MODERATOR: (In progress) very, very pleased to see such a big turnout for today’s event. My name is Benjamin Weber. I’m the director of the Foreign Press Center, and I’m very pleased to welcome Captain Davis back for another of his briefings to you.
Just the general ground rules: We are on record, off camera. There is no embargo on any of his remarks, and we’ll run about 30 minutes provided his schedule permits.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Captain Davis. Thank you very much.
CAPT DAVIS: Hey, good morning. I guess it is still morning. I think some of you have done this before, and I know I see a lot of familiar faces from the Pentagon, and despite the lights – I hardly ever see bright lights. As we say over at the Pentagon, the reason I do my briefings off camera is because I have a face for radio. (Laughter.) And – but what we do, for those of us who cover the Pentagon regularly, you know that we really like to try to keep things pretty straightforward, not a lot of drama, not a lot of politics, and just get the information out as much as we can. And we’ve found over time that a lot of times, when you’re trying to do that, particularly in a political environment like we’re experiencing right now, it can turn political and dramatic pretty quickly. And so for my briefings, anyway, we really do – we are scrupulously careful to keep them off camera for that very reason. And I think most of the people – I don’t know if they would agree or not. The print reporters would agree that it probably results in a better briefing for them. The TV people might take issue with that.
But at the end of the day, we have a goal over there of being as transparent as we can and as getting as much information out as possible to the American people and to the people of the world about what it is we’re doing. And as much as we have this reputation, the Pentagon has this reputation for being this big, secretive building, it’s in fact, as you’ve heard me say before, the most open executive-branch office building in this town. More open than the White House in terms of where you can go. More open than the State Department, where you’re limited to the first floor. We allow press access to the entire building. The reporters that have badges that are the same as mine, that I’m not wearing, can traverse through all 19 miles of corridors unescorted and go and talk to people. And they do.
And so anyway, we’re here today to talk to you, give you an update on what’s going on. I’ll make some brief opening remarks, particularly about what’s going on in the war with ISIS, and then I’m anxious to hear what’s on your mind.
You’ve heard me, if you’ve been at these briefings here before, talk about the campaign against ISIS, and as you know, three years ago, ISIS kind of came out of nowhere and emerged as one of the most well-funded and fastest-growing and most capable terrorist networks in the world, more than just an insurgency that was capable of holding over 40,000 square miles of territory, but also an organization that had the ability to launch external attacks in Europe and the United States. They, at one point, held an area the size of Ohio, or the equivalent area would be about Jordan and Israel combined, and they had eight million people who were being ruthlessly held captive by their rule, living in misery and many fleeing their homes, many forced into refugee status, many forced into slavery.
We have worked very hard and very methodically over the time with our defeat ISIS coalition, and that has been reduced significantly. Seventy percent of the territory that ISIS once held in Iraq has now been liberated. Fifty percent of the territory they once held in Syria has now been liberated. And in terms of the coalition – in terms of the territory liberated by the coalition, not one square inch of that has been retaken by ISIS. It has all held.
Five months ago or so, you heard Secretary Mattis say that we reoriented our fight there a little bit to focus against the particular hubs and spokes. We saw that what was happening with ISIS, where we faced the greatest risk, were those places where people could move, where operations abroad could be hatched, and where foreign fighters could come in. So we focused very specifically on Manbij. Manbij was a hub for the flow of foreign fighters, up near the Turkish border. And we focused on Mosul, of course, their capital in Iraq, and Raqqa, which we’re continuing to fight in now, as the place that was their capital in Syria, but a place from where many of their external operations were planned as well. And we shifted from a strategy of attrition to one of annihilation and increased our partner contributions. There are now more – counter-ISIS coalition partners, 73 partners total. That’s 69 nations plus the EU, NATO, the Arab League, and Interpol who participate in this.
