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DOD News Briefing with Vice Adm. Gortney from the Pentagon on Libya Operation Odyssey Dawn

Presenters: Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, Director of The Joint Staff
March 24, 2011

[Go to http://www.defense.gov/news/d20110324pptslides.pdf to view briefing slides associated with this transcript.]

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for being here today.   

            And let’s get right to it.  Bring up the first slide, please. 

            On the slide to my left, you will -- you will see a quick snapshot of what we have been doing the last day or so.  And I’d like to just point out that the data I’m going to provide is as of noon Eastern Standard Time today.   

            As you can see, the coalition, naval and Air Forces have been busy striking fixed targets and some of Colonel Gadhafi’s maneuver forces along the coastline and near the cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Ajdabiya.   

            Ships and subs at sea have launched another 14 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets ashore and hitting an integrated air defense site near Sebha in the south and a Scud missile garrison near Tripoli. 

            We flew a total of 130 coalition sorties, 49 of which were strike-related, meaning they were designed to hit a designated target. Of those total sorties, roughly half were flown by pilots from partner nations.  In fact, nearly all, some 75 percent of the combat air patrol missions in support of the no-fly zone, are now being executed by our coalition partners.  On Sunday, that figure was less than 10 percent. 

            Next slide, please. 

            Here is a good depiction of what the no-fly zone looks like right now.  You can see we’ve got essentially seven patrol stations over the Mediterranean from which the aircraft staged themselves before being called to enforce the U.N. mandate. 

            Some of these missions are what we call defensive combat air. You can see the patrol stations for these missions depicted in blue. These are missions designed solely to keep the airspace free of Libyan combat aircraft, and all of these missions are now being flown by our partner nation pilots. 

            The other patrol stations, depicted in red, are designed for interdiction missions, meaning these strikes conduct -- are conducted at ground targets, either fixed or moving.  The United States is flying about half of all of these missions. 

            You can also see the no-fly zone as it exists today, running coast to coast across the northern part of the country and extending further south.  As I mentioned before, one of the airstrikes we conducted last night took out some SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missile sites down in Sebha. 

            You can also get a sense here of the international contributions to the no-fly zone mission.  More than 350 aircraft are involved in some capacity, either enforcing the no-fly zone or protecting the civilian populace.  Only slightly more than half belong to the United States. 

            It’s fair to say that the coalition is growing in both size and capability every day.  Today there are nine other contributing nations, to include Qatar, and thousands of coalition military personnel involved in this effort.  They’re deployed across Europe and on the Mediterranean at bases ashore and on any of one of the 38 ships at sea. 

            Next slide, please. 

            You can see here a quick view of the maritime laydown, with most ships operating just to the north of Libya.  These are, of course, notional positions as the ships are moving about, but it gives you a sense of the size and scope of the naval effort being expended by the -- by the coalition.  Twenty-six of these ships are being contributed by partner nations today, up from 22 on Sunday, and the United States has a total of 12.  I’d note that the presence of two aircraft carriers, France’s Charles De Gaulle and Italy’s Garibaldi, both of which have combat aircraft that embark. 

            So where does that leave us today?  Well, the focus right now is on several things.  We continue to patrol the no-fly zone, and as I said, we are looking to further strengthen it with more aircraft on- station and more terrain covered. 

            We’ve continued to strike the regime’s integrated air defense capabilities as well as command-and-control facilities, logistics nodes and ammunition supplies.  We are vigorously planning to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance by interested governments and nongovernmental agencies.  And we will continue to conduct coordinated attacks on regime ground forces that threaten the lives of the Libyan people. 

            And let me be clear because I think there’s still some confusion out there:  when and where regime forces threaten the lives of their own citizens, they will be attacked.  And when and where regime forces fly combat aircraft or fire at coalition aircraft, they will be attacked.  And when and where regime forces attempt to break the embargo, they will be stopped. 

            Our message to the regime troops is simple:  stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Gadhafi. To the degree that you defy these demands, we will continue to hit you and make it more difficult for you to keep going. 

            Lastly, let me just address the issue of transition.  We are working very hard on the military side to be ready to hand over the lead of this operation to a coalition command structure as early as this weekend.  As Secretary Gates said, this is a complicated process and, to some degree, it’s being done on the fly, but I think that just speaks to the speed at which everything has happened over the last few days. 

