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DoD News Briefing, March 16, 1999

Presenters: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA
March 16, 1999 2:30 PM EDT

(This briefing directly follows Adm. Prueher's 2:00 p.m. briefing.)

Mr. Bacon: We also have copies available of the directive that the Secretary issued appointing Admiral Prueher if you haven't picked that up on the way in.

Q: Do you have the name of his counterpart?

A: I do have...

Q: And the folks from the other services.

A: The only person I have is the name of his counterpart who is Lieutenant General Leonardo Tricarico. He's the commander of the 5th Allied Tactical Air Force in the Italian Air Force. He's headquartered in Vincenza, Italy.

Before I start, let me take a minute to welcome a freelance journalist from the Netherlands. Mr. Menno Stekette who's visiting us as a guest of the U.S. Information Agency -- one of a long stream of international journalists who come here to see how you people perform your job.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Can you give us a rundown on the forces around Kosovo and their readiness? The numbers of planes, types?

A: You're talking about allied forces?

Q: Well, U.S. forces and the total NATO air force.

A: There is a very large NATO force in the area. It's close to 400 allied airplanes there now. We did have over 400 previously, but as you know the carrier ENTERPRISE has left for the Gulf, and that's reduced the number of planes somewhat. But we have other planes that we can bring in to fill that gap and will, if necessary.

Q: How many U.S. planes?

A: About 250 U.S. planes.

Q: Does that include the 12 F-117s?

A: It does.

Q: And are the B-52s still in Britain?

A: The B-52s still are in Britain, yes.

Q: Seven?

A: Seven.

Q: More U.S. planes will be brought in, or -- what's the point on...

A: We have plans to fill the gap created by the carrier by bringing in more U.S. planes. That has not been done yet, but there are plans to do that if necessary.

Q: What type of...

A: They'd be F-15s. They'd come down from other parts in Europe.

Q: Other parts of Europe. Not from the continental...

A: Right.

Q: Number of ships? Are there any significant number of ships nearby?

A: Yeah. First of all, there's the standing NATO force in the area. And there are several U.S. ships in the area as well.

We have -- the cruiser USS PHILIPPINE SEA is on station in the Mediterranean, and there are also some destroyers, the USS NICHOLSON, the USS GONZALES, and two attack submarines in the Mediterranean. Then there is the USS THORN, which is a DD-988 [and] the flagship for NATO's Standing Naval Force Mediterranean, which is now in the Adriatic. And in that standing naval force is a German frigate, a Greek destroyer, an Italian frigate, a Dutch frigate, a Spanish frigate, a Turkish frigate, a U.K. frigate, and again, the flagship USS THORN, a destroyer.

Q: So the United States has five Tomahawk shooters in the area, the PHILIPPINE SEA, the NICHOLSON, the GONZALEZ, and the two submarines?

Q: Right.

Q: Is the THORN a Tomahawk shooter?

A: I don't know that. We'll find out.

Q: Ken, what can you bring us up to date on or tell us about unusual or new Serb troop movements into Kosovo? Both troops and equipment.

A: The most disturbing report came from the Kosovo Verification Mission this morning that the Serbs have moved in seven T-72 tanks from the former Republic of Yugoslavia into Kosovo, or into the Kosovo section. And that is probably the latest news about changes.

There has been, as I've reported before, a buildup of Serb forces just outside of Kosovo. There are probably now 16,000 to 21,000 Serb forces gathered around the perimeter of Kosovo -- and with tanks and APCs.

There also has been a concentration of Serb troops along the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and that's been building for several weeks.

Q: Can you put some numbers to that?

A: Not on that particular one along the border, simply because I don't have them. We reckon that there are probably about 14,000 to 18,000 troops in Kosovo now, and as I said, 15,000 to 21,000 on the perimeter of Kosovo.

Q: Has there been any movement [of] anti-aircraft [units]?

A: They have been moving some around, yes.

Q: SAMs?

A: Well, there has been some movement of their anti-aircraft assets -- SAMS and guns as well.

