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Secretary of Defense and CJCS Gen. Shelton News briefing

Presenters: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and CJCS Gen. Shelton
March 24, 1999 5:15 PM EDT

Secretary Cohen: President Clinton and NATO Secretary General Solana recently announced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces have initiated military action against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

This afternoon General Shelton and I want to talk about the reason for the action, the scope of the attack, and NATO's goals.

Military action is still underway as we speak, and the allied forces remain at risk. As a result, I hope you'll bear with us that the security concerns limit the amount of operational detail that we can give you this afternoon.

NATO officials are going to provide more detailed briefings as the operation progresses.

The first wave of the NATO attack began approximately three hours ago. Sea-launched cruise missiles fired from the United States and British naval vessels and air-launched cruise missiles from U.S. B-52 bombers began striking military targets throughout Yugoslavia. These attacks were followed by other strikes from NATO aircraft including U.S. B-2 bombers. NATO aircraft also provided support for those strike aircraft.

We are striking a range of military targets, including Yugoslavia's extensive air defense system, its command and control system, and the military forces that Yugoslavia is using to suppress the Albanians in the province of Kosovo.

It is Yugoslavia's protracted campaign of military repression of the Kosovar Albanians that has made this action necessary to avoid humanitarian disaster and to prevent the spread of instability in Europe.

NATO and the international community worked hard to get Belgrade to reverse its course without military action. We have tried for months to achieve a peace agreement. But while the Kosovar Albanians accepted the terms of this agreement, including a ceasefire, the Yugoslav army under orders from President Milosevic intensified its brutal attacks, killing people, burning villages, and creating a flood of refugees.

While negotiators tried for peace, the Yugoslav army launched a force of more than 300 tanks backed by hundreds of artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers to crush the Kosovar Albanians. NATO could not allow President Milosevic to use the peace talks as a cover for his savage plunder.

The military objective of our action is to deter further action against the Kosovars and to diminish the ability of the Yugoslav army to continue those attacks if necessary.

And I'd like to be clear here. We are attacking the military infrastructure that President Milosevic and his forces are using to repress and kill innocent people. NATO forces are not attacking the people of Yugoslavia. They are attacking the military forces that are responsible for the killing and the carnage in Kosovo. All military action involves risk. We are making every reasonable effort to protect our forces while eliminating carefully defined military targets.

NATO's forces are well trained and well led, and they are committed to working for a Europe that is stable and secure.

General Shelton: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I know that you've got many questions so I'll keep my comments brief.

The President, Secretary Cohen and the NATO leaders have already spoken clearly as to the reasons as to why NATO military action became necessary. NATO's military objective is clear. Our actions are designed to reduce the ability of the Serbian military forces to continue their offensive operations against the people of Kosovo.

As you know, we're in the early stages of an ongoing operation, so there will be many operational details, as Secretary Cohen said, that we will not be able to share with you at this time. As always, we are reluctant to provide any tactical or operational information that may enhance the effectiveness of our adversaries or that might degrade the ability of our allied forces to carry out their mission with as little risk to our pilots as possible. I know that all of you understand that, but I thought that I should reiterate it right up front for the record.

At approximately 2:00 p.m. EST today, NATO forces under the command of General Clark, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and under the authority given by NATO's Secretary General and President Clinton, began OPERATION ALLIED FORCE with a series of air strikes against Serbian air defense and other military targets.

Cruise missiles from NATO aircraft and ships at sea were launched to attack Serbian air defenses while reducing the potential for civilian casualties or other collateral damage.

NATO manned aircraft -- fighters, bombers, tankers and surveillance aircraft -- are also participating in these operations.

Given the obvious need to maintain security at this stage of an ongoing operation, I'm afraid I can't be much more specific than that. But as most of you know, in the early stages of any air campaign, we focus on degrading air defense systems in order to reduce the risk and the threat to our pilots and air crews in subsequent operations. This is the case in this operation as well.

The air defense system in Yugoslavia is very capable, and it poses a considerable threat to NATO aircraft involved in the operation. And although at this point we have no indication of casualties to U.S. or NATO forces, we continue to take all measures to reduce the risk to our pilots and air crews. But there is no such thing as a risk-free military operation.

At the same time, NATO is also exercising extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties or other unintended damage from these air operations. But again, you can never eliminate risk in a military operation.

As Secretary Cohen said, NATO's action is not aimed at the people of Yugoslavia, but rather at the military and security forces that are being used by President Milosevic against his own citizens in Kosovo and those that might threaten NATO air crews.