            We ought to remember that it was only last Thursday evening when the U.N. voted the resolution into effect, and only last Saturday afternoon Eastern Standard Time when the strikes began.  By Sunday, the no-fly zone was effectively in place, and since that time, there has been next to no combat sorties flown by the regime, next to no effective air defense mounted, and no reports of civilian casualties caused by coalition forces.  Indeed, the only civilian casualties we know are for certain are the ones that the Libyan government itself has caused. 

            Next slide, please. 

            Now, this slide shows the disposition of forces prior to coalition intervention on Saturday afternoon Eastern Standard Time. As you can see, the opposition was isolated and under regime attack in Zawiyah, Misrata  and Benghazi; and the regime was pressing its advantage in heavy weapons and ground-attack aircraft to move into Benghazi, not only to recapture the city but also to remove the opposition’s transitional council.  Despite the subsequent declarations of ceasefire by Gadhafi on Monday and Tuesday, regime forces secured Zawiyah, continued attacks against Misrata and initiated attacks against the people in -- people in Zentan. 

            Next slide, please. 

            Today coalition military operations have rendered the Libyan air and defense forces ineffective and forced the regime to withdraw from Benghazi to Ajdabiya.  That said, regime operations in and around Misrata  and Zentan have not halted.  We will continue to apply the pressure we can through strikes on their logistics, command, communication and weapons capabilities to compel them to stop killing their own people. 

            No one in the U.S. military is underestimating the challenge here. Even as we transition the lead of this effort to a different command structure, we will continue to provide our partners the enabling capabilities they need to enforce the U.N. mandate.  

            And at this time, I’d like to take your questions. 

            STAFF:  Richard? 

            Q:  Admiral, you mentioned next to no combat sorties.  Aside from the aircraft -- you -- I think you said there have been next to no combat sorties by the Libyans, by Gadhafi forces.  Aside from the aircraft that was shot down by the French, have there been any other aircraft detected? 

            And also, you went over where -- some areas where, very quickly, where the Gadhafi forces are attacking.  Can you go over that in a little bit more detail, and any other areas where attacks are increasing or decreasing? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Well, it’s -- first off, let’s talk about the combat air forces.  The reason I chose the language that I did is, it’s -- I don’t want to imply that we’ve been 100 percent effective, but they are not effective at all.  I don’t -- we have not detected them flying.  That does not mean that they haven’t been flying.  We just have not detected them flying. 

            And we’re continuing 24 hours a day airborne early warning, 75 percent provided by the coalition.  So I’m fairly confident that if they were flying, we would have detected it.  But that said, nothing is -- nothing is a certain. 

            As to where they are fighting, the key area, as we’ve mentioned, is Zentan, around Zentan, Misrata , and of course Ajdabiya.  And it’s in those particular areas where we’re working from around the city to go after the C-2 architecture that’s around there, their logistics, their ammo depots, to put pressure upon those forces inside the city itself.  But we are not attacking -- we are not striking inside the city. 

            Q:  Admiral, one of your first charts was a layout of where your coalition aircraft are flying from before they go to their air patrols or to strike targets. 

            Can you talk us through what a typical sortie has looked like for you? How long are your aircraft spending in the air?  How many times are they tanking?  And just what kind of wear and tear is this taking on the air power involved here? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  OK, let’s go to slide three, please. 

            The aircraft are launching from many bases around Europe and from the two aircraft carriers, as well as our amphibious ship, the Kearsarge.  Where they’re launching from, we’re leaving those nations to announce for it.  They’ll be refueling on the way there, and then they will take station on -- on the cap stations that are annotated on the slide. 

            From there, if they’re in the defensive combat air mission, they’ll stay there waiting tasking from the airborne -- AWACS aircraft, the early-warning aircraft; probably tank one or two times while they’re on station, always maintaining airplanes.  While one cap station would be tanking, they’ll keep somebody that has enough gas to prosecute to push inland if they’re needed to and then probably tank on their return home.  I would say the missions are on the order of five to six hours in length, depending upon where the airplanes are taking off from.   

            Q:  Could you explain, after the coalition take -- the coalition partner takes the lead, can you give us any sense of what the level of participation will be by the United States -- (inaudible)? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  The -- it depends on the type of participation. Our guidance is very clear.  We are going to give up the command position, as we said from the very beginning, help enable the command and control, but give up the command positions and be participants in that process but not in command.   

