Wesley Clark’s War

Sept. 1, 2001
Gen. Wesley K. Clark, United States Army, led NATO’s military forces to success in 1999 in Operation Allied Force. And as recently as February, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe told a large USAF­sponsored conference, “The US Air Force saved me, and it saved NATO.” Clark, however, delivered these remarks before the appearance of his book, Waging Modern War, in May.

Since publication, he has been singing a different tune. Clark has been unwilling to describe Allied Force as an airpower success. The now-retired SACEUR, appearing in May at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., declared to all assembled that airpower could not be expected to do much in future armed conflict. “Boots on the ground,” he said, would be needed for decisive military action.

Incredibly, Clark’s 479-page memoir does not even mention the Air Force B-2 stealth bomber-one of the war’s most effective weapons-much less recognize the B-2’s key contribution to the success of the operation. In contrast, the Army’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter (the core of Clark’s boots-on-the-ground fantasy) gets extended and favorable attention-despite the fact that it did not ever engage in combat.

It was exactly this obsession with trying to put boots on the ground in the form of an invasion in Kosovo that likely cost Clark his job as SACEUR. Even in its rockiest periods, the US military Chiefs and White House officials offered steady support for the NATO air campaign. Clark, however, lobbied hard for a NATO decision to gear up for land war.

As it turned out, Clark was completely at odds with Washington and European leaders about the preferred direction of the war. His penalty was high. Just one month after the end of Allied Force, White House officials leaked the embarrassing news that Clark would retire earlier than planned and vacate the SACEUR post for another officer, USAF Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who was then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Clark’s candid memoir gives a view of Allied Force very different from all others to date. The narrative is dominated not by details of air combat operations, as one might expect, but rather by recapitulations of lost political battles and fervent planning for a ground operation that never took place and was never really in the cards. His tale provides a disturbing inside look at a Supreme Allied Commander who was distrustful of airpower and out of step with military colleagues and political superiors in Washington.

Going to War

Waging Modern War takes note of the fact that Allied Force began on March 24, 1999, with Clark’s full backing. In early March of that year, Clark told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that NATO air strikes had to go ahead if diplomatic talks between the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians failed. This was true, he said, because alliance credibility was on the line.

However, Clark had misgivings about airpower. He believed that the limited NATO air strikes had been effective in Bosnia in 1995 (Operation Deliberate Force), but his professional view of airpower was shaped in the 1970s, a time in which, as a student at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, he researched and wrote a thesis about the “ineffectiveness” of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam.

Clark’s skepticism about airpower was only reinforced by what he thought he knew about Desert Storm. The general believed (incorrectly) that the Gulf War coalition’s airpower hit only about 10 percent of the Iraqi forces. He also felt that the long Desert Storm air campaign preceding a “short ground operation” had wrongly convinced analysts that “precision strike” was sufficient to win wars.

After reviewing early studies of the situation in Kosovo, Clark felt no more sanguine about the use of airpower. Strategic targets were few, and they did not constitute a firm center of gravity, in Clark’s view. However, Clark was encouraged when the threat of air strikes in October 1998 helped force a temporary cease-fire between Serbs and Kosovars. In early 1999, Clark began to acknowledge that airpower would have to be NATO’s main weapon in any combat with Serbia. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, according to Clark, “saw no chance of maintaining NATO cohesion if the divisive issue of ground intervention was introduced.” The SACEUR conceded, “I couldn’t be sure that an air campaign wouldn’t work; it might.”

For Allied Force, “my intent was that air strikes would be coercive in nature, following the Bosnia model, providing a strong incentive for [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to halt operations,” Clark said. Clark wanted NATO airpower to focus on halting or degrading the systematic Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing. Yet there was a major hurdle. Clark had warned Albright that the Serbs would most likely attack the civilian population in Kosovo as soon as air strikes started. Worse, NATO could do nothing to prevent it. It would be “a race” between NATO air strikes and what the Serb forces could do on the ground, and in the short term, Clark said of the Serbs: “They can win the race.”

