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Defense Department Briefing with Secretary Gates

Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State

Gates discusses Iraq, Afghanistan, military security, and more

U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates March 18, 2009

DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates From the Pentagon

SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. Today I have three major announcements to make. First, since assuming this position, I've wanted to dramatically reduce the number of soldiers who are stop-lossed. As of the end of January, there were 13,200 soldiers in stop-loss. I am pleased to announce that I have approved a plan to eliminate the use of stop-loss for deploying soldiers. Effective this August, the U.S. Army Reserve will no longer mobilize units under stop-loss; the Army National Guard will stop doing so in September; and active Army units will cease deploying with stop-loss starting next January.

Our goal is to cut the number of those stop-lossed by 50 percent by June 2010 and to eliminate the regular use of stop-loss across the entire Army by March 2011. We will retain the authority to use stop-loss under extraordinary circumstances.

In addition, the Army will begin a number of incentive programs to encourage additional soldiers to voluntarily extend their enlistments and thus mitigate the impact this change may have on unit strength and unit cohesion. Effective this month, the department will provide special compensation of $500 per month to soldiers who have been stop-lossed. This special compensation will be applied retroactively to October 1st, 2008, the date when Congress first made it available.

While these changes do carry some risk, I believe it is important that we do everything possible to see that soldiers are not unnecessarily forced to stay in the Army beyond their end-of-term-of-service date. Being able to operate without stop-loss is another step in the ongoing transformation of the Army into an expeditionary force.

Second, regarding the department's policy toward media coverage of the return of our fallen at Dover Air Force Base, the working group I tasked to come up with an implementation plan has reported back, and we will put a number of its recommendations into action starting next month. As I said earlier, the overriding principle is that decisions about media coverage should be made by those most affected: the families.

For example, if there are several fallen troops arriving on the same flight, the media will be permitted to cover only the dignified transfer of individuals whose families have given permission. Further, should immediate family members wish to be present for the arrival of their fallen hero at Dover, and this can be done without unduly delaying a fallen's return to his or her own hometown, we will facilitate that travel and we will fund it.

We are committed to seeing that America's fallen heroes -- fallen heroes are received back to their loved ones and their country with the honor, respect and recognition that they and their families have earned.

Third, I have recommended to the president that he renominate for a second two-year term both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the vice chairman, General James Cartwright. I've also recommended to the president that he nominate three flag officers to key geographic commands.

Admiral James Stavridis, who currently heads Southern Command, is being recommended to lead European Command. Air Force General Douglas Fraser, currently the deputy at Pacific Command, is being recommended to lead Southern Command. And Admiral Robert Willard, current commander of the Navy's Pacific Fleet, is being recommended to take the helm of Pacific Command.

While these officers, if confirmed, will take up their posts over the next several months, I would like to thank the outgoing combatant commanders, General John Craddock at EUCOM and Admiral Tim Keating at PACOM, for their decades of dedicated service.

Their replacements have the mix of military acumen, strategic vision and diplomatic and inter-agency skill that their posts require. I should note that, if nominated and confirmed, Admiral Stavridis would be the first Navy officer to head EUCOM, and General Fraser would be the first Air Force officer to lead SOUTHCOM. This is but one more indication of how joint our military leadership has become, and how much America's global-security arrangements have evolved since the end of the Cold War.

Be happy to take some questions. Ann?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, on stop-loss, what do you consider to be extraordinary circumstances under which the policy might be used again? Who decides? And doesn't it sound like a loophole that you're allowing that to be an eventuality?

SEC. GATES:Well, I would say that it would be some kind of an emergency situation where we absolutely had to have somebody's skills for a specific limited period of time.

But I think the goals -- the goals are as stated, to reduce by half by June and entirely by March of 2011. That's our objective, is to get this down as close to zero as we can.

Q: Who decides?

SEC. GATES: Well, you know, I think that decision would probably ultimately be up to the Secretary of the Army.

Q: A couple budget questions. I know you can't get into detail. But there's a lot of hyperventilating in Washington over whether you're going to cut -- cancel major programs or simply trim around the edges. Can you give any feel for whether we should expect some kind of cancellations in the '010 plan?