            And then we’re going to continue to provide predominantly those capabilities that we have that are unique that enable the operations, as well as additional capacity that the coalition may not have that we do bring to the fight.  An example would be tankers, some of our ISR platforms.  And I would anticipate that we would continue to provide some of the interdiction strike packages as well, should that be needed by the coalition. 

            Q:  And last -- one last question.  We’ve been asking this question for days now about communications, official or otherwise, with rebel forces on the ground, between the U.S. and rebel forces on the ground.  Could you answer in English about what the level is right now of that communication? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We’re not communicating with the coalition on the ground. 

            Q:  (Inaudible). 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  At the -- at the -- we’re not -- I misspoke. We’re not communicating with the opposition forces on the ground, mil- to-mil communications with the opposition forces on the ground.  We see the same reporting in the diplomatic channels, but when it comes to the coalition -- I mean, the opposition military forces and our military forces, we are not communicating. 

            STAFF:  Mik. 

            Q:  Admiral, over the past four or five days, the average number of American sorties, overall sorties, has been about 70 percent per day.  It looks like, according to what we’re hearing through diplomatic channels, that the passage of command could occur as early as tomorrow, maybe Saturday.  Does that mean tomorrow or Saturday suddenly that percentage of American sorties is going to drop to 20 [percent], 10 [percent]?  What does that -- what’s going to happen when that change of command -- or is it going to be in a fragmented drop -- 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Phased. 

            Q:  -- a phased drop?   

            ADM. GORTNEY:  I -- because the details are still ongoing of what the command structure will be and what it will look like, and because of the nature of the -- as more coalition partners join and bring capability and come -- and come to bear, like Qatar, they will be supporting missions here in the next couple of days as they’re ready -- bedded down and ready to get on the air tasking order. 

            I would see it being phased over time.  And the slope of that phase is -- needs to be worked -- we still need to do some more work on it. 

            Q:  So do you think it could take two weeks, three weeks, a month?  Any idea at all? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  I would not hazard to guess that at this particular point, sir, but I think we’ll have more clarity on that as the days progress. 

            Q:  And just one follow-up.  The French say they shot a Libyan warplane -- destroyed a Libyan -- after it has landed at Misrata . Does the coalition, the U.S., have any idea where that plane came from, where it had been, if it was even in the air? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We don’t have any of those details just yet.  We have not received from the French, the pilots, the air crews, mission reports yet.  So we’re waiting for that information to get more of those details. 

            STAFF:  Tony. 

            Q:  Sir, can you -- can you shed a little more light on the air- to-ground activity?  It seems like you’re not actually attacking vehicles, artillery or rockets; you’re going after command-and-control and fuel.  Can you let -- give the public a sense of what actually -- are you pounding the heck out of their vehicles, tanks? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  When it comes to the fielded forces, those fielded forces that we can positively identify as a fielded force, as a tank, as an armored personnel carrier, as a treaded rocket launcher, that has the -- that the air crew are able to make a collateral damage estimate that does not put any of the people we are trying to protect at risk, then we are taking those targets under attack as well as the -- any command-and-control facility, any part of the integrated air and missile defense system that we discover up there -- those as well. 

            Q:  Can you shed any light on this notion of, we’re sending messages to the Libyan military?  To what extent are you using these Commando Solo airplanes and sorties to force radio messages onto their -- onto their -- onto their military frequencies to tell them, yeah, here’s what to do?  Can you shed some light on that? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Yeah, well, the -- we’re using, as far as to send our message, we’re using every tool that we have available in our toolkit, and I won’t into -- get into any more specifics than that. 

            But we’re telling them, as long as the forces continue to threaten or attack the Libyan people, they’re going to be subject to attack.  And so our message is to -- don’t follow the regime’s orders; don’t attack the people; just cease fighting, stay in place, abandon your equipment; but, if you threaten the Libyan people, attack the Libyan people, we’re going to take you under attack. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) to use this airplane, though Solo?  Or are you dropping leaflets? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We’re using every tool that we have in our toolbox. 

