DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Spoehr via Teleconference from Iraq
CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY: All right. Well, good afternoon everybody. And sir, good evening to you.
I'd like to welcome to the Pentagon Briefing Room for the first time Major General Thomas Spoehr, the deputy commanding general for support for U.S. Forces-Iraq.
General Spoehr has served in Iraq for the past five months. He has been responsible for the oversight of support and sustainment to U.S. Forces-Iraq, the transition efforts for both the reposture of 50,000 U.S. forces, and support and sustainment to the United States Mission- Iraq for post-2011 operations.
He'll make a brief opening comment and then we'll take your questions. I'll -- as before, I'll be choosing you. I'd just ask that when I call on you to please identify who you are and who you're with for the general.
And with that, sir, we'll turn it over to you.
GENERAL THOMAS SPOEHR: Well, thank you very much. And greetings, everybody, and thank you. And I appreciate your interest in what your U.S. forces are doing in -- here in Iraq -- and so what we're doing and what our posture is and how we're going about fulfilling our commitment for the 2008 U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement, which required us to withdrawal all of our personnel and equipment from Iraq by December 31, 2011.
As the deputy commanding general for support for U.S. Forces- Iraq, I have the oversight of logistics, personnel, communications and contracting. And in the context of those duties, I have the privilege to get out and travel to all around Iraq and to see what those brave men and women are doing. And I'd like to share some of those insights with you today.
Well, this is an extraordinary operation, really not equaled in recent time, and it's being made possible by the great members of all of our military services, the civilians, the Iraqis and our contract partners. And just to put a human face on that, if you will, as we sit here, there's about 55 logistics convoys traveling the width and breadth of Iraq. That equates to about 1,650 trucks driven by brave men and women, both military and contractors.
But they're not alone out there.
They're backed up by some of the -- by the U.S. Forces-Iraq who have gone ahead of them on that road, cleared it. We've gotten intelligence. And then if they getting in trouble, of course, the U.S. Forces-Iraq stand behind them with all kinds of combat power and medical care, should they need it.
Two of the hallmarks of this operation are force protection and stewardship. Obviously, in spite of the declining levels of violence in Iraq, it remains a dangerous place here. And so it's incumbent upon us, the U.S. Forces-Iraq, to take every measure possible to ensure our service members are protected throughout the entire operation until they're back home safe with their families.
And then the second hallmark is stewardship, ensuring the proper safeguarding of our property, tracking all of our personnel to make sure we don't lose accountability as we make a series of deliberate transitions of where they are now all the way back home. And then finally, as we transition bases, it's our commitment to make sure each one of these bases is returned to the government of Iraq in a better condition than we found it.
Well, I'd like to just start with some fast facts here, and maybe this'll spark some questions for you. In terms of our bases, at the height of the surge, U.S. forces resided on about 505 bases. And then as we began Operation New Dawn in September of 2010, we were on 92 bases. And today U.S. forces in Iraq reside on 12 bases.
Our personnel -- at the height of the surge, we had over 165,000 people here in Iraq. Today we have less than 34,000 as of last night.
And then finally, in terms of our property, back again at the start of Operation New Dawn we had about 2 million pieces of property. Today we're down to about 600,000 pieces of equipment, about 20,000 pieces of which are vehicles or trailers.
So ladies and gentlemen, what we're executing is a deliberate plan designed to kind of fulfill our requirement to safely and responsibly withdrawal from Iraq by the -- December 31st, 2011. And this plan is flexible enough to account for change, and so no plan should be so rigid that it could not account for adverse weather or enemy activity. But it's a methodical and measured plan that is designed to ensure that we have continuous force protection and stewardship. And I'm confident that using this plan, and with the great men and women of the armed forces and our support team, they will -- we will meet our commitment and withdraw from Iraq by December 31st, 2011.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you, General.
First question, Bob.
Q: General, this is Bob Burns with AP. Could you give us please a more detailed timeline of the drawdown of troops in terms of the numbers -- for example, how many will still be there on a -- at the end of November, how many at beginning of or middle of December? Or will it be completed by the middle of December? Is that the current plan?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yeah, Mr. Burns, thank you. So obviously the two data points that are clear is that we're at about 33,000 people today, and we're going to be at zero on December 31st, 2011.
