Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper
STAFF: Good morning, everybody.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Hey, good morning. How’s everybody doing? Good to see you.
STAFF: Just a reminder, on the record. When you ask questions, introduce yourself and your outlet just to — as new people get familiar with new faces. And then once again, we’ve asked to remain embargoed until we let you know. It’ll just be at the end of the hearing this morning. So — the Norquist hearing, not the Mueller hearing. (Laughter.)
All right? Sir?
SEC. ESPER: That’s important.
First day on the job, right? So three hours into it, wanted to come see you guys and talk briefly.
Q: Appreciate it.
SEC. ESPER: So — no, thank you all.
Q: Still like the job? (Laughter.)
SEC. ESPER: I’m sorry?
SEC. ESPER: It’s great. It’s a great honor. Just a few things I want to make note of real quick. I’ve asked Jonathan to send out this week updated guidance to the field with regard to engaging the military.
Given the — what I view, as all of you view, the very important role of the media, the press in our society and in terms of communicating what we are doing and then answering your questions. So he’ll be getting that out this week as a heads up.
And secondly, I sent out a memo consistent with my testimony establishing a DOD task force on PFAS, the purpose of which to address all of the key issues surrounding that, whether it’s cleanup, whether it’s finding an alternative for the current firefighting, you name it.
It’ll include the military departments, our health affairs folks. I’ve also asked him to involve — miss — the EPA and other parts of the interagency to make sure that we go after this problem very aggressively, very holistically and we get in front of it and stay in front of it to take care of our families, our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and the outlining communities that are affected by it.
So we can give you more details separately on that but I just wanted to make sure that you got that announcement up front, as well. Lastly, I’ll say, as I said last night, I’m really humbled by the President’s confidence in me to be the Secretary of Defense.
It’s a great privilege to lead the greatest military in history and I’m also humbled by the strong bipartisan support by the Senate yesterday with regard to my nomination. So I really appreciate that support, I think it’s — it’s not about me but it sends a great message to the institution, the Armed Forces, that the Congress is behind us as well in terms of what we do. It’s a very bipartisan signal.
So again, I step into day one humbled by this opportunity for me to lead this great organization and I will do it with a great deal of commitment and vigor as we go through our day to day activities. So with that, I will stop and we will open up for questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary. Can I ask you a question? As you start out as the first Senate confirmed Secretary in seven months and as one of three people who actually served in an acting capacity, what …
SEC. ESPER: It’s better. (Laughter.)
Q: … What did the seven months cost the department, if anything, in terms of either credibility or momentum or operationally?
SEC. ESPER: You know, it’s a — it’s a good question. I’d — you know, I’d — my perspective was from a Service Secretary and I think it does — always challenging — you know, people in acting jobs — when you don’t feel the full confidence of the role, some — sometimes folks tend to maybe not behave as confidently, right, because it’s — you’re unsure and you don’t want to — you also don’t want to bind the person who may actually be confirmed, their hands.
So it’s — but in terms of the operational pace and everything else, look, we have a great cadre of DOD civilians, the — the military, everybody stays focused. So I — I’m confident we didn’t miss any beats, any steps if you will.
Q: You don’t think it’s lost influence within the administration in terms of the voice of …
SEC. ESPER: Not — not — not that I’ve seen. I know there’s a great deal of speculation out there about that but you know, let’s — the — the clear thing is now, getting to you — probably the other question that’s out there is we need to get staffed up quickly.
We’ve had 50 — there are 59, I think is the number, Senate confirmed positions. We have 14 of them, are filled by — mostly filled by actings and there’s a couple we — two, three, four we need to fill. We have Secretary Norquist on the Hill right now testifying, which is a good thing. We have some other people should be coming out of the White House soon.
My key is to get them — get those positions filled as quickly as possible, keep pushing folks through this system. I had a good chat last night with Chairman Inhofe and — and Senator Reed about this, and again I think there’s still that commitment out there to move us through.
They recognize that despite their, you know — 14 out of 15 doesn’t sound bad, but when you look at the top six — that of the top six, five of them, now four, are — are — aren’t occupied by a confirmed person, that’s what concerns me.