Fielded Forces

Although Clark was mirroring NATO guidance and hoping for a quick success, he had done little to prepare for a longer air campaign, should it become necessary. Clark judged that the way to influence Milosevic was to target his army forces. From the start, he worried that NATO’s airmen “hadn’t worked in detail the techniques we would use to strike early against the Serb ground forces.”

The actual timing of the air campaign was beyond Clark’s control. NATO had already ceded the initiative to Milosevic as negotiations dragged on. More than 30,000 Serb army soldiers massed on the border of Kosovo and moved into the province. Clark correctly concluded, “If we couldn’t quickly break Milosevic’s will with strategic strikes, then we had to take away his capabilities to fight in Kosovo.”

However, Clark had not prepared NATO to do either.

Clark launched the campaign with a short list of targets. All air strike targets went through a complex political approval process that started with Clark and wound its way on a two-week journey through US and NATO channels. During fall 1998 and winter 1998­99, air planners had briefed Clark on at least 120 targets. Clark crafted a plan for “a serious attack, with some margin left over,” but he submitted just 51 of the 120 targets for final approval. He did so even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, prodded him to submit more. “Wes, how soon are you going to get me your Phase II targets?” Clark quotes Shelton as saying. Clark’s decision to submit a limited number of targets at the outset doomed Allied Force to a slow start, if the strikes went beyond three days.

“Moral Necessity”

In Clark’s view, however, the coercive potential of air attacks on fixed strategic targets in Serbia proper paled in comparison to the impact of striking Serbia’s forces in the field in Kosovo. Clark had sound military reasons for emphasizing attacks on the Serb ground forces. As he explained it, hitting the ground forces was “a political, legal, and moral necessity.” He wanted to do what he could to “relieve the direct pressure the Serbs were putting on the Kosovars.”

However, Clark’s strategic rationale went even deeper. “Attacking the Serbs’ military machine and police in Kosovo also made excellent military sense,” he said. Milosevic relied on the support of the army to keep his grip on power. The Serb leader was himself an officer in the army reserve and as such had many loyalists in key leadership positions in the armed forces. In the previous December, Milosevic had fired the top army commander and replaced him with a general who would not complain about attacking Kosovars.

Clark saw the Serb ground forces as a priority center of gravity because Milosevic “couldn’t stand to have these forces seriously hurt.” He criticized the “classic view of the American airpower adherents,” which pictured Milosevic as an “uncaring leader” who would be “unaffected by losses among his military and police.” NATO aircraft had free rein to attack Serb military forces in Kosovo once they had been identified visually or by intelligence sources. There was no two-week approval process for these targets.

Even so, Clark did not ask for more aircraft to counter the ground forces. In the end, it was early April before air planners put together a request for Clark to triple the strike aircraft in theater. NATO did not approve all of the additional forces in the package until after the alliance summit was held on April 23. Weather and lack of aircraft got the campaign off to a difficult start, and it was not until the second week of May that sortie rates increased dramatically. Half of the 38,116 total sorties were flown in that last month of action.

Meanwhile, Clark was doing his utmost to get Apache helicopters, Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) ballistic missiles, and lead elements of Army ground forces into theater to turn up the pressure on Milosevic. By mid­April, Clark had developed a very strong interest in a ground option because he wanted a backup plan to pull out in case the NATO air campaign fizzled. The potential outcome of the air attacks was “unknowable,” he said, and “without a ground force, there was no assurance that we could actually force Milosevic out of Kosovo.”

A backup plan was a prudent step, but Clark ultimately pursued the ground option with a personal determination stronger than anything else he did during Allied Force. He estimated the air campaign effectiveness would peak by July then start to diminish. However, good summer weather, support from Albania, and NATO’s firepower advantage meant that ground operations could force the Serbs out, Clark thought. Clark also felt that visible preparations for ground operations would “significantly raise the pressure on Milosevic.” By “working backward from the first snowfalls in the mountains of Albania,” he decided that he must have national decisions from the NATO allies “to begin preparation of the ground forces on May 1.”

