SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon.
Secretary Hammond and I just completed a productive session regarding our two countries' continued common interests. I'd like to thank Secretary Hammond for the U.K.'s strong partnership with the United States and his friendship.
In March, I had the opportunity to meet with the U.S.-U.K. combined chiefs' conference at Fort McNair. At that meeting, that was recreated as a gathering of the American-British uniformed military leadership during World War II, much discussion revolved around our continued relationship and partnership.
Our history of being allied in defense of common interests and common values continues to strengthen the relationship of our two militaries. The discussion Secretary Hammond and I have had today, which we will continue this evening, reflect our shared desire to deepen our defense cooperation in the face of very complex and unpredictable global security.
I discussed with Secretary Hammond my recent trip to the Middle East, which highlighted the many challenges to our shared interest in that combustible region of the world, including Iran and Syria.
I also expressed appreciation for the significant contribution and sacrifices of British forces to international efforts in Afghanistan. I would also like to express my deepest condolences to the people of the United Kingdom for the three British soldiers killed this week in Helmand Province.
As the transition to Afghan security control continues, the United Kingdom will continue to play an important role in helping field strong and effective Afghan national security forces. As we emerge from more than a decade of war of shared sacrifice, our discussions also focused on preparing this alliance for the future.
Yesterday, Secretary Hammond had the opportunity to visit the Naval Air Station Pax River to observe ongoing testing of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The United Kingdom's continued commitment to this program and our growing cooperation in new priority areas like cyber, is helping ensure this alliance has the kind of cutting age -- cutting edge capabilities needed for the future.
Over these past few weeks, the U.S. and U.K. also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Polaris Sales Agreement, a commitment that has been the cornerstone of our cooperation and shared contribution to strategic deterrence.
I congratulate Secretary Hammond on the Royal Navy's steadfast maintenance of its submarine-based nuclear forces and their continuing round-the-clock patrols. I strongly support the United Kingdom's decision to maintain an independent, strategic deterrence. Strong alliances and partnerships are becoming even more critical, more critical because both the United States and United Kingdom face the challenge of meeting global threats in a new era of constrained resources.
As our department undergoes the Strategic Choices and Management Review here, Secretary Hammond and I discussed the United Kingdom's defense strategy and ongoing efforts to rebalance its forces. DoD has gained many useful insights from recent British experiences, and our staffs continue to coordinate closely on strategy and defense planning.
We'll also continue to work closely together to ensure the NATO alliance has the capabilities needed for the future, which will be a focus of the NATO defense ministerial next month in Brussels, where we will both attend.
I look forward to seeing Secretary Hammond there and continuing our discussions today, again tonight, as to how we continue to build an effective working partnership around the world. Again, thank you, Secretary Hammond, and welcome. We're glad you're here.
SECRETARY OF DEFENCE PHILIP HAMMOND: Thank you very much. And good afternoon, everybody. I'm delighted to be here this afternoon, and I'd like to thank Secretary Hagel for his warm welcome.
As you know, I enjoyed a very close relationship with your predecessor, and I'm delighted that we've been able to pick up exactly where I left off in my discussions with Secretary Panetta.
Secretary Hagel and I have had detailed discussions about the common security challenges we face, focused, of course, upon Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. On Afghanistan, despite the tragic news that three British fatalities in Helmand province occurred yesterday, we remain determined to see through our vital task of preventing Afghanistan once again from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.
The events of the last few days have shown us that both our militaries continue to take risks as they carry out their dangerous tasks there, but the mission remains on track, and the increasingly capable Afghan security forces now lead on providing security for nearly 90 percent of the Afghan population and lead roughly 80 percent of all security operations. Their capability will continue to grow as International Security Assistance Force[ISAF]forces draw down towards the conclusion of our combat mission by the end of next year.
On Syria, Secretary Hagel and I reaffirmed our shared view that the Syrian regime must end the violence, stop the slaughter of its own people, and recognize that it is no longer the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We continue to believe that a diplomatic solution is needed to end the bloodshed and that Assad and his close associates can have no place in the future of Syria. We in the U.K. are stepping up our support to the national coalition and remind the regime that nothing has been taken off the table in the light of the continuing bloodshed.
We remain increasingly concerned at the emerging evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and we demand that the regime allow the U.N. to investigate these allegations. Assad should be in no doubt that the world is watching and will hold him to account -- him and anyone else to account who is found responsible for the use of chemical weapons.
As we face up to these security challenges and those posed by Iran, we also face significant budget constraints, both in London and in Washington. Secretary Hagel and I have addressed the issue of defense reform and how we can get more bang for our buck on both sides of the Atlantic. Greater military cooperation is at the heart of this, and we also need to look at how we can encourage our partner countries within European NATO to reform their forces to take on more of the security challenge with more effective and deployable forces.
Of course, the U.K. and the U.S. already enjoy a very high level of cooperation and interoperability, but we have agreed to explore what more we can do in our armed forces to drive greater efficiencies through collaboration together.
