Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command
STAFF: Good morning. Thanks for your patience as we were working through a few technical issues, but I think we have everything ready.
So today we continue our series of press briefings to update you on U.S. and coalition operations in the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
Today U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian joins us from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar, from where he commands U.S. Air Forces Central Command.
As the air component commander for U.S. Central Command, the general is responsible for developing contingency plans and conducting air operations in a 20-nation area of responsibility, covering Central and Southwest Asia.
In that role, he is responsible for the integration of air and space power in support of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led Operation Freedom Sentinel in Afghanistan, as well as the coalition-led effort to defeat ISIS – Operation Inherent Resolve.
We’ll start with a quick communications check.
Sir, how do you hear us?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL JEFFREY HARRIGIAN: I have you loud and clear. How me?
STAFF: Sir, we hear you great. Please take it away.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: All right.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thanks for being here today. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to update you, today, on the status of U.S. and coalition air operations in the region.
First, in Operation Inherent Resolve, we continue to experience significant progress in the fight to defeat ISIS and support our partner forces in Iraq and Syria.
More than 7.7 million people and 98 percent of territory formerly controlled by ISIS has now been liberated. As a result, the coalition recently announced, last week, it has shifted its focus in Iraq from enabling combat operations to sustaining military gains to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS.
A key example of this transition was the stand up of a Coalition Aviation Advisory and Training Team — I’ll refer to that as the CAATT — in Iraq, on the 1st of February.
Like we’re doing with our Afghan partners, the CAATT is a coalition team of airmen designed to help our Iraqi partners build a capable, affordable, professional and sustainable Iraqi aviation enterprise.
It is important to note that the CAATT stand up does not signal an increase in our presence in Iraq but instead leverages U.S. and coalition airmen currently there. The CAATT will serve as a bridging function as we work towards standing up an air expeditionary wing later this summer that will take over this mission.
Our train, advise and assist efforts to build a lasting Iraqi aviation enterprise will not be tied to a timeline, but instead will be conditions-based, proportional to the needs, and in coordination with our partners in the government of Iraq.
As we transition our focus in OIR to sustain our military gains, let me be clear that we will retain the necessary amount of air power to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. This was clearly demonstrated during last week’s unprovoked attack on our SDF partners and coalition advisers in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
For a quick recap, on the evening of February 7th, the coalition acted in self-defense where coalition advisers were present to support SDF from a hostile force launching an unprovoked, coordinated attack across the Euphrates River against an established SDF position.
The hostile force initiated the attack by firing artillery and tank rounds at the SDF position, followed by a battalion-sized dismounted formation attempting to advance on partner forces under cover of supporting fires from artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
At the start of these — of this attack, coalition aircraft, including F-22s and MQ-9s, were overhead providing protective overwatch, defensive counter-air, and ISR support — as we have done daily throughout the defeat — the fight to defeat ISIS.
We immediately contacted the Russian officials on the deconfliction telephone line to alert them to the unprovoked attack on a known SDF and coalition position. After these calls, coalition officials approved strikes to destroy hostile forces.
On the ground, Air Force joint terminal attack controllers embedded with the SDF called in precision strikes for more than three hours from aircraft and ground artillery, directing F-15Es, MQ-9s, B-52s, AC-130s and AH-64 Apaches to release multiple precision fire munitions and conduct strafing runs against the advancing aggressor force, stopping their advance and destroying multiple artillery pieces and tanks.
As the hostile forces turned west and retreated, we ceased fire.
Despite the attack being unprovoked, it was not entirely unexpected. The coalition observed a slow buildup of personnel and equipment the previous week, and we reminded Russian officials of the SDF and coalition presence via the telephone deconfliction line. This was well in advance of the enemy forces’ attack.
I know you’re going to ask, so I’m going to be clear that I will not speculate on the composition of this force or whose control they were under. As I’ve said throughout my nearly two years commanding coalition air forces, we are focused on a singular enemy: ISIS. We’re not looking for a fight with anyone else, but as Secretary Mattis said last week, “If you threaten us, it will be your longest and worst day.”
Despite this distraction, the progress made to defeat ISIS has allowed us to realign some of our deployed combat air power and personnel to Afghanistan, including A-10s, MQ-9s and HH-60s. These aircraft will provide increased air support to the South Asia strategy, as well as ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Afghan-led operations.