So we’ve got to get stable leadership in to make sure that you have that civilian control of the military, the right people in place leading this organization.
I’m going to let him — I’m going to let him pick.
Q: … on your point on the PFAS, sir — Tara Kopp with McClatchy. There are potentially thousands of veterans who suspect that cancers they are facing might be connected to PFAS exposure.
Will your task force include addressing that and maybe reaching out to the veteran community?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I think we need to follow the science on this and I think one of those agencies that we should be talking with is the VA on this, OK? So we — you know, we don’t — we just need to understand the problem and make sure we have our hands fully around it, follow the science and then obviously if — if there’s a relationship, we — we need to do our due diligence.
Q: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about Operation Sentinel. As you know, the Europeans have created their own maritime security force. Give us an update on Operation Sentinel and how would you work with the Europeans? Are you talking with them about a — some sort of a command and control? Because they claim they’re going to have their own for the European effort.
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, clearly I didn’t have the chance in the last two hours to talk to them, but they — they are trying to pursue something I — I describe as complimentary, if you will. You know, what we said all along is the key thing is here — are two-fold, one is maintaining freedom of navigation in the Strait — of course, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman — and then secondly is deterring provocative actions from Iran.
And so whether we do that as one big group or as subgroups, I think as long as it compliments one another — there will be clearly coordination between us all, CENTCOM will be the coordinating authority. I will be down at CENTCOM next week, I am traveling down there to — just to check in with them, to get a briefing on a number of issues.
So I think it’s all helpful, it’s all sending the same messages we’re trying to send. That is freedom of navigation and no provocative acts in the Strait, and we’ve seen provocative acts obviously in the last, what, week or two since the first shoot down of our drone.
Q: And along those — along those lines, what evidence do you have that the first Iranian drone was actually destroyed? We understand there were pictures. Will you be releasing those?
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, I don’t — I don’t have any details on that right now. I’ll — you know, I’m going down to CENTCOM next week, but as we get details and information, we’ll …
STAFF: We can get back to you on that.
Q: Mr. Secretary, just to follow up, Idrees from Reuters.
Obviously you’ve been asking and — and departments have been asking for assets for Operation Sentinel. Now with the European led initiative, does that take away assets from Operation Sentinel or do you now go to the …
SEC. ESPER: No, I think it — I think it’s all complimentary. We — you know, this is not — this is something where all countries who — you know, most countries who transit the Strait should have an interest in this and want to participate and want to provide some type of forces to — to, again, ensure navigation of the Strait, freedom of the seas, and to deter provocative behavior.
So I — it’s — it’s all complimentary, it all works. The key is making sure we do those two things.
Q: But you plan to escort ships. Is that what you envision this being?
SEC. ESPER: Well you — you see it happening already. The — the — the Brits are escorting — trying to escort their ships, we will escort our ships to the degree that the risk demands it, right? And I — I assume that other countries will escort their ships.
Q: And sir, how will you take politics out of the military? It seems like the military has always been an apolitical organization. What steps are you planning to take?
SEC. ESPER: Well first of all, my personal example to — to keep us out of politics as much as possible and the messages we’ll continue to send to our commanders and folks here in the buildings, is just to stay, to keep out of the politics.
It’s something you’ve always got to stay on top of and that’s my commitment.
STAFF: And just — just a reminder everybody, once again, please introduce yourself, outlet, and let’s keep it to one question, no follow-ups.
Q: Can I — can I — Courtney Kube with NBC. Just one more on Jennifer — when you say you’re going to escort ships to the degree of the threat …
SEC. ESPER: Jennifer ambushed me from behind, are you … (Laughter.)
Q: It’s the women of the press corps who are the ones that you — you — they’re going to …
SEC. ESPER: Caught me. I wasn’t looking over.
Q: To the degree the threat demands it. Does the threat demand it right now? And does that mean that that would be U.S. military ships or air or what would it look like, of how — of commercial ships going through?
