Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, Commander of U.S. Transportation Command, and Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Press Briefing (transcript)

Release #: 20210825-1

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Photo Caption: Courtesy photo.


JOHN KIRBY:  Good afternoon. As you know, we have a special guest briefer today, General Steve Lyons, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, and I'm going to turn it over to the General in just a minute to update you on the incredible effort that Transportation Command, and all their subordinate commands and air crews, are expending on trying to get as many people out of Afghanistan as possible. So, he’ll have a brief set of comments and then we’ll start taking questions…

…and speaking of making a difference on the ground and making a difference through U.S. military capabilities, I do want to now turn the microphone over to General Steve Lyons, again, Commander, U.S. Transportation Command. He’ll have some opening comments, and then we'll get to Q&A. I will come back to the podium and monitor the Q&A. We have a limited amount of time with the General, he’s obviously got a lot on his plate today. So, we'll try to keep it moving. And with that, General sir, can you hear me and are you ready to go?

GEN LYONS:  John, I got you. Can you hear me okay?

KIRBY:  Yes, sir. Loud and clear. The floor is yours, sir.

LYONS:  I’m pleased to join you today, as well as the press, to talk about TRANSCOM's role in this monumental logistics effort supporting noncombatant evacuation operations. I just would say that from the time TRANSCOM received orders to commence deployment, initial elements were airborne in less than three hours.

These forces were critical to quickly secure the Kabul international airfield. Simultaneously, we commenced support to NEO operations and continue around the clock operations to ensure the safe evacuation of American citizens, our Afghan friends and those cleared by the State Department.

I'm just reminded that the United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying forces and providing nonstop airlift operations at this scale. I'd like to specifically highlight the role of our outstanding air component, the Air Mobility Command, led by General Jacque Van Ovost. Air Mobility Command continues to operate the C-17s you see in your news footage. Less visible but equally important is their contingency response group operating at the Kabul airport and a multitude of other forces, providing en route support.

This incredibly dedicated team of Air Force professionals is the best in the world. I did have the opportunity this week to speak with the crew, call sign Reach 871, the C-17 flight that carried the 823 Afghans from Kabul to safety. The iconic photo of hundreds of Afghans on the floor of a C-17 illustrates the desperation, fear and uncertainty of the Afghan people, but also the lifesaving capability and compassion of our military members.

These herculean efforts underscore the United States’ commitment to our Afghan allies and provide them an opportunity for a new beginning, a safer life, and a better future.

To be clear, this is a global effort. I want to thank our many, many coalition partners. We could not be successful without the more than two dozen like-minded nations that expand our global logistics network by providing important access and transit centers.

And finally, I want to acknowledge and thank our industry partners who routinely provide airlift in support of defense needs. Many of you reported on the Secretary's decision to activate stage one of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, and we greatly appreciate the teamwork and contributions of our commercial aviation partners.

Let me just close by saying that for me, like all of our veterans who served in Afghanistan, this mission is very personal. I assure you that we will not rest until the military is complete, the mission is complete. And we have evacuated Americans who are seeking to be evacuated and as many Afghan partners as humanly possible.

I could not be more proud of the TRANSCOM team, our relationship with U.S. Central Command, and our contribution to this vitally important effort. And I'll be happy to take any questions the press may have. Thank you.

KIRBY:  Thank you, General, we'll start with Bob Burns, Associated Press.

QUESTION FROM MEDIA: Thank you. General, this is Bob Burns with AP, thank you very much. Couple of questions. Currently, what is your maximum capacity for airlifting out of Kabul airport in terms of the number of people you can get out in a single day based on the aircraft and crews, the support that you have available to you, as of today? And the second question is regarding fuel. I'm wondering if you could describe how you're managing to keep sufficient fuel on hand at the airport, given the limitations of that facility. Thanks.

LYONS:  Yeah, Bob. Thanks for the questions. Let me take fuel first. We do manage fuel. And we intentionally do not take fuel on, on the ground. So, we make sure we have enough fuel to go in and go out without taking fuel on so we don't stress the logistics posture there. And if the legs are longer coming out, we'll provide aerial refuel en route if necessary.

