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Transcript : DoD News Briefing : Thursday, February 22, 1996 - 1:15 p.m.

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ATSD PA
February 22, 1996 1:15 PM EDT

Thursday, February 22, 1996 - 1:15 p.m.

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

I'd like to welcome a guest today, Christopher Predensen, who is the Director of NATO's Office of Information and Press. He's spending the day -- right here behind you -- in the building, looking at our operation to see what he can learn about it. But actually, we're trying to squeeze information out of him to see what we can learn about NATO's press operation. Welcome.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Sources say you may have something to say on whether any contingency operations are being affected by the stand-down of the F-14s.

A: I can tell you that I'm not aware that any contingency operations are being affected. I think that General Estes described very well the situation with the GEORGE WASHINGTON. There is one, I believe, small exception to the stand-down, and that is that the planes, the F-14s on the AMERICA will be allowed to fly off as they usually do as it approaches homeport. It's on its way back now.

I'd like to correct one statement that was made. Mark, I think you referred to this as a grounding. There's a difference between a grounding and a stand-down. Planes are grounded when we have a specific indication that something's wrong -- a rotor blade, a hairline crack in a wing, the ejection seat might be malfunctioning -- in a class of planes. When we know that, then we ground the entire class of planes until that specific item is fixed.

A stand-down, by contrast, is different. We do not know what has caused these three crashes this year with the F-14s. The goal of the stand-down is to make everybody take some time out to look at everything in connection with flying F-14s -- training, maintenance, equipment, etc. -- to see if we can find any common threads. If we knew what the problem was, as you do know during a grounding, we would take the specific action required to correct it. The Navy does not know, and it wants to find out.

With that definitional distinction, I'll move on.

Q: The Secretary was briefed by Admiral Boorda Tuesday on the one before this latest one. Did he indicate any course of action? Did he recommend a stand-down or anything like that?

A: He did not recommend the stand-down. That's a good point. Let me take that and explain to you what happened today.

When this accident occurred in the Gulf, Admiral Boorda came to the Deputy Secretary -- the Secretary was tied up doing something else -- and informed the Deputy Secretary, one, of the accident, and two, of his decision, Admiral Boorda's decision to stand down the entire F-14 fleet for 72 hours. So this was a decision made by the Navy and presented to Deputy Secretary White. He accepted the decision, obviously, thinks it's the right thing to do. But this is a Navy decision to solve a Navy problem.

Q: Just a short time ago you stood at the podium there and told us that there was no indication that the F-14 was any less safe than other planes. Does this latest accident change that assessment in any way?

A: What the Navy is trying to find out is what caused these crashes. General Estes pointed out that accidents happen in high performance aviation. They happen in all aviation.

Over the last 20 years there has been a nearly constant decline in military aviation accident rates. There was a piece in the Navy Times this week, I believe, detailing that, pointing out that there's been a very steady decline. There are blips on the charts, on the accident graphs that sometimes are unexplained. We have some charts we'll hand out to you. But this is a chart of the Class A mishap rate for F-14s. I don't know whether you can see this, but it started out very high when the F-14s were introduced into the fleet, came down, and you can see there was actually a very steady decline. Then there were a couple of blips. There was a blip here, it started down again. There was a blip here. You know that there were 11 F-14 mishaps in one year. It blipped up there. Why? Nobody was able to explain why there were 11 mishaps in one year when there had been a much smaller number the year before, and a much smaller number in the succeeding year. It started down again, then it started up again. This is a mystery, and this is what the Navy's trying to determine.

I have said for the three times that I've dealt with this topic recently, that this is a matter of extremely serious concern to the Navy and to the Department of Defense, and we're doing everything we can to figure it out. I think what this graph that you can pick up shows, is that there are ups and downs in this pattern. These ups and downs are sometimes unexplained. What we're trying to do is find an explanation.

Q: If I'm not mistaken, there are well over 300 of these F-14s in service. If it turns out there is a problem with the class, what would that do to U.S. air defense, to have that many planes having serious problems?

A: Most problems are fixable, so I think that if we were able to find that there was a problem affecting the entire class, we would find a solution to that problem. So I wouldn't leap to the conclusion that a problem would require a withdrawal of all these planes. As you know, the planes have been in service for a long while. The F-14As are supposed to be phased out of the Navy by 2004, and the B's and D's will be phased out later, I think by 2010.

But the Air Force and the Navy fly many old planes. We have very, very demanding maintenance practices that are designed to keep planes at the peak of their performance. One of the things we'll look at here, one of the things the Navy will look at is the way these planes are maintained. We're looking at everything.

Q: Are those blips that you identified, were there any that you can say you've known what caused a particular jump? Are there cases where specific...

A: The Navy informs me that they have not been able to determine that. They have not been able to find a common thread.

Remember, you're dealing here with three types of F-14s. You've got A's, B's, and D's, and they're different planes. The A's have different engines from the B's and D's, so they have different flight characteristics. There's different training for the planes. It's not good to lump them all together. They have to be looked at separately. We are looking at them separately and together because, of course, there could be a common cause. We just don't know.

