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U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Air Force International Engagement

Deborah Lee James, Secretary, U.S. Air Force
New York, NY
August 17, 2016

Date: 08/17/2016 Location: New York, NY Description: Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, briefs foreign media on the agency's recent international engagements.  - State Dept Image

2:15 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good afternoon, journalists. Good afternoon also to our friends in Washington. The New York Foreign Press Center is honored to have U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James with us today. Secretary James leads a globally deployed force of nearly 660,000 active duty, guard, reserve, and civilian Airmen, and she oversees the Air Force’s annual budget of more than $139 billion. She’s traveled the world, meeting with civilian and military senior leaders to discuss building capable coalitions to counter global threats. And later this month, Secretary James will travel to Asia, making steps in Indonesia, India, Singapore, and the Philippines to underscore U.S. support for efforts that bring peace, security, and prosperity to the Asia Pacific region and to seek opportunities to deepen and expand the relationship between U.S. and ally air forces.

This briefing is on the record. Secretary James will give opening remarks, and then we’ll have time for Q&A. As always, please state your name and organization before asking your question, and wait for the microphone for the transcribers to hear you. And I’m – at this point, I’m happy to have Secretary James here with us, and we’ll begin with her remarks.

SECRETARY JAMES: Great. Thank you so much, Melissa, and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for turning out to spend some time with me this afternoon. Just a little bit more of a backgrounder, if I might, about my role in the U.S. defense establishment: As the secretary of the Air Force, it is my job to provide the Secretary of Defense and ultimately up to the President of the United States with military options – options in the air, options in space, options in cyberspace. Basically, I’m responsible for what’s called organizing, training, and equipping the Air Force; that is to say I’m responsible for the people of the Air Force and the policies concerning those people, as well as the training they need to do their job today, as well as investing in the equipment of today, as well as the technologies of the future.

Another part of my job involves working with air forces from partner nations and allies to strengthen our bilateral relationships airmen to airmen. We value very much these close relationships because we know that we work best when we’re part of an international team countering threats to global peace and security, and these relationships, believe me, are on display all around the world.

So let me begin, if I might, with the situation in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq and Syria, where our Air Force is fully engaged with NATO partners and others throughout the region and we’re working together to eliminate a cancer – a cancer called Daesh. Now, over the last two years, there has been major progress on the military front in the campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq. So on the ground in Syria, thanks to anti-Daesh forces like the Syrian Democratic Forces, and on the ground in Iraq, thanks to the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces, we have collectively delivered defeat to Daesh in location after location after location. And I’m talking about places like Tikrit and Baiji and Fallujah and Ramadi and Haditha and Sinjar, all of which are in Iraq. I’m talking about Kobani and Tishreen Dam and Hasakah and Shadadi in Syria – all of those are in Syria – and most recently in Manbij, also in Syria. Manbij is a key line of transit between Raqqa and Turkey.

A central element to our approach to defeat Daesh – really, the coalition is operating on three fronts. First, we’re pushing up through the Euphrates River Valley. Second, we are driving toward Mosul, which is the last remaining Daesh stronghold in Iraq. And ultimately, number three, we will be on the road to Raqqa, which is the capital of the so-called caliphate in Syria.

Now, all of this progress on the ground and the efforts that still lie ahead – they are all enabled by the air. I’m talking about strikes from the air, ISR – intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – from the air, and mobility also coming from the air. These come from both manned and unmanned systems. Of course, this is where we come in. There have been 14,500 strikes since we began operations in August of 2014, and two-thirds of those strikes have come from the U.S. Air Force. I know that some of you – some of your countries have contributed to this effort, and I want to thank you on behalf of the United States Government for your contributions and your dedication to this common cause.

And let me also remind you and let us all remember that I am a military person; therefore, I’m discussing military matters. But this overall effort is a very comprehensive effort. It goes way beyond military matters alone, and a comprehensive solution is required for lasting peace, and of course, that means political solutions must also be in place for that lasting peace to endure.