Q: What would be the purpose? I mean what appears to be the...

A: Well, it's hard to know but it's certainly -- if you take what the Serbs have said at face value, they're prepared to oppose NATO airstrikes should they occur, and they're prepared to oppose the entry of NATO forces into Kosovo.

They've also made very bellicose, threatening statements about the Albanians, and one Serb political leader said recently that if there are NATO airstrikes or if NATO tries to move into Kosovo, not one Albanian will be left alive.

They have made -- other leaders have made similar statements.

So it may be that they're trying to build up forces either to discourage NATO from going into Kosovo or to oppose a NATO move into Kosovo, or to repress further the Albanians. And those are the three main options.

I'll point out, as I have before, that our policy is that NATO forces would only enter Kosovo under an agreement which would allow permissive entry. NATO has no intention of invading Kosovo. We would only come in under an agreement that would allow them to come in peacefully.

Q: Is there also a possibility that they are essentially making the Kosovo Verification Mission hostages to prevent the bombing?

A: I don't see that because they have agreed to allow the KVM to function in Kosovo. They did that in October. And although the verifiers have encountered some problems with both the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians, they are continuing to do their job; they're continuing to move around; and I take their commitment to allow the verifiers to do their work and to work safely seriously.

Q: Ken, what do you make on the building on the Macedonia border? Is that to -- does that appear to be threatening Macedonia, or do they seem to be postured for some other purpose?

A: It may suggest that they've merely miscalculated about what's going on in Macedonia. Right now there are about 12,000 NATO troops in Macedonia that are comprised of two groups. One is the extraction force, the so-called EXFOR, and there are about 2,600 NATO troops in that. Then the balance are the so-called enabling force which is being moved in. I think the largest concentration would be British troops. There are over 4,000 British troops, I believe, as part of the enabling force, and they've moved in a fair amount of equipment that has come in through Greece and moved up over roads. But there are French and German soldiers there now, too. That force is one that's just there to prepare for a NATO move to operate as a peacekeeping force in Kosovo upon completion of a successful agreement between Belgrade and the Kosovar Albanians.

So that force is there to operate as a peacekeeping force under an agreement.

Q: Is that an armored force along the border there?

A: They do have armor along the border, the Serbs do.

Q: Ken, if Serbia remains defiant or non-permissive, and they take air raids and they're still non-permissive -- this is what they've been saying they'll do, they will still not permit NATO to come in. Then the policy then goes back to NATO to decide if they will permit some kind of a non-permissive kind of entry into Kosovo. Is that the next step if in fact Serbia is negative and defiant?

A: No, I don't anticipate that will be the next step.

Q: That would not be the next step?

A: No.

Q: Well, yesterday Secretary Cohen said we have not decided to try to intervene in a non-permissive environment at this point.

So I think he was saying that there might be a point where a different decision was made.

A: The action that NATO has taken, as you know -- it's passed an Activation Order on January 30th to allow bombing in the event that there is a humanitarian disaster or that the Serbs continue to obstruct the peace process. That's a decision that still could be made by NATO. It hasn't been made yet, but it's now teed up to be made, and that decision would be made by the Secretary General of NATO, Solana.

Q: Ken, these 14,000 troops that you say are in Kosovo now, those are regular Yugoslav army troops?

A: Yeah, the so-called VJ.

Q: Ken, are we going to move another carrier into the Adriatic area?

A: Not right now. I don't know when the next one is scheduled to go in, but we don't anticipate changing that schedule at the current time.

I've just been handed a note that the USS THORN is Tomahawk-capable.

Q: So there would be six.

A: Barbara?

Q: Going back, the 16,000 to 21,000 troops around the perimeter of Kosovo, could you run through for us what kind of armament, tanks, APCs, armored vehicles they have with them in that area?

A: Not in any great specificity. I haven't looked at the list. They have, you know, T-55 tanks and...

Q: A hundred of everything?

A: They have -- those around the border are divided into deployed forces, garrison forces, and reserve forces. The deployed forces have about 96 tanks, and the garrison forces have around 30 tanks in garrison. So that gives you some sense of what they have.

