U.S. Department of State
Briefing with Vice Admiral Scott Stearney
[00:00:00] Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State Dubai regional hub. I would like to welcome our callers who have dialed in from across the Arab world. Today we are joined by the commander of the United States Naval Forces Central Command, Commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces Vice Admiral Scott A. Stearney. Vice Admiral Stearney is a naval aviator and has served in numerous Strike Fighter Squadrons. Prior to leading the Naval Forces Central Command, he was the director of the operations for the US Central Command and possesses in-depth knowledge of the Fifth Fleet region. Vice Admiral Stearney is speaking from NAVCENT headquarters in Manama, Bahrain. We will begin with the remarks from the admiral and then we will open it up to your questions. You can dial 0 1 to enter the queue for the Q&A session. Today’s call is on the record and with that I’ll turn it over to Vice Admiral Stearney for opening remarks.
[00:01:02] Adm. Stearney: Very good. Thank you, Erica. Thanks for that very very kind opener here in introducing me to the great reporters who we have online.
[00:01:12] Adm. Stearney: I would like to just maybe set the understanding here of why we’re talking to the media today and to let you know about some of the operations that we are conducting right now and that we’ll continue to conduct throughout the rest of this month. To provide the background on this exercise, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is participating right now through the planning, the direction and the execution of four exercises across the entire theater with both regional and global partners.
[00:01:52] Adm. Stearney: The exercise is multifaceted. It’s focused on ensuring maritime stability and security across the U.S. Central Command region, an area of responsibility that connects the waters from the eastern Mediterranean and the Suez Canal down through the Red Sea and the and the Bab al Mandeb in depth into the Gulf of Aden, across the northern Arabian Sea, up into the Gulf of Oman through the Strait of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf, and which includes the largest body of water within the region, which is the Indian Ocean. US Fifth Fleet’s assets are currently participating in Bright Star 18. In addition to that, it’s conducting feeder Amphibious Combat Rehearsals 18, mine countermeasures exercises, and then later this month, with all of our coastal patrol craft or missile boats, will conduct a M60 Gryphon surface-to-surface missile shoot and a naval gunnery exercise against high speed maneuvering targets. It’s important to understand that Naval Forces Central Command and Fifth Fleet have been committed to this region and its waterways for nearly 70 years. And while these exercises are not in response to any one action or threat in particular, they demonstrate our commitment to preserving regional security and stability, as well as show the U.S. Navy and our regional and global partners are capable of operating and protecting any of these three critical choke points and waterways throughout the region. I would like to maybe just go into just a little bit more depth here on each of those exercises that I have discussed with you. Our theater Amphibious Combat Rehearsal takes place and started yesterday off of the coast of Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden.
[00:03:59] Adm. Stearney: This exercise is designed to enhance the readiness for littoral and mine countermeasures capabilities inherent to the U.S. Navy Marine Corps team to preserve freedom of movement throughout the critical choke point of the Bab Al Mandeb. For Brightstar, we have a guided missile destroyer USS Carney. We have our fleet antiterrorism security team. We have part of my task force 55, a visit board search and seizure team, and task force 56 expeditionary mine countermeasures capability participating… participating up in Egypt as part of a CENTCOM-designed and prior scheduled exercise that integrates land and maritime forces to protect this important and critical choke point in and around the Suez Canal. Additionally, in the Arabian Gulf, we have a mine countermeasures exercise and it’s the third one we’ve done this calendar year and it’s conducted jointly with United States and UK. We do this quarterly to enhance our cooperation and mutual mine countermeasures capability to ensure readiness and interoperability demonstrated that share the commitment of ensuring that unfettered operations and naval support and commercial vessels throughout the maritime domain. We also have participating countries who are watching and viewing and ensuring that they too are aware of our abilities to help to partner with them in the future. We will also have five coastal patrol ships who are stationed in Bahrain that will conduct surface warfare training in the Arabian Gulf to enhance their ability to defend our minesweepers as well as our other high value units that transit our waterways every day. And finally, what I’d like to mention to everybody to make sure that you understand that our theater Amphibious Combat rehearsal going on in the Gulf of Aden, is done with the Essex […] MEU. It has three ships between the Essex, the Mount Rushmore and the Anchorage. And within that amphibious readiness group we have the first deployment ever of the F-35B aircraft that’s operated by our U.S. United States Marine Corps underneath the command of the 13th MEU currently embarked on Essex. All of these combined exercises illustrate that the U.S. and our partners stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce wherever international law allows.
[00:06:48] Adm. Stearney: With that, I would like to take your questions.
