| Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman | Feb. 3, 2016
CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Welcome. Good morning. Thank you for joining us for Colonel Steve Warren briefing us live from Baghdad, from Operation Inherent Resolve.
Steve, over to you.
COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Thanks, Jeff, and good morning, Pentagon press corps. I've got a short opening. I want to do a very quick operational update and then straight to questions. So please bring up the map, if you would. Here we go.
In the suburbs east of Ramadi, which is star-one on your map, the ISF continue clearance operations. To the east, they are moving from Lake Tharthar towards Fallujah. Coalition forces have supported ISF in the lower Euphrates River valley with dozens of airstrikes over the past several days.
Over the weekend, ISIL attacked ISF positions in the vicinity of the al-Fatah Bridge which is north of Bayji. The ISF successfully repelled the attackers, killing more than a dozen ISIL fighters. The Iraqi air force has been active in this area as well, conducting effective strikes against ISIL in the Makhoul Mountains.
Moving to Syria and the Mara Line, Syrian opposition forces, supported by devastating coalition air power, liberated the Syrian village of al-Bali from ISIL on January the 30th.
Fighting along the Mara line continues with both forces conducting offensive operations.
Our operations are hurting this enemy. We've hit their finances, both cash and oil; we've shrunk their so-called caliphate, we've disrupted their lines of communication, we have decimated their ranks and shaken their leadership.
Proof of the pressure ISIL is feeling is the increase in forced conscription throughout Iraq and Syria -- which shows that voluntary recruitment is no longer sufficient to meet their needs.
Additionally, we have seen an up tick in reports of desertion, and more importantly, we have seen ISIL execute its own fighters for fleeing the battle field.
With that, Bob, what's your question.
Q: Colonel Warren, I've got a couple of questions for you.
Is the U.S. military going to play any role in this announced Italian contract to fix or shore up, and secure the Mosul Dam?
And my other question is, yesterday, Secretary Carter said that the U.S. is running low on certain kinds of precision munitions in this air campaign. I'm wondering if you could explain whether that's not some sort of limitation on the air campaign?
COL. WARREN: So, no and no. And I'll elaborate. So, we are not -- the U.S. military, and in fact the coalition, is not involved in the Mosul Dam piece.
This is something that the Iraq government is in charge of, and is conducting its international business.
On the bombs -- so, the availability of munitions has not impacted our operations here. Obviously, the Department of Defense will prioritize supply to where it's needed. And as an active battlefield, obviously, priority of supply will come to us.
So, it has not had an impact on our ability to conduct our operations at all. So, the -- the secretary's announcement to buy additional munitions will only serve to ensure that that situation remains constant.
Q: Yeah. Hello, Steve. I apologize if you have mentioned that in your statement -- primary statement. Do you have any details of the drone, U.S. Predator drone that fall in Southern Turkey today?
COL. WARREN: I don't have any details of that. Is -- in Turkey, that would be really a U.S. European Command asset. So, they will probably have a better set of answers for you. But I don't have any additional details.
Q: Okay. On another -- I have another question. Can you update us on the deliveries of F-16 aircraft to the Iraqi army? A first batch of four aircraft had been delivered earlier, but I heard that there is a second batch of aircraft, F-16 that has been delivered.
Can you update us on that?
COL. WARREN: I can confirm that a second batch of F-16s have arrived here in Iraq. It's a quantity of two, which brings the total count of F-16s here in the Iraqi air force up to six. The Iraqis purchased a grand total of 36 F-16s for use. And so far, six of them now are on the ground. The other four, the four that have been here for some time, I'll tell you, the Iraqis have put those to good use.
They use them, primarily in a pre-planned target mode. They have also used them to some extent in a close air support role. But primarily, it's with deliberate, pre-planned targets that the Iraqis have struck, really across the depth of the battlefield here in Iraq. So, we look forward to this additional capability along with the additional trained pilots.
The pilots who fly these Iraqi F-16s are trained in Arizona by the United States. So the pilots have arrived, the additional F-16s have arrived and we look forward to getting them into the fight.
Q: Okay. Do you have any sense of when the next one -- next batch will be delivered? Next airplanes will be very good after these two?
COL. WARREN: Laurent, I don't have that date for you. I'll tell you, the limiting factor has been pilot generation. So, the flight school takes over a year and in some cases, I think the flight lead, it could be as long as up to two years before our pilot is fully trained.
So I don't have a status on the training. The Air Force might be able to help you with that. I don't have that data. But we bring the F-16s in as pilots are available.
Q: Hey, Colonel Warren, it's Gordon Lubold. We will -- couple of, just kind of update questions. One is, the two brigade sets headed to Erbil, are those still scheduled for arrival not until now March next time -- next month? And what's the status of the -- or what's the assessment of the Islamic States' ability to supply Raqqah after the coalition operations that essentially secured or tamped down that supply line?
