Washington Watch: Victory in Kosovo

July 1, 1999

Washington, D.C., June 10, 1999—After pursuing a desultory, two-month bombing campaign against Yugoslavia’s forces and facilities, NATO officials suddenly seemed bent on making up for lost time. The first phase of Operation Allied Force was tentative; air attacks were limited, objectives vague, and results unimpressive. However, as the war headed into summer, NATO shifted gears. Operations intensified dramatically. By June 9–Day 78 of the war–Belgrade was beaten and folded its cards, acceding to NATO terms.

The change stemmed from several factors. The weather had cleared, NATO had expanded its armada, and Belgrade had inflamed the situation in Kosovo. By late May, a change in NATO’s outlook was evident. The reluctance of many Allies to mount a committed air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic crumbled in light of the Serb dictator’s obvious plan to ride out the assault.

Intensification had another source: Mounting calls for ground operations, which NATO as a whole wished to avoid. Some in Congress and a key ally, Britain, called on President Clinton to at least prepare for ground action. However, Clinton replied that he believed the [air] campaign was working and that NATO ought to stick with its air-only strategy.

The war lasted just more than 11 weeks. Going into the 10th week, NATO forces had flown more than 27,000 sorties, of which more than 7,000 were attack sorties. The remainder were support missions flown by airlifters, tankers, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and other specialized systems.

With those 7,000 strike sorties, most of which entailed use of precision weapons, Allied aircraft had gone after military and quasi-military economic targets. In both categories, the American military had carried the greatest burden, having contributed 3,600 bombing missions (52 percent of NATO’s total) and roughly 14,000 support sorties (70 percent) of the total.

The destruction was widespread and produced the desired effect. On June 3, Belgrade agreed to a NATO peace plan. The sudden capitulation was followed by a week of fitful talks on details of the plan. Finally, on June 9, Yugoslavia signed the accord and began withdrawing forces from Kosovo.

NATO had demanded that Yugoslavia (1) halt the ethnic-cleansing campaign against ethnic Albanian Kosovars, (2) pull Serb troops and police from Kosovo, (3) permit deployment in Kosovo of a NATO-led peacekeeping force, (4) allow the expelled Kosovars to return to their homes, and (5) resume participation in efforts to reach a political solution in Kosovo.

“Kill This Army”

Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, USAF, the operational commander of the Allied air campaign, said in the May 24 Washington Post that if the bombing continued “for two more months,” or into late July, “we will either kill this army in Kosovo or send it on the run.”

Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told reporters in the Pentagon on May 14 that air supremacy over Yugoslavia had been achieved. “That means we can go anywhere we want to in the country anytime we want to,” he said.

Jumper said that the Alliance campaign was highly effective, as measured against its mandate. “Airpower alone is capable of rendering [Milosevic’s] military ineffective, and that’s what our charter is, that’s what our task is, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he asserted.

Pentagon officials said the air attack was supplemented by cyber attacks on Serbian computers and Serbian financial holdings outside the country. These were staged in order to make it hard to buy fuel, but they declined any details on who was conducting the attacks or whether any successes had been achieved.

Meanwhile, NATO nations had agreed to start assembling a KFOR, or Kosovo Force, to guarantee safety in the province after Serbian capitulation. Alliance approval for a force of 50,000 troops on the borders of Kosovo was given, but NATO steadfastly refused to call it an invasion force, even hypothetically. Serb troops, apparently expecting an invasion, continued to dig in on the Albania-Macedonia-Kosovo border.

Complicating the situation was the indictment of Milosevic and a handful of key Serb leaders by the International War Crimes Tribunal on May 27. Some predicted it would harden Milosevic’s defiance and deter him from seeking a negotiated end to the war. Others saw it as a lever to force a settlement, in that Milosevic likely could only avoid a war crimes trial by emerging from the crisis still in power with a credible army to protect him.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that nothing had changed with respect either to NATO’s demands or to the way it intended to prosecute the air campaign as a result of the indictments. “President Milosevic must accept [NATO’s] five conditions,” he said. “Indicted war criminals must be brought to trial.”

