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News Briefing with Vice Adm. David Nichols

Presenters: Vice Admiral David Nichols, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and Commander of The U.S. Fifth Fleet
September 22, 2005 9:05 AM EDT
News Briefing with Vice Adm. David Nichols

(Note: Vice Adm. Nichols appears via video teleconference from Bahrain.)                              

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Admiral Nichols, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon.  Can you hear me? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Hello, Bryan.  Yeah, I hear you loud and clear. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, Admiral, thank you for joining us today.   

 

            Yesterday, we had a briefing here on the operation in the Horn of Africa, another important aspect of the war on terror, and today we're happy to have you talk to us about what's going on out in the Arabian Gulf and how this is an integral part to what we're doing in the war on terror. 

 

            For those of you in the briefing room here today, this is Vice Admiral David Nichols, who is the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, and he is the commander of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.  His forces are responsible for patrolling the 2.5 million square miles of international waters ranging from the Arabian Gulf to parts of the Indian Ocean.  Approximately, one-third of the 45 ships that are operating in that area are from coalition nations, so it is a coalition operation, and it has been some time since we've had the commander of the maritime intercept operations talk to you back here. So we thought it would be helpful to bring some visibility to what's -- this important mission is out there. 

 

            Admiral Nichols has a few things that he's going to talk to you about in terms of an overview, and then we'll get into some questions. 

 

            Again, admiral, thank you for joining us, and I'll turn it over to you. 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Okay.  Thanks, Bryan. 

 

            And I will just make a brief overview here of what we're doing here, and then make a few points, which I think are key to operations in the region, and then open up for questions. 

 

            We're conducting fully integrated, coalition, theater-wide, maritime security ops here in the Central Command AOR, what we call MSO -- Maritime Security Ops for shorthand.   

 

            The big picture objective is to set the conditions for security and stability in the maritime environment in the region to prevent the terrorists from using the maritime environment as a venue for terrorist attack, or as an enabler for terrorist attack ashore.  In execution right now, we're focused on pressurizing traditional smuggling routes, means and methods in the maritime environment here in the region.  That includes the illegal arms trade.  And we're also focused on deterring attack against key economic infrastructure.   

 

            The composition of the current combined maritime force, about 45 ships and 15 maritime patrol airplanes -- as you said, Bryan, about one-third of that is non-U.S. -- that force is divided up amongst three different coalition task force commanders here in the region, two inside the Arabian Gulf and one outside the Arabian Gulf. Currently, two of my three commanders are U.S.  They're inside the gulf.  My commander outside the gulf, Task Force 150, is a French admiral.   

 

            Big pieces of force structure on the U.S. side includes one carrier strike group, the air wing and other capability that that brings, one expeditionary strike group, which includes Marine expeditionary unit and Marine aviation.   

 

            Also noteworthy are the 10 coastal patrol vessels--boats we have out here.  Six of those are U.S. Coast Guard.  They play a key role in what we do out here, and Coast Guard's been a very important part of operations in this region since 9/11.  On the non-U.S. side, the coalition members currently include the U.K., France, Australia, Germany, Italy and Pakistan. 

 

            Pakistan is the only regional country that participates full-time in integrated coalition maritime operations.  Pakistan's been a member of the coalition force for over a year now and has made some very important contributions. 

 

            Other countries who have been and/or will be part of the coalition maritime force include Canada, the Netherlands and Singapore.  In fact, my next commander of CTF-150 will be from the Netherlands, a Dutch admiral. 

 

            Also noteworthy is the Japanese contribution out here to enabling task force operations.  The Japanese have had an oiler in the Task Force 150 operating area for a couple of years now, providing logistic support and fuel to enable Task Force 150 maritime security counterterrorism operations.  That's been very important to us. 

 

            Combined Maritime Force maritime security operations are designed to complement the counterterrorism and security efforts of regional navies and coast guards and other regional security organizations.  We share a common goal against a common enemy here in the region.   

 

            Most of the countries out here are leaning into counterterrorism ops and have improved effectiveness.  Particularly noteworthy are what I think -- are what Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have done over the last couple years. 

 

            And then finally, before I open up to questions here, a couple of comments on Iraq.  Under the Operation Iraqi Freedom mission set, we support Multinational Corps Iraq, mostly with sea-based tactical aviation, also with intel, surveillance and reconnaissance.  We're helping build capability and capacity in the new Iraqi navy.  We work closely with the U.K.-led team.  That's an element of the Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq.  The Iraqi navy, though small, is already integrated into our maritime security ops in the northern Gulf as well as Iraqi navy marines aboard the Iraqi oil platforms in the northern Gulf. 