Q: Can I ask a follow -- on a different subject, the tanker --

SEC. GATES: Good question.

Q: -- the tank, that came up again last week. It's the long- running story. Congressman Murtha and Congressman Abercombrie both advocate a split versus a winner-take-all. Are you still opposed to a split? And if so, why?

SEC. GATES: I am. I think it's bad public policy and I think it's bad acquisition policy. It would require the Air Force to maintain two different logistics -- two different logistics trains, two different kinds of training. Everything would have to be duplicated in the support structure, and I see no -- I just think it's a bad deal for taxpayers.

Q: Do you have any sense of how much it would cost, roughly, given that the two plans are fairly well known?

SEC. GATES: No, I don't.

Q: One of the -- have you gotten any direction from the White House to delay the tanker purchase, the contest by as many five years --


Q: -- as some news stories suggested?


Q: No.

SEC. GATES: Andrew?

Q: Mr. Secretary, looking particularly at Admiral Stavridis appointment, what in particular are you hoping that he brings to the NATO job? And is there anything from his experience in SOUTHCOM that you're expecting him to bring with him to --

SEC. GATES: I think Admiral Stavridis has done a spectacular job at SOUTHCOM in strengthening our military-to-military relationships throughout Latin America.

I think it's -- it's a challenging job, and I think he has done it extraordinarily well. He will take to Europe a knowledge of French, Spanish, Portuguese. I would say that Jim Stavridis, both in terms of knowledge of how things work in the inter-agency here in Washington, but also in terms of his diplomatic skills, is probably one of the best senior military officers we have.


Q: On the topic of challenges and risk in Europe, as somebody who's watched the Kremlin for a very long time, what is your assessment of comments this week from the Russian president that they will be greatly modernizing and expanding their military? Is this something new? Are you worried? What is your assessment?

SEC. GATES: Well, as best I understand it -- and I don't study it as closely as I used to -- as I read between the lines, the first message that he was giving to the Russian military was, "Don't expect any new equipment for two years. Modernization will begin in 2011."

I think you also need to appreciate that there is a -- a significant reform of the Russian military that is being carried out by my counterpart, Minister of Defense Serdyukov. They are looking at shrinking their conventional force by several hundred thousand. They are cutting a significant -- perhaps as many as 200,000 or more officer billets. So I think that -- and he is talking about -- my impression of what he was talking about was a Russian military that is more expeditionary, and not so focused as in the past on taking on NATO.

The military is not very happy about this -- especially losing the billets. And I think there is some resistance to the structural changes that Serdyukov is making but -- but my impression is he's pressing ahead, and is being pretty effective.

Q: Mr. Secretary, the argument for stop loss has always been, at least in public, unit cohesion. So, what changed so that unit cohesion is no longer an issue and you can bring stop loss to an end? Or is it simply that the demand for troops in Iraq is going down?

SEC. GATES: I think it's a combination of several things. First of all, the unit cohesion still remains very important. The Army is reaching its increased end strength sooner than expected, 547,000. Retention is up, and, my impression is, fairly significantly. And we are expecting the tempo of operations to be reduced over the next 18 months or so as we do draw down in Iraq. We will -- as best I understand, we will be drawing down in Iraq, over the next 18 or 19 months, significantly more than we are building up in Afghanistan, in terms of the Army.

So I think all of those factors together have made it possible. And I wanted to have a program that put us on a path to getting rid of stop loss, and I was prepared to give the Army some time to -- in order to mitigate risk, precisely so we wouldn't undermine unit cohesion. As I indicated in my prepared remarks, there is some risk, but we think -- I think that the way the Army is approaching this mitigates those risks, so that I feel comfortable with this plan.


Q: Can I ask you, on a different subject, as you look at forming the Defense budget, defense spending and spending on the war, tough economic times for almost all Americans these days, how does that play into your thinking, if at all?

You have talked about the need to cut Defense spending. You've talked about the need for a healthy economy as the best national security solution there is. But it's very tough times that you're looking at, and awful lot of money's still going out the front door in terms of the budget and the war. Can you just give us a feel for your thinking about the economic situation plays out in your mind?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, it's not irrelevant that the Defense Department hires -- employs almost 3 million people. It is not irrelevant that our modernization procurement alone is something on the order of 100 billion dollars for fiscal year '09 and is not likely to go down much in fiscal year 2010.