This plus-up in air power is also producing tangible results as part of a deliberate air campaign that we kicked off in late November to decimate the Taliban’s primary revenue source – narcotics production. Like in OIR, where we destroyed the oil production that ISIS depended on to fund their operations, our aim is to choke off the Taliban’s ability to fund its deadly attacks, like the recent ones in Kabul.
This campaign will take time, but it will not adhere to the Afghans’ traditional fighting seasons. Instead it will be relentless and persistent, as demonstrated by the 321 precision munitions we released this January against Taliban targets in the dead of winter, a time they typically the rest and recuperate. Compare that to 54 in January of 2017.
This pressure will persist until the Taliban reconcile or die. We are already seeing positive reflections from our intelligence that the Taliban are not enjoying their typical winter break.
Before I take your questions, I want to note that as we simultaneously tackle challenges with limited resources, I’m amazed at our airmen’s innovation. As we realigned air power to Afghanistan, some of our really smart folks on my team suggested, “Hey, why don’t we fly additional MQ-9s there instead of boxing them up and shipping them?” – something that we hadn’t previously accomplished. Flying them took less than 10 percent of the time, allowing us to keep these assets committed to both fights for as long as possible.
Ladies and gentlemen, again, thank you for being here. And with that I’m ready to take your questions.
STAFF: Thank you, General.
We’re going to start off with Tom Watkins, AFP.
Q: Hello, General.
When you — when there were conversations taking place between — between the coalition and Russia ahead of the strike, did you — did you get the sense that any of the people on the — any of the people on the ground were controlled by Russia or were indeed Russian mercenaries?
And, what was — how would you characterize the — the conversations that took place over that time? Did you get any push back from Russia? Did they say, “Go ahead. It’s fine to strike”? Could you just give us a little bit on insight into that, please?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Sure. Thanks for that question.
So what I would tell you is, as I indicated, the deconfliction line has remained open and it remained open throughout the entire week prior to that strike. And the discussions on the line remained professional and we have remained in a position where we continue to talk with them on a daily basis.
As I mentioned, I don’t — I don’t want to speculate on — on who was down there. That remains something that we’ll continue to take a look at and work our way through. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that prior, during and after, the deconfliction line was open, was used, and as I highlighted, remained a professional way to work deconfliction in that particular area that the operation occurred.
Q: (Inaudible) — my questions where I was asking you to just characterize a little bit those conversations. Did the Russians give you any resistance to you conducting these strikes?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: As I said, the — the conversations remain professional. The ability to talk about how we were going to deconflict and what that entailed did not get into specifics that would lead me to anything but professional conversations occurring throughout the entire time that built up to this situation occurring.
STAFF: Phil Stewart, Reuters.
Q: Hey, General.
Just a — not to push too much on this, did you — did you need to get higher approval in order to carry out those strikes or were you the approving authority for those strikes?
And also, you said that — we were told that maybe as many as a hundred of the enemy fighters were — were killed. Is that number still accurate or have you changed that number over time?
And then I wanted to ask you something short in Afghanistan.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Thanks for that.
So let me go back to the application of self-defense ROE and the understanding that half those troops were in contact, our SDF partners and Coalition advisers there.
When those kinds of activities occur, the ground commander is ultimately the individual that’s going to make the decision, because they’re taking fire, they’re closest to that situation and we empower them to make those decisions, because that’s how self-defense ROE is applied. And that’s exactly how that played out.
And I have to tell you that collectively that team did some — some great work to defend themselves. And, as Secretary Mattis said, you know we will ensure that we’re in a position to defend our forces, and that — those decisions are being made at the ground force commander level.
As far as numbers, I have nothing to add to any previous numbers that have been provided. What I would offer to you is that’s an area that continues to be assessed and worked through, and at this point, I’ve got nothing else to add. And as I said in my statement, what we saw coming at us was approximately a battalion-sized unit.
Q: Okay. And sorry, I’ve just changed my mind; I’m not going to ask about Afghanistan.
I did want to double-check: There was some reporting in Syria last week — or — last week about a shoulder-fired rocket, obviously up in the Afrin area. Have you noticed any increase in MANPADS or are you aware of MANPADS in Syria that have — since that incident that have changed the way that you fly? Or can you talk a bit about how you’re dealing with the MANPAD threat in Syria?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, we constantly assess. In fact I would tell you every day we are assessing the threat in the operational environment. And I say because that would include Syria or any other place that I’ve got my airplanes flying.