[00:06:53] Moderator: Thank you, Vice Admiral Stearney. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. We will take questions first from the English line and then from the Arabic line. And as a reminder, if you wish to join the queue please dial 0 1. I will now turn the floor over to the English line. Operator, please give the floor to the first journalist. Thank you.
[00:07:32] Operator: The first question comes from Campbell MacDermott from The National Newspaper. Please go ahead.
[00:07:40] Question: Campbell McDermott from the National. Just wondered if you have any comment on recent comments in the Iranian media about Iran being in control of the Strait of Hormuz and whether any of these exercises in any way is a kind of response to that or if they were preplanned before that.
[00:08:07] Adm. Stearney: I can tell you that all of our exercises were planned well prior to any of the recent events. The very provocative comments that Iran has been making in the press and there are threats, while we take any threat serious, we operate every day in the central region as we have over the last decades, ensuring that we’re aware of the threat changes and conditions and that we’re well postured to address anything that threatens our interests and/or our ships. Does that answer your question or I’m ready to take another question.
[00:09:01] Question: It does, thank you.
[00:09:02] Operator: Our next question comes from Joseph Vergehese from Gulf Times. Please go ahead.
[00:09:13] Question: Mr. Vice Admiral Scott Stearney, thank you for doing this. I’m Joseph Villegas from Gulf Times. I would like to know whether you have any specific plans for Qatar in this joint military exercises. As Qatar is facing a blockade, will it be something specific for Qatar and if it is so when is it going to be?
[00:09:35] Adm. Stearney: I’m sorry, could you repeat that question yet. You came in a little bit garbled.
[00:09:41] Question: Do you have any specific plans for Qatar in this joint military naval exercises? If it is so, when is this happening and how are you going to add Qatar in this exercise?
[00:09:58] Adm. Stearney: So I would tell you that although the exercises in the Gulf right now that we’re planning on is all part of a U.S. and U.K. mine countermeasures exercise, we will not have any participating ships from any of the other Gulf countries at this point. We exercise with Qatar though between the U.S. and the Qatari Navy throughout the year. We have exercised Eastern Sailor already scheduled in November and it’s focused on ensuring maritime security operations occur within the Arabian Gulf. I would also tell you though that one of my other responsibilities is the commander of the combined maritime forces throughout the region. And I can tell you that on any given day that Qatar contributes to our entire forces able to be exercised within our CTF 152 and we greatly appreciate Qatar’s support to our ongoing security efforts throughout the Arabian Gulf.
[00:11:13] Question: Can I ask one more question.
[00:11:17] Adm. Stearney: Yes, you may.
[00:11:20] Question: You say that you know you are planning to have an exercise in November with Qatar. Could you please elaborate on that?
[00:11:33] Adm. Stearney: Exercise Eastern Sailor is designed as a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Qatari navies. We do this every year. We also… It’s very similar to the exercises that we conduct throughout the year with all of our Gulf partners in bilateral exercises between us and them. It’s part of our continuing exercise program to help to build partnership capacity in interoperability across all of our partner GCC countries.
[00:12:13] Operator: Next question comes from Badr al-Warthan from Al-Yawm Newspaper. Please go ahead.
[00:12:20] Question: Yes, hello. Badr al-Warthan from Al-Yawm Newspaper, a pleasure to be talking to you, sir. I have one question of two parts. First of all, I would like to hear more about the support that you provide to the Arab allies in their mission committing security to the strait of Bab al-Mandab. And since we are talking of what’s going on in the sea, how do you comment about the Iranian behavior and their continuing breaking of international laws, you know, smuggling weapons to the terrorist groups in the region, especially the Houthis? And also, we’re expecting the American second package of their sanctions next November. So, is there any special preparation for this? The second part of my question is what’s going on in Syria. Of course, we know that America is committed to strike… I’m sorry. Of course, we know the Americans are committed to strike if the Syrian regime uses any chemical weapons in Idlib. So we please want to know more about that and is there going to be any collision between the American fleet and the Russian fleet that is already participating in the White Sea? Thank you sir.
[00:13:41] Adm. Stearney: Ok. That was that was a long two-part question here. I hope I’ll be able to address it. I think I understood your first question to ask about what our posture is and especially in the Bab al-Mandab in the southern Red Sea. Is that right?
[00:13:59] Question: Yes sir.
