Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Breedlove, June 30, 2014

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–June 30, 2014. 

GENERAL PHILIP M. BREEDLOVE: Okay, thanks for being here this afternoon. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to be here. It’s the first time I’ve been here in this capacity as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the European Command commander. I look forward to our conversation today. I really look forward to the question-and-answers afterwards.

It’s a pretty tight schedule. I’m only here for a short time today, but I promise to make this kind of thing available the next time I’m in town, as well. I have a short statement, and then we’ll get to your questions.

As you know, it’s a very momentous time in Europe, probably the most since the end of the Cold War, especially because of the change — recent changes wrought by Russia. I’m very pleased with President Obama’s announcement of the European Reassurance Initiative. The $1 billion pledge will help us sustain our persistent presence efforts in Europe and assist us in protecting our own national security interests, while also reassuring our allies and partners of the U.S. commitment to our Article 5.

EUCOM will work with the president, Congress, and the Department of Defense to see this effort come to fruition. It’s too early to lay out what the details of what we will do, but it will cover increased and enhanced training, readiness, exercises, and necessary facility improvements that we will need in order to conduct quality training and readiness activities with all of our allies and partners.

These training efforts all in support of our NATO allies and partners in Europe now fall under the umbrella of Operation Atlantic Resolve. In this operation, we will continue to demonstrate our continued commitment to the collective security of NATO and dedication to the enduring peace and stability in the region, in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine specifically.

Operation Atlantic Resolve will continue to demonstrate the United States’ solemn commitment to the collective defense of all NATO allies, as has been true since we signed the Washington Treaty in 1949. We will respond if the security or territorial integrity of our allies is violated. We will also have built constructive security and defensive cooperation with Ukraine and other members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace over the past two decades to help build a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.

Our ability to respond quickly to reassure our European allies and partners was enabled by our forward-stationed forces and the force structure we have in place now. I believe our force levels in Europe are about right, even absent the latest developments in Ukraine, and that we should take a knee and make no permanent reductions to our existing force structure. In fact, we may need to add additional rotational forces to cover the sustained, persistent presence that we are now envisioning.

There are other issues on the stove, as well, for EUCOM. We are supporting other combatant commands through all our forward presence in Europe, AFRICOM, and they’re monitoring of the unrest in North Africa, CENTCOM with force flow in and out of Afghanistan, and they’re monitoring the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria, STRATCOM, TRANSCOM and SOCOM, and their support missions, as well.

Additionally, EUCOM is supporting U.S. government efforts to assist the OPCW in ridding the world of Syrian chemical weapons. A recent highlight in these efforts is that the Cape Ray will be arriving in the port of Gioia Tauro tomorrow to transload Syrian chemical weapons from the Danish vessel, Ark Futura, and then transit to international waters to neutralize the chemical agents in a safe and environmentally sound manner.

Concurrently, we have also been engaging in ongoing operations with NATO in defending our partner, Turkey, and our commitment to the defense of Israel.

Make no mistake: Our operational tempo is high, but the spirit and morale of our forces is high, as well. Every airman, soldier, sailor and Marine I’ve had the opportunity to meet is fully up on our mission and eager to do their job. Every alliance and partner member I meet on the battlefield is also equally enthusiastic.

We are proud carriers of a legacy that began just over 70 years ago on the shores of Normandy. That legacy has endowed us with the NATO alliance and steadfast relationships with incredible allies and partners who have fought alongside of us in almost every conflict.

Additionally, by hosting our U.S. forces forward, they enable us to be more responsive and ready for issues in and around the continent. It is indeed a momentous time in Europe, but with the support of our partners and allies, we will face these challenges like we have in the past — together — and build a safer, more secure Europe.

So, thank you. And I think, Bob, the first question goes to you.

Q: Thank you, general. A question for you on Ukraine. I wonder your assessment of the latest developments there, including the temporary cease-fire. Do you think that the conflict has reached a turning point?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Bob, I think what I would do is allow the actions on the ground to speak for themselves. There are — there is good rhetoric. There are some good words about a cease-fire and peace, but what we see is continued conflict, continued support of the conflict from the east side of the border, and until we see those things turn around, I think we need to watch with a wary eye.

Q: And — and Russian troop levels, is it still — have an estimate?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Well, I think what you’ve been told is we see about seven-plus battalion task groups on the east side of that border, numerous small special operations forces. That’s not a helpful development in what it brings to the problem.