And so, we are consistently working very closely with the intelligence community to fully understand what that threat is, so that I can make smart decisions and provide guidance for my airmen with respect to what those threat levels. We provide that to the team, and I give them guidance in terms of allowable risk levels.
And — and then it’s going to really depend on the situation on where we place ourselves. And I won’t get into the specific tactics we use, but I can tell you that our airmen are well prepared. We get great information from our intelligence community to inform our decisions and then we provide that to the team, so walking out the door they’re ready.
But clearly each situation is going to drive a different decision matrix that’ll help us decide how deep into that threat we need to go.
STAFF: Barbara Starr, CNN.
Q: A couple of quick questions, if I may.
On the Russians, you talked in the past about their flying patterns. Are they still flying unduly aggressively against coalition aircraft? That’s question one.
Question two: Can you bring us up-to-date on your assessment of the air defense picture since the Israeli F-16 was shot down? While you may not fly in that direct area, what does that capability caution you about?
And thirdly, back to what happened the other day in this engagement, the Pentagon — the coalition has already said that these are pro-regime forces, so they’re not ISIS, they’re — and they’re not regime, they’re pro-regime, so there’s only so many choices about who these guys may be. It’s kind of hard to think you’re in a three-hour firefight and you don’t really have an assessment on who you’re shooting at.
So, has the U.S. military — has the coalition been told to keep quiet about all this because you’re trying to ratchet down tensions with the Russians? You must have an idea of who these people were.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Thanks, Barbara. Appreciate those questions.
Let me get back to the first one about the Russians flying and how those activities have progressed over time.
What I would tell you is clearly the Russian activity has moved away from where we’ve been operating down in the Euphrates River Valley and their operations clearly have migrated up to the northwest in — in support of their specific objective and what they’re trying to achieve up there. So, quite frankly, our interactions with them in compared to — in comparison to what we had seen probably at two months ago is significantly decreased.
And so, with that in mind, my assessment is, given where they are now focused, that has allowed us to stay fully concentrated, as you’ve seen over the last several months, on the — the defeat-ISIS operation. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.
Talking to your — responding to your second question on the integrated air defense and impacts to us with respect to what happened to the Israeli airplane, first thing I think it’s important to remember is that, you know, we fully support Israel’s right to defend themselves and particularly as to the threats to their territory and their people.
I think I’m — what I’d like to highlight for you — and I know I’ve had this discussion with you all previously, so this is a good opportunity to remind you all that we’re — as you know, we’re constantly, every day, flying inside that integrated air defense system that is inside of Syria.
So, from my perspective, you know, as the commander, I’m responsible to make sure we fully understand what their activities are, what the patterns of life have been, and what we’ve seen from them in terms of how those IADS operate and how we best understand them.
So, while these activities occurred, I will tell you that it’s not affected our operations.
But I will also say that it surely enforces our requirement to constantly assess the status of the IADS and then pass that information to our airmen. And that — that’s an important responsibility that we have here at the CAOC, and we’ll continue to do that and work closely with the intelligence community to understand their operations.
And then finally on the — your third question, relative to the forces that were struck down in the MERV. First, I’ll tell you, we have not — nobody told us to, you know, say anything specifically.
And what I would offer to you there is that we continue to take a hard look at what — what those forces were composed of. And it’s really just not helpful for me to speculate on that, because it’s going to take some time to — to fully understand who is down there. And I think you’re well aware that there’s a fair number of groups involved with this and it’s always difficult to precisely sort that out, so we need to execute our due diligence to get it right.
STAFF: Nancy Youssef, Wall Street Journal.
Q: Thank you.
I wanted to clarify a point earlier. There was a question to you about how many were killed and the last number we had heard is a hundred. Can you help me understand, has that number changed? Do you have reason to believe it will change? Or do you continue to believe that it’s a hundred?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, that number to my knowledge has not changed.
As we continue to understand what happened and assess that engagement, that’s a — from my position, that’s the number that’s been reported and still being assessed, and I’m fairly certain that will continue to happen.
Q: And 300 to 500 still remains true in terms of number of fighters who approached the U.S. forces?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yes, ma’am.
