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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Senior Military Officials January 20, 2010

DOD Background Briefing with Senior Military Officials from the Pentagon

STAFF: All right. Good morning, all. Since we haven't done a backgrounder in here in -- in a little bit of time, I'll go over the ground rules quickly and we'll begin.

Again, this is on background, attributable to senior military officials. For your information only and not for reporting, here are our military officials. (Pause.) Okay. And if you would, please, again, because of the background nature of it, if you want to direct a question, you can say official number one and official number two, or just make eye contact.

All right. With that, any opening statements to make or just go right into questions?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: I guess we'll go right into questions, then. Go ahead.

Q But if all the assets are now going to Haiti, is this moving over to the right at all efforts to plus-up in Afghanistan?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: No. We continue to take a very careful and conscious look to see what the impact of our deployment of forces would be on other operations around the world. And right now, as you know, we have focused on the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne, who is already there, and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit and the associated ARG/MEU [Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit] with it. And those are units that had been in a degree of dwell and were actually force listed for these types of contingencies. So we have not right now had an effect on Afghanistan or Iraq.

Q I'm talking about with all the planes and ships needed to bring them to Haiti, does that delay at all or put strain on sending troops and equipment to Afghanistan?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: It has not right now delayed anything going to those places, but clearly it puts a strain there. We have to be very mindful of use of aircraft. So we're just very -- we watch it carefully and consciously.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: For the strategic lift that is being utilized, that is not diverting any efforts toward what we already had allocated for Haiti.

And for the commercial contracts that we're putting in place, again those capabilities would have not been used for the support in movement to Southwest Asia. So there is not a conflict there.

Q You have -- I think you're going to have, by the end of the week, roughly 5,000 boots on the ground, I guess, with the 82nd and the 22nd MEU. Is there a point, you know, if you double that or its 8,000 or 10,000 where you would start to have an impact you think on Afghanistan or other operations?

Is there a magic number I guess?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: There is no magic number. There are of course inflection points that you would watch.

I think we should all be mindful that right now we're still in the assessment phase. If you realize the epicenter for the quake was actually about 35 miles south and west of Port-au-Prince proper, and most of our focused efforts right now have been in there, be mindful again that we're there to assist first and foremost the government of Haiti and then second the MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] and the U.N. efforts that are in the area.

So we're still trying to assess the actual damage and the extent of the quake. And we do believe that with the epicenter being south and west of the city that there are areas that neither the government of Haiti nor MINUSTAH nor the U.S. has actually had eyes on yet.

And part of the reason for the MEU and the Canadians to go in is to try and get a better look at some of those areas, to see if there's going to be a requirement for ongoing operations there.

Q People I've talked to at Lejeune say, I think, 1/9 has been told they may go. That would be part of the 24th MEU I guess.

Are there discussions about sending another MEU down there?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: The 24th MEU, as many of you know, is in the throes of getting ready to load out. But you know, they are still on their timeline and their operational deployment.

Q (Off mike.)


Q Do we have any sense whether more troops will head down to Haiti at this point?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: I mean, we do what we call prudent military planning, which is to put people on alerts. And you say, look, you know what the situation is around the world. You need to be prepared. But we have not moved anybody in any other direction.

So we still have the commitment to Haiti and then the ongoing commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. And we have not changed any of those.

Q This area you're talking about, where sort of no one has been, I would assume, once you get a better sense of that, if things are worse than you thought, you would likely send more U.S. forces.

Or is that hard to say at this point?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Yeah, it's hard to say.

We could very well just, as we say, divert the battlefield geometry.

And we could move the 2/82 and then the 22nd MEU in, move their efforts there -- and again, to facilitate the USAID as the lead federal agent and the other government agents.

So there could very well be a lot of NGOs and PVOs who are already in the area. We periodically get requests to provide water, to provide fuel for generators, for folks who have been there for a while. So they may very well know things that we just haven't seen.

Q But you must have done some reconnaissance -- you must have done some reconnaissance of this area. You must have some idea here.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Yeah, we're not totally blind. We have some reconnaissance that's up there -- but again, realizing the canopy of the area and realizing that there are a lot of -- it's not, you know, for lack of a better term, as it would be in a major urban area in the United States. So the extent and the magnitude of the damage you're not going to know fully until you get boots on the ground or eyes on.

