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DoD News Briefing, Tuesday, March 31, 1998

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
March 31, 1998 1:30 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

First I'd like to announce that on Thursday at 11 o'clock, in this very room, Secretary Cohen will hold a news conference focusing on a report to Congress on base realignment and closure, BRAC. This was a report that Congress required, asking him to report on the progress we've made under the four existing rounds of base closure; the savings we've realized; the impact it's had on readiness and on the military; and an assessment of the need for future rounds of BRAC in order to free up funds to pay for modernization, readiness, and other worthwhile expenditures. So that will be here at 11 o'clock on Thursday.

Second, I want to welcome 41 German broadcasters -- I guess, is that right? From Sud Deutsche Rundfunk. Welcome. They're here as part of a professional orientation visit.

Finally, one of our own, [ABC's] Mark Brender, who has been here among you for the last ten years and before that a worker in the vineyards of the Pentagon, is leaving us for higher vistas in the satellite business. We wish you good luck and thank you for your years of loyal news coverage, penetrating questions, and basically gentle treatment, I have to say, behind those penetrating questions. But good luck. [Space Imaging] EOSAT [Earth Observation Satellite], I guess it's called?

Let me just bring you up to date on one aspect before I take your questions. Many of you this morning, if you were here early, listened to the briefing from McGuire Air Force Base on the causes of the C-141 collision off Namibia last year. I would like to just offer you some charts, if you want them, on TCAS, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System.

The investigation did not find that an absence of TCAS, as it's called, was the case of this accident. It did speculate that had the U.S. plane, had it been equipped with TCAS, that the collision might have been avoided; but, it found the cause of the collision in other areas such as the German plane was flying at the wrong altitude, improper air traffic control out of Rwanda, etc.

The Air Force and in fact all the services, but primarily the Air Force because it has the most planes, has been working aggressively since 1996 to equip its passenger, cargo and training planes with TCAS. I'm going to hold up something that you in the front rows will be able to see, but we will hand out to you, make copies of and hand out to you later if you would like to see it, which shows how this TCAS program has been accelerated.

I want to point out it's been accelerated basically at two points. The first was in 1996 after Secretary Perry appointed Admiral Engen, retired Admiral Engen to study the air traffic control, the air safety record and procedures of the military. One of the recommendations he made after that was not only should planes be outfitted with TCAS, but they should also be outfitted with ground proximity radar, as well as other navigational and safety changes such as global positioning system equipment, etc.

The fatalities from mid-air collisions ranked quite low for Air Force planes; very low, as a matter of fact. A collision with the ground and engine failure are much higher causes of fatalities or accidents among Air Force planes than mid-air collisions. Nevertheless, TCAS is a system that can help reduce accidents in the air, and therefore, the Air Force has been moving aggressively in that direction.

The second time after 1996 that the Air Force accelerated the program was following the collision between the C-141 and the German plane off Namibia. You can see that here, and this is what I'll hand out to you later. If you look at the blue lines, that was the original program in say about 1995 vintage, and it's been accelerated with the red bars, and the two jumps -- one in '96 and then more recently after the accident.

The other thing that's happened is not only have -- we've accelerated the program in three ways, basically. More money into the program, speedier installation of TCAS into the planes, and also we've expanded the number of planes into which it's being installed.

One example of that is that following the C-141 accident, the Air Force decided to increase by about 50 percent, or 43 planes, the number of C-141s that would receive this installation.

As you know, there's a law that says that planes should not be upgraded or modernized if they have only five years of life left. The Air Force is going to go to Congress and ask if they can get an exception from that law in order to be able to upgrade some C-141s that have less than five years flying life left. The C-141 fleet is gradually being retired and it will be replaced by other aircraft, notably the C-17.

With that, I will take your questions.

Q: Statements out of Saudi Arabia yesterday didn't seem to [be] very clear. They suggest possibly investigation of the Khobar Towers bombing was at an end or nearing an end. Do you know or does the Pentagon know whether the Saudis have completed this investigation? And are you all frustrated that you don't seem to be getting the results out of this?

A: Well, first of all, as you know, it's the FBI that is working directly with the Saudis on the investigation of the terrorist attack against the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996. That investigation, from all our knowledge, is continuing on the Saudi side as well as the U.S. side. We have been working cooperatively with the Saudis on that, and we continue to do so. We've received no official word, and I checked this with the FBI yesterday; no official word from the Saudis that they have completed their investigation.

Q: Do you feel any frustration at that?

