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DoD News Briefing, January 8, 1998

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD (PA)
January 08, 1998 2:00 PM EDT

Mr. Bacon: Good afternoon.

I'd like to say happy birthday to one of our distinguished press corps members here, Susanne Schafer. Sorry I don't have any candles or cake.

I also want to call your attention to one announcement. Somebody you all know, Arnold Punaro, a long-time Chief of Staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee has been nominated for promotion to major general in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He's currently the Commanding General of the 4th Marine Division in New Orleans.

With that, I'll take your questions on Arnold Punaro or anybody else.

Q: I wanted to ask about a couple of things that the Iranian President said in his interview yesterday. Specifically, he said that Iran has no plans to build nuclear weapons and only wants to employ nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. He said we're not a nuclear power, do not intend to become one.

Is there any evidence that Iran is importing technology that would give it the capability to produce nuclear weapons in the future?

A: First of all, we agree that Iran is not a nuclear power. But we also believe that Iran is attempting to pursue the development of nuclear weapons technology, and we have discussed that with China and other countries who have been approached by Iran to supply potential components. So this is something we're watching. It's something that was alluded to in our report on "Proliferation, Threat and Response" that was issued late last year. I think there's a pretty good run-down in there of what we believe to be happening with the Iranian nuclear program. I would refer you to that.

Q: Can you give us any example of what kind of... Is there any concrete evidence you can give us that Iran might, in fact, be trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability? Is there a specific example in recent history?

A: They are clearly trying to build reactors and they are clearly trying to import reactor components and other materials to develop what we believe is the ability to create nuclear fuel which would be necessary for a nuclear weapon. This is something that we've studied at some length, and we have very carefully monitored their efforts to buy components from countries such as Russia, China, and others; and we think this would be an act of proliferation if they were to move towards building a nuclear weapons capability.

It's a long process. It takes time and how long it takes depends primarily on how much help they get from the outside compared to whether they have to develop this all indigenously. Clearly, if they could receive significant assistance and technology from other countries move advanced than they are, they could develop weaponry much more quickly than they could if they had to do it all on their own. But it is possible, scientifically and physically, for them to do it on their own.

Q: What about the Iranian President's statement that Iran does not support terrorism in any way. Is Iran still a suspect in acts of terrorism in the region? Specifically, for instance, the bombing of Khobar Towers?

A: First, we hope that these statements are, in fact, true; that Iran has no desire to become a nuclear power and that Iran does not support terrorism in any way. We hope this is a new policy for Iran that was being announced by the President. But there was a court in Germany that found Iranian complicity at the highest level of the government in terrorist acts in Germany. Our intelligence reports show there is state-sponsored terrorism activities by Iran, and we think this is destabilizing. We think it is not a sign of good-faith dealings with other countries.

Q: Is there any evidence that Iran is in any way linked to the bombing at Khobar Towers at this point?

A: As you know, the FBI is still pursuing that, and they're the people who should speak about Khobar Towers.

Q: Also on Iran, the Iranian resistance here in the United States is well informed through sources in the military and in the Iranian government, says that Iran has now on the shelf one operational Shaha-3 missile capable of 1400 kilometers of range and over a ton of payload. What is the Department's reaction to that, one? And second, it's also revealed by these same sources that the North Koreans in conjunction with the Chinese, in collaboration with the Chinese, have helped produce these missiles and their guidance systems which Iran cannot produce. I would ask you, are the mentors not more advanced than the protegees? The protegee being Iran.

A: Usually mentors are more advanced than protegees, that's a fairly standard relationship. But I can't confirm that Iran does have on the shelf a missile that could go up to 1400 kilometers. I do know that they have shorter range ballistic missiles that go up to about 500 kilometers and that they are trying to develop or procure longer range ballistic missiles of 1,000 kilometers or more.

This again, we think, is a sign of their effort to become a major regional power and they have been pursuing this with some persistence over the last year or so. We don't see signs that they're stopping their efforts to develop or procure longer range ballistic missiles.

Q: Any comment on the reflection of this intelligence, if it is correct, as to the capabilities of North Korea against that theater, especially Japan?

A: We also know that North Korea is working to develop longer range ballistic missiles as well. There's been no secret about this. They've been working on this program for some time. We think that in Asia more than any other area of the world right now, which is afflicted by financial instability; and North Korea itself afflicted by starvation and an apparent breakdown of its economy; that they would be much wiser to spend their money helping their people, feeding their people, caring for their people, than building new weaponry that could be destabilizing in an area that's already looking at economic instability.

We also have, as you know, launched missile talks with North Korea to try to limit their export of missile technology to other countries.

