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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little
July 24, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon. 

            On Friday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Chief of Staff General Schwartz, and other Air Force leaders briefed Secretary Panetta on the Air Force's extensive analysis of hypoxia-like symptoms in the F-22 aircraft.  As you know, the F-22 has been flying under restrictions ordered by Secretary Panetta since May 15 of this year.  Leaders informed Secretary Panetta that the Air Force is confident the root cause of the issue is the supply of oxygen delivered to pilots, not the quality of oxygen delivered to pilots.  The need to explore both possibilities, the supply and quality, was identified earlier this year by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. 

            To correct the supply issue and reduce the incidence of hypoxia-like events, the Air Force has made two changes to the aircraft cockpit life support system.  First, the Air Force will replace a valve in the upper pressure garment vest worn by pilots during high-altitude missions.  The valve was causing the vest to inflate and remain inflated under conditions where it was not designed to do so, thereby causing breathing problems for some pilots.  The garment has been suspended from flight since June.

            Second, the Air Force has increased the volume of air flowing to pilots by removing a filter that was installed to determine whether there were any contaminants present in the oxygen system.  Oxygen contamination was ruled out.  The Air Force is also exploring improving the oxygen delivery hose and its physical connections.

            After receiving assurances that these corrective measures would minimize hypoxia-like events in the F-22, the secretary approved the Air Force planned sequence of actions to remove flight restrictions over time.  This process starts today.

            Secretary Panetta has authorized the deployment of a squadron of F-22s to Kadena Air Base in Japan.  The aircraft will fly to Japan under altitude restrictions via the North Pacific transit route.  Following completion of the flight to Japan, the Air Force will recommend resuming most long-duration flights.

            The Air Force will also proceed with installing a new backup emergency oxygen system and pursue implementations of all Scientific Advisory Board actions.  Five of the actions are complete, and the remaining three -- first, installation of a cockpit-mounted oxygen sensor; second, installation of an improved pilot oxygen sensor; and, third, the initial National Aeronautics and Space Administration's report -- are on track to be completed by the end of the summer.

            The Air Force will brief Secretary Panetta in early fall on the results of the modified upper pressure garment testing.  Pending completion of the Scientific Advisory Board recommendations, the NASA independent analysis, and fielding of the modified upper pressure garment, the Air Force will seek approval to remove F-22 altitude restrictions.

            Finally, following the completion of these actions and the installation of the backup oxygen system, the Air Force will request resumption of the aerospace alert control alert missions in Alaska.  Until that time, this mission will continue to be flown by other aircraft.

            Along with Air Force leadership, the secretary believes that pilot safety is paramount.  The gradual lifting of restrictions will enable the Air Force to resume normal F-22 operations over time, while ensuring the safety of the incredible airmen who fly this critical aircraft.

            The F-22 aircraft have flown more than 7,000 sorties, totaling more than 9,000 hours, since the last unexplained incident involving hypoxia-like symptoms occurred on March 8, 2012.  Two incidents involving oxygen-related concerns since then were determined to be mechanical malfunctions, in other words, explained incidents.  On June 26, an incident at Langley Air Force Base was caused by a faulty valve in the cockpit.  On July 6, at Hickam Air Force Base, indicators in an F-22 signaled a possible oxygen problem, but the issue resolved itself in flight.

            In both cases, the pilots and aircraft have returned to flight status.  The pilots have been issued a clean bill of health, and relevant cockpit components, valves, and connections were replaced by maintenance personnel.

            Two other brief announcements before taking your questions.  Today here in the briefing room, at 2:30 p.m., Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz will review you on his four years as the Air Force's senior uniformed leader and his nearly 40 years of his distinguished military service.

            Tomorrow at 10 a.m. Secretary Panetta and Secretary Shinseki will testify before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee on assistance for servicemembers returning to civilian life.

            All right.  I'll turn it over to you all.  Thank you.

            John?

            Q:  George, has the Japanese government been informed of the decision to send the F-22s to Kadena?  And if so, have they expressed any safety concerns in that regard?

            MR. LITTLE:  The government of Japan has been informed of this move of the F-22s to Kadena.  I'm unaware of any concerns expressed with respect to safety.

            Jeff?

            Q:  When is it expected that all Air Force -- that all the altitude restrictions will be lifted?  And why didn't the secretary lift all restrictions on Friday, when he was given the explanation for what's causing this?

