Tuesday, February 22, 2000 - 2:08 EST
Q: Better late than never.
Mr. Bacon: With that greeting, I might just leave! (Laughter.)
Anyway, welcome to our briefing, timely as always. Let me start with two announcements. First, tomorrow afternoon at 3:45, Secretary Cohen and his French colleague, Alain Richard, will have a press conference here following their bilateral meetings tomorrow afternoon. And that, again, will be at 3:45, 1545, here tomorrow.
Second, as you know, one of Secretary Cohen's goals this year is to improve military housing, and he's announced a plan to increase the basic allowance for housing, the so-called BAH, in two ways.
First, right now the law specifies that people living off base and receiving a basic allowance for housing should pay 15 percent of the housing costs. In other words, if the cost were a thousand dollars in their area, the average cost of housing for their grade, they would get $850 from the government and they would pay $150 from their own pocket. That's what the law says; they're supposed to have an out-of- pocket expense of 15 percent of the total cost of housing. In fact, the average out-of-pocket cost is 19 percent, so they would end up paying -- in my example of a thousand dollars, they would end up paying $190 per month rather than $150 per month. So the first thing that Secretary Cohen announced was to bring all of the out-of-pocket costs down to the level of 15 percent, from an average of 19 percent.
The second was, over five years, to eliminate this gap, this out-of-pocket expenditure entirely. So over the next five years, it would gradually be stepped down until at the end of the five-year period, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines living off-base would not have to pay anything out of pocket.
Every year the amount of the average housing cost is set by an independent firm, and it changes. Sometimes they go down in certain areas of the country, sometimes they go up.
Due to a peculiar combination of circumstances involving a law that was passed in 1997, this year there would have been inequitable treatment for people of the same grade in some bases. In other words, some people would have received less money from the government than other people of the same grade. This is a problem that became of great concern to the people who were receiving less. If you were an E-7 and you were living next to another E-7 in a neighborhood off base and you were receiving less money for your housing than your neighbor, you would be upset. So, for a cost of about $27 million, we are going to fix this small but annoying inequity that some soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were experiencing.
And we will do that and then proceed next year, in 2001, with the plan to bring the average out-of-pocket expenditure on housing for off-base to 15 percent for everybody, and then over the next four years beyond that, to eliminate the out-of-pocket costs altogether.
Q: So you're switching back the whole thing -- (off mike)?
Mr. Bacon: No, no, we're not doing anything. What we're doing is eliminating an inequity that occurred this year alone, in the year 2000, because of a legal change that took place in 1997. And that inequity, in the simplest possible terms, meant that if you are, for instance, a major living next to another major, you might get slightly less for your housing than your neighbor. And that inequity will be eliminated.
Now, the reason you might get less is that in the areas of the country where housing costs declined, if the decline took place between 1999 and 2000 calendar years, if you were, for instance, getting $850 a month for your housing, and the housing costs declined, if you stayed in your house, your housing allowance wouldn't change. You would continue to get the same amount from the government, in the earlier example $850. That would not change. But if your neighbor of the same rank moved out and a new neighbor of the same rank moved in after 2000, in an area where the housing costs had declined, then he would get less. He might get only $820 from the government per month, where you were getting $850. So to eliminate that inequity will cost $27 million. We're protecting people in geographical areas so people of the same rank get the same amount for housing from the military.
Q: On the China white paper yesterday, the White House has made clear U.S. policy, that it would view very seriously any attack on Taiwan. How does the Pentagon feel about this? And do you plan any show of force at all? Is the United States planning any show of force in the South China Sea to emphasize this?
Mr. Bacon: We feel the same way the White House feels about it.
Q: No -- (off mike) --
Mr. Bacon: Our policy is very clear. We have a one-China policy. Disputes between China and Taiwan should be settled peacefully.
The Chinese have issued a white paper that contains some rhetorical threats, but -- and we don't think those threats are helpful, but they are -- it is only rhetoric at this stage. We plan no change in force dispositions, no change in our naval dispositions in the area at this stage. Obviously, we'll watch this situation very closely.
