Washington Watch: Short’s View of the Air Campaign

Sept. 1, 1999

Strategic attacks on Serbian centers of gravity, not the destruction of Serb tanks and troops in Kosovo, paved the way for NATO’s victory in Operation Allied Force, according to the man who ran the air campaign.

Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, who was NATO’s joint force air component commander for the Balkan operation, said the massive and laborious tank plinking effort in Kosovo was in many ways a waste of airpower since, in his opinion, it did little to achieve NATO’s stated goals. Only when NATO shifted its emphasis to attacking pivotal targets in and around Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia, did it finally compel Serb President Slobodan Milosevic to accept terms, he asserted.

“I never felt that the [Serb] 3rd Army in Kosovo was a center of gravity,” Short said in an interview with Air Force Magazine regarding the conduct of the war and its implications for future operations.

In Short’s mind, Milosevic had written the 3rd Army off. He went on, “And body bags coming home from Kosovo didn’t bother [Milosevic], and it didn’t bother the leadership elite [in Belgrade].”

A center of gravity in Air Force doctrinal terms is an asset of fundamental strategic, economic, or even emotional importance to an enemy, loss of which would severely undermine the enemy’s will or ability to fight.

NATO authorities wanted to hit the 3rd Army because of a belief that the best way to stop ethnic cleansing was to destroy the instruments of ethnic cleansing directly. Short, however, didn’t agree.

Total Weight of Effort

“I never felt we were going to be able to stop ethnic cleansing, and in fact we did not,” Short said. “Most of the damage had been done before we ever started attacking targets on the ground.” The way to force Milosevic’s hand, he said, was not by mounting attacks in kind.

“I think it was the total weight of our effort that finally got to him,” Short said.

Toward the end of the 78-day bombing campaign, said Short, Milosevic “hadn’t had power in his capital for a number of days and wasn’t going to have it for a number of days more. … There was no fuel for his automobiles and his military, … and communications infrastructure was being systematically destroyed.” Most of the bridges over the Danube in Yugoslavia had been dropped, and, night by night, there was less for Milosevic to rule over.

“I am, quite frankly, a big fan of asymmetric warfare,” Short said. The threat of destroying everything that kept the Serb leadership in power and comfort did the job, he asserted, not random bombing of military targets in Serbia that held little importance to Serb leaders.

Ground-power advocates have argued that the Kosovo Liberation Army served as a surrogate army for NATO, forcing the Serb units out of hiding and making them easier targets to hit. While the KLA did mount what by their standards passed as an offensive effort, and did in fact oblige Serb forces to come out in the open, making them predictable, their subsequent destruction made little difference in the outcome, Short said.

In a future conflict, he added, there would be little justification for trying to whittle down an enemy army “if we don’t have an army in the field [or] unless we have defined the opposing army in the field as a center of gravity.”

There was another reason NATO should not have given priority to hitting Serb troops in Kosovo: There were hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons, Short said. The presence of civilians on the battlefield-many forced to be “human shields” for Serb units-inevitably led to bombing mistakes that killed civilians.

“There’s little doubt in my mind that Milosevic had no compunction at all about putting IDPs inside of what we felt to be valid military targets,” Short asserted. “And in fact, a couple of times we struck those targets and then saw the results on CNN.”

Short said he had not been given any instructions to accomplish battlefield preparation–that is, diminishing the enemy’s forces by air to make them easier work for ground troops, as was done in the 1991 Gulf War. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, asked the North Atlantic Council repeatedly for permission to draw up plans for an invasion should one become necessary-or at least to keep Milosevic guessing–but was consistently denied such authorization.

If he had been given free rein, Short said he would have tried to stop ethnic cleansing by going “hard after Belgrade and the leadership targets and everything Milosevic held dear, and make it very clear to him that was exactly what we were doing.” It would not be random bombing or demonstrating “NATO resolve,” he added.

