Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
Special Briefing via telephone
Vice Admiral Malloy, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command
August 17, 2020
Moderator: Thank you. Good afternoon to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record press briefing with Vice Admiral James Malloy, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
Today, Vice Admiral Malloy will provide an update on NAVCENT’s Fifth Fleet operations, including the International Maritime Security Construct. We will begin today’s briefing with opening remarks from Vice Admiral Malloy, then open the floor for questions.
I will now turn it over to Vice Admiral Malloy for his opening remarks. Vice Admiral, the floor is yours.
VADM Malloy: Thank you, Geraldine, and good afternoon to everybody. I’d like to thank the team here at Dubai Regional Media Hub for arranging this opportunity to talk with you today and for all of you taking the time to join me. It is great to be with you again, albeit virtually, and I’m looking forward to a good conversation.
I took command of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, the Fifth Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces here in Bahrain in December 2018. This is my fourth tour here, and I’ve spent almost 14 of my 34 years in Navy in this region.
As I prepare to turn over command to Vice Admiral Samuel Paparo, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak with you about one of our core tenets of the U.S. Navy presence in the region: our navy-to-navy partnerships in the Middle East, the coalitions we operate in together, and allies who all deploy to this region to promote a shared vision of maritime security, ensuring these critical waterways remain unobstructed and open for all legitimate maritime activities, to include the free flow of commerce.
We operate alongside these great partners in some of the world’s most complex, congested, and contested waters. It is important that we build capacity, capability, and interoperability as we work together.
We accomplish this within the collaborative and mutually beneficial venues, temporary or enduring, always built on historical cooperation, trust, and a shared vision for a peaceful and a prosperous future in the Middle East.
This vision does not come to us without challenge or cost. Over the past year-plus, we have seen Iran engage in aggressive harassing activities, such as attacks and seizures of ships, and unsafe and unprofessional encounters. We also continue to observe the maritime waterways abused by illegal fishing, smuggling and traffic of arms, drugs, goods, or even people. These activities challenge our shared visions and have and continue to frame our mission set, invested parties, willing partners, and efficacy of our coalition.
We’ve been busy in the past year and a half. Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, has continued in its role as the enduring presence here, coming close to 20 years of service, with 33 member nations, and soon to be 34. Please stay tuned.
In the past year-plus, the combined task forces that operate under CMF have seized tons of narcotics and other contraband, repelled the only attempted piracy attack in this timeframe, and conducted maritime security patrols and exercises with partner nations.
In 2019, we stood up the International Maritime Security Construct, or Sentinel, a coalition currently with eight member nations, tasked with responding to the kinds of specific state-sponsored threats I discussed earlier. While threat-based and combat-ready, Task Force Sentinel, the operational wing of IMSC, is the deterrent force designed to monitor, defend, and de-escalate tensions through routine and predictable patrols in the critical international sea lanes, and in ground coordination and partnership with the shipping industry, so critical to regional prosperity and the world’s economic engine.
Our common purpose and collective engagement as global and regional partners is what right looks like in this region when it comes to combating illegal activity, on common ground and international waterways where legitimate mariners have plied their trade for thousands of years. The rich maritime heritage and experience of our regional partners is a pillar we build upon, even as they continue to assume greater leadership roles in support of maritime security.
From our Bahraini hosts first and foremost, working out from there to the GCC and other nations in the region, anchored on the western side by Egypt and anchored on the eastern side by Pakistan and everyone in between, these are great naval regional partners that provide that capability, and we are significantly stronger when we work together.
That is about the shortest overview I can offer you, and I am ready for a dialogue and to hear what you would like to discuss.
Moderator: Thank you, Vice Admiral.
VADM Malloy: I turn it over to you.
Moderator: As a – thank you. When you are called on, state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. Our first question will go to Maria Maalouf.
Question: Good morning, Admiral. During the port of Beirut explosion on August 4th, some extended – extensive military [inaudible]. How do you characterize it for President Trump as an attack, as it was [inaudible] there are investigators on the scene of the crime inspecting this act of destruction? What was your reading of it? Will the Fifth Fleet navigate close to territorial waters of Lebanon to make the area more safe and more stable? Thank you.
