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DoD News Briefing: Admiral William Owens, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Presenters: Admiral William Owens, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
June 09, 1995 9:00 AM EDT

Thursday, June 8, 1995 - 9 a.m.

Admiral Owens: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to give you just a short statement here this morning. I can only echo the comments that have already been made by Secretary Perry and General Shalikashvili, General Joulwan, and Admiral Smith in-theater.

This has been a wonderful bit of news for us here in Washington. We've been working hard on this, in support of the theater commander, over the last few days. Of course, most importantly, this attests to this wonderful young man, Scott O'Grady, who was trained well, learned his lessons, and then executed his lessons when it mattered most. So, we're all just terribly proud of this young man and the way he managed to live for five-and-a-half days, in a very difficult situation, then, eventually, lead to his rescue.

Especially here, I want to point out that this NATO operation -- led by General Joulwan, Admiral Smith, General Mike Ryan and, particularly, General Select Marty Brendt, United States Marine Corps, who is commanding the 24th MEU, in the Adriatic, from the KEARSARGE -- was just a wonderful planned and ready capability that was responsible for the quick response that saved the life of this young pilot. But, it wouldn't have happened, again, without Scott O'Grady and his training, his dedication to doing things exactly right and, then, his ability to come together with the rescue forces at just the right moment.

Over the last five days, as I mentioned briefly, the entire Washington inter-agency community has been involved in trying to support, in any way possible, General Joulwan and his military commanders. There has been a continued effort to try to develop information -- to allow us to verify -- that the pilot was alive, and his location, so that we could implement this rescue operation.

The grand part of that effort, of course, was in-theater, but there has been a significant minute-by-minute effort here in Washington to apply all the resources we had, throughout the inter-agency, to this effort.

This NATO rescue operation was well-planned. The ready forces who came out in a matter of just hours, from the time that we had established contact with Scott on the ground, and then authenticated that it was Scott O'Grady -- just attests to the NATO joint military readiness in theater.

The contingency of a search and rescue operation is something that all of our pilots are well trained for. They are individually trained, the staffs are trained, and we hold many of these kinds of capabilities close because they are directly related to our ability to safely rescue our pilots when downed in the future, so many of the operational details of this are not releasable. But we do release the fact that the training has gone on, that Scott was very well-trained, and the wonderful news for Scott, his parents, and for all of us, including the President who, of course, very shortly after Scott was over the Adriatic on the way out, called Scott's parents to tell them how happy the President was. For all of us, this has been just a very happy night, and we're happy that it's over and that it's over safely.

We have had over 69,000 sorties over Bosnia. We have had two aircraft shot down. Both pilots have been rescued. You'll recall the Harrier, which I believe was in the spring of 1994. This readiness to go and save our people when they are in distress is a hallmark of NATO and United States military commitment to take care of our people when they're in distress.

Just briefly, I'll walk you through the pilot rescue. As you can see, the search and rescue effort took place from the USS KEARSARGE. Again, this was the 24th MEU. It was commanded by Marty Brendt. He was given the tasking and, in a very short period of time, launched the rescue package. I'll show you, in a second, the kinds of aircraft that were involved in this operation.

I'll point out to you that sunrise was at 0506 -- that's local time in the region. There's a six-hour time difference between the region and Washington, so all of these times are minus six hours for Washington. So this was 8:08 p.m., last night, for this first event.

The helicopters went in and made the pickup in this general area. This was an area that was only a few kilometers from the estimated crash site. Of course, the helicopters came back out, returned to KEARSARGE. At 0130, Washington- time -- 0730 local -- Basher-52, Scott O'Grady, was safely back aboard KEARSARGE.

I can run through the individual details of this -- I don't believe I'll do that here this morning. There were over 40 aircraft involved in this, and many people involved at the headquarters in Naples, at the headquarters in Aviano, General Joulwan's headquarters in Germany, and certainly back here in Washington. We were following this, event-by-event, as we went through it, last evening.