Q Is that an urban area, the -- this area 35 miles southwest of the --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: There are some -- there are some urban areas out there, and then there are some rural hours (sic) out there. I mean, I would have to get out a map, which I don't have with me right now. Again, we think, from USAID statistics, that there could be as many as 700(,000) to 800,000 people in the area southwest of the city where the epicenter of the quake was.

Q Sir, do you know how long the Haiti mission is going to last? Do you have a time limit in your plan?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: And again, I don't. We're there to support and enable the other government agencies. And we've tried to impress upon them two things. Number one, we'll move as quickly as possible to marshal as much support as we can. And number two is, we will be there only as long as necessary. But between being there as quickly as possible and staying as long as necessary, a lot of those things will be conditions-based, as opposed to time-based. We're going to have to see what the extent of the damage is. And more importantly, the USAID is going -- and the government of Haiti are going to have to assess that.

Q So you can't -- you can't say if it is a matter of months or --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: No, I think -- I think it would probably be, first off, inaccurate and, second, probably unwarranted, to say now, because it's still so early on.

We're only seven days after the quake, and we really still don't know the magnitude of the damage.

Q There's been a little -- some criticism that the U.S. military hasn't provided enough medical support. And I know we keep hearing that the military's role has been to push boots on the ground and aid in first, and that the international community could provide more medical.

But what is the -- number one, what's the plan for getting additional U.S. military medical facilities on the ground? Can you give us sort of a sense of that? And then what's -- I guess, what's there right now? Because we're getting conflicting reports on that. And then -- and does the U.S. even have that -- the same capability to push forward? Is that what one of the problems was?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: Well, you look at what the U.N. is doing. The U.N. has worked with a lot of nations to bring in medical capability. You've got several nations that have sent in medical people to help get the existing hospitals up and running. As well, you have international entities that have come in and set up their own field hospitals. I believe there's four field hospitals from other international entities that are being set up.

So again, you want to leverage, in an operation like this, what other nations can bring to the table. So does the U.S. government have that capability? We certainly do. But if another nation has that and they are able to provide that care, so they -- or -- they should be leveraged to do that.

We do have medical-care teams that have been going out and helping, but they're in small numbers. But you do have the USNS Comfort that has just arrived today and already has patients being -- arriving at it today. We did do some emergency treatment. We had patients taken that were critical, that were not able to be helped there on the ground, flown out to our military vessels to have emergency medical care on those vessels.

Q So -- but what -- was there ever -- one of the reasons that more military medical -- U.S. military medical didn't go in, was that ever just a matter of they couldn't logistically get them in in time?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: We do have some additional forces that are flowing in for medical. But --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: It -- we are, as I'm sure you're aware, constrained purely by -- simply by the size and the geometry of the airfield there in Port-au-Prince. And it's a single runway. It's only about 9,600 feet. And the -- what we call the MOG, the maximum on the ground -- it can normally only take seven or eight aircraft. Sometimes it's been constrained down to two or three. So the prioritization of the aircraft that go in there has been important to us.

Initially we were only getting about 30 or 40 aircraft in a day. Now we're up to close to 130 a day. And we are working the allocation of those aircraft very carefully. I think to date, if you go back over all the lift that has been in there, the United States military has only used about 28 percent of the lift on the ground. The other 72 percent has gone to NGOs, PVOs, U.N., and other U.S. government agencies. And we have to reassess that distribution on a daily basis, because if you get indications that there is some restiveness in certain areas, then we have to take a look. Well, maybe we need to get in more troops, or maybe we -- or perhaps the food supplies, water supplies are starting to build up a little bit, and then you have to shift the allocation because you need to get trucks in to move them out. So we're trying to work with the constraints that we have there.

One of the goals, of course, is to get the port up and operable. Once we do that, that'll allow us more cube and square to go in, so we can move more things. And as many of you know, the port of -- the airfield at San Isidro in the Dominican Republic has recently become available to us, and that should increase our flow. So we're trying to balance both the surface and the air side.

Q Is the Air Force EMEDS team still planning to go in? Do we know?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: Yeah, the EMEDS team -- I believe that is still on -- unless it has been turned off. I believe it is --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Yeah, I mean, I'll have to -- we'll have to take that and get back with you to find out what the time is.

