Airdrops Won't Work


March 02, 1993|By DAVID HACKWORTH

During his presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton talked about lifting the U.N. arms embargo on Bosnia and using U.S. air power against Serbian positions. Now, Commander-in-Chief Clinton has ordered U.S. aircraft to airdrop humanitarian supplies into eastern Bosnia.

All three positions tell me that he and his fellow Rhodes Scholar advisers don't know much about military operations, which is understandable, because getting into war was not a 1960s Oxford hot subject.

First reports are that the airdrop of supplies that began Sunday over the rugged Bosnian terrain went safely, but that the supplies did not reach their targets. That is not surprising. Airdrops are the least efficient way to bring in supplies. Retired Army Col. Art Lombardi, a three-war paratrooper, says, ''It's a bad way of doing things. Always has been. It didn't work in Luzon in '45 or with the Kurds in '92.''

Parachuting in supplies to more than a few folks on the ground is like trying to feed a herd of cows with an eye dropper. It would be cheaper and more cost-effective to air-express the desperately needed food and medical supplies. Aerial delivery is far from bull's-eye accurate, is mind-blowingly expensive in air items (parachutes and containers) and is very dangerous for the people at the receiving end and for those doing the dropping.

In the Balkan terrain, aircraft flying low, slow and on a steady course offer an easy target to ground gunners. Since the decision has been made not to provide fighter protection for the planes, they must fly higher, scattering food and medical supplies across a wider area. Should a crew get shot down, helicopter teams would have to try to extract the downed fliers. Forces would be needed on the ground to secure the chopper people and distribute the drops, and before you could say ''Westmoreland,'' America would be hip deep in the Balkan swamp.

More guns for the Bosnian defenders aren't the answer either. Guns and hardware don't make an army. Trained soldiers, led by competent leaders, fighting for a just cause win wars. The Vietnam War proved that. For 25 years, the United States poured tens of billions of dollars in military gear into that blood-spattered land. In the end, our client was whipped by an opponent that was light on gear but heavy on guts and fighting spirit.

Iraq had $50 billion in modern military toys. Yet, during Desert Storm, the Iraqis couldn't get their million-man army, 5,000 tanks and 800 aircraft to the scrimmage line.

Instant armies just don't happen in today's age of smart weapons. Building a modern force is not like baking a cake. You can't just open a box, pour out the contents and mix. It takes years to mold a cadre of generals, captains, sergeants and technicians to run the complex business of fighting wars. And it takes at least a year after their recruits learn to shoot and salute to train them to be tank gunners, artillery specialists or chopper pilots. Once the soldiers have completed this specialist training, they next must train together in units for at least a year to become a smooth, functioning combat arms team.

It took the U.S. Army more than 10 years to get it together after its Vietnam disaster. Remember the fumbling during Desert One in 1980 and Grenada in 1983? Gen. Jabbar al Sabah, chief of the Kuwaiti military, whose forces were destroyed during Iraq's invasion of his country, recently told me when I visited Kuwait that it will take 10 years before Kuwait will field competent armed forces.

What I saw in Bosnia were Rambo characters with automatic weapons and headbands and incompetent commanders who were not technically nor tactically capable of using modern fighting gear. None of them knew beans about what it took to build a modern army. I'd judge that the Bosnian army's trained cadre, skill level and leadership is light years from what General Jabbar is fine-tuning into a fighting force.

Giving foreign countries military gear doesn't mean they open the crates and drive off. Equipment comes with trainers and technicians. In Vietnam, we couldn't get out and cut our losses in 1965 because we had committed U.S. trainers and advisers who became irrevocably stuck there. So we dispatched 500,000 more troops.

The answer in the Balkans is not U.S. involvement -- not even in the form of the 75,000-man peacekeeping force reportedly being considered by President Clinton. Forty-seven years ago, I first dodged Yugoslav bullets, and I zigged and zagged from some more just last autumn. These fierce people will continue their fight for 100 years or until all the survivors are dead.

The best answer is to make the arms blockade work. Once the combatants are out of bombs and bullets, they'll go back to stones and spears. The killing will not go away, but at least the living will live longer.

Here are some words to be hung in Commander-in-Chief Clinton's White House War Room: Bosnia is not doable, Stupid.

David Hackworth, the nation's most decorated living military veteran, wrote this column for Newsweek.

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