Q: (OFF-MIC) Michael Gordon, New York Times. If I might follow up on the Russian posture, when he was at NATO last week, Secretary Kerry said that the Ukrainian helicopter had been shot down with a Russian weapon and there’d been a number of aircraft lost in Ukraine. What is the latest information on Russian supplies of arms to the separatists? And do they include anti-air weapons?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: To your last specific question, yes, they do include that. What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment, tanks, APCs, anti-aircraft capability, and now we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border.

Q: So the aircraft that were shot down recently you think were likely shot down with Russian-supplied weapons to the separatists?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I think we need to allow the facts to be sorted out before I report it. And so I would say now it’s a — it’s a good — it’s a very good likelihood, but we haven’t tied the string directly together yet.

STAFF: Barbara?

Q: Sir, if I could change subjects briefly, Al Qaida in Europe. You have the rise of the fighting in Iraq, in Syria. You have both of those countries, the Al Qaida elements joining together, and especially Al Qaida in Yemen, all of them looking to bring Westerners in or visa waiver countries and then potentially send them back out. What are your concerns specifically, if you will, about Al Qaida operatives moving through Europe, potentially attacking Western or U.S. interests there and potentially coming back through Europe, especially from Yemen, to attack the United States?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So allow me to speak in a little bit broader terms, rather than label just Al Qaida fighters in Europe. Let’s use the term “foreign fighter flow” into Europe. That is a great concern to me, and it’s a great concern to our European partners.

Just recently, of course, we’ve seen a returnee strike a tough attack in Belgium, and then he was arrested in France. So what does this tell us? Foreign fighters can return to these nations. They can effect an attack or — or some sort of problem for that nation and then move quickly across borders into other nations.

And I think this worries all of the nations of Europe about the capability of these foreign fighters returning. And so the flow from all of these areas, from Yemen, as you talk about, but I think, more importantly to the Europeans, the flow from western Iraq and eastern Syria into Europe is a very distinct problem, and we are working to address that flow.

Q: Can I very briefly follow up just on the Yemen point? That’s a country where it’s well understood and known that that Al Qaida element has the ability to make bombs that can evade airport security and all of that. Do you have new concerns about the development of those kinds of weapons and what it could — what it could mean about the vulnerability of airport security in Europe and in the United States?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I wouldn’t use the word new, because this has been a concern for some time. We remain concerned about the capability of some of these elements to develop weapons that could be thwarted by our current security systems.

STAFF: Tony?

Q: Sorry, sir. Tony Capaccio from Bloomberg News.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: (OFF-MIC) I know you, Tony.

Q: What is your assessment of Russia’s motivation for going into Iraq at this point when they’re quite busy in the Ukraine? Is it to help — send a signal to Syria? What’s your read on — on it?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So, Tony, I think that’s a little out of my area of operation.

Q: I understand that. But you follow Russia and Russia’s geopolitical motivations.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Right. So I think what I would say is that our concern right now in NATO and as a European commander is what is happening along the Turkish border. This is an ally that, if we have to, we will defend. That has been stated very clearly. And so we’re concerned about all of the operations by all of the players on the south side of that border that would cause anything to cross it or increase the flow of foreign fighters or any of the things that could affect us in Europe.

Q: Well, you’re concerned, then — even though you’re EUCOM, the — the internationalization of the Iraq fight now could ripple into your region, with Turkey being an example.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I’m certainly concerned about the spillover into Turkey and our European partners.

STAFF: (OFF-MIC) Joe over to you

Q: Sir, Joe (OFF-MIC) with Alhurra. Given the concerns that you have mentioned, and mainly in what’s going on, on the Turkish border, do you think NATO could play a role in the near future in stabilizing what’s going on, let’s say, in Syria and Iraq? Because as you may know, sir, the influence of extremist movement, mainly ISIS, is growing with time.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I think NATO has been very clear that there is no mission to go into Syria for NATO forces, but what it has also made clear is that we will defend Turkey. As you know, right now in Turkey, we have three nations from NATO there with Patriot units as a part of defending our ally from the possibility of attack by these intermediate-range missiles. And so we have been very, very clear that, as to defending our ally, that is a NATO mission. As far as a NATO mission on the other side of the border in Syria, there has been no call for that among the NATO nations.