As I said before, since the height of ISIS power in 2014, the coalition has retaken more than 70 percent in Iraq and 50 percent in Syria, liberated five million people from its control. But even so, ISIS still continues to present a great threat, and we know that they continue to murder and wound innocent people using them as human shields, displacing families into refugees. And we know that they’re spreading into other places. We have seen their attacks in many European countries. We have seen their influence shift into places to include Afghanistan, Mali, and now even the Philippines.
But as we have done this, I know there are a lot of reports that you see on civilian casualties, and I just want to tell you that we continue to emphasize the prevention of civilian casualties as a cornerstone of our operations. Never in the history of warfare and mankind has there been a coalition that has taken such careful measures to prevent civilian casualties. And I know there are a lot of well-meaning people, well-meaning interest groups, well-meaning journalists who like to report on these. The issue sometimes is they don’t always crosscheck the facts. We are very careful to announce every single strike that we do. We put out a daily press release. And we take all allegations of civilian casualties very seriously. We have a team at OIR and at CENTCOM who literally watch Twitter and look for this, look for these reports, look for the allegations. They conduct credibility assessments. They work with the groups, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Airwars, they listen to the reports that they’re hearing, and they look into every single one of them.
They actually look at a lot of what you do, too, in the press. They look at the press reports. And when they see a civilian casualty allegation against the coalition, they go through and cross-check that. They do, first of all, what we call a credibility assessment, which is very simple. Is the time, place, and – time and location of where this allegation was made, does it correspond to an actual strike we did? If it doesn’t, that’s a fairly easy one to say that’s not credible. If it does, then it moves into the next phase, which is an investigation status. And we do investigations on all of the civilian casualty credibility assessments that are deemed to be credible and make those results public. So recognize war is not clean. Civilians are killed in war, and it’s a cold, hard fact. But we do more so than anyone has ever done to try to prevent it.
The two main operations, as I said, going on today, the clean-up in Mosul – and I’ll give you a little bit of color just from today of how that operation is going, and as well as Mosul is Raqqa over in Syria.
In Mosul and in Iraq, the coalition continues to support the Iraqi Security Forces today. Earlier today they were carrying out detailed clearance operations in Mosul, preparing for follow-on operations in Tal Afar. Tal Afar is the town to the west of Mosul that the Iraqi Government has announced is their next focus of effort in the campaign to defeat ISIS. The Iraqi Security Forces now control all parts of Mosul, and they continue to conduct detailed clearance operations to look for any ISIS fighters in hiding and to identify explosive devices that could threaten friendly forces or civilians.
You have a lot of different players within those Iraqi forces. You have the Iraqi Army; the ERD, the Emergency Response Division; the CTS, the counterterrorism forces; and the FEDPOL, the federal police. They are all holding various sectors within Mosul until the hold force takes over. And then meanwhile to the west, the Iraqi army divisions – the 15th Iraqi Army Division is maintaining defensive positions there near Tal Afar. We have seen no ISF – no new ISF, Iraqi Security Forces, casualties in Mosul yesterday. In fact, that was for the first time yesterday since October we had not one Iraqi casualty, and that was in Mosul.
Meanwhile in Syria, today is day 52 of the operation to defeat ISIS in Raqqa. Raqqa, of course, their capital there built along the Euphrates River and a place where they operated with impunity for nearly two years. They were able to emplace IEDs, to build tunnels, trenches, berms, to create booby-traps in houses, to really do everything they could to make this a very difficult city to get into. But they’ve been working there through our Syrian Democratic Force partners now for 52 days. Yesterday, they liberated 2 kilometers – 2 square kilometers of terrain in Raqqa, and they fought off stiff resistance along three axes. And I won’t go into what each of those are, but one from the east, one from the west, one from the south.
And as they’re doing that, across the river from Raqqa, we’re doing it with this de-confliction line. I wish I had a map in front of me. I should have thought to bring one. But as you know, we’re dealing in a complex battle space there. You have a lot of different players who are working there. We are, of course, there with our coalition for one purpose, and that’s to fight ISIS. But at the same time, we have regime forces active there; we have Russian forces active; and we have various militias that support the regime that are active there as well.