COL. WARREN: So, the two brigade sets are due in March. I don't have a hard date in March, just March. We're tracking on that closely and we expect that it will be issued on time.
On Raqqah. So the -- Raqqah is not isolated. Raqqah -- you know, we have degraded the primary line of communication between Raqqah and Mosul. We have additionally severed one line of communication from the Manbij pocket in Mosul. And that is the line of communication that includes the Tishreen Dam.
But that's not the only road into or out of Raqqah. So that city is -- cannot yet be called isolated or cut off or anything of that nature. Ability to travel into and out of Raqqah has been, I would say, restricted. It has been degraded. But there are supplies in men and material are able to still flow in and out of Raqqah.
Q: Just to follow-up, though, I mean, so, is there a way to characterize their -- ISIL's ability to get re-supply in re-supply, in and out of Raqqah, post coalitions operations. And on the brigade sets, I never was tracking on exactly why March. Like, why not sooner? And could they use it sooner? And what's the delay, if there is one?
COL. WARREN: They can't use it sooner, so these two brigades still are in the process of standing up and being trained. So, they can't use the -- I mean, they are not even fully formed yet, or trained. So, that's an ongoing process.
The -- I can't give you a percentage of degradation into -- out of Raqqah. I'll tell you it's degraded to an extent. Again, it's -- you know, as an example, the movement between Raqqah and Mosul had been essentially a highway, you know, a hardball, paved road in between those two cities that could be taken at speed.
With that -- with access to that highway now in friendly forces control, any ISIL movement between those cities must now to go secondary roads and even tertiary roads. So often dirt trails; some of these dirt trails involve these kind of makeshift bridges that go over culverts. We've struck some of those culverts -- some of those bridges over culverts to further degrade the ability to move along these secondary roads.
So, it makes their life harder. With the Tishreen Dam, that was the shortest route from the Manbij pocket into Raqqah. Now, in order to get from the Manbij pocket to Raqqah, you have to travel all the way down to south of the Raqqah Dam.
Additionally, that causes -- leaves the enemy with only one way, for example, from Manbij into -- into Raqqah, which means we can watch it more closely. We can devote assets to watching that -- that line of communication, that road. And if we see something suspicious, then we can take action.
Q: Colonel Warren, it's Andrew Tilghman.
This week both Secretary Carter and General MacFarland talked about the idea that more troops was an option on the table. But the Iraqis have not made that request, and you and others have talked in the past about how, you know, you can't -- you can't force this on them, and they have their political dynamic they have to deal with.
Could you tell me to what extent you think, and others there think that the Iraqi political situation and the reluctance of some to take more American military aid is a significant limiting factor? And is there any kind of a gap between what General MacFarland and his advisers -- their military advice think ought to be done? And what the Iraqis say that they're really politically capable of?
COL. WARREN: Well, first off, I'd remind you. General MacFarland very specifically said he thinks less in terms of troops and more in terms of capabilities. Some capabilities involve troops. Others do not. So that's I think the first point that needs to be out there.
The second point I think, you know, no military advice comes without the knowledge that there are political realities associated with it, right? I mean, war is, you know, is an extension of politics and diplomacy. So we understand that there's going to be a political factor here. So -- and that comes into our own calculations, even as we deliver advice. We have to be aware of the environment around us. And so we are.
So, there's not a big disconnect now. You know, we continue to work with the Iraqis to determine how we can best support their operations. But it's their operations that we're supporting. And so we're working with them within their constraints and limitations. And we're aware of those constraints and limitations.
So we're going to continue to work this. As opportunities come up that allow us to present additional capabilities into this battlefield, we'll take those opportunities. And, you know, the list of such opportunities is already kind of out there, right?
We know about special forces that have been brought into this fight, we know about the Carabinieri additional -- we've got an additional contingent of Carabinieri moving in over the next couple of days into Erbil to continue training police. So, you know, it's a -- it's just -- it's a back-and-forth, and that back-and-forth is going to continue.
CAPT. DAVIS: Marcus.
Q: Hi Colonel Warren, Marcus Weisberger here. I'm wondering if there's any new assessment of how -- Russia's airstrikes in Syria. Has there been any change in indication of who -- of who they're striking and are they going after ISIS any more or less than they were?
COL. WARREN: Hi Marcus. Thanks. The Russians at this point have made it very clear that their offensive operations, their strikes are in support of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. That is the focus of Russian airstrikes. So when the regime is fighting -- whoever the regime is fighting, that's who gets struck.
Primarily, the regime is fighting opposition forces, so primarily, the Russians are striking opposition forces to the tune of probably 90 percent.
