Washington Watch: The NATO Way of War

Dec. 1, 1999

For Pentagon officials, Operation Allied Force did not amount to a Major Theater War. Moreover, the US would have pulled out had it been called on to execute the two-MTW national strategy. Still, the US military ran low on a number of key capabilities needed to conduct the action and could not have conducted the bombing campaign without the direct support of NATO allies, according to the first Department of Defense review of lessons learned in the Balkan conflict.

The quick-look report on Allied Force, presented to Congress in October as a down payment on the full after-action review due at the end of January, offered few new insights into NATO’s largest military action ever. Many of the main issues-shortages of electronic jamming and defense-suppression aircraft, the ponderous effort to move the US Army’s Task Force Hawk into Albania, and the growing gap in technical capabilities between the US and its NATO allies-had already made headlines in previous months.

What was new in the report was a more elaborate explanation of the factors driving NATO choices about how to conduct the war. NATO has been bitterly criticized for its gradualist approach in trying to coerce Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into abandoning the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Moreover, while the review raised important questions about the sufficiency of assets-particularly what have become known as low-density, high-demand systems-the report avoided calling for any large new corrective actions.

William S. Cohen, the Defense Secretary, and Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a joint statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Allied Force did not constitute an MTW and that the US, “in concert with its allies [must] be able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping time frames.” However, such a scenario would be attended by “higher levels of risk.”

A two-MTW crisis “would be extraordinarily demanding-well beyond that required for Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991,” stated the defense leaders.

Not Enough for Three

“It would involve our complete commitment as a nation and would entail all elements of our Total Force,” they noted, including pulling out of Kosovo and swinging the forces employed there to the other conflicts. Cohen asserted, in response to a question, that the US doesn’t have “a three-MTW capability. … This [Kosovo] was nearly a third MTW as far as the air campaign was concerned.”

Going into Allied Force, the Pentagon decided to maintain a substantial contingent in the Middle East and beef up its assets in Korea “to discourage leaders in Baghdad and Pyongyang from believing that our focus on Kosovo would present an opportunity to threaten our allies and friends in those important regions,” Cohen and Shelton said in their joint statement. Neither country made any significant threatening moves during the conflict, although airstrikes continued to be carried out in Iraq in response to threats against allied aircraft enforcing no-fly zones there.

Cohen told the Senate committee that after-action reports tend to focus on the problems and that “we really shouldn’t lose sight of the most important lesson of all: that NATO did, in fact, accomplish its mission and achieve all of its goals in what I would say is a very decisive victory.”

Shelton added, “The bottom line: [Allied Force] is the largest combat operation in NATO history; we achieved our military objectives; we were fortunate to come out with no combat casualties; Milosevic’s forces are out and we’re in, and so the Kosovar Albanians are back at home.”

So many pressures were brought to bear-political, military, economic, and so forth-that “we can never be certain about what caused Milosevic to accept NATO’s conditions” for an end to the air campaign, stated Cohen and Shelton.

The “mounting damage” to the Serbians, coupled with “Serbia’s utter inability to cause any notable damage or casualties to NATO forces, had a major impact on Milosevic’s decision.”

The two Pentagon leaders also attributed great value to NATO’s solidarity, engaging Russia in diplomacy with Serbia, the threat of the Kosovo Liberation Army, economic sanctions, and the buildup of NATO ground combat power in the region, e.g., Task Force Hawk. “These factors all played important roles in the settlement of the crisis,” they said.

Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the commander in chief of the operation, said in separate Senate testimony that the victory over Yugoslavia was the result of “a variety of factors” but that “the indispensable condition for all the other factors was the success of the air campaign itself. … Everything else hinged on that.”

Two Axes of Attack

Clark reported that two axes of attack-strikes against strategic targets principally in Belgrade and strikes against tactical targets in and near Kosovo-were both necessary to the campaign. The bombing of Belgrade-area targets “brought home the pain to Milosevic and his people,” while the effort against Serb troops and vehicles in Kosovo pinned them down and constrained their ability to continue with ethnic cleansing.

Cohen also said that the Pentagon had not set a standard for zero casualties in future wars. Casualties were considered “not possible but probable and likely” going into Allied Force, he added.

The fact that NATO needed to obtain and hold a consensus on its strategy required that a more gradualist approach be taken to the operation. Some NATO allies were reluctant to attack anything other than the troops and vehicles actually carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, while others insisted that the fastest way to obtain Milosevic’s compliance was with a strategic bombing effort on Serb centers of gravity.