Q: Ken, the Chinese just yesterday announced that they were demanding Taiwan join the mainland, that this was, I think, something that Taiwan was being expected to do. Is this approach of non-negotiation acceptable to the United States?
Mr. Bacon: Well, you've characterized it as non-negotiation. I'm not sure that that is the characterization that I would use. What they said was, they were asking for a firm deadline for unification, not an indefinite deadline for unification. That's my understanding of what the white paper said.
Our policy is very clear. There's a one-China policy. Any disputes about timing, between the two, China and Taiwan, should be resolved peacefully. And that's the policy. So we reject threats about the use of force.
Q: And do you reject the use of deadlines?
Mr. Bacon: It is for Taiwan and China to sort out this timetable on their own.
Q: If China were to ever make good on this threat and attack Taiwan because of its failure to set any sort of firm deadline, would the United States come to the aid of Taiwan?
Mr. Bacon: Well, there are a number of hypothetical questions there, but let me stick to the facts, and the facts are the Taiwan Relations Act. The Taiwan Relations Act says that we would view any use of force with grave concern, and we would consult with Congress over the appropriate response.
Q: Over the last several years, conventional wisdom of outside military experts has been that, while threatening an invasion of Taiwan would be -- it is easy to do that -- for China to actually carry out such an invasion would be difficult given the state of its military, its lift capabilities, air force, that sort of thing.
Can you tell us whether that assessment at all has changed with China's program to modernize its military forces? Is it more capable today of carrying out an invasion, or is it some years away from having that capability?
Mr. Bacon: Our assessment that it would be extremely difficult for China to carry out an invasion has not changed.
Q: Yeah, Ken, another subject. Given the success of the shuttle radar mission and the fact that the Department of Defense is going to use a lot of that data, how long will it be before that information begins to find its way into actual Department of Defense systems, planning, databases, that sort of thing?
Mr. Bacon: Well, that is a very good question, and I don't know the answer. The Shuttle, as I understand it, was able to map over 99.5 percent of the Earth. Much of that was mapped -- almost all of it was mapped more than once. So there is a significant amount of data for NIMA [National Imagery and Mapping Agency] to go through, and I just don't know how long that will take. Obviously, they ought to prioritize their tasks and decide which areas they want to map most urgently.
Q: Can you bring us up to date on what U.S. troops are doing in Mitrovica today and what sort of the strategy and plan is for their future deployment? How long will they stay?
Mr. Bacon: Our troops in Mitrovica today -- first of all, NATO troops in Mitrovica today, KFOR troops -- are continuing to search for illegal weapons and for other problems that they might find.
The U.S. troops are in reserve, assisting in that today. I anticipate that they'll be there several more days and then return to their own sector. They went there for a specific mission and for a short period of time, and when that mission, which is searching for weapons, is concluded, they will return to their sector.
Q: "Several more days" and you said also for "just a few days." They had said over the weekend it was a five-day deployment. Is that still accurate?
Mr. Bacon: I think "five" fits into "several," and two of those days have already been used up. So without getting pinned down on exactly when they'll come back, they'll come back relatively soon.
Q: Could you just share the impression here of the troop buildup north of Kosovo? Is it -- is it standard buildup, or is it what Yugoslavia claimed it was, which was just a military exercise? And talk about what kind of response the peacekeepers have, that the military might have the peacekeepers have -- if the military started something happening?
Mr. Bacon: I don't want to get into contingency plans, but my understanding is that north of Kosovo there has not been a significant change in troop levels in Serbia. There have been some comments over the last couple of days by the NATO secretary general, Lord Robertson, about buildup in the south -- that is, south of Kosovo, near the Macedonian border. And there has been some buildup of MUP troops there over the last few months, but nothing significant in recent weeks.
There are about 4 (thousand) to 5,000 VJ, that is, Serb Army troops, garrisoned south of Kosovo near the Macedonian border, and they have been there pretty much since the end of the -- since the Yugoslav troops pulled out of Kosovo. In the fall, they were joined by some MUP troops, a couple of hundred MUP troops and they sort of ebb and flow, but they've been there pretty much since the fall. So sometimes a few more will come in, sometimes some go out. But there hasn't been a significant buildup there in the last couple of weeks.
