UDCG 12: May 25, 2023 Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III provides opening remarks at a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley Hold a News Conference Following a Virtual Meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group

STAFF: Well, thank you, everyone, for being here today.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. The secretary and the chairman will each deliver opening remarks, and then we’ll have time to take a few questions. I will moderate those questions and call on journalists, and please note that we have a very tight schedule today, so I would ask that those who are called on to please limit your follow-ups, and I’d really appreciate your assistance with that.

Secretary Austin, over to you, sir.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Thanks, Patrick. Good afternoon, everyone.

We just concluded our 12th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. For more than a year, this group of some-50 countries has rushed security assistance to the embattled people of Ukraine. That includes air defense systems, armored vehicles and large quantities of ammunition. Contact Group members have also trained thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and to repel their Russian invaders, and today, we committed to doing even more to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom.

I came away from today’s meeting as confident as ever in the Contact Group’s resolve and sustained unity. Let me highlight three points.

First, we heard directly from Minister Reznikov, Ukraine’s minister of defense, and his team about the current battlefield dynamics and about the follow-on requirements that Ukraine’s defenders will need in the weeks and months ahead. And I want to again recognize Minister Reznikov for his leadership. The whole world has seen how much Ukraine’s Armed Forces have accomplished, and I have great confidence that they will continue to succeed.

Second, we discussed some of the critical capability gaps that Ukraine is facing, and many countries have been stepping up with new commitments to fill them.

Now, one of Ukraine’s most urgent requirements is ground-based air defense, and this Contact Group will continue driving hard to help Ukraine defend its skies. In recent weeks, Russia has intensified its sordid bombarment — bombardment of Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure, and the Kremlin’s cruelty only underscores Ukraine’s need for a stronger layered, ground-based air defense architecture.

So the members of the Contact Group continue to scour their stocks for missiles and systems that they can send. The United States and others have worked with their private with their private sector on contracts to build new NASAMS and other air defense equipment. And I applaud the countries that are finding ways to meet Ukraine’s urgent air defense needs, and we will stay laser-focused on this task.

And during today’s meeting, several allies and partners also discussed plans for training Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including the F-16. And planning and executing this training will be a significant undertaking, but the coordination of this Contact Group will help make that possible. And I especially want to thank Denmark and the Netherlands, which have decided to lead a European coalition in providing F-16 training for Ukrainian forces. In the coming weeks, my Dutch and Danish counterparts will work with the United States and other allies to develop a training framework. Norway, Belgium, Portugal and Poland have already offered to contribute to training, and we expect more countries to join this important initiative soon. And starting work on the F-16 training now is an important example of our long-term commitment to Ukraine’s security.

Third, the Contact Group discussed long-term sustainment of our support, and that includes industrial initiatives and coordinating our work to ramp up production of critical equipment. I appreciate the work of the National Armaments Directors, who meet under the auspices of the Contact Group to ramp up industrial production, and I look forward to doing even more together.

And today, members of the Leopard Tank Consortium discussed their progress in setting up a maintenance hub and furthering their efforts to resource its important program for years to come.

So we got a lot done today, but we are by no means done altogether. And so we’re not going to let up, and today’s meeting has again shown the Contact Group’s steadfast support of Ukraine, and that’s because nations of goodwill don’t want to live in a world where autocrats can invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity. So we’re going to keep strengthening Ukraine’s position on the battlefield. We’re going to get Ukraine’s defenders what they need when they need it and we’re going to remain united and we’re going to stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes. Thanks again.

And now, let me turn it over to General Milley, Chairman.

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY: Thanks, Secretary, and good afternoon, everyone.

As Secretary noted, this is our 12th meeting of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, and this group stands as a very powerful symbol of the international solidarity in support of Ukraine, and it made possible, really, due to the leadership of the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. Without his leadership, this would never have began 12 iterations ago, and it certainly wouldn’t have been sustained for well over a year.

So thank you, Secretary, for your leadership.

And thank you, also, to all the ministers and chiefs of defense from 50 nations that participated today, virtually. And that is a statement of real unity, in my view.

I also want to thank Ukrainian Minister of Defense Resnikov and my counterpart, who I talk to very, very frequently, General Zaluzhny, and also his rep, who was there today, General Moisiuk. Their leadership remains steadfast. The bravery and the courage of the Ukrainian people is exemplary and inspires literally the world. And their courage and tactical skill in the face of extreme adversity is second to none.