Q Going back to the airport situation, who is actually in charge of allowing certain aircraft in? I know -- I know the -- you know, the Air Force is doing the control, but who makes the decision of what aircraft come in? I ask because Doctors without Borders has e-mailed or sent press releases to all of us, essentially, saying: We've been trying to get aircraft in there since the 14th. And they keep getting diverted to the DR. What's that whole scenario about?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: All I can say is that in this particular case, again, because you have the single airport, the guidance and the priorities are set by the government of Haiti first and then by the U.N. second, and then we are in there to, again, enable. And our commanders will make the prudent decision on the ground about how much mobility they need and how much security they need.

So given those sets of guidance and that criteria, then the staff and the action arms, if you will, that are down there are the ones that implement that. And there will be times when folks are unhappy, when they have things that they want to get in and need to get in. And it's a sheer issue of physics and geometry; you just can't get them all in there.

So sometimes you're able to put them in a pattern and bring them in a little bit later. Sometimes you say it's important to get that material in here, so -- but we can't bring you into Port-au-Prince; we're going to now divert you to San Isidro.

But we do have cases where folks come in without the proper clearances, without the proper notice. So they come in thinking -- we think we have one thing on the aircraft, and they have something else.

And we are -- there are great people on the ground, working very, very hard to try and get as much in as they can as fast as they can, and try and keep everybody impressed that we are there to support them. But there are some people that are just not going to be happy because we can't get it all.

Q But is it -- is it USAID or DART that also makes decisions on medical supplies that come in, or --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Absolutely. And I'll defer here to my colleague, but they do make those decisions.

And again, we're in the implementation phase here. So if USAID or U.N. or government of Haiti comes in and says, "Look, this is what we really want to have come in" -- if it's a challenge for the commander on the ground, then they'll have the discussion about, you know, what is prudent for security and what is prudent for mobility, you know? Because we have -- every now and then you have to say, look, if you want to get it out that far out, then you don't have the security; you -- either you as the nongovernmental organization or you as the government of Haiti; then you're going to use -- need our trucks and you're going to need our security. And they have been diverted over here.

So now the trade -- and the trade-off is, do they continue to do this mission, or do they focus over here? And if you want to do both, then we have to bring in more trucks and more people before you can distribute more supplies. So those are the constant trade-offs that we have every day.

Q Can we just clarify? I mean, who is calling the shots? Is it USAID, or is it a committee, USAID, U.N., Haitian government? Who decides?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: I believe, as I understand the structure, that USAID takes input from the U.N. and from the other NGOs and PVOs for what those requirements are. They then identify, in broad terms, what those requirements are. Maybe they're trying to balance -- maybe they don't need doctors right now; maybe it's more important that they get medical supplies. Or maybe it's more important that they get the equipment.

So they look at what has already arrived on the ground, trying to balance that, and then prioritize from all of the great capabilities that are being offered what is the next set. So they provide that to SOUTHCOM, who then looks at all of the requests for time slots and tries to match up that rack and stack of both U.N., USAID such that they can then -- and then the military requirement -- allocate the slots in accordance with the priorities that have been jointly set with U.N. and USAID.

Q So USAID? Or --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: As I understand it. Yes, USAID. They don't assign the slots.

What they identify is the priorities for capabilities. Then we look at what people have said that they want to bring in on their aircraft and what's that capability, and match those up.

Q So they would essentially say to Doctors Without Borders, we have these other planes coming in first; you have to get in line. Correct?


Q Okay.

Q Could you explain this on-again, off-again story of air drops: first it was no way, then there was an air drop, then another -- more were scheduled for today and, as I understand, they didn't happen. So what's going on with air drops?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Yeah, two things on that point, if I may. First off, air drops can be, obviously, very successful and very quick. And we know that yesterday they were both. They brought in over 15,000 meals and 15,000 liters of water.

There are two requirements for air drops. We just explained one, which is the actual availability of the aircraft. And sometimes you have to divert that aircraft to another mission, because in the -- in the particular case -- again, bringing 2/82 out of their home station, you know, either you bring the food and the water from there or you bring the people from there or you bring the trucks from there. So does that -- that tradeoff about what gets on the aircraft is point number one.

And then point number two is, you have to have a safe and secure area to drop the water and the food: either that there is -- it's a controlled area, that there are either U.S. forces, MINUSTAH forces or government of Haiti forces there that can actually supervise the area, and it doesn't become a scene where people are injured, and instead of distributing food and water, it becomes just -- you know, a calamity, because people are crawling in to get there. So you want to secure the area.