 

            So that's a quick overview.   Bryan, I now open up for questions from your end. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Thank you.  And let's start right here with Charlie.  Remember, the admiral can't see you.  I know you can see him, so many of you know him.  If you'd just identify yourself, that'd be helpful. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Charlie Aldinger with Reuters.  Three questions, rather broad, have you had any -- when we talked to you last, you had not had any recent attempts on the oil rigs -- you know, to sabotage the oil rigs -- have you had any attempts at that?  Is there increased -- are there increased hashish movements area, or are they pretty much stable?  And have you had any increased movement of foreign fighters, either to or from the Horn of Africa, via water? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  On the first one, Charlie, we haven't had any attempted attacks against the oil platforms in the northern Gulf since they were attacked April, a year ago. 

 

            As far as the movement of drugs and people, a year ago we were -- quite frequently we were finding major drug shipments.  Now, I say that we're not in the counter-narcotics business, however, there is an indirect relationship between drugs and the drug business in this region and terrorism.  But we haven't found much at sea lately, nor have we found many foreign fighters at sea lately.  Our intel indicates that the smugglers and the terrorists know that we're out there paying close attention, so it seems that the deterrent effect is the primary effect we're trying to have is occurring. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Joe. 

 

            Q     This is Joe Tabet from Al Hurra TV.  My question is, if you can give us more details or an idea about the capabilities of the Iraqi navy? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Okay, the Iraqi navy, as I said, is fairly small -- about six patrol boats, a total of about 700 sailors, and there are around 400 marines or so.  But they have pretty much continuous patrol boat presence in -- again, in our Northern Gulf Maritime Security Ops.  Because the Iraqis know the lay of the land and understand what they're looking at out there a lot better than we do.  They've been very helpful there.  The Iraqi navy marines, as I mentioned, we have them aboard the oil platforms now.  And in the not-too-distant future -- and I'm calling that about November -- most of the security effects aboard the oil platforms will be Iraqi navy marines.   

 

            So, on the one hand, there's good progress there by the Iraqi navy, as I think there is overall in Iraq in terms of building the security capability.  On the other hand, there is plenty of work to be done there to continue to help the Iraqi navy build, particularly the sustainment, logistics support, other kind of capacity it's going to need to be operationally effective. 

 

            Q     Hi, admiral.  Michael Bruno with Aerospace Daily & Defense Report. 

 

            Following up on the previous question, what are the platforms that you see that the Iraqi navy needs as you continue to build it? Do they need airplanes?  Do they need more ships?  What kind of capabilities do they need at this point? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, you know, I think there's good news there. One of the tendencies when you're -- is to go for big ships and big airplanes, kind of blue-water navy sort of capability.  But the Iraqis, again, with the help of this U.K.-led team that's part of MNSTC-I -- the Multinational Security Transition Command -- I think they've got their requirements in the right quadrant.  They know that they need things like small patrol boats that give them the ability to enforce sovereignty inside their territorial waters, and in the waterways Shatt al-Arab and Khor Abdullah, which are the key to the re-establishment of legitimate commercial activity in southern Iraq. 

 

            I would say the biggest -- the most important thing is not in terms of their requirements in terms of platforms.  But again, I'll go back to my last point.  It's about building the ability to sustain, and again, MNSTC-I and others, including us, are working hard with them to help them on that.  I mean, it's going to be a gradual and an iterative process, and I believe that we're going to be involved in maritime security ops in the northern Gulf for a while. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Al? 

 

            Q     Admiral, Al Pessin with Voice of America.  On your deterrence of drug smugglers and terrorists, can you give us some idea how big an issue this was, say, a year or so ago versus what you're seeing now that you're having this impact? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, we don't know what we don't know, Al, is kind of the short answer of where we were a couple, three years ago. You know, prior to 9/11, we really hadn't leaned into this problem very much.  Most of the maritime ops in the region here were focused on pre-OIF U.N. sanctions--maritime interdiction primarily against illegal Iraqi -- or oil that was being illegally smuggled out of Iraq. And while there was some focus on terrorist activity, it wasn't really looked at in an integrated way the way we do it now.   