Shea’s military counterpart, Maj. Gen. Walter Jertz, noted that intelligence reports indicated “strong evidence” that in central Kosovo ethnic-cleansing operations were still being conducted in late May.

Threefold Increase

On June 3, NATO aircraft committed to the air campaign numbered 1,045-or more than double the number with which it began the attacks March 24. Of the total aircraft, some 720 were contributed by US armed services and 325 or so by European Allies or Canada.

NATO was still building toward an objective of 1,259 aircraft-including 982 US airplanes–established May 13 by US Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, but had already exceeded the goal of 277 non-US Allied airplanes.

With the larger fleet, NATO commanders began to hit Serb assets with strikes from virtually all sides. Attacks originated in Italy and the Aegean Sea to the west and south, Germany and Hungary to the north, and Turkey to the east. USAF heavy bombers continued long-range attacks from bases in Britain and Missouri. Though not yet deployed in battle, the US Army’s AH-64 Apache helicopters in Albania posed a threat from the south.

“NATO is encircling Yugoslavia and attacking from all directions,” Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told reporters. He added that the deployment of more strike aircraft to new bases in the area “will make it possible to attack more targets more often and more effectively.”

NATO officials said the strategy aimed to force a damaged and diminished Serbian air defense system to try to cover a much greater area, rendering it less effective. Previously, the Serb air defense system could focus on a set-piece air assault chiefly from the westward approaches to the Balkans.

Jumper also noted that the broader range of “ingress and egress routes” made NATO strikes and tactics “as unpredictable as possible,” while also making it easier to “deconflict” the enormous amount of air traffic over the area.

By the end of May, the Alliance every day was averaging roughly 1,000 sorties of all types, with about 700 of these being combat missions, strike as well as support. According to Shea, NATO’s spokesman, the bombing to that point had claimed more than 550 “major” pieces of Yugoslavian military equipment and more than 100 Yugoslavian aircraft.

And Now, “Reachback”

Jumper told reporters that frontline NATO forces were capitalizing on “reachback”-that is, using highly sophisticated in-theater communications equipment to acquire vital data from analysts based in the US. For example, forward forces were able to gain near-instantaneous access to imagery from U-2 reconnaissance airplanes and pilotless drones. Imagery collected by such platforms was being relayed back to Beale AFB, Calif., and other sites for interpretation; targets were then selected and passed forward to combat airplanes in the vicinity.

As a result, NATO was able to “get ordnance on the target within minutes … of location time.”

“Between first detection imagery and bombs on target, we try to get that process down to minutes so we can root out these guys … who are actually organizing and carrying out the killing” of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Jumper asserted. “These things are processes that have been perfected-and in many cases invented-during the course of this battle.”

On May 27, Rear Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cataloged the target destruction. In a session with reporters, Wilson described Serb forces in Kosovo as having been reduced about 25 percent. He described the forces as being more vulnerable to attack, both because of better suppression of Serb air defenses-permitting lower Allied flights and more accurate targeting of individual vehicles-and their reduced mobility, brought on by widespread damage to Serb petroleum stocks and other means of supporting fielded armored forces.

More than half of Yugoslavia’s petroleum, oil, and lubricant storage for the military had now been destroyed, Wilson asserted, and Serbia’s entire refining capability had been wiped out. Nearly half of the nation’s joint military-civilian fuel storage sites had been struck.

Interdiction of import facilities on the Danube River, an oil embargo, and other means of drying up the gas supply had driven the price of gasoline to $20 a gallon in some parts of Serbia, he said.

Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald, the Pentagon’s principal military briefer on the operation, noted that recent gun-camera footage of NATO attacks on Serb fuel tanks showed fewer secondaries, indicating that the tanks had been emptied.

