U.N. chief poised to order air strike 65 NATO jets ready to assault Serbs

August 13, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With a single call to NATO headquarters, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali can set into motion an air assault against Bosnian Serb targets by the largest collection of allied military power in Europe since World War II.

About 65 North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes, more than 30 from the United States alone, were poised yesterday to launch air strikes of varying intensity in and around Sarajevo if Mr. Boutros-Ghali decides attacks are needed to loosen the Bosnian Serb stranglehold on the starving city.

"It's really only a political decision now," a NATO military officer in Europe said yesterday. "We've been ready for a mission of close air support [of U.N. peacekeeping troops] since the 22nd of July, and now we have in place all the means to take broader action if the strangulation of Sarajevo continues."

At their meeting in Belgium Monday, NATO ambassadors agreed to let Mr. Boutros-Ghali approve the first use of allied air power in Bosnia, giving him the virtual authority of a military commander in chief. They also agreed to give the senior U.N. commander in the Balkans, French Lt. Gen. Jean Cot, the right to review specific targets.

As Mr. Boutros-Ghali put it: "We can do it at any time if we want to."

If he gives the go-ahead to strike, NATO ambassadors intend to meet immediately to work out final details, including the hour of attack, according to U.S. military officials.

As U.N. officials got word to General Cot, orders would be sent by Gen. John M. Shalikashvili -- the supreme NATO commander and President Clinton's choice to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- to Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, who commands alliance forces in Southern Europe from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.

The NATO military plan submitted to the United Nations calls for an escalating series of air strikes that would respond to Serbian actions on the ground. This is distinct from another, more defensive mission already planned by NATO, which would send aircraft into Bosnia to protect U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian relief convoys from attack by Serbian tanks and artillery.

It remains unclear precisely what would compel Mr. Boutros-Ghali's decision to launch warplanes on either mission, but U.S. and NATO military officers tried to dissuade reporters yesterday from focusing too much attention on the pace of Serbian withdrawals from two strategically-placed peaks outside Sarajevo.

"The focus ought to be on the fact that they still need food in Sarajevo, electricity and water," said the NATO military officer, who observed that the situation was not improving. "The convoys that went in two days ago brought only about a third of a day's supply of food. It was gone in eight hours."

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher and other U.S. officials are now emphasizing that a Serbian retreat from the hilltops would not necessarily forestall NATO attacks.

"The real test is whether or not Sarajevo is going to be strangled by the Serbs," Mr. Christopher said in a television interview this week. "Just vacating those two mountains will not, by itself, nearly be enough."

"What we're looking at on a day-to-day basis, both the United States and NATO, is the activities that are going on on the ground," Navy Capt. Michael A. Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday.

If the mission authorized by Mr. Boutros-Ghali is the narrow one to protect U.N. troops and relief convoys, U.N. commanders would play a critical role in the chain of command by calling in air strikes against Serbian artillery pieces or other individual targets, such as mortars and tanks, U.S. and NATO officers said.

Forward air controllers from Britain, France and the Netherlands -- but none from the United States -- already are positioned with U.N. peacekeeping units, where they would use hand-held laser designators to pinpoint concealed or hard-to-hit targets and guide NATO aircraft in striking them with precision weapons. Some aircraft, including U.S. F/A-18Ds and A-6Es, have targeting capabilities that do not require the use of ground controllers.

These military "spotters" would send target data to both incoming aircraft and an air operations control center in Kiseljak, about 17 miles west of Sarajevo, where a U.N. commander would decide whether to order a strike through NATO air commanders.

The center, which keeps open communications links with a NATO command post in Vicenza, Italy, is operated mainly by British troops, but includes 13 U.S. military communications specialists and technicians, Captain Doubleday said.

If Mr. Boutros-Ghali decides on the broader action to stop the Bosnian siege of Sarajevo, the United Nations would play a lesser role in the command structure, a senior defense official said.

"You're looking at strategic targets with no significant U.N. involvement," said the official, who declined to be identified.

Forward air controllers also would not be critical in targeting, the NATO military official said.

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