Clark’s urge to champion a ground campaign could not have come at a worse time. He took his plan to Washington during the NATO 50th anniversary summit where there was arrayed against him a formidable lack of interest. The Macedonians refused to let NATO use their territory for offensive operations. The NATO allies, many with long experience of peacekeeping in Bosnia, were not eager to insert ground troops. Throughout Washington, the ground option was a nonstarter. Shelton warned Clark not to lobby for the ground option behind the scenes at the NATO summit. “If that option is going to be sold, it will be sold by the President, not by you,” Shelton told Clark. The Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen, ordered Clark to say nothing about ground forces during the NATO meetings. “We have to make this air campaign work, or we’ll both be writing our résumés,” Cohen added.

In his push for ground war plans and Apache operations, Clark’s most formidable opponent was not the civilians in the Pentagon or the White House but rather the United States Army-institutionally and in the person of the Chief of Staff, Gen. Dennis J. Reimer. Clark recounts numerous occasions in which he sought support from Reimer, only to be rebuffed. The context of Clark’s book makes plain the fact that virtually everyone in the Army’s leadership thought land war in the Balkans was a bad idea. Clark’s book also discloses, albeit indirectly, another factor that may have served as a restraint on Clark’s ambitions: The institutional Army evidently didn’t hold him in high esteem. Clark’s last three assignments were as head of strategic plans on the Joint Staff; Commander in Chief of US Southern Command; and the SACEUR post. In none of the three was he the nominee of his own service.

Private War

As the NATO summit approached, Clark promised Cohen not to be “the skunk at the picnic,” but his push for ground option planning was becoming a major sore point in his deteriorating relationship with Washington. Clark’s memoir detailed his many troubles with other military and political leaders-but he employed the tell-all tactic largely at his own expense. In vignette after vignette, his tormentors came off as being more reasonable than he. Shelton tried to deal with the CINCs’ requests in a measured way and kept communications open even when he had to relay verbatim reprimands from Cohen telling Clark to get his face off the television. Cohen was on solid ground when in 1998 he reprimanded Clark for the leak of a Bosnian Muslim paper about Kosovo, telling Clark, “And I’ve told you before, you don’t give military advice to [Richard C.] Holbrooke.” As JCS vice chairman, Ralston made the role of the hatchet man look sympathetic. In one instance, he gently cautioned Clark to consider what would happen if war broke out in Korea or with Iraq and they had 200,000 troops bogged down in Kosovo. Clark ignored Ralston’s warning and charged into the Chiefs’ “Tank” later that day with a ground option briefing. It fell flat.

The book is littered with examples of Clark’s evident inability to take a hint, even a heavy-handed hint, or to deal effectively with surprises or uncomfortable situations. The most cringe-worthy story of all concerns the moment when Clark turned up a few minutes early for a reception at the NATO summit. As Clark told it, President Clinton, Albright, Cohen, and Shelton were alone in the room forming their receiving line. Clark started to walk over to greet them, then read their body language and stopped, alone in the middle of the room, 20 feet away. In telling the story, Clark seemed to want to show how he was unfairly shut out. Instead, the story tends to paint Clark himself as an inept player of the power game.

By April 25, the summit was over and Clark was back in Europe. “I knew that Secretary Cohen was determined to make the air campaign work and make it work in conjunction with diplomacy,” said Clark. Personally, as of late April, he gave the air campaign a 70 percent chance of working. In his view, the guidance from Washington left him a loophole to start an “assessment” of a ground option. Flying over Albania, he scouted the mountainous territory, which he deemed tough but not impossible for ground operations. His staff set to work on options, including the possibility of skipping the southern approaches and invading northern Serbia from Hungary with the objective of taking Belgrade.

But the ground option planning was not coming together well. New estimates also called for almost 200,000 troops. The planners told him that if they stayed within the normal NATO planning process time lines “we would be lucky to attack on Nov. 1.”