A: We're frustrated that we haven't been able to answer this very complex question, but it's not always easy to, as the German journalists in this room know from their own experience at investigating terrorist acts in Germany. Sometimes it takes a very long while to sort out who's responsible for a terrorist act. This is one of those frustrating cases where it's taking a long time. Everybody would like to be able to bring this case to closure. Everybody would like to bring the culprits to justice, and we'll continue to work to be able to do that.

Q: Do you have any confidence that this thing will be settled, that culprits will be identified and punished?

A: I am always hopeful that justice will be done.

Q: Going back to the TCAS for a moment. As you noted, the accident investigation cited the poor traffic, air traffic control in that region as one of the contributing factors to the accident. Is the United States still flying planes, military planes, in that area that are not equipped with collision avoidance alarms? Has there been any consideration to perhaps assigning only planes with the latest safety equipment to that area if the air traffic is not as up to snuff?

A: First of all, as you can imagine, there have been a number of U.S. military planes flying in that area over the last two weeks to prepare for and support the President's visit, and they have had a flawless safety record.

I can't answer that question directly. We do have several experts from the Air Force here, and maybe one of them could give us the answer.

The important point here is that the Air Force is moving more aggressively to install not only TCAS, but also the ground proximity warning radar and other safety enhancements into its planes. I assume that there still are planes that do not have this TCAS installed that have been flying in the African region, but they're working as fast as they can to improve all of their passenger and cargo planes.

Q: Given the investigation's conclusion that, as you said, although the lack of TCAS didn't cause the accident, it could have prevented it...

A: Might have prevented it.

Q: I thought the word was "could" have prevented it, but in any event, in retrospect, wouldn't you concede that in retrospect it was probably a mistake to operate that plane without TCAS in that environment?

A: I want to reiterate what I said earlier, that mid-air collision is a very, very low cause of accidents among Air Force planes and among planes generally. There are far more common causes of accidents in mid-air collision.

Having said that, the Air Force and the entire Defense Department, is committed to taking every safety step possible. One of those is installing TCAS into the passenger and cargo fleet.

Q: Why have military planes lagged civil aviation on that particular feature?

A: I think there are several reasons why. First is because mid-air collisions are a very low cause of accidents and fatalities. If you were making an allocation of safety dollars, you would turn to other improvements far sooner than you would turn to TCAS and the one they did turn to is installing the ground proximity warning radar.

As a matter of fact what they're trying to do now, as often as possible, is install both systems or a galaxy of systems all at once because it's cheaper once you take the plane off the flight line and send it to the repair bay to do several things at once than to do them separately.

So one was looking at the accidents caused by mid-air collisions and making a calculation as to how best to spend safety money. The second was that many of the Air Force planes have very long lives. Many of them are older than you are. They were made long before these systems were required for civil aircraft, and they've begun to install them late in their live as they go in for scheduled maintenance. So there are a variety of reasons, but those are the main two. But the point is, there's a commitment now to getting this done.

Q: If you're talking about ground proximity warnings and that sort of thing, are you including the kind of extended range warning systems that have [been] ordered in the commercial fleet now?

A: Yes.

Q: So the same thing is going in the military fleet as in the commercial?

A: Yes. You're talking about this... I guess it is called EGPWS, that's the extended...

Q: It gives you 60 seconds instead of 10...?

A: I don't know the technical parameters, but I assume that's correct.

Q: There's a GAO report coming out today which audited the whole federal government and was quite critical of the Defense Department in inventory and its management. Specifically, the Department has lost track of some expensive items such as aircraft engines. What's DoD's reaction to the report?

A: We know we could do a better job of keeping track of the millions and millions of pieces of equipment we have spread all around the world. The genesis of this study was a law that attempts to impose on the government the same types of balance sheet accounting that businesses live under, and that is to put together a balance sheet of assets and liabilities.

The government traditionally has not thought in these terms, and it requires new thinking on the part of the government, and we're trying to adjust to the new requirements with new thinking.

I believe that many of the pieces of equipment that the auditors may have classified as being lost may actually be in transit or have arrived some place before the paperwork arrived back in the green eyeshade accounts' offices here in Washington for tracking. But logistics and the management of equipment is something in which this department has made major, major investments over the last ten years or so, particularly after the Gulf War, when everybody knows there was a lot of lost equipment. And one of the things we've done to track the equipment more effectively is to use bar coding, like they do on cereal boxes in Safeway, that can be read very quickly as equipment is offloaded from Marine ships, for instance, during amphibious landings so they know where the ammunition is being sent and where tanks are going, etc. We are trying to do a better job, but we have a long way to go.

Q: So the Department, if I understand you correctly, the Department doesn't think that these items classified as lost are actually lost?