We have a de-confliction mechanism via the Russian Government, by which we are able to de-conflict our operations with the Syrian regime, and they have established a line south of the Euphrates River, south of Raqqa, to ensure that the Syrian regime forces there don’t come into contact in a way that would raise tensions with our partnered forces there, and that’s working very effectively.
I will – actually, I will stop there on ISIS. The only thing I just want to say, I was just talking to a new gentleman in our office who started working this week on our personnel team. We have 23 press officers. They’re assigned to all different regions of the world, and some who do non-regional issues such as personnel, budget, acquisition, contracting, and I was explaining to him that sometimes the personnel issue, it may not seem like the hottest breaking news, but when it is, it’s hotter than anything.
So I know a lot of you are interested in some of the reporting you’ve seen today about the issue of transgender, and I did just want to tell you about what’s going on with that. We certainly are aware of the President’s statements this morning and would refer you to the White House for details on those. We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance that’s been provided by the Commander-in-Chief on transgender individuals serving in the military, and we will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future on that. That’s unfortunately all I have at the moment on that issue.
Anyway, with that, would love to hear what is on your minds. Sir?
QUESTION: Thank you. Could we get a mike?
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah. Oh, are we doing – yeah.
MODERATOR: Please identify yourself when you take it.
QUESTION: Dmitry Kirsanov of TASS, the Russian newswire service. Thanks for coming over, Captain, and thank you very much to our colleagues at the FPC for arranging this. I wanted to shift gears from the fight with ISIS and ask you about U.S.-Russian relations, mil-to-mil ties. There hasn’t been a single contact yet between Secretary Mattis and Minister Shoygu, not even a phone call. Does the Secretary intend to break this mold to actually get in touch with Minister Shoygu to have a conversation – to start a conversation with him? What’s the current thinking on that at the DOD?
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, I don’t have much on that for you. We have a lot of contacts with Russia at different levels. It extends all the way from literally a phone in the CAOC, the Coalition Air Operations Center, in Qatar that connects to the Russian command center in Syria, all the way up through a general officer channel and a policy channel. We do have multiple ways we can contact Russia through our defense attaches, through regular talks that we do, but as far as the Secretary’s personal contact with them, I don’t have anything to announce on that.
As you know too, we do have legal restrictions, congressional restrictions, on the types of contacts we’re allowed to have with Russia, but certainly, we can and do where necessary, but yeah.
Go ahead. Right here, sorry. In the front.
QUESTION: Thanks, Captain Davis. Jennifer Chen with Shenzhen Media Group.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, I know you.
QUESTION: According to Breitbart News, U.S. President Trump approved a Pentagon plan this year that will require regular challenges to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, under which FONOP’s request will be approved by the White House fast than before. Captain Davis, could you confirm whether this report is accurate? If so, why was the Pentagon plan approved at this specific timing? Thanks.
CAPT DAVIS: Sure. Well, one of the things I can tell you, working for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, is that he is a planner. He likes things to be laid out in terms of understanding the broader strategy. Doesn’t want tactical actions to be taken absent a broader strategy. And I think that’s true when it comes to freedom of navigation operations. One of the things that we had seen before was there was great scrutiny and attention given to individual freedom of navigation assertions by the United States when they were against China. And it was not done in a way that was reflective of the broad nature of the program.
I think here’s what most people miss: They – the Freedom of Navigation Operations program, which we have done for decades in our country and which we post detailed reports on each year online – it’s not aimed at China, it’s not aimed at the South China Sea, it’s not aimed at any one country. It is about protecting the global commons for everybody. We did freedom of navigation assertions last year against 23 different countries, but you only saw one reported in the press, and that’s not reflective of the reality of what the program is.