And they are, obviously, as concerned about why the special forces, the MUP troops went there in the fall, and what their plans are. But the fact is that there hasn't been major changes in the size of that force for several months.
Q: Well why is this coming up now? Why would he see fit to start talking about it now?
Mr. Bacon: Well, it's an issue of continuing concern. And, obviously, we look at the movements of Yugoslav or Serbian forces very closely, and it's something we continue to monitor.
Q: Are these troops seen as a threat to Macedonia?
Mr. Bacon: No.
Q: Is there a significant Albanian population in that part of Serbia?
Mr. Bacon: There is.
Q: There is.
Mr. Bacon: There is -- I'd say there are probably about 100,000 Albanians -- Kosovar Albanians or Albanians living in that part of Serbia. We're talking about an area that's just over the Kosovo border.
Q: To the East, right?
Mr. Bacon: Yeah, it's to the East, Southeast.
Q: And what about Montenegro, is there any -- I realize that Montenegro is part of what's left of Yugoslavia, but is there any concern that Montenegro is threatened by forces from Serbia proper?
Mr. Bacon: There's no new concern in that regard.
Q: Do you have anything on reports that Secretary Cohen promises to take military action for the protection of Montenegro?
Mr. Bacon: I don't have anything new on that. Obviously, we're watching developments there very carefully and we assume that the Serbs will continue to deal with Montenegro as they have recently.
Q: According to European reports, there was a statement, attributed to Secretary of Defense William Cohen, that the U.S. and NATO are planning somehow again another air campaign against Yugoslavia. Do you have anything on that?
Mr. Bacon: No. I know of no plans for another air campaign in Yugoslavia, if conditions stay the way they are now.
Q: Ken, is there any concern that some of our European allies who have sectors have drawn down their troop levels in those sectors -- say, the French sector -- too much and that they don't have really enough troops in there to prevent the problems that we've seen in Mitrovica, and so they have to call on us to come out of our sector?
Mr. Bacon: Well, first of all, many countries, including the U.S., have drawn down their troops from the high points in Kosovo, in KFOR. And it's up to every country to determine and to provide the number of troops it needs to perform its assigned jobs in its sector.
Our biggest concern recently has been with police, who ultimately will take over -- who should be there to take over the basic law and order functions that are lacking in parts of Kosovo. And there has been some increase in the number of police forces in the last couple of weeks. We believe -- and I think KFOR believes, NATO believes -- that we need many more police in Kosovo. So there is an effort on the part of the European Union and other countries to increase the number of police in Kosovo.
The United States had contributed a little over 400 police to Kosovo, which was our quota. We are now in the process of increasing that to 550. And we plan to go higher, to 680, as soon as we can. So we have provided the number of police we've been required, and in fact more.
There's overall been an increase in deployments or there have been promised increases of about a thousand from all of the countries combined. That would bring the total number from 2,200 up to about 3,300. But we would like to see the force larger than that -- the police force.
Q: But back to the question of troop levels. Was the French sector essentially undermanned, and is that what required this temporary deployment of U.S. troops out of sector?
Mr. Bacon: No. What required the temporary deployment was some intelligence we had about potential problems over the next few days in Mitrovica. The KFOR commander decided that it was appropriate to ask for some out-of-area support. We agreed with that and we provided support on a temporary basis. And we are in the process of doing that now, but after the current tasks are over -- that is, searching for weapons -- our forces will return to their sector.
Q: Do you see, have any indication of Milosevic or his colleagues trying to influence events in Mitrovica with the community there, whatever -- (inaudible) -- he's behind some of this trouble?
Mr. Bacon: I don't have any new evidence on that. He makes incendiary statements from time to time, but I have to assume that he's gotten the message that words are a lot cheaper than actions. And I don't think he's done much to stir up additional trouble, from what I can see. I did see a quote, you know, Milosevic has made comments about perhaps trying to come back into Kosovo or liberate Kosovo. Secretary General Robertson said the other day there may be quite a lot of stupid people in Belgrade, but I don't think there are people stupid enough to think that they can come back into Kosovo again.