Q: So even though the blip appears as a statistical jump, it's not necessarily an amalgamation of a particular problem.

A: The Navy has not been able to find a common thread to these accidents.

Q: Is the stand-down being limited to 72 hours because of some pressure to keep these planes in service for use in the Adriatic or elsewhere?

A: No. The stand-down will serve two purposes. It gives everybody a chance, and the Navy talked about some of the studies that will take place during this 72 hours. It gives the Navy a chance to sort of pull together as much information as possible, look for interconnections, compare, contrast the accidents that have occurred recently with accidents that have occurred in the past to see if there are any common threads.

It also serves, I think, as a warning, as a period of reflection for the whole F-14 community. It gives them time to sit down and talk to one another, time that they might not have during operations and training, to sit down and to sort of re-plow everything they've learned. Re-plow -- have the maintenance people, the pilots, the mission taskers, etc., the contractors -- to sit down and say `is there something we're missing?' It allows the type of detailed discussion that they don't have time for ordinarily.

It would be easy to say we should have a stand-down for a specific period of time if we knew what was causing these problems, but without knowing that, it's a little hard to know what the optimum time for a stand-down is.

Q: Seventy-two hours doesn't seem to be a very long time. Is there a chance that that period could be extended? Or that all depends on...

A: There's a chance that it could be extended. I suppose there's also a chance that there could be limited flight operations allowed within the 72 hours for certain types of planes.

Remember, one of the things that pilots have to do is fly regularly to stay tuned, to stay ready. And the longer pilots go without flying, the greater risk they face when they get back into the cockpit, so you don't want to stand down pilots for too long.

Q: How important are the F-14s? What percentage are they of our fighter aircraft fleet?

A: I can't give it to you... Ask the Navy for that. A quick contrast I can give you is that there are about 1,200 F-18s and there are a little over 300 F-14s. That gives you some order of magnitude. I gave the precise numbers last time -- there are 211 F-14A's, 47 F-14D's, and 79 F-14B's.

Q: Could you comment on these reports that Ratko Mladic has targeted U.S. troops for attack or abduction?

A: I think General Estes handled it. If you want me to repeat what General Estes said, I'll be glad to, but...

Q: I just wondered if you could provide... How seriously is the threat being taken?

A: First of all, we take all threats seriously. The defensive posture, the security posture of our forces in Bosnia has been very high from the beginning, and it remains high.

Second, all threats are passed down to the lowest command level as fast as possible so that the commanders in the field can make any adjustments they feel are necessary in light of the threat and in light of their current operational profile.

Third, Ratko Mladic makes a lot of threats. We see no evidence that he has attempted to carry through on this threat. He is an indicted war criminal. He lives by bluster and force, and he has for a long time. We expect threats from him, we've gotten many threats from him. We take the threats seriously, but I think these threats should be put in context. He's a threatening character. He not only is threatening because of the military force he has controlled, but also because he makes threats. This, so far, is a threat in which we've seen no evidence he has tried to deliver, but we are ready, we are prepared, and we're vigilant.

Q: You believe the threat was made, or you have no evidence that the threat was made?

A: We've seen reports that he made this threat. We take reports of threats seriously. Need I say more? A report of a threat is a report of a threat. We respond to them.

Q: ...at some point.

A: We have seen reports of the threat.

Look, this is a dangerous business, these people are in a dangerous place. They're paid to be vigilant. That's how they stay alive. That's why we pass these threats, reports on to them so they can respond to them in the best possible way. I don't think this is enormously complex.

Q: But this may be an inaccurate report...

A: It could well be an inaccurate report. We don't think we have the luxury of waiting to decide whether reports are accurate or inaccurate. Our job, and we work very hard. You've had briefings on background from senior intelligence officials; you had a briefing from Dr. Kaminski on this. We've worked extremely hard in this operation to get intelligence down to the lowest level as fast as possible. Part of that means that you don't spend three weeks deciding whether reports are accurate. If you get some information you think is useful, you get it down to the people who can act on it, and that's what we have tried to do, and we have succeeded in this case.

Q: I know this building likes to stay out of politics, but there are calls out there on the campaign trail now for use of the military to block off the borders.

A: I'm sorry, to do what?

Q: To block the borders... One proposal would be to replace the INS Border Patrol people with armed troops. You folks have expressed your views on those kinds of proposals in the past. Is there any change in the Pentagon's reluctance to do that kind of duty?

A: It would be sort of the ultimate mission creep, I guess, in a way, wouldn't it? (Laughter) Without commenting specifically on proposals that have been floated about the border... I don't think we need a new bureaucracy to deal with drug and border issues. I think we have government agencies that are very skillful at dealing with those challenges.

I think that there's been a huge improvement in monitoring the U.S. southern border over the last several years during the Clinton Administration. The number of illegals seized is way up, and you should check with the Justice Department about this, but I think also drug seizures are way up. So we are making considerable progress with our current agencies and trained personnel.

Q: Would something like that -- would this be considered a distraction from your prime duty of preparing to fight our wars?