With that amount of food and water, you need a big area. And in the aftermath of the quake, a lot of the displaced and the victims moved to the areas that we would have normally used for either LZs or PZs, and places where we would have distributed food and water or picked up people. And part of that would have been, for example, our embassy evacuation plan. So we had to make sure that the area we were going to drop the food and water in was, indeed, safe and secure.

Q The -- early on, was there ever any -- and you may have just answered this -- any consideration to jumping the 82nd itself in; they then set up -- you know, you're clear, you got a landing zone, and then vehicles and supplies come in?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: I would have to, you know, defer to the commander on the ground out there. I don't think at this -- from my point of view right here, I don't believe there was a conscious decision to do that, because we didn't think that was a -- the prudent thing to do. It was a --

Q It wasn't really considered?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: No. And it's -- and there's also an issue of optics here, because we are there to assist and enable. This is not a jump into a combat zone; this is not a jump.

So we're there to assist and enable. It's a peaceful nation. It's a very dramatic and, as General Keen said, epic proportions, the disaster there. And we're there to get there quickly and to help. And to parachute in or to drop in, it was not required and would have probably sent the wrong message.

Q Did you say there will be more airdrops that you're planning?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Yeah. That is on the horizon. We're always looking at the opportunity to do that. Right now the aircraft for today are filled, and we're looking at moving cargo and personnel and drugs. But, you know, when we get that request, those are decisions that General Fraser and General Keen will make about the appropriate time and place to do that.

Q But not today. You don't expect any more today.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Not that I'm aware of, no.

Q Can I just go back to the medical piece again. You had said that if there are other countries available to bring in portable medical facilities or whatever, you would look -- you would look at that. But this is --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: Well, the U.N. and USAID work that in concert. DoD does not, you know, prioritize which nation would come in and bring capability. That's a U.N. and USAID function.

Q In that case, then, how come -- I mean, this has essentially happened in the U.S.'s backyard. We're really the best country to outfit that. How come that wasn't asked for, to bring in those portable medical facilities? You'd think that would be one of the first things that would be asked for, instead of kind of waiting for other countries to do that. The U.S. has that capability. Why was that not --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: I'm afraid I can't answer that. That was not a capability. We were asked to help with the distribution. We were asked to help with some of the medical supplies, and we are doing that. We were asked for some additional augmentation of some specialties, and the EMEDS team is earmarked, and, of course, the Comfort, to give them additional capability.

So, you know, we're providing medical capability but we're doing it through, you know, other means, because you do have a limited footprint on the ground.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: And the Comfort is not insignificant, obviously, with a, you know, 250 --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: Two hundred fifty beds.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: -- 250-bed capacity, and marshaled and moved out in less than 96 hours. So that's not insignificant to have that kind of capability down there.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: And in some ways, it probably provides you a much more robust capability than a field hospital would have.

Q We have a reporter who's embedded with the 82nd, and they visited the main hospital near the presidential place, and they are in need of basic medical supplies, like a wrench that opens up the oxygen. And also they said the aid workers are using Percocet as anesthesia. It only works for a few minutes, so the patients wake up during the operation. When are these aid workers and people in the hospital going to get the equipment they need?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: There is a HACC, a Humanitarian Assistance Coordination Center, that the JTF has established that has a U.N., USAID -- reps there that identify what are the requirements they need.

Then, of the available medical supplies, USAID would prioritize what needs to be distributed to what location. And then distribution assets from the JTF would then be allocated against that requirement to move whatever the critical medical supplies are to the right location.

Q You know, from day one we've been told that one of the major problems here is Port-au-Prince airport -- a single runway. Was there ever consideration of carving out an unimproved runway at the airport, where you could keep landing C-130s? Here we are a week later, we were told yesterday now we're looking at Jacmel and San Isidro in the DR [Dominican Republic]. Just walk us through that and the discussions of how you get around that single runway. What was discussed? And again, was there ever a thought of just, you know, getting bulldozers in there, creating a dirt strip and just start rolling in C-130s -- which, you know, I guess can land anywhere?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Right. I mean, we do have expeditionary aircraft that can land in those places. Part of the issue, I believe -- part of the issue is engineering equipment itself, which is always at a premium. I mean, we have a huge engineering footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq, whether it's for construction, for mobility or counter-mobility purposes. We do have an engineering crew that's going down because we want to make sure the runway at Port-au-Prince is usable and stable and safe, and will continue to be that way.

