October 12, 2023
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Good afternoon, everyone. We’ve had a great few days of discussion with my fellow ministers of defense, but before I get to that, let me add a few words about the terrible situation in Israel.
We are appalled by the emerging scope of the atrocities committed by the terrorists of Hamas. Our hearts are with all those whose loved ones were murdered or wounded or taken hostage. No country would live with the wholesale killing and kidnapping of innocent people, including the very old and the very young.
Now yesterday, I mentioned the changes to our force posture to reinforce deterrence in the region, and I want to underscore that message. Nobody should try to take advantage of this vile Hamas assault to cause more bloodshed or instability. Our support for Israel is rock-solid. We are working urgently to get Israel what it needs to defend itself, including munitions and Iron Dome interceptors, and we will do so even as we continue to support the people of Ukraine as they fight against Russian aggression. But make no mistake: We can and will stand by Israel even as we stand by Ukraine. The United States can walk and chew gum at the same time.
So let me turn to the agenda of this defense ministerial. Especially in challenging times, it’s great to be back at NATO. Let me thank Secretary-General Stoltenberg for bringing a us all together today and for all of his leadership.
Now, this was our first meeting of defense ministers since the Vilnius Summit in July. Our leaders made historic decisions at Vilnius to enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense, and we also had the privilege of welcoming Finland, which joined a NATO summit for the first time as an ally. Let me urge all of our allies to support the immediate accession of Sweden, which is both a proud democracy and a highly-capable defense partner.
Vilnius was a watershed for NATO’s collective deterrence and defense. Our leaders endorsed NATO’s new family of regional defense plans, and that will significantly improve our ability to deter and defend against any threat. We also established a new multinational and multi-domain allied reaction force. This new force will provide more response options to threats and crises across all domains.
At Vilnius, our leaders also endorsed a new defense investment pledge, and that pledge affirmed our shared commitment as allies to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense. Let me also underscore the words of “at least two percent”. We urgently need to do more to fulfill the commitments that all of our leaders have made, and this investment will help us strengthen our defense industrial bases and standardize critical munitions and improve NATO interoperability.
NATO’s new Defense Production Action Plan will guide this important work. It will aggregate demand to meet our capability targets and encourage multinational cooperation and foster more agile procurement and enhance our transparency with industry.
Finally, at Vilnius, we reaffirmed our enduring commitment to a free and sovereign Ukraine. We established the NATO-Ukraine Council. We agreed to develop the Comprehensive Assistance package into a multiyear program for critical nonlethal aid. We expanded NATO’s practical nonlethal support for Ukraine, including medical supplies and MREs, and that complements bilateral security assistance that the United States and other countries around the world have provided to Ukraine over the past 20 months. And I should say again that the Ukrainian Forces continue to make steady progress in their counteroffensive.
So today, we discussed the work that we’ve done together since Vilnius to implement these important decisions, and that included conversations on several key issues, including deterrence and defense to support Ukraine and NATO’s ongoing operations in the Western Balkans and in Iraq.
So it was a productive day, and I am tremendously proud of all the progress that NATO has made. We’ve still got a lot more to do, but we will get it done together and we will live up to the commitments that we have made to ourselves and to each other.
Now, let me be clear: NATO is a defensive alliance, and we will not be drawn into Putin’s illegal war of choice, but we will stand up for Ukraine’s right to defend itself and we will continue to strengthen this alliance for the challenges to come and we will defend the sovereignty and territory of every NATO ally. America’s commitment to that mission is ironclad, and so is our commitment to Article 5.
And one last thing: We are especially proud that we’ll be hosting our allies next summer at the Washington Summit, and we’re excited to come together to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this great alliance.
So thanks again for being here, and with that, I’ll be happy to take a couple of questions.
STAFF: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. First question will go to Gordon Lubold, Wall Street Journal.
Q: I know you like multi-part questions so I’m going to make two different questions real quick. The first one is the crisis in Gaza has amounted to a moment of a motion for the Israelis of the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu referring to Hamas militants as dead men walking, your own people referring to an ISIS moment.
Into this emotion and into this conflict, the U.S. is pouring munitions, weaponry, and other things. I’m wondering what assurances or what conditions, even, have you asked for from the Israelis to make sure that some of this weaponry, that’s American weaponry, is used discriminately and not indiscriminately and potentially killing civilian — innocent civilians in Gaza?
And then the second question is just is ISR coverage part of the package of offerings? And I guess a third one — have you seen — have you seen any amassing of any Hezbollah forces along the border? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Any massing of Hezbollah forces?
SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. In — in terms of — thanks, Gordon, for the questions, but — even though there were, like, six of them — but in terms of conditions that we would place on the security assistance that we’re providing to Israel, we’ve not placed any conditions on the provision of this equipment.
This is a professional military led by professional leadership. And we would hope and expect that they would do the right things in the prosecution of their campaign. And we’ll — you know, we will make sure that — we will leave it to them to define what their operations are going to look like, but again, we have no reason to believe that they would do anything differently.
In terms of our provision, our assistance and intelligence assistance to Ukraine — to — excuse me — to Israel, we will support them in any way that we can. Certainly intelligence is a part of that. And I won’t get into the specifics of what that means – ISR, other types of collection. We’ve worked with the Israelis, you know, over many, many years and those sharing mechanisms are there, those channels are there to share information, and we will look to continue to do that.