Today marks the 456th day since Russia began its illegal and unprovoked invasion of a free and independent country called Ukraine. Putin envisioned a swift victory, a quick dissolution of the Ukrainian spirit, a conquering of the government, a capturing of the city of Kyiv and pretty much three-quarters of the entire country.

He could not have been more wrong. The Ukrainian people remain resolute and their spirit is unyielding. The battle of Bakhmut is just one example. For nine consecutive months Ukraine has fought a very successful defense and exacted a tremendous cost on Russian forces. And that was due to Ukrainian courage and their tactical and operational skill.

The Ukrainian forces continue to fight, and they’re making the Russians pay severely for every inch of Ukrainian ground. Ukrainian resistance is not fueled merely by weaponry and manpower. It’s fueled by the unbreakable spirit of freedom and democracy.

Ukraine continues to defend its sovereignty with strength and courage, and recently we have seen the Ukrainians use the U.S. Patriot missile system air defense system to great effect. These systems have been instrumental in protecting the Ukrainian skies, bolstering Ukraine’s defenses and contributing to the overall effectiveness of the Ukrainian fight.

The proficiency of the Ukrainian forces in operating these systems as fast as they did is testament to their skill and adaptability under pressure. It’s another example of the Ukrainians leveraging the tools provided by the international coalition into the tangible success on the battlefield, from anti-tank weapons like javelins in the beginning of this fight all the way to Patriots today. And we’ll soon see the same with F-16s.

But this is not just about military success. It’s about a larger battle, a battle about the principles of sovereignty and democracy. It’s about standing up against unprovoked aggression and upholding the so-called rules-based international order.

Every nation that was there today underscores the importance of these principles that have been in effect since 1945. Ukraine continues to prove that the spirit of freedom is resolute. Every day the Ukrainians showcase the world their unwavering commitment to uphold the values of freedom and sovereignty.

This week the president of the United States released the United States’ 38th drawdown package, with additional HIMARS, ammunition, artillery rounds, anti-arms systems and additional support vehicles. These munitions and vehicles and weapons will strengthen the Ukrainian offensive and defensive capabilities. They enable the Ukrainians to hold Russian forces and supply lines at risk. They raise the cost of Russia’s continuing war of aggression.

The United States, along with our partners and allies, continue to train Ukrainian forces to enable their success on the battlefield as well. We will continue to support Ukraine’s fight today, as well as their future capabilities to defend and deter aggression in the future.

As the president and the secretary of defense have repeatedly said, we the United States stand firmly with Ukraine. Our commitment remains unwavering. We will support Ukraine, as the president and the secretary have said, for as long as it takes until Russia ends this unprovoked aggression. We will continue to uphold the principles of democracy, sovereignty and the international rule of law.

Thank you, and I welcome all of your questions.

STAFF: Thank you both, gentleman.

Our first question will go to Associated Press, Tara Copp.

Q: Thank you — thank you. Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley, for months, we heard a firm “no” on F-16s to Ukraine. Can you tell us how and why your thinking changed on this and why wouldn’t the U.S. now send its own jets to Ukraine?

And my second question is also for you both. In a few minutes, General C.Q. Brown will be nominated as the next Chairman. What does he bring that is needed at this moment in history for the U.S. to this role?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, we’ve been focused from the very beginning, Tara, on providing Ukraine the capabilities that it needs to be successful on the battlefield now and into the future and the months ahead. And so as Russia’s invasion has evolved and so has our security assistance.

And one thing that I would point out as we said from the very beginning, it’s still true today and that is a very lethal airspace. And so we wanted to focus and have been focusing on the things that Ukraine needs to defend itself, protect its infrastructure, protect its people.

We’ve been emphasizing things like air defense capability. You saw us talk about that a number of times. And we saw the reason just recently why we were so focused on that. And the capabilities that we’ve managed to put together as a result of what we’ve provided and also what the — what our allies and partners have provided, as you can see, are very impressive and it — they continue to grow. It’s not enough. We’ll continue to work on it and we’ll continue to work to create follow-on force capability for the Ukrainians as well.

We provided nine brigades — nine brigades of combat capability, platforms and trained troops, and I’d point out to you that that’s as big as many of the Western nations have in their land forces, Okay? So this is — this is not trivial but it’s not done. We’re going to continue to work to generate additional capability going forward.

In terms of General Brown, he is an incredibly capable and professional officer, and what he brings to the — to the table, to any table, is that — is that professionalism, that deep experience in — in warfighting, and I — I have personal knowledge of that. So I think General Brown is going to — going to be a great officer — going to — going to be a — a great officer at any capacity that he’s in, so.