Here is a listing of the type of aircraft that were involved in this operation -- rescue forces: the CH-53, the Marines; Cobra helicopter gunships; Harrier aircraft; special forces H-53s; suppression-of-enemy-air-defense [SEAD], combat air patrol, and close air support aircraft, as shown here; and support aircraft tankers and surveillance aircraft. Approximately, 40 aircraft. Again, this was a multinational operation. There was, for example, a NATO-AWACS aloft at this time, and it was a joint NATO multi-service operation.

Again, we are all extremely pleased -- for Scott, for his family, for all of us -- that we have this wonderful young man back. We're very proud of the command in Europe that executed this and very proud of Scott.

I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Q: Could you clarify for us some of these reports that have been received earlier, that there had been beacon signals. Could you say that that first contact this morning was a voice contact and the first one that was received from the pilot? Or were those earlier contacts from him as well, or someone trying to pretend that it was the pilot on the ground? Also, was he ever in any kind of threat from Serbs on the ground? Do you know if he ever came in contact with them?

A: The many random signals that we have been following over the last few days are too numerous to go into, and it would be inappropriate for me to go through the specific details of many of these things for some obvious reasons. But suffice it to say that we did not have -- the commander did not feel he had enough information on the pilot's location, the fact that we genuinely had the pilot, and the condition in the area until the decision was made to launch, which was just a matter of a few minutes after the time that it was specifically determined that Scott was there, and that we authenticated his presence and his position.

Whenever you fly in this kind of a mission, there are risks involved, of course. We operate our military -- in a situation of prudent risk -- in many areas of the world. In this case, the commander decided when he had the location of Scott, and knew it was Scott O'Grady by an authentication, was prepared to take the limited risk that was necessary to go in and rescue him. So it was not without risk. As has been reported, there was a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile that was launched at the helicopters on their way out, after they had picked Captain O'Grady up. So it would be wrong to say there was no risk involved, but everything was done to ensure that the risk was minimum, and that this prudent risk was necessary to save one of our young people.

Q: I wonder if you could share some detail on what Captain O'Grady did during this five-and-a-half day period. Anything you can, without giving away your survival.

A: Well, Scott was there on the ground for five-and-a-half days. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific kinds of things that went on, on the ground, because I don't know them, for one thing. Scott hasn't been debriefed and we don't have the details of that. But I can only tell you how skillful he must have been to have been able to continue to exist in an area unknown to the Bosnian Serbs, apparently, and then to have signaled in a way that we could detect so that we could home on that signal and go in and get him in the manner that we did without any significant opposition.

Q: I'd like to talk about rules of engagement for a moment. If the rescue mission had encountered heavy resistance, and had been met in force, were they one, authorized, obviously, to defend themselves in full? And two, was a backup planned of a larger rescue force to get them out?

A: It's inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of rules of engagement, as you can well understand. But suffice it to say that we do not commit United States troops unless we're certain that they have the ability to defend themselves. There was a small backup force that was available that came out of Brindisi, Italy, and was available if it was necessary to respond to an unexpected difficulty with the rescue force that came out of the KEARSARGE.

Q: I know I'm splitting hairs here, but up until this rescue attempt, the Administration kept saying there would be no U.S. troops on the ground except to remove UNPROFOR forces, or possibly help them relocate. In this case, U.S. troops were on the ground, correct?

A: It is a standard procedure that when we conduct air operations we will have a combat search and rescue capability in-theater. It's an understood piece of the way we do combat air operations, so that is always there. Whenever we fly from ships at sea, whenever we fly from land bases, there is always a combat search and rescue capability. This is not a matter of putting troops on the ground. This is a matter of rescuing an American pilot and the C-SAR capability is a routine matter for all operations that we do with U.S. aircraft.

Q: Did I note, correctly, that this mission was, that you waited until the daylight, until after dawn to launch this rescue? I notice there was a gap of several hours. Second, what was the terrain that pilot O'Grady was in? And was there in close proximity to him a Serbian armed force? Was there any fire drawn while the party was on the ground picking him up?

