"NATO's War in the Balkans:
A Preliminary Analysis"
by Dr Joel Hayward
New Zealand Army Journal
No. 21 July 1999, pp. 1-17:
Within the limitations of sources available so soon after the conflict's end, this preliminary study analyses the purpose, nature and performance of NATO's air campaign and identifies the key factors that prompted Serbia's eventual capitulation. It also investigates the claim that Operation Allied Force outdid even Operation Desert Storm to become the first ever war won by airpower alone.
To achieve this, the speeches and press releases of leading participants are examined, along with data assembled by news agencies and "think tanks". Conducting this analysis so soon after the event is naturally problematic. The evidence is fragmentary, allowing only "provisional" conclusions, and it is largely informal, lacking the "official" status of government documentation and statistics. That material may not be released for some time. Yet enough pieces of the widely scattered information jigsaw already exist for us to assemble them and form a reliable impression of what the completed picture looks like.
Coercion and Airpower
NATO's war against
NATO's decision to use airpower as its primary instrument of coercion is consistent with airpower's employment in recent years by the
Clinton and his decision-makers clearly favour airpower as the main instrument of coercion. Its sophisticated technology lends itself, more than land warfare or seapower, to America's self-perception as the world's most advanced nation. Futuristic stealth aircraft (F-117A Nighthawks and the new B-2 Spirits), advanced satellite-guided cruise missiles and precision-guided munitions (PGMs, or "smart bombs") have created an expectation of total accuracy and effectiveness, heightened the mystique of airpower, and made it the most politically useful instrument of coercion.
More importantly, to a far greater degree than land warfare or seapower, airpower seems to neutralise the western intolerance for "friendly" casualties, aversion to enemy civilian suffering, and fear of domestic dissatisfaction caused by reports of either.
The extreme American sensitivity to casualties has been manifest on many occasions in the quarter-century since the Vietnam War, with the clearest case being the dramatic drop in public support following the October 1993 deaths of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Grave concern for the plight of civilians, both friends and enemies, has been equally apparent. For example, when an Allied air raid on the AI Firdos command and control bunker in Baghdad killed several hundred civilians using it as a shelter, the public backlash in America was so strong that air commanders had to suspend the strategic air campaign against Baghdad for ten days.
The Clinton administration sees modern airpower as its best means of using coercion while avoiding American casualties and civilian suffering. The Gulf War of 1991 and Operation Deliberate Force in 1995 (NATO's punitive air attacks on Serb positions in Bosnia) created persuasive precedents. They "proved" that, in this age of cruise missiles, stealth technology and precision-guided munitions, airpower could indeed achieve superb political/strategic results for few casualties and little "collateral damage".
Further evidence of the Clinton administration's mounting belief in the supposedly ideal nature of airpower as an instrument of coercion came during 1998. In August, the United States launched strong air assaults against Osama bin Laden's suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan and an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan. In December, American and British airpower assets undertook Operation Desert Fox, a four-night torrent of cruise missiles and "smart bombs" poured upon ever-troublesome Iraq. Despite their dubious legality and purpose, these punitive missions again provided high returns for low costs (at least in terms of casualties).
The Clinton administration and its British counterpart obviously wanted to repeat this formula in the case of Yugoslavia, and first threatened Belgrade with air strikes in October 1998.3 On 13 October, after NATO leaders felt powerless watching continued violence in Kosovo between KLA terrorists and Serb paramilitary and military forces, the North Atlantic Council gave the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Wesley Clark, instructions to plan a coercive or punitive air campaign against Yugoslavia that might include "limited air strikes" and a "phased air campaign". Clark ordered his planners to prepare an air-only campaign that firmly represented the Clinton administration's perception of airpower. The planners gulped and looked sideways when he added this politically driven major restriction: there must be "no loss of aircraft."4
This restriction shocked airpower strategists who had participated in the planning and conduct of the Gulf War of 1991, the air campaign of which was designed to minimise Allied casualties while unleashing overwhelming force. It had gone much according to plan: 31 Allied aircraft were shot down, 25 of them American, a toll considered remarkably low for such a huge and productive undertaking. Given the likely dangers in Yugoslavia, which had a capable air defence system, the no-losses stipulation seemed unrealistic to many air strategists, who nonetheless had to factor it into their planning.
The airpower strategists also had to factor in Clark's insistence, echoing his political masters, that the scale of collateral damage inflicted on Iraq during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Fox must not be repeated. Yugoslavian civilian deaths must not reach a level at which they have disruptive social and political repercussions in America and other NATO states. As it happened, these stipulations on NATO casualties and Yugoslavian collateral damage significantly shaped the air campaign unleashed on 24 March and determined the rules of engagement for at least its first month.
That does not mean, however, that politicians wanted or air strategists planned a major air campaign that would last a month or more. In fact, they clearly wanted and planned something resembling Operation Desert Fox: a short, sharp series of intensive cruise missile and bombing attacks designed to force Milosevic to comply with NATO demands. Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon's regular spokesman, announced on the eve of the attacks: "we have plans for a swift and severe air campaign. This will be painful for the Serbs. We hope that relatively quickly ... the Serbs will realise that they have made a mistake [in declining to sign the Rambouillet documents]". Secretary of State Madeleine Albright herself stated on 24 March: "I don't see this as a long-term operation. I think it is achievable within a relatively short period of time."5
The Clinton administration's incredible miscalculation of Milosevic's resolve later caused embarrassing criticism. On 28 April, for instance, Tom DeLay, the United States House Majority Whip, mocked the administration for its bungle. The campaign was still going, he jeered, with no end in sight, even though "the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told us that this was no big deal, that we were going to bomb for a couple of days, 48 hours, and then stop bombing, and Milosevich would come to the table"6. Republican Heather A. Wilson agreed, stating that "the prosecution of the war ... had been screwed up from the first day."7
The Powell Doctrine
The miscalculation, which spin-doctors eventually managed to gloss over during the war and most people forgot anyway in the post-war period of relief (not euphoria, as after the Gulf War), caused more than just embarrassment. It also resulted in a campaign conceived and conducted contrary to the so-called Powell Doctrine. Named after its chief proponent, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 until 1993, this set of principles dominated American military thought throughout most of the 1990s.