[00:14:04] Adm. Stearney: I would just start by reminding you that it is Iran who is supporting the Houthis, and who are launching extended range missiles against major population centers in Saudi Arabia and endangering not only Saudi citizens but also the international community that lives there. It is Iran who backs the Houthis, who are blocking the proper distribution of humanitarian aid and critical medicines in one of the largest outbreaks of cholera on record in the world and I believe that’s playing out right now. It’s also Iran who’s providing the capabilities in the Bab al-Mandab. The Bab al-Mandab is the fourth most heavily traveled strait around the globe and in the lower Red Sea that threatens international commerce and passage through international waters with coastal defense cruise missiles and other things that have played out over the last pretty much two years in and greater… greater escalation… Iran’s activities across the region are not helpful and they’re promoting instability in a way that is affecting the region significantly. Iran continues to develop these advanced ballistic missile capabilities and transfer them to Houthis, as well as Hezbollah proxy forces. This will further enable them to strike at things that they desire to strike at and to threaten and to further destabilize portions of the region that are in their interest, their malign interests. As far as the U.S. posture… We’re postured to support the U.S. interests down in the southern Red Sea. And by virtue of us being there, we believe that it also supports all of the international interests, as well as the partners and interests in the region, to ensure that we can respond and that our forces are prepared should there be an escalation of any incidences in the southern Red Sea. Hopefully that addresses the comments of your first question and I’ll just hold there to see if there was anything else that I may have missed.
[00:16:28] Question: Ok. That will cover the first part. I can… Kindly, can we skip to the other part of the question regarding what’s happening… the American possible strike on the regime if they use chemical weapons and if there are going to be any collision between the American fleet and the Russian fleet if this took place.
[00:16:51] Adm. Stearney: Yeah. Thanks. As far as this question about Syria and the Syrian regime’s unfettered unconstrained utilization of chemical weapons in the past, I cannot speculate on any kind of operations that our country may undertake. I think it’s been clear from our senior most policy levels in the U.S. government what their viewpoint is on this. And I can tell you that if the last two strikes in 2016 and 2017 should have sent a strong enough signal to the Assad regime… because weapons of mass destruction that chemical weapons certainly fall into a considerably different category under all U.N. rules as well as international rules on the Law of Armed Conflict. And I think our country has stated, as well as a broader coalition, what their views are on allowing continued use across this region.
[00:18:06] Moderator: Thank you. We will now switch to Arabic questions.
[00:18:23] Operator: Question from Ms. Lamya Abd al-Raziq [Al Zaman].
[00:18:31] Question: I have a question about the American naval forces. What is their role and their position in case Iran were to close off the Hormuz Strait?
[00:18:48] Adm. Stearney: I’m sorry. So, your question is what is the role of our navy if Iran closes off the Strait of Hormuz? Is that the question?
[00:19:07] Question: Yes, sir. Will the naval forces engage in war in case the Strait were to be closed?
[00:19:11] Adm. Stearney: … Well, thank you for that question and again I don’t think we should talk about hypotheticals here. I just want to make sure that we emphasize just by our actions that the U.S. and our partners provide and promote security and stability in the region. And together that we stand ready to ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce where international law allows. We are postured to defend and protect, not to cause international crises and provocation and escalation. We are here for the stability and the security of this region and for nothing else.
[00:20:03] Operator: We have a question from Jamal Ahmed from Al-Yawm.
[00:20:08] Question: Thank you sir for receiving us in this very important conference. My question is about the exercises in Egypt. Can you give us more detail about the activities and the exercises that will be done by the US in partnership with other countries in this exercise? And my other question is about the Russian threat to the U.S. Russia has had many maneuvers since 1981 and they have had many indirect messages that they can reach the American forces in case there’s any strike in Syria. Thank you.
[00:20:50] Adm. Stearney: Thank you. And, again, I’m not going to speculate on anything that may or may not have been said on the part of Russian diplomats and/or military personnel. I can tell you that our participation in Bright Star exercise in Egypt and with Egypt is an important symbol of the long-standing relationship between the U.S. military and the Egyptian Armed Forces. The exercise focuses on continuously improving the interoperability throughout the full range of our military operations. Nearly eight hundred U.S. personnel will participate this year in Bright star and it’s a chance to pursue engagements with Egypt to better address threats to common regional security at all levels of command. Both the U.S. military and the Egyptian armed forces are committed to prevailing against our most complex challenges and we must focus on maintaining readiness in response to the forces by increasing the common understanding and providing the most decisions space for our senior leaders. I just recently returned from Egypt for three days of engagements with senior Egyptian armed forces leader and in particularly the heads of their military maritime forces, and I can tell you that it was a tremendous commitment and resolve on partners, from both the Egyptian Navy as well as the U.S. Navy, to further our abilities to train together, to exercise together and to build our composite capacity to respond to crises in the maritime environment around the Mediterranean with the Sixth Fleet commander as well as into the Red Sea all the way down through the Bab al-Mandab with Egyptian E.C. fleet. Over.
[00:23:00] Operator: We have another question from Abu Safi from Al-Ayyam.
