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Special Event

Pentagon Holds Briefing on U.S. Military Bomb Accident in Kuwait

Aired March 13, 2001 - 1:27 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: It goes without saying that military service is risky business, no matter what. Still, between the USS Greeneville, now Kuwait, there's Vieques, not to mention the attack on the USS Cole, these are trying times for the Pentagon.

Paul Beaver is with a respected publication, "Jane's Defence Weekly." And he joins us today from London.

Paul, is this an incredible run of bad luck for the Navy, or is it time, as some are suggesting, for a systemwide review?

PAUL BEAVER, "JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY": I think probably it's a little of both, to be quite frank. It is bad luck. You do find sometimes that lady luck plays this sort of hand. And it wasn't the Navy's fault that the USS Cole was attacked. That was an act of international terrorist.

I think the jury is obviously still out on the Greeneville. But that does look as if it was complacency and totally unprofessional. And I'm afraid that the pilot of this Hornet was -- that dropped the bomb in Kuwait -- was, I'm afraid, subject to one of those chain of events which causes an accident. That, again, is really nothing to do with the U.S. Navy. It's just one of those things that happen.

You were absolutely in right in your introduction when you say the military is a dangerous business. And that, of course, is why a lot of people join the military, because there is that buzz you get from doing things that are right at the edge of the envelope.

WATERS: And what, Paul, are you hearing about yesterday's chain of events? We're being told by several U.S. Pentagon officials that we can't come to any real conclusion until a number of things are checked out. But we have been told that the U.S. Central Command is focusing on the communication between the pilot and the so-called forward air controller. What do you know about all of that?

BEAVER: Yes, I think you're absolutely right with that. What we do know is that the Hornet was cleared to -- and I used to be a forward air controller, so I have some experience at this.

The Hornet was cleared into -- from what's called an initial point to do a close-air-support mission to drop three laser-guided bombs. There were looks if they were designated from the ground. In other words, there was a forward air controller on the ground with a laser that marks the target. The bombs would recognize that cone of laster light which is reflected up. And they would go towards that target.

They have got small fins on the bombs which help them go to that. They're the bombs which were used in Kosovo. They were used in Iraq. They were used in Bosnia. They're quite a standard weapon: a dumb bomb with a very clever fit on it. And, quite frankly, it was one of those things, it seems, that there were two controllers. And there was breakdown in communication as to who actually had the authorization to go for weapons release.

And it was just a -- it seems to me -- a human error, which sometimes happens. The poor pilot was just really the driver of the system that carried the bombs.

WATERS: And it has been emphasized that this pilot was no rookie pilot.

BEAVER: Absolutely.

WATERS: In fact, he was one of the best pilots in the squadron.

BEAVER: Well, he was the squadron commander. He would be a highly experienced officer, a commander in the U.S. Navy.

WATERS: Hang on, Paul.

BEAVER: Three thousands hours of flying time.

WATERS: We're going to go to Pentagon briefing. I understand you will listen along with us. And we'll have more to talk about when it is over.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

QUESTION: ... belatedly ordered it to be aborted after the bomb was dropped. We assume that this person was not killed by the bomb, this was after the bomb hit the ground and they realized what had happened, that he called for the strike to be aborted.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY DEFENSE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Is there a question in there somewhere?

QUESTION: Yes. Can you tell us what you know about...

QUIGLEY: You're getting into a level of detail I'm not going to be able to help you with, at this point. Those are all perfectly valid issues for the investigation to look at, Charlie, but I can't provide that level of detail. I don't have it, for starters. And if I did, I think it would be inappropriate at this point to announce such things.

QUESTION: Do you know if the...

QUIGLEY: To me, the most significant issue in the last half hour or so has been the Air Force has released the names of the individuals that were killed and injured. I would expect the Army to have that later on this afternoon as well.

QUESTION: Do you know if the Florida air controller was among the dead?

QUIGLEY: No, I don't. I do not have specific assignments of those either killed or injured.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what you know about the sequence of events?

QUIGLEY: This was a close air support exercise, conducted quarterly as part of Operation Desert Spring. This was the former intrinsic action, which was an ongoing series of exercises with Kuwait and oftentimes involving other countries to develop your inter- operability, your ability to operate with other nations. In this particular case, the exercise was close-air support.