We’re saying a battalion-sized unit that was dismounted. In other words, there were some that continued on that attack and those numbers are a best estimate.
Q: And last Friday Secretary Mattis said that the U.S. is still seeking clarity on the forces that had struck, and you’ve also said that you didn’t want to speculate on the composition of those forces.
I’d like to know if you could respond to critics who say — (inaudible) — either an intelligence failure or disconcerting that U.S. military is conducting strikes in Syria on forces that it’s not sure it’s — what it’s composition is made up of.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, I guess — I missed the question there. Can you repeat the question?
Q: I’d like you to — if you could please respond to critics who would say that either it’s an intelligence failure or at best disconcerting that the United States is conducting strikes in Syria on a group of forces that it’s not sure of the composition of.
Is it that you know the composition of parts of it? How — there is a concern about the U.S. conducting strikes — air strikes with the level of air power that used and now saying it’s not sure who precisely it struck.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: No, okay, thank you for that. I apologize. I — I couldn’t exactly hear what that question was and I understand it at this point.
So, I think the first thing I’d remind you of, you know, is this is executed from self-defense and we’re going to defend ourselves. And as was reported, there was incoming fire and we were with the SDF hunkered down, not provoking, and a force is massing and coming at us. So we’re going to defend ourselves and we all need to be crystal clear about that, just as Secretary Mattis said.
So, we’re going to do that first, defend ourselves appropriately. And then as you highlight, we’ve got to work through exactly who it was to understand that.
And, you know, at the point that we’ve got clarity on that, we’ll let higher decide when that is in terms of those types of timelines. But I think it’s important to recognize that it’s not as simple to sort out exactly who everybody is down there, and so we need to allow that to — to work its way through.
Q: Sir, if I could just — two quick follow-ups.
One, have you done site exploitation where the pro-regime force was massing? And two, do you know if any bodies were recovered by the other side?
And then I have a quick follow-up.
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, relative to your first question, certainly we continue to watch that area and ensure that our SDF partners and our coalition advisers that remain in those positions are aware of any other threats that might be coming towards them, much as we did prior to that initial attack.
And our goal here is to get back to fighting ISIS. And so, the intent here is to ensure we protect ourselves, maintain good operational understanding of the environment around our partners and our coalition advisers, while prosecuting the fight against ISIS. So, that’s job one.
And, you know, as far as SSE, if we are doing that that’s going to be something that we want to keep close hold and make sure that we’re protecting our operational security and the details associated with that.
Finally, with respect to the bodies, I have no knowledge of any of those bodies getting pulled out of there, and — and can’t comment on that.
Q: And just a follow-up, kind of, on Barb’s question, when you guys say the future that this was a pro-regime force — not specifically to this incident, but does pro-regime force always rule out regime force?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, specific to pro-regime forces, I think it’s important that as we talk about that, you know, clearly it’s — it’s encompassing a wide group of folks that — I guess what I want to bring you back to is the fact that this was self-defense. And while we’re spending a lot of time talking about this, this is a — a hostile force that was coming after our partners and coalition advisers and so, we’re going to defend ourselves.
I think as we work through the assessment, right now “pro-regime forces” is probably the best definition we have to describe who they were.
Q: I’m going to do a quick follow up here because I didn’t quite hear an answer.
When you say “pro-regime force,” does that rule out forces that are commanded by the Assad government?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Those are all — that’s all part of the regime and pro-regime forces.
So, I guess the specific answer to your question would be “pro-regime forces” is going to involve all those that are supporting the regime.
Q: General, you mentioned you want to focus on ISIS, but it seems, I guess, while ISIS is largely being crushed in Iraq and Syria, your forces and partner forces are increasingly under attack from Turkish-backed forces, from Russian-backed forces, from Syrian-backed forces and from these, quote, “pro-regime forces.”
Can you discuss the challenges that are facing your forces on the ground in this new environment?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Hey, that’s a great question, because it clearly is a very complicated and complex environment. And for both our forces on the ground and I would say for our forces in the air, this environment requires the professionalism and discipline of a force that’s able to manage and understand the environment such that we can make timely decisions in terms of understanding, number one, how we’re going to protect ourself, and then, number two, get after the ISIS fight.