[00:23:06] Question: Few days earlier, an unknown ship was caught with thousand five hundred guns. It was said that they were being smuggled from Iran to the Houthis. What do you think about the continuous smuggling of arms from Iran to rebels in Yemen? Also, there are other threats other than closing the Hormuz Strait but there are speculations or expectations of terrorist attacks in this important naval route. Are there any measures that you would take to protect Bab al-Mandab and this important region?
[00:23:55] Adm. Stearney: Yeah. Thank you for that question and allow me to further elaborate on an operation that we conducted about 10 days ago and it was in the Gulf of Aden in international waters. The United States Navy saw what we believe to be a smuggling operation going on on the water and we interdicted a ship while at sea and that’s… that vessel later was determined to be carrying 2,521 assault weapons that were moving from Somalia up towards the Yemen and the Yemen coast. We believe that these weapons were meant to facilitate strengthening the capabilities of some fighting force within Yemen. And we do not have attribution right now as to where these weapons originated from and/or who they were designed to go to. All we know is that it was the largest weapon seizure that we’ve had in a number of years, going back through 2016. It was the largest one that we’ve had. We believe that reducing the smuggling of weapons by interdicting them at sea, by reducing the flow of narcotics by interdicting them at sea, are critical aspects to achieving regional security and stability and it’s something that U.S. Navy ships, as well as our combined maritime forces, do every day underway in the North Arabian Sea to include the Gulf of Aden. The Combined Maritime Forces operate from 33 countries here in the region. And we are intent on ensuring that those lethal flows of narcotics weapons and human trafficking are diminished, degraded and/or destroyed. As far as our posture in the southern Red Sea, I can’t get into specific details on all of the capabilities that we have to ensure that we’re able to respond in the southern Red Sea. But we are postured for any type of potential, now and in the future, and we can address the threat in accordance with all of our requirements.
[00:27:00] Operator: We have a question from Hassan al-Suwayd from Okaz Newspaper. Good. Morning, [Good morning, Okaz] Newspaper from Jedda, Hassan al-Suwayd.
[00:27:15] Question: Is there cooperation between the U.S. fleet and the Arab Coalition in Yemen in order to monitor and potentially intercept ships to avoid any smuggling of arms from Iran? And what about any potential attacks of these militias against military and commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden? And how do you respond to that? Thank you.
[00:27:50] Adm. Stearney: So, I think this could be the last question. I think that’s all that we’re going to have time for. And thank you for that question. What I’d like to say is that the recent attacks in and around the Bab al-Mandab are a concern and NAVCENT continues to remain present in the region and with partners and allies to preserve the free flow of commerce and that’s across the combined maritime forces, our CTF 150. And we also are aware of the operations that Saudi-led coalition ships have in the southern Red Sea and their posture and I want to make sure that you understand that the U.S. supports U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216 prohibiting the shipment of these weapons into Yemen, as well as all the other countries who are operating in this region are also in support of U.N. Council resolution 2216. Considering the previous weapons’ seizures we have made the advance weapons in the hands of the Houthis that were not in Yemen prior to the civil war. There was a strong indication that the illicit support again continues to be from Iran. And it continues. The United States welcomes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s statement exposing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ blind role in Yemen and its provisions of dangerous missile systems to the Houthis. We believe that it’s important that we are able to achieve some type of a political settlement and a political resolution to remove a lot of this instability that’s threatening the population in Yemen that’s creating this humanitarian crisis and which supports the continued instability of shipping within the southern Red Sea. Over.
[00:29:47] Moderator: Thank you very much, Vice Admiral Stearney. We are now near the conclusion of today’s call. Before we close, Admiral, do you have any final words or thoughts you’d like to share?
[00:29:55] Adm. Stearney: Thank you, just a really quick wrap-up here. Thank you for the time with all of the reporters out there. I really appreciate your moderation, Erica. I want to say that the maritime space in this region is critical to the flow of commerce and freedom of navigation across the globe. It connects the Pacific to the Mediterranean and Europe, then into the Atlantic. The U.S. Fifth Fleet with regional and global partners has the ability to simultaneously execute Full Spectrum distributed operations in the maritime environment across these three choke points. The exercises that I described early on in my opening statement are designed as counter-mine capability exercises, which means that we remove the mine threat from the waters. It’s a defensive methodology to ensure that we’re able to maintain the free flow of commerce through these choke points. Once again thanks for allowing me to speak to you about our theatre counter mine and maritime security exercises. And my team here at NAVCENT will continue to work hard to continue to push out information about these exercises as they progress. That’s the end of my statement and I’m turning it back to you.
[00:31:16] Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Vice Admiral Stearney for joining us and to thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, please contact the Dubai regional media hub at [email protected].