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Transcript : DoD News Briefing : Lt. Gen. Howell M. Estes, Director of Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Presenters: Lt. Gen. Howell M. Estes, Director of Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff
February 23, 1996 12:45 PM EDT

Thursday, February 22, 1996 - 12:45 p.m.

[This is a special briefing providing an update on U.S. operations in Bosnia. Also participating is Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)]

Mr. Bacon: We have a two-part briefing. General Howell Estes, the

J-3, will open up with some comments about the progress in our Bosnian operation and take some questions and then I'll take questions on other topics. General Estes.

Gen. Estes: Well, I thought it might be useful to come down and talk for a few minutes about the current state of play in Bosnia in terms of the U.S. forces and the deployments that we've been talking about over the last 60 days or so. And, I told you I would come back and give a report when the deployments were complete and that's what I'm here to do, today.

Again, this is the standard chart I've been showing you all along that depicts the major events that are from the Dayton Agreement and, of course, I've highlighted a couple of times to you that the key deployment dates were here -- in terms of the need for forces. This -- is when the separation of forces was to take place. And, here -- which is when the area to be transferred from one warring faction to the other were to be vacated. And, those were the two key drivers for forces from the IFOR. And, so, the structure of our deployments, of course, were related to those two key dates in terms of the Dayton peace agreement.

And, the four you see of the major units across the bottom here, in fact, shows you what was on time, as far as we are concerned, what might have been a little late, but not a major problem, and then, fortunately, we had none that we called critical delays. Nothing shown in red.

Just again, to review the bidding and where we've been with the first forces that went in, we called them enabling forces and support forces that set up the structure to allow the main body force to flow in. Some initial problems because of weather in getting those forces in. Recall we were primarily, in fact, totally independent on air bridges at that time, movement by air. We had no land routes in and that was the primary job of this particular line, to construct what turned out to be two bridges across the Sava River.

The first bridge on time, as far as we were concerned. Second bridge, a little late, but not a big concern and, in fact, we had reoriented some of our engineers after the first bridge was up to go in to work on base camps for the forces that had already deployed into Bosnia so that the places, the quality of life for the soldiers that were deploying in could be improved. The local commanders made the decision that one bridge was adequate to continue the flow. They wanted to get the second one up eventually, though, so it came up toward the 19th of January so that we could have two-way flow across the Sava River.

The main bodies of the deployment, of course, involve the -- from the 1st Armored Division were the first and second brigades. These were the two sizable units that were charged with carrying out the tasks that IFOR had at those two particular dates. And, then, the last piece was the sustainment for these two brigades. The last elements of these two combat elements deployed in on the dates you see here. Late again, a little bit for weather here, but didn't cause us any problems and, in fact, you can see the dates in which the two brigades closed -- about the middle of February.

The sustainment force itself closed out last Saturday, the 18th of February, and the last air deployment sortie was on the 9th of February -- that's not to say the last sortie for air was on the 9th -- the last "deployment sortie." Now, we're doing what we call "sustainment," which is the reinforcement and replenishment of the forces that are already there.

So, from our perspective, from General Joulwan in his CINCEUR hat's perspective, General Crouch, the USAEUR commander -- the U.S. Army in Europe commander -- the deployment is complete. And, now, we are in the process of sustaining the force.

Let's go to the next slide for a minute. It's useful now to talk a little bit about some of the numbers -- where they are now -- and talk about those in relation to what we've been talking about all along. Recall that from the start, I've been telling you that we were looking at: about 20,000 in Bosnia; about 5,000 in Croatia; and 7,000 in the "rim countries," which make up -- are made up of both Hungary and Italy.

Now, this is the track since the first of January for Bosnia, and shows our troop build-up toward the 20,000 cap, as we call it, and it's approximately 20,000. Twenty thousand is not a hard number, but it's about where we thought we'd top out. It's the number the President's used many times. It's the number the Secretary and Chairman have used in testimony, and myself as well.

You can see where we are now. It went up to about -- it's at 18,400, as of today. It was up to about 19,300 or 19,400, in the last couple of days. And, I'll talk about why it's taken a little bit of a downswing in just a minute. But, that flow line, again, allowed us to have the force there that was required to do the job and all of that went as programmed -- and as planned, I should say.