            MR. LITTLE:  I think the answer to the second part of your question, Jeff, is very simple, and that is that the Air Force recommended a phased approach to resuming normal flight operations, while re-engineering of certain components of the life support system inside the aircraft occurs and components are replaced.

            So this is a phased approach.  This is prudent.  It was recommended by Air Force leadership.  And the secretary approved their recommendations.

            Q:  Do you have the timeline for all restrictions being lifted?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the precise timeline.  Perhaps the Air Force can give you more detail on the timelines associated with each of the phases here.

            Dave?

            Q:  When is this deployment to Kadena?  And how far away from a landing field does that transit take them?

            MR. LITTLE:  The deployment could occur at any moment.  The way the planes are going to fly will allow them to be near runways, through -- and forgive me for referring to my -- the North Pacific transit route, which will allow the planes to be near land as they fly to Kadena.

            Q:  What are the phases until the day it was -- had to stay within 30 minutes of landing fields --

            MR. LITTLE:  Right.

            Q:  -- what's the first phase?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, long-duration deployments are the first phase.  The deployment to Kadena will be flying at -- the planes will fly at lower altitude, which means that pilots won't have to use the upper garment vest, period.  And they will be near runways all along the flight trajectory to Kadena.

            Q:  (Inaudible)

            MR. LITTLE:  And then, over time, we expect -- pardon me?

            Q:  Is there some stated distance or, you know, time distance that they cannot go from an airfield?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have that for you, Dave.  I would check with the Air Force.  Close proximity.

            Jim?

            Q:  George, does the fact that they take the high-altitude vest away from the pilots so that they can breathe limit the capacity of the aircraft in case of an emergency?  So something happens with North Korea, and you're going to need the F-22s to go after them, are they still going to be limited by altitude?  Or will they -- how will that work?  Will they be able to use them?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I'm not going to get into speculative scenarios with respect to North Korea and how the F-22 might or might not be involved in a potential scenario with North Korea.  But there are -- we're going to follow the protocols.  If we need to depart from those protocols, then that decision will make its way up the chain of command.

            Courtney?

            Q:  I'm a little unclear still.  So -- so the secretary or the Air Force or both are confident at this point that replacing the valve in the vest, that they've determined the problem here, right, that this has been solved?

            MR. LITTLE:  Correct.

            Q:  So then I still don't quite understand -- I mean, they have to be within so many miles of a -- of a landing area.  They can't fly above a certain altitude.  I mean, the plan going forward doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that the secretary or the Air Force have confidence that this problem is solved and that they won't have this problem again in the theater.

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think we have very high confidence that we've identified the issue.  It's going to take us a little while to ensure that all the relevant components are replaced and that the equipment is -- allows for the supply issue to be resolved.  So this is a very prudent way to ensure that we -- in a very careful manner -- resume normal flight operations.  We have high confidence at this stage that that could be done.

            Q:  Do you know if any of the pilots, F-22 pilots have expressed any concern about continuing to fly at this point?

            MR. LITTLE:  My understanding is that the -- the Air Force -- but please check with them -- the Air Force has surveyed F-22 pilots, and the vast majority have expressed confidence in the aircraft.

            Q:  One question -- the -- the filter you're removing is the diagnostic filter, right?  It was added to the F-22 as a diagnostic procedure, to see if it was air quality, right?  That's the filter you're removing?

            MR. LITTLE:  I believe that's correct, yes.

            Q:  And the other side -- as far as the hypoxia problems, you haven't had problems -- and at lower altitudes, you haven't had the hypoxia, right?  It's when you get into the higher altitudes.

            MR. LITTLE:  It's when you get into higher altitudes.  That's correct.  You don't need to wear the upper garment vest at lower altitudes, for example, at passenger jet altitudes.

            Q:  So this flight to Japan, then, it's going to be at low altitudes?  You wouldn't expect -- unless there's some other problem with the plane -- you wouldn't expect any problems, period, with that.  So why all the precautions on staying so close to the air bases and things like that -- or landing strips?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we're adopting a very measured approach here.  We want to make sure that the upper garment vest issue is resolved.  We believe it has been.  And we need to re-engineer the valves and so forth.  We need to make sure that the corrugated tubes that deliver the oxygen are appropriately configured and designed.  And we need to make those changes to the life support system in the aircraft.  This is a phased approach, and that's why we're moving out in this way.

            Q:  Just to make sure I understand, this flight wouldn't actually bring any of that stuff into play, right?