We remain hopeful that President Milosevic will reverse his course, but unless or until he does, NATO forces will continue to reduce his ability to use violence against the civilian population in Kosovo.

The men and women in the U.S. military participating in this NATO operation are well trained and dedicated professionals. I'm confident that they will continue to carry out their assigned mission with the skill and courage that are the hallmark of U.S. armed forces. Our thoughts and prayers are with these brave men and women and their families as they go in harm's way in pursuit of peace.

With that, Secretary Cohen and I will be glad to take your questions.

Q: Secretary Cohen, might I ask ...we understand that no NATO planes, as the General said, have been lost to your knowledge, to date. And we understand that at least one MIG-29 has been shot down. Can you tell us anything about that?

Secretary Cohen: We can't really confirm that at this time. There was some air-to-air engagement that has taken place, but I think we need more information before we can confirm what the result of that was. There have been some initial reports, but we're not in a position to really confirm that yet.

Q: How many planes, may I ask, sir?

Secretary Cohen: I really don't have that kind of information.

Our aircraft have safely returned, those that were in the region to date.

Q: Mr. Secretary, are there really two campaigns here? One against the infrastructure of Milosevic in and around Belgrade, and the other against his forces -- the armor, anti-aircraft and troops -- in and around Kosovo?

Secretary Cohen: Our mission is quite clear. We are determined to discourage and deter him from continuing waging his assault against the Kosovar people. And we are doing that in a way that will send a message -- number one, this is serious, and there is united resolve on the part of all 19 NATO members, and that failing to deter him from continuing this type of action, we intend to diminish and damage his capability of waging that in the future. So we have selected those targets that will accomplish those goals.

Q: One followup if I may please, sir. The danger -- it would seem if you're going after armor and you're going after personnel, using such aircraft as the A-10 Warthog and other aircraft, they might have to fly lower and perhaps slower. Is that the great threat to our aircraft rather than the high altitude bomb droppings?

Secretary Cohen: As we've indicated in the past, this is a different environment. It's a very tough environment. It's mountainous. The weather is not necessarily friendly. It can be adverse. So the climate, the capability of the air defenses, all make this a very tough environment in which to operate militarily.

Q: This mission marks the combat debut of B-2 stealth bombers. I know you don't want to talk about a lot of operational details, but can you give us some idea of how this very (inaudible)...

Secretary Cohen: At this point the aircraft performed according to its capabilities. It's a stealthy aircraft. They can fly in all weather with considerable ordnance aboard, so we were satisfied it was able to conduct itself and carry out its mission accordingly.

Q: Did it hit multiple targets?

Secretary Cohen: I really don't want to talk about...

Q: Did it fly non-stop, and was it refueled on the way? Did it fly non-stop from Whiteman and back?

Secretary Cohen: I don't care to comment on that right now.

Q: Can either of you characterize for us tonight what the extent of the resistance was? Even in adjectives without being quantitative?

Secretary Cohen: No.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you comment on reports out of the region that weapons factories and oil refineries were on the target list?

Secretary Cohen: I'm not going to discuss anything on the target list. The target list is extensive, and I don't want to indicate at this point what comprises that target list. I've indicated before that we intend to try to deter him from continuing his aggressive action and, failing that, to diminish and damage his ability to continue his efforts. Beyond that, I don't want to talk about it.

Q: General Shelton, could you comment, General...

Q: The focus was on air defense. Was that the case today? The focus was on the air defense systems today?

Secretary Cohen: The Chairman has indicated that initially, as you're conducting air operations, one of the first things we would want to do is take down as much of his air defense capability as we can in the initial phases to make it possible for our aircraft to operate in a less adverse environment.

Q:...difficult target mission to avoid civilian casualties on the ground as you go into some of these target areas?

Secretary Cohen: We try to always -- have tried to take that into account. We have planned the targets with great care, looking at military value, as such, in terms of what kind of a threat they pose to the people in the region, and doing our level best to minimize civilian casualties. So we have taken that into account throughout the planning of this operation.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you once again say categorically that there, no matter what happens, that there will be no use of U.S. ground troops in this operation? No matter what happens, can you rule it out categorically?

Secretary Cohen: What we have indicated to the Congress and to the country is that this is an air operation, campaign.

Q: Mr. Secretary...

Q: Does that also include going in to rescue anyone should that be necessary?

Secretary Cohen: I really don't want to get into the details of what happens in the event that any of our pilots should be attacked, successfully shot at. We have certainly a search and rescue capability in the region and would have an absolute obligation to conduct those kinds of operations for our pilots.