USAF Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, the joint forces air component commander of the operation, said in separate testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that, if he’d been free to prosecute the air war as he judged best, “I’d have gone for the head of the snake on the first night. I’d have turned the lights out [in Belgrade] the first night.” This would have gotten Milosevic’s attention, Short said, and put him on notice that his most valuable national infrastructure and personal sources of power and comfort would be rapidly destroyed.

Short also criticized France for playing “the red card” to remove particular groups of targets from the list to be attacked-some in Belgrade, some in the Yugoslav province of Montenegro, and others. (The red card reference is to soccer, in which a player who receives a red card is thrown out of the game.) Serb military assets in these places enjoyed a refuge and posed a persistent threat to NATO fliers, Short said.

Cohen, however, insisted that the campaign would never have been launched at all-and Milosevic would have gotten away with ethnic cleansing-if demands had been made by some NATO members to pursue anything other than a gradually increasing air campaign.

Cohen and Shelton, in their joint statement, outlined a five-phase NATO approach to the war that had been worked out in the summer of 1998, beginning with air raids and cruise missile strikes, but allowing for a more all-out effort if these failed to produce the desired effects. Early success was anticipated, and some NATO countries doubted more coercion would be needed.

“Although there were expectations on the part of some that this would be a short campaign, we made clear to our allied counterparts that Operation Allied Force could well take weeks or months to succeed and that the operation should only be initiated if all were willing to persevere until success was achieved,” they emphasized. “Alliance leaders agreed in advance that if the initial strikes did not attain NATO’s goals, NATO would have to persist and indeed expand its air campaign.”

At the NATO summit in Washington in April, the member nations in fact decided to broaden the target list by adding military-industrial infrastructure, media, and other strategic targets to the mix.

Cohen Praises Allies

Some in Congress suggested that the US, to bypass the constraints imposed by working within NATO, would have been better off acting alone. Cohen, however, insisted that “without strong, continued cohesion within the alliance, this operation couldn’t have gone forward. … The notion somehow that the United States could have carried out this mission unilaterally is simply not true. We could not have done it.”

“Some say that working within the NATO alliance unduly constrained US military forces from getting the job done quickly and effectively,” Cohen and Shelton observed in their statement. They acknowledged that it was challenging.

“Gaining consensus among 19 democratic nations is not easy,” they added. “It is true that there were differences of opinion within the alliance.”

Cohen and Shelton noted, however, that the US was heavily dependent on allied airfields and overflight rights, as well as logistical support and the availability of ground troops for the later Kosovo peacekeeping operations. Commercial air traffic through the region continued throughout the 78-day conflict, despite more than 30,000 combat sorties in a confined airspace. Moreover, the allies contributed about an equal percentage of their air forces to the campaign as the US did, Cohen reported.

Most important was the political and diplomatic support of the allies. Cohen and Shelton claimed that the efforts of the alliance isolated Yugoslavia politically and economically.

The joint statement provided a long laundry list of challenges that made the operation one of the most difficult in memory. These included everything from domestic concerns in the member nations to terrain, weather, and the lack of secure communications gear among all NATO forces. In spite of the sore spots, nearly 50 years of exercises and an integrated command structure paid off, according to Cohen.

He noted that “soon after the conflict began, entire classes of targets were delegated for approval by NATO’s military commanders. Only certain sets of targets, such as those in downtown Belgrade, in Montenegro, and those with a high likelihood of civilian casualties, were reviewed by the allied capitals and by higher political authorities.”

The operation was also vitally necessary to support important US national interests, Cohen asserted in testimony.

“If NATO as an institution had not responded to this crisis [Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo], it would have meant that the world’s most powerful alliance was unwilling to act when confronted with serious threats to common interests on its own doorstep,” stated Cohen and Shelton. Having made threats to use substantial force to end Serb atrocities, NATO stood to lose its credibility if it did not make good on them, they argued.

Perhaps as importantly, the Pentagon leaders said that Milosevic was intentionally trying to destabilize the region and that it was necessary to head off a broader conflict that might have drawn in Greece, Turkey, and possibly even Russia.

NATO “stood up to the challenge facing it and succeeded,” they said.

Parallel Complications

Despite the successes, the campaign highlighted areas that needed work, Cohen and Shelton said. “Parallel US and NATO command-and-control structures and systems complicated operational planning and maintenance of unity of command,” they noted. More work is needed to polish the order of battle and chain of command, especially for out-of-area, non-Article 5 operations, meaning combat outside NATO’s treaty area boundaries and not involving an attack on a member.