GEN. MILLEY: And Tara, on the — on the F-16 piece, you know, what’s the problem to be solved? The problem to be solved is control of the airspace, and Ukraine has demonstrated that very effectively in — in the last year and a half.

The fastest, quickest and cheapest way to control that airspace was from the ground. You can either do it from the air or from the — from the ground. And providing effective integrated air defense systems at the low altitude, short range, mid-altitude, mid-range, and high altitude, long range, that is the most effective way to deny air superiority to the Russians, and that’s exactly what they did.

And if you look at F-16s, 10 F-16s is $1 billion. You add the sustainment costs, another $1 billion. So you’re talking about $2 billion for 10 aircraft. The Russians have 1,000 fourth and fifth generation fighters. So if you’re going to contest Russia in the air, you’re going to need a substantial amount of fourth and fifth generation fighters.

So if you look at the cost curve and do the analysis, the smartest thing to have done is exactly what we did do, which is provide a significant amount of integrated air defense to cover the battlespace and deny the Russians the airspace, and that is exactly what happened and that enabled the Ukrainians to have success on the ground in ground maneuver in the defensive battle.

As we go forward, F-16s clearly have a role. Ukraine deserves a capable Air Force. It’s going to take a considerable length of time to build up an Air Force that’s the size and scope and scale that’ll be necessary.

I’ve known C.Q., like — like Secretary Austin has, for a long time. He’s a great officer. In my view, personal view, he has all the knowledge, skills, attributes to do this job and he has the appropriate demeanor and he’s got a great chemistry with obviously with the President, the SecDef and others. So C.Q.’s absolutely superb and I am looking forward to a speedy confirmation.

STAFF: Thank you both. Our next question, we’ll go to Dan Lamothe, Washington Post.

Q: Gentlemen, thanks for your time today. Mr. Secretary, the announcement on the — on this F-16 plan raises the questions what complimentary roles the United States might play in it, be it the provision of F-16 weapons, U.S. personnel in the training program, anything along those lines? How do you envision that going?

And General Milley, we’ve seen a continued evolution in which the U.S. holds back certain platforms F-16s, tanks, things of that sort only to eventually agree. Part of that has been risk escalation, we have been told over and over again. From that standpoint, from a risk assessment standpoint, how do you see this moment as different now?

Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, Dan, I would just tell you that our approach, you know, to providing security assistance to Ukraine for the last year-plus has been to follow an international approach, where we — we get contributions from everybody that can contribute. Would not conceive of doing business different now — differently now. I mean, that’s — that’s the way we’ve operated across the board.

You know, I’ve talked to the Ministers of Defense of the Netherlands and — and Denmark and talked about, you know, what’s necessary to frame out the — the training plan, and we also talked about the fact that — I mean, they recognize also that training is one thing, but to have a capability, you need — you need sustainment, you need maintenance, you need ordinance.

So all of that will be worked through, you know, with the — with the committee going forward there, and the committee will be led by Denmark and — and the Netherlands but it’s an international effort. And as I said earlier, you know, we’ve seen other countries very quickly step up to the plate and want to contribute, so.

GEN. MILLEY: So Dan, I would offer a couple of things to — everything we do, no matter where it is around the world, we’re always looking at cost, benefit and risk. And F-16s there’s no magic weapons in war, and — and — and sometimes certain things get labeled as, you know, this is going to be the magic weapon. There are no magic weapons, and F-16’s not and neither is anything else.

And as we look at what — the problem to be solved in at the beginning of this war, it was a defensive fight against mechanized armored forces, Russian forces that were coming across the border. What do you need for that? You need anti-air — armor weapons, you need lots of them, and you had to keep the airspace clear of Russian close air support that would enable Russian ground maneuver, and that’s exactly what was provided.

So it’s not a question of we agree later or agree now or under pressure. It — that’s not at all what — what’s getting done here. This is hardcore military analysis that looks at costs, benefit and risk and what is the need on the battlefield now and in the near future.

F-16s are much longer view, and again, as I said in — in the beginning, you need a significant number of F-16s or fourth or fifth generation fighters and the pilots to go with them and the sustainment costs and the missiles and the maintenance, all of that package.