Q: (OFF-MIC) Marcus of Defense News I wanted to ask for your assessment of Russia’s strategic forces. Specifically, have you seen any money diverted away from them due to their operations in and around Ukraine?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I have no evidence of that. I see that NATO has — or, excuse me, Russia has for some years now embarked on a fairly ambitious reinvestment program and all across their forces. And to your specific question of diversion from strategic forces to — to finance what they’re doing tactically, I — I have no indication of that.

Q: General, Michael Hoffman with To go back to an earlier comment you made about rotations of forces, how large of an increase would you kind of look at for that? And what types of forces would you be interested from a EUCOM perspective?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So I think the most important first part of the answer that — or the question that you didn’t ask I will answer anyway, and that is that I think that, first and foremost, we should now pause and determine, should we continue with any of the program reductions that are in the plan for Europe? As a result of budget and sequester, there are already some reductions that are still on the books.

So I think the first step in this process is that we develop a mechanism by which we stop, re-look those planned actions for Europe. I have been on record numerous times as saying that I believe that we have infrastructure that can come down and, therefore, I completely support the EIC , and I think it’s headed in a good direction. But as far as force structure, I do not think we can take any more reductions.

Then, once that question is answered, we would have a better understanding of what we would need as far as rotational forces. As you know, we have forces all over Europe now, European Command forces that are a part of our immediate response measures, ground forces in the three Baltic nations, in Poland, air forces in Lithuania and in the south, ships in the Black Sea, marines in Romania, et cetera, et cetera.

And we will need to keep this presence up for some time into the future. To be determined. Right now, we’re tasked to do it through the 31st of December this year. But, again, based on what happens with our overall force structure, we would need to then rotate forces and to be able to do these missions, which are now required in this presence mission in Europe.

Q: The situation in Ukraine, does that change your equation on what needs to necessarily stay in EUCOM, as well as — how do you present that?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So I think it’s a great question. We — we have all often worried about what is the force that we should plan for. For the last 12 to 14 years, we’ve been looking at Russia as a partner. We’ve been making decisions about force structure, basing investments, et cetera, et cetera, looking to Russia as a partner.

Now what we see is a very different situation. And so I think it was illustrative to just take, for example, what happened on the Ukrainian border just some weeks ago. Twenty-eight battalion task groups combined arms force there with the air and land forces integrated well. That gives us a good idea to think about what we might face in the future and gives us a baseline for that conversation about what should be our capacity and capability both inside NATO and U.S. forces in Europe.

Q: (OFF-MIC) Hi, my name is (OFF-MIC) Autumn Arnett I’m with Air Force Magazine. I, just kind of in the same vein, wanted to know if you could tell us when we can expect the EIC to be completed and also how much more the Air Force can expect to be impacted by the consolidation.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Okay, so I wouldn’t want to answer for OSD when the EIC is going to be completed. I think it’s relatively soon. And — and I have seen some of the preliminary plans or results.

As far as the changes for Europe — as far as the Air Force, is that what you’re asking? Well, I think the budget details have been released, and we’re looking at, at least reductions of our F-15s force in Europe. And I think that’s about as much of the detail I’d want to go into in this forum.

Q: Sir, Dion Nissenbaum with the Wall Street Journal. NATO released some images of the tanks recently going into Ukraine. I’m wondering if you have any update on whether you believe they’re still operating there, if they’ve sent any more tanks in, and what other kinds of details you may have on specific Russia supplies for the…

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So there has been a release of NATO data on tanks. I believe YouTube has other vehicles, such as armored personnel carriers. We have not seen any of the air defense vehicles across the border yet, but we’ve seen them training in the western part of Russia, et cetera. So I think that there are several types and capabilities of heavy weaponry that are moving across that border.

Q: You believe they are moving across the border?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: I do, absolutely.

STAFF: In the back.

Q: (OFF-MIC) earlier this year, there were some — a handful of incidents where Russian warplanes came a little too close for comfort to U.S. warships in the Black Sea. Since those incidents, have there been any other kind of engagements like that in that area? And due to those sorts of close calls, have you given any thought to changing the operating procedures or possibly rules of engagement in case, you know, another incident like this happens?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So there have been at least two incidents in the Black Sea, one very early on when we went in there where ships maneuvered close to our ships, and there has been an incident of aircraft making low passes, provocative passes on our ships.