Q: Even if NATO ground troops are used, there will be no U.S.?

Secretary Cohen: NATO ground troops are not part of this particular operation as far as carrying out [this] particular operation.

Q:...international, the NATO scope of the operation in terms of numbers of nations, types of planes other nations are providing?

Secretary Cohen: We have roughly 11 countries the last time I checked who were providing aircraft.

Q: Tornadoes or Mirages or...

Secretary Cohen: Well, there's a whole panoply of attack aircraft, support aircraft, tankers, other types of jamming aircraft, whatever the nations have available they are contributing. I've been calling on many of my counterparts much of this afternoon, and they are strongly in favor of the action that we're taking and very supportive.

Q: Does the initial damage assessment that you've done, without getting into the details, indicate that NATO has delivered a pretty stiff punch, first punch?

General Shelton: It's really too early to get into battle damage assessment at this point. We're just three hours into it, and we have very little battle damage assessment.

Q:...daylight. It's going to be reduced in daylight? Not too many air attacks can continue (inaudible). Can we get a better assessment from you at that point?

Secretary Cohen: I'll yield to the Chairman on that, but I would say it's pretty much up to the judgment of General Clark in terms of what he decides is really in the best interests of our country and the protection of our pilots.

Q: If there is not a change of heart on the part of Milosevic, is the United States, leading NATO, willing to continue this indefinitely?

Secretary Cohen: The President has indicated that we will continue this mission until such time as we achieve the mission, and we believe that at any time Mr. Milosevic can choose the course of peace. He's had that opportunity for the past year in which we have been debating and deliberating within NATO itself and trying to persuade Mr. Milosevic that peace is always the preferable option. In the event he fails to exercise that option, then we would continue in our effort to deter him from aggressively attacking the Kosovar people, and if that deterrence is not successful, then we will continue to damage his capability of waging that in the future.

Q: Is this going to be a graduated campaign with occasional pauses, or is this going to be maintained at a high, intense level?

Secretary Cohen: I am not going to discus the facets of the campaign. It is an integrated air campaign and very carefully calibrated to provide the maximum objective.

Q: Deterring Milosevic in the Kosovar campaign, which is the phrase you've used three times -- you've not said anything about stopping him. Is the U.S. objective to stop the campaign in Kosovo?

Secretary Cohen: We would like very much for Mr. Milosevic to stop his slaughter of innocent people. In the event he fails to do so, what we have indicated is that we intend to continue -- we, all of the NATO allies intend in our effort to continue, to damage his capacity to wage war against, and his conflict against the Kosovar people.

Q: Can you tell us how many sorties have been flown so far, and how many cruise missiles have been fired? The Navy says less than 100 sea-launched missiles, but there were air-launched. Could you give us some idea of how many sorties...

General Shelton: Charlie, that's an operational level of detail that I do not want to discuss this afternoon because it's still an ongoing operation. We're not through even the initial phases yet.

Q: General Shelton, can you explain in a little bit more detail what you mean by diminishing damage in his ability to carry out offensive operations? Do you have a qualitative goal in mind for that? Or do you...

General Shelton: I think the way we've defined that as, if he elects to continue his repressive actions and his attacks on the Kosovars, that he will continue to lose capability that he has. That's air defense, that's command and control, that's units or tanks. It will be the full range of military capabilities will continue to go down.

Q: Does that mean then that if he were to simply stop the offensive and pull back some troops, then the air war would stop?

General Shelton: I think that we will continue with -- he'll have ample opportunity to come forward and indicate that he is ready to reconsider his actions. But we will continue the operation until either, until both the Secretary General and President Clinton have made the decision that we would stop.

Q: General Shelton, last night NATO apparently postponed the air strikes because they wanted a full night of darkness, one of the reasons. They have a full night of darkness tonight, it's about 11:30 at night there.

You say it's continuing. Will it go on all night?

General Shelton: I won't get into the method of operation nor confirm that we delayed a night. I will simply say that the operation is underway right now. It will continue until such time as we achieve our objectives. It's not time-phased because, as you know, there are many things that can determine the length of time it takes to accomplish objectives, to include weather.

Q: Will these raids continue in daylight, General?

General Shelton: That will be up to the NATO commander, General Clark.

Q:...battle damage assessment of the air defense system...

Q: Have you spoken to your Russian counterparts today? Is there any evidence that the Russian military is responding in any way? And what is your message to the Russians?

Secretary Cohen: I have not had any conversation with my counterpart today. There have been ongoing discussions. President Clinton discussed this with President Yeltsin, and I believe the Secretary of State has been in touch with her counterpart. So ongoing discussions are there.