            MR. LITTLE:  No, we're -- the flights to Japan will occur below the altitude at which you would need to wear the upper garment vest.

            Yes?

            Q:  Two questions.  One, F-21 -- 22 and also Afghanistan.  F-22.  Is it same plane that U.S. was in touch and discussion with India to manufacture or sale of these planes to India?

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware of potential F-22 sales to India.  I'll let you know if I hear differently.

            Q:  Thank you.  And Afghanistan, Afghanistan has now warned for the last few days to Pakistan that stop cross-borders -- (inaudible) -- civilians are being targeted.  And now Pakistan's new prime minister has said that -- (inaudible) -- Afghanistan.  How U.S. mission and NATO mission will impact relations between two countries -- -- (inaudible) -- -- on this issue?

            MR. LITTLE:  Relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan?  Well, we're working closely with both countries, obviously, to try to limit violence along the Afghan-Pakistan border.  We have obviously been in constant contact with the Afghan government to work on these issues.  And we have put pressure on the enemy to operate along the border.

            On the Pakistani side of the border, we are settling back into a normal phase of cooperation with our Pakistani partners.  And border coordination, we believe, is improving.

            Q:  And as far as the new prime minister of Pakistan, Raja Ashraf, is concerned, how this will change as far as U.S. mission in Afghanistan is concerned?

            MR. LITTLE:  In our estimation, I'm not sure there's any particular change to the mission in Afghanistan.  We're carrying out the mission as we've designed it.  We're moving quickly and prudently toward implementation of the improvement of Afghan national security force capabilities.  And, of course, we're following the Lisbon timeline toward the end of 2014.

            Q:  What I mean is really, will things change because of new leadership in Pakistan, compared with Prime Minister Gilani is concerned?

            MR. LITTLE:  No, we don't believe so.

            Q:  (Inaudible)

            MR. LITTLE:  Justin?

            Q:  George, so far this year, Al Qaida in Iraq has claimed the lives of nearly 600 people.  On Monday alone, shootings and bombings across the country killed 100 people.  Is Iraq a safe haven for Al Qaida?

            MR. LITTLE:  We condemn these cowardly acts.  Violence of this sort is totally intolerable.  We believe that the Iraqi government is capable of providing for its own security and addressing internal threats that it's facing from Al Qaida and from other groups, perhaps.  The level of violence is a potential challenge to the Iraqi government.  But we're confident that they can take care of business.

            Q:  Are they doing enough to take care of business, as you see it right now?  It certainly doesn't appear that way by the numbers.  And it's -- and it appears that they're getting closer to some sort of sectarian conflict again.  Are you concerned about that?

            MR. LITTLE:  As I said, we have confidence that the Iraqi government can address the problem of violence inside their own country.  They have the tools and the capabilities to do so.  They have the security forces to be able to do so.  And I'm not going to speculate on what the future of Iraq might look like.  That's really for the Iraqis to describe themselves.

            Jeff?

            Q:  Among the people who suffered hypoxia incidents were maintainers on the ground.  Was it determined why they suffered hypoxia?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the specifics on that, Jeff.  The Air Force, I think, and probably -- and will be able to address that specific issue at a later time.

            Q:  Is the Air Force going to -- well, at this point, are there any unresolved cases still?  Or has the Air Force provided an explanation for all of them?

            MR. LITTLE:  I will leave that specific answer to the Air Force.  The most recent incidents have been explained versus unexplained, and that's an important distinction.

            Yes?

            Q:  George, the president yesterday said that DOD this week is going to unveil a public database of some sort for military medal recipients.  Can you offer any details as to what the scope of that database, what medals it'll include?

            MR. LITTLE:  I said a number of days ago that we were exploring options to be able to stand up this kind of capability, that it would allow us to list the names of service members receiving valor awards.  I think there will be more to come later this week.

            Yes?

            Q:  Earlier today, a number of military officials testified before the House Oversight Committee about allegations of neglect at the Afghan national hospital.  One said that Lieutenant General Caldwell ordered them to retract a request for the inspector general to investigate.  Is there a DOD investigation into the allegations made by that -- by that official?

            MR. LITTLE:  The allegations are being look at by the DOD IG.  I'm not going to get into specifics of those allegations.  I would point out that some of the problems that we saw at the hospital have, in fact, been resolved.  Corrective measures were taken, and patient care was improved as a result.