Any country that respects freedom of navigation and wants access to the global commons has an interest, has a shared interest in ensuring that there is equal access for all in accordance with international law. And the point of the program is to make sure that we routinely, methodically, and globally – not just in one location or versus one country – look for places where we see excessive maritime claims being made and that we challenge those. And that’s a program that’s continuing and it’s being done in a strategic way.
QUESTION: What is the changes under this administration?
CAPT DAVIS: There hasn’t been one. Freedom of navigation operations are continuing.
QUESTION: Thank you. Do I need the mike? Thank you. Thanks, Captain Davis. Tom Watkins, AFP.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: I understand you’re a bit constrained about what you can say on the transgender issue —
CAPT DAVIS: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: — but nonetheless, President Trump tweeted that he made this decision in consultation with his generals. Presumably, there was some degree of Pentagon input. Can you just explain to us a little bit about the genesis of this decision? Did it blindside anyone in the Pentagon? Why announce it now when Secretary Mattis is on holiday?
CAPT DAVIS: There are 25,000 people that work in the Pentagon. I can’t speak for all of them. But no, this was something that was the product of consultation.
QUESTION: Between – with Secretary Mattis —
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, I can’t be more specific than that. Sorry.
QUESTION: But I mean, as recently as last month, General Dunford suggested there was no issue with the actual policy, just the (inaudible).
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah. I apologize. I know there’s a lot of interest on this issue. It’s a breaking news story. But right now, I don’t have more than what I just told you, so – yes, sir.
QUESTION: Jalil Afridi from the Frontier Post.
CAPT DAVIS: Yes.
QUESTION: I have two small questions. One is related to the 16 police officers which were killed in Helmand four days ago in Afghanistan in a U.S. strike. Can you elaborate a little bit on how that happened? And secondly, what is the Pentagon or what are the —
CAPT DAVIS: Actually, say that again. Fourteen policemen killed in a —
QUESTION: Helmand in Afghanistan.
CAPT DAVIS: Oh, yeah, the – yeah, absolutely.
QUESTION: The U.S. strike.
CAPT DAVIS: Sure.
QUESTION: And my second question is: What is the U.S. military policy right now with regard to fight with the Taliban, their removal? Even right now, there is a – in Kandahar, a base has been attacked and 23 Afghan military people have been killed. So if you can just give us an overall view about —
CAPT DAVIS: Sure.
QUESTION: — what the troops are doing over there and what’s the strategy. Thank you.
CAPT DAVIS: So with regards to the first question, yes, certainly we’re aware of that and our sympathies go out to the victims of that. I do know that there’s been an investigating officer assigned by U.S. Forces Afghanistan to look into this. So we have I think a proven history in our military of getting all the facts together, conducting a thorough investigation, and getting to the bottom of what caused bad things to happen to make sure they don’t happen again and that we hold people accountable as necessary. So that will be how this will play out. So I don’t have a lot of information on it beyond that, but it is absolutely something that is being investigated thoroughly.
With regards to the other question, we obviously continue – our greatest interest with regards to Afghanistan is that you have a government that is able to secure the country, and the greatest threat to that right now is the Taliban. We have worked for many years, even since the end of U.S. combat operations there as we shifted into an advisory role, as we transitioned into the Resolute Support Mission, our focus has been on building that capacity so that the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces have the ability to secure their own country. And that continues to be our focus.
We see the Taliban obviously still active. I don’t know that I would say they’re resurgent. I think they have represented a fairly consistent threat over the past couple of years, anyway. This is a common tactic that they use. They have a tendency to run into these city centers, to grab, quote/unquote, “control of the town,” and then they’re quickly run out a few days later when Afghan reinforcements arrive. But it does go to show that there’s a continued threat that they pose in the country, and we’ll continue to work with our Afghan partners to counter that.
And as we do that, we’re doing that mindful of the fact that we have a broader South Asia strategy review in progress. You’ve heard our senior leaders talk about this. This is a White House-led effort, and they are doing a broad review of the South Asia strategy that will look not only at Afghanistan, but the region, and then tactical decisions such as troops in Afghanistan, which I know many of you are interested in, that will be a product or an outcome that’ll be informed by that broader strategy.