A: I said in some cases I don't believe they will turn out to be lost.

Q: Is there some concern within the Department about, for example, an Avenger missile launcher not being accounted for?

A: We're always concerned if we can't locate all our equipment immediately. As I said, we're trying to do a better job of keeping track of the equipment we had. I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that we can follow and precisely locate every single piece of equipment we've ever bought. It would be foolish for me to do that. But we are trying to do a better job of tracking this equipment and we realize it's something we have to devote more time and effort to, and we're trying to do that.

Having said that, I think you're asking a different question than the army of accountants is asking about the Defense Department financial statements. What they're trying to do is calculate what our assets are on the one hand and what our liabilities are on the other hand. That requires a fairly major effort by an army of auditors and accountants trying to figure out what the value of Fort Sill, Oklahoma is, or the value of the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor; and also keeping track of a fairly huge inventory of equipment spread all around the world.

Q: Do you think that whole entire exercise of trying to apply private sector accounting standards to a public sector thing, do you think that's a useful thing? And how much would it cost the Pentagon to try to comply with this and try to do this?

A: Certainly... One, I do think it's useful. I think it's very useful for us, for instance, to have a better idea of our environmental liabilities. I think it's useful for us to calculate the liability of disposing of a nuclear carrier at the time we buy that carrier, or a nuclear submarine at the time we buy that submarine. I do think that's useful. I think also that the leadership of the Department thinks that that is useful.

Obviously, we have to keep this effort in balance. We don't want to turn an army of warriors into an army of auditors, so we are trying to find the balance of meeting these new standards as quickly and as effectively as possible without making every soldier turn in his helmet for a green eyeshade. That's one of the reasons it's taking us some time, but we will do better on this next year than we've done this year, and we'll do better the year after that than we did next year.

Q: Can I ask you about another GAO report? There's a draft report that's circulating that suggests that the cost of buying, overhauling, maintaining and operating nuclear aircraft carriers is gravely in excess of what it costs for a conventional carrier, but, as we found in this recent deployment, both seem to work equally well when it's time to use them. Can you comment on whether the Department is at all considering whether they should use conventionally fueled carriers in the future?

A: First if all, this argument -- conventional versus nuclear carriers -- is one of the oldest arguments, one of the oldest themes of GAO reports in the history of the U.S. military, probably. I'll bet David Martin, who's been around here some time, can remember five or eight times in the last 20 years when this issue has been raised by somebody in Congress or outside of Congress. I won't force him to count the number of times. But it is an old chestnut. But just because an argument is an old chestnut, doesn't mean it's not worthy of more study.

Clearly the analysis depends on a number of variables such as the price of oil which changes over time. But let me just say several things about this particular report. The Navy is convinced that nuclear carriers make more sense than conventional carriers. One of the reasons it's convinced is that nuclear carriers are more flexible, they can steam for longer periods of time without support, they can carry 50 percent more supplies such as ammunition, food, etc., so they have much greater independent sustainability than conventionally powered carriers do.

In a world where we provide the worldwide military presence, and where our ability to use ports is not always certain, I think the Navy feels that's a very valuable margin of enhanced performance.

Having said that, Secretary Dalton did say on the Hill recently, I think last week, that the Navy, of course, will once again study the comparative economic merits between nuclear and conventionally powered carriers. So one of the reasons that this is an old chestnut issue is that it always lends itself to restudy, and it will be restudied again. I think every time there's a new class of carriers on the drawing board or contemplated being on the drawing board, people raise this question as to whether it's appropriate to continue building nuclear versus conventionally powered carriers.

Q: The price difference that was cited of over $9 billion over the 50 year life of a carrier, is that about what your estimates are? Does that overstate...

A: No, that overstates the case, and I can't tell you exactly what the Navy's estimates are. I'm sure they'd be able to give you clear estimates on that. But the Navy insists that the margin is much different. But the question is, what do you want to pay for improved maneuverability? What do you want to pay for improved combat power? What do you want to pay for improved sustainability? I think the Navy has made the decision that paying more for nuclear carriers pays off in terms of enhanced battle effectiveness.

Q: On another topic, what is the status of your revision of the report, which according to the Miami Herald, stated that Cuba does not represent a significant threat to U.S. national security?

A: I don't know why you used the term "revision." There was, I think, an inaccurate newspaper report today suggesting that Secretary Cohen is delaying this report in order to revise it. Secretary Cohen has not seen the report yet. He's seen it when it's been held up like this, but he has not had a chance to read the report, and I don't even think he's received a final version of the report yet.

