATO countries that have 155 capability, introduce different systems. And so, you know, one of the limiting factors is not just the howitzer but it is also the ammunition for that howitzer.
So, again, we provided them with — with the most accurate weapon in the inventory and also the one that — that can shoot at longer ranges. Our allies are — continue to step up to the plate and deliver great capability. And — and so I think the 198 — there are a lot of numbers — lot of — lot of systems in the inventory, as you pointed out. But the triple 7, I think, gives them more of what they need, the ability to shoot at a bit longer range and — and the accuracy that they — that they deserve.
So the final comment I would make, by the way, is that our allies — you know, we met yesterday in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group and we encouraged our allies to provide as much of what Ukraine said that it urgently needed as quickly as possible. And what it described — what the leadership described that they needed yesterday most was air defense capability. So you’ve heard the United States say that, you know, we’re going to provide NASAMS. You’ve heard us say yesterday that Germany is providing an IRIS-T system, and that’s being moved in as we speak. And just today one of our allies came back one day later and said that they were going to push in additional HAWK systems, which the Ukrainians had asked for.
So we thank Spain for its — its very, very rapid response. We would encourage the rest of our allies to — to dig deep and — and provide additional capability as well. And I feel confident that our allies would do that.
So thank you very much.
STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have available today. This concludes our press briefing. Thank you.