 

            But I also say this:  Based on what we have learned over the last year and a half to two years, we don't think that the maritime environment is routinely being used to move terrorists or terrorist-related equipment around the region.  And again, we think it's partly because of deterrent effects that we've had; it's also because of our teaming with people ashore, such as Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, we work closely with MND-Southeast, and then coordinating and complementing our operations with other countries here in the region. So I can't put a number on it for you. One thing we have going in the headquarters is a process of campaign analysis which we're finishing up so we can better understand and quantify the kinds of issues that your question implies. 

 

            Q     Admiral, have you seen any smuggling activity or any suspicions regarding Iran or any smuggling, particularly involving nuclear materials? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  No, not in the maritime environment.  I think it's pretty well known that there is movement of terrorists or military-related equipment and people across the land border between Iran and Iraq, but in the maritime environment we haven't seen anything Iranian that concerns us. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Go ahead. 

 

            Q     Admiral Nichols, Sandra Erwin with National Defense.  I wanted to ask you about the force structure question.  Navy officials here at the Pentagon are telling us about the downsizing coming up in the Navy in the future in terms of people, ships, airplanes.  Do you think that's going to have an impact in any way on what you're doing in maritime security, or is that something that you don't really worry about right now or you don't really worry about it at all? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, I don't worry about it right now because it's not going to happen right now, or not really going to happen on my watch.  But we've been participating in a process with Navy inside the beltway there to try to get this right in the terms of how the Navy is reshaped to be more relevant, more responsive and have more utility in the 21st century security threats we're going to face.   

 

            And our inputs there have been not so much on the size of the force, but the operational and tactical effects and capabilities that we're able to generate out of the naval force.  And we frame this within the context of what we call fourth-generation warfare, which is exactly what we're fighting in this region against a non-national or transnational threat.   

 

            So again, short answer, I'm not worried about it in the near term but I have a responsibility here to participate in the process and make sure we get it as right as we can as Navy goes through the QDR process and the other processes inside DC that determine the shape of our force and the capabilities we have. 

 

            Q     And a follow-up, Admiral Nichols.  Can you say what kind of capabilities you think would make the Navy more relevant in the future? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, I can give you -- just give you a few examples of a process we went through in the headquarters, which we call strategic review.  And again, we took our view of the strategic security context of the 21st century -- the laundry list of things like non-national, transnational threats, the failed, incapable states, corruption, et cetera, et cetera -- looked at operational-level missions that we thought maybe should be able to play in there, which we came up with 18, and then we translated that to a total of 650 operational-level capabilities and effects. 

 

            Now one thing probably the most -- or what's different is, again -- and I've been in the Navy 32 years, which we spent perfecting third-generation blue-water warfare, and then the last 10 years or so we've moved into the littorals -- but it's still been more of a conventional military kind of capabilities and effects.  The kind of security challenges that we're -- all countries are going to face in the 21st century are going to -- we're going to be faced with the requirement to have capabilities in our military that has looked more like law enforcement, Coast Guard, legal, consequence management, environmental, et cetera, et cetera. 

 

            Specifically, some of the things we're focused on right now are what we call maritime security ops endgame effects, and that's the capabilities that our boarding team have for non-intrusive inspection, for biometrics, for example, to understand who we're looking at out there.  Those are the kind of inputs we've made to Navy. 

 

            One other thing, and that's going to be -- I believe getting this right in terms of the joint requirements piece is going to be very important.  There are what I call operational-level joint enablers, such as intel, surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, logistic support/sustainment, and a list of others, which -- getting that right to enable the employment of the joint force -- going to be very critical. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Otto? 

 

            Q     Otto Kreisher, Copley News Service.  Admiral, how are you running your air ops?  Are you doing a coordinated, you know, air plan with the Air Force and doing regular patrols?  Are you standing by for response missions?  You know, we see the number from CENTAF on the number of air sorties, you know, close air support or ISR, but it doesn't determine, you know, whether you're doing regular patrol missions or whether you're on a quick response posture. 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:   Yeah.  Well, for the -- for support for OIF, you know, the ground commander there ultimately at MNC-I and his commanders, through the combined airpower process, make inputs to the CFACC requesting effects, and then the -- our carrier -- CFACC works with the carrier to -- for apportion and allocation of primarily the carrier air wing sorties over Iraq.  And that works out to about 20 to 25 a day.  It's mostly strike-fighter, which means be prepared to close air support, and it's also what we call non-traditional reconnaissance where we use fleet and other targeting pods to try to help in the reconnaissance piece.  Also there's EA-6Bs fly off the ship into Iraq. The other piece of it is intel surveillance and reconnaissance, which the maritime patrol airplanes like P-3s go into that stack.  Some of those are apportioned to operations over the beach.  Some of it to support combined maritime force operations.  So, I mean, it's generally combined air force doctrine is how we're doing it out here. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Charlie. 