According to Wilson, the campaign destroyed about 79 percent of Yugoslavia’s MiG-29s, more than 30 percent of its MiG-21s, two-thirds of its SA-2 SAMs, and almost 80 percent of the SA-3s. Though the figures had not changed much since estimates given weeks before, Wilson said they included only verifiable Serb losses and that actual damage was likely higher. For example, the count of destroyed equipment didn’t include those airplanes that might have been hidden in bombed aircraft shelters.

In any event, Serb fighter challenges to NATO aircraft became almost nonexistent by the 10th week of the air campaign, probably because all known primary and reserve airfields were being bombed regularly, with on-site fuel destroyed and runways badly cratered and taking longer to repair, Wilson noted.

Forced to Choose

Yugoslav broadcast capabilities–television and AM and FM radio–were down 35 percent, Wilson asserted, and countrywide power generation, which had been attacked with “soft kill” weapons earlier in the conflict, were being destroyed. Power was turned off in as much as 80 percent of Serbia at a time. The tactic forced Milosevic to choose between providing fuel and generators to his military or to vital civilian services such as hospitals and water supplies.

Half of the ammunition facilities in Serbia had been attacked and damaged, Wilson said, and the ability to build man-portable air defense systems had been severely damaged. The MANPADS, as they are known, were impossible to detect and destroy individually. “[They] probably always will be a threat [to Allied aircraft],” Wilson noted.

The air war had put out of commission about half of the roads between Serbia and Kosovo. All bridges spanning the Danube River in Kosovo had been dropped, and rail lines were 100 percent out of action.

Correction: The previous sentence should state, “All bridges spanning the Danube River in Yugoslavia, excluding Belgrade, had been dropped, … .”

Moreover, in addition to military-specific command-and-control headquarters, at least two of Milosevic’s five homes had been struck as C2 sites.

Jumper said that Serb forces had fired more than 600 Surface-to-Air Missiles at NATO airplanes by mid-May and that they had been fired at night in search of high-value assets such as the B-2 or F-117 stealth aircraft. During the daytime, the SAMs were hidden. That was to change, however. By the end of May, Serb tactics had shifted to mass, volley-style firings in daylight, using only optical guidance.

Wilson said Serbia, as of May 27, still had “about one-half of their strategic SAMs remaining,” NATO having destroyed about 11 out of 14 SA-3 sites and some SA-6s.

Serbian forces–whether out of fear of Allied HARM anti-radar missiles or mechanical difficulty–were “unable to achieve a complete transition to an engagement sequence,” Wilson said. Large volleys of SAMs were being fired at Allied strike packages in late May, but Wald noted that they were optically guided and hadn’t brought down any NATO airplanes. He pointed out that the large salvos corresponded to larger NATO strike packages in raids on Serb forces.

Two Down–Only

On May 26, 33 SAMs were fired at NATO strike aircraft, and although one came close enough for the pilot to be shaken by the blast, no airplanes were lost. After 65 days of operations, NATO had lost to enemy fire only two aircraft–an F-117 and an F-16–with no casualties.

Wald noted that Serbia possessed about 2,200 SAMs at the start of Operation Allied Force. He reported, however, that there was no way to know precisely how many had been destroyed in storage beyond those fired without effect.

Jumper also noted that Serb forces were using both shoulder-fired missiles and anti-aircraft artillery against individual munitions as they approached targets.

Kosovar anti-Serb military and paramilitary units were also gaining strength even as the Serbs were bogging down, Wilson said, and the airstrikes had helped in that “the playing field is somewhat more level.”

Wilson added, “There’s still plenty of targets left [for NATO airplanes to strike],” particularly among ground forces. At the 10-week point, Serb armored vehicles and artillery pieces were being destroyed at a rate of a half-dozen a day, but Wilson could not quantify Serb casualties.

“The Serbs have been very careful in protecting information about casualties, … although we have received some reports … [that] the casualties are far higher than they expected,” he said.