If you were to do that, just F-16s, you wouldn’t have tanks, you wouldn’t have Bradleys, you wouldn’t have anti-armor weapons, you wouldn’t have anything else. You’d spend all your money on just that. So it’s a cost/risk/benefit analysis that leads you to these separate incremental sort of packages that go forward, in addition to what we’re doing with the international community. It — it’s not done frivolously and it’s done totally in coordination with our counterparts in Ukraine.

SEC. AUSTIN: You know, Dan, sometimes when we have these conversations, it sounds like Ukraine is losing on its — on its battlefield. That’s not the case. Look, Ukraine has inflicted significant casualties on the Russian forces. They’ve take — they’ve destroyed an — an incredible amount of equipment. And so — and this is — this is before we’re — we provided them with the capability that they’re getting now. So this is additive, and hopefully, it’ll put the Ukrainians in a — in a good place to be able to change the dynamics on the battlefield, and so we’ll see. That — that’s our goal, to make sure that we’ve done everything that we can to put them in the right place to be successful.

STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen. Next question will go to Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q: Chairman Milley, it’s been several days since the attack and incursion into Belagrade. There have been social media images, videos and pictures, showing U.S.-made military equipment and vehicles being used in it. After your conversations with the Ukrainians and your own intelligence meetings, were U.S.-made military vehicles used in that incursion? And how did the militia get them? Did the Ukrainians provide them with those vehicles and equipment?

And Mr. Secretary, this incident and other recent incidents, including the drone attack near the Kremlin, has that raised concern for you that the Russians could use incidents like these as a pretext to broaden the war? And have you talked to your — your — your Ukrainian counterparts about potentially limiting the attacks that they’re carrying out closer to their borders, or within their borders for the time being?

GEN. MILLEY: So I’ll just very briefly just let you know that I’ve got the staff looking at that with EUCOM staff to — to confirm or deny, so I don’t have an answer for you right this second. The rules that we have established with the Ukrainians is to not use U.S.-supplied equipment to attack into the geographic space of Russia.

And — and — and look-it, they’re a country at war. It’s an existential threat. They’re fighting for their survival. I can’t say with — with definitive accuracy right this minute to you whether that — and I saw the same videos — whether that’s U.S.-supplied equipment or not, what was the nature of the attack, who did what to whom. I can’t say that with definitiveness right this minute.

But I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia. Why is that? Because we don’t want — this — this is a Ukrainian war. It is not a war between the United States and Russia. It’s not a war between NATO and Russia. This is a war between Ukraine and Russia, and we are supporting and supplying and help training and advising and assisting Ukraine. But is not a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.

SEC. AUSTIN: I can’t say it any better than that, Idrees.

In response to the question that you asked me in — in terms of, you know, any kind of pretext to broaden the war that — that Russia would make use of, I — I don’t want to speculate. But I will tell you that we are focused on giving Ukraine, providing Ukraine the capability it needs to be successful in defending its sovereign territory. And — and that’s — that’s a conversation that we’ve had with our — our counterparts on a continual basis. We’ve engaged a number of times on this issue just to make sure that — that, to the chairman’s point, we are not at war with Russia. This is — this is Ukraine’s fight. Our goal is to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to make sure Ukraine is successful.

STAFF: Next question, we’ll go to Luis Martinez, ABC.

Q: Thank you. Can I ask you both, this — from what chair — General Milley just said, it’s — about the investment in F-16s, just for 10 F-16s, it sounds like that’s going to be a considerable budget necessity just to keep a small cadre of aircraft flying. Can you get that level of support from the Congress for even more aircraft or even more additional support, you know, maintenance, of sustainment? Does this open up a whole new series of questions about how much funding you actually need for the fight beyond just the — the ground fight, the artillery, the ammunition that everybody needs?

And there’s a major debate going on in Washington right now, the debt ceiling, the possibility of a debt default. What potential impacts could we see on the force? We heard this on Monday from some of your peers, General Milley, about the — the possibility that this is going to affect readiness. One actually called it potentially catastrophic. What are your thoughts on that? And how is it going to impact service members and their families? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah, so first, in terms of the cost of F-16s, it’s no surprise to anybody that this will be expensive, and the chairman and I and — and my undersecretaries have been, you know, clear about this throughout.

I want to thank Congress for its bipartisan support that — that we’ve enjoyed, you know, throughout our efforts to provide security assistance to Ukraine. And the congressional support, as you know, is — is a major element in — in our ability to — to — to help Ukraine in the way that we have.