Now, turning to Europe, I did have the opportunity to travel to Europe last month. I saw our Airmen who were deployed in the region and I also met with senior defense officials from both NATO and non-NATO countries. We, the United States, of course, are wholly committed to NATO and the goal of a Europe which is whole, free, and at peace. Many of the leaders that I spoke with, however, are very concerned about provocative actions in recent years by Russia, and we in the United States agree. Many NATO allies are calling for additional support and reassurance from the United States, and here again is where we come into play. The United States Air Force plays a critical role here as well. So we’re working with our NATO allies in the Baltics, in Poland, and along the Black Sea in exercises, rotational deployments of our forces, all of which is to enhance interoperability, regional security, and also to professionalize our respective militaries.

And by the way, professional air forces do not do barrel rolls over surveillance aircraft in international airspace. And professional air forces do not – do not make low-altitude passes over ships in international waters. Such actions as those I’ve just described represent poor airmanship and they’re dangerous, and Russia can and should do better in the future. The U.S. stands ready to support NATO against any threat from any source.

Now, looking ahead, as you heard, I’m getting ready very soon now to leave for a trip to Asia where I’ll have the opportunity to meet with senior defense officials from India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. I’ll have a stop-off in Hawaii along the way to speak with the leaders of the U.S. Pacific Command, and also a stop in Guam, where we have maintained for decades now a continuous bomber presence in the Pacific. Matter of fact, today we are launching what we call Exercise Tri-Lightning, which is the first-ever exercise in which we’ve had all three of our principal bombers operating at once in different parts of the Pacific. And when I speak of the three bombers, I am speaking of the B-1, the B-52, and the B-2.

Last month, Pacific Command wrapped up what is called RIMPAC 2016, which is the largest international maritime exercise in the world, and representatives from all four of the countries that I’ll be visiting as well as Japan, Australia, China, and 19 others were able to participate in this exercise as well.

The future that the United States would like to see in the Indo-Asia Pacific region is a future such as what I just described, where we’re all working together, we’re collaborating together, we’re training together, and not just in a military sense but also in a political and economic sense. That’s the type of cooperation that we, of course, wish to see.

Freedom of navigation and legal use of the sea and airspace is a central part of this idea of cooperation, and that is why the Air Force and the U.S. Navy have engaged in freedom of navigation operations. We will fly and operate wherever international law allows, and we believe that is the right of all countries to do so.

We consider the recent ruling from The Hague to be legally binding on all parties, and we hope that all of the claimants in the South China Sea will exercise restraint in the future and we will all work to lower tensions. We certainly support the peaceful resolution of disputes in this region. And I will be looking forward to discussing these matters and others with my counterparts in the region during my upcoming visit.

Lastly, I want to tell you that in addition to the types of face-to-face meetings that I’ve described and the deployments that I’ve described, another important way that we’re enhancing and reaffirming our international partnerships is through our security cooperation efforts, including our Foreign Military Sales program, otherwise known as FMS.

And as I have traveled the world, a frequent concern that I have heard from our partners about our FMS process is that the process that they work through in order to be able to purchase American military systems is very long, it’s complex, it’s confusing, and there are a lot of players involved. The process involves not only us in the Air Force, but also individuals from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the State Department, the White House, and the Congress. So some months ago, I promised that we would take a look at the Air Force’s piece of the FMS process with the objective of: How can we do better? How can we speed this up? How can we make it more straightforward?

So today I am pleased to announce that we have completed this review and we’re ready to implement some changes. Our first finding was that a big hurdle on the Air Force side of the process has been working with our foreign buyers to define their requirements properly and to get the first part of the acquisition deal signed. So to do better on this, we’re going to establish a new and more extensive training program to better prepare our own security cooperation officers before we send them overseas. And in so doing, we hope to be able to make them more effective in working with our partners up front in defining those very important requirements. Because, you see, there’s an awful lot of back-and-forth that is going on right now between the foreign governments and the U.S. Government before the actual first step is taken, and that is called the letter of request. So if we can speed that up, we think we will speed the overall process up on the Air Force side.