VADM Malloy: I think I caught most of the question. The line was not completely clear. The topic is Lebanon. The topic is the terrible explosion in the harbor of Beirut. And then the question that surrounded it was navigation, safe navigation in the region around Beirut post the explosion; is that correct?
Question: Yes, yes. That’s it.
VADM Malloy: I have just today been in touch with the head of the navy of Lebanon, as I have been pretty much every day since the terrible explosion. As you know, their navy is close and has a port facility, a base, at the far end of the port facility there.
We see it and assess what we’ve heard in the international press that this was a terrible accident that caused much destruction and death and injuries within the port of Beirut, crippled the port itself, damaged infrastructure inside of that area to a terrible degree. Our Navy operates very closely with the Lebanese navy, and we have had a robust exercise series with them. The head of the navy is a dear friend of mine. They have been passing specific requests through the embassy to us for assistance, and we have been offering that.
I am aware that they are doing a port assessment to ascertain the speed at which they can get that port facility back online. It is a critical throughput for Lebanon. Seventy to 80 percent of their wheat and other types of goods come through that port and feed the people of Lebanon. And so we share that sense of urgency to get that port facility up and operating. I am unaware of any hazards to navigation outside of the port and pending the assessment inside the port that would preclude them bringing the port back online.
I hope that answers your question.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question will go to Verity Ratcliffe.
Question: Hi. My question is about the four vessels that were intercepted on their way to Venezuela. Can you tell me when each shipment was seized, where it was when it was seized, and which international partners helped? Thanks.
VADM Malloy: Yes. I’m – I am aware of the actual operations. One of the transfers took place in the Gulf of Oman. The other one took place down in the straits off of Mozambique.
The first transfer took place several weeks ago, and then the final one took place in this past week. Although we monitor all areas in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf with our coalition partners, there were no military vessels in the vicinity of the first transfer that took place with the Pandi and the Luna, the two vessels that were in our region. No military vessels of any sort were in the vicinity. No military personnel involved in that transfer whatsoever.
I am unaware of any military vessels that were in the vicinity of Mozambique. I was not tracking that, although watching the fleet commanders from either area, I would assume there were also no military vessels in that vicinity and no military personnel involved in that transfer as well.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will go to Eric Schmitt from The New York Times.
Question: Hi, Admiral. Can you hear me okay?
VADM Malloy: I can. It’s good to hear your voice.
Question: Thank you. Just to follow up on that last question, I wanted to see what’s your assessment now of possible retaliation by Iran or the IRGC, and if you’re seeing any heightened activity, and just kind of more broadly as you look at some of the tensions between the U.S. and Iran, how do you assess the threat in the Gulf region right now from those actors? Thank you.
VADM Malloy: Copy. And thanks for that question. We watch Iran for intent, watch Iran for capability. As you know, they just completed an exercise several weeks ago, and we carefully watch those types of exercises. We are aware of some of the rhetoric coming out of Iran both at that far end of that exercise, Major General Salami saying we have offensive exercises going on – we have “attack exercises” I think was his quote. So we watch that carefully.
On the heels of this transfer of fuel from one vessel to another, we’re aware that there has been rhetoric and threats from Iran in response to that. So we heighten our awareness when that occurs. We monitor the waterways. We monitor all merchant vessels.
As you know, as we stood up Task Force Sentinel, IMSC, one of our lines of effort was a very – a heightened communication with merchant shipping, and so maintaining an awareness of merchant shipping to a much greater degree than we have before, just in response to that state-sponsored threat specifically because we don’t know when Iran might commit a provocation, whether they’re going to do what they did last week where they signaled their anger by seizing a vessel, beating up a crew, stealing their equipment, threatening them, that type of thing, or whether they’re going to attack a ship with the intent to harm. It is still provocation, and we’re carefully watching that.
I did raise awareness at the far end of the transfer, I did raise awareness on — during the exercise that they commenced, and we watched them for both intent and capability at all times.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Jack Detsch from Foreign Policy.
Question: Thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask you about the Iranian, the IRGC naval exercises last month where they sunk a replica of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Just curious if you have a sense if this shows any increased capability by Iran to sink or harm U.S. vessels, and perhaps what the intent was if you have any sense of that.