Also a key lesson was the widening gap between the technological prowess of the US and its NATO partners. Other members of the alliance lacked standoff jamming gear, night and precision weapons, and secure voice communications. Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said in a written statement for the House Armed Services Committee that this last problem meant many secure communications “were made in the clear.” “As a result, sensitive information sometimes fell into enemy hands,” he added.

Cohen told the Senate committee, “The gaps in capability … had the effect of impeding our ability to operate at optimal effectiveness.” For example, the Allies had “insufficient air mobility assets [which] slowed deployment of KFOR ground forces [into Kosovo once Milosevic capitulated].”

The NATO nations have met to discuss the technical gaps and have agreed to fix them. The Defense Capabilities Initiative-adopted by NATO at the April 1999 summit-“will enhance allied capabilities in five key areas: deployability and mobility, sustainability and logistics, effective engagement, survivability of forces and infrastructure, and C2 and information systems,” stated Cohen and Shelton.

The two defense leaders praised the C-17 as the “workhorse of the airlift force,” especially its proof of the concept of direct-delivery from Stateside bases to the front of the battle area.

Jumper stated that the C-17 was “the star of the Task Force Hawk deployment.” Along with C-130s, C-17s “flew 737 sorties to move more than 7,700 passengers and nearly 23,000 short tons of cargo for the Apache contingent.”

Another shortcoming was the fact that while the Pentagon maintains plans for rapidly moving out for a Major Theater War, “it did not have such plans for Operation Allied Force,” Cohen and Shelton noted. “The rapidly evolving requirements of Allied Force strained our ability to quickly develop plans for deploying our forces that utilized our lift assets efficiently. We relied heavily on strategic airlift … while using strategic sealift sparingly.”

Ineffective but Worrisome

The Serb air defense system was redundant, mobile, and adaptable, Cohen and Shelton said, and while Serb fighters were quickly put out of commission, the surface-to-air missile threat persisted to the end of the campaign. Constant pressure from Air Force F-16CJ and other defense-suppression assets made the Serb air defense effort ineffective but forced round-the-clock jamming and suppression missions to be flown, taxing the available assets in these areas.

Cohen and Shelton stated that the EA-6B Prowler and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft were “employed in numbers roughly equivalent to those anticipated for a Major Theater War and even then were heavily tasked.” They called for “innovative and affordable ways” to expand capabilities in standoff jamming but offered no immediate plan.

Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, said in Senate testimony that there is “an analysis of alternatives” under way to examine “what’s after EA-6B” and promised some sort of plan for a new tactical jammer before spring. In the meantime, the Navy is adding funds to its EA-6B budget line to bring on another expeditionary squadron of Prowlers by stepping up a modification program converting airplanes previously in desert storage.

The US Sixth Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Daniel J. Murphy Jr., said, “In the future, our dependence on limited numbers of EA-6B aircraft may be reduced through the increased use of GPS-guided and standoff weapons.”

“We looked at the shortages on the ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] capability,” Cohen said. “We need more platforms. More JSTARS [E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems], more Rivet Joints. We need greater [numbers of] … precision guided munitions.”

Cohen and Shelton stated that far better air defense systems are now on the market, and “we must acknowledge some concerns for the future.” It’s likely that the US will face better-armed adversaries in the future, and “we need to prepare for that possibility now.”

New munitions played a major role in the success of the air campaign. Jumper noted that “out of more than 9,400 designated target aim points, over 70 percent were struck by precision munitions.” Only 20 weapons out of 23,000 bombs and missiles used went astray, he added.

Cohen and Shelton said that the Joint Direct Attack Munition in particular was a huge success-and the only bomb that could be dropped during complete cloud cover.

“We operated under conditions in which there was at least 50 percent cloud cover more than 70 percent of the time,” they reported.

Shelton, in direct testimony, noted that the Pentagon “increased the rate of production and, in fact, ended up the operation with more than we started with.” A review is under way to assess the weapons used in the campaign-some of which, like JDAM and the Joint Standoff Weapon, were used for the first time in combat-and whether the mix available matches the expected future usage.

Cohen and Shelton stated that the US used nearly all of its tanker capability in the conflict, and the Pentagon is now reviewing options in tanker forces and crew ratios “to determine whether they are sufficient to meet future needs in either Major Theater Wars or other contingencies.” (See “Airlift Reality Check,” p. 30.)

Efforts are also under way to improve the ability of forces to find concealed targets and distinguish real targets from decoys, they said.

Task Force Hawk

A sore spot in the Balkans operation was Task Force Hawk, an Army unit of 24 Apache helicopters, force-protection troops, and support personnel mainly airlifted from bases in Germany to Tirana, Albania. Once there, two Apaches were lost in training accidents and two crew members killed.