Q: One other question, the AAA movements that you're seeing, are those mostly around Serbia and within Serbia? Or are those in Kosovo as well?

A: Well, there have been, I'd say some of both.

Q: Did that include SAMs? I wasn't sure about your answer on that.

A: I said both. We're seeing movements of elements of the air defense system.

Q:...appear to be bracing for war rather than for a peace agreement.

A: They appear to be doing -- they certainly are bracing for war, but they continue to participate in the talks.

Q: Are you cutting back on the flow of details on Northern Watch, Southern Watch?

A: I don't think we're cutting back on the flow. We've been fairly parsimonious on the flow from the beginning, but I don't think there's been a cutback in the details recently.

Q: (inaudible)

A: We continue to put out releases which appear on the Internet every morning when there's action.

Q: Before we were getting a little more detail on the planes involved, the bombs involved, and they're certainly not too forthcoming on the planes involved...

A: I don't believe that's the case. I'll have to go back and check, but my...

Q: We're actually getting less and less information every day. When we called EUCOM, CNN called EUCOM today, we were told that all the information that would be made available was already on the Web site, and they wouldn't get into any more specifics, which includes target points. They'll release the number of sites, which -- it could include multiple target points. We don't know how many airplanes are involved, how many munitions are used. There is an awful lot more that we don't know about this ongoing low-level war in the skies over Iraq than what we do know.

A: This is a, as I say, an effort in self-defense. Our pilots are taking fire every day. I read the reports. Sometimes SAMs are fired at them; sometimes anti-aircraft is fired at them. They've taken some multiple-launch rockets and tried to readjust them to shoot down planes, and they're firing these rockets off sometimes. And our planes are responding as they have from the very beginning of the enforcement of the no-fly zone. They're responding to protect themselves, and they're responding to enforce the no-fly zones.

Q:...information we can get on this subject, though. I mean early on in this situation from December 28th forward, we were getting much more detail. And, apparently, the Pentagon decided that there was a need to clamp down on this information, and less and less and less information is being released with each passing incident. Not only has no gun camera video been released in I think two months now, but the flow of information is being stemmed every day.

A: I think that we've been very clear from the beginning of this operation that our pilots are under fire every single day and we are going to be very careful about the information we give out. This has gone on for a long while. The Iraqis show no sign of quitting. Quite the opposite, they show signs of looking for new ways to attack our pilots, and looking for new ways to rebuild their defenses.

In light of this ongoing campaign against our pilots and the British pilots -- the other country in the coalition -- we are going to be as careful as possible to protect our pilots and make sure they can do their job.

Q: What's the reason for keeping the details of these daily exchanges from the public and from the families of the pilots and everybody else? Iraq knows how many sites have been bombed; Iraq knows how many bombs have been dropped. Iraq knows how many planes have come into their airspace, but that information is not released by the Pentagon.

A: As I said, we want to give out as little information as possible that the Iraqis may be able to use to calibrate the types of packages that are used on certain days or against certain targets. And they can observe certain things, but we don't have to give them extra information, and we're not.

Q: You're not giving anyone information. Is this not because you don't want us to...

A: Well, unfortunately, information is not divisible. We can't give information to CNN and not give it to Iraq. We can't give information to Newsday and not have it flow into the general stream of information.

Q: But you've also said that 20 percent, you've said that you destroyed -- quite awhile ago you said you destroyed 20 percent of Iraq's anti-aircraft ability. The Secretary...

A: We didn't say that. We didn't say that. We said strategic SAMs, which is different.

Q: All right. But the Secretary also said that most of the SAMs have been withdrawn to central Iraq.

A: Many have, yes.

Q: Leading one to believe that in fact the threat had gone rather than increased. Yet the raids on the northern and southern zones have increased. And as he said, these releases now say "a threat from Iraqi radar." It doesn't say whether or not those radars have targeted planes; it simply says in response to a "threat from Iraqi radar."

Q: Is the presence of an Iraqi radar threat...