Our second finding was that a relatively small number of cases, the most complex cases – think here about things such as F-15 sales or C-17 sales overseas – that these complex cases were taking the longest period of time and frequently the ones that would run into one logjam or another. So in order to improve here, my senior team and I from now on will focus more of our own management attention on these deals. We’ll be pushing the system within the Air Force to produce faster result; and when there’s a logjam, we’ll personally engage to see if we can unstick that logjam promptly.

I also have challenged our acquisitions team within the Air Force to take that challenge of a 10 percent reduction in the time that they take to conclude these cases, and I’ve asked for that 10 percent challenge to be met by the end of 2017.

So the bottom line here is we’re going to focus on that which we control; that is to say, the Air Force piece of the FMS process, and we’re going to look to speed things up. And after all, if each component would take a look at their own piece of the process collectively, we could really do a lot better.

So with that I want to thank you all for joining me here today, and I would look forward to your questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Secretary James. As usual, name and organization. That includes our friends in Washington as well. So any questions?

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Manik Mehta. I am syndicated. A question. You’re visiting three ASEAN countries plus India. Who are you meeting in the three countries as well as in India, and what are your objectives? Have you been given some kind of an impetus as a result of The Hague ruling vis-a-vis China? Is that one of your motivations? Could you clarify, please?

SECRETARY JAMES: In each of the four countries that I will soon be visiting I will be meeting with senior defense officials. So in some cases it’s ministers of defense, sometimes it’s the senior civilian civil servant in the defense department, but typically ministry of defense individuals at that level. I will meet with the chief of each of the air forces and frequently I will meet with the chief of defense, who may not be air force, frequently is an army officer.

In addition to that, at each location I’ll be meeting with our own U.S. ambassador, our country team. And then different locations I’ll be visiting with, say, the American Chamber of Commerce, business groups, so it’s a little bit different in each location.

What I would expect to be discussing, I would expect to discuss how we can deepen our relationships between air forces. That’s always my top job as I travel overseas. Individual countries may have FMS cases that they are interested in, training opportunities with our air force that they may be interested in. So whatever the individual country is interested in, certainly we always discuss that.

And as a general proposition, I would expect to be discussing the matters of the South China Sea, the situation in the South China Sea, as well as the situation surrounding terrorism, which is of concern to us all.

QUESTION: Bingxin Li from People’s Daily. Talking about your U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, previously they want some F-16 C or D, but now they want even more advanced jet fighters. Is there any possibility for U.S. to sell this kind of jet fighters to Taiwan or within the Obama Administration or even the next administration?

SECRETARY JAMES: Well, of course, this is one of – complex cases like the sale of fighter aircraft is one of those instances where I said it’s a very lengthy process. It’s very detailed within our government. The top of the line equipment, there are frequently technology transfer issues that we have to think through very, very carefully. So I really don’t have a specific update on the situation at Taiwan at this time, but rest assured that is an example of a type of a proposal that would receive the highest level of attentions within the government.

QUESTION: Thank you. I am Ryohei Takagi from Kyodo News, Japan’s newswire service. I would like to ask you about U.S. policy for nuclear weapons. It has been reported the White House is considering enacting a formal no-use policy, first no-use policy for nuclear weapons. What’s your take on that?

And secondly, could you confirm Japanese Prime Minister Abe conveyed his position against such kind of policy to a U.S. official? Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: Matters of the nuclear deterrence are fundamental matters in the United States, so first of all I want to say that the nuclear enterprise and our nuclear deterrence we feel has – have kept the peace for decades to come and to make sure that we continue to have a strong nuclear deterrent in the decades to come is something that many of us, including the President, feel strongly about. We would all like to see a world without nuclear weapons, but in our lifetime we have to be realistic. And in this day and age when there are countries, other countries that have the nuclear weapons and those who are seeking new weapons, we need to remain strong ourselves and in a defense posture.

In terms of a no first-use question, a no first-use policy, I would have concerns about this. There are times when you certainly want your potential adversaries to receive messages, to know certain things; and then there are other times when a bit of strategic ambiguity could well be the best approach. And so I personally have questions about all of this. I think we just have to wait and hopefully we’ll know more about all of this in the next few months.