QUESTION: Do you know more troops are being sent, or has that decision been finalized?
CAPT DAVIS: It’s not – the decision’s not been made. That decision’s not been made, but —
QUESTION: Thank you.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, we’ll go in the second row here.
QUESTION: Oh, thank you very much. Dmytro Anopchenko from the Ukrainian television. Sir, can you share your understanding on which direction we are moving in providing the arms to Ukraine? Why I am asking: Less than a week ago, General Paul Selva, participating in congressional hearings, he told that he is supporting providing the lethal arms to Ukraine. He told that the final decision have to be approved in the nearest month. So was it his personal position about the lethal arms to Ukraine, or he’s just sharing the DOD position, the Secretary’s position? And secondly, have you received the – have you received the request from the Ukraine – Ukrainian Government already? I mean, the request for the arms. Thank you.
CAPT DAVIS: Sure. Well, what I can tell you is we’ve not had a change in our policy. Obviously, at any given time there are internal deliberations going on about all manner of things, to include Ukraine. And our leaders provide their best advice and their expertise, but they do it privately. So I don’t have anything I’m able to tell you at the moment with regards to what might lie ahead in Ukraine. Clearly, since 2014 we’ve been involved in providing all manner of things to assist Ukraine in a nonlethal way. That’s been equipment to support their forces and a robust advisory effort to advance their implementation of defense reforms. The Secretary of Defense, Secretary Mattis, as you know, met just within the last month or so, I believe, with President Poroshenko, and they continued to talk about Ukraine’s defensive needs.
So we don’t have any policy changes to announce, but certainly it’s something that we talk about regularly.
QUESTION: Do you have a feeling that we’re close to final decision?
CAPT DAVIS: Again, I don’t have anything to announce at this moment. So – yeah, Natalie. How are you? Or did I say that —
CAPT DAVIS: Nadia, Nadia, Nadia. Good to see you again.
QUESTION: Good to see you. Welcome back to the Foreign Press Center.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: Nadia Tsao with the Liberty Times. Jeff, I have two questions for you. First one is that we saw a Chinese jet intercept U.S. surveillance plane. Is there any reason we believe that the risk or escalation in the area will actually happen? And the second question: There are more call from the – both House and the Senate for the port call between U.S. and the Taiwanese navy. I wonder, has Pentagon already to study the possibility and feasibility? Thank you.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah – to your second question first, I don’t have anything new on that. We have a policy in our government where anything that’s being talked about in terms of pending legislation, we speak with one voice and we do it through what’s called a SAP, a Statement of Administration Policy. So absent that, we don’t comment on pending legislation, which I’m sure you understand.
To the other question, there was this incident the other day – it was an EP-3, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane. It was intercepted by a couple of J-10 fighters in the Yellow Sea. It was operating in international airspace. There was an encounter that we characterized, or the pilot characterized as unsafe, and it essentially occurred when – I’m sorry, I have to talk with my hands to do this. The EP-3 was flying along, the Chinese jet came up underneath it, and then it slowed and elevated, and it caused what’s called the TCAS – that’s a traffic collision avoidance system – alarm to sound, and the EP-3 had to make a quick turn to avoid potential collision.
So that’s what happened, and we’ll raise it, as we always do, with the Chinese Government through multiple processes that we have to do it. I guess what I would note is we don’t think that that’s indicative of a broader strategy or problem or deliberate act. As you know, we had several years ago, back in the day of the original EP-3 incident, there were things back then that made us suspect that maybe there was some deliberate conduct going on in some of these intercepts. We don’t see that in China now. The vast majority of interactions we have with them are safe and professional. This was the exception, not the norm. This was not how they normally conduct themselves.
QUESTION: Can I follow up? A follow-up?