SEC. SESPER: Yeah, we maintain a constant surveillance in the — surveillance in the gulf, both by air and by sea. As the threat — I mean, it — as you — as I understand it, as you move through different parts of the strait and up into either ends of it, you know, the threat changes, right? Given proximity, based on locations of IRGC capabilities. That’s — those are — that’s just one example of some of the assessments you have to make as you — as you navigate the strait, right?
Q: I just want to be clear. Are you announcing that the U.S. military is going to be escorting commercial vessels through today, either via air or land?
SEC. ESPER: I’m not saying that right now. I’m just saying this is one of the things I want to go see — in CENTCOM next week is understand their concept of the operations. Again, to the degree, of course, United States vessels need an escort, we will be there, we will be available to them…
Q: If possible.
SEC. ESPER: I use “escort” broadly, right? Escort doesn’t mean they’re, you know, following right behind. But as long as you’re in the area that you can react quick enough to deter a provocation, that’s the key.
Q: Secretary, Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner. How happy are you with the proposed $738 billion topline for the budget next year? I know the Senate in particular was looking at $750 billion. What do you give — if that ends up being the final number, is that going to be a problem at all?
SEC. ESPER: Seven thirty-eight’s a good number. We also have two years. We expect to see two years’ worth of numbers. And I think to the degree we have predictability, to the degree that we can avoid C.R.s, those things allow us to plan and make more efficient use of our dollars. So I’m good with those dollars. That’s — no complaints.
Q: Hi. Yeah.
STAFF: I’ve got you up there and Jennifer right behind me right now.
Q: Two things.
Q: If we were in the briefing room, we could be in front.
SEC. ESPER: Oh, OK.
Q: Oh. (Laughter.)
SEC. ESPER: We’ll get there. We’ll get there.
Q: Let me take you back to both Jennifer and Courtney’s questions. So two parts on — sorry, I’ll ask it all at the same time. So it’s not a follow-up. First, can you say, as secretary of defense, affirmatively, that a U.S. — that the United States would never, would not allow a U.S.-flagged commercial ship to be seized or boarded by Iran? Can you say that you would not allow that to happen?
And, I still want to take you back to the term of “escort,” only because the Navy seems to use that in a very particular sense of maritime escorts on the water…
SEC. ESPER: Yeah.
Q: … not aircraft overhead. It does seem like you’re saying you will — you are announcing that you’re saying, “We will escort to the degree circumstances demand.” So you are now preparing to escort.
But both questions, if you wouldn’t mind.
SEC. ESPER: Yeah. So let me take the last one first. So I’m — with my military background, I’m very conscious of what specific terms mean. I know — so I suspect that “escort” in Navy terminology may mean something (than) what I think of in my non-Navy terminology.
That’s why I want to get to CENTCOM and understand, you know, what they mean by that and what I understand by it. But, again, I think…
Q: So what do you mean?
SEC. ESPER: What I mean by it is, as I said, to the degree that circumstances warrant, that we think that maybe a U.S. ship may be under some type of threat, threat being of, like you said, a — being stopped or being seized, then we would want to make sure we have the capacity to make sure that doesn’t happen.
In some cases, that may be strictly an overhead capability, you know. It may mean that there is a U.S. Naval warship within proximity to deter that. So I — again, I don’t necessarily mean that’s every U.S.-flagged ship going through the strait has a — has a destroyer right behind it.
So that’s kind of how I — again, but this is what I want to understand as to how our folks at the — at CENTCOM, specifically NAVCENT, understand how they would employ it.
Q: And would you, as secretary of defense — would you commit — will you — are you saying that the United States would not ever allow the U.S.-flagged cargo vessel to be seized or boarded by Iran?
SEC. ESPER: I don’t — I don’t know why — what circumstance I would consent to that, right? I mean, it’s…
Q: Would you prevent it?
SEC. ESPER: Well, we would want — yeah, absolutely, we would want to prevent it. Sure.
SEC. ESPER: Unless — unless…
Q: Wait, let him finish.
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, no, I would definitely want to. But see, this is what I don’t like about hypotheticals, right? We — somebody here could probably think up a situation where we would say, “Huh, well, that’s — why was the American ship doing that?” But, no, my view is, no, we would want to prevent the Iranians seizing or stopping a ship, certainly for any arbitrary reason whatsoever.
