SecDef: “Biden knows Putin pretty well”

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Interview With Bret Baier, Fox News, at 2021 Reagan National Defense Forum

DEC. 4, 2021Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Bret Baier, Fox News


BRETT BAIER: Thank you very much. It is great to be here back in person at the Reagan National Defense Forum. I think I’ve done this keynote interview four times. 

And, Mr. Secretary, I haven’t talked to you in person. We talked when you were a general in the Middle East the last I interviewed you. You have a bit of a different portfolio now. So, we have a few other questions to get to. 

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III:  Sure. 

MR. BAIER: I want to follow-up with your speech about China, but I want to start with something that’s pressing right now on the international stage, and that is that senior officials are confirming to us that Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as 2022, and intel possibly involving 100 battalion tactical groups, 175,000 Russian troops, armor, artillery, equipment. There are already almost 100,000 Russian troops along that border with Ukraine. So, my question is this, how concerned are you that Russia, this time, is not bluffing that, in fact, they will invade Ukraine? 

SEC AUSTIN: We remain focused on this, Bret. They’ve invaded before, and so as we look at the numbers of forces that are in the border region, as we look at some of the things that are occurring in the information space, as we look at what’s going on — in the cyber domain, it really raises our concern. 

We remain focused on this. We are certainly committed to helping Ukraine defend its sovereign territory. You heard President Biden speak about this, I think, yesterday. And it’s — in terms of our concern, we’re very concerned and it’s something that we’re going to remain focused on going forward. 

MR. BAIER: Ukraine is not obviously in NATO now, doesn’t fall under Article 5 protection. But if there — there is an Article 5, obviously, for those at home is an attack on one is an attack on all. But what happens if Putin does invade Ukraine? What does the U.S. do? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, I certainly won’t — won’t get — won’t speculate on different scenarios. But again, I would — I would point back to the — to what the President said in that. We’re certainly committed to ensuring that Ukraine has what it needs to protect its sovereign territory. 

MR. BAIER: So does that include advisors? Does it include equipment? 

SEC AUSTIN: As you know, Bret, we have provided them with a number of different things over the years and most recently things including like –including lethal capability, a lot of non-lethal capability. And again, we’ll continue to look for — for different ways to help them be able to support their sovereign territory. And you heard the President say yesterday that, you know, he’s looking at a number of initiatives. So, I don’t — I won’t get out in front of my boss so. 

MR. BAIER: I understand. I’m going to try one more thing. The President is talking Tuesday with Vladimir Putin. Can he say something, even the threat of pushing for an invite into NATO that gets Putin, in your mind, to back down from that border? 

SEC AUSTIN: Yeah, you know, I’m sure that there are a number of things that — that he’ll want to explore with President Putin. I think he knows President Putin very well. Again, I think there’s a lot of space here for diplomacy and leadership to work. And again, we’re going to remain engaged with our allies in the region and our partners in the region. And we’re going to continue to do everything we can to help provide Ukraine the capability to protect the sovereign territory. 

MR. BAIER: OK. Let’s talk China. Your remarks today seem to have a different tone. Has something changed in your mind? 

SEC AUSTIN: Nothing’s changed, Bret. As you heard me say earlier, we’re clear-eyed about the challenge that China presents. But China is not 10 feet tall. This is America. You know, we have the greatest industry, the greatest innovators in the world. And we’re going to do what’s necessary to create the capabilities that helps us maintain the competitive edge going forward. 

You know, it’s that combination of ingenuity, leadership, support from our Congress that has enabled us to be where we are today and enabled us to be successful over the years. We clearly recognize that, as you heard me say earlier, that China presents a challenge. It’s our pacing challenge, but they’re not 10 feet tall. 

MR. BAIER: You know, you referenced President Reagan a number of times in your remarks. In 1983, President Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire because of its communist goals. Do you think it’s time to speak more boldly or clearly when referring to China, the communist party and its communist ambitions? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, you know, I think we’re doing a lot of that. And again, the activity that we see in the region and in other parts of the globe is disturbing. It’s racing to develop, you know, military capability as fast as it can. But, you know, some of the coercive activity we see in the region has us and our partners in the region very, very concerned. So yeah, I think, you know, we’ll continue to speak very clearly about our concerns, but again we’re in a competition with China and — but — and we don’t have to be in a conflict. And I think it’s very important to continue to communicate and ask for China and Russia to be as transparent as possible. 