But what I would say is that, while they are not good and they are not the kind of behavior we would like to see, none of them got outside of sort of the norms of this sort of thing that happens on the sea. There are other things that are happening, though. I mean, we had an instance with our Baltic fleet recently where Baltic fleet declared a training zone, was firing at towed targets, Russian ships became involved, got too close to the target, to close to the shooters, and caused those things to be knocked off.

We’ve had a couple of other aerial incidents both on the West Coast and on the East Coast in the Pacific Command region of responsibility. So while I wouldn’t characterize any of them as extremely outside of the norm, the frequency of them has certainly picked up.

Q: Has that — has that frequency prompted any possible change in thinking on how — on possible U.S. responses to these incidents, if they occur again?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: We will continue to conduct ourselves in a professional manner in accordance with the way the U.S. Navy has always done it at sea and the U.S. Air Force has always done it in the air. And then we use those venues to pass our concerns back and forth. Nothing has risen to the point where we’ve made changes to our operating procedures.

Q: General, Luis Martinez with ABC News. If I could go back to the question about the tanks, what impact are you seeing tactically from these vehicles on the western side of the border? And when you talk about anti-air, are you talking about MANPADS? And how do you assess that level of training?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Okay. So we haven’t seen any huge, drastic tactical impact of these vehicles. Clearly, in the situations that — where they have been used by the separatist forces, they have a very — what I would call a decided tactical impact right at that moment. But as far as an operational impact to what’s happening in the east, nothing to speak of yet.

We don’t know whether the first two shoot downs were MANPADS or vehicle-borne missiles. Again, I like to report when I have facts, so I will just tell you that we’re not — we haven’t tied that string completely together as to which was used in which situation.

Q: (OFF-MIC) The level of training you’re seeing on the eastern side, does that involve MANPADS? Or is that vehicle-borne?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: We have not seen training of MANPADS, but we have seen vehicle-borne capability being trained.

Q: Sir, Andrew Tilghman with Military Times. You said that you’re — you feel like the force levels in EUCOM right now, that you’re relatively happy with that. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you think the other NATO partners are viewing our response to the Russian tension and, you know, what might be the value of — do you see any value in the discussion of raising that current force level in EUCOM on a permanent basis?

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So thank you for this question, because I’m quite proud of the way European forces reacted. When we first decided to do these reassurance measures, I was tasked as the NATO commander to develop a series of reassurance measures in the north, in the center, and in the south, and in each location to do air, maritime, and land capability, as applicable. It’s hard to get maritime presence in the middle of Europe, but in the north and the south, we’ve built those capabilities.

And as you saw, the U.S. was the first to respond. Less than 24 hours — much less than 24 hours from the go to show with our fighters and Lithuania, ships into the Black Sea almost immediately, and now you see ship — I should be correct — into the Black Sea very quickly, and then now you see ground forces in the three Baltic nations and in Poland and in Romania in the south.

So the point is that I think what we set out to do, which was two things, reassure our allies and also set the example and encourage our NATO allies to come alongside of us in those nations, that happened immediately and quickly.

Second, as you know, with the exception of the ships that were under European control at the time, all of the forces on the ground and the air that have immediately responded into these nations come from the European Command.

Later in October, forces from the United States will begin to rotate in and be a part of this presence mission in Europe. But right now, it was those forward-based European forces, EUCOM forces that were first to the situation. And so I think that’s one of the enduring reasons why we need to make sure we have the right force structure in Europe so that we can respond at speed when required.

STAFF: (OFF-MIC) one last question for the general.

Q: (OFF-MIC) one of the — you talked about some of the heavy equipment that’s going over the border from Russia into Ukraine. What about Russian special forces? I know in the past you’ve mentioned that it was quite evident that some of the separatists, whether in Crimea or elsewhere, weren’t really separatists, but were acting more like special forces and Russian operatives.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: So I think you have heard me say before the following litany which I believe remains today. Russian regular forces are very active along the border of Ukraine facilitating the movement of forces, equipment, and finances across that border. Russian irregular forces are very active inside eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed forces are active inside eastern Ukraine. And Russian financing is very active inside eastern Ukraine.

STAFF: Thank you very much, folks.

GEN. BREEDLOVE: Thank you all.