Q: Paul Shinkman, U.S. News & World Report. You talked during your confirmation hearing about the importance of returning to a negotiations with Iran. Can you qualify how you see the current situation there right now? Is it one that needs — or that is poised for de-escalation of some sort of sort? Or are you still trying to position military assets to get the point across?
SEC. ESPER: Well, the point of Operation Sentinel, as I think I spoke about two or three weeks ago when I was in the acting role, was to de-escalate by deterring a — by deterring an escalation, right? Not necessarily a provocation that leads us into an unnecessary conflict.
So the whole purpose — and this is what you’ve seen right now, evolving in many ways, between the U.K. and Iran, right? It’s becoming a tit-for-tat. And we want to avoid those situations.
And so that’s the purpose of Operation Sentinel, as conceived, was to avoid those situations. So we don’t get in a situation where there’s a provocation where there’s a seizure of a ship and something like that, and then we — and then it escalates.
We’re trying to de-escalate. And at the same time, message to them very clearly that without precondition, any time, any place, we’re willing to meet with them and talk about how we’d get back on into a negotiation.
Q: Can I ask about Incirlik? Can I ask you about Incirlik, please? Yes. So Turkey…
SEC. ESPER: That’s a base in Turkey. (Laughter.)
Q: … there have been — right. There’s — there have been some reports today that Turkey is threatening to cut off U.S. access to Incirlik if there are sanctions imposed. Can you talk a little bit about whether you’ve heard anything about that? What the DOD’s response is? And what impact would it have if Turkey cuts off our access to that base?
SEC. ESPER: I haven’t seen — I haven’t seen that report, so you’re providing me news. You know, obviously, as I said in the hearing, Turkey’s been a longstanding NATO ally. We want to preserve that relationship, that alliance. And Incirlik is important to us.
But beyond that, I think General Goldfein spoke about this to you all the other day. You know, he’s far more familiar with it in terms of what Incirlik means. But we’ll take this all one step at a time…
Q: A question about the Russian intrusion, sir?
STAFF: Let’s go back over here real quickly.
Q: Hi. Haley Britzky with Task & Purpose.
What — when can we expect an official nomination for Secretary McCarthy? And what kind of advice are you leaving for him as you leave the Army?
SEC. ESPER: Don’t break anything.
SEC. ESPER: No, I think it’s a matter of days. His paperwork’s at the White House and everybody, you know, that we put forward needs to be thoroughly vetted. So I think he’s — he should be soon coming out of the process.
The question will be is it — will it be soon enough for the — for the Senate to do — the Armed Services Committee, now, to do its due diligence in a timely manner. But I think it’s — it’s only a matter of time until we get him up there and then confirmed.
STAFF: OK, right here.
Q: Mr. Secretary, good morning. My name’s Tom Squitieri with Talk Media News.
What information can you provide to us, please, about the Russian intrusion, in the island in — in the Sea of Japan? That scrambled the South Korean fighters.
SEC. ESPER: Well, to the best of my recollection, it’s not new that they — that the Russians have been flying routes south, right? To that area. I think it’s — what’s new is the fact that they did cross into South Korean airspace. And…
Q: Presumably for the first time.
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, that’s my — that’s my understanding. I haven’t studied it in great detail in the last three hours, but that’s my understanding, as well, and they — the — the Koreans obviously responded, as well. — — to kind of deter that…
Q: Well, you’re planning to visit South Korea and Japan and Japan criticized the South Korean action of — of intercepting a Russian — I mean, what — what does this do to the relationship between the two nations and the United States?
SEC. ESPER: I think, you know, once I make my way out to the — out to the Pacific and meet with them, these are one of the things I intend to discuss with them.
Q: Hi, Amanda from CNBC, a trade war question.
So despite the U.S.-China trade war that’s ongoing, I know it’s not necessarily your swim lane, but it’s based off of national security threats, so Huawei, ZTE, South China Sea, predatory economics, how do you see that relationship going forward?
Secretary Shanahan was big on China, China, China.