QUESTION: Hi, I am Imran Ansary from The Daily Nayadiganta, Bangladesh. I would like to draw your attention on Bangladesh. The last couple of months we have seen several number of terrorists attacking Bangladesh, including Holey Artisan attacked in Gulshan, Dhaka. After each and every attack, the ISIS took the responsibility through their own media. But after that we have seen the government denied this issue. Government tried to use these issues as a blame game. They tried to use this issue to eradicate opposition party from the politics; they tried to capture, tried to convict the opposition leaders. But international organization and international security expert said that this is not of the issue of opposition party. And after the attack of Gulshan, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia urges to national unity to defeat ISIS in Bangladesh, but government again denied his urges.

So in this connection, as a partner of organized – partner country of Bangladesh, USA, what’s about your observation on Bangladesh ISIS threat and what types of initiative taken by USA in these issues? Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: I’m afraid I’m not an expert on the specifics of what is going on in Bangladesh, but I can tell you this: The spread of ISIS, whether it is true connection to ISIS or whether it is people who have been inspired and radicalized over the internet by ISIS, it’s a problem. It’s a problem your country is facing; it’s a problem our country is facing. There is no country that is totally immune to this, which is why I come back to saying as a military person I gave an update to all of you on the military front in Iraq and Syria, which is part of the equation. It’s the part that I’m focused on, but it’s a much, much broader situation than that. There has to be political solutions. There has to be inclusivity of different peoples and different opinions in different locations around the world. There’s economic matters that must be taken care of. And again, these are beyond my portfolio, but I am aware enough to know that military means alone will not solve this problem called Daesh.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Yoshita Singh. I’m with Press Trust of India. I’m based in New York. This question is specifically about India. If you can elaborate more about what your focus and your expectations will be when you visit the country, given that the proximity to China and also the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, where ISIS and other terrorist organizations are a major threat, and India is a big player in the region there and a partner for the U.S. Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: Yes. Well, I already am very aware that the Indian Air Force is a very effective fighting unit. They have been a participant over the years in what we call our Red Flag exercise series. So this takes place sometimes in Alaska, sometimes in the Nevada desert, but it’s where we get together with coalition partners and we train together and interoperate together and we go up against sometimes simulated threats so that we test ourselves in a high-end, very challenging, difficult environment.

So when I go there, I would expect to be, again, speaking with the ministry there. We have specific names that we can share with you if you’re interested in the actual names of the people, but it would be the chief of the air force, it would be the chief of defense, it would be either the minister or the very next person down – the secretary of state, I believe, is the title. And we’ll be looking to how can we deepen our partnerships, how can we take it to the next level.

I expect to be talking about the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative, which, of course, was something that the minister, the secretary, and our Secretary Carter launched, and what are the possible outcomes of that from the Air Force perspective. So these are the types of activities.

And I’ll also look forward to congratulating the chief of the air force in particular on what is, I think, a magnificent execution of the C-17 operation, where you recently were able to evacuate Indian citizens from the South Sudan. Well done on that. Well done.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for our briefing. My name is Xiangyu Yin from China Central Television, so I have several questions about South China Sea and also Syria. So in talking about South China Sea, I see U.S. policy is to ease the tension there, so what will you talk or encourage your Philippines counterpart to do to ease the tension in South China Sea? And is this one of your regular visits or just such like once a year, or if not, what’s the specialty of this time? And do you have some similar talks with your Chinese counterparts in the similar area?

And another question is about Syria. We see there are many innocent people – civilians – killed by the airstrikes, so what’s your policy towards that? Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: So I won’t – let me go a little bit out of order. I have not had the opportunity to speak with my Chinese counterparts. I will not be visiting China on this trip but would certainly welcome the opportunity to do so. I know our chief of staff of the Army is there right now, I believe; the head of the Navy has visited in the last year; and our own chief of the Air Force – our four-star general – is projected to visit, I want to say, in November or December. At least I believe that is the case. So we do have regular interactions, and I would very much welcome it, though not on this particular trip.

These four countries that I’m about to visit with I have not yet visited before as secretary of the Air Force. On previous visits, I’ve been to Korea, I’ve been to Japan, I’ve visited with some of the other partners previously, and now I would like to engage with these four, and it will be my first opportunity.