Q: Ken, Alain Richard said at a breakfast with reporters this morning that the international community here in the coming year should try to clarify the political parameters that were set by this whole agreement over Kosovo. He said this in the context of the recent bombing, suggesting that perhaps the deal that gave substantial autonomy to Kosovo while at the same time saying that you couldn't break away was not clear enough. He seemed to suggest that there are unrealistic goals there, given the violence. And I'm wondering how the United States felt about whether these parameters needed to be clarified and whether there is some feeling here now that -- amid the violence, that it's just going to be impossible for these people to live together without some kind of cantonment situation.
Mr. Bacon: Well, I didn't hear what Minister Richard said, so I'm probably safer not commenting on what he said.
Maybe he'll repeat it tomorrow, and then people can ask him exactly what he means and what his views are about what needs to be changed.
Q: Well mainly -- well, he didn't refer so much to whether or not these people can live together. But he did say that he thought -- he seemed to suggest that it was vague to say that "You get substantial autonomy; at the same time, you can't break away."
Mr. Bacon: Well, as I said, Minister Richard will be here tomorrow. And you and others can ask him exactly what he did mean by that and find out what his prescription for the future is.
Q: He said Kosovo will likely be the theme of discussions between Secretary Cohen tomorrow and Alain Richard.
Mr. Bacon: Well, I think we'll want to talk about some elements of Kosovo that go beyond Mitrovica. Obviously, we'll want to talk about EuroCorps and what his plans are, when it takes over the headquarters operation in Kosovo. I think we'll talk about the European Security and Defense Identity and our support for that, and also our support for increasing the defense and military capability of our European allies.
Secretary Cohen has been very outspoken in his belief that Europeans have to start increasing defense spending and do more to build up their own forces and defenses, and I am sure that will be an element of the discussion. Of course, the template for that, the outline for what all members of NATO should do, emerged from the NATO summit here in April in 1999. And that laid out the areas in which every NATO member is expected to increase capabilities, the Defense Capabilities Initiative.
I also think there will be some discussion of National Missile Defense, our national missile defense plan, where we stand on that program and where we stand in our dealings with the Russians.
Q: Another subject, Indonesia. To what extent has the Pentagon resumed military-to-military contacts with Indonesia and particularly training? Have you resumed training of Indonesian military forces?
Mr. Bacon: The answer is to an extremely limited extent. We have essentially taken seven Indonesians out of limbo in the United States and allowed them to return to training.
There were some Indonesian students here.
When we discontinued training relationships with Indonesia, these students that were over here were pulled from their training classes and didn't do any training, but they remained in the United States. And the decision we've made is to return these seven students to their training, and when that's completed, they'll go back to Indonesia. So that's the extent. It's basically completing a course that we had started earlier.
Q: But beyond that, you haven't resumed military training? There's no plans for any other training other than that?
Mr. Bacon: Not at this time.
Q: Ken, between 80,000 and 150,000 people marched through San Juan yesterday to demand that the Navy leave Vieques. Does that kind of outpouring of support for a march that the governor had urged people not to take part in, give the department any second thoughts about the time and effort it's willing to invest to try to turn public opinion around and get the range reopened with public support?
Mr. Bacon: Well, I suppose the good news is the march was in San Juan, not in Vieques. (Laughter.) But other than that, I don't think I'll comment on it. I don't comment on politics in Michigan or Arizona or South Carolina. I don't think I'll comment on politics in Vieques today -- or in Puerto Rico.
Q: The housing allowance. Start with a base line of the program the secretary announced early in January. Things were going to happen on a certain deadline -- certain time line.
Mr. Bacon: Right.
Q: Is there anything in that program that has changed -- will happen later, will not happen this year -- to accommodate this, or is the $27 million purely added if the -- (inaudible) -- the program is looked at?
Mr. Bacon: Yeah, I'm glad you asked about that. First of all, this was brought to our attention in two ways -- one from members of the military, obviously, who saw that as they moved into an area where housing costs had declined, that they were getting paid less than their neighbors.
But also, three members of Congress in particular -- Chet Edwards, Representative Edwards, who represents the district that includes Fort Hood; Representative Norman Dicks; and Representative Murtha, John Murtha -- all had highlighted this as issues with members of the military who lived in their districts or who had contacted them. Representatives Murtha and Dicks had written Secretary Cohen a letter about this highlighting the problem.
