Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a standing-room-only (fire-code-violating?) news conference (below) at the Pentagon on Wednesday afternoon.

“I haven’t seen this room filled this much in a while.” (Secretary Esper)

Press conferences featuring the Defense Department’s civilian and military heads, once expected and commonplace, are now rare. While, with a month on the job, it was understandably Secretary Esper’s first such on-camera engagement, it was the first of its type – with a SECDEF and a CJCS aside him — in the Pentagon’s press room in a year. The Secretary vowed to change that.

“The United States military has a proud history and a great story to tell. It is my commitment to the American people, who entrust us with their sons and daughters, to keep them informed of the work that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and DoD civilians do every day to keep our nation safe. While we have many avenues to engage with the media in today’s world, moving forward, I intend to do these briefings to maintain an open dialogue about the department’s activities.”

DSJ’s five big take-aways from the wide-ranging press conference:

(1) China is the foremost concern of Secretary Esper and the Indo-Pacific is now America’s “priority theater.”

“It is clear that China is engaging in a deliberate strategy to undermine the stability of the region. It is clear the values and behaviors of the communist party do not align with the vast majority of states. Throughout my many conversations with foreign leaders, time and again they emphasized the need for the United States to continue to show leadership throughout the Indo-Pacific in order to preserve the freedoms we all enjoy. We will continue to expand our defense activities throughout the region in close cooperation with our allies and partners, while pressing for equitable burden-sharing from them, as well.”

(2) There’s no timetable for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan. While President Trump has decried the fact that U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for 18 years and vowed to bring them home before the 2020 election, General Dunford resisted declarative statements and timetables in this regard.

“I think it’s premature, I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now. We’re going to make sure that Afghanistan’s not a sanctuary [for terrorists to strike America].”

(3) Related, notwithstanding President Trump’s repeated boasts about his ability to destroy Afghanistan if he wanted to, Secretary Esper and General Dunford appear committed to a diplomatic resolution of hostilities with the Taliban and other regional stakeholders.

“We reserve the right to keep all options on the table. But, look, clearly we have a plan going forward. The key to resolve this conflict is a political agreement. We’re on that path right now. We’re hopeful that we can reach some type of conclusion that would result in a political agreement that can get us on the right trajectory.” (Secretary Esper)

“I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo. I think that an agreement that can initiate inter-Afghan dialogue, and potentially leading to a reduction of violence associated with the insurgency, is something that’s worth trying. Particularly, and it’s important to emphasize this, any agreement that we have moving forward, and the President’s been very clear, is going to be conditions based. And so those conditions are what make me confident that it [reaching agreement] is worth trying.” (General Dunford)

(4) Any notion that the Government of Turkey could re-enter the F-35 program by deactivating or warehousing their newly-acquired Russian S-400 interceptors is false.

“They have to, again, get rid of the S-400 program and completely out of the country [before] we could consider that [letting them back into the F-35 program]. I have been very clear in both my public comments and privately with my Turkish counterpart: It’s either the F-35 or the S-400. It’s not both. It’s not park one in the garage and roll the other one out. It’s one or the other. So we are where we are, and it’s regrettable.”

5) The U.S. Space Command will stand up tomorrow, 29 August, with an Establishment Ceremony involving President Trump and Vice President Pence, and Secretary Esper is excited about the prospect.

“I’m excited for tomorrow’s activation of the United States Space Command to ensure the protection of America’s interests in space. We must apply the necessary focus, energy and resources to the task. That is exactly what the command will do.”

The CSPAN video (and transcript) of the briefing is here – https://www.c-span.org/video/?463713-1/defense-secretary-esper-joint-chiefs-chair-dunford-hold-news-conference

The Department’s rendering of the press conference’s high points is here – https://www.defense.gov/explore/story/Article/1946788/esper-dunford-emphasize-key-role-of-strategy-in-american-defense/