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DoD News Briefing, March 16, 1999

Presenter: Admiral Joseph W. Prueher
March 16, 1999 2:00 PM EDT

(Also participating in this briefing is Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA)

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

It gives me pleasure to welcome back a friend to many, Admiral Joseph Prueher, who as you know recently retired as the commander in chief of our forces in the Pacific. He has been asked by Secretary Cohen to perform a special, intense review of our flight safety procedures with Italy in Italy, and he's here to report on the beginning of that process and to take some questions.

Admiral Prueher?

Admiral Prueher: Good afternoon to all of you. Some familiar faces. It's great to be with you.

What I'd like to do is just give a short preamble and then take a couple of questions.

Secretary Cohen has asked me -- he was directed by the President -- to work in conjunction with our Italian counterparts and to do an assessment to look at the corrective operational and safety procedures that have occurred since the tragic incident of the EA-6B clipping the cable at Cavalese. We're supposed to assess the adequacy and determine if any additional safety procedures need to be made or need to be taken in order to ensure the highest levels of safety.

He has asked us to work, again, in full participation with our Italian counterparts, and also keep in mind the safety of flight and our common NATO obligations, which have implications throughout the region, and to report back to the Secretary -- to him and the Italian Minister of Defense -- to do that on the 15th of April. So we have a fairly compressed time line.

There are a couple of points I'd like to make that I think have been made before by the President, by the Secretary of Defense and others. [One] is the profound sorrow and regret that the people of the U.S. have over this incident not only to the people of Italy, but to the other European nations who lost people in the gondola crash.

The other point I'd like to make is as we work with the Italians and we work with them as partners for security in Europe as well as NATO partners, but we also work with the Italians not only as allies, but also amongst the most steadfast friends that the United States has in Europe, and we will approach this together with the Italians as we go through this assessment and this investigation.

What we've done so far -- I got on this job yesterday, so my knowledge of it is growing by leaps and bounds. But we've had a chance to talk with my counterpart who has been named by the Italians, General Tricarico who is an Italian Air Force General on their Air Staff. I've talked to Ambassador Salleo, the Italian Ambassador to the U.S. who's here in Washington. We have a game plan. We have a small team with support from the Joint Staff and also some direct support for us to work together on this issue. We plan to go to Italy next week, and we'll visit Rome, we'll visit Cavalese, we'll visit Aviano and probably Naples, then come back out through Rome and probably touch base for NATO reasons in Brussels as we depart, then come back and put our report together.

The team is made up of members from each service and well represented across the levels of skill in terms of technical aviation and in terms of legal and other ramifications that we may need.

So with that as a preamble, I'd love to take a couple of your questions.

Q: Basically, what's been done so far, Admiral? The changes that have been made so far.

A: Well, there have been quite a few changes that have been made so far, and that's one thing -- we're having our first meeting with our team this afternoon. We're going to review some of the changes that have been made. It's been looked into extensively, and there have been quite a few changes, and we're going to review those. Also take a fresh look at these.

Q: Just the Marine Corps, sir, or all the services?

A: All the services.

Q: Admiral, could you give us a little insight on low-level training and proficiency?

A: You mean why do it?

Q: Yeah. From your viewpoint. You're a pilot.

A: Yes. The low-level training proficiency, one, it's something we need to do, tactical aviation needs to do this level of training, or this type of training for flight safety, for ingress and egress from particular target areas. Flying in close proximity to the ground is a challenge that's different from air-to-air, and it's an area in which people need to be proficient and work at a high level of proficiency in case they're called upon to do it.

Q: With the Prowler, I guess they said it was their only means for evading an attack by an armed aggressor.

A: That's probably an endlessly discussable point, but it's certainly one of their means of evasion, and it may be something they would have to do in ingressing or egressing from a target.

Q: Admiral, the Italian nation, I believe the large majority, are incensed. They do not understand that there is not somebody that can take responsibility for this accident. I take it there will be no pilot or navigator that can do that. So what are you going to do to address this issue that could very seriously harm relations between Italy and the United States insofar as the military alliance is concerned?

A: I think probably, like most of us, I understand the, I think well, the Italians' point of view.

Our nation -- the President has said that our nation is fully responsible for this event, and we have taken responsibility for it.

Like most tragedies that occur, there are usually a sequence of things that happen, and sometimes affixing blame to a single point is much more difficult.

Q: Admiral, you've had a long career as an aviator. Have you trained in this area that the accident occurred in yourself as a pilot? And secondly, have you ever flown an EA-6B?

A: The second part first. Yes, I've flown an EA-6B. The first part is I have not, I've trained flying in Italy, but I've not flown in that particular region before.

Q: Are you going to include accountability at all in your review?

A: Accountability is not part of my charter.

Q: The Italian government has talked about suspending the Status of Forces Agreement if there isn't accountability at a higher level. Are possible changes in the SOFA something that you would look at?

A: Again, these are not a part of our charter. It's -- I think it will be peripherally connected to our review, but that's not a part of our charter, looking at the Status of Forces Agreement.

Q: Admiral, will you look at equipment issues such as concern about the radar altimeter...

A: Yes.