You know, we had a great day, this last 24 hours, as you saw on the news, more than 10,000, well more than 10,000 evacuees, moved. I'm very, very confident that we’ll sustain that effort, and improve that effort, to be honest with you.

My commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint in this operation. And as you know and appreciate, and I've seen your reporting, I mean, airlift is extremely important. But critical to the throughput is also ground operations. And we're trying to synchronize that as we go. But we are clearly razor focused on clearing the Kabul International Airport of every evacuee that can move.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this, General Lyons. Could you talk a little bit about the threat that your aircraft are facing as they fly into and fly out of Kabul. We've seen a French cargo plane have to shoot out flares as it was taking off. What are your crews preparing for? And can you put this in context of other threat environments that your cargo aircraft have had to fly into over the last couple of years?

LYONS:  Yeah, thank you. I mean, if the threat is significant, as you know, I won't get into details. We're closely aligned to CENTCOM and other agencies on threat reporting and potential threat to airlift operations. I would just say, as we watch that, our crews are the best in the world. That machine, the C-17, is the best in the world. And I'm confident that we're taking the right measures to mitigate the threat. And we're connected to the right sources and taking the right kind of measures. I'll probably leave it at that for good reasons.

QUESTION:  We were discussing earlier during the briefing about just the one hour on the ground quick rotation. Can you talk about how you're managing that? How the planes and the crews are managing that?

LYONS: Yes, it's quite remarkable. We've got a number of planes in the system, but we have twice as many crews. And the idea is to keep those planes moving all the time, either by extending the crew day, or preferably by swapping crews and keeping the iron in motion. So, there's a very tight detailed management system to do that.

Critical to that, of course, is what you mentioned, which is ground time. The faster we can turn, either load or discharge, the faster we can turn that aircraft. And we're razor focused on bringing down, I really appreciate the work ongoing in Afghanistan to bring down the time on ground to under an hour.

QUESTION:  General, can you give us a sense how you perceive the mission changing as the U.S. draws down the number of ground forces in Afghanistan in the final days of the month, and what the mission will look like, if there is one, post August 31st?

LYONS:  Yeah, I mean, every day we take as a day comes. We are razor focused on NEO. We know and are linked very closely with Central Command on potential operations to close out the mission by the 31st. That was the direction given by the President. And we're committed to do that. And my commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint to execute those operations. And we're well synced with Central Command. We have a great relationship, great teamwork. And so, I think we are pushing the limits to do everything we can to get every single evacuee out of Kabul.

QUESTION:  Do you foresee fewer flights in the 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st of the month as there are fewer ground forces, presumably, in Kabul?

LYONS:  Well, I’d prefer not to get into the numbers of flights by day. I would not say that we're going to let up. We're not going to let up. You know, full accelerator, we're not going to let up. As long as there's a mission to be accomplished, we'll be out there.

KIRBY: I forgot to ask you to introduce yourself because the General can’t see us. So, Courtney.

QUESTION:  Hi General Lyons, this is Courtney Kube from NBC News. You said that you're pushing the limits? Can you just explain a little bit more what you mean by that, when you say you're pushing the limits to get as many people out? And then are you able to kind of give us like a big picture look at how many C-17s and C-130s out of the total Air Force fleet are dedicated to this mission right now, out of the entire U.S. military fleet?

LYONS:  Well, all mobility resources are focused on this effort. There’s a number of ways I could cut the numbers that might not be helpful to you, to be honest. You know, right now, the air component has well over 200 aircraft committed to operations. Some of these are, even KC-10s are committed to the operation in some way or some fashion.

So, when I say we're all in, I mean to present to meet the President and Secretary's directive, ensure that every evacuee that is cleared to move, can move. And our crews are absolutely incredible. I won't lie to you. They're tired. They're probably exhausted in some cases. I know that the leaders from time to time are pulling crews out to make sure we don't have safety issues, but they are motivated, they are fired up and they are committed to complete this mission.

QUESTION:  One more about any COVID mitigation efforts that you're taking? Are you doing anything to ensure that your crews are safe from COVID? Can you give us a little bit of the details of what that looks like?

LYONS:  Well, it's a great question. We shouldn't forget that we're doing this operation in the middle of a pandemic. So, all the crews are obviously masking. But the Afghans that are on the aircraft are not masked. So that's one mitigation.