I will tell you that right now, as we sit here, we are deep in the midst of this. So there are trucks and planes and people moving very quickly, at a high rate of speed throughout Iraq to execute our commitments.
This, I should emphasize, though, is not a rush to the exits. So it's a measured plan which ensures our continued force protection at every step of the operation.
As I look at the plan, I think it's clear to me that by the time we get to about mid-December or so, the vast majority of the U.S. forces in Iraq, we plan to have them withdrawn from Iraq by that time.
CAPT. KIRBY: Bob.
Q: Yes, thanks. General, Bob Burns again. Could I press you a little bit more for some details there? Can you give us an idea, for example, of how many troops per week would be leaving Iraq over the next two months, something like that? Would you give us some -- a better notion of the pace of the withdrawal?
GEN. SPOEHR: I did the math the other day here, and it struck me that given the number of days that we have -- and then frankly, there is no precipitous decline. In order to stay strong all the way until the end, the U.S. forces will kind of withdraw in a measured fashion. And so if you took the number of days that remain until we must require -- must depart and then look at where we are now and where we're starting, I think that's about as fine a point as I'd like to put on that.
I'll -- I will be honest and tell you that our withdrawal plan, the numbers of troops per week and the bases that we'll transition is not being released. And we're -- and we're doing that to ensure the protection of our service members because unfortunately, when we released details on base transition and which units would be leaving when, it's our belief that the enemy used that information to target our service members, and we engendered some attacks on us. And so since that point we've been a little more circumspect, if you will, on our withdrawal plan.
CAPT. KIRBY: Michael.
Q: General, this is Mike Evans from the Times, London Times. Just on that particular issue, has there been any evidence so far of attacks or attempted attacks on troop convoys going down to Kuwait?
GEN. SPOEHR: Most of our convoys, sir, are logistical convoys.
So the majority of our soldiers as they depart will be departing by air, but there will be some number of soldiers that depart by ground movement.
We continue to experience attacks, primarily from improvised explosive devices on our routes. And so that continues at some rate per week. And so that trend, while it has gone down, has never gone to zero. And so we take very deliberate precautions as we move down our routes.
I mentioned this in our earlier statement, that every route we go down is first proceeded by intelligence preparation, then we have route clearance, then we have our deliberate movements, and all the time protected by forces to our left and right and above us.
CAPT. KIRBY: Joe.
Q: Sir, this is Joe Tabet with MBN, Al Hurra channel. Could you tell us what is the role of the Iraqi forces in the withdrawal plan?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yes, sir. I can. There's a couple of aspects to that.
The first one is, as we get ready to transition a base, there becomes a discussion with the government of Iraq organization that will receive that base. In most of the cases, that organization is with the Ministry of Defense. And so the local base commander, our U.S person, begins a discussion with the government of Iraq entity in terms of responsibly taking over the security for that base, so that as we withdraw from that base, you know, that the goods, the property and all the things which remain on that base continue to be protected.
And so that's a dialogue really that takes place primarily at the level of the local base, and they work together to make sure that as we pull out of the towers and as we pull out of the entry control points, that the government of Iraq is right there to take over that security.
So that's the first aspect.
And then, as we get ready to get on the roads, in many cases we have received great support from the government of Iraq, the ministry of defense and the Iraqi police on helping us secure our routes, and so in many cases they will provide what we call flank security so that as we proceed down the routes, the flanks are secured by our Iraqi partners. So we have gotten great support, and we are counting on our Iraqi partners to continue that support.
CAPT. KIRBY: (Off mic)
Q: (Inaudible) -- Charley Keyes, CNN. Thanks for talking to us. Sir, I -- could you give us some idea of how the -- these huge convoys are going to taper off? Are we going to see almost none of them in December?
And also, can you put it in perspective? This kind of movement of millions of pieces of equipment, all these convoys -- has U.S. forces ever engaged in anything of this dimension before?
GEN. SPOEHR: I'll answer your last question first. I think back to the Red Ball Express in World War II when we had almost continuous truck convoys moving south or moving -- it was east, at that time, to supply U.S. forces that were working with the Germans at that time. But -- and so it's something very similar to that.