Powell persuasively argued, to the general agreement of the American military establishment, that the nation's military forces should be used carefully; that is, only when absolutely necessary. Yet if used, they should be used decisively. Powell warned of the risks in threatening or using military muscle for coercive purposes, and strongly opposed the gradual or incremental deployment of force under any circumstances. He wanted the United States to be what he called "the meanest dog in town" so as to scare potential enemies away from unacceptable behaviour, or to defeat them quickly and decisively if war could not be avoided.
Also, said Powell, before using force the President should ensure that the political objective was important, in America's national interest, clearly defined, and well understood by the American people. The President should also ensure all other non-violent options had first been exhausted.
When Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the Bush administration split into two schools of thought. One group -- led by several senior air planners -- proposed the immediate use of airpower, even before any non-military forms of coercion, such as sanctions, were attempted. More importantly, they wanted to initiate this air campaign even before placing a ground war capacity in the region.
Powell represented the other school of thought. In concert with General Norman Schwarzkopf (who received overall theatre command), he advocated to President Bush and Secretary of Defense Cheney the imposition of economic sanctions and intense diplomatic pressure, meanwhile building up the US military for possible offensive action using joint air, naval and ground forces to oust the Iraqi army from Kuwait.8
In other words, Powell hoped that economic diplomacy, sanctions, a naval blockade and the freezing of Iraqi assets would force Suddam Hussein to relinquish Kuwait, but just in case he did not, Powell meanwhile prepared for a military campaign that America and its allies would win quickly and decisively. To do this he and Schwarzkopf assembled an overwhelming amount of firepower and delayed a ground offensive until he had a force in place so strong that success was inevitable. That delay involved a build-up in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region of over 500,000 troops and their machines, including over 100 naval vessels, 3,360 tanks, 3,633 artillery pieces, 4,050 APCs, 2,700 fixed-wing aircraft and 1,959 helicopters9, and it took a full five months.
As it happened, Bush embraced Powell's approach, and only committed American forces to combat after all other options had been exhausted, but only when forces in the region had been built up to such a extent they could apply overwhelming force and win quickly and decisively. And that is precisely what happened. American and coalition forces built up in the Gulf for five months before they unleashed a massive concentrated air campaign that lasted for 38 days and involved 40,000 attack sorties. Then, they launched their ground offensive with a strong thrust by forces that had being building up for months and waiting until the air campaign had gone as far as it could. Despite an overestimation of the air campaign's effectiveness and a few muddled command decisions, it all worked well. Victory came quickly.
Yet President Clinton -- like Prime Minister Blair in Britain -- is different in experience and character to Bush, who had learned much in his youth and early manhood about the nature of war. Bush had enlisted in the Navy on his eighteenth birthday and soon became the youngest Navy pilot to gain his wings. He flew 58 combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action. Clinton, on the other hand, has no experience of war -- either as a serviceman or as a victim of war's many privations -- and is the product of a post-war liberal tradition that inclines him, when he has to fight a war, to fight it costlessly, with no American casualties. Hence, his excessive reliance on airpower comes to the fore.
As a result, the campaign he approved, which matched his and other key NATO leaders' wishes, contradicted the central tenets of the Powell Doctrine. In particular, NATO did not exhaust all available diplomatic options before launching its campaign in March. The alliance had earlier watched with horror as the Serbs' attempts to defeat the Kosovo Liberation Army had caused suffering throughout Kosovo. Motivated largely by Albright's passionate urgings, the NATO alliance settled quickly on a set of principles to shape Kosovo's future; the alliance encouraged the Kosovars and Serbians to "negotiate"; it created an accord that enshrined its principles; it persuaded the initially reluctant Kosovars to sign it at Rambouillet near Paris; it then warned the equally reluctant Serbians to sign or face the severest consequences -- and the alliance told them, this meant air strikes.
Where was the diplomacy? If diplomacy is -- as Henry Kissinger and others say -- the art of compromise, with the view to creating a "win-win" situation that each side can sell to their populations as a success, then it was sorely lacking before, during and after the Rambouillet talks. For the Serbians, the process was a zero-sum game. It could give them nothing; it could cost them plenty. Their failure to sign was as inevitable as the subsequent air strikes.
We now see how effective non-NATO states -- particularly Russia and, remarkably, Finland -- were in their diplomatic efforts to gain Serbia's acceptance of the G8's plan to end the war. So where were Russia and these other non-NATO states, some of them decidedly Serbia-friendly, during the Rambouillet talks, when they could have acted as influential mediators? The answer is clear: nowhere in the picture. NATO wanted to do it alone; and failed.
It can be said that those non-NATO nations were only finally influential because of the massive military force being applied to Serbia by NATO, and without that force even their diplomatic efforts would have failed. Perhaps true, but in any case we won't know because the involvement of those other nations wasn't sought. This naturally reinforces the view that persuasion seemed less attractive to NATO than coercion, and that the alliance had not taken diplomacy as far as it could go.
NATO further ignored the Powell Doctrine by failing to use force overwhelmingly and decisively. Instead, it initiated an air campaign that involved the limited and gradual application of force and also violated to various degrees most of the nine basic principles of war that the American military holds sacred.
The Principles of War
The United States Department of Defense and its various services and branches adhere to nine fundamental principles of war, which, they claim, must provide general guidance for the conduct of war at its three main levels. According to the United States Army, for instance, those principles are "the enduring bedrock" of its doctrine and "have stood the test of time".10 They are (with their American titles): objective; offensive; mass; economy of force; manoeuvre; unity of command; security; surprise; simplicity.11 (Most Commonwealth nations adhere to a slightly different combination.12)
NATO doctrine, based on that of the United States Department of Defense, stipulates that every military action must be directed toward a clearly defined, decisive, measurable and attainable objective. Yet during Operation Allied Force, NATO never set and maintained a clear objective for its military commanders to strive for. Instead, it offered ever-changing and always-muddled statements of aim and expectation.
