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Joint Press Briefing with Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

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Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford Jr.
Sept. 20, 2019
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER:  Well, good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  Gen. Dunford and I just returned from the White House, where we met with the president and his national security team to discuss options to deter Iran's continued aggressive behavior.  As we have seen, the Iranian regime is waging a deliberate campaign to destabilize the Middle East and impose costs on the international economy. 

In recent months, Iran has increased its military activity through direct attacks and support to its proxies in the region.  In the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, which are vital waterways for global commerce, Iran has threatened the safe passage of ships by attacking commercial vessels and illegally seizing a British oil tanker. 

In Yemen, Iran is perpetuating war by providing sustained financial support and advanced weapons to the Houthi insurgency.  And on June 20th, Iran shot down a United States unmanned aircraft that was flying over international waters. 

Despite repeated calls from President Trump to begin diplomatic talks, Iranian aggression continues to increase.  In the face of this sustained malign behavior, the United States and other countries have demonstrated great restraint in hopes that Iranian leadership would choose peace, and reverse Iran's steep decline into isolation and economic collapse. 

But the attack on September 14th against Saudi Arabian oil facilities represents a dramatic escalation of Iranian aggression.  It is clear, based on detailed exploitation conducted by Saudi, the United States and other international investigative teams, that the weapons used in the attack were Iranian produced and were not launched from Yemen, as was initially claimed.  All indications are that Iran was responsible for the attack. 

The United States has a responsibility to protect our citizens and our interests in the region, and the international community has a responsibility to protect the global economy and international rules and norms.  All of this is threatened by Iran's significant escalation of violence. 

This week, I have been in dialogue with the Saudi defense minister and other partners about this latest attack.  To prevent further escalation, Saudi Arabia requested international support to help protect the kingdom's critical infrastructure.  The United Arab Emirates has also requested assistance. 

In response to the kingdom's request, the president has approved the deployment of U.S. forces, which will be defensive in nature and primarily focused on air and missile defense.  We will also work to accelerate the delivery of military equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to enhance their ability to defend themselves.

The purpose of the additional defensive support we will provide is as follows.  First, to send a clear message that the United States supports our partners in the region.  Second, to ensure the free flow of resources necessary to support the global economy.  And third, to demonstrate our commitment to upholding the international rules-based order that we have long called on Iran to obey. 

As the president has made clear, the United States does not seek conflict with Iran.  That said, we have many other military options available should they be necessary. 

We urge the Iranian leadership to cease their destructive and destabilizing activities and to move forward on a peaceful, diplomatic path. 

Gen. Dunford and I will now take your questions.  Thank you.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you.  You said air and missile defenses primarily.  Could you be a little more specific about -- are you talking about patriot missiles -- and what number of troops are you talking about sending?

GENERAL JOSEPH F. DUNFORD JR.:  Yes, so, Bob, Secretary Pompeo just came back this morning, and the Saudis asked for enhanced defensive capabilities.  So what we'll do now is take the president's decision; I'll talk to CENTCOM over the weekend; we'll talk with our Saudi partners; and we'll work the details of the deployment, and we'll be able to share that with you next week.

Q:  So there's been no decision on specific numbers...

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. DUNFORD:  We haven't decided on specific units.  Broadly -- as the secretary said, it'll be capabilities to enhance their air and missile defense.  It's now my job to come back with the -- to the secretary with the details of what we believe would meet the Saudi's requirements and is sustainable. 

Q:  Just -- just to follow-up, it wouldn't be -- we're not talking about thousands of troops, you're talking about hundreds of troops, and also, just to the secretary, do you think this is going to be enough, or why do you think this will be enough to deter Iran from further attacks?

SEC. ESPER:  We think given the state of play now, and then based on whatever assessments we get from Central Command, what the Joint Staff and the chairman do, and other discussions we're having with partners -- We have to continually assess that -- we think for now, that would be sufficient, but that doesn't mean there could be additional deployments as needed, based on the changing situation. 