There is some screening that occurs before they load, and then as we reach temporary safe havens, these other hubs and lily pads, there are resources being applied to further test the evacuees upon arrival to these various temporary safe havens.

QUESTION: Are all of your crews vaccinated or are they getting tested periodically to ensure that they're safe?

LYONS:  The vast majority are certainly tested. I can't say conclusively that they all are, although great news today from the FDA. So pretty soon, they'll all be vaccinated.

QUESTION:  General Lyons, Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the constraints you faced and how you resolved them? And also, in the last 24 hours, you've gotten 18,000 or 11,000 passengers out of Kabul, clearing the backlog? Are you concerned that there are not enough people cleared through into the airport, that you may have to take off with empty planes? Is there any sign that you're having to take off, because of that quick turnaround, with empty planes?

LYONS:  Great question. Not at this time and we're in contact with CENCOM constantly. I talk to General McKenzie on a continuous basis, so we're synced up. And the idea is, we’d never want to leave Kabul airport on an empty plane or even a partially full plane, if we can avoid it. So, we are not doing that. As a matter of fact, we're filling the aircraft to about 400-450 passengers in a floor load configuration.

I just say to your first question, it's an excellent question. You know anytime that we move this fast in an operation, there's going to be fog and friction. And it's trying to achieve equilibrium and a very large network of not just airplanes, but ground operations and multiple nodes throughout the network.

And so, initially it’s moving quick, you're trying to grow capacity, you're moving as fast as you can, sometimes you get a little ahead of yourself, and then it's trying to equalize out and making sure you got a critical path open. But again, right now, we'll sacrifice the back end of all the architectural nodes to make sure that we're clear in Kabul International. That's what we're doing now.

KIRBY:  I need to go to the phones; I haven't done that yet. Steven Losey.

QUESTION:  Hi, yes, thanks very much. So, there are the reports about some of the threats that ISIS has made, and I know you’re not able to speak to specific threat environments. But can you talk to us a little bit more about how the military’s communicating with the Taliban regarding these threats?

Are you telling the Taliban it's their responsibility to keep ISIS away from the airport? And what happens if ISIS decides to embarrass the Taliban by launching terrorist attacks on the perimeter or the civilians trying to get into the airport?

KIRBY:  Steven, I'll take that. That's more appropriate for me, I think, than for General Lyons. As we've talked about many times over the last several days, we are in daily communication with Taliban leaders outside the airport, sometimes multiple times a day, to again, deconflict as best as we can, and to help ensure a healthy access to the airfield for American citizens in particular, and that communication continues to happen.

We are also mindful of the threat that ISIS poses, and without speaking for the Taliban, I think it's a safe assumption to assume that they too, are mindful of that threat. I won't begin to hypothesize what could or could not happen, and I think you can understand that at the podium, we wouldn't get into specific intelligence streams or what we're watching. Nobody wants to see anybody else hurt. And certainly, nobody wants to see anything that could impact our ability to continue to conduct this evacuation operation.

All I would tell you is we're focused on this every single day, hour by hour. We're monitoring the threat environment very, very carefully. And as I said, the communication with the Taliban continues. Lara.

QUESTION:  This is Lara Seligman with Politico. First of all, can you tell us the total estimated cost of the evacuation? And then also, can you explain the discrepancy between the State and DOD numbers on the number of people evacuated?

State is saying 25,000 since the operation began. But Major General Taylor earlier today, I believe he said 37,000.  So, what is that discrepancy?

KIRBY:  The numbers question. I mean, I can't speak for, I don't know where the other number came from. But I think we're all, in the interagency, we're all tracking these numbers. The numbers that we put out this morning, I think you saw the White House actually put those numbers out before we did.  So that 37,000 since the 14th, is what we're counting on. And I'll turn it over to the General on your first question, but it's whatever the costs are going to be, Lara, are bigger than just the airlift. And I can tell you that we don't have an estimate right now. Our focus, and the focus of the entire interagency, is to get as many people out as fast as we can. And as safely as we can. And we're not letting cost drive the factor, cost drive the operation. The operation is driving the operation, and the need to do this in a very urgent and orderly way. But I'll turn it over to the General, if he has any more data for you in terms of the cost from his perspective.