When he announced the commencement of military action on 24 March, William Cohen, the United States Secretary of Defense, stated that "the military objective of our action is to deter further action against the Kosovars and to diminish the ability of the Yugoslav army to continue those attacks, if necessary."13 President Clinton repeated these two aims: to deter further repression of Kosovars and if necessary "to damage the Serb military's capacity to harm the people of Kosovo". Yet he added a political aim not mentioned by Cohen and called it his "first" objective: "to demonstrate the seriousness of NATO's purpose" so that Milosevic would return to negotiations over Kosovo's future.14 Later in the same speech Clinton maintained that he also intended the offensive "to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results."
So, it would seem, the Clinton administration initiated the campaign with three primary goals: to coerce the Milosevic government into desired behaviour, to deter further repression of Kosovars and, if all else failed, to diminish the Serb military's ability to conduct that repression. It cast these three goals against its wider political/strategic aim of reducing the risk of regional escalation.
Yet these aims did not form a clear and internally consistent objective for military action (and certainly fell short of the type of objective advocated by Powell). An operation designed to coerce requires a different type, level and focus of force application than one designed to reduce, significantly, the fighting capacity of an opponent's armed forces. The former involves -- if we look to America's own coercive operations as a model -- a series of "swift and severe" raids (to quote Kenneth Bacon again) against valuable infrastructure; in other words, the aim is to inflict pain but not major or lasting damage. These coercive "contingency responses" usually come under the category of Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW).15 The risk of escalation is minimal.
The other option, however, involves a large-scale sustained campaign of decisive attack against the opponent's military capabilities, including its command and control organisation, its critical systems and its fielded forces. The aim is to render these non-functional (through major damage if necessary) and to cause paralysis. The risk of escalation with this scale of activity, particularly in a region like the Balkans, which even Clinton called a "powder keg", is far greater. And this activity cannot achieve decisive results in the day or two initially predicted for Operation Allied Force's duration.
As a result of inconsistency between these political and military factors, the NATO force that commenced Operation Allied Force was both unprepared and woefully equipped for its tasks ahead. It had the means to prosecute a short, sharp coercive offensive designed to make Milosevic rethink his position on Kosovo, but it certainly did not have the means to do more. And yet NATO promised more -- far more -- right from the beginning. Within hours of the air campaign's start, General Clark promised that NATO would "systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ... ultimately destroy those [Serb] forces and their facilities and support." This was a bold statement for a commander with no ground forces and a very small air force (around 400 aircraft, only 120 of them strike-capable16) at his immediate disposal. General Powell doubtless winced when he heard Clark's statement, and later, after weeks of no comment, became a vocal critic of the operation's muddled aims and consequent gradualism.
The second principle of war, "mass", relates closely to the first. It states that once a clear, measurable and attainable objective is fixed, forces of sufficient strength to attain that objective must be brought to bear decisively in time and space (that is, at the right time and the right place). In this case, though, the confused aims led to an inappropriate concentration of force. General Michael C. Short, who oversaw the air campaign from the Combined Air Operations Center in Vicenza, Italy, began it with a mere 120 strike aircraft. Even when one adds the large number of cruise missiles initially available from vessels in the Adriatic Sea, this was an insufficient force for anything beyond the short, coercive attack intended by the NATO political leadership.
The Air Power Manual of the RAAF17 warns that "insufficient force loses the initiative, cannot be decisive and so may lead to protracted conflict which is more demanding of limited resources."18 This statement accurately describes Operation Allied Force, which began at a miserable rate of 48 strike missions per day, excluding sea-launched cruise missiles.19 After one week of bombing at this rate, Javier Solana, the NATO Secretary General, insisted that the alliance "was having a major impact on Belgrade's criminal war machine."20 This was untrue, as General Buster Glosson, a retired USAF commander of Gulf War fame, pointed out later that same day: "When you fly less than 50 bombing sorties per day for seven days, you're not serious about what you're doing. At best, it's sporadic bombing."21
Critics have directed their sharpest attack, however, at the other major aspect of NATO's failure to apply "mass": its decision and frequently repeated statement that it would not deploy ground forces in an offensive role. Operation Allied Force would essentially be an airpower-only effort, the
Major General Charles Link, a retired USAF commander, typified the criticism when he stated: "Not having ground troops in the region permitted Milosevic not only to accelerate his ethnic cleansing, but it precluded him from having to arrange Serbian defensive forces differently, to protect both northern and southern borders. So it was foolish of President Clinton to rule out a ground option, but it's a good example of a political leader perceiving political imperatives in a way that hamstrings military success."22 Alexander Haig, a former
Colin Powell himself criticised Clinton and the NATO leadership for commencing a campaign without amassing the force necessary to see it through to a swift and successful conclusion. This not only violated a major principle of war, he said, but also ignored the Powell Doctrine's insistence that, if the use of force could not be avoided, it should be used overwhelmingly and decisively. Powell did concede, however, that the decision to rule out a ground offensive was not made by the Clinton administration alone; it was made by a majority vote of the 19 NATO member states, most of which shared the western fear of casualties and collateral damage and believed in airpower's ability to avoid these.24 Powell was not sure that NATO's decision made "political sense", and added that he would still have argued "for a campaign that, if it couldn't include ground troops, didn't take away also the threat of ground troops."25
Even several key NATO military planners expressed thinly veiled criticism at the way political constraints determined the shape of operational plans. For example, General Michael Ryan, the USAF Chief of Staff, lamented at one point: "admittedly, the campaign did not begin the way that America normally would apply air power- massively, striking at strategic centres of gravity that support Milosevic and his oppressive regime - but we are not in this conflict alone. We now have 18 NATO partners, some of whom were prepared to wage only a phased air operation to show NATO's resolve in the hope of achieving an early settlement".26 Explaining NATO's decision to use airpower only, Ryan said that the politicians had wanted that limitation, even though few senior military advisors "believed that tactically constrained air attacks on a dispersed infantry force, brutishly looting and burning villages, could alone halt the atrocities or reverse the refugee flow."