So, I would share with you that each and every day we are trying to ensure that as folks are preparing for those operations that support the D-ISIS fight, we have an extensive understanding of what the Turkish and Russian forces are doing today, so that we can continue to get after ISIS and prosecute that fight.
Because what I highlight to you there is, while we have pressured them and — and done some great work to deny them of the physical caliphate, there’s a pretty significant fight still going down in the — in the southern part of the Euphrates River Valley. And so, that’s an important piece that — that I would share with you, that while we’ve had to defend ourselves, that part of the fight is still ongoing and we continue to prosecute it.
Q: And can you discuss in detail about what happened last weekend? It appears that U.S. forces came under attack for a second time in a week. Do you think that attack in eastern Syria was linked to the Iranian drone flying over Israel? And can you rule out that any Russian troops or Russian-backed forces were killed in those — in the U.S. response?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, first, I’d highlight that I am not connecting any of the Iranian activities specifically to what happened with the force that attempted, again, to target our SDF partners and the coalition advisers there.
We were in a position, again, that’s a defensive position that we’ve been operating out of. And as we were doing what I would call normal operations, in terms of getting back after ISIS and ensuring that our area was secure, we detected and saw a tank that took a shot at us.
It continued to move, so we, again, executed self-defense rules of engagement to protect ourselves. And I believe that was something that, again, we always have the right to do and we’ll make sure we’re in a position to do that.
And can you — can you repeat again the second part of the question?
Q: Can you rule out that the Russian citizens or any Russians of any kind were driving that T-72 tank or any of these tanks that were firing on your forces?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: I don’t know who was driving it.
And so, it’s not going to be helpful for me to try to — to sort that out at this particular time. You know, it’s — I’m not just going to speculate on that right now.
Q: Hey, General, just real quickly, elsewhere in your AOR, does the U.S. still plan to support Saudi refueling mission in Yemen over the — over the next year?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Yes, sir. We continue to support them with the air refueling and also in an advisory capacity. And that has remained our policy and we’ll continue to support that.
Q: Thank you.
And is that just for the Saudis or is that for the UAE and the whole mission?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: It is for both of them.
What is the level of threat posed by the terrorist safe havens in Pakistan? What is the level of threat posed by the terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Just so I make sure I understood the question, you’re asking what the level of threat posed by Pakistan is?
Q: Safe havens inside Pakistan; what threat they pose to your operations inside Afghanistan?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay, thank you for that.
So, we continue to work closely with our — our Pakistan partners. And what I would tell you is, first off, our intent is to make sure that Pakistan continues their fight against terrorists and does all that they can to support, not only protecting themselves, but also protecting coalition and Afghan partners that are operating there.
And so they continue to execute that, and it is something that we consistently work with our intelligence community to understand.
Q: Thank you.
General, I would like to go back to what happened over the weekend in the Israeli airspace. Could you confirm that the drone that was shot down was an Iranian drone?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So, I probably read the same reports that you have, and you know, that’s the — the publicly available information that’s out there. And, you know, from — from our perspective, that’s what we’re reading.
It’s probably best to talk with the Israelis and get their opinion, because they’ll have the — the best information.
Q: Quick follow-up, sir.
From your perspective, do you think shooting down an Israeli F-16 represents a change in the rules of engagement by the Syrian regime or the Iranian regime?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Well, it doesn’t represent a change for us on the U.S. side.
As the — as the Israelis approach that, again, you know, you’ll have to get with them and their perspective on it.
Again, I think, importantly, from my perspective, it’s important that, you know, we understand the status of the integrated air defense system, so that we can continue to fight our D-ISIS fight. And, you know, as we continue to execute that, that’s something I’m always watching and keeping an eye on.
Q: Okay, last — last follow-up, sir.
Do you know how the F-16 was shot down? Could you confirm that Russian-made S-200 anti-aircraft missiles were launched against the F-16 — the Israeli F-16?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: I’m not going to speculate specifically on what we know or don’t know.
I think it’s important to understand that, you know, the — the Israelis have the right to defend themselves and any threats to their territory or their people. And so, I think that’s important to remember. And, you know, quite frankly, they’ll have the best information on what they believe took down that particular airplane.
STAFF: Jeff Schogol.
Q: Thank you, General. Jeff Schogol with Task and Purpose.