Q:...Look at those and...

A: Yes.

Q: Do you anticipate adding any money to repair radar altimeters in the Prowler aircraft or not?

A: It's too early to anticipate that. But we intend to look at the factors involved. People. They involve equipment. They involve support of equipment. They involve training. They involve tactics. They involve the infrastructure. We'll be looking at all of those things for possible improvements.

Q: Have you changed the map so that they do now show where the cable cars were and all the sorts of things that were not on the map?

A: I have not changed the map, no. (Laughter)

Q: Have the maps been changed?

A: A problem, when I used to actually fly -- it's hard to keep maps updated all the time. What they have done -- they're updated locally. So on the maps, the briefings that occur for people that fly in that vicinity, the fact that that cable location is briefed to everyone. One of the things we'll be looking at is the map issue. I'm attuned to that. We'll be talking to NIMA, our National Imaging and Mapping Agency. We'll be talking with the Italians. The map issue is something we'll be considering.

Q: So those lines should have been part of a local briefing?

A: That's correct.

Q: If they were not on the map.

Q: In your preliminary discussions with the Italians, are they generally satisfied with the safety procedures that were adopted after Cavalese, or are there specific things that they've raised with you?

A: Again, I've not had a lot of discussions with the Italians on this. I think the military people and those that are doing the flying -- in my reasonably cursory but not too bad a review of what corrections have been made, they're pretty good corrections that have been made. So I think the people that know about it and are well involved in the issue think that a large number of good corrections have been made.

I think what we need to work on is making sure that people at large that are concerned about this issue know that level of effort that has gone on in this case.

Q: Can you go back to the issue of radar altimeters for a minute? Are you suggesting that there's an equipment problem with the altimeters across the EA-6B...

A: I didn't suggest it.

Q: You said you're going to look at it. What did you mean by that?

A: We'll look at all those things.

The radar altimeter to tell your distance above the ground is a key issue in low-level flying or approaches or anything like that. It's sort of an obvious thing to look at in this case.

Q: Do you have any reason to believe that the altimeter in the EA-6B fleet is not sufficient?

A: I don't right now.

Q: As an experienced pilot, Admiral, can you tell the difference without an altimeter between 1,000 feet and 360 feet?

A: It depends on the type of terrain over which you're flying. For example, if one is flying over water, it's very difficult to tell. If you're flying over the desert, it's very difficult to tell. If there are a lot of terrain features like trees and things like that where you can get relative size, it's something that -- that much difference, you can usually tell that difference.

Q: Admiral, do you think that low-level flying, that kind of training in Italy, is still a requirement given this accident?

A: Yes, I do. I think it's something that it's a level of proficiency for not only for our country and for the Italians, but for NATO nations, that low level flying proficiency is something we need to maintain, and we need to do it in a safe and an operationally careful way.

Q: Can you give us more detail about some of the changes that have been made so far?

A: I'd really rather not right now. That's one of the things we're tasked to look at. I've read over a lot of the reports.

I think one of the issues we'll be looking at is not only what are the written changes that have been made, but also we get into how are they implemented, how is the training for implementing these changes, and how does that occur will be something we'll be looking at carefully.

Q: Admiral, is part of your charter to work these things at all, to try and designate ranges for this kind of flying? The services have ranges where you do that kind of flying in this country. Is that...

A: As do the Italians have some over in some of the other islands. Down in Sicily they have -- there are some areas. But the size of Italy is about like, what is it, Florida and Alabama combined, something like that. Florida and Georgia combined. So they don't have a lot of options of places to go to do this type of training over land in Italy. So I don't see -- that might be a follow on, but that's not something I see we'll be working on.

Q: Can I ask a CINCPAC kind of question? (Laughter)

Q: Can I ask one more on this?

A: Sure.

Q: I know you said that accountability is not part of your charter, but is it possible, is it your understanding that what you find may be used in any way in determining accountability?

A: I think it's likely that it would. I think we're going to be working in open covenants, openly arrived at in this, in our investigation, and I would expect it to be in the public domain and be used.

Q: There was an announcement today from the State Department about North Korea agreeing to allow access to the suspected site of a nuclear facility.

Can you, from a commander's point of view -- is access on a case-by-case basis enough? Or do we need to get North Korea to agree to a more broad inspection regime?

A: I will -- one, that's not really my dog anymore. But I think getting North Korea to agree is a very difficult task. Dr. Perry is reviewing the policy issue -- he and Ash Carter are -- and the case-by-case basis is not the objective, but it might be a suitable interim objective as a first step in dealing with North Korea.

Q: As a China observer, what concerns do you have about advancements in the Chinese nuclear weapon program and whether they actually were aided by information from the United States?

A: It's something we need to watch with great care. In our dealing with China we need to have our eyes wide open. They are very talented and very pragmatic. We need to balance our, with strength, our respect for their legitimate issues and deal with them with our eyes wide open on all issues including the nuclear issue.

Q: Do you have any indication that U.S. information assisted their program?

A: I don't have any information other than what is available to all of you, all that you read in the papers.

Mr. Bacon: Admiral Prueher has outlasted you all in Italy and...

Press: Thank you, sir.