To put this into perspective, the changes that Secretary Cohen mentioned, that is bringing the out-of-pocket costs down to 15 percent for everybody in 2000, fiscal year 2000, and then gradually eliminating the out-of-pocket costs altogether over five years, would cost a little over $3 billion.
This fix for the current fiscal year 2000 will cost $27 million. We haven't exactly figured out how we're going to pay for that $27 million yet, but it's the right thing to do. It equalizes the payments that people get, and it avoids an irritant that was deflecting attention from the bigger program of trying to lift housing compensation for people living off-base.
Q: Just to further clarify, so this means that there will be some people who actually be paying less than 15 percent now, doesn't it? If you're in an area where the rate had dropped, and you were going to be paying 15 under that lower rate, if the department's now going to pay more, then you're actually going to be paying 13 or 14 --
Q: If you transfer into an area where it's -- (off mike) --
Mr. Bacon: This is an extremely complex area, but let me -- and I hesitate to make a sweeping statement, but start from this proposition, this factual proposition: that the average out-of-pocket cost has been 19 percent, not 15 percent. So my guess is, in some areas it'll bring people closer to the 15 percent out-of-pocket cost. I don't know whether what you said will occur. I wouldn't rule out in the military that there will be a few cases where people will pay less than 15 percent, but that's not the plan.
Q: Is this in fact putting a floor under last -- for last year's rates in places where they dropped this year?
Mr. Bacon: Exactly right.
Mr. Bacon: If I'd said it that clearly -- (laughter) -- everybody would have -- understand it immediately.
Q: Is there a plan to keep that floor in place through the years ahead?
Mr. Bacon: Yeah, although it basically phases itself out, one, as the 15 percent limit on out-of-pocket costs becomes firm, rather than squishy, as it is now; and two, as we phase out the out-of-pocket cost altogether, this whole problem will go away. And it'll go away in relatively few years.
Q: Different subject. Could you just briefly bring us up to date on the Pentagon review of Dr. Deutch? Have you completed it yet? Do you have any estimated time of completing it? And could you go back and just clarify a couple of points, which is, are you yet at the point of reviewing any of his activities when he served in this building?
Mr. Bacon: Let me stop -- I didn't ask anybody about that today. I'm just not prepared to answer the question, and I'll get the answers and get back to you.
Q: Let's go back to China just for one moment. About China's military capability, I understand they've taken delivery or they're taking delivery of some Russian naval vessels.
Does that significantly -- does that represent any significant increase in their capability, to have Russian ships join part of their Navy, if you know? Are you familiar --
Mr. Bacon: Not immediately and not in the small numbers that have occurred so far. That is one ship, as I understand it. Obviously, they'llhave to train to learn how to use that ship and to integrate it into their force. Over time, it will lead to some increase in their naval capability, but one ship won't lead to a significant increase in their naval capability. They do plan, or have contracted to purchase, a few other ships and, over time, that will have some impact. But we're talking about a very small number of ships in a rather large navy.
Q: Same kind of question, but to the SU-27 Russian fighters that they have bought and, I think, an enhanced air-to-air missile that goes with that. Does that change anything?
Mr. Bacon: Well, obviously this is a question you can answer yourself. Any new equipment with higher capability will, over time, increase the capability of the overall force, but it takes time. It takes time to learn to use them, it takes time to integrate them, and the fact that China is improving its military should come as no surprise. It's no surprise. It was one of Deng Xiaoping's four modernizations. It happened to be the last modernization they got to. Now they are devoting more attention to modernizing their military than they were 10 or 15 years ago.
Q: Well, obviously we are well aware of China's modernization process. I guess we're just asking in these kinds of questions about whether there's an assessment about whether the strategic balance is shifting at all. Are these things that are just on the margin and aren't really changing the big picture, or are we starting to see that big picture change?
Mr. Bacon: The strategic balance between whom?
Q: Between Taiwan and China and how they'd match up militarily.
Mr. Bacon: I think it would be wrong to assume that all of China's military force is directed at part of its own territory, which is Taiwan.