Q: Still on the Gulf, but a slightly different topic, and that is American forces in the Gulf. Any guidance on when ships, planes, and personnel might begin to look towards returning to the United States? U.S. ships and planes?

A: There are no current plans to reduce the size of our force in the Gulf. We currently have almost 30,000 people in the Gulf, I think it's 28,900 or so; and two carrier battle groups. I would anticipate that two carrier battle groups will remain there for some time, and that our forces will stay at about the current level. We've got 356 airplanes in the area... I'm sorry, the number of the total force is 29,800 which is mainly Naval forces, but also significant Air Force and Army troops as well.

Q: Can you be a little more specific when you say two carrier battle groups will remain there for some time? Has the decision been made to replace the NIMITZ when it leaves?

A: We will replace the NIMITZ when it leaves, yes.

Q: So sometime means... Can you give me some...

A: The President wants to maintain maximum diplomatic and military capability in the area. He has made it very clear that he wants to pursue to the end all diplomatic options. That's what we're doing now. That's what the UN is attempting to do right now.

We have succeeded diplomatically in several important respects. The first is UN inspectors are back in Iraq doing their jobs. Americans are serving on those teams. Secondly, the U-2 flights are continuing. There was one early this morning. Third, the sanctions remain in effect against Saddam Hussein for his failure to comply with UN Security Council resolutions.

We believe that his primary goal from all of the to'ing and fro'ing of the last couple of months, has been to escape from the UN sanctions, and so far the UN Security Council is even more unified in enforcing those sanctions than in the past. So he has succeeded in keeping the UN Security Council united behind the sanctions and united behind the demand that he has to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions.

Q: Why is it necessary to maintain the force structure that you have there now?

A: Because he has not yet shown a willingness to comply totally with the UN Security Council resolutions. He has not yet allowed unfettered access to certain sensitive sites. That's still in negotiation between the UN and Iraq. Ambassador Butler is going back to Iraq, I believe, on January 19th, to continue his discussions. They set up a mechanism of technical evaluation teams when he was there in December to look at progress that Iraq has made on dismantling chemical and biological weapons, and those teams have to be put in place and the meetings have to take place. I don't believe they have taken place yet. So this is still a work in progress.

But while this negotiation is continuing diplomatically, it's important for us to show that we, the international community, remain determined to make sure that Saddam Hussein, one, does not move south again against his neighbors as he has done in the past and threatened to do since 1990; and two, that the international community is determined to make sure that he does, in fact, comply with the UN Security Council resolutions, particularly the ones striving to end his weapons of mass destruction programs.

I might take a minute here to make an advertisement for Bernie Rostker who is appearing after me to discuss his report, his first annual report as the Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illness, and he'll report on some of his findings and casework over the last year after I'm finished.

Q: Have U.S. forces or civilian dependents in Asian countries such as Indonesia and South Korea been put on alert for possible civil unrest in conjunction with the economic crisis?

A: I'm not aware that that has occurred.

Q: Does that mean that the NIMITZ will not be extended? That it will hold to its schedule to return on its deployment, and that a new carrier will be brought in to replace it?

A: I anticipate the NIMITZ will come out as scheduled within the next month or so.

Q: Has there been a decision made which...

A: I don't think there is a final decision I can announce now on which...

Q: Word of out Japan that it might be the INDEPENDENCE?

A: I'm aware of that, and I'll just have more to say on the replacement when the details are worked out.

Q: Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory are saying that they have computer models showing how impacts of large asteroids like three miles in diameter could generate waves that could devastate entire coastlines on several continents. In fact in their public release and in talking to a gentleman yesterday, he called for a surveillance and defense system which he said could prevent such a disaster.

About a year ago we talked about this very same thing in the briefing room, and you at the time said we didn't have the capability to spot asteroids whose orbits were changing far out in space, that you were developing such a capability, and that there was a working group set up.

Can you give us an update on where that stands?

A: A semi-update on where it stands.

First of all, that same article points out -- lest people get too concerned about this, that same article pointed out that a large asteroid three miles in diameter lands on the earth about once every ten million years.

Q: To further clarify, he also said that there's a two percent chance each 100 years, which is a little greater odds. (Laughter)

A: That's not how I read the figures.

Q: (inaudible)

A: I read the entire story.

NASA is primarily responsible for dealing with asteroids. It has a program called NEAT which stands for Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program. We have been working with NASA in this program, but NASA has the lead on it.

It is true that there was a program called the Clementine 2 which would have gone up and looked at asteroids, and in fact experimented with launching projectiles at asteroids. That program was canceled, I believe, last year. The Clementine 1 program, as you'll recall, is the one that discovered ice particles in a crater on the moon, and we believe may suggest very significantly that there could be water on the moon.