Now, let me talk about 20,000 versus the 18,400 you see there now and why the number has come down a little bit. The plan always has been, from the start, that one of the light infantry battalions that is there -- called "the 3 of the 325th" -- would come out once its job was complete. Recall, it was the first combat unit deployed in. Its job was to provide security at Tuzla airfield for the rest of the deployments as they came in by air, and the plan was always once that mission was complete -- and the main body deployed -- to re-deploy that unit back to Italy. And so, that re-deployment as started and that's why you see those numbers coming down.

The other reason you see the number coming down slightly is that the Air Force deployed Red Horse units in -- and Red Horse are basically combat engineers, civil engineers, that did a lot of the base camp construction.... Their part of the base camp construction is complete and so they have left, as well. And so, we're going to see this fluctuation at around the 18,500 to 19,000-level, I think, from now until the IFOR mission is complete. As I've said before, General Nash has all the forces there he requires -- sufficient force, more than sufficient, really. He's got everything he's asked for to get the job done and that's where the number ends up. So, we're pleased to see that it all worked out as advertised.

In Croatia, you see we have -- what we said was we didn't want to sustain force-level of more than 5,000 in Croatia. And, you can see we're down to about 2,000 now. We've had some fluctuations there, because all the forces that deployed to Bosnia passed through Croatia and we counted them when they were there. We never intended the sustainment base to be above 5,000 and, in fact, we'll probably find it will settle out at about the level it is now, maybe slightly lower than that as a forward support location right at the bridging site where the pontoon bridges are in Zupanja.

In the "rim countries," you can see here that since the 5th of January -- which is where this chart starts -- we were up at about 8,000. Again, the 7,000 number for Italy and Hungary was the steady state number. We fully expected there to be fluctuations above as the forces deployed in. Because, again, all the forces flowed out of Germany, through that support base in Hungary, as they went into Bosnia. And, so we knew there would be a build-up well above the normal sustainment level as the forces flowed through. And, that's why you see a period of time here where they had up a little over 9,000 a couple of times as forces deployed down into Bosnia.

They're now below the 5,000 level. Actually, at about the 5,000 level, as you can see, and well below the 7,000 limit that we really want to maintain steady state. That will probably stay in that ballpark -- around the 5,000 level -- because, again, that's going to remain the forward support location for all our forces that are in Bosnia and it will also serve as a training location for forces as they rotate out for training periods to use some of the ranges in Hungary to keep their skills up in terms of the kinds of things that they do with Bradley's and M-1 tanks. And so, we'll be rotating forces out occasionally, to let them go onto some of the training ranges in Hungary and maintain their combat skills, while they're also serving in this very important peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. It will also give a chance for the troops to get a little bit of a break as they come out. They will do three or four days of training and spend two or three days cleaning equipment, relaxing a little bit where they're not having to pull guard duty, be out on patrol, and then go back down into Bosnia. So, the primary purpose is training, but they'll also get a little bit of a break and a little bit of a relaxing, a more relaxed mode than they would face in Bosnia.

So, that's where we are now. If this changes substantially, I'll come back and talk to you. Recall, that we've told you that if there is a force protection issue raised by event driven in Bosnia and the commanders come back and say they need more force for force protection, we will obviously do what's necessary to ensure that adequate forces are there to ensure the safety of the U.S. forces that are serving in Bosnia.

We don't expect that to happen. In fact, we've seen the opposite. We've seen it fairly quiet -- especially in the two areas we talked about: separation of forces; and the vacation of territories to be transferred. The one exception is Sarajevo, in the French sector. That's an IFOR issue. It does not directly impact on what we're talking about here, but in terms of the overall issue, for IFOR, it's an important area.

I think that's all I'm going to say to this. I think there really is -- we're really one other thing I would mention and that is there is a plan to reduce the size of the air commitment that's being made to the IFOR. Again, now that the force is there. It came in with a lot of its own equipment to provide for its own defense. We had a fairly robust air piece, associated with IFOR, stationed back in Italy. And, the IFOR commander has come to his commander at SHAPE -- the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe -- and said we can reduce the force. We need to keep it on recall, but we don't see any reason to sustain the size of the air force commitment we have now from the various nations. And so, the U.S. piece of that is being reduced and some of the fighters that have been down at Aviano will be returning to their bases in the main part or central part of Europe and there are a few other aircraft that came from the United States, most of them -- none of them fighters, I take that back. There were a few F-18Ds from the Marine Corps that went over, that will be coming back, but the others and they are very small numbers will be coming back are primarily support type aircraft or special forces aircraft.