In terms of lessening tensions, the Philippines, for example, I’m going to congratulate them and hope to learn more. I think they’ve taken some good steps. They have talked about working things out diplomatically. I’m aware that the president has appointed Mr. Ramos to go to China to have further engagement on this matter and to talk about the way ahead. So again, peaceful resolution of the disputes is the way to go, and I want to hear more about their perspective.

Our perspective is the same in terms of peaceful resolutions, but we stand very firmly behind the principle of freedom of navigation, as I said earlier, and that is something that we will continue to pursue.

And now shifting to Syria, you’re right. There’s been a lot of innocent death, and there’s been destruction, and I would say 90 percent of it has come at the hands of Bashar al-Assad and Russia, who has entered the conflict. The United States and our coalition partners, we are dropping what is called precision weaponry. Precision weaponry uses the very best of technology and the very best of the training of our pilots to hit only those targets that we intend to hit. And so because of that, we have – I told you, 14,500 strikes over the last two years. It’s an extraordinary number of strikes, with very, very little innocent loss of life that has come from those strikes. It’s a humanitarian mess in Syria at the moment, but what I’m trying to tell you is because of precision weaponry and the way we do things, it is a miraculous – I believe – almost a miracle that as few people have been killed who are innocent civilians.

And this, by the way, comes at a time when we’re up against a group of people who will use civilians as human shields. So it’s a very difficult environment, and yet because of the precision and the training of the people, it has been a miraculous accomplishment, I believe.

So we take it very seriously. Even when we go to war, we take our values with us, and protecting that civilian life is very important. And we’ve done our absolute level best to do so.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Emoke Bebiak. I’m with DPA, the German Press Agency, and I would like to ask you about these latest developments in the Syrian conflict; namely, that Russia is now using an Iranian airspace to – air base to start attacks, launch attacks. I mean, how does this complicate the use of airspace in the region, and could you also talk about a little bit information sharing? I know that Russia notified the U.S. yesterday when they first launched the first attack out of Iran. Do you expect that they are going to keep that up? And how does this Iran becoming part of the equation complicate things in Syria? Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: You said the magic word, the C word. It’s yet again another complication in an already extremely complex environment. Right now the relationship with Russia in this zone is one of talking only with respect to safety of flight. So there is no broader coordination. There is nothing beyond discussions about safety of flight. So as you noted, we were given a little bit of advance warning that Russia would be traversing a certain airspace in order to avoid shootdowns and mistakes that might have occurred otherwise in the air. But that’s it. There was no other warning beyond that little bit of advance warning for the safety of flight purposes.

The reason why Russia is in Iran – I can only speculate, but of course being able to launch out of Iran is closer to the fight. That means the strikes perhaps can be intensified, more frequency, et cetera, et cetera. So in this case, proximity could well be helpful. Whether it’s a permanent thing, whether it’s a temporary thing, I have no idea. But as you point out, it’s yet again another complication. And I want to come back to intensifying strikes. When you are dropping what we call dumb bombs – meaning not the precise kinds – this is the type of thing that causes much more widespread destruction. This is the type of weapon that is making an already deep humanitarian crisis even worse in Syria. And so it’s not a welcome development from the standpoint of the United States.

QUESTION: I’m Arul Louis from Indo-Asian News Service. I have questions regarding the Defense Technology Trade Initiatives. Those also mentioned during Secretary Carter’s visit in April about collaboration and bolstering India’s fighter jets, and also about jet engine technology working group. Will there be any follow-up to that? And there also have been mention in the press about the possibility of Lockheed Martin assembling F-16s in India. Have there been anything specific to that, and would you be following up on any of them?

SECRETARY JAMES: So yes, I will be following up on all of those topics. So that is to say we’ll be discussing these counterpart-to-counterpart on a bilateral basis. I’ll be seeking the views of my counterparts – what is their opinion of the various proposals on the table; what more needs to happen to perhaps advance the ball on some of these proposals. Perhaps some of the proposals aren’t going to fly. Perhaps they are not the right proposals. So these are the types of discussions that I will be looking into.