Heat for Flying High

Short took lots of heat from the press for ordering his fliers to stay above 15,000 feet when they attacked Serb forces in Kosovo. Flying lower, it was thought, would speed the process of destroying Serb armored vehicles and troops, while reducing the chance of hitting civilian targets. Short said he was urged by Clark, prior to the start of the conflict, to “get down amongst them.”

According to Short, the SACEUR’s “No. 1 priority, which he expressed to me every day on the [video-teleconference session], was the fielded forces in Kosovo. And we all understood that and followed the direction of the SACEUR.” It meant that the bulk of the force was to be directed against targets in Kosovo.

Short, however, was determined to avoid losing airplanes and pilots if possible, and especially against the 3rd Army, as he believed it was a strategic dead end. The 15,000-foot lower limit would provide protection against the most unpredictable threats-shoulder-launched Surface-to-Air Missiles and anti-aircraft artillery-and still allow pilots to use their precision guided bombs with high accuracy.

He reported that he repeatedly asked Clark to shift gears and let aircraft go after targets in Serbia beyond the IADS-its Integrated Air Defense System.

Eventually, said Short, “we, the airmen of the Alliance, were able to convince General Clark that we could conduct sustained and parallel operations with the airpower we had available to us, … that we could continue to attack that army in Kosovo while attacking other, … more lucrative and compelling targets … in Serbia proper.”

At some point, he said, Clark “accepted that reasoning, and I was able to release much of the force that had been employed in Kosovo to go after other target sets in the Belgrade area, north of Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis, et cetera.”

Moreover, Short was able to use what he termed the “more high-tech” airplanes for targets better suited to their abilities in Serbia while retaining the “lower-tech” airplanes, such as the A-10, GR-7, and Etendard, against Serb forces in Kosovo. Up until that time, the only sorties being flown outside Kosovo were by US­only types of assets, such as the stealthy F-117 fighter and B-2 bomber, he reported.

At about the same time, Short said, operations shifted from night-only to 24 hours a day.

The Compelling Target Set

Short said he was trying to put enough weighted effort against the 3rd Army to satisfy the SACEUR’s guidance, “while I used the rest of my assets to attack that target set that I genuinely believed to be compelling.”

The act of destroying or disabling those targets-for example, Serbian lines of communication, petroleum stocks, and refining capabilities-was clearly legitimate in purely military terms, but it also served to make the civilian population angry and ready to blame Milosevic for their misery.

Looking back at the early part of the conflict, Short said he’s “not so naive as to believe that politicians are ever just going to turn soldiers loose to do the job they think ought to be done.” However, he said, “I think we were constrained in this particular conflict to an extraordinary degree and were prevented from conducting an air campaign as professional airmen would have wanted to conduct it.”

Had he been free to structure the air effort as he wanted, Short would have arranged for the leaders in Belgrade to wake up “after the first night … to a city that was smoking. No power to the refrigerator and … no way to get to work.” He believes that in very short order, Milosevic’s staunchest supporters would have been demanding that he justify the benefits of ethnic cleansing, given the cost.

Instead, Short observed, “10 or 12 days into the war, … they were holding rock concerts in downtown Belgrade because we had not yet been able to go after that target set.”

The accidental strike on the Chinese Embassy put a number of targets off limits, Short noted.

“Toward the end of the air effort, we were restricted by enormous concern for collateral damage and unintended loss of civilian life.” During the last days of the campaign, “that was the litmus that we used to pick a target.”

Also hindering the targeting process was the 19-member NAC, which gave great weight to individual national sensibilities.

“At least one nation consistently refused to let us attack targets that we wished to target, so that made it even more difficult,” Short said, declining to be more specific.

There have been reports from Kosovo recently that the damage to Serb forces there does not seem to match the reports of damage claimed by NATO intelligence, but Short insists there’s no reason to believe the stated Serb loss statistics are out of line.

“I’m comfortable with the numbers that I was given by the Joint Analysis Center,” Short said, quoting a figure of 50 percent of Serb tanks, armored personnel carriers, and mortar and artillery tubes destroyed by NATO strikes.

