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DoD News Briefing, Thursday, June 3, 1999 - 5:35 p.m.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 03, 1999 5:35 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: Good evening.

The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and I have just finished a meeting with President Clinton. As you know, this was a previously-scheduled meeting that occurred against the backdrop of the diplomatic activity that was taking place in Belgrade.

As President Clinton said, we welcome a decision by the Serb Parliament to adopt a resolution that incorporates NATO's five conditions for ending this conflict and for bringing peace to Kosovo, but there are important details that remain to be worked out.

It's clear that NATO's determination and unity and steady application of air power has brought us to the point where we are now. NATO intends to continue the airstrikes until Milosevic and the government of Yugoslavia convincingly demonstrate that the fighting is over, that Serb forces are withdrawing, and that a NATO-led force can enter Kosovo to provide the security that the refugees need to return to their homes.

At this point not a single Serb soldier has withdrawn from Kosovo and we have to keep that in mind as we view the workings of today.

At the meeting with the President, the Chiefs reviewed the success of the air campaign to date. The air campaign is achieving the goals that NATO set. Air power has significantly weakened the threat posed by Yugoslavia's air defense system. It has severely damaged Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, and it's reduced the combat capacity of the military forces throughout Yugoslavia. American air crews have played a key role in NATO's campaign. The skill of our pilots, the precision of our weapons, the dedication of our people are qualities that the American people can truly be proud of.

We also reviewed the plans for deploying a peacekeeping force, KFOR, into Kosovo if peace is achieved. The United States is prepared to move its initial forces within days of a peace agreement.

The President briefly discussed other ground force options, but there were no decisions that were made.

Finally, we reviewed the general state of readiness of our forces. We have worldwide security interests, our forces are trained, they're ready, and they're able to meet those responsibilities.

I know that many of you may have questions about the diplomatic track, and I believe that Secretary Albright is going to be holding a briefing at the State Department in the next few minutes, directing her attention to the diplomatic avenues of proceeding.

Charlie?

Q: Mr. Secretary, could I ask, are you personally, in the Department, relieved that U.S. ground troops did not have to go into Kosovo, or apparently will not have to go into Kosovo in a non-permissive environment--possibly many being killed? And do you feel that NATO's been vindicated in pressing what has at times been a very unpopular and very controversial air war?

Secretary Cohen: I really think it's a question of trying to draw any lessons from this particular operation. What we are doing is--we're continuing our campaign. This air campaign is going to continue until such time as we see demonstrable evidence of an agreement being carried out. In other words, there must be a manifestation on the part of Milosevic that he intends to fully comply with the agreement itself. Until that takes place, we intend to continue the air campaign.

So that has been our objective--that continues to be our objective. What the President indicated today and previously, that NATO must be successful and will be successful, whatever it takes. So no options have been taken off the table by the President.

Q: What kind of formal arrangements must or will be made to keep you and NATO from bombing troops that are flowing out of Kosovo?

Secretary Cohen: There would have to be a military-to-military understanding; an agreement that had been basically worked out at the military level to satisfy us that Milosevic and his forces were in fact carrying out a departure pursuant to their agreement to fully withdraw from Kosovo. We would have to make that judgment at the appropriate time, that this in fact was a significant demonstration of their intent to fully comply. Then, of course, there could be--there would be no action taken that would in any way impede their full withdrawal. Until such time as we're satisfied that they fully intend to comply with the agreement, then the air campaign will continue.

Q: Will there be a military delegation going to Belgrade to work out the details?

Secretary Cohen: I don't know where the military delegation or representatives will go. I assume that that will take place within the next several days--that there will be a military-to-military relationship established at least for the purpose of going over the details and the mechanics and logistics of what would need to be worked out in the event that there is intent to fully comply with this.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the discussion--you talked about discussing with the President the use of ground troops. Can you tell us under what conditions ground troops would be sent in in a non-permissive environment; and would the United States be willing to do that, or is there opposition on the part of NATO? Tell us what you can, if you will.

Secretary Cohen: I should indicate that, for the most part, almost the entire discussion pertained to a review of the status of our forces -- their readiness, the levels of activity that they're engaged in across the spectrum -- and only a very few moments were actually devoted to a discussion of what ground options would be available. The President indicated at that time he would keep all options open, so there was very little discussion beyond that, other than a review of different types of approaches that could be taken. But I think the Chiefs are satisfied that the President was focused on the air campaign, continuing the air campaign, remaining cautious in the developments today, encouraged to say that this is a positive step, and, if it in fact is going to be completed by Milosevic and his government and carried out, then that certainly would be a welcome development.