CAPT DAVIS: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Rita Cheng from the Central News Agency. With regard to the port visit – I just want – I’m just wondering, do you think the port visit by the U.S. Navy to Taiwan is a good way to strengthening the mil-mil relations between the U.S. and – U.S. and Taiwan? And if not, is there any suggestions that you would have for the strengthening the U.S.-Taiwan’s mil-mil relationship?
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, I’m sorry I don’t have anything on that. Again, it falls under this category of it’s a piece of pending legislation, and we just can’t touch that, for reasons I hope you understand. I’m sorry.
We’ll go to the back here, all the way in the back there.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mohammed al Menshawy from Al Araby Television. I wonder what the Pentagon is doing to ease the tension in the Gulf between the U.S. ally Qatar from one side, and Saudi and the Emirates other side? And what’s your reaction for Turkey establishing a military base not far off from Al Udeid base in Qatar?
CAPT DAVIS: Sure. Well, so as you know, we have a very important military base in Qatar, Al Udeid. It’s where AFCENT is, Air Force’s United States Central Command, and it’s where the CAOC is, the Coalition Air Operations Center. So it’s a very important hub for us in terms of where we conduct operations from to support the war – not only the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but throughout the region, to include Afghanistan. A lot of those operations are run out of Qatar, so it’s a very important military installation for us.
I can tell you thus far we have not seen any operational impact on that facility. The base is continuing to operate as normally. It’s able to be resupplied, and our coalition partners are all still there and focused on conducting their operations. Clearly we’re watching and are very concerned about the broader issue going on between Qatar and its Gulf state neighbors, but that’s something that’s being worked through the State Department, so we’re not really party to those talks or those discussions. That would be more of a State Department issue.
QUESTION: What about the Turkish piece?
CAPT DAVIS: Oh, and the Turkish piece – again, that’s a matter of a relationship between Turkey and Qatar. We’re not party to that relationship, not in the Department of Defense, anyway, so the State Department would need to tell you any U.S. Government thoughts on that.
So – yeah, and then we’ll go here in the third row.
QUESTION: Grigory Dubovitsky, Russian news agency RIA Novosti. So I have two questions, one about Syria. Do you continue any discussions with the Russians about second de-escalation zone in Syria? If yes, where it’s going to happen?
And the second question is about Russian and Belarusian military exercises, Zapad 2017, in Belarussia in September. So do you have any concerns about it, and what are you going to do in response to these exercises? And also, have you been invited to these exercises?
CAPT DAVIS: On the second one, I apologize; I just don’t know. We can have our office help you with that to find out more.
To the first question on the de-escalation zones within Syria, we, the Department of Defense, obviously are very interested in anything that brings down the level of violence in Syria and the loss of human life and the displaced people and the overall instability that’s going on there. That said – and I wish I had a map again, but the places that are being talked about for these de-escalation zones are not places where ISIS is active. These are all well to the west of the Euphrates river valley. The Euphrates river valley is largely where ISIS is focused and largely where our operations are focused. We have a small number of people we work with down along the Syria-Jordanian-Iraq border in a town called al-Tanf, but aside from that, we don’t really have much west of the Euphrates River, and these areas that are being talked about are there.
So we have our State Department, which leads the U.S. diplomacy, and they’re involved in those discussions. And they do that with the Department of Defense advisors that help them provide defense input where needed, but it is largely their effort, and I can only speak for the Department of Defense.
So yes, sir – yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can I have a mike?
CAPT DAVIS: Oh, she’s on her way. Yeah.
QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian with Al Ahram Egypt.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: The first question is about ISIS in Sinai. How do you see or assess or estimate the danger of ISIS in Sinai, and what kind of cooperation you have with Egypt regarding the latest, at least?
And my second question is regarding the Bright Star military – joint military exercises. What’s the latest regarding the update? Is it possible to have it on September or end of the year, according to what was said before?
CAPT DAVIS: I have to apologize again. I just don’t know, but we can talk to you a little about ISIS in the Sinai. I don’t know on Bright Star. We’ll have to find out for you.