So the military budget -- and a significant portion, I might add, of the supplemental -- is spent in the United States as well. So I think that there is a real economic impact both in terms of the people that we hire but also the programs that we fund.

But that said, I believe it's my responsibility to provide the president with a recommended budget that meets the national security needs of the United States, to protect the American people, and that's what I intend to do.

The president will then have the opportunity to make adjustments in that, obviously, and then of course the Congress will play a big part in the package. But I believe it's my responsibility to offer to the president a budget that is singularly focused on what's in the best national security interest of the United States and protecting the American people.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: Secretary Gates, just on China, do you think the U.S. Navy should make a policy of sending destroyers, warships to accompany surveillance ships in the South China Sea?

And just a second part: Do you think the Chinese navy is trying to push the 7th Fleet out of that area?

SEC. GATES: No, I don't think that they're trying to push the 7th Fleet out of that area.

And I hope, based on the diplomatic exchanges that have taken place, since the aggressive acts against the Impeccable, will mean that there won't be a repetition of this. So it would make it unnecessary to send warships.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask you, if I could, about military suicide, more specifically within the Army. Admiral Mullen has linked it, the rise that the Army has seen, in the last year and a half or so, specifically to repeat deployments. General Chiarelli has suggested that repeat deployments may not be the cause.

How do you come down on that? And secondly do you think that policies like stop-loss and the strains that motivate a stop-loss program going in, in the first place -- did that help cause the rise in suicides?

SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know the answer to the latter question.

I think that, well, first of all, about a third of the suicides are members of the military who have never deployed. What I am told is that one of the principal causes of suicide, among our men and women in uniform, is broken relationships. And it's hard not to imagine that repeated deployments don't have an impact on those relationships.

So I don't have -- I don't have data to support what I just said. But it just seems, to me, common sense that repeated deployments have got to weigh very heavily on relationships.

Frankly I think I will always feel -- again I don't have any data. But I will always feel that the 15-month deployments were a real strain on many of the -- many of our men and women in uniform as well.

But this is a problem that we -- that we take very, very seriously. And I -- you know, one is too many. And I think the Army is aggressively, the Army in particular -- all the services are addressing this problem. But the Army in particular, I think, is really going after it in a very aggressive way.

In terms of helping NCO, very much like PTS, in terms of educating NCOs and soldiers and so on to recognize the symptoms, of people who are appearing disconnected from all their friends, of people -- the kinds of actions that sometimes suggest somebody's thinking about suicide, so that -- so that they can seek help.

And I've seen some of the training materials that they have provided, and I think that they're doing the appropriate things.


Q: So is there yet consensus across government about the way ahead in Afghanistan and Pakistan? And if so, when do we expect from the White House some specifics on that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think you'd have to ask the White House that. I think people are coming together pretty well, in terms of the strategy. We still have more meetings involving the principals. We've had a couple this week. And we'll have -- we'll have more.

Q: Is there a sense of -- that the end state is still ill-defined in terms of what the ultimate goal is there? I mean, is that the sticking point or --

SEC. GATES: Well, I'm not going to get into the details. I don't think the end state is the sticking point. I think there are just -- it's a difficult problem and trying to come up with new approaches and new initiatives that enhance our prospects for success is hard work, frankly.

And this has been an area where I've had -- unlike Iraq and some of the other problems, this is an area where I've been somewhat uncertain in my own mind what the right path forward is. I've been very concerned about an open-ended commitment of increasing numbers of troops for a variety of reasons, including the size of our footprint in Afghanistan and my worry that the Afghans come to see us as not their partners and allies but as part of their problem. And so these are -- these are very tough issues. And frankly, my view is it's been a very collegial and a very productive process.

Q: Yes, Mr. Secretary, on that review process, there was a story today that some consideration is being given to an extra emphasis on Baluchistan in Pakistan, because some al Qaeda figures may have fled from the northern regions down to that area; and could there be increased drone strikes there? Even if you can't talk about whether you're considering it as part of the policy or the review, what is your concern in that regard?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think we all have a concern about the Quetta shura and the activities of the Taliban in that area, but I think this is principally a problem and a challenge for the Pakistanis to take on. And as we have indicated, we are prepared to do anything we can to -- to help them do that.


