Washington Watch: The First Six Weeks

June 1, 1999

Washington, D.C., May 5, 1999On March 24, NATO attacked Serbia by air, with both bombs and cruise missiles, to coerce Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to stop the repression of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. NATO insisted that Serbia stop its efforts to ethnically cleanse the province, remove its military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo, permit a NATO-led armed force to enter Kosovo, guarantee the safe return of refugees, and sit down to substantive talks on a permanent political solution to the crisis.

It was hoped that the initial round of airstrikes would coerce Milosevic to agree to the five conditions, and consequently NATO did not dedicate a war-size force to the action. It also announced at the outset that it had ruled out a ground invasion of Yugoslavia. The aim of the airstrikes, NATO said, was to degrade the military forces of Serbia and force Milosevic to choose between a peaceful settlement and unacceptable military losses.

Six weeks into Operation Allied Force, NATO had substantially escalated its pace of bombing targets in Serbia and Kosovo. The total number of airplanes in the action had risen from 400 to over 700 and the number of strike airplanes from 120 to nearly 400. By early May, the rate of both overall sorties and strike missions had risen about 60 percent over what had been achieved in the first three weeks of the air action, and the focus of attacks had shifted. While the initial thrust of bombing had been aimed at taking down Serbia’s integrated air defense system and command-and-control network, attack priority had moved to its strategic facilities at home and its fielded forces in Kosovo.

“The US Air Force is in a Major Theater War,” service Chief of Staff Gen. Michael E. Ryan told reporters April 30, when asked about the size of commitment USAF had made in strike and support airplanes to the conflict. He later amended the remark by saying the one-MTW effort included the ongoing Operations Northern and Southern Watch in Iraq. US aircraft-including those from the Marine Corps and Navy carriers-represented just over 60 percent of the aircraft in the Allied effort in the Balkans.

Participating in the action for the US were B-1B, B-2, and B-52 bombers, marking the first time since World War II that the US has employed three types of bombers in a conflict. Both F-16C and F-16CJ (equipped with the HARM targeting system to suppress enemy air defenses) aircraft were conducting strikes. The F-15E and F-117 were filling the deep-interdiction mission, and a host of support airplanes, like AWACS, Joint STARS, C-130s equipped for jamming and communications relay, tankers, and the Predator unmanned reconnaissance vehicle, were in the action. Navy and Marine F/A-18s, Navy F-14s, and Marine AV-8Bs were also in the fight.

Also engaged were attack airplanes from 12 other countries-the largest contributors being France and Britain.

Some Important Lessons

While the duration and outcome of the conflict remained uncertain, the 42-day-old air campaign had already brought into sharp focus some important lessons about NATO: the awkwardness of managing a war by committee and the widening gaps in capability between the US and its NATO partners. For the US specifically, the action highlighted the effects of years of reduced military funding and the drawbacks of the strategy underpinning its size and posture.

Nevertheless, against a well-equipped, well-trained, and highly motivated enemy, in rugged terrain and in some of the worst weather seen in 50 years in the area, NATO forces had in the first six weeks lost only one airplane to enemy action, and only seven-tenths of a percent of its bombs had gone astray to cause collateral damage. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies called this “an amazing tactical and technical achievement.”

By early May, NATO had dedicated a force of over 700 aircraft to Allied Force; of those, about 400 were strike-capable airplanes, and hundreds more were expected as soon as basing arrangements could be made for them in nearby countries. The US had contributed the large majority of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, such as satellites and Joint STARS and AWACS airplanes, as well as support types including tankers and jammers.

Over 15,000 overall sorties and more than 5,000 bombing sorties had been flown by May 5. The result, according to outgoing NATO Military Committee Chairman Gen. Klaus Naumann, could become a 50-year setback to Serbia’s economy and a substantial degradation of its military capability.

Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, the Pentagon’s top military explainer of NATO action in the Balkans, said May 4 that Serb-fielded forces in Kosovo–tanks, trucks, and armored vehicles–had been reduced by about 25 percent since the start of the air campaign. Serbia’s air force–inherited almost intact from the Warsaw Pact days of the former Yugoslavia–had been dramatically reduced, with all but a few frontline MiG-29s destroyed on the ground or in air combat by early May, and a sizable portion of the rest of its fighter force also out of action.

Seeking to indirectly immobilize Serbia’s military forces, NATO had disrupted the nation’s rail lines, all but obliterated its oil refineries, and continued to strike at petroleum storage tanks. Factories capable of producing weapons or spare parts for weapons had been bombed to rubble, and all bridges that cross the Danube River in Serbia had either been dropped into the water or rendered impassable by vehicles. The personal and party headquarters of Milosevic had been bombed, as had television stations and other enterprises controlled by Milosevic’s family and cronies, in an effort designed to loosen the loyalty of key supporters.

Power plants had been disabled; on May 2, 70 percent of the nation had been blacked out by simultaneous attacks on five transformer stations with special US weapons. The munitions scatter carbon filaments over transformers, causing them to short-circuit. While the strike caused no permanent damage, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said the mission would put Serbia on notice that “NATO has its finger on the light switch. … We can turn the power off … whenever we want to.” In terms of military effectiveness, NATO said the outage turned off Serbian military computers and air defense systems temporarily. The mission was also intended to inconvenience the Serb people and further erode their support for Milosevic’s policies and leadership.

In the first month of Operation Allied Force, about 92 strike sorties a day were flown by NATO airplanes; in the two weeks after, the daily average had leaped to over 300 sorties, striking at up to 80 targets. Of those, about 50 were flown against fixed sites and another 20 to 30 were targets of opportunity, Wald said.

The responsiveness of NATO airplanes against targets spotted by air, space, or ground sources had also increased. A number of combat airplanes either orbited near Yugoslav airspace or sat ground alert waiting for a call to action when surveillance platforms detected moving targets such as armored vehicles.

“There was the hope in the political camp that this could be over very quickly,” Naumann told defense reporters in Washington. Still, NATO’s Military Committee, he said, had no illusions that if the airstrikes didn’t swiftly produce the desired results, a phased air campaign would have to ensue that would take some time.

President Clinton said in late April that Allied Force could well stretch through the summer months, and he requested $6.3 billion in emergency supplemental funding to cover the cost of fuel and spare parts, combat pay, replacement of expended munitions, and for humanitarian relief for refugees, who in early May were still fleeing Kosovo at a rate of a thousand per hour. Congress in turn moved to more than double the requested amount, to over $13 billion, both because it believed the costs had been underestimated and to fix some military programs that it believed had gone underfunded too long.

NATO may have miscalculated in its choice of bombing as the lever to force Milosevic’s acquiescence, Naumann said. The “flaw in our thinking,” he admitted, may have been the assumption that Milosevic would “act like a responsible statesman” in the face of an orchestrated attack on his nation.

However, “this man is apparently so obsessed with his grip [on] power and his will to stay in power that he is gambling with the future [of Serbia],” he said. NATO can be forgiven for its miscalculation, he added, because “that is something which is most probably alien to the thinking of our leaders.”

Bombing Takes a Toll

At the NATO summit in April, it was decided to reassess last fall’s decision by NATO to rule out a ground campaign of any kind. The reassessment was judged appropriate, not because of criticisms that the air campaign wasn’t working, but because the bombing had taken a toll and likely changed the number and type of ground forces that might be needed, NATO said.

The rules of engagement from the start were very strict: It was ordered that bombs would not be released on any target unless the pilot could confirm the target and be assured of no civilian casualties. Gun-camera footage released by the Pentagon showed several cases where pilots pulled off a target because they noticed a civilian structure or vehicle that would have been hit. Especially because so many targets were mixed into civilian settings, this forced NATO to rely on–more than 90 percent–precision guided munitions such as the US Joint Direct Attack Munition and Laser-Guided Bombs.