Q: That's right.

A: Well, without getting into our rules of engagement, we have always been able to react against certain types of radar illuminations.

Q: The very existence of them? Whether or not they're targeting your planes...

A: We don't -- I don't think threat conveys the idea that it's the very existence of a radar that poses a threat to our planes. I don't know why you would read that into the term threat.

Q:...radar's been turned on and threatens the plane.

A: I think it is; there is no doubt if you have seen pilots quoted in the press as they were last night on a network, that the pilots believe they're under fire. You traveled with the Secretary and had a chance to talk with some pilots, and you had a chance to hear them express their feelings about whether they're under fire or not. I don't think they expressed any doubt whatsoever that they're under fire.

Q: Last night's example was an exception, though. Normally reporters are not granted access to Incirlik, and certainly not to the bases in the Middle East where our planes are originating from. That's not a good example of the kind of access that we have.

A: I guess I would have to say that your comment to me that access is extraordinary doesn't really hold water either, because you've just cited two examples of where reporters have gotten access.

Q: The rarest of examples...

A: We've also had reporters on carriers.

Q: A carrier's the one place you can get access to, on occasion.

Would you say that there's a low-level war going on with Iraq right now?

A: No, I would say that our pilots are every day taking actions to defend themselves as they patrol the no-fly zone.

Q: At what point does it become a low-level war?

A: I think in the mind of the press it already has become a low-level war, but if it is a low-level war, it's one that's been provoked by Saddam Hussein.

Q: Do you think if there were gun sight videos on television every night of bombs exploding in Iraq that the public would have the perception that there was a low- level war going on?

A: I think the public would see that, would have visible evidence for what they already understand, which is that our planes are taking fire and they're defending themselves.

Q: Could we have that visible evidence?

A: You've had some visible evidence. There has been...

Q:...two months.

A: Well, they all look pretty much the same.

Q: The sources for information about what's going on in Iraq are two -- the United States government and Iraq. Now Iraq's accounts are often rather fanciful. They've shot down a number of planes, according to their accounts. So don't you think there's a special responsibility on the United States government as the only vaguely reliable source on this to point out what exactly is going on? Otherwise, the world has no source of information on this. Or do you want to have a secret war?

A: I think that all you have to know is several things. First, you have to know that Iraq has threatened to shoot down American planes, has proclaimed that as a goal, and has offered a bounty to do this.

Two, following through on this threat, they are shooting at our planes with some regularity, on an almost daily basis.

And three, our planes, as any sensible air force would do, [are] firing back to defend the pilots and to allow them to perform their mission, which is to patrol the no-fly zone. Those are the three central facts here.

A fourth fact which I've said...

Q:...actually hit one of our planes? Not recently.

A: I think there's -- they have not given up trying. They still have a missile capability. They do from time to time fire missiles at our planes -- they did recently. They frequently fire anti-aircraft guns at our planes, 100mm guns, and they have fired rockets at our planes. And they do, from time to time, illuminate our planes with radar, which would lead any reasonable person to believe that a missile might be coming shortly thereafter.

So these are not idle threats, and they're threats that we take with great seriousness, and that's what we're doing every single day. We're challenged by Iraq; we're responding.

Q: You've said in the past, I believe, that there have been something like 200,000 sorties enforcing the no-fly zone. How does that number of sorties compare with other things that were acknowledged to be wars? Like, say, Vietnam or Korea?

A: First of all, the number of sorties that we've made since 1991 have for the large part been unchallenged. The challenges to the flights have only come in the last several months, since December 28th.

So the vast majority, the overwhelming percentage of these sorties, [has] been unchallenged. They've just simply been planes going up and patrolling the no-fly zone and coming back without incident. Starting in late December. That whole dynamic changed, and the planes started coming under very regular fire.

Q: Following the U.S. invasion of Grenada and all the questions, suspicions, and ultimate confirmations of blown missions and enemies that perhaps really weren't there at the time, the Pentagon sat down with the media, the appointed the Sidle Commission, and established a working order, relationship between the media and the military on future coverage of U.S. military operations.