Q: What is your level of concern regarding some reports that the Russians could decide to help support the Serbs in some fashion, either military equipment and that sort of thing?

Secretary Cohen: We hope that won't be the case. We have many interests with the Russians - short-term, mid-term, and long-term. Frankly, we were hoping Mr. Primakov could come to the United States because we had a very busy agenda. We hope that the temporary deferment at least of his trip here can be re-engaged at a later time, and any tensions that might be generated by this particular action can be diffused rather quickly at least.

We understand, and they understand that we have overriding interests with our two countries, and we intend to pursue these with them as quickly as we can. So we watch it very closely, and we stay in communication. We'll continue to stay in communication with them directly and through others.

Q: Do you have indication that the Serbs have been retaliating against civilians since the airstrikes began?

Secretary Cohen: We don't have any information of that at this time.

Q: How concerned are you that the...

Secretary Cohen: It doesn't mean it's not taking place. I just am not in a position to confirm that, whether or not it's taking place. We have no such information.

Q: How concerned are you that Yugoslavia might try to retaliate for these strikes either against a neighboring country or against U.S. troops in Bosnia or NATO troops in Macedonia for instance?

Secretary Cohen: We have always been concerned about any type of contingency that would involve a threat to our troops in the region or to neighboring countries. We have taken those contingencies into account. We are prepared to defend against those contingencies, and frankly, Mr. Milosevic would be making a very big mistake should he attack our forces in the region or NATO's forces in the region. I think that certainly would be a serious mistake on his part.

Q: Shortly after the attacks began, the city of Pristina went dark. Obviously, electrical power has many important civilian implications as well as military. Can you tell us whether the power grid in Kosovo was a target?

Secretary Cohen: I cannot.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you tell Milosevic in some sort of adjective that the attacks that so far seem to be punishing, that more might be in store? How would you say to him now what else might be in store for him?

Secretary Cohen: What we have indicated to Mr. Milosevic, and we have tried in every fashion possible to exhaust all diplomatic initiatives. The fact that Mr. Holbrooke went as sort of a last resort to say we would like to see this resolved peacefully. We have the Kosovars who have agreed to this interim agreement. It is in your interest. You can choose peace, or you can choose continued conflict with all the risk that entails. We hope you will reconsider and choose the path of peace, but that is a decision he must make, and we hope that he will make the right choice. But if he doesn't, then we are prepared to continue the effort as we've outlined it.

Q: You said 11 countries supplied planes for this operation. How many European countries supplied planes and actually took part in strikes on this first night?

Secretary Cohen: I won't get into the composition of the strike force as such. We are satisfied with the operational plan that all of those participating are contributing to the success of the mission itself. Each country will contribute what it has available and what the commander feels is the best utilization of those aircraft.

We obviously have very sophisticated stealth aircraft which perform an extraordinary mission, and they will be used to carry out their objective of taking down some of those air defense systems. Other countries will contribute assets which will significantly contribute to the success of the operation, but I wouldn't want to designate which country has which assets. That's something I won't do.

Q: How will you know when the military objective is reached?

Q:...the deployment of nuclear missiles in Belarussia. How serious do you take these statements? And my second question is do you plan as NATO's leader to take any steps to minimize these negative consequences of these actions concerning NATO...

Secretary Cohen: As I've indicated before, I can't really comment on any report about, I think you said nuclear weapons in Belarus. I have no comment on that.

We, as I've indicated, have very substantial mutual interests in a U.S. and a NATO/Russia relationship. We will continue to work with the Russians on those areas of mutual interests. Whatever differences we have -- and I might point out that the Russians expressed their own considerable displeasure with Milosevic's activities -- they were part of the negotiating effort. And while they may disagree on the use of force to bring about a peaceful result hopefully on the part of Milosevic, as far as using force they have expressed that opposition in the past in Bosnia. Yet we have seen in Bosnia, they are part of the peacekeeping force there. So we hope that in spite of their objection to using force, they nonetheless do believe that Mr. Milosevic has aggravated the situation, has conducted himself and his forces in a way that is destabilizing to that region.

So we are hoping that in the coming days we can continue to carry on communications with our Russian counterparts, that NATO will continue to carry on its relationship with the NATO/Russia charter or the Founding Act, and that we will proceed past this period of time and can continue on the very robust agenda that we have with the Russians.

Q: How will you know when you've reached your military objectives?

Q: See you tomorrow, hopefully?

Secretary Cohen: Thank you.

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