Many reports are sent to Congress under the Secretary's signature. On a report dealing with a politically supercharged issue like Cuba, he wanted to read the report before it went to Congress, and he will have a chance to do that, but he hasn't had a chance to do that yet.

When he does read the report, one of the things he's going to look at carefully is whether enough of the classified report has made its way into the unclassified report that can be made public. In other words, to make sure that the unclassified report is a true mirror of what's in the classified report. I suspect that will take a couple more days for him to complete.

Q: So there will be an unclassified version that he'll release and make copies of?

A: Yes. Yes, there will be an unclassified version that will be released.

Q: And no assessment until he finishes?

A: Well, there's not that assessment. There have been assessments in the past of the strength of the Cuban military. There was a fairly detailed assessment that was made public by the DIA a couple of years ago. It's available on the Internet. It was presented to Congress and you can go read that report, and you can make a decision whether the strength of the Cuban military has changed dramatically in the last two or three years.

But we know that the Cuban military is small. We know that it only has about 60,000 people in it. We know it's primarily a defensive force. We know that it spends, that members of the military spend a lot of time, maybe up to 50 percent of their time, on self-maintenance, self-sustenance. Growing their own food, repairing their vehicles, etc. So we know a lot about the Cuban military, and a lot of this has been published before, and I invite you all to go back and look at it.

Q: In general, what would you say has happened in the last two years since the last DIA report was done?

A: Well, we all know that the Cuban economy has been in the tank, and usually you have to have a strong economy to sustain a strong military. And I'd say that's probably been the greatest pressure that the Cuban military has had to deal with over the last couple of years.

Q: What does the Secretary think of General Sheehan's suggestion that there should be some sort of military contacts with the Cuban military?

A: I don't know. I haven't discussed that with him.

Q: What's the Secretary's time table for a decision on the F/A-18 in terms of wing drop? And I wonder if you would characterize the level of competence in the program given another GAO report a week or so ago about the ability of the Navy to meet the time tables and the budgets...

A: Well, first of all, the F/A-18 program has been running ahead of schedule and below budget, so there is some track record of being able to meet the requirements, meet or exceed the requirements.

Having said that on this particular problem, the so-called wing drop problem, the Secretary has not been briefed yet on the tests for the new solution that took place. I think that will happen either later this week or early next week. In terms of his degree of confidence in the fix, I don't think I can evaluate that until he's been briefed on it.

Q: In terms of the broader program given the concerns that GAO raises?

A: He's said publicly, in the past, that this is a program that has been operating, as I said, below cost and ahead of schedule. That is a sign of good management of the F/A-18E/F program. Now obviously things can change, but he doesn't believe that's just good luck. He believes that good luck's good management as well.

As you know, in general, the Pentagon has made enormous efforts to improve its contracting procedures over the last ten years, and to find ways to make the whole acquisition process, particularly for major weapons, more predictable and less subject to unpleasant surprises. But any time you're dealing with advanced technology, you have to, I think, expect surprises to occur from time to time. This was one of them.

The Navy is confident that the test works and they'll have a chance to brief both the Deputy Secretary and the Secretary in the next couple of days.

Q: One more follow-up on the nuclear carrier question. The United States has not yet, but will eventually run out of non-nuclear carriers to base at Yokuska, Japan where the Japanese government has been opposed to having a nuclear carrier based there. What are you going to do at that point when you don't have any more fossil fuel carriers to put there? Is there any consideration of making some fossil fuel carriers for that kind of a situation?

A: I'm not sure I accept your description of the Japanese government view. It is true right now we have a conventional carrier there, the Independence. When the Independence leaves, she'll be replaced by another conventional carrier, but ultimately we're going to run out of conventional carriers at the current plan.

I think that one of the Japanese concerns is making significant maintenance actions to the propulsion system in Japan, and that's something that could be done in the United States. Other significant maintenance could be done in Japan, but the propulsion systems could be taken care of elsewhere. That's one type of change that could be made to accommodate Japanese concerns.

Q: I want to follow up on the discussion last week about the F-22. We were told here last week that the test program for the F-22 would be accelerated before a production decision is made at the end of the year.

On Friday the Air Force said there is no plan to accelerate the test program. Can you clarify that situation for us?

A: I talked to the Air Force about that, and without having my last week's transcript in front of me, I said there was an opportunity to accelerate the program and it could be accelerated.

My understanding is that the F-22 testing has been interrupted because, one reason was that, the last plane they flew was flown in Georgia. They took it apart. They transported it in a dismantled form by C-5 out to Edwards Air Force Base, I guess, in California or Nellis or some place where they're going to test it in the West. And they're putting the thing back together, and they should start testing again in April, I believe.