NATO's well-publicised exclusion of a ground build-up for potential offensive purposes also made it difficult for Operation Allied Force, relying on airpower only, to adhere to another guiding principle of war: exploiting the element of surprise. There can be no doubt that, as the USAF's most recent doctrine manual states, "the speed and range of air and space forces, coupled with their flexibility and versatility, allow air forces to achieve surprise more readily than surface forces".27 Yet NATO's air-only operation limited the application of unexpected combat power and left the Serbian leadership facing only an air campaign devoid of surprise. It started with prior warning, progressed predictably, increased gradually according to publicly announced transfers and reinforcements, and never really possessed the means to gain or hold the initiative by creating unexpected shifts in the course of the conflict. The presence in the immediate region of a ground force would have given the Serbian military leadership twice as much to think about, and given NATO many opportunities for acting unexpectedly to confound that thinking.
This directly relates to another principle of war: manoeuvre (also known as flexibility). Essentially, this refers to actions designed to keep an opponent off balance and at a disadvantage through the flexible use of combat power. NATO's decision to exclude ground troops from Operation Allied Force certainly reduced its overall flexibility. And although airpower has frequently demonstrated awesome flexibility during wars, during the air offensive against Serbia several factors significantly hampered the air weapon's inherent flexibility. In particular, the complex multi-national process of approving daily air tasking orders, and the rigid rules of engagement, decreased the air assets' freedom of action and ability to exploit opportunities. Further, even though NATO commanders quickly claimed their attacks had significantly "degraded"
During the Gulf War, the A-10 Thunderbolt II "Warthog", usually employed in close air support missions, conducted extensive valuable interdiction, while one wing of F-111 s, usually employed as deep-interdiction aircraft, destroyed scores of tanks and armoured vehicles with precision weapons released at low altitude. This did not happen during Operation Allied Force. Information released so far reveals that few multi-role and fighter aircraft had permission to fly lower than 15,000 feet before mid-May, and almost no ground-attack and close air support aircraft gained permission to fly at all over large parts of Kosovo and Metohija.28 Even F-16C and F-16CJ Fighting Falcons, equipped with the HARM targeting system to suppress enemy air defences29, were employed cautiously and without the freedom of action and ability to fly low that would have given them greater effectiveness against a wide range of targets, including Serbian tanks and troops deployed in Kosovo.
The issue of flexibility relates to another of the fundamental principles of war: economy of force, which refers to the rational use of force by selecting the best mix of combat power. In other words, even though a force must be proportionate in scale and type to the overall objective, and be applied in such a manner as to ensure appropriate "mass", it must devote no more effort than is absolutely necessary to perform particular tasks. It ensures this through an appropriate balance of missions and the correct use of weapons and systems.
During Operation Allied Force, however, the internal inconsistencies of the overall NATO objective confounded efforts to apply effective economy of force. Initially, when the primary aim was supposedly to coerce, the air commanders directed missions at the Serbian integrated air defence system and the nation's political and military C3 infrastructure.30 Even then they failed to apply sufficient force, conducting a small number of sorties and missile attacks each day. Yet the selection of targets was reasonable and, had the mission rate been substantially higher, this may have proven more successful.
However, when Kosovar refugees began streaming into
Thus, while missions against Serbia's air defence systems and C3 nerve-centre continued, they also began targeting "strategic infrastructure", (including oil refineries, storage facilities and spare parts warehouses), fielded forces in Kosovo and Metohija (airfields, barracks, known field installations and any concentrations of armour) and their logistical network (fuel dumps, supply depots, roads, railways and bridges).
To illustrate the wide range of targets under attack a week after Operation Allied Force commenced, one only needs to note the targets mentioned by Vice Admiral Fry at a major press conference on 30 March (that is, one week into the operation). NATO was attacking
Unfortunately, NATO lacked the means to do all these things simultaneously -- that is, to conduct the type of parallel operation that had paralysed Iraq in 1991 -- having only 150 strike-capable aircraft at that time.32 Even for the "low-level contingency response" (to quote NATO sources33) that Operation Allied Force started as, this was a weak force. Yet when the Balkans campaign quickly transformed into a war of real substance -- and by late-April even General Michael Ryan, the USAF Chief of Staff, had admitted "the USAF is in a Major Theatre War" -- it was entirely incapable of undertaking all these multiple missions while still applying an appropriate economy of force.
Rather than employing its limited combat power in the most effective manner possible, using the right assets for specific jobs and wasting no effort on secondary objectives (the hallmarks of economy of force), the NATO political leadership directed its air force to attack a very wide range of targets. Because of its excessive fear of casualties, it then limited the air force's ability to use many of its air assets against targets they were specifically designed to hit. A-10 Warthogs, for instance, were used cautiously and apparently only in the relatively safe southern border areas during the final two weeks or so of the campaign. AH-64 Apache attack helicopters were not used at all. This failure to prioritise, and restriction on the use of certain assets resulted in a dissipation of strength and a consequent loss of effectiveness.
This lack of effectiveness was patently clear, particularly throughout April, when NATO's air strength was still weak. NATO failed to change Milosevic's behaviour. It did not slow or stop -- let alone prevent -- the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Kosovars. As early as 29 March this caused an embarrassed General Clark to claim, contrary to his earlier statements (and NATO's stated operation objective), that "we never thought we could stop this. You can't conduct police actions from the air in any country." A month later a more embarrassed
One cannot deny that NATO had substantially increased its overall air strength and mission rate by the beginning of June, but until at least early May its operation remained marred by a mismanaged economy of force. No wonder Colonel John Warden, principal architect of the Desert Storm air offensive, complained on 16 May: "the way the air war has been designed suggests it was a very bureaucratised, compartmentalised, and not very competent approach. The target list has clearly not been designed to have a systematic impact on the Serb forces ... This is very unprofessional on the part of the various political authorities."37
Warden's claim, although doubtless self-serving, is clearly substantiated by even the most cursory observation. Yet the air campaign -- despite suffering from political idealism and unrealistic expectations, and consequently violating many of the basic principles of war -- did eventually lead to the Yugoslavian government's decision to accept a generally unfavourable compromise. This fact should not be downplayed. It means that, at least on some levels, John Keegan seems justified in claiming that "the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by air power alone."38 Those who doubt this, he added, "are wrong. This was a victory through air power."