So, all of that is going to happen now. We've got the authority now to bring those aircraft out, as of this morning, and so you'll see the air piece of IFOR reducing in size a little bit, but on quick response if they need to be called back because the situation so dictates.

OK. With that, I'm ready to take your questions.

Q: On the question of force protection, does the U.S. have any information to lead it to believe that Bosnian-Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, has ordered either attacks or abduction of U.S. military or IFOR forces?

A: Now, Jamie, we've seen the same reports you have that talk to this happening about a week ago. We've seen actually no evidence that that is taking place. In fact, as you would expect, because of the heightened state of alert that all the forces are in, as they try to settle in and get things arranged, they've been on the lookout for this sort of thing from the start. And, the fact that General Mladic is reported to have made that statement is something that we've known about for over a week. You all have known about it because its been reported over a week ago. But, we've seen no evidence.... I've see no evidence in any of the reports that there is any indication that that's going to happen.

Now, clearly, the U.S. forces that are there as part of a IFOR, as well as I'm sure all the other forces, are taking this seriously and are being sure they're taking precautions to make sure this doesn't happen. But, we've seen no evidence, yet, in any report I have seen that there is anything that's even remotely related to that sort of a thing that's happened so far.

Q: Given that you're already in apparently a high state of awareness, were there any additional actions taken other than just telling the troops to be more aware?

A: My understanding is that there were no specific actions taken although I may have -- I probably have got that wrong, Jamie, to tell you the truth. As I'm thinking here, as I'm speaking, there were some things done to be sure we didn't send small patrols out. In other words, if you're going to go out, go out in larger groups. I mean, that kind of thing, as I recall, was one direct outcome of what happened last week. The kinds of things you think would make sense are the kinds of things that were directed. But, by and large, the status that the forces were in was adequate to meet the tasks of this latest incident, or this latest report, we had last week.

Q: Is there a minimum patrol size that you don't go out with -- "X" number of vehicles or people?

A: Well, you know, four to five vehicles, I think, is the ballpark of what they're looking at. But, again, this is an issue that General Nash is going to be dealing with on a day-to-day basis and he's the one making the call and I'm really not in a position here, one, to talk about what he's directing his forces to do in IFOR; and two, to make a guess on what his plans are because he's the guy on the scene.

But, my guess is, from what I've heard over the last week or so, that clearly, we're being careful not to send small groups of people off and traveling in a little larger groups as that's the common sense thing you think would happen.

Q: The last time you spoke to us, or maybe the time before that, you talked about replacing the bridges at Zupanja with something more permanent. Is there any progress on that?

A: Yeah, in fact, there has been progress and I think it's been reported by IFOR that the bridge at Brcko is going to be fixed. There is funding being sought for that through NATO channels. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, its already been found and it's a matter of getting the materials there, and reports are that within a few weeks after the materials arrive, they'll have the bridge in operation. So, this will be the first permanent bridge -- that's been repaired -- across the Sava River.

Q: Would that allow you to pull out the other bridges?

A: Yeah, I think the plan -- I mean, we may leave the other bridges up as long as they're useful to use, and as long as the river conditions allow us to leave them up, because then it gives us two routes. But, clearly, this permanent bridge, this one permanent bridge, the objective of it was that if, in fact, as the spring thaw occurs the river starts to rise, the bridges become more difficult to maintain in terms of the two pontoon bridges that are across that this permanent bridge would be able to do what we're doing with the two pontoon bridges now.

Q: I believe I know the answer to this, but the Navy has grounded all their F-14s. Did that effect, in any way, operations in and around Bosnia?

A: It doesn't because we, in fact, do have an aircraft carrier -- the GEORGE WASHINGTON is in the Adriatic at the moment. It has F-14s on board. But, as of this morning, the aircraft that were on that carrier that were being used in the Bosnia operation have been released back to U.S. control. And so, the aircraft carrier -- while it would be on recall and there if needed -- is not directly involved in the operations in Bosnia any longer as of this morning.