I had a long discussion with the head of the F-22 program earlier this week or late last week, and it was my impression that one of the things they may be able to do is to fly it more frequently and accelerate the testing. Whether they've decided to do that, I can't say at this stage.

Q: Can you tell us what you said about how much they can accelerate, given that they, by their own plans, only have two airplanes available?

A: I can't tell you that, no.

Q: You just characterized the F/A-18 as running ahead of schedule and below budget, and they're certainly flying those planes a great deal. How would you contrast or how would you compare the F/A-18 with the F-22 program?

A: One is 1970s or '80s technology and one is 21st Century technology.

Q: (inaudible)

A: No, I didn't say that at all. I think we're talking about entirely different generations of airplanes. I think that basically the F/A-18E/F is a modification to a plane that's been in the fleet for some time. The F-22 is a totally new airplane. It has stealth characteristics. It has a new design. And it's a plane that the Air Force believes is going quite well. And one of the... There are several reasons for that. One goes back to a point I made earlier that the Pentagon has tried to change the way in which it designs and builds major weapons. Much more of this has been able to be done by computer, in wind tunnels, through new design techniques than in the past. The Air Force also thinks that there is a certain amount of testing that can take the place of actual flight testing. Obviously you can't replace flight testing and they're not trying to replace flight testing, but there has been an awful lot of wind tunnel testing, there's been a lot of avionics testing, and a lot of sort of computerized testing of the plane at every stage of its development.

Planes now are made sort of like automobiles. They're made all over the place. They're rarely made in just one plant where you start from some metal and turn it into an airplane. The wings are made one place, and they're married with the fuselages made in another place. The avionics come in from other parts of the country. And that's the way this plane is being assembled, and computerization is one of the things that helps all this stuff fit together the way it's planned to be.

I talked to Brigadier General Carlson about this, and he was quite confident that the program was going well.

Q: Going back to Cuba for just a second, General Sheehan's trip to Cuba, is that part of any kind of informal or formal or any other kind of military-to-military contacts with Cuba? Or he's there on his own? Has he offered to be debriefed by...

A: I haven't had a chance to talk with General Sheehan about this. As you know, when he was the commander of the Atlantic Command, Guantanamo Bay was in his area of responsibility, and he went down there and met from time to time with Cuban officials as part of his job as the U.S. Commander in the area, and developed some contacts with Cuban officials. My understanding is that this is a private visit that he was invited to make by the Cubans. I have not talked to him. I do not know whether he has made an official report to the Pentagon on this visit.

Q: Are there any sort of military-to-military contacts of a formal or informal manner brewing? Or in the works?

A: There are from, time to time, standardized contacts at Guantanamo Bay between the commanders there and commanders of the opposing Cuban forces, of the forces across the border. But beyond that, I don't think there are regular contacts.

Q: Just one more on the air safety thing. Do you have any idea what percentage of installations are completed at this point?

A: I think that... Twenty-three percent in the Air Force have been completed so far. Passenger and cargo. No trainers yet?

Voice: There are trainers being delivered with TCAS on them.

A: These gentlemen can give you a full rundown afterwards.

Q: Does Secretary Cohen only fly on planes which are now fully equipped with both...

A: No, because he's flown on the C-17 and the C-17 doesn't have those systems. That's one of the planes that will be back-fitted over the next couple of years, at least the ones that are already...

Q: ...model aircraft that are being outfitted. Does he only fly on ones that have been equipped?

A: I believe that the 707s and the 747s he flies on have been retrofitted with these systems, but I can't say that for sure. I don't ask the pilots when I get on the plane what their equipment is. I assume the pilots are prepared to do their job regardless of the equipment.

Q: Can you respond to criticism of the Army, especially General Reimer, with regard to the General Hale investigation, General Hale being able to resign rapidly, swiftly, from a new duty post, being able to resign although the matter was already under investigation? And there is also an allegation that a letter was written to Secretary Cohen that was not responded to by, I think, Mrs. Carpino.

A: First, this is under investigation by the Department Inspector General and I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on any aspect of the case until that investigation is complete.

The letter, first of all Secretary Cohen takes some timely response to correspondence very seriously, and he's frustrated that the Pentagon mail processing system seems designed to make timely response difficult. They come in one place and it takes them a long while to percolate up to the right office.

I believe that letter has made its way to his office after his staff read about it in the press on Saturday, and I'm sure it will be answered in the appropriate way.

Q: And then the matter of resignation of General Hale so that he would be out...

A: That's an element of the case that I don't think is appropriate for me to comment on because it is part of the investigation that's going on now.

Press: Thank you.

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