This is a bold statement from someone with Keegan's grand reputation. It carries weight and will doubtless relieve the many airpower theorists and practitioners who had worried, right up until Milosevic's sudden and unexpected capitulation on 6 June. that Operation Allied Force was not progressing well and might even tarnish the gleam of Gulf War accomplishments. But is Keegan right? Was this an effective and successful air campaign, and was it the only reason the Yugoslavian leadership capitulated? Answering these questions necessitates first a critique of the campaign, and then an analysis of the other factors that may have contributed to NATO's eventual "victory".
The Air Campaign Dissected
As noted, NATO commenced Operation Allied Force believing it would be a short, sharp coercive action similar in scale and nature to Operation Desert Fox. It consequently did not dedicate a war-size force to the operation. Instead it utilised the air units already stationed in
The first wave of attacks against Yugoslavia (and at that stage they were not just against Serbia) bore little resemblance to the massive initial blows against Iraq in 1991, which had involved 1,300 combat sorties on the opening night alone.40 Because of Operation Allied Force's emphatic "no losses" stipulation, attacks in the first couple of nights involved mostly ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and B-52H bombers launching their AGM-86C cruise missiles from up to 160 kilometres away from their targets.41 However, once NATO air commanders felt confident these missions had damaged Serbia's integrated air defence system enough, they began introducing increasingly more strike aircraft. By 27 March those aircraft were attacking a wide range of targets, mostly with PGMs, but because of their very small number their efforts were dissipated and their results only mediocre.
Throughout the first week, NATO aircraft flew an average of only 48 strike sorties per day, and even though their efforts benefited from a host of support aircraft -- including AWACS42, JSTARS43, and C130s equipped for jamming and communications relay -- their impact was nowhere near strong enough to disrupt significantly, let alone disable, the Serbian political and military command and control systems. (During the first week of Desert Storm, to offer a comparison, allied air forces flew more than 1,000 combat missions per day.44)
NATO's failure to amass adequate air assets was certainly the main reason for the operation's slow initial progress, but it was not the only reason. Despite their sophisticated electronics, NATO aircraft proved unable to defeat airpower's greatest and most constant foe: inclement weather.45 On 30 March, Vice Admiral Fry explained to assembled journalists the impact of the typically bad Balkans weather on the operation: "On night one ... we were able to complete every mission without the impact of weather. But as the operation has continued, the weather has got more difficult with each succeeding night, and we have had instances where sorties were unable to complete their missions in their target areas because they were weathered out."46
Bad weather actually plagued the entire first month of Operation Allied Force, inhibiting reconnaissance (both satellite and aircraft47) and reducing the number of strike missions with laser-guided weapons, which need acceptable visibility for lock-on. This prompted Secretary of Defense Cohen to complain (albeit with some exaggeration) on May 11: "We've had only, let's say, a half dozen days when we have not had to pull our forces, the air missions, back. We've had day after day or night after night when various flights of combat aircraft have had to turn around and come back because they couldn't penetrate the weather."48 Perhaps to justify the lack of results to date, Cohen then compared this situation to the Gulf War, when allied aircraft operated with "clear" visibility over flat terrain. Yet Cohen is wrong; bad weather had also seriously handicapped allied operations in the Gulf, prompting Richard Hallion, the USAF Historian, to later write: "about half of all sorties to
Inclement weather may go at least part way to explaining why the daily mission average of strike aircraft throughout Operation Allied Force's entire first month totalled a mere 92 missions.50 The weather not only tested pilots' flying skills; it also made targeting very difficult. Even the much-touted Laser-Guided Bombs (LGBs) need fairly cloud-free conditions to work properly, a fact that contributed to the surprisingly low rate of target destruction in the first weeks.
Bad weather, coupled with a constant fear of Serbian SAMs and AAA fire, also explains why NATO initially relied so heavily on sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which were less affected by weather than even NATO's most sophisticated and supposedly all-weather piloted aircraft. In fact, by late-April, after a month of bombing, NATO began running low on both sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. Discussing "current shortages", General Richard Hawley of the USAF Air Combat Command noted on 29 April that NATO had to be "very judicious" in its use of Tomahawks because "there aren't many left."51 No official figures for the total number of Tomahawks used during Operation Allied Force have yet been released, but one can safely conclude the number was greater than either the 288 fired during Operation Desert Storm or the staggering 415 used during Operation Desert Fox.53
For the entire first month, the excessively rigid rules of engagement that evolved from the "no casualties or collateral damage" dictum also inhibited the ability of aircrews to inflict truly punishing damage on many troublesome Serbian targets, especially the mobile components of the nation's air defence system.
Because of the nagging fear of Serbian SAMs and AAA, pilots were seldom permitted to fly lower than 15,000 feet, which prevented most "missions of opportunity" (attacks based on pilot discretion after the sighting of unexpected targets). Pilots were also expressly forbidden from releasing bombs on any targets that could not be confirmed 100 per cent or that risked even a remote chance of civilian targets.54 Some pilots ignored this limitation, occasionally with predictable and well-publicised disastrous results.