As I mentioned earlier, there's about 55 convoys on the road at any given time constituting 1,650 trucks. It's an immense operation, and we've got a huge command and control apparatus that's designed to control it. So at each one our current bases, there is what we call a movement control team. And all these movement control teams are connected by communications, and so, for example, one of our big bases in the middle of Iraq is called Joint Base Balad. Some of you may have visited Joint Base Balad. So when a convoy leaves Joint Base Balad, the movement control team there reports departure of this, you know, convoy X, and then they hand if off.
It's almost like radar controllers handing off a plane to the next radar controllers. So then they hand it off to the next base that that convoy will come to, similarly all the way down the line until that convoy arrives safely in Kuwait.
So it's -- and then every night the logisticians -- the great logisticians supporting this effort gather together, they discuss which cargo needs to be moved the next day, and they send convoys out to secure that convoy. And then they deconflict it all because if you can imagine, 55 convoys, many with over 30 vehicles, sometimes as many as 50 vehicles each -- if they were all to arrive at the same entry control point to one of our bases at the same time, not only would it be pandemonium, but it would also present a lot of risk because you don't want all these folks standing in line wanting to enter one of our bases. You want to get them to your base, get them in with a minimum of delay.
So it's quite the operation and fascinating to watch. And I'm not a logistician by trade, and I stand in awe of what great work that these folks are doing.
Q: Just to follow up, anything you can give us -- and I understand your security concerns -- about how this is going to taper off in coming weeks?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yes, I'm sorry. Yeah, you mentioned that. So we're heavily engaged in this operation now in early November. As I mentioned in my opening statement, I believe the vast majority of our forces will have withdrawn from Iraq by mid-December or so. And so -- but as I mentioned also in our earlier statement, our plan is flexible. And so it depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is weather. And so weather, if it's very good weather, could advance our plan. If it's bad weather, it could retard it.
And so there are some flexibilities there, but my belief is that the U.S. forces will easily meet their commitments under the security agreement and have all of our forces withdrawn by 31 December 2011.
Q: General, it's Luis Martinez with ABC. You mentioned that the majority of the soldiers will be flying out from Iraq. How does that work? Are the convoys, when there are personnel, taken to a central facility and then they board planes to Kuwait, I imagine? And these convoys that go across the border to Kuwait, are they being driven by American personnel or are you doing this with contractors, Iraqis or now third-country nationals?
GEN. SPOEHR: Sir, that's a very good question. So the air transportation normally takes -- takes place from the major air hubs. So, for example, Baghdad has a major air hub; a number of our soldiers leave from there. There's a mixture of means by which they could leave. If they board Air Force transportation, normally they do go down to Kuwait and await another plane back to the United States. Occasionally, at some of the bigger airports, there is commercial airlines that can land right there and they can take them directly to the United States.
The only service members that will be traveling south in convoys will be those traveling in protected vehicles, armored vehicles; so for example, MRAPs or some of our heavily up-armored trucks. And so those are the folks that will be moving south on these tactical -- we call them tactical road marches south. And those will be very focused affairs, fully protected.
The majority of our equipment is moving on logistical convoys -- 30, 40, 50 vehicles sometimes, usually commercial vehicles, but some of them are military assets. But even those convoys have military protection, usually armored MRAPs, inserted in them at a proportion in order to provide those convoys security as they travel the roads.
CAPT. KIRBY: Courtney.
Q: Hi, General. This is Courtney Kube from NBC News. I'm wondering if you can give us your overall assessment of the security situation in Iraq right now. You just got into some detail about the tremendous efforts that you're going to just to secure convoys, and you won't talk about specific bases for security of service members. So it doesn't really paint a very nice picture of the security situation there right now. I mean, what is it? What -- can you talk about the continued threat that troops will face before they leave the country in the next six weeks or so?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yes, I can. Thank you for that. So you all are familiar with the violence that was experienced by the country of Iraq during the years of 2006, 2007, where the attacks were nearly 149 per day. Today, in November of 2011, the normal attacks run no more than 14 or so, usually, average, per day. So you've seen a nearly 90 percent decrease in the violence.
But even one attack, even one loss of life is too many for us. And so we're going to -- we are going to take every measure within our control to ensure that our U.S. forces are protected. And so as we travel, we're going to travel fully protected. We're going to travel with air support nearby and other forces nearby, and we're going to be at our maximum level of protection and make sure that every one of our service members gets back home.
Another threat we continue to face is indirect fire, primarily rockets, hitting our bases. And so these continue to present a threat to U.S. forces, and so we have a number of -- hardened facility in our bases. We have systems that warn us of these rockets. And so we continue to employ every measure we have to ensure that our U.S. service members return home safely.