Cohen and Shelton said the Apache helicopters were meant to aid the air campaign-hampered by poor weather-by attacking mobile targets in Kosovo. They noted that, while Task Force Hawk had recently completed a training cycle, they had been trained for flat desert conditions-not the mountainous terrain of Kosovo.

Shelton explained that, early in the conflict, when cloud cover was hampering the effort to destroy moving ground targets in Kosovo, the Apaches were called for as a means to get low and attack the targets below the clouds. There was heavy risk involved-the Apaches were particularly vulnerable to air defense artillery and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles-but it was considered worth the risk to keep up the momentum of air attacks.

“The contributions that the Apaches might make to prosecuting mobile targets in Kosovo were considered potentially worth the risks associated with their use,” Cohen and Shelton reported. “As the campaign progressed and the weather improved, the effectiveness of higher-flying, fixed-wing aircraft improved, and the benefits of Apache operations at low altitude were no longer judged to outweigh the risk of their vulnerability to shorter-range air defenses.”

More experimentation is needed with similar units, so that in the future such resources can be employed quickly and without taking along “their usual supporting and supported command elements,” they noted.

Losses and Successes

NATO lost 15 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Allied Force-all to enemy fire-but Cohen and Shelton judged UAVs to have performed very well. “The Army Hunter, Navy Pioneer, and Air Force Predator reflect the state of the art in ground control and mission planning capabilities, airworthiness, and mission payloads,” they said. The Air Force Predator was fitted with a laser target designator and actually had designated a target for one strike when the air war ended. The capability will be adapted to other platforms and will be employed more.

UAVs are “designed deliberately to be expendable” and provided invaluable information while sparing the risk of sending aircrews into especially dangerous spots, they said.

High levels of readiness and training were maintained throughout the conflict, Cohen and Shelton asserted in their statement. Losses due to accidents were even “below levels typically anticipated in peacetime.” However, the reconstitution effort after the war will carry a high price tag, they said. The costs have not yet been fully determined, but the whole operation has forced a review of planning for both peacetime and wartime readiness.

A key lesson learned-and one already well understood even before the conflict-was the need to gain greater access to higher-bandwidth data transfer mechanisms. Innovations such as digital target folders worked well in cutting down both planning and execution times on attacks, but the flow of data has to be better accommodated.

There is also a shortage of personnel to perform language translation and intelligence functions, Cohen and Shelton noted.

Cohen told the SASC in direct testimony to be careful not to draw too many lessons from Allied Force.

“What was successful in this conflict may not be in another,” he said. “And so we analyze the Kosovo operation with an eye toward capturing concepts that have broad applicability, ones that can apply in many different situations.”

Senate panel members asked Clark, NATO Allied Forces Southern Europe Commander Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., and Short to comment on the principal lessons that should be learned and not learned from Allied Force.

Clark responded that “when we enter into a campaign-any campaign-we’ve got to apply decisive force, decisive power as rapidly as possible to secure our objectives. The longer a campaign takes, not only the greater the risk to the people prosecuting [it] but the greater the risks of its expansion, inadvertent consequences, and possibly the loss [of] the campaign.” He also advised that greater coordination should be made between the military and the diplomatic fronts and that other kinds of coercion-economic, for example-should be counted among the tools available.

NATO also should not have taken a ground option off the table right at the beginning but instead threatened the use of all its capabilities against Belgrade, according to Clark.

Ellis said his biggest surprise in the conflict was that “there were no surprises.” Milosevic used “no asymmetric effort … either cross-border into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, any use of missiles or terrorism, or other threats that certainly were within the purview or the capabilities [of Belgrade].”

“They chose not to employ that,” he said, but “we may not be able to ensure that [this won’t happen] in future efforts.” Force-protection initiatives should not be sidelined, he said, simply because the threat did not materialize this time.

Short said he is “very concerned that our allies will learn the wrong lesson” from the air campaign. In Operation Deliberate Force 1994, “we bombed in Bosnia for six weeks and brought the Serbs to the table with no loss of American lives and no loss of American airplanes.

“Now we’ve done it again. We bombed for 78 days, we lost two airplanes, and no one died [in combat]. I’m terribly concerned that the political leadership of some of our allied countries will believe that airpower is a freebie, that you can do it and no one dies on our side.

“Just to paraphrase what my bosses have said, when this nation chooses to send its young sons and daughters into harm’s way we need to do it as best we can and hard as we can and come with everything we’ve got in the bag.”