            Q:  Admiral, can I ask you to just sort of bore down a little bit on the sortie rates?  What exactly is included?  When you say there are this many sorties, are you talking exclusively warplanes, are you talking tankers, are you talking about Commando Solo?  What do you mean? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We’re talking the range of missions, whether a tanker, whether it’s -- whether it’s the ISR, whether it’s the airborne early warning, the interdiction, defensive combat air patrol, as well as -- we are combining the interdiction mission with the aircraft that are tasked to detect and attack the mobile surface-to- air missiles.  We’re calling -- we’re combining those too in that number. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- through the airspace. 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Yes, sir, but that’s the -- that’s why we have a coalition air component commander, to write that air tasking order that does -- one of the primary missions is to make sure the effect is created on the battlefield, and that the flow of airplanes to and from and that they don’t bump. 

            STAFF:  Thom. 

            Q:  Admiral, have any Libyan forces loyal to Gadhafi quit fighting?  Have they taken your advice? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  I’m not aware of any at this particular time.   

            Q:  Admiral, as you prepare to hand over the command lead, I mean, can you give a sense of generally what that involves, to hand over operational command and command and control?  I mean, what’s involved and how tricky is that to do?   

            ADM. GORTNEY:  It’s hard work.  I will go back and say less than seven days ago tonight, once again, the UNSCR was passed; 1500 Eastern Standard Time, we started on the IADS.  That night we had a global power mission from three B-2s that took out an airfield, and we immediately went after it with tactical aircraft the fielded forces in the field just south of Benghazi. 

            We did it with the forces that we had available, with the C-2 architecture, command and control architecture that we had that was under U.S.-led.  It’s a fairly diverse chain of command, operationally, tactically controlled by Admiral Locklear at sea.  The air tasking order is written in Europe as well as the overall African commander, General [Carter] Ham, is up in -- up in Europe as well. 

            And so to work that same command and control architecture with different nations in different locations that also then still has the connectivity in IT support, the doctrine worked out, that is -- that is really, really hard work.  

            I think it’s pretty phenomenal how far we’ve come thus far, and we’re still working through the -- the pros that are out there are working through those final details.  

            STAFF:  Yes, sir.  

            Q:  Vice Admiral, the way things have gone at the moment, it looks like it’s heading for a stalemate.  I know you say that you are enforcing the no-fly zone, the U.N. resolution.  But President Obama has called for Colonel Gadhafi to go.  Will you consider helping the rebels more directly, such as the way U.S. forces did in Afghanistan, with Special Forces on the ground?  It looks like at the moment the rebels can’t actually break out under -- (inaudible) -- 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Well, I’m going to focus on the task at hand, which is accomplishing the limited military mission that the president has assigned us.  That’s enforcing the United Nations Security Council resolution and to work with our allies and partners, and that’s where the majority of our time and attention is spent. 

            STAFF:  David. 

            Q:  Admiral, as a military matter, if more restrictions were put on your ability to strike Libyan units on the ground, would you be able to carry out the mission of protecting civilians effectively?  In other words, if there were changes to the ROE, going forward, that somehow limited your ability to strike them on the ground -- which has been discussed publicly by the Turks, et cetera -- I’m just trying to get a sense, as a military matter, whether that would -- how that would affect your operations. 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Having done this for a living before in the cockpit and at the operational and the tactical level in command other places in the world, with the mandate that we have, with the rules of engagement that we have, operating under right now, focused on executing the mission and not being very focused on the collateral damage concerns, that the air crew are very well trained to do that. We’re doing OK. 

            I’m not sure how they -- rules of engagement could be more restrictive than they already are, that we are not already applying on ourselves. 

            For instance, we are not attacking with tactical aircraft forces inside of a -- inside of a city.  Nothing prevents us, in the rules of engagement, from doing that.  We’re doing that because we are not sure -- we’re pretty -- we’re fairly confident we couldn’t achieve our -- meet our collateral damage concerns.   

            Q:  Thank you, Admiral.  Two questions quickly. 

            One, it seems that Russia and China at least are not with this mission -- is making any complicated your mission as far as Libya is concerned? 

            And second, in any way this mission on Libya is making any difference or any -- as far as your mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan is concerned? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  With nine additional coalition partners that are out there with the U.S., we’re able to execute the mission that’s been assigned to us as -- we’re able to execute the mission that were assigned to us. 

            As far as the capability that we have had to pull out of the Central Command, out of -- out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s the Amphibious Ready Group with the Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked, as well as five EA-18G Growlers out of Iraq that we brought out, and we’re accepting that risk there, and a -- and a single ISR platform.  So ultimately it’s had very limited effect to the other fights. 