The air campaign by June had settled into a two-track approach: destruction of Serb forces and enabling installations in Kosovo and attack of strategic targets within Serbia itself, which attacks were intended to diminish the will to resist of both Milosevic and the Serb population.

Much public attention was focused on NATO’s mistakes: the striking of civilians in columns believed to be Serb convoys, in hospitals, and, most notably, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7. In the latter event, B-2 bombers dropped at least three Joint Direct Attack Munitions that scored direct hits on the compound. The incident, chalked up to a series of errors by the CIA and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, apparently resulted from the embassy’s new location not being updated in databases or on maps being used by NATO fliers, the Pentagon explained. The strike was followed by a two-week halt in bombing Belgrade, as maps and databases were checked and targeting procedures tightened.

NATO pointed out that the Serbs had adopted a tactic of holding Kosovar hostages near targets of military significance, both in plain view and hidden. Those in plain view were intended to ward off attacks; those hidden were, if killed, to be displayed later as an example of NATO’s reckless bombing of civilians. Both human-shield tactics were cited as violations of international norms by the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Most Accurate in History

Despite the accidents, Jertz said May 27 that Allied Force remains “the most accurate air campaign in history.”

Jumper noted that pilots in cockpits had to guide their munitions while watching the target on a four-inch-wide cockpit TV screen, not the 20-inch monitor on which gun-camera footage is later reviewed. The munitions had to be guided while the pilots flew their airplanes, avoiding ground fire, often with only seconds to spare after breaking out under the clouds.

A number of newspapers reported that NATO’s Clark had issued an unprecedented order at the outset of the conflict that there be no Allied casualties in the conflict-and that commanders were to avoid losses at all costs. Short denied that Clark had given him any such order. However, he acknowledged that zero losses was a major goal.

As civilians were hit more frequently, however, Short relaxed initial rules of engagement which required pilots to stay above 15,000 feet. Lower altitudes-NATO would not say how low pilots were allowed to go-made for more accurate target identification and the use of shorter-range munitions and also increased the effectiveness of some 40 A-10 attack and forward air control airplanes employed over Kosovo. The A-10s are equipped as tank killers, mounting a 30 mm cannon designed to cheaply rip up armored vehicles at close range.

“We are going lower than 15,000 feet,” Jumper said, “and we’re doing it in a calculated and prudent way.” He said commanders were relying on aircrew judgment in dropping to within range of enemy weapons.

“They know how to deal with these situations,” he said. “We are not up there at some ridiculous altitude trying to parse the difference between a good guy and a bad guy.”

The Pentagon also acknowledged in mid-May that it had been using AC-130 gunships almost from the outset of the war, chiefly against revetments and dug-in artillery, but hadn’t mentioned them previously because of their vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire.

“[The AC-130] will be used against the right target … in the right environment. … It doesn’t move that fast,” Wald said, commenting on its vulnerability. The gunships’ firepower proved useful against Serb forces on the borders of Kosovo.

On the home front, the conflict in Kosovo had spotlighted the level of US war preparedness and the Clinton Administration’s defense policies that had shaped the force in the Balkans.

On May 27, the Senate adopted a provision requiring the President, through the Department of Defense, to justify the many open-ended commitments the US has made in the 1990s, with regard to no-fly zones, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian operations. The measure would require the President to list the commitments in order of priority to make clear which forces would be shifted in the event of a more pressing emergency.

Strategy According to Hamre

The move was sparked by testimony of Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official, who said most of the country and Congress misunderstand the nation’s strategy of being able to fight two “nearly simultaneous” Major Theater Wars.

“We have never said [US forces] can fight two wars simultaneously,” Hamre told the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 27, but rather that the US military was configured to win one war while holding off an aggressor in another theater long enough to be able to get forces there. He acknowledged that the level of effort being employed in the Balkans, for the US, is equivalent to an MTW’s worth of air assets.

Defense officials have said that the deliberations for the size of the force didn’t take into account the many Smaller-Scale Contingencies with which the post-Cold War military would have to contend. With several SSCs under way, the Air Force was strapped to provide airpower for Allied Force and still have adequate reserves for a second MTW.