In areas where military targets were more isolated, airplanes like the American B-1B and B-52 were free to use gravity bombs, especially against targets like barracks, where precise aimpoints were not necessary. Still, Wald took pains May 4 to stress that the B-52s are not laying waste to huge swaths of real estate as was done in Vietnam. According to Wald, the cluster of explosions from today’s better-equipped bombers can be confined in a footprint only 1,000 feet long.

After six weeks, the ratio of dumb to precision weapons began to shift. A senior defense official on April 30 said that PGMs then represented just two-thirds of the munitions being dropped.

Air Combat Command chief Gen. Richard E. Hawley startled Washington when he declared, in an April 29 session with defense reporters, that the demand for PGMs and cruise missiles was so heavy that USAF risked facing shortages of both types. The Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile-never intended to be anything more than a stopgap capability until the delivery of the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-had been fired in the opening rounds of Operation Desert Fox and Allied Force, and stocks had been depleted to where USAF would have “to be very judicious in [their] use,” Hawley said. Orders were rushed off to Boeing to convert more of the 322 AGM-86B nuclear cruise missiles to CALCM configuration, and Ryan reported that “we’ll start getting some of those before the end of the year.”

The JDAM, being new to the inventory, is reserved for use only by the B-2 stealth bomber, making its debut in Allied Force. USAF had pretty well run through the JDAM inventory by the beginning of May, but another batch, said Hawley, that was due in July was to be delivered in May. Boeing has stepped up production of the weapon from 200 to 300 a month. The JDAM, which uses the Global Positioning System to find its target, can achieve nearly the precision of a Laser-Guided Bomb in bad weather. The LGBs, however, must have cloud-free conditions to work properly, a fact that contributed to the lower pace of target destruction early in the conflict, when bad weather prevailed over the Balkans.

The B-2, due to its stealth and all-weather accuracy, was called on to attack when it was known in advance the weather would be bad over some time-critical targets. The B-2s have been “in the mix almost every night,” Wald said, and they fly from their home bases on 30-hour round-trip missions to and home from their targets in Serbia. Although their pace of action could be faster if they were based closer to the theater, the B-2s require specialized shelters and facilities to best maintain their stealth surfaces, and USAF has not yet taken delivery of deployable shelters and stealth-maintenance systems.

Ryan elaborated on Hawley’s remarks, noting that “we’re not running out of bombs” and that stocks of LGB kits and other munitions were still “very robust” and more than adequate for the operation as it was expected to play out.

Hawley, however, also noted that the Balkans action had consumed all of ACC’s best pilots and ground crews, as well as its war-readiness stocks of spare parts and munitions. The decade-long drawdown of forces had not left a bumper crop of either airplanes, crews, or spare parts on which to draw for contingencies. What was left in the US were air- and ground crews that were less experienced and that had less equipment with which to train. Consequently, they would be less ready for war if called on.

“We are noticing the strain today,” Hawley said. “If we deploy the additional forces that are under consideration those strains will become more evident.” Remaining forces will experience a “significant decline in the mission capability rates,” he added. Mission capable rates among stateside units could plunge to 50 percent or less for some types of aircraft.

Hawley also noted that the US strategy of being able to fight two Major Theater Wars in close succession had been built on a scenario of having to fight in Iraq and North Korea. “There was nothing to preclude a different [Major Theater War], which is what has arisen here,” he said.

From “an air perspective, [this] is a Major Theater War,” Hawley asserted, and “clearly, we didn’t size or shape the force to deal with three simultaneous contingencies.” If another–or a third–were to break out, “we’re going to have to prioritize where we want to engage and where we want to take risks.”

Hawley did note, though, that US and coalition forces are already deployed to the Middle East and Korea, “and [those forces] are not insignificant.”

Ryan observed that the Air Force had never claimed to be able to fight two MTWs on its own, and he noted that the majority of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army have not been called on for the Balkans action, so that the US still retains substantial capability to deal with other contingencies.