SEC. ESPER: Yeah, so I mean I’ve been studying China for quite some time now and I’m big on China as well and I — I think we need to be very concerned about Chinese technology getting into our systems or the systems of our allies.
So Huawei is a — is the poster child right now for that. So I support, you know, all efforts and I — when I was in Brussels three weeks ago, we talked about this amongst defense ministers about how do we make sure that we preserve the integrity of our networks, if you will, whether — as an alliance.
And so that will continue to be important for me as — as we go forward.
STAFF: We’re going to go right here and then we’re going to do two more cause we’ve got to head back up.
Q: Hi, Luis Martinez with ABC News.
Thank you again for doing this. Has there been a White House policy decision that the U.S. will respond to Iranian provocations only if they attack or if they target U.S. vessels? And does that kind of send the message to Iran that it’s OK to carry out provocations against other countries? Cause you did mention there is a tit-for-tat right now against the UK but it doesn’t seem to be leading to a broad U.S. response.
SEC. ESPER: There is no policy that I’m aware of, if you will. I mean it’s in — and I think with our allies, depending on the situation we’re — you know, there’s always that — you know, we come to the aid of our allies depending on the situation.
So it’s — again, it’s — I don’t want to get into hypotheticals cause each one is different but — but you know, again, depending on the circumstances, we’ll assist, whether it’s providing command and control, providing some type of surveillance, early warning, whatever the case may be.
Q: So right now, you only consider it tit-for-tat — right now, you only consider it a tit-for-tat for the UK but if they get in — continue against other countries, there may be a potential U.S. response?
SEC. ESPER: No, again that’s a — it’s a hypothetical. I’m just saying — I’m just giving the example of we’re trying to avoid escalations which have happened between — I mean, you look at the British example. Go back to the first one they had several weeks ago where Iranian fast craft, if you will, came across a British vessel, right?
And who knows what they were going to do but I think it was the mantra, it was a warship, you know, conveniently got in between them and kind of broke it up, right? That didn’t happen in the latest one. The warship wasn’t within close enough proximity to kind of make this same maneuver.
So now we’re in a situation where it’s escalated up a notch. That’s — that’s what we’re trying to prevent, is a situation where they’re taking a ship, they’re taking a ship. You know, Barbara gave the example of well what if folks are captured? That’s what — we’re trying to avoid that situation.
So to kind of predict in every — you know, I — I can’t give those predictions.
Q: Matt Boehner, Defense Daily.
The president has said he’s thinking about asking the Pentagon to look into the JEDI Cloud competition. I know you’ve only been here for a few hours but has the Pentagon had any discussions with the White House about looking into that program? He’s said he’s received, you know, some complaints from several companies.
SEC. ESPER: I’ve heard from everybody about the — the JEDI contract and that’s one of the things I want to take a hard look at.
STAFF: Let’s go right here. Last question, right here.
Q: Rafael Salido with EFE News. Thanks for doing this.
I was wondering actually we’re talking about the situation at the Gulf, and there you can see that certain decisions by this administration has undermined the relationship with historic allies, like Europe or Japan, South Korea.
In other issues also, are you …
SEC. ESPER: I’m not sure I agree with your premise, but go ahead.
Q: Well actually, last week the Pentagon was saying that it was disappointed by the Spanish Army — or Navy actually, so that’s — that’s an issue. So I am wondering are you concerned that the military to military relationship with these allies may be affected by this situation and are you — what are you thinking about doing if that’s the case?
SEC. ESPER: I have — I have found in all of my many years of government work that the strongest relationships typically are between the militaries and I think that’s, you know, very foundational. We find that, you know, over the years we’ve trained in each other’s schools, we’ve visited each of those countries, I’ve — I’ve — had those experiences myself.
And so if there’s a flap in the relationship, every now and then — every now and then that happens, but typically again the military bonds — the — the bonds between the militaries of each country are typically the strongest and the most enduring and that’s one of the things that I aim to preserve.
STAFF: Guys, thank you.
Guys, thank you, we’ve got to go, sorry, but thanks. It’s the first day, we’re is very busy …
SEC. ESPER: I’ve got to run, thank you.