Occasionally, the Russians -- or occasionally, the regime, the Syrian regime forces, will find themselves in contact with ISIL and with -- in those cases, we see the Russians striking ISIL. But it's very limited, a fraction, 10 percent at the -- I think at the most would be against ISIL targets. The rest are against regime targets.
Q: Follow-ups. There's a report out there that the Russians have deployed the Su-35 sophisticated air-to-air aircraft. Can you confirm that? And there's also another report about the Russians striking civilian oil tankers.
COL. WARREN: Well I've seen those reports, too. We're not prepared yet to confirm it. But we have seen the reports. The Russians released video of them striking oil tankers maybe a month ago. I'm not tracking any additional tanker strikes since then.
CAPT. DAVIS: Okay, Courtney.
Q: Hi Steve. The Daily Beast had a story, I think it was yesterday, saying that despite the fact that the total number of U.S. troops is supposed to be capped at, I think it's 3,750, but there's actually about 4,500 U.S. troops in Iraq right now. What is the actual number, keeping in mind I know that there are some who come and go and whatnot, but what is the actual number of U.S. troops in Iraq right now?
COL. WARREN: So you're right. Our cap is -- it's 3,870, I think is the actual cap for forces assigned here. There are other forces, me for example, who come in on a temporary duty status. That's a low number.
I don't, Courtney, have the exact number, so we can try to dig that up for you. I don't think we're going to dispute what was in the Daily Beast article, but I just -- I don't have those numbers here. It's not something that I -- that I looked up.
Q: Is it fair to say that on -- that there are generally several hundred more U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq on a day-to-day basis than the cap allows for, than the 3,800?
COL. WARREN: No, that's fair to say.
Q: How is that? I mean, is -- how is that legal, or allowed? I mean, if there is this very specific number that the U.S. has put on how many troops can be operating in Iraq at any given time. How is it possible that there are hundreds more there right now?
How -- is that legal?
COL. WARREN: Well, it's a couple of things. I mean, for one thing, right now, there is what we call a RIP/TOA, a relief in place, a transfer of authority.
So, the 82nd Airborne Division has been here for approximately nine months as the CFLCC, the Combined Forces Land Component Command.
They are ready to rotate home, go see their families. They're being replaced by the 101st Airborne Division. So, during that -- so, people can't just leave, have nobody there, and then they come in? Right? That wouldn't make any sense at all.
So, it's a -- so, it's a rotation, and so, there's naturally going to be overlap there. And the same is true for our trainers, the same is true who come from a different unit, the 10th Mountain Division, the same is true for some of our force protection personnel who come from different units, possibly even the United States Marine Corps and others.
So, there is this continuous churn, right, of turnover. And so, there's always going to be some of these double slottings, which accounts for -- for a significant amount of this overage, right? It's just -- it's turnover.
Additionally, there's always people cycling through here, right? The inspector general comes through for 30 days to, you know, inspect how well we do in training. They bring a team of 25, or whatever the case may be, and they'll stay here for a month. Well, there's 30 more.
So -- and that adds up over time, right? Well, we've got some -- you know, we've got some logisticians who want to show up, and re-look at how we're moving food from -- you know, how we're supporting troops at Al Asad to make sure they're getting what they're supposed to have. And they'll -- they'll stay here for a couple of weeks.
In fact, we sent -- we've got two guys coming from Defense Media Activity to take a look at our studio here, try to make me look better, which is going to be a hard thing for them to do.
So, there's that continuous churn of people coming in, checking on things and moving out. Additionally, there's personnel here that are part of a turnover. So, there's always going to be some overage there.
As far as illegal, it's policy, right? The policy is that we're going to have 37 -- or 3870. And let me check that number for you; I think it's right. So, it's just the policy, and that's it.
CAPT. DAVIS: Lucas.
Q: Colonel Warren, the United Nations says there are over 500,000 Syrians that are cut off for humanitarian assistance.
Is there any plans for the U.S. military to help with that assistance?
COL. WARREN: Yeah. You know, yet another example of the brutality of this war in Syria.
This is a -- this is a terrible tragedy, this war. And there is suffering throughout Syria.
The United Nations really has the lead for humanitarian relief. The purpose of the CJTF-OIR is to defeat ISIL, and that is our focus. But there are others whose focus is on relief. And we'll, of course, support them if asked and able, but our focus is the defeat of ISIL.
Q: Are there any kind of armed escorts for its convoys in Syria?
COL. WARREN: There are no plans for that at this time, no.
Q: One more. Are the Russians preventing this humanitarian aid from getting to its destination in Syria? Are Russian airstrikes blocking the aid from getting where it needs to go?
COL. WARREN: I have not seen examples of Russian air strikes blocking the aid. What we have seen is examples of Russian conduct supporting the Assad regime, which is preventing the aid from getting to where it needs to go.
CAPT. DAVIS: Barbara Starr.