Yesterday, as Secretary Hagel has commented already, I went out to Pax River and saw one of the fruits of our collaboration, a British pilot flying an F-35V in vertical take -- vertical landing mode. And I'm delighted about the progress that we are making in this project, and in others, such as the common missile compartment, for our next generation of nuclear-armed ballistic submarines.
The U.K. and the U.S. remain in lockstep on these projects, and as we take them forward, we will ensure the continuity of those vital capabilities.
The British-American defense relationship is strong and far reaching. It will remain the bedrock of Britain's defense policy, and will continue to be at the heart of our special relationship for decades to come.
Secretary Hagel, I look forward to working with you to maintain and strengthen that relationship in the coming months and years.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
GEORGE LITTLE: Thank you very much. (Off-mike)
Q: For both of you, but Secretary Hagel, beginning with you, if you could be as concrete as possible here, now that we know the White House is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels in Syria, why are you in agreement with that fresh look at rearming the rebels, since General Dempsey, your top military adviser, has already said he's very skeptical about that?
My second question, very specifically, why have you -- since the emergence of the chemical weapons intelligence -- stepped up or put new intensity into looking at what might be done in Syria?
And the bottom line for both of you gentlemen, Mr. Hammond, you've said all options are on the table, but there is a good deal of legitimate skepticism about that. Why, with respect, should anyone believe any of this is other than political window dressing by both governments? It seems -- there seems to be no indication that either government is going to exercise any option.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, as to your question regarding rethinking options.
Q: Rethinking arming the rebels, sir.
SEC. HAGEL: Arming the rebels. That's an option.
SEC. HAGEL: That's an option. I think Secretary Hammond framed it rather clearly when he talked about what is the objective for both our countries, certainly the United States. Stopping the violence; stability in the region, and a transitioning -- helping be part of that transitioning Syria to a democracy.
Now, those are objectives. You're always, any country, any power, any international coalition in partnership is going to continue to look at options, how best to accomplish those objectives. This is not a static situation. A lot of players are involved.
And so we must continue to look at options and present those options based on all contingencies, with the focus that we all have, I think, in the international community to achieve the objectives the best way we can.
So we're constantly evaluating. I think the president noted it a couple of days ago in his press conference, talking about rethinking options. Of course we do.
Q: So you are rethinking -- the administration is rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels?
SEC. HAGEL: Yes.
Q: And may I ask why? What has changed in your mind? And does this put you respectfully at odds with the U.S. military, General Dempsey, who said it's not a good idea in his view? Why are you rethinking arming the rebels?
SEC. HAGEL: You look at and rethink all options. It doesn't mean you do or you will. These are options that must be considered with partners, with the international community, what is possible, what can help accomplish these objectives. We have a responsibility -- and I think General Dempsey would say the same thing -- to continue to evaluate options. It doesn't mean that the -- the president has decided on anything. But...
Q: Are you in favor of arming the rebels now?
SEC. HAGEL: I'm in favor of exploring options and see what the is -- is the best option in coordination with our international partners.
Q: Have you come to a conclusion yet?
SEC. HAGEL: No.
Q: Even after all -- respectfully, even after all these weeks? You have no conclusion -- respectfully?
SEC. HAGEL: Conclusion about what options we would use?
Q: Conclusion about -- you said that your -- your think -- the administration, yes, is rethinking arming the rebels. You said, "yes." You have no conclusion yet about whether you support that rearming -- arming the rebels, sir?
SEC. HAGEL: We are exploring all options to achieve the objectives that I just talked about. These are not static situations. And you must always look at different options based on the reality on the ground, based on what you want to achieve, based on the future, based on our international partners. We talked about -- Secretary Hammond and I -- many options. We talked about relationships. When I was in the Middle East last week, I was in five countries, as you know -- discussed Syria in all five countries.
Q: Secretary -- Mr. Hammond, if I could.
SEC. HAMMOND: Yeah, I -- I -- I won't repeat everything that Secretary Hagel has already said, but I -- I agree with what he has said. It is not a static situation; it's a rapidly changing situation. We've kept all our options open. We have not thus far provided any arms to the rebels, but we have never said it's something we will not do.
But the word that hasn't come out so far in this discussion is legality. Both of our nations will only do what we legally can do. Certainly in our case, for the U.K., we have been subject to an E.U. ban on supplying armaments to the rebels. We will look at the situation when that ban expires in a few weeks' time. We will continue to keep that situation under review. But we will do what we are able to do within the bounds of legality, and we regard that as very important.
STAFF: Toby Harnden?
Q: Toby Harnden, Sunday Times. Can I ask both of you, how confident are you that the Assad regime is in control of its chemical weapons? And how confident are you that the U.S. and the U.K. knows where those weapons are?
And a second part. If a red line is determined to have been crossed, will any military action be targeted against chemical weapon sites and proportional? Or is it more likely to be a broader attempt to change the strategic equation in Syria and overthrow the Assad regime?
SEC. HAMMOND: Thank you for that. I think the -- the evidence that we have is that the regime is largely in control of its chemical weapons, principal chemical weapons sites. That is not the same as saying that we are able to account for every last unit of chemical stocks, but there is no evidence that the regime has lost control of significant chemical weapon sites yet.