“I can’t explain the discrepancy between what we destroyed and the number of hulks that have been found thus far. But I have no reason to doubt the ability of our intelligence and [bomb damage assessment] systems to verify that.”

Short readily admits that NATO pilots did hit some decoys but claimed that it was fairly evident when that happened, and the pilots “became pretty adept at figuring out what was a decoy and what wasn’t.”

Nevertheless, Short insists, “I was never counting.” A veteran of 276 combat missions in Vietnam, Short said he found body counts were “never compelling then, and I don’t believe … that the number of tanks we destroyed … was compelling this time.”

Because he was not in the mind-set of preparing for an invasion, “I did not have a figure in my mind [of] what it was going to take to render the 3rd Army ineffective.”

Success Story No. 1

The combination of the B-2 bomber and the Joint Direct Attack Munition was the “No. 1 success story” of the Balkan operation, Short said.

Every night of the war, he noted, in any kind of weather, he could expect “16 quality DMPIs [designated mean points of impact] from every one of those B-2s flying from Knob Noster, Mo., into Kosovo, into Serbia proper, dropping 16 JDAMs from 40,000 feet.”

He called the B-2­JDAM combo the “absolute ultimate” in Global Reach, Global Power.

Short said villains around the world should now think less about where the nearest carrier group is and instead count takeoffs from Whiteman AFB, Mo., because that would be the acid test of whether the US was serious about coming after them. He confessed to being somewhat of a “parochial airman” on the subject of the B-2.

If he had it to do differently, Short said, he would have changed the NATO Air Tasking Order to reflect assets such as the B-2, F-117, and Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-which were called “US-only systems.” In reviewing the ATO with Allied partners, Short said he constantly had to ask the other air chiefs “to trust me” about what those assets would be doing.

“And they’ve worked with us long enough that they just nod around the table,” he said. “They know very well what we’re employing.”

To keep such assets off the ATO was somewhat pointless because the presence of F-117s at Aviano AB, Italy, the US 6th Fleet off the coast of Albania, and B-52s at RAF Fairford, UK, meant that F-117s, TLAMs, and conventional air launched cruise missiles would be involved in the battle.

“But we kind of go into our US-only defensive crouch and pretend they don’t know what we’re doing, and we’re not going to tell them,” he said.

While he feels it’s important to protect mission planning and stealth secrets, Short said the absence of those assets from the NATO ATO led to some confusion when “suddenly things showed up [on NATO Airborne Warning and Control System radar] where they didn’t expect them.”

Short denied Clark had ordered him not to lose any airplanes or take any casualties. “I’ve seen that in the press several times,” he said. “That’s wrong.”

Three Measures of Success

Instead, Clark would, after picking targets, give Short his guidance for the day, which contained, Short said, “essentially the three measures of success.” The first was to protect NATO forces in the theater, including those in Bosnia as well as in Albania and Macedonia. The second was that the Coalition hold together. Finally, “clearly, it was a goal for us not to lose any airplanes or any pilots.”

On that last point, Short said he doesn’t know of “any air commander that doesn’t enter a conflict with a goal of not losing any airplanes or any pilots.” However, he fully expected that, in 78 days of operations, there would be some losses of aircraft and crews. The fact that he had been given a “no losses” goal “didn’t change the way we did our business.”

The 15,000-foot floor offered “our best opportunity to survive [in conjunction with night attack and precision guided weapons], and I continue to believe that,” he maintained.

But after civilians were hit in the midst of a convoy, Short recognized that target identification could be a problem in similar circumstances. He then approved both weapons release and forward air control excursions below 15,000 feet–meaning pilots could descend to a lower level to use binoculars and “take a look at a target to see if it’s tanks or tractors or buses,” he said, and then quickly return to a safe altitude.

Even at 15,000 feet, NATO airplanes were not immune to SA-3 and SA-6 SAMs and relied on “the jammers and the [High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile] shooters to protect us.”