But I will say that the security situation in Iraq has improved dramatically from what it was in 2007.
Q: Hi, General. This is Camille Elhassani from Al-Jazeera English television. Thank you for doing this briefing.
You said the majority of the troops will be out by mid-December. Those that are left towards the end -- is there a specific function that they will be carrying out? Will they be helping transition to the State Department, or what?
GEN. SPOEHR: No, ma'am. Most of the people that will be the end are normally your underappreciated logisticians -- so the last people ensuring that we have tracked down to makes sure that every person is properly accounted and has left Iraq, and every piece of equipment that is supposed to leave Iraq, leaves Iraq.
And so as you can imagine, even though we have some great technology to do that -- so, for example, our ID cards have tags in them that allow you to scan in and out, and our equipment even has radio frequency identification tags, which get interrogated and tell you when a container or a vehicle has passed through the border -- even with all that technology that they didn't have in the last Gulf War, it's still quite an endeavor to make sure that you've gotten everything out and properly accounted for.
So I think you'll find in those last few weeks, few days of this calendar year that the primary people will be those that you can't let go near the end -- so our medical people that have to provide access to uninterrupted medical care; our logisticians, who are responsible for safely moving all the people and the equipment out of Iraq; and then the necessary combat power, to make sure that we're strong all the way until the last moment.
CAPT. KIRBY: Joe.
Q: General, this is Joe Tabet again. In the current phase of the exit plan, will you be leaving behind any equipment?
If yes, do you know the number and what kind of equipments?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yes, sir, we will. And so at every one of our bases -- and I talked to you about the number of bases we have -- in many cases, U.S. forces have put some pieces of equipment there in order to help run those bases.
Primarily they are there to help sustain the quality of life and to allow the base to run. So for example, my base -- I live in what's called a containerized housing unit, or it's affectionately called a CHU, C-H-U, containerized housing unit. It's about a 40-foot -- you would call it a mobile home. There's roughly nothing inside of it, but it provides, you know, relief from the heat, so its air- conditioned. And mine has water, although most don't. And so this containerized housing unit has given great comfort to U.S. service members over the years here. My particular CHU was built in 2006.
But this sheet-metal box, my CHU -- if you were to try and bring it back to the United States, it would cost thousands of dollars. And so it's more economical for us to leave things like this CHU or the air conditioners or some of the generators and some of the other equipment that resides on our bases -- we make a deliberate cost-benefit decision for each one of these pieces of equipment. And if the -- if the fair market cost of that equipment is less than what it would cost to transport it back to the United States, then in many cases, we're making a decision to leave it on the base that it is so that the Iraqi government can use it to continue to run that base.
To this point, sir, we've left about 2.5 million items of this kind behind, with a fair market value of $195 million, but with a cost avoidance of $298 million.
And so when you look at -- and I look at these spreadsheets. They calculate for each item, and the U.S. military is great for counting and calculating things. So on Joint Base Balad -- I mentioned that earlier -- we have counted every concrete barrier, every building, every tent peg and every antenna on that base, and we make a -- we depreciate it, and then we compare it, using the going prices for transportation, and we make an assessment on whether that piece of equipment should be taken home or not. And in -- and in some cases, like those CHUs and those generators and some worn-out non-tactical vehicles, they're left behind so that our Iraqi partners can use them.
Q: General, Bob Burns again. I'm just wondering whether you're planning some sort of end-of-mission ceremony or event in December.
GEN. SPOEHR: Sir, you would -- you would -- for a -- for a conflict which has gone on for eight years, I think it would absolutely be appropriate to have a ceremony to recognize the sacrifices of both the U.S. service members and the Iraqis. And -- but I'm not at this point prepared to discuss the details of that ceremony. I'm sure such an announcement will probably be made at the appropriate time.
Q: Hi, General. Jon Harper with the Asahi Shimbun. Can you give us a breakdown of the immediate destination of U.S. forces leaving Iraq? More specifically, how many will be coming directly back to CONUS, and how many will be going to Kuwait?
GEN. SPOEHR: The majority of our soldiers redeploy through Kuwait.