In terms of the location of weapons, I think we have a great deal of knowledge of location of chemical weapons. That is not the same as saying that I can put my hand on my heart and say we know where every last item is.
In terms of any possible response, I wouldn't want to close off any options. It really follows on from the answer to the previous question. We should keep our range of options open and under continuous consideration. We should look at the evolving situation on the ground and look at the range of options that would be appropriate and legal in any given situation.
Q: But if -- if the regime has only used chemical weapons tactically and on a small scale, would you consider it legal and proportional to do a broader strategy of arming the rebels in order to overthrow the regime?
SEC. HAMMOND: Well, I -- I don't want to make legal judgments on the hoof. Before we made any decision, we would expect to have detailed legal advice from the attorney general about whether a proposed course of action was legal and proportionate in the circumstances that then prevailed. And I think, having defined it that way, we need to keep our options as broad as possible within the bounds of legality and proportionality.
MR. LITTLE: We'll turn to Phil Stewart of Reuters.
Q: And another question on Syria. Secretary Hammond, then I'd welcome your comments, as well, Secretary Hagel. You seemed to indicate this morning that in order to establish chain of custody, the international community will likely need to wait for another attack to gain the right -- to gain the right kind of evidence. Is that correct? And have initial samples and evidence trails collected by both countries degraded over time?
SEC. HAMMOND: I think the point that I was making this morning was that the fact that we have set out our intention to establish evidence of the nature and caliber that would be acceptable in a court of law, sends a very clear message to the regime that any use of chemical weapons in the future -- which by definition generates the potential to collect that evidence -- has a price. And I hope we're sending a message that will have a deterrent effect.
I'm not a technical expert, but I don't think you need to be a technical expert to know that after any use of a chemical agent there will be a degradation over time of the evidence that can be collected, and from the point of view of constructing a chain of custody of that evidence, clearly the longer the period that is elapsed between the use of such an agent, and the point where you acquire a sample, the less strong that chain of custody will be.
Q: So you would need a new -- a new attack?
SEC. HAMMOND: Not necessarily would need, but clearly, if there were future use of chemical agents, that would generate new opportunities for us to establish a clear evidence of use to -- to a -- a legal standard of evidence.
Q: Secretary Hagel, are you confident that, given the evidence that you already have or evidence that could be collected from past attacks, you would be able to work with that or would you need a -- a new attack to be able to...
SEC. HAGEL: No, I think Secretary Hammond said it exactly right. And I really wouldn't add much to what he -- to what he said. I would say again, what the secretary has already noted, there is a legal issue here as well. And, that's why evidence is so critically important here.
Q: So you need to be able to link the -- the sarin to the Assad regime...
SEC. HAGEL: Well, you need the evidence. If you're going to exercise certain options, a range of those options, that evidence is particularly important.
SEC. HAMMOND: Perhaps I can just add something from a U.K. perspective. U.K. public opinion remembers the evidence we were presented with in 2003 around Iraq, which turned out not to be valid. There is a very strong view that we have to have very clear, very high-quality evidence before we make plans and act on that evidence.
Q: Two questions, if I may -- one on Syria; one on Afghanistan.
On Syria, to both of you. This is just a kind of minor detail in a way, but when you reach your -- when you're looking at these samples, are Britain and America working the same source material or separate samples? The White House said in a conference call the other day that "Britain had its own investigation," quote-unquote. I just want to be clear, are you looking at the same material or different material?
And on Afghanistan, Mr. Hammond, the prime minister said the other day that it's -- that Britain should encourage Afghan interpreters to stay in their country. The deputy prime minister said it's morally indefensible that interpreters would be left to their own fate in Afghanistan. Are we sending mixed messages to the 600 people who've risked their lives working for British forces in Afghanistan?
SEC. HAMMOND: Okay, well let me deal with the first point first. I can't comment on the evidence or the sources of intelligence that we are looking at, for obvious reasons. But we are working in close collaboration to establish a robust -- robustness to the analysis.
On the question of interpreters, we may be sending a mixed message through what's written in the media, but that's not our intention.
I think we're all clear that we will not abandon those who have served us in Afghanistan. But we're also clear that, to the extent that these are people who have an important contribution to make to the future of Afghanistan, educated people, by definition, English-speaking people, it is our wish, if we can, to construct an offer to them which attracts them to stay in Afghanistan and be part of Afghanistan's future.
That is clearly the wish of the Afghan government to see as many of these people as possible make their future in Afghanistan. And we think that it sends an important message about our confidence in the future of Afghanistan that we're seeking to work to allow these people to build a future in Afghanistan, rather than simply abandoning the country.
SEC. HAGEL: As to your question regarding the intelligence pursuit, each country, certainly the United States, uses its -- its own intelligence agencies and institutions, and makes its own efforts. But we also collaborate, in this case with the United Kingdom and other allies to share intelligence. So it's both.
MR. LITTLE: That's all the time we have today. Thank you very much.