“We have a smaller force and we have more missions, and so we are, in fact, … wearing out systems, [and] we’re wearing out people,” Cohen told the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on May 11.

Of the pattern of multiple SSCs with no later disengagement, Cohen said, “We’re either going to have to have fewer missions or more people, but we cannot continue the kind of pace that we have. … We’ve got to find a way to either increase the size of our forces or decrease the number of our missions.”

As if to underline the point, the Air Force acknowledged that it would have to re-tool its Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept, which was intended to streamline deployments to Smaller-Scale Contingencies and give more warning of deployments to service members. Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters admitted that individual Air Expeditionary Forces would need more airplanes than expected and that, in any event, there would need to be time to re-group the Air Force after the Balkans conflict before changing over to the EAF structure.

USAF officials said they had expected an SSC to require an Air Expeditionary Force of about 150 aircraft, but the conflict in Yugoslavia had already pulled in more than 700 airplanes. Such a force was equivalent to five AEFs, and the Air Force had only planned to establish a total of 10.

Because of the Balkan War, the Air Force might have to forgo plans to stand up the EAF structure in October, one EAF planner said.

Another hint of how stretched the situation had become was found in Iraq, where Operation Northern Watch was virtually shut down during April. Jumper acknowledged that airplanes were drawn from Northern Watch units to beef up Allied Force in a hurry, and Incirlik AB, Turkey, “was the easiest place to get them.”

“When it was appropriate, we replaced them,” he said, “and [they] are back [at] work. We don’t see any great enemy advantage from that break in the action.”

Air Staff officials said that, with the conflict over, USAF would need a recovery period in which to rest exhausted crews, catch up on depot maintenance, restock spare parts and munitions, and, likely, buy new airplanes to replace those being worn out at a much faster rate than anticipated due to the Yugoslavian conflict.

For example, F-16s, which usually fly training sorties lasting under two hours, were routinely flying five-hour-plus combat missions in the Balkans.

The shortage of Air Force personnel across the board was highlighted by USAF’s invocation of a Stop-Loss order, which prevented service members in certain specialties from being discharged while the conflict was under way. The order, from Peters, affected 40 percent of USAF skill specialties, or over 120,000 persons, but specifically applied to about 6,000 persons who had requested retirement or separation since December 1998 and had planned to leave after June 15.

The Stop-Loss order was to stay in effect “as long as the Presidential reserve call-up is in effect,” Bacon told reporters at the Pentagon. The covered specialties included most pilots, navigators, air battle and air traffic controllers, intelligence analysts, weather forecasters, aircraft maintenance and munitions specialists, logisticians, communications officers, and others, Bacon reported.

Bacon added, “People have said many times–General Wald and I have said, Secretary Cohen has said–that this is a Major Theater War for the Air Force. Probably more than a third of the Air Force frontline fighters are involved in this right now … [and] a large number of airplanes and a large number of support airplanes as well. So, the burden has fallen primarily on the Air Force, and they’re the service that will have to call up the most reservists.”

Fig. 1 Cumulative Sorties, as of May 27

Contributor Strike % Support % Total %
US services 3,600 52 14,150 70 17,750 65
Other NATO 3,350 48 6,150 30 9,500 35
Total 6,950 20,300 27,250

DoD reported June 9 that total sorties had topped 34,000.

Fig. 2 NATO Aircraft Force, as of June 2

Type US Non-US Total
Fighter, bomber 311 239 550
Support aircraft 270 63 333
Reconnaissance 34 23 57
Helicopters 105 0 105
Total 720 325 1,045

Twelve European Allies and Canada provided forces.

Fig. 3 Serbian Air Defense

System Missiles Fired
Radar-guided SA-6 266
Radar-guided SA-3 175
IR man-portable 106
Unidentified 126
Total 673

On June 2, DoD said observed firings totaled nearly 700.