MR. BAIER: I know we’re not going to do hypotheticals, but just looking at what’s happening, China has been launching multiple air operations near Taiwan. They’ve moved air refuelers into that area, tactical aviation, wing size elements. Do you think that these are training flights for future operations? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, again, to your point, I don’t want to speculate but certainly, you know, it looks like, a lot like them exploring what their true capabilities. And sure, it looks a lot like rehearsals so. 

MR. BAIER: So, what would the U.S. do if China invades Taiwan? 

SEC AUSTIN: Again, you know, we — our policy remains the same. Our One China policy remains the same. We’re committed to helping Taiwan develop and maintain the capability to defend itself and again, that’s another hypothetical. But — and nobody wants to see this conflict. Nobody wants to see this or things develop into a conflict in this region. So, we’re going to do everything in our power to help prevent conflict and dial down the temperature whenever possible. 

MR. BAIER: So, what do you say to the experts who say that we should send our advisors into Taiwan wearing uniforms and admit that they’re there. The Taiwanese leadership has come out publicly saying there are U.S. advisors there. 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, I — you know, again, Bret, I think we’re doing a lot to support Taiwan right now. We’re going to look for ways to do more. And, you know, my leadership, my service chiefs, combatant commanders will all stay engaged and make recommendations on the best way to move forward on this. 

MR. BAIER: U.S. — one of your SpaceCom commanders said this week that China is attacking U.S. satellites on a daily basis, actions that could be considered an act of war. So, in your mind, is there an active military conflict happening now in space with our adversaries, China, Russia, maybe even others? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, Bret, you know, space is no longer a benign environment. And I think we have to realize that. And I think, you know, that’s why it’s real important that as we look at, you know, you heard me talk about integrated deterrence and making sure that we account for all of our capability in each domain, clearly space is you know, is a thing that we need to stay focused on. But we want to make sure that we have resilient capability in the space domain that we’re able to link that capability with other things like cyber and that we integrate all — everything that we have from — from space to — to the face of the earth in a very coherent and agile way. So that’s a key element of integrated deterrence, plus using every tool available to us in terms of national power and using the capability that’s resident with our allies and partners, which I think we need to do a much better job of. 

MR. BAIER: Well, you and — you have some red lines in space. 

SEC AUSTIN: Do I have red lines in space? 

MR. BAIER: As far as what’s happening with these attacks. 

SEC AUSTIN: Bret, I’ve always found that it’s never a good idea to publish red lines. I would say that it’s really important to the United States of America to ensure that we protect our capabilities. And I think — you know, I think we’ll stay focused on it. 

MR. BAIER: OK. I’m just going to bounce around the world really quickly, and I know we don’t have that much time. But do you have any regrets about the Afghan withdrawal? 

SEC AUSTIN: Bret, I regret the fact that we lost 13 of our finest at Abbey Gate. I regret that we lost 10 civilians in an errant strike. Having said that, Bret, I want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the fact that our American forces in 17 days evacuated 124,000 people from Afghanistan. 124,000. And I think that we need to continue to remind the United States of America, and we need to continue to remind the world about the great work that they have done and that they continue to do on a daily basis. 

MR. BAIER: Have there been any over the horizon operations in Afghanistan since the U.S. military left? (Pause) OK. I tried. 

(LAUGHTER)  

All right, quickly. The Global Posture Review just came out Monday. It says — did not suggest any troops would be coming home, just repositioned. So, no plans to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and Syria in coming months? 

SEC AUSTIN: You know, I think, you know, again what’s in the GPR is where we are. You know, as you would expect, any new administration will come in and baseline — take a look at where its forces are and baseline its footprint so that we — we can ensure that, you know, we’re able to support our main effort, which is, as I’ve said so many times, the Indo-Pacific, and that we maintain the ability to be agile. 

And I would remind you, Bret, that we need to account for the capability that’s not only on air, land and sea, but also space and cyberspace. You know, those are — I mean, there’s capability in each of those domains, and our goal is to make sure that we’re using all of that as we conduct operations. 

MR. BAIER: But is there a role for, let’s say, the U.S. Army in Asia to counter China? Are you going to expand in Poland where there’s been training going on? There’s some things that just didn’t seem to pop-up that you … 

SEC AUSTIN: You know, we — this is a thing that we again continue to evaluate as we go forward. And if conditions change, then we adjust. 

