U.S. bomber pilots and battalions in Germany quietly prepare for Balkans

May 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

FRANKFURT, Germany -- Quietly and with great misgivings, the U.S. military in Europe is training for the kinds of operations it could be called upon to perform in the Balkans.

Air Force fighter-bomber pilots at Ramstein Air Base have been practicing bombing and missile-firing runs against field guns at the Army's training range at Grafenwoehr in northern Bavaria, in case President Clinton orders them into action against Serbian nationalist military targets in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At the same range, two Army battalions have already gone through a training course for peacekeeping missions in a mythical Balkan-like country called "Danubia." The training includes simulation of how to deal with ethnic warfare, well-armed militias, civilians and newspaper and television crews on the battlefield.

Publicly, U.S. military commanders do not make the comparison to Bosnia.

"We're training for the whole spectrum of possible military operations, including low-intensity peacekeeping missions," said Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs. "If we were called upon, we would be ready."

But a score of other U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders in Germany and Belgium said last week that any kind of outside military intervention to try to stop the fighting in the Balkans would probably be messy and drawn out and possibly fraught with unwanted consequences.

"The level of hatred between the combatants in Northern Ireland is nothing like what there is in the former Yugoslavia," said a British officer. "A peacekeeping force that went in would quickly be seen as the enemy by everybody who was disappointed to find that it hadn't come in to be on their side."

Mr. Clinton said Friday he did not think U.S. ground forces should enter the conflict on behalf of any of the belligerents. But he said that despite allied opposition he still favored a partial lifting of the arms embargo on the Balkans to allow the Bosnian Muslims to arm themselves, and threatening the Serbs with air strikes if they interfered.

U.S. Air Force commanders at Ramstein said that even with Maverick air-to-ground missiles, isolated artillery pieces in thickly settled hilly terrain like that in Bosnia would be hard to hit. Pilots have to see the targets to guide the missiles, they say, or target positions have to be precisely known in advance.

They warn that unintended damage to civilian targets close to the guns would probably be great and that Serbian artillery and mortar fire would be hard to stop.

They said they had not been formally ordered to prepare contingency plans for such missions in Bosnia but did so out of prudence.

"We read the newspapers like everybody else," one said.

Plans for U.S. Army training for peacekeeping operations began in the middle of last year, according to a senior officer, after the Bosnian Serbs began the siege of Sarajevo.

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