Q: Well, along those lines, there's a sense that the Pakistanis are helping a lot with information on al Qaeda in Pakistan, and also Baitullah Meshud. They're not offering as much information on the Taliban in Pakistan. Is that your assessment?

SEC. GATES: I'm not going to get into that.


Q: If I could follow up on the question about the Afghan strategy review, given all those complicated issues that are in front of Afghanistan, and that we've sort of heard a little bit about what the plan is ahead, adding 17,000 troops and trying a more bottom-up reconciliation, can you talk a little bit about how prescriptive this review will be?

SEC. GATES: How do you mean, prescriptive? In terms of saying what we ought to do?

Q: How detailed it'll be, how much it will sort of spell out point by point what needs to happen in Afghanistan, versus a sort of broad assessment about the issues there and the U.S. goals.

SEC. GATES: Well, my sense, looking at the drafts, is it's pretty specific.

Q: Actually, a question about the chain of command. How satisfied are you now with the current chain of command and how it's working in Afghanistan? Did making McKiernan the top commander of ISAF and Combined Joint Task Force 101 solve all the problems?

SEC. GATES: Well, nothing will solve all the problems, but I am satisfied with the change in the command -- chain of command arrangements in Afghanistan. I think it has made a difference, in particular by bringing CSTC-A, bringing the training mission under General McKiernan. It had basically operated independently of General McKiernan, basically reported back to CENTCOM. And so I think the arrangements that we've changed have brought a considerable improvement and unity of command in Afghanistan.


Q: Mr. Secretary, the president during the campaign had pledged to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. His name doesn't seem to come up too much any more. But I was curious if you could give us, to the extent you can, your assessment for -- of why the United States has not been able to track him down.

And then if you can, give us some insight into whether the emphasis has changed in the new administration. Are you doing things differently? Is there any sort of reassessment on this hunt?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- you know, to a certain extent I think too many people go to too many movies. Finding these guys is really hard, and especially if they have some kind of a support network.

I'll just give you two examples. Look at how long it took the FBI to find Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Years and years. In the United States. We never did find our hostages in Beirut, despite all of the efforts of the American government applied to a very -- relative to Afghanistan -- to Afghanistan or northwestern Pakistan -- with all the assets that we had, we never did find the hostages or get information on them in a way that would allow us to carry out a successful rescue mission. So this is a lot harder than it looks.

And I can just tell you that -- I mean, we have, I think, done some serious damage to al Qaeda over the last number of months, and everybody continues to look for number one and number two. And we will continue that effort. And I think everyone's hope is that one of these days we'll be successful.

Q: Mr. Secretary?

SEC. GATES: Yeah, Jim?

Q: What do you think of this budget proposal that would require veterans with war or service-related wounds and injuries to begin paying for their VA health care with their own personal, private insurance?

SEC. GATES: All I know is the headline I read in the newspapers this morning. I haven't read anything about it. So I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment.


Q: On China, have you utilized the defense hotline with the Chinese authority regarding the Impeccable incident? And how do you evaluate the level of military-to-military cooperation or contact with Chinese?

SEC. GATES: I did not use it. And I think that one of the concerns that I have about Impeccable is that my impression was that the military-to-military relationship was steadily improving. And I would like to see us put this behind us, not have another incident like it, and continue that improvement in the relationship.


Q: A couple nights ago, you made a visit to Dover Base. Could you tell us, in your own words, what that experience was like, for you, and your own feelings and thoughts?

SEC. GATES: Actually no. I will tell you that it was very difficult.

Q: Sir, regarding stop-loss, you directed in 2007, January 2007, that the practice be minimized. Why did it take this long for it in fact to be minimized? And what's your principle concern about it?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, stop-loss was at about 7 or 8 -- about 7,000, I think, when I took this job, the number of those stop-lossed. The surge, surged stop-loss as well. It was really the surge and the increase in op tempo that led to a significant expansion of stop-loss and got it up to 12, to about where it is now.