Clark was not “comfortable” with the ground plans yet, but he did realize that “we were going to have to commence preparations and deployments before we had a final approved plan.” Getting that approval became a top priority for Clark. The mirage of a ground operation, with attacks on three axes, became the secret heart of Wesley Clark’s war. In the lead would be the Apache helicopters.

The Apaches

Clark wanted the Apaches to rapidly target and strike Serb ground forces, and he had asked for them the day before the start of Allied Force. Although he did not receive authorization to employ them during the air campaign, the Apaches were a consuming interest.

Clark’s concept of operations was for fighters and artillery-including ATACMS-to suppress the enemy. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles would find targets, and “we’d go at night” with the Apaches. He insisted the Apaches could survive flying at low altitude and that the threat of Serb SA-7s “was not borne out by analysis.” In preparation for a video teleconference he was shown “a column that went for two or three pages” listing all the weapons capable of perforating the skin of an Apache helicopter. He dismissed the data as “the influence of the reluctant Army mind-set.” He mentioned in his book that the helicopters rescuing the downed F-16 pilot drew small arms and missile fire, although they were trying to avoid contact. He noted in the conclusion that Apaches weren’t much good in bad weather but maintained that he wanted to use them.

To everyone but Clark, the concept of operations for the Apaches just wouldn’t work in the Kosovo environment. Suppressive fires to lay a corridor for the Apaches would have violated the rules of engagement, rules so tight that A-10 pilots were calling the Combined Air Operations Center for permission to strike targets they positively identified in daylight. The Apaches had more than demonstrated their worth in the Gulf War, where they were a formidable weapon. However, in the Gulf, the Apaches were primarily used to protect the flanks in areas with few enemy ground forces. Some close air support missions were flown but from the friendly side of the Forward Line of Own Troops. One look at a map of Albania and Kosovo would be enough to show that by sending in the Apaches, Clark would have risked them flying at low altitude over many miles of enemy-held territory. Serbs with small arms would be eager to pick off an Apache. As it turned out, locating mobile targets was a major challenge, and elements of Task Force Hawk Apache helicopters helped that process greatly, but fixed-wing aircraft proved fast and efficient in striking targets once they were identified.

Denouement of the Ground Option

While the Apaches sat, Clark kept the ground option planners hard at work, fully aware that it would take two-and-a-half months to begin ground action “even by the most optimistic estimates.” Washington was unresponsive. By late May, the Joint Staff still had not approved the initial cadre of engineer units that would have to begin their work long before the ground offensive. Indeed Cohen, giving his first interview since the war began, said publicly May 28, “There is no consensus for a ground force. … So the air campaign will, in fact, continue.”

The only troops in contact were the irregular forces of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA launched its own offensive May 26. Clark estimated that four or five battalions totaling up to 2,000 men were attacking over the top of Mount Pastrik. Clark characterized the KLA action as “light infantry against heavy forces” and by Friday, May 28, it was clear to Clark that “the Kosovars were not able to secure their objective.” On Saturday, Clark observed the KLA offensive was “stalled” with the Serbs “vulnerable to our airpower.” On Monday morning, May 31, “the KLA was barely hanging onto the top of Mount Pastrik.” Clark commanded USAF Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, NATO’s air component commander, and Army Lt. Gen. John W. Hendrix, Task Force Hawk commander, to hold the mountain or “we’ll have to pay for the top of that hill with American blood.”

This was as close as he got to directing ground attacks, but at the time, Clark pictured much more. That same day, Clark’s planners gave him a revised ground option plan with D-Day set for Sept. 1. Clark was delighted and determined to push the plan. “This was the culmination of my 33 years of military service,” he later wrote.