But there was not a conscious -- I mean, we looked at other existing airports in the area, so that's when you try and leverage what Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic can do for you while we're in at San Isidro. And then we will look -- most of the issue is not runway to get in. That's the strategic issue. The issue for us is the tactical issue, and that's the vertical lift. And those are the helos that we would need, which is why the MEU is down there and why the 82nd has aircraft down there, because we need -- we're going to need the vertical lift as well as the ground mobility to do the tactical distribution of the supplies.

Q Was there ever a discussion about unimproved runway, or was that just brushed off immediately?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: I wouldn't say -- it was certainly not brushed off, but the discussion to -- not that I'm aware of, no.

Q You know, everyone's always going to say, "Why didn't you do it faster?" But it seems, a week after this, to be talking about we're going to get Jacmel going in the next 24 to 48 hours -- that seems like a long time.

Can you just talk about that? A week later, you're saying, well, look, if you've got other airports --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: Well, we had identified the airport of San Isidro in advance. And so we'd looked at that. It looked like a good capability. State Department worked with the Dominican Republic. They gained authority to bring in forces and troops into that and use that as a hub.

You know, there's international agreements that have to be agreed upon. You can't just decide to use an aerial port. But now that we have it, we send in the assessment teams. They have identified what they needed. And they have flowed in that capability. And today, we are up and operating.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: And again it's time-distance. When you move at some of those other airfields, first, they're even smaller than Port-au-Prince. And then in some cases, instead of solving the problem, you've exacerbated the problem, because now you have a hub at a distant location, where you're starting to build up supplies. And now you are entirely dependent on more ground mobility or more helicopters, both of which are at a premium.

So you know, what we're trying to do is grow into the solution, as opposed to accidentally create more problems that we have to contend with.

Q That was one of my other questions too: helos. I know the MEU and the Vinson have totaled like 30 medium-and-large-lift helicopters. Is there anyone looking at trying to push more helos in there?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: There are right now as of today 49 helos in the area, different type/model/series, that are available.

Q (Off mike.)

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: They're U.S. that are available for doing either the lift, the command and control -- small-people lift, equipment lift, supply lift or command and control.

Q Looking at pushing more in?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: You always do. And so if we bring in more forces and if the requirement is there, then we'd look at how we get more helos down there.

STAFF: Our principals are on a tight schedule, so last question.

Q If you had this first week to do over, what would you do differently?

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: (Inaudible.) I mean, on the positive side, I really would go back to the fact that we are very proud of the fact that we marshaled and that we now have over 2,000 people there. We'll have between four (thousand) and 5,000 by the end of the week. We have a hospital ship and all of that, within 96 hours to five days.

The baseline that we started from was very rugged, I mean, when you have a country where the population is so concentrated. And yet the standards of living are at the state they were in Haiti, and the damage was so large and at the time unknown.

So it -- I think anyone would tell you in any operation, be it a lifesaving and humanitarian operation or a military operation, you want to lean forward, but you have to get an accurate assessment on the ground first. You have to synchronize your efforts third. And then you look at where you can apply mass and the things that you bring to the equation.

So I think that the -- it was warranted to do some assessment up front, and we are still very prudent and wise to do synchronization as we go. And we'll continue to move into this thing, as I said, as rapidly and as quickly as we can, but we have to do it safely and effectively. And again, we're an enabler and a support. We're there to help MINUSTAH, and MINUSTAH's there to help the government of Haiti.

Q Can I ask one quick question -- is there actually a mobile air medical hospital on the ground now operating? There was some talk of a MASF [Mobile Aeromedical Staging Facility], I think it's called, right near the airport, a U.S. military --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: There are field hospitals from other nations. I don't believe we have a DOD field hospital. We have the EMEDS that will be coming in. Again, we're leveraging the capability that the Comfort has and that the other ships could offer in the interim until the Comfort arrives.

Q We were just told the other night that they were on their way from MacDill -- that they were already on the plane on their way in. But --

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 2: And that might be the EMEDS team that was coming in, because we were awaiting a lift apportionment for them.

STAFF: Thanks, all.

Q Thank you very much.

SR. MILITARY OFFICIAL 1: Appreciate it. Thank you.

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