The consequent slow progress bothered many NATO airmen, who felt frustrated that, although they were flying the most modern aircraft and dropping the most precise bombs ever made, they were functioning far less effectively than they had anticipated. At one briefing session in
Short was right; they were working on it. Acutely aware that Operation Allied Force was making slow progress, NATO's political leaders succumbed to pressure from their military colleagues and, after the NATO Summit in Washington from 23 to 25 April, permitted significant changes to the way the war could be prosecuted.56 As a result, by the beginning of May NATO had not only increased the strength of its air force two-fold (to over 700 aircraft, 400 of them strike-capable) and its daily strike mission rate three-fold (to over 300, a figure matched by non-strike air missions), but had also relaxed the rules of engagement (with targets of opportunity reaching ten per cent of the daily total).57
The air campaign immediately "changed gear" and began to inflict heavy punishment on
Keegan's description is accurate; NATO unleashed a veritable torrent of steel on
Attacks on electric power transformers, petroleum refineries and storage facilities had occurred sporadically since Operation Allied Force commenced on 24 March, but with mediocre results. Several transformers were destroyed, along with two petroleum refineries, and by mid-April General Clark was able to report that 70 percent of
Electricity generation and transformation suffered worse. On 2 May, for example, NATO aircraft conducted simultaneous attacks on five transformer stations and succeeded in blacking out over 70 percent of the population.60 They accomplished this using special "soft bombs" (carbon pellets or graphite strands that short-circuited electrical systems) designed to shut off power without excessive permanent damage to the transformers themselves. After this blackout, the first of many throughout the remaining weeks of Allied Force, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon explained that it would "confuse their [the Serbians'] command and control system; it diverts resources that might otherwise go into running the command and control system; it disorients and confuses their computers by shutting them off quickly."61 It would have a "major impact" on Serbian resistance, he concluded. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea agreed, boasting that the blackout sent the Milosevic regime a clear message that NATO "has its finger on the light switch. ... We can turn the power off whenever we want to."62
The destruction of
This had been the basic principle underpinning Operation Desert Storm. A nation is a "system", Warden had maintained, which has centres of gravity of varying importance.64 He depicted these centres of gravity as five concentric rings, with national command and control (which he also called "leadership") being the core. Moving outwards in terms of importance were these rings: key production ("systems essentials"); infrastructure; national will; and fielded military forces. One could ignore no centre of gravity, but should apply strongest force against the central core whilst applying successively less force to each of the other rings, so that fielded forces -- considered most important according to traditional doctrines -- receives least priority. Warden had also argued that all target rings should be struck simultaneously (that is, in "parallel"), rather than one after another.
Warden's philosophy formed the conceptual basis of the Gulf War air campaign, a massive parallel operation that placed greatest priority on paralysing
This, it seems, was clearly what General Short and his air planners wanted to achieve against
By 4 June, General Michael Ryan, the USAF Chief of Staff, was able to claim: "
The air campaign worked. By late May, after weeks of heavy, simultaneous attacks on virtually every essential component of national function, Slobodan Milosevic realised his country could take no further punishment. It was being bombed, to use a cliche, "back into the stone age." Milosevic began looking for a way out. Viktor Chernomyrdin, special Russian envoy to the Balkans, noticed the change as early as 19 May, when Milosevic seemed unusually attentive, lacking in bellicosity and defiance, and willing to consider options.66 By early June Milosevic felt unable to delay the inevitable and signalled that he was ready to accept the G8's terms of peace that Chernomyrdin and Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari were firmly insisting on. With
A Victory for Airpower Alone?
So, then, Operation Allied Force started poorly, but, after a major shift of focus and intensity at about its halfway point, ended well; as a large parallel campaign against Serbia's centres of gravity. But does even that second period represent a victory for airpower? Has airpower won its first war by itself? The answer can only come after two other factors are analysed: the role of naval and ground forces, and the impact of diplomacy on Milosevic's decision to accept terms of peace.
Airpower certainly dominated Operation Allied Force, and, even given the pathetic first month and the series of dreadful accidents, some of which almost prompted international escalation, the air offensive did turn out to be (to quote William Cohen's speech of 11 June) the "most precise application of air power in history".67 During 40,000 strike, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and support sorties throughout the 78 days, NATO hit Serbia with no fewer than 23,000 bombs and missiles, yet only 20 went astray and caused unfortunate accidents. More than one third of the munitions used were precision-guided, said Cohen, and the rest were "precisely dropped". Even more importantly, he added, "We flew for 78 days with no fatalities and only two planes lost."
Yet Operation Allied Force, despite its airpower dominance, was not actually an airpower-only effort. It also involved American and allied naval and ground forces, and these contributed to the eventual "victory". And even if we are generous we have to call it a pyrrhic victory for the American leaders and other NATO politicians. They hoped for a short, coercive air campaign and found themselves in a destructive war that marked a significant departure from classic international legality, cost far too much, frequently risked escalation, seemed accident-prone, certainly went on far too long, and never achieved all the initial objectives. Even President Clinton acknowledged the contribution of naval and ground forces, noting on 11 June: "I know the Air Force is grateful for the radar jamming provided by Navy and Marine aircraft, the Navy [Tomahawk] cruise missiles fired from ships in the
Seapower assets also served as critically important platforms for airpower assets, noted Murphy. His Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) was "central" to NATO's ability to identify and destroy Serbian air defence installations. Navy F-1 8s and EA-6Bs "fired 147 HARM [anti-radar] missiles, or 47 percent of all HARMs fired by US forces. CVW-8 F-14s provided laser guidance to targets for US Air Force A-1 Os." His F-14s also served as forward air controllers and were airborne for approximately 50 percent of all close air support missions. More importantly, Murphy said, his carrier-borne aircraft had conducted over 3,100 strike missions, or more than 15 percent of NATO's total.
Murphy added that NATO's ability to conclude hostilities was only possible because it had a ground force capable of entering Kosovo as peace-keepers. Many of the troops, including marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, came by naval transport. And naval forces would also bring in some of their urgently needed reinforcements, as well as their vast logistical requirements.