So I think I got — Hezbollah, okay. We’ve not seen any massing of forces along the border, and again, this is something that, you know, the Israelis are focused on. We are also looking for additional things that could widen the conflict here, and hopefully we won’t see those things but we’ve not seen that to this point.
STAFF: Thank you very much. All right, our next question will go to Thomas (inaudible), (inaudible).
Q: Thanks a lot. (Thomas ?) (inaudible) with (inaudible). Mr. Secretary, I’ll also ask a couple of question also related to Israel. The first one would be have there been other allies besides the U.S. and Germany that today pledged military support to Israel? And when it comes to this support, in your assessment, what would be or could be the further needs of Israel if this conflict continues?
And third question, somewhat related to what my colleague asked, Secretary General Stoltenberg told us after the meeting — he made an announcement after the meeting that allies have made clear Israel has a right to defend itself but with proportionality. Could you please explain if you share this statement with proportionality and what it actually entails in a situation like this? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, so as we were briefed by Minister Gallant earlier today, what we heard from allies in the room was a unity among all of the allies in terms of strong support for Israel and unity in condemning the horrible actions of Hamas.
What the United States is doing — you’ve heard us talk about a number of times, and that is we’re moving rapidly to provide Israel what it needs to continue to protect its citizens and to protect its territory. And you’ve already seen the evidence of that happening, and that will continue.
You know, we’ll stay engaged with the Israeli leadership and make sure that, you know, we’re tracking along with their needs as those needs change. And as is the case with any fight or any operation, needs will change as, you know, things evolve there. So we anticipate that.
You know, I’ve talked to Minister Gallant just about every day since this began. We had a great relationship leading into this, and that made it very easy for us to connect and exchange information in frank and open ways. So we’re going to continue to do what’s needed to support them and we’re going to do it as rapidly as possible.
In terms of needs for Israel going forward, again, I go back to what I just said — this will evolve and those needs will emerge, and we’ll let Minister Gallant and the Israeli leadership define what those requirements are. We’ll try to anticipate as best we can. And I am sure that countries on a bilateral basis will engage Minister Gallant and work with them, and if they can provide assistance or resources, then they will do that.
I would agree with the Secretary General in that the Israelis have a right to protect their people, and we would expect that they’re going to remain focused on that. So — and I won’t try to define proportionality for you.
STAFF: Thank you very much. Our next question will go to Will Dunlop, Agence France-Presse.
Q: I’ll keep it to two questions.
Secretary Austin, first, did the United States have any advanced warning or other indication that Hamas would attack Israel? And second, there’ve been contradictory reports about Iran’s potential role. What’s the latest U.S. assessment on Tehran’s involvement in, or knowledge of, the Hamas attack? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: Give me that second piece again?
Q: There’ve been contradictory reports about Iran’s potential role in the attacks, if any. What is the latest U.S. assessment on Tehran’s involvement in, or knowledge of, the attack?
SEC. AUSTIN: I’ll take the second part first.
I think you heard us say yesterday, Will, that we’ve not seen any indication that Iran was involved in the planning or the execution of this attack. We’ve not seen any of those indications yet. And this is something that we remain focused on. And, of course, you know, what we know at this point is that there are no indications that was the case. But again, we will remain focused on this.
We also know that Iran has a long track record of supporting Hamas, and so there’s a relationship there that extends over the years. But in terms of their active participation in the planning and the execution of this attack, we’ve not seen any indications of that yet.
So, in terms of early warning or our — indications and warning that we may have had that this was going to occur, of course, Will, if we had those indications, we would share them with our with Israel. But to my knowledge, we did not see that.
STAFF: The next question will go to Stuart Lau, Politico.
Q: Stuart Lau, Politico. Mr. Secretary, a couple of questions. First, regarding the disruption of the undersea cables between Finland and Estonia, is there any indication that Russia may be behind this? And what possible actions should NATO consider if state actors are behind it?
And a second question about military commitment to Europe, is there any indication that future delivery of Iron Dome to Israel might come at a cost of existing security commitments to Europe, especially Poland? Thank you.
SEC. AUSTIN: First, I am certainly aware of the reports of the attacks on the infrastructure, undersea infrastructure there, and I have been in touch with my colleagues in Finland and Estonia. They are investigating this, and so, because they are investigating this, I won’t speculate on who may have been involved. I think the right thing to do is to wait for the results of the investigation.
I will tell you that we have offered our help to Finland. Anything that they need to conduct this investigation, we stand ready to provide.
In terms of Iron (Dome) — you know, what’s being provided to Israel, and will that disadvantage other countries in Europe, I certainly don’t think so. I think, again, our focus is to make sure that we get Israel what it needs in order to protect itself, protect its sovereign territory.
So — and I won’t speculate on, you know, one way or the other — but I will tell you that Poland is, you know, has a lot of capability and, as you may know, I am in contact with my Polish counterpart on a routine basis. And they have played a key role in providing security assistance to Ukraine.
So I think, again, my focus is going to continue to be to support Ukraine and to provide support to Israel as rapidly and as effectively as we can. And so I’ll leave it at that.
STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, that is all the time we have for today. This concludes the press conference. Thank you very much.