The rules of engagement regarding altitude were “a balancing matrix … of risk vs. benefit,” Short explained. On any given mission, planners chose an altitude which “we felt certain would allow us to identify the targets with an acceptable level of risk, given the way we felt the Serbs were fighting at that point. And in my mind it turned out to be correct,” he asserted. No airplanes were lost in Kosovo proper, “so I feel like we did that pretty well.”

Short declined to discuss the loss of an F-117 fighter on the fourth night of the operation. But he did allow that, in the wake of the loss, “our approach to employing the 117 changed.”

In Short’s view, the biggest lesson of the Balkan conflict probably was a hard one learned by US Allies: Many of them have neglected their air forces and not invested in technology needed to conduct a modern air war.

Team A, Team B

“I don’t think there’s any question that we’ve got an A team and a B team now,” Short said. Those nations that failed to invest in precision guidance or nighttime capabilities or beyond-visual-range systems were “relegated to doing nothing but flying combat air patrol in the daytime; that’s all they were capable of doing,” he said.

Around the table at the Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza, Italy, it was clear “which Allies were capable of going downtown on the first night and who wasn’t.” He praised the consistent efforts of some nations, such as the Netherlands, which not only have kept their fighters up-to-date but can even provide some aerial tanking capability.

“The first night of the war, a MiG-29 was shot down by a Dutch F-16,” Short noted.

He declined to say who he felt was on the B team, but he observed that the conflict highlighted the urgent need for some countries to upgrade. Some “are on the second team, and they know that.” Perhaps the experience will translate into a political decision to invest in bringing their air forces up to modern standards, he said.

Asked what was toughest about the operation, Short noted several things. The first was the problem of “bringing together airmen from 14 different nations.” Although English is supposed to be the language of aviation, for non-native-English-speaking pilots, “the first time you’re shot at … you probably don’t say, ‘Break right!’ in English. You yell it out in your mother tongue,” Short observed.

The weather also “just kicked our butts for the first 45 days,” he reported. Many pilots had to return with their bombs, and some nights most missions were called off due to the weather.

While the Serbs “did not fight very smart, they presented a threat every night,” and Short quoted a figure of 630 SAMs fired at NATO airplanes.

“You can’t get complacent,” he noted. “You can’t decide that you’re bulletproof and invisible after your first 10 sorties.”

Finally, the political constraints made it very, very hard to conduct the operation, he said.

“It was not just apparent at the three-star level that we weren’t following the classic air campaign that we’d all learned at Maxwell. It was just as apparent [at the captain and major level] that we were not using airpower the way we would have wished to use it.” It was highly frustrating “that airpower [was] not being used as well as it could be and the way you have been taught to use it,” Short asserted.

The most frustrating aspect was that, at the last minute, one or two nations could veto a target, causing airplanes already launched to be recalled, sometimes through a daisy chain of signals sent via AWACS and tankers, Short noted. “[This] plays havoc with a mission commander’s plan, because now all of a sudden he’s lost part of his train. And you don’t want to send those kids in there if they’re not going to drop.”

As to what worked the best, Short noted that the war amounted to another “incredible success … for the Total Force.” Active duty, Guard, and Reserve personnel contributed “across the spectrum of what airpower is able to do,” which he added, “[was] no surprise.” The operation was “a verification of what we had invested in, the training that we had done. The Total Force that we had fostered and put together over the last 15 years, proved once again, as it did in Desert Storm, to be successful.”

He also paid tribute to past Air Force leaders who championed the Air Force requirements program and the technology provided by US contractors who “produce reliable, solid weapon systems.” The combination “did us a great service.”

“Every bit of technology bought during the last 15 years was successful,” Short said, noting the Predator and Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System as two relatively new systems that immediately proved their worth.

“We just didn’t have failures in those systems that we bought, and it increased our survivability and our accuracy and made us a better Air Force, as we knew it would,” he said.