Q: Just to follow on that, has there been any detected increase in the sealift capability of the Chinese military that would allow them greater capability to take Taiwan?
Mr. Bacon: I answered that question earlier. There has not been any significant change in their amphibious capability.
Q: Just one more small item. The L.A. Times today had sort of a cryptic mention that said two workers at the Tooele chemical weapons incinerator in Utah had been exposed to sarin nerve gas. Do you know anything about that?
Mr. Bacon: Yes. I know a lot about it. What would you like to know? (Laughter.)
Q: Is it true? Are the workers suffering from any effects from this? And does this represent a safety problem at the plant?
Mr. Bacon: First of all, alarms went off indicating the possibility of exposure. The workers did exactly what they were trained to do. They evacuated the area extremely quickly. And we have no evidence that there has been any problem caused. They have been extensively tested. They have shown no signs or symptoms of exposure to this gas, GB, a nerve agent. They've had blood analysis which has confirmed that the personnel were not exposed. And we don't see this as a significant problem. Now let me explain why.
There obviously are many detectors at this incinerator for nerve gas. It's one of our facilities for destroying our supplies of nerve gas. The detectors at Tooele are designed to detect parts of GB, or sarin, nerve gas per billion. And they are set to go off, the alarms are set to go off if they detect 20 percent of one part per billion. In other words, one-fifth of one part per billion. The term they use there is 20 percent of one time-weighted average. A time-weighted average is the amount of agent in the air which the surgeon general has determined is harmless to workers or persons for eight hours a day, 40 hours a week.
In other words, if they have one time-weighted average exposure in an average 40-hour week, that's considered harmless. These alarms go off when you detect 20 percent of that. And that's what happened here. The alarms went off, they immediately left, they moved into successively purer areas. And the analysis has shown that there is no sign of exposure and no symptoms.
Q: Was it essentially a false alarm or was there some leaking?
Mr. Bacon: I don't think you can say that. I think what you can say is the alarms are extremely delicate, extremely sensitive, and the reason they're so sensitive is to protect workers from any possibility of exposure.
Q: So there might have been a minute leak of some kind?
Mr. Bacon: There could have been -- there could have been a highly minute escape, but the system is prepared to deal with that. And there could have been a false alarm; I don't think that we know at this stage. But what we do know -- what we do know is that there is no sign or symptoms that the two workers were exposed to GB.
Q: Well, you just answered my -- when you say that they evacuated the area, you mean only two workers were in the area at the time, it wasn't --
Mr. Bacon: Right. Right. There were two workers repairing a part of the system, and one of the alarms went off while they were there and they immediately left the area they were in and went into another area. They were following the procedures precisely in that they were wearing the outfits they were supposed to wear. They did not have masks on, they had masks strapped to their hips ready to slap on at any minute. But their plans in a situation like this are to get out.
Q: When did this happen?
Mr. Bacon: This took place on the 20th of February at 9:30 a.m. Mountain Time.
Q: Is there an investigation still underway?
Mr. Bacon: Well, I think we've investigated this fully. I'm sure that they're looking at that. This is not classified as an accident, it's classified as the system working as designed.
Q: And, Ken, other than this alarm going off, was there any indication that any part of the plant was not working properly?
Mr. Bacon: No. No.
Q: People are back in the area where the alarm went off?
Mr. Bacon: That's my understanding, yes.
Q: Aside from the alarms, which are very sensitive, are there sensors that indicate how many parts per billion were released?
Mr. Bacon: That's a good question. I'm not aware -- I'm sure there are, but I don't know what they said.
Q: What was it they were fixing?
Mr. Bacon: They were fixing -- write this down. They were fixing --
Q: The alarm. (Laughter.)
Q: It's A-L-A-R-M.
Mr. Bacon: -- the heated discharge conveyor in the Deactivation Furnace Room.
Q: Does that suggest that there was something wrong with it? I mean, it was not --
Mr. Bacon: Well, I mean, things are -- is your -- do you ever fix your car? Do you ever fix your tape recorder? Things get fixed all the time. It doesn't mean --
Q: Thank you.
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