Here in essence was Clark’s true instinct about how to defeat Milosevic. Roads, bridges, and airfields would be improved over the summer as 175,000 to 200,000 American and European ground troops moved into position. NATO would have to work out arrangements with the KLA (“we had scrupulously avoided direct contact with them in Albania” so far, Clark said), gain access via Montenegro, block the Danube River, and ring Yugoslavia’s periphery with troops, presumably in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

Clark presented the new ground plan to Shelton and the Chiefs via video teleconference. The Chiefs listened but gave “no indications of support.” Changing tactics, he pressed to be invited to the White House for a routine meeting between the President and the service Chiefs, hoping he could brief his ground plan there. No invitation was forthcoming. The denouement at last came when Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter B. Slocombe consoled Clark by telling him that the President would not make a decision about ground forces without talking to the SACEUR. The issue died. Shelton told reporters at the time that if necessary, NATO would winterize the refugee camps and enable the air campaign “to go right on into the winter, if that is required.” As Clark put it, “I had been screened off.”

End of Allied Force

While Clark fumbled with his ground options, the air campaign was coming to a culmination. Strikes on Serb forces in Kosovo increased, and fresh strategic targets were approved and struck. On May 30, 1999, Clark told the Washington Post that “I would say the air campaign is working” although he added that there were “theoretical limits to an air campaign.” After a night of heavy air strikes two days later he was quoted as saying in a closed headquarters briefing that “we’re driving him [Milosevic] to a decision.”

Hindsight altered his view. Two years later, in his book, the impact of the air strikes in late May and June barely caught his eye. Clark admitted that opinion in Washington leaned toward extending the air campaign and against any ground option, with the Army arguing against the ground campaign. He also wrote that around May 31 he feared that “the air campaign was in serious trouble if it persisted on its present course.”

In fact, the Serbs were ready to accept NATO’s terms. On June 3, Milosevic accepted key elements of Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari’s plan for the Serbs to withdraw from Kosovo. In his book Clark cited the airmen’s “good results in their strikes against Serb forces in Kosovo” on June 3. But he drew no special correlation between the crescendo of sorties and new progress in the negotiations. Clark related how he spent part of June 3 pushing to get the engineers in to prepare for ground operations, talking over ground war strategy with Solana, and monitoring the positions of the KLA. On the very day Milosevic indicated he would give in, Clark believed (according to his book) that a ground campaign would still be needed two months hence. As it turned out, an agreement was in place a week later and the air strikes stopped on June 10.

As for the impact of the air war, Clark praised it on June 5, 1999, telling the New York Times: “What did the trick was the accuracy of the precision weapons, the avoidance of losses, and the increasing destruction of the Serb forces.” Clark’s testimony to the Senate in October 1999 included praise for airmen and observations on all-weather precision weapons, airlift, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets and other recommendations relevant to the after-action report on an air campaign. He commissioned a detailed survey of damage to critical mobile targets and went so far as to declassify its results, which validated NATO airmen’s effectiveness against Serb fielded forces.

Two years later, however, Clark did not give airpower much credit for pulling out the victory in Kosovo. Of the war’s end he stated: “Planning and preparations for ground intervention were well under way by the end of the campaign, and I am convinced that this, in particular, pushed Milosevic to concede.” Clark contended that the Apaches, the corps-level headquarters, and “a full Army brigade of ground combat power” in Albania were enough to offset NATO’s obvious, public opposition to a ground war and convey “a powerful image of a ground threat.” To Clark, this “image” outweighed the fire and steel of the air campaign.

“Any endeavor that is both successful and painful is all too apt to be forgotten, and its lessons are likely to be painful, too,” said Clark near the end of the book. Clark’s written account of the end of Allied Force emphasized again that this general had not come to grips with the fact that he was leading-and winning-an air war. Diplomacy and Russian leverage played critical roles in the outcome. However, Clark’s insistence that the threat of a ground invasion was a factor is countered by statements of US officials at the time-and by his own, detailed explanations of his failure to get approval for the Apaches, ATACMS, or even the initial construction troops. NATO, the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, and the White House were not yet on board. The prospect of a ground invasion existed mainly in Clark’s mind. That may have been Wesley Clark’s war, but it was not anyone else’s.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS, a research organization in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Deep Strife,” appeared in the June 2001 issue.