            Joe?

            Q:  George, around Syria, today Ambassador Rice to the United Nations has said that United States will start to act outside the United Nations framework because of the Russian veto.  Is the Pentagon -- does the Pentagon know anything about -- does the Pentagon have any plan to work outside the United Nations framework?  Could you give me some --

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm aware of Ambassador Rice's comments.  And I certainly understand her frustration with elements of the United Nations process with respect to Syria.  I'm not going to get into speculation on what planning may or may not flow, but as you know, we plan for a variety of contingencies in these kinds of situations, and we'll continue to.

            Q:  Okay, if I ask you, if the Pentagon is on the same page with Ambassador Rice, what could you say?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think that Ambassador Rice has a very good point.  I think that we have been frustrated by our attempts -- and not just the United States, but other countries have been frustrated by attempts to resolve or at least develop capabilities or actions through the United Nations that would perhaps bring a quicker resolution in Syria.  So I certainly associate myself with Ambassador Rice's remarks. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) Russian ships that left northern Russia, crossed the Gibraltar Strait, and then -- (inaudible) -- Mediterranean en route to Tartus.  Did the Russians since they left their own ports give you any detail about what was on the ships?

            MR. LITTLE:  This is really a matter for the Russians to address.

            Q:  (Inaudible)

            MR. LITTLE:  I'll have to get back to you.  I'm unaware of any communication on this specific issue with the Russian military.

            Q:  To follow on that question, is there any evidence whatsoever -- because it's been said from this building that those ships are being monitored -- that they've delivered weapons in Tartus or delivered weapons to the Assad forces?

            MR. LITTLE:  If that's happened, I can't confirm it.  I don't know that to be the case.

            Yes?

            Q:  Israel's General Ganz said today that, to the best of his knowledge, Syrian government is beefing up security at the chemical weapons depots.  Is that the -- the U.S. understanding?

            MR. LITTLE:  I've said for quite a while that the Syrian regime has a solemn obligation to protect the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in that country.

            Q:  But are they doing it?

            MR. LITTLE:  (Inaudible) hasn't changed.  And --

            Q:  (Inaudible) responsibility.  I'm asking you, are they doing it?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think that over time we've seen that they have maintained security around their chemical and biological weapons stockpiles.  It's hard for me to give a day-by-day accounting of every chemical stockpile site in Syria.  The point here, David, is that the Syrian regime needs to protect these weapons.  And I think I've been very clear, as have others in the U.S. government, that it would be unacceptable not to secure them.

            Q:  Have you seen any indication that the Syrian regime is making any preparations whatsoever to use them against the opposition?

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm unable to speculate on Syrian intentions, Dave.  But let me be very clear that the Syrian regime should not use chemical weapons.  It would be entirely unacceptable.  It would be intolerable.  And I think that my colleagues in the State Department have spoken to this, as well.

            Q:  Can I ask you, what level of confidence does the United States government have that -- about the size and scope of Syria's chemical and biological stockpiles, their locations, and the authority levels within the Syrian military for use of these?  You recall this was an issue in the lead-up to the Iraq war.  Can you give the public a sense of, you know, the confidence level?  Do you have a better feel for what Syria has than what Iran -- Iraq allegedly had?

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to draw any comparisons in our analysis, and I'm not going to get into intelligence.  But we do believe that we have a good sense of the state of play of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.  They have a really distributed network of stockpiles.  But I wouldn't get into matters involving intelligence.

            Q:  But can I ask you a different issue that came -- in terms of matters of intelligence?

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.

            Q:  You outraged a lot of the press corps Friday -- you, this building -- or Thursday, when you came out with an anti-leak memorandum --

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.  I'm glad that you clarified that, Tony.

            Q:  Right, the building.  It came up -- (inaudible) -- senator, Congressman McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was convinced no leaks of these high-profile nature that everybody's been concerned about came from the Pentagon.  Yet that same day, you came out with a directive that called for active monitoring of national-level media for unauthorized disclosures.  Can you give the public a sense of the rationale for this move?  And have you had a lot of leaks lately?  Or what's the backdrop for, George?  Because it's somewhat disquieting.

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think it shouldn't be disquieting.  We as government officials have a solemn obligation to protect national security information, classified information.  The secretary and the chairman had a very good session with the House Armed Services Committee to discuss this very issue, and we appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter with members of the committee.