Q: So, because of the downsizing of the air assets, the F-14s are no longer part of IFOR and they have been released back to U.S. control.

A: My recollection is that we -- and I've got to go back and look at my notes and I'll correct this if I'm going to tell you wrong, now -- but my recollection is the aircraft that were off the GW -- the GEORGE WASHINGTON -- were F/A-18s and not F-14s that were committed in support of Bosnia. If I'm wrong on that, I'll come back and correct it.

But, the point I'm trying to make is that the aircraft that were on the GW that were supporting the area of the Bosnian operation, as of this morning, NATO has released them as a part of this downsizing of the overall air activity from the IFOR perspective.

Q: Can you just give us kind of a number, an idea of how much smaller the air assets will be now?

A: I mean, I could make a guess. I didn't count them, unfortunately. Why don't I get that information to you, so I can give you an accurate picture. If I told you a number, I'd be totally guessing and I know generally the kinds of airplanes that came out from the U.S. side, but I didn't look carefully at what the other NATO countries were -- what assets from other NATO countries were released and what that is in relation to the total. So, let me come back to you with an answer to that after the press conference.

Q: General Estes, this morning, Secretary Perry indicated that IFOR was continuing to maintain surveillance on places where Iranian fighters may be located in Bosnia. Can you give us any idea of the scope of that? I mean, are there others suspected training camps? Can you assess that threat for us?

A: Well, again, you recall we've always said from the start that the problems we had in Bosnia were related to three things. One, were rogue elements. You could include the kinds of things you're talking about in the rogue elements piece -- the terrorists activities; mines; and then, we said, the sort of "non-combat" related things -- just driving accidents and things of that kind.

Fortunately, to this date, the real issue has been with the mines and it hasn't been to the level that some of us expected it to be. While it's a serious problem and anytime we had any type of an injury, it demands attention and, of course, as the Secretary has talked to you and I've talked to you a couple of times, lots of effort is being done to address the mine issue. It was before we went and continued emphasis on that area.

In relation to this rogue element issue that you're raising, Jamie, I guess it's an IFOR issue. We've got to remember that the Dayton peace agreement charged the former warring factions with eliminating foreign forces from their territory. So this is not an IFOR task. This is a foreign forces -- a former warring factions task. And, in the case of the camps that you're talking about, they reside in the Bosnian -- in the Federation territories, and it's up to the Federation -- and, for most of these camps, the Bosnians -- to ensure that they are removed. And, they are aggressively pursuing this as was an issue that was talked about in Italy this past weekend. And, the Bosnians, again, recommitted to elimination of these camps from their territory. And, all I can tell you is that we're continuing to watch the situation and the burden rests on the Bosnians to follow through with their commitment.

Q: Secretary Holbrooke is quoted as saying that there are four to eight other suspected camps. Is that right?

A: Well, I can't comment on what Secretary Holbrooke said, last night. I did hear him make the same statement. Again, I think this is an IFOR issue. How many camps there are? Whether there's three or eight or six. I mean, it would be interesting to know. But, the fact of the matter is, the responsibility rests with them to eliminate whatever camps there are -- they've committed to do that as, again, as recently as the negotiations this past weekend and we'll just watch and be sure that, in fact, that happens.

It's important that we -- the responsibility, as far as Dayton's concerned, rests with them, not with IFOR, on this issue.

Q: Back to the stand down of the F-14s. Has that affected any other contingency operations, say SOUTHERN WATCH, or any of those?

A: I think and I don't mean to pass this to Mr. Bacon. But, I think he's going to address that. I really am here to talk Bosnia. But, let me just say, I mean, as a flyer, I might just add one thought. We go through these things with fighter aircraft. That's a very complicated piece of machinery. I don't care what service is flying them and things happen sometimes with them. And, I'm not here to prejudge. Obviously, that's what accident boards are to do. And, we've go to be very careful. It's obviously a concern when you have a series of accidents. It's not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last, I can assure you. Whatever service has this happen to them is doing everything it can to get to the bottom of the issue. The Navy, this morning, has elected to stand down its F-14s for a period of 72 hours, and that's a choice that the Navy has made. Obviously, we have carriers out doing things that have F-14s on them and it will not limit their ability to do the kinds of things they are doing now. If, in fact, we had a contingency operation, which required us to move those assets, though, there's no doubt in my mind we'd put them back in the air. That would be, again, a decision the Navy would make. But, history would say that's what we would do unless we thought we had a really severe problem in which asking the pilots to go up and fly them would, in fact, risk their lives.