Naumann said that most NATO European members must take steps to address new technologies or face the prospect that “we will see a gap in five years time which will give us difficulties of interoperability.” He specifically noted that only the US and the UK possess the standoff capabilities of cruise missiles and that the lack of a Joint STARS-like capability-and other large surveillance or “technical intelligence” platforms-throughout NATO is being felt in this operation.

The process of choosing and destroying targets in Allied Force has not closely mirrored that of the 1991 Gulf War, which, at a comparable point of execution, had decimated the Iraqi army and its highest-value targets. In the Gulf War, there was a definite air boss, then­Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner, who commanded all coalition aircraft and had a free hand to assign and attack targets to the participants.

Meet the New Boss

In Allied Force, targets must pass muster with the NATO Military Committee. A Pentagon official involved in air campaign planning said that the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, personally signs off on each target, having been given a list of guidelines by the 19 members to govern what is destroyed.

Naumann explained that Clark had been given “written guidance … in which the target categories were spelled out. … Within that range, he has a free hand.”

As a result, crafting of the daily air tasking order “to some degree circumvents” the normal chain of command, the Pentagon official reported. If the NATO Military Committee were to take a hands-off approach to targeting, targets would be chosen-or ruled out-exclusively in the shop of Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short at the Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza, Italy.

“We’re in an alliance, though,” the official said. “So this is how we have to do it.”

Targets are gleaned from an encyclopedia of fixed sites of military significance maintained by NATO and the US. Their location, and the need to strike them with sufficient destructive power while avoiding civilian casualties, “drives the type of munition we use,” the official said.

“So, strategy drives the target, which drives the type weapon, which in turn drives the strategy,” he said. “It feeds back on itself.”

He said the strategy and amount of top-level involvement of air action in the Balkans is reminiscent of a low-intensity conflict, like El Dorado Canyon, the one-night attack on Libya in 1986. “In a situation like that, the top guys look over almost every aimpoint. And that’s what’s going on here, except that we are doing this at a level of effort that is at the other end of the spectrum, … very close to all-out war,” the official explained.

Naumann noted, however, that as Serbian forces dug in and Milosevic became more defiant, certain additional categories were added, with no objection from the NATO committee. This resulted in the widening of targets seen in late April and early May, he said.

For targets of opportunity, the drill works this way. Ground targets are spotted by a Joint STARS aircraft, which passes along the data to an Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center EC-130. The ABCCC vectors an attacking aircraft into a kill box with specific boundaries within Yugoslavia. The ABCCC controls the entry and departure of the attack airplanes. Moreover, it has a big role in the job of deconflicting the flight paths of hundreds of airplanes crammed into airspace about the size of New England.

Another limit imposed by NATO-and one which has fed most of the criticism of the air war-is the need to bomb from 15,000 feet or higher. Most of Serbia’s high-altitude Surface-to-Air-Missiles, like the SA-3, have been crippled or destroyed, allowing NATO airplanes to fly at 15,000 feet. However, Serb forces have conserved many missile systems, so NATO is not sure where they all are. Moreover, Serbia still has a wide array of anti-aircraft artillery and shoulder-fired, man-portable SAMs, creating a situation which is “still very dangerous … to our aircrews,” Ryan said April 30.

By early May, NATO was seeing an uptick in the number of SAMs launched unguided, almost completely without effect, and some minimal efforts to get Yugoslav fighters in the air. Wald said it wasn’t clear whether this was an act of “desperation or stupidity.”

The Serb air defense system had not yet been destroyed 42 days into the air campaign because it is highly redundant, Wald said. Pentagon planners noted that the system had also been decentralized and disconnected so as to minimize the effects of single-point failures. This tactic, however, makes it far less effective, according to the planners.

They acknowledged that by early May, the air defenses in Serbia and Kosovo had not been sufficiently damaged to permit free air action by Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters or lower-flying A-10 attack airplanes. However, it was expected that these aircraft would be employed along the perimeter of Yugoslavia, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.

“It certainly looks as if he’s expecting to be invaded,” Bacon said. Wald noted that “that makes it easier for us [to attack them]. We know where they are.”