 

            Q     Admiral, are you involved much in air ops over Afghanistan, or is that pretty much a land forces, land-based thing? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Yeah.  The last time we had carrier air over Afghanistan was during President Karzai's inauguration, as I recall, and CFACC needed airborne command and control.  He didn't have AWACS available, and we took E2-C Hawkeyes and brought them off the ship and flew them over Afghanistan for two or three days there to help that.  Prior to that, it was late 2003 with -- no, I'm in the wrong year here -- about a year and a half ago, we put Enterprise off the Makran Coast there and flew some carrier sorties in support of OEF.  There is one Navy EA-6B squadron bedded down in Afghanistan, and we fly P-3 intel, surveillance, and reconnaissance over Afghanistan.  But we haven't had -- as I say -- we haven't had carrier-based air in there off the ship for over a year. 

 

            Q     Thanks. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  We've got time for one, maybe two more.  Go ahead. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Michael Bruno again.  How do you use unmanned aerial vehicles, if you do, specifically for your naval missions?  And if you don't, could you tell us how you'd like to? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, we haven't had dedicated UAVs to the CFMCC mission out here, the Combined Maritime Force Mission.  We have had some support from Global Hawk primarily inside the Gulf.  It happens that beginning this month, we have the first appointment of a Navy carrier strike group that has UAV capability.  We plan to -- at the same time we're also bringing that capability and bedding it down to support northern Gulf operations.  This is a tactical level kind of thing, which, again, we're going to integrate in our tactical-level ISR, primarily in the northern Gulf, and we're also looking at using this capability down in the Gulf of Aden, in the Horn of Africa region.    

 

            Most -- as you would expect based on the situation here in the region, where we have troops in contact every day in Iraq -- most of the UAV capacity is dedicated to what goes on in Iraq, and then what's left over generally goes to Afghanistan.  But this UAV that we're introducing out here in the naval force, Scan Eagle, is going to help us quite a bit. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Let's finish where we started, with Charlie here. 

 

            Q     Admiral, I know you probably don't want to get into security too much, I mean personal security there in Bahrain.  I know you've had some spikes in security concern there, and at one point -- correct me if I'm wrong -- I think it's been within the last year where all non-essential personnel and family members were moved out.  Has that been alleviated somewhat recently?  Has the level gone down?  And are you getting some families back? 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Well, Charlie, it was 14 months ago that a decision was made to send families home.  We had accompanied tours here in Bahrain and we have had them for quite a while.  And that was based on terrorist threat indicators and intel in the region that, frankly, were headed in the wrong direction.   

 

            I'll tell you there's been a lot of success in the region over the last 12, 14 months at the tactical level against terrorist activity.  I mentioned the Saudis earlier as an example.  What they've done at the tactical level, they've policed up, killed or captured literally hundreds of card-carrying al Qaeda or al Qaeda-related terrorists.  Had the Saudis not done that, I believe that there would have been more terrorist activity in the region here as well as outside the region. 

 

            Now, in Bahrain I think it's important to remember that this isn't just about the security situation in Bahrain.  This truly is a transnational and a non-national threat.  But over the last year, the Bahrainis have done quite a bit, beginning with reorganization, restructuring their ministry of interior.  And we're very, very happy with what the Bahrainis are doing here to establish a security environment. 

 

            We are addressing the issue of, at some point, some number of dependents coming -- maybe families coming back here to Bahrain, but it's probably a little too early for that.  We have a few milestone events to go through here, particularly in Iraq.  What happens in Iraq affects the security situation in the rest of the region. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Well, admiral, we've come to the end of our time, and we really appreciate you taking the time to bring us up to date on maritime security operations.  We sometimes don't focus on that, but it is such an integral part to our overall operations there.  And we appreciate the fact that from time to time you'll give us some of your time to give us an update on it. 

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Be happy to, Bryan. 

 

            MR. WHITMAN:  Thanks admiral.

 

            ADM. NICHOLS:  Out here.

 

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