I’m also aware of the prime minister’s push for “make in India” and the importance of creating new jobs in that sector, and one of the proposals you mentioned, of course, would be to co-produce certain aircraft in India. So that might be one example of something that would be useful from a military standpoint, but also might play in to the “make in India” campaign.

QUESTION: Thank you. Majeed Gly, Rudaw Media Network. Recently – a couple days ago, I believe – there was an informal briefing to Congress about the possibility of moving the nuclear warhead bombs in Incirlik air force in Turkey, the 50 B61 that’s there. Given that Turkey does not allow bombers that could carry those nuclear bomb to land in Incirlik anyways, I want to understand why is there – first of all, why the bombs are still there. Many wonders because the U.S. can’t use it in that case. And also, is there any serious consideration by the U.S. to move the nuclear weapon from that base? Thank you.

SECRETARY JAMES: As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on the placement of certain weapons. I do want to tell you, though, obviously we are a nuclear power, we do have nuclear weapons, and those nuclear weapons are safe and secure, and we’re very confident of that.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mengda Li from Shanghai Jiefang Daily. And as you talk about military sales reform, and there’s some U.S. news said that relative military sales business are less competitive to some Middle East buyers because the products are more expensive and the delivery is low-efficiency comparing to Chinese products. So how do you think about that and what do you, well, do towards that issues?

SECRETARY JAMES: I’m sorry, could you repeat that question one more time?

QUESTION: The question is: How do you think about the weapons sales is less competitive to some Chinese productors to some Middle East buyers?

SECRETARY JAMES: Well, what I would tell you is this: I – the weaponry that we produce is – in my opinion it’s top-notch from a technological standpoint, and when you buy from the U.S. Government, it’s not only the weapon but typically it’s a full-package approach. That is to say, there’s training that comes with it; there’s spare parts; there’s education, if you will, for the host government who’s receiving so that they can not only have the weapon but be able to maintain it for many, many years to come. Without that full-package approach, I will tell you that it’s going to last for a certain amount of time, it’s going to break down, and there you are. It’s not much of use anymore if it won’t work.

So we very much focus on that full-package approach, and because our technology – again, my opinion – is so high, it is, number one, sought after around the world; but number two, some of it we must guard. We must protect it very, very carefully, which also plays in to the length of the FMS process – what I described earlier that I am trying to speed up our end of it. Part of that is the preciousness of some of this technology, so that’s another reason.

The final reason is cost, and there’s where competitiveness comes into play. So ours may not be the least expensive, but I would submit that because of the high-end technology and particularly the full-package approach, whatever the cost differential is, it’s worth it. That is my opinion.

MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Could I take advantage?

MODERATOR: Yep, just want to make sure anybody else --

QUESTION: Thank you. We are having some issues with Turkey, which is a NATO partner. And given the ongoing dispute about the extradition of this wanted man who has – who is alleged to have masterminded the coup in Turkey, how do you see Turkey’s viability as a NATO partner?

And also, the German news magazine called Der Spiegel brought out a very good expose linking Turkish President Erdogan with terrorist organizations. How do you see that?

SECRETARY JAMES: Well, Turkey is – as you pointed out, it’s a valuable NATO partner to us and we value the relationship with Turkey. We all in the U.S. Government condemn in the strongest possible terms the coup attempt, which of course failed. And now Turkey is trying to work its way through the next steps. I visited Incirlik before this incident and I’ve been able to speak to the U.S. commander on-scene. Incirlik, of course, is a Turkish base, but I spoke to our top U.S. official on-scene at Incirlik and was assured that our people and our relationship with the Turkish military – they are on-base – is strong, it’s been very professional even during this very difficult time.

So of course we have to wait and see how all of this plays out, but I just want to underscore Turkey has been with us, we anticipate is going to continue to be with us. They’re a valuable NATO partner, and we will continue to work very, very closely with them and we certainly expect the same – that they will work with us.

MODERATOR: Okay. Well, that concludes this briefing. Thank you, Secretary James, for being here.

SECRETARY JAMES: Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. When the transcript is done, we’ll send it out after completion. Thank you.

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