            The measures that we announced last week we believe are prudent to ensure that we're doing what we can internally, DOD officials ourselves, to reinforce and to re-emphasize the need for us to protect classified information.  This is what this series of announcements is all about.  It's about reinforcing to the personnel inside this department that we need to do all we can to protect classified information.  That's really it.

            Q:  You don't think it's going to have a chilling effect on media interplay with officials here?  Every official is going to be worried that George Little or Mike Vickers is going to be parsing his words in articles to see if he gave up classified information.

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we have great respect for the work that you do, to report the incredible work that this building does, especially our men and women in uniform.  We have tremendous respect for the press corps.

            This is an effort, though, to identify possible disclosures of classified information that appear in press reports.  We have an obligation to take a look at reporting, and if we think there's been a disclosure of sensitive information, doesn't it behoove us, isn't it our responsibility to track down where that might be coming from?  It stands to reason.

            Q:  What steps are you going to be -- I don't mean to belabor this, but we're in the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in and the leaks that -- the plumbers unit that precipitated a lot of that.  I mean, some people will say that you have set up a plumbers unit to go after news media and officials here.  What do you say to that?

            MR. LITTLE:  This is an effort to protect classified information.  This is not an effort to go after media.  That's what I would say to it.  This is reinforcing our responsibilities as government officials who sign paper to protect classified information.  In some cases, we have a lifelong obligation to protect classified information.  And this is about upholding that obligation.  That's it.

            Q:  And not to belabor it, but I think others want to bring this up, too.  The whole notion of classification in this building has degenerated into a joke, most reporters and a lot of officials would agree.  What steps are you going to be taking to make sure when you analyze these news stories that it's really classified-classified versus B.S. classified information?

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.  Well, we haven't defined precisely what steps we're going to take in concert with USDI on this matter.  So I don't have the answer yet, Tony.  And I can't really, as a result, answer the question in great detail. 

            Sure.  Yes?

            Q:  Thank you.  Back to the F-22 --

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah.

            Q:  -- as you know, the whole Osprey issue going on in Japan --

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes.

            Q:  -- right now, and Okinawa people get so nervous about the military deployment right now, so the timing of this announcement, what do you think about it for the Okinawa people?

            MR. LITTLE:  What I would say to those who may have concerns about the safety of this aircraft or the MV-22 aircraft is that we believe that the safety record overall is quite good.  There have been incidents over time, and when there have been incidents, we've investigated them, we have shared our findings with the government of Japan when Japanese officials have expressed concerns, and we will do so in the future if incidents occur.

            We believe that this deployment of F-22s can be conducted safely, and we're doing it in a very prudent way, as I described earlier.

            Jeff, and then we'll wrap it up.

            Q:  The questions about the F-22 started when a plane crashed, and the Air Force ruled it pilot error, but now in light of these revelations of mechanical problems with the F-22, does the Defense Department, does the defense secretary, are they satisfied with this conclusion that it was pilot error?

            MR. LITTLE:  I have not spoken to the secretary with respect to this specific incident.  It's really for the Air Force, I think, to address the specifics of that one.

            Q:  And just to clarify, the filter that was removed, is this the dreaded charcoal filter?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know that that's the technical name for it, but I do believe it is that filter, yes.

            Q:  (Inaudible) question, you come into this cold as an intelligent taxpayer, is it a question that you guys -- why wasn't --

            MR. LITTLE:  (Inaudible) pay my taxes, I'm not sure everyone would agree with the descriptor of the (inaudible)

            Q:  All right.  Well (inaudible). 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.

            Q:  This happened -- these issues happened six years after the plane was declared initial operational capability in December of 2005.  At your level, are you scratching your head saying, why wasn't this picked up earlier in all the oodles of testing that launched this billion-dollar -- multi-billion-dollar program?

            MR. LITTLE:  Look, it's really hard for me to answer that question.  I can't go back in time and conduct technical archeology on this or any other aircraft.  What I would say, Tony, is that the Air Force has taken very prudent measures over the past not just couple of months, but over the past year-and-a-half or so, with respect to the F-22, and they have come to a conclusion on what is contributing to these hypoxia-like events.

            With any aircraft, whether it's the F-22 or the F-16 or another kind of aircraft with a helicopter, with a ground vehicle, we can never take the risk to zero.  But we have an obligation to our troops and our airmen to make whatever equipment they're using as safe as possible.  And that's what we think we're doing here.

            All right?  Thank you, everyone.