Ground forces had also played a key role throughout Operation Allied Force. In particular, NATO troops in
It is still too early to detail the activities of special forces, although their presence in the Balkans was confirmed by the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as early as mid-April."71 "Armed" with laser designators, they were almost certainly deployed in Kosovo to help NATO pilots select targets and direct laser-guided bombs through thick clouds (as they did in
One also cannot ignore the importance of diplomacy when analysing the cessation of hostilities, even though it is currently difficult, until further sources appear in coming months, to reveal the precise goings-on at meetings between Milosevic, Chernomyrdin and Ahtisaari.72 What does seem clear, however, is that Milosevic, with his nation's infrastructure wrecked almost to the point where a humanitarian catastrophe might cause chaos and widespread misery, also felt deserted by his closest political allies: the Russians. By late May Chernomyrdin was essentially presenting him with an ultimatum: embrace the G8 plan without delay, or forget any further support from
Milosevic, the master of Realpolitik, saw the writing on the wall. Considering the G8 plan far more acceptable than NATO's five-point plan (based on the "accursed" Rambouillet accords), he decided not to prolong the war. He accepted the G8 plan, and was thus able to claim -- accurately -- that
To offer some concluding remarks, then, it seems clear, even from the fragmentary evidence available to date, that one can form some accurate early impressions of NATO's failures and successes. Operation Allied Force started very poorly indeed, mainly due to the
It was clear after a month that Operation Allied Force was failing, and something had to be done. And it was; at the NATO Summit in Washington the alliance's military leaders insisted to their political masters on a radical change in the war's prosecution. They gained their wish, and were finally able to intensify their offensive. They benefited from far more air assets, less constrained rules of engagement, and a more consistent and carefully constructed target prioritisation list. This package ushered in a "new" offensive; a parallel operation a la Warden's rings. It worked. Throughout the final five or six weeks, NATO aircraft systematically targeted Serbia's centres of gravity, effectively paralysing the nation. Unable to tolerate further destruction, and suddenly aware of his total political isolation, Milosevic agreed to compromise. War ended (at least it has for now).
Suggesting that airpower did not win this war would be more than ungenerous; it would be wrong. Airpower did win NATO's war in the Balkans. After all, the crushing weight of airpower applied throughout May and early June forced Milosevic to abandon hopes of holding out indefinitely, or even for several more months. Once he realised in early June that Russia had lost patience, and would not intervene to stop the nation-wrecking bombing, he threw in the towel, accepting what he considered a compromise (and what NATO called a capitulation).
However, one should resist sharing the euphoria of uncritical airpower advocates. Airpower certainly won the war, but not alone. Naval and ground forces contributed significantly both to Operation Allied Force and to NATO's ability to implement a cease-fire settlement. This must not be overlooked. And the role of Chernomyrdin's diplomacy, which certainly shortened the war and made that cease-fire possible, should not be downplayed. Milosevic may well have held out longer had he thought the Russians would eventually intervene.
One should also note that airpower still has major limitations. Even the world's most technologically sophisticated aircraft and weapons systems frequently proved no match for Mother Nature. The Gulf War had revealed the decisive impact of weather on air (and even space) power, prompting frantic efforts to devise all-weather technology. This war in the Balkans reveals that scientists and technicians still have far to go.
The technocrats will also doubtless be busy trying to improve weapon precision. Even though Operation Allied Force was, as Cohen claimed, the most precise application of airpower in history, it still involved a series of dreadful accidents that included wiping out a civilian refugee convoy, scattering cluster bombs in a busy market place, wrecking a full passenger train, and destroying the Chinese embassy. At times, these horrific events threatened not only to undermine the much-proclaimed morality underpinning NATO's intervention in Kosovo, but also to escalate the conflict. This reveals the inherent problem with "smart" weapon technology. It raises public expectation that air attacks will cause no civilian casualties. In fact, as weapons becoming increasingly precise, public disgust at any accidents becomes correspondingly stronger.
And what of tactical airpower? Throughout Operation Allied Force very few aircraft and no helicopters engaged in air-to-air combat. More importantly, they conducted relatively few attacks on Serbian troops, armour, vehicles and guns. Terrified of the inevitable casualties, which are no longer politically acceptable, NATO air planners kept all air assets that needed to go low and slow (especiallyA-10s and helicopters) safely out of the combat zone. They feared them becoming "MANPAD magnets", a reference to the acronym for the Man-Portable Air Defense Systems that
One can argue, of course, that NATO airpower had pinned down, cut off and immobilised those forces, rendering their existence irrelevant and their destruction unnecessary. That view is consistent with much of the theorising in today's attrition-shy military environment, which insists the Clausewitzian emphasis on Vernichtung (physical destruction) is anachronistic. The new logic says: if one successfully disrupts and dislocates an opponent, one need not destroy him.
That might be acceptable logic in a context where large civilian populations are not involved, but when enemy forces are continuing to terrorise and drive out hundreds of thousands of civilians, the destruction of the enemy should take on more of a priority. Yet in this case NATO's gripping fear of aircrew casualties from low altitude flying left its airpower unable to prevent, stop or even slow the terrorisation of the Kosovar population. This has doubtless been a harsh lesson for many NATO leaders to learn.
Another bitter pill for NATO leaders to swallow relates to airpower's supposedly ideal attributes as a means of coercion. Operation Allied Force failed hopelessly as a coercive effort, ending Clinton's run of good luck with these types of things. He will doubtless think twice before threatening another misbehaving nation with air strikes, at least before he puts in place the Powell-ish policy that the use of military force (if threats fail) should be overwhelming and decisive.
This does not mean that Clinton or his successors will shy away from using airpower for coercive purposes. That's highly unlikely, given the United States' self-perception as the world's policeman as well as the remarkable fact that NATO won its "victory" without the loss of a single life. This, however, sets a dangerous precedent and will certainly result in a frightening misconception about the nature of modern warfare. No, the mixed successes of this campaign will mean that American leaders will simply try to do it "better" next time, avoiding the creeping goals, gradualism and political micro-management that almost ruined and certainly prolonged this unfortunate war in the Balkans.