LYONS:  Yeah, I couldn't have said it any better than Mr.  Kirby just said it. I mean, we're aware and we're tracking costs. But we're nowhere close to accumulating that data for public dissemination.

KIRBY:  And I'm sure, Lara, that when all is said and done, I mean, at the appropriate time, we'll certainly be able to provide an overall sense of what the cost is. I just would add that the real cost that we're focused on now is human life. That's the cost that we're focused on. Terace.

QUESTION:  If I could just follow up. General Lyons, are you concerned about the Taliban’s ultimatum that they issued, if the U.S. has to stay past August 31st to complete the evacuation? And what is the plan to protect our forces and the evacuees in that case?

LYONS:  Again, as I said, you know, we watch all risks and threats very closely. And, you know, I would defer to U.S.  Central Command on most of the parts of those questions. We're in direct contact with them regularly, continuously. And then we, you know, we have our own processes and defensive measures and techniques, tactics and procedures to take, you know, to protect our crews and to protect our aircraft going in and out.

KIRBY:  We got time for two more. I'm going to Sylvie and then Terace. Go ahead, Sylvie.

QUESTION:  As you know I'm Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. Can you speak to us about the cooperation with the Turkish forces at the airport? What kind of relationship do you have with them?

LYONS:  Yeah, I would defer to U.S.  Central Command for that question. I would not be able to characterize the relationship on the ground. I know there is a relationship, but I would not be able to characterize that for you.

KIRBY:  Sylvie, remember the Turks are on the ground really more of a security perspective. And so, it is really more of a Central Command relationship that they're managing with the Turks every day. The Turks are still there. And of course, you know at what scale that we're there. Terace.

QUESTION:  Thank you, John.  I'm Terace Garnier with Newsy. General Lyons, are medics being provided for each flight? I know there's a concern about capacity because you're trying to get as many people on. But are medics being provided? And the reason why I ask that is because there are reports that a woman had a baby during one of the flights.

And so, do you have medics that will be on board that will be able to handle any sort of emergency situations that may come up? If someone has a baby, or, you know, falls and get sick? Or something in that instance?

LYONS:  Yes, it's a great question. We do not have medics on every flight. There is a medical screen as part of the screening and boarding process. But I'll confess to you that many people would have to self-identify any kind of medical issue. Really exciting, I mean, I really appreciate the news reporting on the baby being born as that flight came into Ramstein. Matter of fact, there's actually been more than that. So, it's just a just an incredible, incredible operation ongoing, you know. Just impressive work by our great airmen.


QUESTION:  More than that?

QUESTION:  Yes.  What do you mean by that?

KIRBY:  I’m sorry?

QUESTION:  How many babies?

KIRBY:  Sir, they’re asking if there was more than one baby.


LYONS:  Well, my last data point was three. I don't have a formal tracker, but those are the, you know, so we'll keep you posted.

KIRBY:  All right Sir.  We'll follow up and try to get you information on the other two. Listen, we got to let the General -- we have to let the General get...

QUESTION:  …(inaudible) on the supplies, though, at HKIA. General Lyons, we've had, we've heard some concerns that there wasn't enough food or water for all the evacuees at the airport. Could you just talk about the efforts to fly in more sanitation, more MREs, more water for those that are trying to flee Kabul?

LYONS:  Sure. Well, you see all those aircraft going in there and we never want to send an aircraft empty if we can, if we don't have to. So, CENTCOM is managing that. We've got plenty of capacity going in there. And there is sustainment on those flights coming in, that we're taking evacuees out. So, CENTCOM is addressing that issue. Thank you.

KIRBY:  General, we're going to let you go unless you have any closing thoughts? Anything that you might want to just hit at the end here?

LYONS:  Well John, I just, again, thanks for being part of this today. But I, you know, again, how proud I am of our mobility airmen just operating around the globe. It's just impressive to see. And, you know, everybody is just, in this, all in. Rowing as hard as we can. And we're going to make this happen. I'm absolutely confident of that.

KIRBY:  Thank you, General. Thanks for your time today. Thanks, everybody. We'll see you back here mid-morning tomorrow. Thanks very much...

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