Has the Pentagon now abandoned what was sort of the spirit or intent of the Sidle Commission in covering U.S. military operations?

A: Not at all. In fact, one of the most significant changes to come out of that was the pool approach. That pool approach is alive and well, as most of you know. You serve on pools from time to time, and we activate the pools at various times. So I don't think that has changed, and I don't think that this is going uncovered.

I see stories in the press every day about it. I've seen reports on television from people who have been on carriers and been to Incirlik. And I've seen reports from people who have been elsewhere writing about this.

So I don't take the criticism that there's no coverage of this.

Q: Those reports are based on what you say. You said something about fanciful reports out of Iraq. All we have is what you say. You say that those planes are being fired at regularly, and these attacks are apparently always in response to being fired at or targeted. All we have is your word for that.

We go through the Gulf with the Secretary, and you all say that leaders in the Gulf have no argument with U.S. policy, and yet the only guy we get a crack at to talk to is the Foreign Minister of Qatar who says that he in fact is against daily attacks in these no-fly zones. He did say that he agreed with overall U.S. policy, but he said he did not agree with the daily attacks. Yet you say that Gulf leaders, all of the Gulf leaders, agree with these attacks and U.S. policy in Iraq.

I mean all we have is you all's word to go on. Yet you won't provide pictures to back it up, as he says.

A: I think you're mixing apples and oranges there.

The fact of the matter is that you were at a meeting with some pilots, and the pilots did in fact talk about being attacked.

Q: So the U.S. status currently in the no-fly zone is reactive. The U.S. is reacting to what Iraq is dishing out, so to speak.

A: Yes.

Q: Does the United States have a plan or plans in mind to become more proactive, Ken, to bring this whole business to an end? This whole business of risking American pilots on a day-to-day basis? Is there such a plan?

A: We are doing the best we can to suppress the threat that our pilots face.

Q: Is there a policy or an end game that we should be aware of that we're not?

A: The end game is when Saddam Hussein stops shooting at our planes, we'll stop shooting back.

Q:...policy, though.

Q: So we're locked into an indefinite engagement that will ultimately cost the United States planes and pilots. Is that correct?

A: I think it's fortunate -- this is a risky operation, and that of course is a possibility. That's one of the reasons why our pilots have been so determined to suppress the threats that they're facing every day.

Q: Have they put up any aircraft in the past couple of weeks? When was the last time they put up aircraft?

A: Yesterday.

Q: Different subject?

A: Sure. People are diving for the exit, and I might be the next one to go. (Laughter) I'd be glad to change the subject.

Q: Have U.S. planes been damaged at all in these Iraqi efforts to strike a U.S. or British plane?

A: Thank God, no.

Q: What either reaction or details can you add to the announcement by State that there's an agreement to investigate the mysterious hole in the ground in North Korea?

A: None. I saw part of the announcement. All I have is the State guidance on it. They've negotiated it. I would recommend you talk to them.

Q: Do you foresee U.S. military participation on the team?

A: I just have no details at this time.

Q:...the Department's review of the General Dynamics/Newport News proposal, do you know if there's any kind of readout on that, where the review stands? (Laughter)

A: I don't know where you got that information. I don't see that on the schedule. But I do not know. I'll have to find out where it stands.

Q: Are there, in Kosovo, have any U.S. forces gone into Macedonia as part of that enabling force?

A: There have been survey teams in and out of Macedonia, but there have been no permanent deployments into Macedonia. You know that we do have Task Force Able Sentry, which is a U.N. operation, and we have 350 Army troops in that. But we do not have participation in the enabling force now.

Q: Is that contingent of Marines still in the Med?

A: It's in the Med. I think the USS NASSAU and the 24th MEU are supposed to be there until the third week of April or so.

Q: When you gave the 12,000 number for NATO troops, the enabling plus the extraction, that was just NATO. That wasn't counting the...

A: That did not count Task Force Able Sentry, you're right. Thanks for pointing that out.

Press: Thank you.

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