1. The "Group of Eight" is the seven most industrialised nations (the "G7"), plus the
1. The "Group of Eight" is the seven most industrialised nations (the "G7"), plus the
2. Daniel Byman and Matthew Waxman, "Defeating US Coercion", Survival, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 107-120.
3. Tim Judah, “Kosovo’s Road to War”, Survival, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 1999), p. 13.
5. Television Broadcast, PBS "Newshour",
6. Rep. Tom DeLay, House Majority Whip, floor statement,
7. Floor statement,
8. These events are chronicled in many books. A good starting point is Steve Yetiv's The Persian Gulf Crisis (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1997).
9. "The Gulf War, 1991", in F.D. Margiotta, ed., Brassey's Encyclopaedia of Military History and Biography (Washington, DC: Brassey's, 1994), p.405.
10. FM 100-5: Operations (1993), p. 2-4.
11. Air Force Basic Doctrine Document 1 (1997), pp. 11-21.
12. Cf. The Army Field Manual, Volume 1: The Fundamentals. Part 1: The Application of Force (British Army, 1985), pp. 33-38; The Fundamentals of Land Warfare (Australian Army, 1993), pp. 24-30.
13. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Department of Defense Briefing,
14. President Clinton's Address to the Nation,
15. A clear explanation of the various types or degrees of military action can be found in the document cited in note 11, pp. 7-9.
16. John Tirpak, "The First Six Weeks", [US] Air Force Magazine, Vol. 82, No. 6 (June 1999).
17. Royal Australian Air Force.
18. DI(AF) AAP 1000 The Air Power Manual (2nd Edition)
19. John T. Correll, "Assumptions Fall in Kosovo", Air Force Magazine, Vol. 82, No. 6 (June 1999), p. 3.
20. Javier Solana, NATO Briefing,
21. Associated Press,
22. Major General Charles Link, USAF (Rtd.), National Journal,
24. Address by General Colin Powell (Rtd.), National Press Club,
25. Ibid.; also see Powell's comments in Time,
27. Air Force Basic Doctrine Document 1 (1997), p. 20.
29. High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile.
30. Tirpak, "The First Six Weeks".
31. United States Department of Defense media briefing by Vice Admiral Scott A. Fry, Joint Staff Director of Operations and Rear Admiral Thomas R. Wilson, Joint Staff Director of Intelligence,
32. Calculated from figures presented in "Chronology: Kosovo War Diary", Air International, Vol. 56, No. 5 (May 1999), pp. 259-265.
33. Cf. the internet homepage of Allied Forces Southern Europe <http://www.afsouth.NATO.int/detforce/ force.htm>.
35. General Clark, Press Interview, CNN,
36. General Clark, NATO Briefing, CNN,
37. Colonel John Warden, USAF (Ret.),
38. John Keegan, "Please Mr Blair, Never Take Such A Risk Again", Daily Telegraph,
39. See note 11 above; Air Forces Monthly, No. 134 ( 1999), p. 4.
40. Richard Hallion, Storm over
41. American Forces Press Service News Release by Linda M. Kozaryn,
42. Airborne Warning and Control System.
43. Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
44. Mark Grossman, Encyclopedia of the Persian Gulf War (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1995), p. 411; Jeffrey McCausland, The Gulf Conflict: A Military Analysis IISS Adelphi Paper 282 (London: Brassey's, 1993), p. 24.
45. Nick Cook, "NATO Battles against the Elements", Jane's Defence Weekly,
46. United States Department of Defense media briefing by Vice Admiral Scott A. Fry, Joint Staff Director of Operations and Rear Admiral Thomas R. Wilson, Joint Staff Director of Intelligence, 30 March 1999.
47. "Operation Allied Force", Air International, Vol. 56, No. 5 (May 1999), p. 258.
48. William Cohen, Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, 11 May 1999.
49. Hallion, Storm over Iraq, p. 177.
50. Tirpak, "The First Six Weeks"; Navy News Service Report by Dennis L. Everette, 10 June 1999.
51. General Richard Hawley, ACC Commander, Statement to Defense Writers Group, 29 April 1999.
52. Hallion, Storm over lraq, p. 298. Grossman's Encyclopedia of the Persian Gulf War puts the figure at 298 (p. 278).
53. General Hugh Shelton, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense Press Conference, 25 December 1998; Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet, Online News Release, 21 December 1998.
54. Major General Charles Wald, Department of Defense Briefing, 14 April 1999.
55. Washington Post, 16 May 1999.
56. Kenneth Bacon, Department of Defense Press Conference, 3 May 1999. General Michael Ryan, USAF Chief of Staff, Washington Post, 4 June 1999.
57. Tirpak, "The First Six Weeks"; Kenneth Bacon, Department of Defense Press Conference, 1 May 1999.
58. John Keegan, "Please Mr Blair, Never Take Such A Risk Again", Daily Telegraph, 6 June 1999.
59. American Forces Press Service News Release by Jim Garamone, 14 April 1999.
60. Tirpak, "The First Six Weeks".
61. Kenneth Bacon, Department of Defense Press Conference, 3 May 1999.
62. NATO Briefing, 3 May 1999.
63. Time, 17 May 1999, p. 32.
64. John Warden II, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat (New York: to Excel, 1998. First published 1988).
65. Washington Post, 4 June 1999.
66. Time, 14 June 1999.
67. American Forces Press Service News Release by Linda M. Kozaryn, 11 June 1999.
69. "Chronology: Kosovo War Diary", Air International, Vol. 56, No. 5 (May 1999), pp. 260 ff.
70. Navy News Service Report by Dennis L. Everette, 10 June 1999.
71. "Special Forces Involvement Confirmed", Jane's Defence Weekly, 21 April 1999, p. 4.
72. Time, 14 June 1999 issue offers an interesting glimpse into this fascinating period of "negotiations". The Stratfor.com Global Intelligence Centre has a "Kosovo Crisis Centre" that also contains insightful material on these issues. http://www.stratfor.com/crisis/kosovo/default2.htm?section=3.