With regards to ISIS in the Sinai, clearly they’re active there. It’s of great concern to us. It’s active because we have U.S. forces that serve as part of the multinational observer force that are there. They’ve been placed at risk by ISIS there. We’ve seen ISIS do a lot of – I think there was just an attack the other day, if I’m not mistaken, against some tourists there. So it’s clearly a dangerous place, a place where ISIS is able to operate, and anything that Egypt can do to combat that we would fully support. And as well, I think – if I have my facts right, I think even the Russians have been victim to an attack on an aircraft that happened in that same area. So it is a very real threat, and anywhere where ISIS manifests itself globally we want to see them defeated and denied any sort of a sanctuary.
So – yes, sir.
QUESTION: Thanks. Thank you. Yes, I’m Gyuseok Jang, working for Christian Broadcasting System in Korea, and I have two question about Korea, North Korea. And actually, it is said that there is some sign that North Korea is going to test a – another missile launch maybe today or tomorrow. So do you share that kind of same information with that, and how likely do you see that?
And my second question is: Korean department of defense is going to discuss United States to increase the payload of the missile, and – yeah, had heard this on news in Korea, yeah. And so have you received the request from Korean Government?
CAPT DAVIS: I’m sorry, but I’m not tracking the second issue. Say that again. Payload?
QUESTION: Yes, I said the payload of missile, yeah.
CAPT DAVIS: Which missile?
QUESTION: The missiles developed in Korea.
CAPT DAVIS: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. There is some kind —
CAPT DAVIS: I confess ignorance on the second issue.
QUESTION: Yeah. There is some kind of guideline, yeah, between Korea and United States, so – yeah, so the Korean Government is trying to increase the payload of missile, yeah.
CAPT DAVIS: Okay.
QUESTION: So you don’t have a Korea – right, yeah, I can see that.
CAPT DAVIS: I confess ignorance on the second one. On the first one, your first question, when is the next North Korean launch going to be, that’s become somewhat of a parlor game in Washington, people always trying to guess. Look, we watch North Korea very, very closely. We have great numbers of assets that are focused on that task, but it falls into the realm of intelligence, which we don’t discuss. I know a lot of people like to look at dates on calendars – of anniversary dates or someone’s birthday or some holiday, and they ascribe great importance to those dates and say, “Well, that must be the day they’re going to do it.” I can tell you honestly, though, if you look over the last year or so, that’s not happening quite so much. That used to be very much the case. I think we now see in North Korea a bona fide research and development program that’s not tied to a calendar, not tied to specific dates or symbolism, and is aggressively pushing ahead and conducting test launches wherever and whenever it can. That’s our concern; not the date on the calendar that they pick.
And to that point, we have two obligations here, right? Obligation number one to our own people, to the American people, is to be able to protect them. And we can do that. And we have developed over time a capability to defend against this nascent North Korean missile system. An ICBM is what it would take to hit the United States – to hit the continental United States. And we have developed interceptors and deployed interceptors, and we’ve had that capability ourselves – outpacing the threat is how we always try to characterize it – in place for several years. We just saw a test of that earlier this year, and I think we’re in a place we can say with confidence that we’re able to defend the American homeland from a potential North Korean ICBM. And we can debate all day whether or not it’s a proven capability or a theoretical capability, whether their high-loft test counted as a re-entry – I don’t know, it’s all rocket science anyway, but I do know that we have the capability to defend against it here.
Interest number two: the defense of our allies – the Republic of Korea and Japan. Those wouldn’t be ICBMs, of course. They’d be shorter-range missiles. But therein, we’ve ensured that they have the capability to defend against them. That’s why we’re working with South Korea on THAAD. We have similar systems that we work very closely with in Japan. And we also make sure that all of our architecture, all of the information systems that go in to support these things, are all linked together so we can share information. Because the more you’re able to, in real time, share what one sensor says with another, the better and more quickly you can get a firing solution to be able to take action to defend against it.