A: The terrain in this area is relatively uninhabited. It appears that there are a lot of woods and hills in the area. The opposition in the area -- I have heard of no opposition in the immediate pickup area. You recall that I mentioned that there was a surface-to-air missile that was launched against the helicopters as they proceeded out of the area, but that was some distance from the pickup area.

I think I missed one of your questions at the beginning.

Q: Was the mission delayed until after sunrise?

A: No. The mission was launched as quickly as the technical commander could do so, after the time of the geo-location of Scott's position, and the authentication that it was Scott O'Grady there. So as quickly as we could turn the capability around -- and the closest capability was from KEARSARGE -- it was launched at the earliest possible time. It so happened that it came after sunrise.

Q: You said, today's communication was the first piece of voice communication from him that you could actually use to identify that it was Scott and his approximate location. Had you gotten bits and pieces of voice communication from him, over the previous days, of any kind?

A: I can assure you that what we have been working on -- over the last five days -- is every scrap of evidence that was available, working in close consort with the inter-agency process here in Washington, and also in-theater with the commanders on scene on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, to try to figure out all of the indicators that we had about Scott's location. So I'd rather not comment on the specific details of those bits and pieces of evidence, but I can assure you that from the very top of our system down into every staff that could assist, we've been trying to develop a knowledge that he was alive, what his condition was, what his location was, so that we could go and get him.

Q: You had some slightly encouraging signs, in the 24-hours prior to this pickup, which you don't want to be specific about...

A: This, frankly, has been a real sine wave for us. We've had some ups, we've had some downs, but a lot of it is just very random kinds of pieces of information. So we've been trying to piece it together, as well as we could. And, again, working with the commanders on the scene to understand each and every one of the bits of evidence we had. We did not have enough for the commander to make a rescue attempt -- which means, of course, putting our forces at some limited risk to go and make the rescue attempt. So there was not enough of that evidence for the commander to do it until he actually made the decision this morning.

Q: There was some criticism that came from, evidently, unidentified White House officials directed towards the Pentagon for some comments made by senior military officers here that there had been beacons received. Was there some attempt to give a counter-signal, that you knew there were signals out there that were being received, in order to get it, somehow, to that pilot?

A: No. There was no attempt here. The effort here has been a truly joint attempt. All of us, in all four services -- the Chairman, myself, the Secretary of Defense, and the entire inter-agency process has been attempting simply to work the bits and pieces of information. There was the reference to the beepers earlier. It was a fleeting reference, and as Secretary Perry said, it was a slip of the tongue, and nothing more than that. The gentleman who made the comment recognized that he had said it shortly thereafter, and our belief is that no harm was done as a result of that.

Q: Just a little bit more on the human interest of this particular person who was rescued. You don't want to go into the details, but just generally, give us a sense of how someone is able to survive in terrain such as this. Did he generally know the area? How was he able to live? What would he normally be able to eat? Give us a little bit of human interest of how he might have done this.

A: We ensure that all of our aviators go through a very special course. I'll have an Air Force officer here to give you a little more information after I leave you here this morning, and a Marine officer who is familiar with many of the details of their operations, to provide some more details. So if you're interested in specific details, you can get them from them.

But Scott O'Grady was a fellow who had paid particular attention, we understand, to his training -- to his survival training. He had a reputation, by his instructors, for having paid particular attention to the details of each and every element of the training. I'd prefer not to mention the details of the kinds of things that go into this, but, certainly, there is an attempt to ensure that the pilot remains secure, that he remains undetected by those in the area who would threaten him, and third, that he has the ability to provide the kinds of signals that would allow us, then, to find him -- geo-locate him, authenticate his presence, and then pick him up and take him out. I think that's as much as I want to say about it. But it's clear that Scott O'Grady did his training well, took personal interest in it, we're told. And, of course, in this event, it genuinely paid big dividends for him and for us.

Q: Can you generally talk about how he might have eaten or anything like that? Just generally?