MR. BAIER: OK. President Reagan talked about peace through strength. Is Congress — I’m understanding there’s a lot of lawmakers in this room — is Congress funding the Pentagon sufficiently to meet modern challenges? I know you’re not a fan of continuing resolutions. 

SEC AUSTIN: I’m absolutely not a fan of continuing resolutions. And the reason is, Bret, is it — you know, this allows us the ability to conduct new starts or to get some of the things going that you heard me mention earlier. You know, we — we’re in — we want to invest in new technologies. We want to get capabilities to our warfighters, and we want to do that as soon as we can. So, in terms of, you know, building ships and creating capabilities, you really — your hands are tied on a — under a continuing resolution, you know, new stuff. 

Also, as you remember, we — our troops are due a well-deserved pay raise. And without that new budget, then that pay raise will have — well, have to account for that pay raise in our current budget. That puts pressure on other things. And so, you know, it’s my hope that we’ll get — you know, we’ll get an NDAA passed as soon as possible. 

MR. BAIER: So far, several courts have struck down the President’s COVID vaccine mandate. You are now in a legal challenge and showdown with the Oklahoma governor and its National Guard about vaccine mandates. Only about 40 percent of Oklahoma National Guard are vaccinated right now. So what do you plan to do if they don’t get vaccinated? Are you going to dock their pay? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, Bret, let’s start from the premise that — and I truly believe this, that the vast majority of them will get vaccinated. If you take a look at our active-duty forces, you know, over 96 percent of them are currently vaccinated. There was huge speculation that we would — we could ever get to that level, but you know, we’ve made tremendous progress. 

MR. BAIER: So the people who say why doesn’t natural immunity count? 

SEC AUSTIN: I invite the scientists and doctors in the room to speak to that. But again, the facts are … 

MR. BAIER: As far as your policy goes, you’re going to stay with what you have. 

SEC AUSTIN: This is a readiness issue for us, Bret. You know, a vaccinated force is a more ready force. And, you know, our troops have to deploy all over the world and place themselves in all kinds of conditions at a moment’s notice. So, in order to keep this force healthy, I think it’s important that we get vaccinated. 

MR. BAIER: And any comment about Florida wanting to develop their own civil national guard? 

SEC AUSTIN: Absolutely no comment. 

MR. BAIER: OK. Last thing, this survey from the Reagan Forum found less than half the country has high confidence in the military right now, down from 70 percent just a few years ago. Why do you think that is? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, certainly, Bret, the trends in this survey are not trends that we would want to see. I would say that — and I know I speak for all of the — all of my DOD colleagues in this room today and all over the military that this is very important to us, especially since we have an all-volunteer force. It’s important for us to maintain the trust and confidence of the American people. 

I’ll take a hard look at, you know, the potential causes behind these numbers or you know, what the numbers reflect. And we’ll take a hard look at ourselves to see what we should continue to do to build trust and confidence with the American people. But, you know, Bret, if you could see what I see and I know you have because you spent a lot of time downrange. If — if the American — average American could see what I see on a daily basis as I go out and visit our troops and listen to them, talk about what they’re doing, and watch them at work, there’s no question that, you know, our American people would have confidence in our military. 

I think we need to do a a better job of telling that story, telling the story of these wonderful troops and their families that have sacrificed so much in the past and continue to sacrifice on a daily basis. We need to remind, you know, America about what they’re doing and the sacrifices they’re making. And I think, you know, that’s something we’re going to work on. 

MR. BAIER: I end each one of these interviews with the same question, what keeps you up at night? 

SEC AUSTIN: Well, you know, we’re developing additional capabilities in places like space and cyberspace. Sometimes the next serious challenge can come from a place that you didn’t expect, and you’ve heard some people speculate that the next conflict will actually be started by a cyber activity. And so I want to make sure that we have sufficient capabilities in cyber and space to complement the rest of the — the rest of the inventory and to be — and to make sure that we can react to any challenge and prevent conflict from occurring. 

MR. BAIER: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time and thank you for your service to the country. 

SEC AUSTIN: Oh, thanks, Bret. 

MR. BAIER: Appreciate it. 

(APPLAUSE)  

SEC AUSTIN: Thanks.