I was just trying to think in my mind, and I don't have that information. As I mentioned, a minority board aircraft here in Iraq and are able to fly directly back to the United States. But the majority of our forces -- and I mentioned we have about 33,000 -- will redeploy to Kuwait, and then they will board aircraft or whatever orders await them in Kuwait.
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, Richard.
Q: Richard Sisk, War Report Online. Sir, are there -- is there anything in your plan right now that calls for you to transport troops to Kuwait who would stay there for the purpose of regional security?
GEN. SPOEHR: Well, sir, as I mentioned, I'm the deputy commanding general for support for U.S. Forces-Iraq. And so as the forces redeploy and they get into Kuwait, my responsibility at that point for them kind of ceases. And so I have the responsibility to get them safely on schedule to Kuwait or all the way straight back home, as I mentioned, by December 31st, 2011. I've seen some news reports about ultimate disposition or new missions for forces in Kuwait. I really have no special information on that, and I think those are the kinds of decisions that are made between the United States and the government of Kuwait, and not at my level.
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, Charley.
Q: Yes its Charley Keyes again, CNN. Can you give us any specifics of what military equipment is being handed over to the State Department in terms of MRAPs and battlefield incoming-fire sensors and things of that nature?
GEN. SPOEHR: And it's an -- it's an informed question. We are -- the Department of Defense is lending the Department of State some of our newest and best-protected MRAPs, and so they'll be placing those at the locations they choose on -- at their embassy and their consulates. They're also -- we've also lent them some of our radars which detect incoming fire and so each one of their bases will be protected -- or not protected, but will have the ability to be warned of incoming fire, indirect fire. There will also be equipped -- I believe we're lending them some of our latest camera systems. These are really advanced surveillance systems which you can use to scan your perimeter and look for threats which might be approaching further than the naked eye can do, and at night as well.
We've provided them a lot of non-military equipment, but I think what I've described are the -- really the military hardware kinds of things that we've -- or the other thing I'll mention is they're taking over medical facilities, and so we are handing to them some of our military medical equipment so that they can best equip some of their medical facilities.
Q: (Off mic) -- how many MRAPs, and were there any automatic fire systems that have been included?
GEN. SPOEHR: I think I'm going to defer to the Department of State to discuss the number of MRAPs they've gotten from us. I just would feel more comfortable doing that. I'm not aware that they are armed. That would be a surprise to me if I learned they were armed. So I think they are just getting the vehicle itself.
CAPT. KIRBY: One more, yeah.
Q: Hi, General. It's Camille Elhassani from Al-Jazeera English again.
I'm wondering if -- you told us the -- some of the military hardware you're giving over to the State Department. What other sorts of transition discussions or personnel are you -- are you having with the State Department?
GEN. SPOEHR: In terms of military people, that type of thing?
Q: Yeah. Yeah, personnel. What -- I mean, what kinds of other functions are you transferring over to them and how are you guys making that happen in the last few weeks?
GEN. SPOEHR: Yeah. One of the functions that the State Department will pick up that U.S. Forces-Iraq has been executing is really those functions that fall into the area of security assistance and security cooperation.
And so I think the number is, the Iraqis have made arrangements to obtain about $7.2 billion of foreign military sales. So, for example, they have purchased U.S. tanks, about 140 of our M1 tanks. You recently saw an agreement where they agreed to purchase 18 F-16 fighters.
And so when you buy equipment like that, obviously you'll -- you're going to need some training and you're going to need some maintenance. And so that Office of Security Cooperation would be the ones that would really coordinate the delivery of those items and then the training of the government of Iraq's forces in the use of those things. So that Office -- that Office of Security Cooperation is really a function that is moving from U.S. Forces-Iraq and will now fall under the Department of State in Iraq.
That's the most significant function that we're -- U.S. Forces- Iraq are making sure is enabled under the Department of State.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you, sir. Sir, that was the last question, so I'm going to now turn it over to you if you have any closing thoughts.
GEN. SPOEHR: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate your attention on this subject. It's -- as I mentioned early, it's a really -- a deliberate plan, methodically executed. We're doing it based on the security situation, and we're also remaining cognizant of our requirement to remain good stewards of U.S.-provided equipment, personnel, and to leave the bases that we've been occupying better than we found them.
It's a complex environment. It's difficult. But the U.S. forces here are proud of their part of it. And again I thank you for your attention today.
CAPT. KIRBY: Thank you, General. Good evening.