But we devoted most of our time talking about the air campaign to date. The Chairman laid out in considerable detail the level of damage that has been done and what the impact has been upon the Serb forces and what the plans were for the future. So we had very little discussion about the...

Q: A follow-up please. Even those few moments, can you tell us under what conditions either the Joint Chiefs or the President agreed to send in ground forces.

Secretary Cohen: There were no decisions made at this meeting. This was not to be a decision meeting. It was, again, an effort on the part of the President to talk to the Joint Chiefs, to review the whole panoply of issues affecting our military and also to discuss in some detail what is taking place with the air campaign.

The President indicated NATO will succeed, whatever it takes. No option is off the table.

Q: Secretary Cohen, what are you doing at this point to prepare for peace? Are you moving any troops into position? Have you put any troops on a higher state of alert? And how are you going to get those troops in in the couple of days that you mentioned?

Secretary Cohen: I have been discussing this with General Clark and with the Chiefs and we are satisfied that NATO could move forces in in a very short period of time in order to start the KFOR or the Kosovo peace implementation force within a relatively short period of time.

We do have some 11,000 NATO forces that are currently in Macedonia; we do have a Marine Expeditionary Unit nearby. We have the elements, certainly, that could be put in place within a short period of time in the event that this agreement, as such, is reached, codified, and then steps taken to implement it.

Q: ...any Apache helicopters? Might that include...

Secretary Cohen: I'm sorry?

Q: Might that include the U.S. Army troops that are with the Apaches?

Secretary Cohen: We would have available whatever forces are necessary to help carry out the KFOR implementation plan.

Q: Mr. Secretary, will there be any adjustments to the bombing campaign? By that I mean, for example, avoid bombing Belgrade or anything to reflect the fact that Belgrade is moving toward peace?

Secretary Cohen: I would never discuss bombing operations or bombing plans. All I can tell you is that the bombing campaign will continue.

Q: What was the ambience today in your meeting with the Chiefs and the President? Is there some cause for joy that this agreement may turn out to be something that can lead to a full settlement?

Secretary Cohen: First of all, this is not a question of joy or sorrow. This is a question of persevering, staying the course, remaining cautious, being somewhat encouraged that there's a positive step that has been taken. But we, again, will exercise great caution on this. We don't want this to simply be an exercise in paper promises. There must be performance. So until such time as there is performance consistent with carrying out the agreement itself, then we intend to persevere and to carry on. That was the mood basically in the Cabinet room.

It was a very good discussion--a wide range of discussion--on all of the forces that we have, where they are deployed, what their OPTEMPO/PERSTEMPO is, and the impact upon readiness, and how much we have devoted to this particular operation. Those were basically the level of discussions that we engaged in.

Q: How will you verify the withdrawal of Serb forces? By aerial photography? By people on the ground? What are the nuts and bolts of doing it?

Secretary Cohen: I think we have sufficient assets that can verify whether they're going to be--whether there would be compliance with this agreement in moving substantial forces from the field, moving them out of Kosovo back into Serbia. I think we have that capability.

Q: One of the unknowns here is the KLA. They are pressing their attacks against Serb forces right now, making it more difficult, one would think, for Serb forces to turn around and leave.

Do you have any assurances from the KLA that they will stop fighting, number one, and actually disarm?

Secretary Cohen: We have every confidence that if the Serb government intends and takes steps to comply with the agreement, that the KLA, consistent with their agreement at Rambouillet, would in fact work to carry this out.

Q: Mr. Secretary, does this development change your schedule at all for next week vis-a-vis Congress, number one? And number two, are you doing anything specific about the Senate Appropriations Bill which requires a $3 billion cut, mostly in readiness accounts, for the fiscal 2000 defense budget?

Secretary Cohen: This will not change my schedule for next week. I intend to be available with a full schedule next week. If required, I will be conferring with my former colleagues in the Senate to see whether or not we can in fact restore any cuts that they propose to make.

Q: Regarding the KLA, why would the KLA give up territory that they now hold or that they may take as the Serb withdrawal begins? What would their motivation be given that they've said they want independence and that they no longer are going to go along with the Rambouillet agreement?

Secretary Cohen: The motivation would be that there would be a period of peace, stability, and hopefully one day a return of some level of prosperity to the region in which they and their fellow Albanians, ethnic Albanians, would participate in.