VADM Malloy: Sure. I think that when Iran is trying to message their own people, it’s important to lower the denominator until they’re sure that they can look like they’ve won something. So a ship that is parked in littorals and then firing a bunch of missiles at it to get the photo op, I think, is an attempt on their part, but the fact that they missed it when they thought they hit it, they thought they hit it when they thought they missed it, and when they missed it they almost hit a tanker at anchorage – I understand it’s a lot like the difference between sparring in a boxing match against a heavy bag versus somebody actually in the ring with you.
I think they’re doing an exercise that is testing their capabilities and trying to signal their own people and perhaps intimidate the region. I did not change my guidance to the force. The force remains ready. The coalition force remains ready. We monitor them because they are reckless and unpredictable, and so we have to be the adults in the room as the coalition, and we are doing our exercises, we are doing our transits, we are – we’re doing legitimate mariner training across this region with our partners.
So I gave no specific additional guidance to the force. We remain ready at all times.
Moderator: Our next question will go to Moustafa Soukal from Al Hurra.
Question: Yes. My question is about three days ago, Iran [inaudible] tanker in international waters. Today the United Arab Emirates made agreement with Israel. It is no [inaudible] to Iran. Now, with the peace agreement [inaudible], the tension in the region already reduces. Are you going to face the challenges in regards of the tensions in the Gulf region?
VADM Malloy: Okay, I think I understand your question. We had the illegal seizure of the Wila several days ago, and then the announcements with the UAE and their – and their relationship with Israel, and whether this adds tension or does not add tension.
I would tell you that in any time of adversary – adversity, friendly nations and coalition partners, we band closer together and we’ve certainly done that in this time. We’ve done that in response to the provocations that started from Iran last summer, which included mining ships in port, mining ships underway, shooting down unmanned aircraft in international waters, attacks against other sovereign nations in the region. As I – I mean, it’s a long list that you’re aware of.
So I don’t think this heightens tension. I think that there – it is a tense region where allies and partners need to operate closely together, and we certainly do that and share information, operate at sea together in coordination with each other, be it in CMF or IMSC, whichever construct we are operating in. And the U.S. Navy is a grateful partner in those types of coalitions.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question is from Joe Tabet from Sky News Arabia.
Question: Hi, good afternoon. Admiral Malloy, I would like to ask you if the U.S. military at CENTCOM, and mainly NAVCENT, were aware in the past about the dangerous explosive materials at the port of Beirut?
VADM Malloy: Yes, and thank you – thank you for that question. I was – I was as surprised by the explosion as anyone else. And as you may know, the U.S. Navy operates vessels in and out of Beirut harbor all the time. I was actually on board a U.S. Navy vessel that was pierside about 200 to 300 yards away from where the explosion was as part of an exercise with the Lebanese armed forces. We had pulled in to do an exchange as part of that exercise, and I had flown in to be part of that and as part of a reception held on behalf of the embassy in honor of the Lebanese armed forces, a very close partner of ours.
I took a threat brief. I was operating very closely with the Lebanese armed forces security and brought a warship in there and was operating there myself within the past year. So I was unaware of this threat and the devastating explosion that damaged that port and hurt so many people there, but obviously as we are now getting our arms around the extent of damage, we are helping their – helping the Lebanese people where we can, and obviously partnering very closely with the Lebanese armed forces through our embassy.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question goes to Monalisa Freiha from Annahar newspaper in Lebanon.
Question: Hello. Does your mandate include the monitoring of arms supplies to Iran while the countdown starts for the end of the embargo?
VADM Malloy: Can you repeat that question, ma’am? I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the beginning of it.
Operator: Unfortunately, her line has dropped. Please continue.
VADM Malloy: Can you tell me? If you heard the question, I can answer it if you repeat it, if you heard it better than I did.
Moderator: Sir, the question is related to the Iran arms embargo. I couldn’t – I didn’t hear the whole thing, but I think it was along the lines of how the arms embargo is impacting your operations, the pending expiration of the arms embargo. Over.