A: I don't know many of the details. I was listening to General Joulwan or Admiral Smith this morning, and the comment was made that he had not had a lot of food during the five-and-a-half days; that he had, apparently, had water; that shortly after he had arrived on KEARSARGE, he asked for a snack, and he was provided a Meals Ready to Eat -- which he devoured, which may tell you how hungry he really was! [Laughter]

Q: Peter Arnett says the Bosnian Serbs, in Pale, are telling him that they were aware that a rescue mission was in progress, but chose not to intervene. Are you aware of that? Do you have any knowledge of that or any comment on it?

A: There was no indication, in the area, that there was any awareness -- or any change before Scott's transmission -- that resulted in our location of him, and then afterwards. So there is, really, no indication of the Bosnian Serbs reacting to this in either way. I, certainly, couldn't, and wouldn't, comment on what they knew in Pale.

Q: When, during the five-and-a-half day period, were you pretty sure that he was alive? You looked at the photos of the wreckage and what have you. When did you feel there was a strong indication that he was alive?

A: I think that it was, really, in this last 24-hours that we started to get some indications that there was a very good chance that he might be alive.

Q: ...distance from the KEARSARGE to the actual rescue location?

A: The distance was about 85 miles from KEARSARGE to the pickup point.

Q: Would there be refueling of the jet fighters from the KC-135?

A: I can't comment on that. There was a KC-135 in the area, which was there to do refueling. You'll recall that I mentioned there were some close air support, some combat air patrol and some suppression of enemy air defense aircraft. All of these are fixed-wing aircraft and might have been in the area for several hours and, so, might have refueled, but I can't verify that.

Q: What happens next? The pilot will be debriefed... We hear he's being taken to Aviano, perhaps. What do you know?

A: Scott is from the 555th in Aviano, as you know. That is where his squadron is stationed. I assume that Scott is going to be very anxious to get back to his unit. His mom and dad, of course, have been contacted by the President, and I'm sure Scott has, by this time, talked to them. There will be a very nice welcome. As my classmate, "Snuffy" Smith, said this morning -- Admiral Smith -- when he gets back to Aviano there will be a nice welcome, I'm sure, there, for him, when he arrives there.

He'll probably spend the night tonight on KEARSARGE, is what we're hearing. Will rest, have a little bit more food. Perhaps, he'll settle for something other than MREs, then we'll -- tomorrow morning -- get him into Aviano, is my understanding of what the plan is now. He, of course, is going through some debriefings, and we are always interested in learning lessons from these kind of events, so we're going to be very keenly interested in the details of how it seemed from his standpoint so that we can optimize our capability in the event we have another pilot down in the future.

Q: You were in that NATO slot. Can you tell us -- from what General Shalikashvili said -- about the improvements towards protection for aircraft flying DENY FLIGHT? What does that mean, now, for the U.S. pilots? That they won't have to fear the SAMs on the ground? What's your assessment?

A: The NATO commander, Admiral Smith -- and General Ryan, who is the three-star Air Force general who works for him in AFSOUTH, in Armed Forces Southern Command, which is a NATO command -- will make the determination of what they need to do to ensure that our aircraft are safe as they're flying over Bosnia. The determination, at this time, is that because of the uncertainty of the mobile SAMs, like the SA-6 that shot down this F-16, that we will fly the missions with a SEAD package. That is, an electronic jammer aircraft, such as the EA-6B or the EF-111, or a HARM-shooter -- an anti-radiation missile shooter -- like the F-18, or the F-16, because of the uncertainty of the situation and the location of the surface-to-air missile batteries.

So the determination has been made, for now, that this additional precaution will be taken to ensure the safety of the pilots -- that is, a SEAD package with them at all times they're over Bosnia.

Q: Can you pinpoint the exact location of where he went down? Actually, where he went down and where he was picked up. Is there a way you can do that?

A: I think we can provide that information to you, separately -- in terms of latitudes and longitudes, Carl -- but the distance between the place at which, we think, he went down... You'll recall, we don't have great detail of where the aircraft, actually, crashed. The location where we picked him up was only a few kilometers.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.