We think that peace, the opportunity for peace, under these circumstances is something that should be and will be attractive to them.

The fact is that that land has been torn in many ways over the last several years, and as a result of the activities on the part of the Serbs there has been a devastation of certainly the economy, a devastation of their homes, the expelling of almost a million people, turning them into refugees, internally displaced persons. We think that under the circumstances if the refugees can go back home, if their homes can be rebuilt, if there's a commitment for a Balkan strategy, as such, economic strategy, a rebuilding of that region in a comprehensive way, that they can share in that rebuilding, and that should be quite attractive to them.

Q: Rambouillet calls for the KLA to disarm. Do you expect that they will actually do that now, or will it be something less than disarmed, like demilitarize? What's the deal between those...

Secretary Cohen: The agreement would call for, as it's spelled out, would call for the disarming of the KLA. That's what they signed up to in Rambouillet, and we would expect the same.

Q: You mentioned that the Chairman went into considerable detail today detailing the destruction meted out to the Serb army. Can you give us a couple of areas where you feel you've made the most progress in either disrupting, degrading, or possibly destroying the Serb army?

Secretary Cohen: I'll leave it to the Chairman to go through that in some detail. I think that it was perhaps the most comprehensive presentation we've had to date in terms of each of the areas, looking at the ammunition production capability, looking at the number of MiGs. For example, MiG-29s that have been destroyed--I think they have only three left. Looking at the destruction of the MiG-21 force. Looking at the day-by-day intensification of the campaign and what it's doing to the forces in the field -- how many tanks, how many artillery pieces. And each day that the weather has cleared and we have intensified the air campaign to the point where we have aircraft coming from 360 degrees on a 24-hour basis. He laid out exactly what the consequences have been to Milosevic's military -- the forces in the field as well as the production capability for the infrastructure for his military. I thought it was the most comprehensive presentation we've seen in a very short period of time. I'm sure that the Chairman will be happy to share that at some point, but time was running out today, but I think...

Q: (inaudible)

Secretary Cohen: We didn't get into casualty estimates specifically. There have been a number of reports about that. But we have no way of verifying that at this point so we didn't get into casualty estimates. But what we have seen in terms of the ability of our Air Force to go after those forces in the field has substantially increased and intensified in the last few days and weeks. And looking at the weather pattern, it was only going to continue in that fashion. So the amount of damage being done on the ground to those forces in the field is increasing each day.

Q: Critics have said since the beginning of this campaign that air power alone could not accomplish NATO's goals. If this negotiated settlement or peace agreement turns out to be for real, will those critics have been proven wrong?

Secretary Cohen: Again, I don't think it's a question of trying to prove critics right or wrong. What we set out to do was clear from the beginning, to try to engage in diplomacy, to prevent Milosevic from carrying out his campaign of ethnic cleansing. Failing that, to try and deter his forces from doing that. If that were not sufficient, then we would seriously diminish and damage his military capabilities. That is what the military objective has been.

We laid out the political objectives, obviously the five key components of the NATO demands, and to the extent that they are met, then we would say that we have been successful in achieving our objectives as far as getting the refugees back into their homes, getting a stable environment, a secure environment, and to get a level of autonomy granted to the Kosovars that they have been deprived of for some years now.

Q: What kind of arrangements have been made with the Russians in terms of command and control? Will Russian forces be subordinate to NATO forces in any kind of peacekeeping force?

Secretary Cohen: I don't believe there have been any arrangements made as far as Russian participation. We have indicated in the past that we would welcome Russian participation as far as a component of the peacekeeping force, much as they have in Bosnia. But there's been no arrangement made with the Russians. That was not a pre-condition for this particular agreement.

We hope that they will participate. We hope it can be achieved on the same grounds that we have, or something similar to what we have in Bosnia, but there must be a unified command structure and it must be NATO at the core of that structure. That's what we insist upon.

Q: In your opinion, what affect did the specter of a ground invasion that we all talked about yesterday and wrote about, have on Yugoslavia's seemingly very quick acceptance today of a peace agreement?

Secretary Cohen: I really can't speculate on what impact any speculation in the press may have been about our efforts there. That's something that only Mr. Milosevic and his colleagues can make a statement about. But we didn't try to calculate what his reaction would be to any given course of action. What we said was, this is our campaign, this is what we intend to do, and we intend to carry that out and stay the course. That's all we have said. We haven't tried to calculate or fathom what their intentions are or have been or might have been. We leave that to them.

Press: Thank you.