VADM Malloy: No specific change in our operations. Again, we maintain readiness and vigilance, a defensive, de-escalatory posture, but always ready to respond to a threat or a provocation forcefully if necessary. And I’d just pass on to the lady who spoke that – if she’s listening, that we all wish everyone in Beirut a speedy recovery from that devastating explosion.
Moderator: Thank you. I’ll wait just a little bit to see if there are any additional participants who would like to join the question queue. Okay. Our next question will go to Verity Ratcliffe.
Question: Hi, I have a follow-up question to the – about the ships that were transporting Iranian gasoline to Venezuela. How was the transfer – how were the transfers actually conducted? Were – was the cargo transferred onto a ship that the U.S. has and then the four vessels were let go after that? Or did you – did you take the vessels off somewhere? Were they – are they still being held or are they let go now?
VADM Malloy: Yeah, you used a couple of terms that are not accurate. We didn’t – nobody held the vessels, so you can’t release what you don’t hold. I understand that, I mean, the transfer did not occur with U.S.-flagged vessels at all. I’m not involved in the process whatsoever. These were contracted vessels of some.
Transfers at sea with any kind of liquid is usually done several ways. One of them is through what we call rafting, where the vessels tie up alongside of each other in a relatively calm area and then put the fuel – the hoses over to transfer the fuel that way. But again, I can’t state strongly enough that to differentiate from the Wila being seized by another country, and this transaction happened at sea, and there was not a military vessel within the vicinity. There were no military personnel involved in this. The masters of both vessels, the transfer vessel and the one that received it, were in complete control of the vessels at all times. They were not put on the [inaudible] with their hands up or beaten up like what happened with the Wila. So this transaction happened at sea as a normal business transaction between these sovereign flagged ships that never relinquished their sovereignty.
Moderator: All right. We will take our last question from Eric Schmitt.
Question: Admiral, just to clarify one more on this – on the transfer. So the Pandi and the Luna were the ones that did the transfer in the Gulf of Oman last week? Is that correct?
VADM Malloy: That is correct, and you can follow up on that I’m sure. But yes, that’s correct.
Question: And then the other two, the Bella and the Bering, those are the ones that were done several weeks ago in the Straits of Mozambique?
VADM Malloy: I believe that they were the ones who were just recently done, Eric, and then the ones – the Pandi and Luna were done several weeks ago in our area.
Question: Oh, okay. And then just lastly, do you – on the explosion in Beirut, do you have any new information of how that explosion started? I know it’s under investigation, but do you have any initial indications of what was the initial trigger to that?
VADM Malloy: I don’t. I’ve watched the same video, the horrific video, that you have and it seemed like there was a fire beforehand, but I don’t – I know that there’s an investigation going on in Lebanon and the head of navy told me that it is ongoing. But I have not gotten any initial feedback from him. Our conversation has concentrated on damage and injuries to his people in the lower part of Beirut and how they’re getting after helping those people.
Moderator: All right. Our final, final question is again from Verity Ratcliffe.
Question: Hi. My question is about the Gulf Sky vessel taken a month or so ago. Do you know whether it was hijacked or did the crew take it through unwillingly? Are you helping with an investigation either with the UAE or the FBI? What’s happening now?
VADM Malloy: I was – I am not tracking the information. I don’t have any specific info on that that I can share with you. The minute that we do, we certainly will. But I don’t have any specific information I can share on developments. Sorry.
Moderator: With that, I’ll now turn it back over to you, Vice Admiral Malloy, for your closing remarks.
VADM Malloy: Okay. Well, Geraldine, thank you, and I appreciate people coming up online for questions. Again, as I depart this region and am relieved by my friend, Vice Admiral Paparo, I have nothing but respect and admiration for our partners in this region. I miss them when I’m not operating out here, and I look forward to even expanding that cooperation and coordination to ensure that positive vision of maritime security, the free flow of commerce, for all legitimate traffic that moves through this critical region in conjunction with regional partners.
So it has been a blessing to be here for 18 months, and Geraldine, I know your number there, so I look forward to talking to you in the future. Thank you all very much.
Moderator: Thank you, Vice Admiral. We look forward to staying in touch with you as well. And that concludes today’s call. I’d like to thank the Vice Admiral and all of the journalists on the line today for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected] Information on how to access the recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a good day.