            Q:  And quickly, how do you see this mission as far as going back to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, taking him out, and now taking this -- Gadhafi out? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Well, we’re executing the mission that’s been assigned to us, which is to -- is to enforce the U.N. mandate.   

            Q:  Admiral, what’s the military’s assessment of the humanitarian situation on the ground in Misrata, it’s understanding that people have been without power, without water, with medical supplies running low? 

            Is there any provision in this mission, if Gadhafi’s forces were to stop attacking, to begin delivering any humanitarian -- 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Yes, AFRICOM is working with our international partners and nongovernmental agencies out there on the humanitarian- assistance mission -- on the planning for that mission. 

            Q:  Admiral, I know that NATO has already sort of taken over the naval-blockade portion of the mission, but has the task force had conversations with Admiral [James] Stavridis about how exactly the transfer to NATO would take place and over what time period and how much control NATO would assume at different -- 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Those are all of the complicated details that are being worked out by the team forward and the team here in town. 

            Q:  Have they -- have you spoken with Admiral Stavridis already? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We’re in very close consultation.  All of the leadership is involved on working out those particular details, and I’m not at liberty to discuss any of those details just yet. 

            Q:  Could I -- could I just follow up on my earlier question?  I mean, your mandate is to protect civilians, but how can you protect civilians if you cannot launch any strikes in the cities, where it appears much of the fighting is now going on and there are not going to be any ground troops? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Yeah.  Well, that’s -- to do what we can to do to meet our collateral-damage concerns, which is to put pressure on Gadhafi’s forces that are outside the city.  And so if you can work on their supply lines, their logistics capability, cut them off, they’re not going to be able to sustain their efforts inside the city. 

            Q:  Are you confident that you can achieve your goal of preventing Gadhafi’s forces from attacking civilians by limiting your attacks to outside the city?  Can you achieve your goal without striking them in the city? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We’re -- we are working on achieving that goal as hard as we possibly can, meeting the constraints of, once again, the collateral damage concerns if we went inside the city. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) revisit that notion over time? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  I’m not at liberty to discuss any future operations at this time. 

            STAFF:  Luis? 

            Q:  Admiral, can I ask you to clarify your statement earlier that the rules of engagement inside the cities is self-imposed?  Does that mean you kicked the door open on potentially attacking Gadhafi forces inside cities?  And what will it take to actually do that, for you to change those rules of engagement? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Well, the -- once again, the reason that we’re not doing it is because of collateral damage concerns.  And so unless we can find -- a mechanism to achieve the effect without harming the very people that we’re trying to protect is the challenge there.  That’s hard work.  That’s a very, very hard task to do, and we’re trying to do it to the best of our ability. 

            STAFF:  Larry. 

            Q:  Admiral, have you seen any signs that Gadhafi forces have heard these statements over the past few days that America is -- or the coalition has a self-imposed rule of engagement that keeps them from attacking inside cities, and are then moving into cities, knowing that they can operate relatively free reign there? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We have no indication -- we’re not -- we have no assessment yet to the effect of our messaging effort at this time. 

            STAFF:  This will be the last one. 

            Q:  Could I follow up on that just very briefly?  In terms of the orders that you’re -- direction you’re giving to the Libyan military -- stop the fighting, stop the killing, stop obeying the orders -- for those troops in Misrata , Ajdabiya, the cities, what is -- what specifically do they have to do to give up the fight and not be attacked?  Because after all, if they leave those cities, there are armed rebels on the outskirts.  I mean, can they -- I mean, what specifically would they have to do to avoid being attacked? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  Well, they need to cease fighting, either stay in place or abandon their equipment.  I mean, if they are trying to -- (inaudible). 

            Q:  Could they drive out with their tanks, could they head back to Tripoli with their armored vehicles -- 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  If we assess them -- if we assess that they are threatening the Libyan people by their action and we can positively identify them and meet our collateral damage concerns, we will take them under attack.  Maybe they ought not use their tank or their armored personnel carrier as a mode of transportation to get home. 

            Q:  Could they keep their arms, or would that be considered a threat to the people? 

            ADM. GORTNEY:  We wouldn’t be able to determine whether or not they had their arms, their small arms.  

            STAFF:  Okay, thanks, everybody.  That’s it.

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