Q: Colonel Warren, it's Barbara. Two follow up questions.
On Courtney's question on TDY, can you please just go ahead and take the question? You said you didn't dispute Daily Beast's numbers but can you go ahead and take the question?
On a regular basis, what is the average number of TDY people in Iraq and do you have a policy for a cap on that because you can't just not know how many people are coming through. You have to be able to support them.
So what is the TDTY cap? What is the average TDY personnel, military personnel in Iraq. And, on the Su-35, I'm not sure I understood your answer about not ready to confirm it because I would have to think that the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. military know whether there's Su-35s flying in Syria. So, what's the deal?
COL. WARREN: Right. You're right. We know exactly what's there. We're simply not, right now, clear to publicly announce what's there. So, as soon as we get that, we'll put it out.
Q: Will you take the TDY question?
COL. WARREN: I will take the question.
CAPT. DAVIS: Anybody else? Carla?
Q: Hi Colonel Warren. Quick question about Russia. Has there been any more close encounters in the air in or over Syria with Iraq, with the Russians? And is there any concern for the U.S. military there that Russians could get close to our special operations forces in Syria?
COL. WARREN: The -- there have been no -- I think I might have lost the last half of your question there Carla. I heard, had there been any close air encounters with the Russians and are we concerned about Russians flying near U.S forces?
So, no, there have not been any notable close air encounters with the Russians recently. And you know, we're always concerned about our forces, no matter where they are. Force protection is always our number one concern.
We see no indication that we have to worry about Russia specifically as it relates to our forces there but, we're always -- it's always something that we keep an eye on and we plan for.
Q: Hi, Steve. It's Luis with ABC.
COL. WARREN: Hey.
Q: In the past, you've talked about those strikes, the air strikes on those two banks, striking up a dash past as you called it. There was a report out yesterday, also on the Daily Beast, that cited the dollar amounts that might be associated with it.
In the past, you talked about tens of millions. This one was much -- significantly higher. The estimate was maybe between half a billion dollars and $750 million. Can you confirm or say that those numbers were within the range of what the amounts that were struck?
COL. WARREN: I missed that. I missed that article, but for now, we’re sticking with our public estimate of tens of millions.
Q: And if I could follow up, are there other facilities that ISIS has that are similar in scope to the ones that -- the two that you targeted already?
COL. WARREN: So, if I tell you the answer to that question, it will help our enemy know what we know about them, so I'm going to keep that one to myself. But understand this, we will continue to target ISIL's ability to fund its terror activities, whether it's striking oil; whether it's striking money; whether it's striking other ways that they have of funding themselves.
This is a legitimate target for us and we will continue to pursue them.
Q: Colonel Warren, would you like to see Russian airstrikes in Syria stop during these peace talks in Geneva?
COL. WARREN: Well, I think that's probably a question more for the diplomats. What I would like to see is Daesh defeated as rapidly as possible so that we can get the people of Syria on a path towards normalcy.
Q: Luis, again. In your opening statement, you mentioned, when you talked about Ramadi, you said that ISF forces were pushing towards Fallujah as well. What are you referring to there? Are you talking about a push towards Fallujah like an offensive now? I think that the city there has also been surrounded for a while. But is this a combined action that you're talking about?
COL. WARREN: This -- specifically, it might have been a little unclear. So, if you look at Lake Tharthar, there's a canal that runs from Lake Tharthar south towards Fallujah. So that Lake Tharthar region kind of all around on both the east and west side of the lake, that right now is -- is one of the areas where we see most of -- it's kind of an enemy support zone, if you will. That's where they're still -- I mean, it's a lot of space. It looks small on the map, but it's a lot of space.
So we're focusing both ISR and ground assets in that area to start to clean out the enemy there. So that's what that's referring to. So this is forces at Lake Tharthar and working south in the direction of Fallujah, but it's -- which, of course, is providing support to Fallujah, right, because it's those -- it's those forces inside of that Lake Tharthar support zone that are able to funnel men, materiel and equipment through various ratlines into Fallujah to sustain the ISIL fighters that are there.
So this is operations kind of in the vicinity of Lake Tharthar, which is providing support to the operations in and around Fallujah.
Did that make sense? Did that answer your question, Luis If not, I'll tell you more.
Q: I've got it. Thank you.
CAPT. DAVIS: All right. Last call. Going once. Going twice.
Steve, thank you very much for your time again. We look forward to seeing you next week.
For everybody, I would remind you, as you know, the secretary is in San Diego today. He'll be visiting SPAWAR, doing a troop event on the USS Princeton, as well as a troop event in Miramar. We do expect the Miramar troop event to be streamed live. That should happen about 1900 Eastern time. The other one, we will not livestream on, but we will endeavor to get you a transcript as soon as possible.
That's it. Have a great day.