I believe you said that the JTACs called in airstrikes and artillery strikes for three hours, involving B-52s. Can you give us a sense of how many bombs and how many shells were used in this three hours?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Thanks for that.
I don’t mean to be flippant about this, but there are a lot, and those guys did some phenomenal work. And, you know, while I’m highlighting the JTACs, they were working closely with the ground commander and under significant pressure and in a very intense environment, and they basically were able to manage that situation, and self-defend themselves and the SDF partners in a magnificent fashion. And, frankly, I’m proud of the work they did.
Q: If I could follow up, the fact that any pro-regime forces survived that hurricane of fire — is it accurate to say your goal was not to kill all of them?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Our goal is to defend ourselves in that situation, and that’s what that was all about.
And so, as I highlighted to you, once the — that ground commander, who was the closest guy to the fight, felt that he had defended himself and he was no longer threatened by that force, we ceased at that particular point. And that’s his decision and his decision alone.
And I think it’s important that all of us that want to look back on this recognize how he handled that and those decisions that were made and I applaud his efforts.
Q: Can you just give us a ballpark of “a lot” in terms of shells and bombs, maybe tonnage-wise?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: You know, maybe at some other point we can take a look at that.
But, you know, one thing, I’ll just tell you, you know, we need to be sensitive to how we go out and do this and how we defend our force. You know, these are operational details that for me are important to protecting our guys on the ground and how we go out there and employ every day.
So, you know, I recognize you’d like to have that answer, but I don’t want to give away any inkling of how we do business so that we’re able to do it every day and every night.
STAFF: So, right before I get to Jamie, so we’ve six got in the queue and we’re running out of time so, if we can stop doing three and four questions and just do one and a follow-up — that way we can try to get everybody please. Thank you.
Q: I just have one question. Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner.
Again, one more about the Israeli strikes over the weekend and how it affects your mission.
After those strikes a spokesman for the Israeli government said that they estimated they had taken out, quote, “half of the Syrian air defenses.” Do you share that assessment? And if you don’t share the assessment precisely, was there a significant degradation of the integrated air system such that it might mitigate the threat against the planes that you’re flying in that airspace?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay. Thanks for that.
First off, I’ll just, kind of, come back to how I hit that before, in that no impact on our mission. Based on where we’re operating and what we’re executing, there have been no impacts to us as we continue to monitor the status of the integrated air defense system.
With respect to what it ultimately did to their IADS, clearly we’re taking a look at that. You know, you’ll have to go back to the Israelis to determine how they developed that assessment.
But we’re continuing to look at that — look at the big picture with respect to their capabilities going forward, and that’ll be something that goes into, you know, our assessment moving forward.
But again, I’ll highlight that at this point no impact to our mission.
Q: Hey, General. Luis Martinez, ABC News.
Given that this was a three-hour defensive action, how complex was the ground attack? And was it persistent — was there persistently offensive action on the part of that battalion-sized element throughout that time? And just how close did their ordnance get to the SDF headquarters that you were collocated at?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Thanks.
First off, with respect to complexity, you know, I’m not going to go into the specific details of exactly what they were doing, but you know, they had a plan, they were looking to execute it. And I would tell you that the ground force commander and — you know, I personally talked with the JTACs, and it was persistent.
Those entities — our team on the ground, in coordination with the SDF — did some phenomenal work to defend themselves. And then managed, in the middle of the night, a very complex environment that incorporated surface-to-surface, air-to-surface fires to defend themselves.
That’s what, you know, we train them to do, that’s what they executed and they did it in fantastic fashion.
What was the last part? You were three-parting me there, so what was the last part of it?
Q: How close did their ordnance get to the SDF headquarters? And was there actual ground-to-ground firefight involved?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: I won’t get into the specifics of exactly how close they got. But, you know, let there be no doubt the ground force commander felt threatened, so he responded, leveraging the assets he had available to him.
Q: General, I think — just switch to Afghanistan quickly, are — the plan was to be moving a lot of the assets from the ISIS campaign over to Afghanistan, things like JSTARS and tankers and Rivet Joints. Has any of that slowed or been impacted by Turkey’s operations and the unexpected tempo of things going on still in Syria?
And in Afghanistan, can you talk a little about the — the increase in close air support sorties and these strikes on the drug labs, the whole campaign; how this started off for the first couple months now that we’re into February?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Okay.