The exercise took place on the Udairi range, which is in Kuwait, controlled by Kuwait, nighttime, happened between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m., local time, there in Kuwait.

It was a fairly large-scale exercise; 80-some sorties, I believe. Eighty-some sorties were scheduled, most of which had been completed by the time of the accident. I believe 79 of the 85 had been completed.

Night vision goggles were used here because it was dark. As best I understand it, weather was not an issue in the area, but darkness had fallen, and the F/A-18 was dropping Mark 82 gravity bombs. There was a question yesterday as to whether or not these were laser-guided. They were not. They were gravity bombs. The aircraft dropped a total of three Mark 82 bombs. These are 500 pound general purpose bombs. And tragically, they hit near the service members that were at an observation post on the range.

The net result of all that was six killed, a total of seven that were injured. Four of the injured were treated and released. They were two Kuwaitis and two U.S. service members.

The remaining four that were injured were seriously injured, were initially taken to the medical facilities there in Kuwait. I understand one has been medevaced by a C-17 to Landstuhl at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to the Landstuhl hospital. The other two remain in Kuwaiti medical facilities. They are stable, but they are not fit to travel yet, due to their injuries. When they are, they also be medevaced to Landstuhl for further medical treatment there.

QUESTION: Those are Americans?

QUIGLEY: These were Americans, yes.

QUESTION: Do you know what the device was used to designate targets? Was it an infrared designator, infrared flashlight? Or was it a laser designator? QUIGLEY: I do not have that.

QUESTION: Who took part in this exercise? Brits, Americans and Kuwaitis or...

QUIGLEY: Well, the large exercise, the quarterly close air support exercise, was involving airplanes of several nations. It was the British; it was the Americans; it was the Kuwaitis; and I believe the Saudis. I believe, let me double-check that, but this evening's activity was strictly American aircraft.

QUESTION: Strictly Navy, were all those sorties, as you mentioned, the 85 sorties, Navy sorties?

QUIGLEY: Oh, no. The 85 took place over a larger period of time, but the activities yesterday evening, Kuwait time, were only American. It was a nighttime close air support.

QUESTION: That was over several days?

QUIGLEY: I don't have the time frame.

QUESTION: Do you understand the process by which the forward air controller directed this strike?

QUIGLEY: No, I don't.

QUESTION: Troops on the ground, obviously a New Zealander was killed. Was there a mix of British, New Zealand, Americans, or what was the...

QUIGLEY: No, I believe the only non-Americans that were at this particular observation post were the two Kuwaitis that were injured -- and thankfully their injuries were minor -- and the New Zealand major who was killed.

QUESTION: You said that seven people were injured, and yet you say four were treated and released and four were seriously injured. Now, was it in those seven...

QUIGLEY: Well, the category of one changed from injured to deceased, and so you started off with five that were killed, but eventually that went to six.

The injured, by the way, despite the severity of their injuries, their injuries are not life-threatening. And that is the assessment from the medical folks today.

QUESTION: Were the 85 sorties all close air support sorties or a mix of...

QUIGLEY: No, all close air support.

QUESTION: And did they all drop similar amounts of ordnance?

QUIGLEY: I don't have that, sorry. QUESTION: And concerning the sequence of events, the bomb dropped based on the direction it got from a ground unit. It did not just drop randomly. Is that correct?

QUIGLEY: I don't have that detail either.

QUESTION: You said the three bombs caused these deaths, right?

QUIGLEY: Yes, this particular aircraft dropped three bombs. And these three bombs, in some combination, caused the deaths and injuries that we have here, yes.

QUESTION: Is it unusual to carry three bombs rather than two or four?

QUIGLEY: No. No, it depends on the training requirements, the needs of the training scenario and things of that sort. There's no particular significance to the number, nor the type of ordnance, except for this particular mission had the three Mark 82 gravity bombs.

QUESTION: And they dropped them at the same time or relatively the same time?

QUIQLEY: I don't have that detail either.

QUESTION: Craig, did you say that all three bombs hit at that spot, or did one of them have a malfunction or something and...

QUIGLEY: Well, from the photos that I have seen, it appeared that at least two hit there. I was trying to see a third crater, a third impact point. I can't see but two, but I don't think we have that level of detail.