But at the end of the day, we don’t want to just be able to defend against it; we want to see it gone. It is destabilizing, it’s in violation of multiple international resolutions, and it does not serve anyone’s purpose well at all. So we will continue to work with our allies and through other parties to be able to bring pressure upon North Korea to end this illicit program.
CAPT DAVIS: Are we about out of time? Maybe we can do one more just from this gentleman here.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Simon Ateba from simonateba.com, a newspaper in Africa. Boko Haram has escalated attacks in recent – in recent months. And the report released by the State Department last week shows that thousands of people were killed in 2016 by Boko Haram. Is Boko Haram a priority to you?
And also, I need an update on the troops that were sent to Cameroon in 2015. Are they still there and how many of them are still there? I know that 90 troop were sent first. Do we have more now or have they come back?
CAPT DAVIS: You’re talking U.S. troops in Cameroon?
QUESTION: The U.S. troop in Cameroon.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah. That one I can tell you we have about 300 U.S. military personnel that are in Cameroon. They’re there as part of an advise-assist mission to assist the Cameroonian Rapid Intervention Battalion, or BIR, as part of a broader multinational effort to counter violent extremist organizations in the Lake Chad Basin region.
With regards to Boko Haram, it is, obviously, a great concern because it’s a terrorist organization and one that may or may not have ties to ISIS. I think at least some of it does. Debatable whether you want to call them a branch or an affiliate or a rebranding, but either way, it is a terrorist organization and we want to be able to work with our Nigerian partners and other partners in the region to be able to combat them. And we continue to do that. I don’t have any specific numbers or items to tell you about with regards to that. We can certainly help you with that in our office, but it is certainly a focus of our effort.
All right. We about out of time?
MODERATOR: Closing remarks, then?
CAPT DAVIS: Okay. Actually, I don’t have any closing remarks. We’ll do a bonus question, how’s that? (Laughter.) We’ll go right in the middle. Yes, sir?
QUESTION: David Smith of The Guardian. Just revisiting a couple of the other topics.
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan, what do you make of reports that Russia is actually providing some funding or arms to the Taliban?
And is there any – are there any – I understand you can’t really comment on the transgender issue, but do you have any more sort of facts available? Just for example, can we establish exactly how many members of the U.S. military currently are transgender and are you already receiving queries from them about what does this mean for us?
CAPT DAVIS: Sure. Too early to say on the other – on the second one are we getting queries from the individuals. I don’t know. Again, we do know that there’s new policy coming and we’re going to work very closely to assess that with our chain of command.
With regards to Afghanistan, we have certainly seen the reports – they’re not new – about potential Russian involvement in supplying the Taliban. We’re not able to comment on our assessment whether they’re true or not, but certainly, any effort to arm a group like that would be destabilizing and cause for great concern.
I will leave it at that because I got to run. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. And if you’ve never been to the Pentagon before and you’re interested, please come and see us. We do a gaggle like this every week or so – sometimes a couple times a week. We do some press briefings – not as many as Tom would like – in the briefing room that are on-camera. But we’ll start to do more of those soon.
And also before we go, I just want to introduce my relief. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Colonel Rob Manning. Rob is going to be replacing me and he just arrived from – drum roll, please – Korea. He was previously the public affairs officer at U.S. Forces Korea, so if you want somebody who does understand rocket science and missile payloads, and all these things that make my head explode, I’ll bet he will be of great help and assistance to you because it’s all fresh in his mind.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible) coming to the Foreign Press Center. (Laughter.)
CAPT DAVIS: Yeah, the – right. (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: Great time to renew your credentials if they’re – if they’re coming due. And please join me in thanking Captain Davis and welcoming the colonel.
QUESTION: Captain Davis, where are you going? Where are you going?
CAPT DAVIS: I am awaiting further assignment. Yes.
MODERATOR: Thank you all very much.
CAPT DAVIS: Thank you.