I guess what I’d highlight first is the beauty of air power, in that we’re able to flexibly in a very agile fashion switch from AOR to AOR. So, as we work with both the OIR headquarters and the Resolute Support headquarters, we gather their requirements and then allocate the assets based on how we can best support them.
So, what I would share with you is that we’ve been able to ensure that when required, we’ve had the decisive air power required, whether that be for ISR, you know, target development, overwatch, those types of activities. We have what we need and we’ve been able to manage that.
And then as we’ve flown sorties in support of the deliberate air campaign in Afghanistan, I think what you’ve seen is we’ve proven that we’ve been able to develop targets and keep a steady drum beat of activity to maintain sustained pressure on the Taliban and targets that we’ve been able to develop in Afghanistan.
So, while Turkish activities and other operations have occurred inside of Iraq and Syria, what I would tell you is that we’ve ensured we’ve had the appropriate combat power and enablers to execute those mission sets.
As far as close air support missions in Afghanistan, again, what we’ve been able to do is work closely with the Resolute Support headquarters to understand their requirements and then provide that air support that’s necessary to support the Afghan partners on the ground and our delivered air campaign. And the — as you know, we plussed up with some A-10s over there and I think you’ve read probably some reports where they’ve already proven, and within 24 hours we were leveraging them to support the — both the air campaign and forces on the ground.
Q: Just to follow up on that, this new offense to get the Taliban, when it kicked off in November, you had F-22s flying the first strikes and we were told it is was because they need to drop the SDB. Was that a one-time thing or have the Raptors continued flying over the horizon?
And second, you mentioned that the Pave Hawks are returning. And just a few months ago, the Pave Hawks were taken out and you set up the joint Army/Air Force Personnel Rescue flying Chinooks. Are the new Pave Hawks in addition to that? Or why did you change pace, bringing the Pave Hawks out and then back in?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: So first on the Raptor question, as you’re probably aware, yes, we did use them. We have not used them since. We could if we needed to. But based on when that occurred and as you highlighted the requirement for Small Diameter Bombs we brought the Raptors over there.
You know in and amongst all this discussion, as you’re probably aware, as we look at targets, we’re going to match the best weapon for that particular target. And based on the assets that we had at that time in theater, Raptors made the most sense.
Relative to the question on the HH-60s, again my responsibility as I look across Afghanistan is to make sure we’ve got the appropriate assets to cover down on folks that are flying out there. So the HH-60s are going to be an addition to what we have out there, in terms of the Chinooks, to make sure we are properly postured to support both the ground and air entities operating there.
Q: Hi, sir. Oriana Pawlyk with Military.com.
Can you confirm for me on that strike against the tank over the weekend that that was an MQ-9 Reaper that took the strike? And secondly, what were you all observing or what was the MQ-9 observing in order for someone to deem it credible enough to take that shot against the tank?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Well, first, yes, it was a MQ-9.
And then second, I’ll go back to the concept of self-defense and how we rely upon our folks that are on the ground to make that decision, primarily the ground force commander. And what happened in that particular scenario is the tank that fired was in effective range to target our SDF and advisers on the ground, which clearly provides him the ability to defend himself. And he made that decision appropriately so, and that was the result.
STAFF: We’re going to finish up with Lucas.
Q: General, have there been any other attacks besides the strike on Saturday against the tank and then against the battalion last week? Any more attacks between these pro-regime forces and U.S. troops — U.S. special ops troops and their allies in eastern Syria?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: None that I’m aware of.
Q: And you destroyed one tank over the weekend. Did any tanks get away?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Not that I’m aware of.
Q: Is that in either engagement, did any tanks get away?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: Not that I’m aware of.
STAFF: Sir, thank you very much for your time today. Do you have any closing remarks for the group?
GEN. HARRIGIAN: No. Let me just thank everyone there for the good questions. And I think it’s a — it’s important to understand the ROE associated with self-defense and its applications. And clearly, we’ve got some folks on the ground that have to make some very, very tough decisions, and I think it should be crystal clear to anyone that’s going to attempt to prosecute an attack on us, that will be a — a very long day for them.
Thank you very much.
STAFF: Thank you, sir. And thanks for what you do for keeping our forces in the air and on the ground safe. That’s air power.
Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes today’s briefing. Have a good day.