QUESTION: Do you know, as a part of this close air support exercise, whether the full air control has relied exclusively on some kind of technological guiding or whether there is voice communication with the pilots?

QUIGLEY: There are a variety of ways to do close air support, and it can be voice, it can be laser, it can be infrared. There are just a variety of techniques to accomplish close air support missions. It can be done from a variety of altitudes, a variety of air speeds and things of that sort.

Which ones were being particularly used here as part of this exercise, I don't have that level of detail.

QUESTION: One other question, are you aware of any difference in regulations between the Air Force and the Navy on regulating the communication between the FAC and the pilot, in terms of at what point they're cleared?

QUIGLEY: No, I don't think there are. One of the things that comes under the overall rubric of doing a training exercise of this sort is to standardize the procedures so that the forward air controllers, as well as the air crews of the various nations involved here, get used to -- if there's a difference in procedures, then you get used to those difference in procedures.

QUIGLEY: But I don't believe there's a difference in the process. At least U.S. Air Force versus U.S. Navy, I don't believe there is.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Can you tell us about the pilot?

QUIGLEY: This was the commanding officer of the squadron. Commander Dave Zimmerman was his name. This is Strike Fighter Squadron 37, the VFA-37. He was the pilot of the Hornet.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what altitude the bombs were dropped from?

QUIGLEY: Could I go back? On the question before was which countries had aircraft in the exercise? It was the United Kingdom and the United States. I was too expansive there.

STAFF: And Kuwait.

QUIGLEY: And Kuwait. I'm sorry, not Saudi Arabia. United Kingdom, United States and Kuwait. No Saudis.

QUESTION: Can you tell us what altitude, approximately, the bombs were dropped from?

QUIGLEY: No, I don't have that.

QUESTION: How far away the target was?

QUIGLEY: I don't have that either, I'm sorry. I mean, these are all questions that are going to be a part of the investigation. But I don't have that detail yet.

WATERS: Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, at the Pentagon, filling in some of the blanks, but not all, following yesterday's tragedy in Kuwait, the bombing of a forward observation post by an F-18 Hornet, off of the USS carrier Harry S. Truman -- the squadron commander flying close air support, dropping three MK-82 gravity bombs on a forward observation post: six killed, seven injured. Four of those have been released.

Paul Beaver with "Jane's Defence Weekly" has been listening along with us here.

Paul, do you hear anything new in there?

PAUL BEAVER, "JANE'S DEFENCE WEEKLY": Well, yes, we now have a lot more detail. I mean, we now know that they weren't laser- designated bombs, and so, therefore, that takes, if you like, one person out of the loop: The forward air controller on the ground would not have not been designating the targets, but they would have been what they call illuminating them.

We know the pilot was flying on night vision goggles, and that's a system of image-intensifiers: They draw all the available light into a tube, and then it's like a having a pair of binoculars on your helmet. The pilot can use that. But the great thing about it is it does allow somebody to mark a target with what is called a firefly, which is -- it can be a light, a black light, which is not visible on the ground, but which is to somebody flying with night vision goggles. There are all sorts of techniques which can be used.

So we know a little bit more about it. We know a lot more now about Commander Zimmerman, of course, the Scorpion (sic) commander, as well.

It is, without doubt, a tragic accident. I think it will go down as one of those things that happens. It's sad because so many people have been killed and injured, but that's what happens in training exercises. It may well be, of course, that they will have to do something in terms of tightening up procedures, but we'll have to wait and see what the board of inquiry says about that.

WATERS: A number of questions have been asked today about why do you have to use live ammunition. There's a good reason for that, is there not?

BEAVER: Oh, there is a very good reason for that. This is -- well, there are to basic reasons: One is it's good for military training, and it's good for people to know what it's like to be close to bombs going off and to feel the effect of them, and it's -- I suppose, it's good for the pilot to drop them as well.

The other is, of course, it's a very good indicator to Saddam Hussein that the United States its allies, including the United Kingdom, support the state of Kuwait. And this is exactly why this exercise was taking place. It was very close to the Iraqi border and at a time when tension is higher than it has been for some time between Iraq and Kuwait. So a lot of that was political demonstration.

WATERS: Paul Beaver, always good to talk with you. Paul Beaver...

BEAVER: Thank you very much.

WATERS: ... with "Jane's Defence Weekly."

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