It has taken -- you know, my question was, okay, the surge is over. The surge brigades are out, or the five -- the increase in five BCTs is over. Why isn't it coming down? Well, because the op tempo in Afghanistan was going up at the same time.

So that's the reason that I've tried to give the Army some time to plan for this. And in the meantime, like I said, we're going to take full advantage of the authorization the Congress gave us, to pay these men and women.

Q: What's your fiscal concern about it? Is it an issue of fairness or strain on the force?

SEC. GATES: I just -- you know, we have the legal authority to do it, but -- or the regulatory or whatever it is. But I would just tell you, I felt particularly in these numbers that it was breaking faith.

It wasn't a violation of the enlistment contract. But I believe that when somebody's end date of service comes up, to hold them against their will, if you will, is just not the right thing to do. And so it has been a focus, for most of the time that I've been here. And I get regular reports on it. And all the arrows were pointing in the wrong direction for a long time.

But I just felt that there will always, probably always be a need to do this with a relatively small number of people who have special skills. But I would like to get it down to scores, not thousands.

Q: Sir, can we clarify one thing? And we don't mean to cause you any problem. But your answer on Dover was rather abrupt. And military families could be watching and wondering.

Is it -- with all due respect, is it simply just too -- was it too emotional to talk about, or can you help us understand, since now it will be open to the news media and the public will be able to see it?

SEC. GATES: If the families agree.

Q: If the families agree. Certainly, sir. But people might wonder -- is this just too hard to talk about?

SEC. GATES: I -- well, I will add a sentence or two. I went to the back of the plane by myself and spent time with each of the transfer cases. (Pauses.) I think I'll stop there.

Q: Can you give us an update on the review of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy? Are there discussions moving in some direction?

SEC. GATES: We have had -- I've had one brief conversation with the president about it at this point. It's a subject that Admiral Mullen and I are discussing in terms of what to do next and how to move forward. And those discussions are still ongoing.


Q: Mr. Secretary, tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What could you say to the Iraqi people? And do you believe that by 2011 the mission will be accomplished?

SEC. GATES: (Chuckles, pauses.)


SEC. GATES: I think that what I would say to the Iraqi people is that the past six years have been very difficult for them and very painful for them and very difficult for us as well. But I believe that the Iraqi people today, with all that pain in the past, have a future that they have probably never had before, where they actually have a say in who governs them, where there is the opportunity for people to live under a government that operates under the law, and the opportunity for economic growth and prosperity that makes life better for all Iraqis.

I think that we will be in a much better place in 2011.

I think that the Iraqis and our -- and our own people in Iraq would say that the roots of democracy or representative government, if you want to call it that, in Iraq are still relatively shallow. There is still a need for further reconciliation and ensuring that things like the hydrocarbon law get passed and that some of the issues between the Arabs and the Kurds are resolved peacefully.

So there are the challenges that General Odierno has talked about. And it will probably take some considerable period of time for the Iraqis to work their way through all that. But I think that -- I think the big difference is that the prospects seem to be -- get better every day that the Iraqis will solve these problems politically and not with guns. And that's a much different kind of life.

(Cross talk.)

Q: A follow-up on Iraq, sir. Has there been any official contact with the Turkish government with regards to the drawdown and if the troops can use the Turkish route, the Habur gate? And there are some reports in the Turkish press about PKK putting down arms and turning in to -- them in to maybe the American forces in terms of reconciliation. Can you confirm or deny?

SEC. GATES: Well, this is an unfortunate question to end on, because the answer to both of those is I don't know. (Chuckles.)

Q: Mr. Secretary, here's a question you may be able to answer. On Afghanistan, President Obama is going -- this building has estimated it'll cost about 17 billion (dollars) to expand the Afghan forces to 134,000. Do you expect him to come back with a big check from Europe?

SEC. GATES: I haven't -- I haven't heard that figure from anybody. It sounds high to me and it sounds -- and I don't know how many years it covers. That's higher than any figure I've heard. And we certainly hope that our allies and partners and others around the world will contribute to the Afghan trust fund at NATO to help sustain these forces over time.

Thank you all.

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