Also, you know, the conversation that I’ve had with my counterparts, you know, as they — as we begin to frame out requirements for training and maintenance and sustainment is that this costs money, and — and not every country has F-16s or is — is able to chime in in terms of training or maintenance and sustainment, but they can provide monetary assistance. And so what I think you’ll — you’ll see our colleagues look to do is establish a fund so that other countries can contribute to this overall effort.

But again, this should be an international effort, and I think because of that, I think, you know, hopefully, our Congress will be supportive, as they have been throughout going forward.

GEN. MILLEY: On the debt ceiling piece, Luis, you know, I — I’m not an economist, but I think if we defaulted, that would be — have significant economic consequences, which would then translate into national security consequences. Paying troops, the morale of troops, weapons systems, contracts — all of that would be impacted. Readiness clearly would be impacted, so our large-scale exercises that we do at various training centers would probably either slow down or come to a halt in many, many cases.

So I think there’s no doubt whatsoever that there would be a very significant negative impact on the readiness, morale and capabilities of the United States military if we defaulted and didn’t reach a debt ceiling thing, as well as reputational damage internationally and so on. I — I think — I wouldn’t characterize it — I wouldn’t use words, you know, to — to say catastrophic or not. I’m not an economist, but I think it would be very, very significant without a doubt, and it would have absolutely clear, unambiguous implications in national security.

STAFF: Okay, last question, very quickly. Yup. Sorry, sir, we’ve got to move on. Last question, Tom Bowman, NPR?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you talked to some senior officers, retired senior officers. We were kind of confused about the strategy here. Is it to help Ukraine win a decisive victory over Russia, or is it more modest, and try to get them a better hand at the negotiating table?

And for General Milley, Henry Kissinger recently gave an interview to The Economist magazine. He said both Russia and Ukraine will have to give up territory in any deal. Both will be dissatisfied. But he worries war could erupt again because Ukraine is being so heavily armed, and they also have, quote, “the least strategically experienced leadership in Europe.”

Your thoughts on that?

SEC. AUSTIN: So in terms of the goals and objectives of Ukraine’s campaign, we’ll let the Ukrainians decide what that — what that will be. Our goal, as I’ve said so many times, is to make sure that we’re providing them what they need to be able to defend their sovereign territory.

I would remind everybody that this is a country that’s in a fight, and a pretty significant fight, and what we’ve been doing, and it’s really artful, and I applaud the Ukrainians on their ability to, kind of, grow into this. But we’ve been taking troops out of the fight and training them on sophisticated platforms and then putting those troops back in the fight, all while they’re fighting.

And while this seems — this seems simple to many, it is very, very complicated and not without risk. And so there’s — you have to balance the scales throughout. And the more sophisticated that equipment gets, the more critical that the training, the maintenance and sustainment becomes.

And so, again, we have been focused on giving them what they need to be successful. And, you know, as things evolve, our security assistance has evolved over time as well.

GEN. MILLEY: So, Tom, thanks for asking a very easy question, from — from a former national security adviser, Henry Kissinger —

Q: (inaudible)

GEN. MILLEY: Yes, I saw that, 100 years old. So, look-it, it would — it would take a lot longer than the few seconds I have to answer that question fully. I — I would just say this, for the time being. All wars come to an end, sooner or later. And they either come within one side winning or the other side winning, or they come to a negotiated settlement. This war, militarily, is not going to be won by Russia. It’s just not. Their strategic objectives that they laid out, which was the conquest of the territory called Ukraine, the unseating of the Zelenskyy government, the capture of Kyiv, those strategic objectives went away a year ago, really, shortly after they invaded, when Putin readjusted his strategic objectives to just grab Luhansk and the — the whole Donbas areas.

So the strategic objectives that Russia set out to achieve are not achievable militarily. They’re not going to be done. At the same time, the Ukrainian strategic objectives are to liberate all of Russian occupied Ukraine. There’s a couple hundred thousand Russian troops in Russian-occupied Ukraine. That might be achievable militarily, but probably not in the near term.

So what does that mean? That means fighting is going to continue. It’s going to be bloody. It’s going to be hard. And at some point, both sides will either negotiate a settlement or it will come to a military conclusion at some point in the future. And we’ll continue to support Ukraine in its fight for its own freedom.

But as to his particular comments about giving up land, not land, et cetera, that’s for those political leaders to decide. It’s really not for me to decide at a press conference in the Pentagon.

STAFF: Thank you both, gentlemen.

This concludes our press briefing today. Thank you very much for attending.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, everybody.