A: The military operates under a very clear law called the Posse Comitatus law that keeps it out of domestic law enforcement operations except in very limited and clearly defined support functions. This has worked very well in the United States. I have no reason to believe we should change it. I don't think the Department believes we should change this. I think we feel strongly that there should be a separation between what the military does to protect the United States from foreign aggressors, from foreign threats on the one hand, and what domestic law enforcement agencies do to deal with internal issues.

Q: In the Defense Authorization Bill, apparently there was a sort of little notice -- or not much attention paid -- to a provision about missing service members which requires the Pentagon to do certain things to keep cases of missing service members active and to require periodic reviews of their cases.

Can you just tell us what the Department's position was on that particular provision?

A: The Department believes, and the Department has told Congress that this provision which, as you correctly point out, was included in the Defense Authorization Bill. We believe that this provision would hinder battlefield operations. The Department also has told Congress that it would prolong the anguish of family members of missing persons, and it would impose excessive financial and administrative burdens on the Defense Department. The senior military leaders have told Congress that they believe this provision is unnecessary.

Q: Similar to other provisions of the bill that the Administration doesn't agree with, will there be an attempt to seek legislative redress that...

A: I can't answer your question on that. We'll try to find out. There are many issues in this bill with which we disagree. We will be forced to accept some of them. Others, such as the HIV positive provision, we are attempting to change.

I want to point out, we succeeded in changing the most objectionable provisions in the bill between the time it was first vetoed and the time it was signed into law by President Clinton.

Q: Back on the F-14. In the (inaudible) accident report there were a lot of references by pilots, and I think some commanders to the engine being unforgiving. Has the Navy already determined at some point that the engine is not a problem on the F-14?

A: I don't want to comment on the results of any of the three most recent crash investigations because the investigations aren't complete. It's up to the Navy to comment on those when they're finished.

All pilots are trained to fly planes within the performance parameters of that particular plane. The performance parameters reflect the engine, they reflect the general design of the plane, the responsiveness of the controls, etc. But the specifics will come out when the Navy completes its investigations.

Q: All three of the planes in the most recent crashes have been based on the West Coast. Is there some difference in the training regimen that is followed by Pacific Air or the maintenance regimen on these airplanes that is being focused on?

A: The Navy does not believe the fact that these were stationed on the West Coast has any relevance to the crashes, but that's certainly one of the things that groups can look at when they have the time during a stand-down, to sit down and rack their brains for any sort of explanation, no matter how seemingly far-fetched, that might lead to a conclusion about why these crashes occurred.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I'm sorry, who's visit?

Q: The Secretary General. Do you have anything about...

A: The Secretary General of NATO?

Q: Anything about the (inaudible)?

A: I'm afraid I haven't gotten a report of the meetings, but I can tell you that, I think if you read the statement after the meeting at the White House yesterday, you would find many of the same provisions discussed here -- how the Bosnia operation is going is certainly high on the list; questions about NATO adaptation; NATO expansion; Partnership for Peace; for all issues. Another issue, clearly, would be the relationship of France to NATO. The broad menu of important NATO issues, all up for discussion.

Q: Again on the F-14s, can you simply tell us what you know about what happened this morning? What type of aircraft it was, what aircraft carrier it was attached to, what time this occurred? Whatever you might know about the crash.

A: The Navy will answer all those questions, but in short, it was an F-14A flying off the NIMITZ. Have you see the release they put out? I recommend you get a copy of that release and just ask them the answers to those questions. They'll give them to you. What they can't do right now, I don't believe they know enough to be able to say why the plane crashed at this stage.

Copies are available at the Navy News Desk.

Q: Some in Congress have criticized Secretary Perry's recent restructuring of the ballistic missile defense program, saying that it's, in fact, a cut or a reduction or a slow-down in the deployment of missile defenses, and it flouts the will of Congress. Can you comment on that?

A: Secretary Perry has made it clear many times in testimony to Congress and discussions with the press, discussions with the general public, that he has no higher obligation as Secretary of Defense than the protection of United States forces and United States territory. We believe the program we're working on addresses the threats we face in a timely and effective way.

Q: Does it violate the intent of Congress in terms of specific mandates of deployments...

A: In many ways it responds to congressional concerns about developing an effective theater ballistic missile defense program and eventually positioning ourselves to build a national missile defense program if we decide it's warranted. That's what the review is designed to do. It was a response to congressional concerns. It was a response to the desires of the military leadership to frame that program as part of our broader defense procurement obligations and challenges. It also was an effort to go back and look at the intelligence and the threats we face and to size the program to fit those threats. We think the review did all those things.

In terms of the specific dates and goals established in the Defense Authorization Bill, I think it's worth pointing out that there are a number of court cases and administrative conclusions that it's difficult for a Congress in this year to bind certain administrative actions into the future, particularly when those actions are dependent on future funding levels which have not yet been determined. Many of the goals laid out by Congress would require a level of funding in the future higher than we anticipate getting. If that changes, the schedule could change, but we think the program fits the threat as we see it now and as we see it evolving in the future.

Press: Thank you.

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