Q:  And on troop numbers?

GEN. DUNFORD:  I would say at this point, a moderate deployment, Phil, and we'll have more details for you next week, but – but not ready to share the details.

Q:  Not thousands; thousands would be not moderate.

GEN. DUNFORD:  That's fair to say, not thousands. 

STAFF:  Lucas?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:    Are there any plans – are there any plans to hold the Lincoln Strike Group any longer than currently planned?

SEC. ESPER:  We're not going to discuss any operational details at this time.

STAFF:  Barbara?

Q:  Does -- for either of you.  Does this now represent a full U.S. commitment to defend Saudi Arabia and to defend the oil infrastructure of Saudi Arabia? 

And for Gen. Dunford in particular, what -- your concern about their ability, the Iranian ability to launch swarms of drones at very great distances without any air defense detection of this incoming attack?

GEN. DUNFORD:  So what I'd say, Barbara, in terms of what we're doing is, we're contributing to Saudi Arabia's defense.  We would be looking, as the secretary said, for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia's defense. 

And with regard to dealing with a specific threat like you just spoke about, you know, no single system is going to be able to defend against a threat like that, but a layered system of defensive capabilities would mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.

SEC. ESPER:  I want to double down on the chairman's comments, two ways.  First of all, I agree, what we would be deploying to the theater would be what would -- what would be a necessary to help support and contribute to the kingdom's defenses.  And at the same time, we're calling on many other countries who would also have these capabilities to do two things.  First of all, stand up and condemn these attacks; and secondly, look to also contribute defensive capabilities so we can defend those things that I outlined in my remarks, whether it's the infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, and then the broader issues with regard to freedom of the seas, navigation in the Strait, and then the international rules and norms that Iran is clearly violating.

STAFF:  Courtney?

Q:  So should we take this as, this is the president's decision about the response to the attack in Saudi Arabia, and there's not a kinetic response that we should expect from the United States?

SEC. ESPER:  This is the first step we're taking with regard to responding to these attacks.  And again, for the reasons I outlined, to help the -- bolster the defenses of Saudi Arabia and provide equipment to both the Saudis and UAE; second, to ensure the free flow of commerce though the Strait; and third, to ensure we protect and defend the international rules-based order, and try and convince the Iranians to get back on the diplomatic path.

Q:  But the deployment of these kinds of assets can often take days and weeks.  Is there -- should we expect any other kind of more immediate response from the United States besides...

SEC. ESPER:  The United States has a robust presence in the Gulf already.  We bolstered it further in May, so we feel quite confident in terms of our own defensive posture and our ability to do anything else as necessary.  But that's not where we are right now; right now we're focused on helping the Saudis improve their defenses of that infrastructure.

STAFF:  Last question -- Nancy?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, Chairman Dunford, you've mentioned that the international community should get involved, but you know some allies have questioned whether the attacks were, in fact, launched in Iran.  I was wondering if you could give us any sense on whether you will declassify any evidence that shows that those strikes were launched from Iran?  And also if you could give us a sense of timeline of when these deployments could start?

SEC. ESPER:  So I'll say a few things.  First of all, the United States is on the ground in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Arabians are leading this investigation, and we will keep them in the lead with regard to the forensics.  So we need to let that play out and let the evidence play out. 

With regard to the partners and allies, first of all, I would commend Secretary Pompeo.  He's been on the phone and on the road the past few days, speaking to numerous allies and partners about this incident. 

And regardless of where you think it came from, the fact is, the Saudis were attacked by both drones and cruise missiles and are still vulnerable to attack.  So asking allies and partners to contribute resources to help them defend themselves and to defend those things I spoke about, I don't think is too much of an ask, given the situation. 

GEN. DUNFORD:  And we'll work the details, Nancy, over the weekend, and I'll come back to the secretary early next week with some specific recommendations. 

Q:  But you can confirm that the strike was launched from southwest Iran?

SEC. ESPER:  Thank you.  Thank you, everyone.