The Clementine 2 program was a program designed to study micro-satellite technologies. As part of the plan, the satellite would have left the earth orbit and gone out and sort of tried to encounter asteroids and respond to them, but that program, for a variety of reasons, has been discontinued.

So right now what NASA is doing is working on a tracking program. That work continues, and I think NASA can give you further details on that.

Q: Is part of the mission for the Pentagon, though, to provide for the common defense? Do you ever see it as a mission of asteroid defense?

A: I think our concept of defense today is much more terrestrial. (Laughter)

Q: One of the things they discussed yesterday was the ability to use the assets we currently have -- ballistic missiles -- not to destroy such an asteroid, but to deflect it. Is that something that's just not in the cards at this point?

A: This is not something that's being actively pursued at the Defense Department at this time.

Q: Back to Iran for a moment. I asked you about nuclear weapons but just to clarify, what does the United States believe that Iran is doing with respect to other weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological? Does it already possess chemical and biological weapon stocks? Are they attempting to acquire more, build more? What's the status of the chemical and biological weapons?

A: They used chemical weapons against Iraq in the 1980s, but I think most analysts believe that they were on the losing end of chemical weapons exchanges with Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war, and that they suffered more than they were able to inflict suffering on Iraq. This appears to have colored Iran's views of chemical and biological weapons, but particularly chemical weapons, and we believe they are working hard to develop chemical and biological weapons today and also the delivery capabilities for those weapons.

I think it's pretty clear from what most analysts say, that Iran still views Iraq as its primary threat in the area, and that much of what they're doing would be directed against Iraq either defensively or offensively, but this is probably something that would be more appropriate for Iranian military officials to discuss than for me to discuss it here today.

But we believe that they are working to develop enhanced capabilities for both chemical and biological weapons.

I might say that their most active military program over the last couple of years has been to increase their anti-shipping capability in the Gulf area, particularly around the Strait of Hormuz, and they have either deployed or tested a range of anti-ship cruise missiles and they in the last year alone tested anti-ship missiles launched from patrol boats and also launched from the air. Those missiles add to the capability they already have of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles.

Q: Didn't the United States get an agreement from China to stop exporting some of that technology? Is China adhering to that agreement? Is that a subject that Secretary Cohen will be discussing on the upcoming trip?

A: Certainly Secretary Cohen will discuss the broad issue of proliferation on his trip as he does on many of his trips. It's a crucial issue to this Department and this government more broadly. The primary agreement on non-proliferation, as I recall, reached between President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton dealt with the export of nuclear components to Iran, and China did agree to stop new exports, and I'm sure that they'll discuss that agreement and review the progress under it.

Q: Do you have an update on the search for an Army Secretary?

A: I don't. That's a good question. I'll try to get some information on that.

Q: Is Saddam Hussein better off after the standoff with the UN, or is his position weakened?

A: I think that his position is weakened every day the sanctions continue, so to the extent that the sanctions are continuing and show no signs of abating -- he's worse off.

Q: I'd like to follow Jamie's question on nuclear weapons development by Iran. I understand about three years ago Iran was trying to buy nuclear high grade enriched uranium from Kazakhstan, they've been trying to buy advanced MIGs capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Isn't there sufficient evidence that Iran is trying to become nuclear capable or nuclear equipped to say that Mr. Kasimi yesterday was just blowing smoke?

A: Well we're hopeful that what he said is correct, that they have no desire to become a nuclear power or develop nuclear weapons. That would be very good news. We've always said in response to Iranian statements that actions speak more forcefully than words We believe that the actions show that they are, in fact, trying to develop a nuclear capability. But I hope that what he said is in fact true, and that's not their plan. Time will tell.

Q: General Ralston, I believe his first term as the Vice Chairman is up next month. Do you have anything on whether or not he's going to stay on for another term? Is there a search underway for a replacement?

A: There is not a search underway for a replacement. It's my understanding that Secretary Cohen will recommend to the President that he continue in his job as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

I think it's clear to the Secretary, and I believe to the President as well, that he's performed with extraordinary skill in that job and it would be great if he could stay in it for another two years. I think the Chairman feels that way as well.

Q: Has he indicated he's willing to?

A: I believe that he is willing to -- yes.

Q: Do you know formally what the date is when he's...

A: I believe it's the end of February, perhaps the very end of February, the 28th, but I'll have to double check on that. I know his current two year term does expire in February.

Q: But he has to be approved yet again by the Senate or...

A: The same thing, it's analogous to what happened with General Shalikashvili or General Powell, they're appointed for a two year term, and to serve a second term they have to be renominated and reconfirmed by the Senate.

Press: Thank you.

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