But, if you have a contingency, you do what needs to be done. But, it's a smart thing to do. You know, when we these things happen, we step back for a minute, take a look, assess, make sure we're looking at all the bits and pieces of the issue, and then try to make a concerted judgment about how to proceed in a given direction to improve. We don't like to see accidents, but having been a fighter pilot myself for the vast majority of my life and seen what happens with these aircraft and flown them all over the world, this is a dangerous business. It's an important job, but it's high risk, but it's also a very high pay-off and that's why we do it.

Q: I have a question about the Mladic report. How firm was that report -- that he actually gave this order?

A: Well, you're asking the wrong person that. I mean, I see the reports like you do and it was a report that came through the system. What it's based on, what the foundation is, where it was said, you're talking to the wrong person. I don't know the source.

Q: There were reports out of Europe -- and, I guess specifically, out of The Telegraph in London -- that IFOR forces had come within a whisker of confronting Karadzic, yesterday in Pale. Is there any indication that's true? And, if so, what are IFOR forces suppose to do in that case?

A: Well, I think -- I can't tell you if it was true or not.... But, I'll tell you what the rules are. The rules are very clear. Again, IFOR is in the business of carrying out the tasks set out by the Dayton peace agreement. If, in carrying out those tasks, they happen to be confronted by an alleged war criminal then they are to detain the war criminal. And, it's as simple as that. It's not more complex. There's nothing in the IFOR task that authorizes them nor directs them to seek out the war criminals. And so, if, in fact, they are doing their IFOR tasks and they come upon a war criminal -- an identified or alleged war criminal -- then they are to detain them and take the proper action to turn them over to proper authorities. That's the IFOR task.

Q: With the understanding you can't confirm this report, though, what about a situation where the alleged war criminal is surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards?

A: Well again, this is an assessment that the commander on the scene has to make. He's not going to put his -- if he doesn't have sufficient force and he's confronting a force in which he tries to take action, he looses his own force, no commander is going to put his force at risk. He's going to withdraw, assemble a large enough force and do whatever he needs to do. I can't tell you what might happen if that situation unfolds, because I don't know what the situation will be. But, I will tell you that it would be -- it wouldn't make any sense for somebody, if he had his force at risk -- had a small force there, confronted a large force, he's not going to loose peoples lives over this and he would have to take other action.

Q: General, how do you expect to anticipate the role of IFOR soldiers to change this spring, when large numbers of refugees that are expected to move?

A: I don't expect the IFOR role to change and I say that because, what we hope happens now and what we're -- we're into the business now where we're getting through sort of all the major pieces of the military part of establishing the general security in the area so that the civilian tasks can be implemented. And, hopefully, as those civilian tasks are implemented, as we get further into the spring, that will assist in the creation of conditions which will help with this movement of the refugees that you're addressing.

But, again, you go back and look at the tasks that IFOR has, and I know some people are saying you know you get this both ways: some people say well, you ought to be doing things along those lines to help with the situation; on the other hand, people say watch out for mission creep. I mean, the tasks are very clear. There was never any intent of IFOR to work the refugee problem per se. But, rather to create conditions which would promote the civilian tasks to be implemented that would be able to deal with that issue. And so, that's where are now and I think that's where it will stay.

I've got time for one more. Does anybody else have one? Mark?

Q: What's the status of the construction of those 13 base camps?

A: It's actually 23 and I think it's actually 24 -- there's one going in at Slavonski Brod, in Croatia. So, 23 of them are going into Bosnia. And, as I recall, we have 12 complete now and the other 11 are under construction. That's in Bosnia itself. That's 23 camps. So, 12 are complete. Eleven, still under construction.

Press: Thank you. Gen. Estes: OK. Thanks.