Policy in Bosnia puts U.S. forces at disadvantage

June 11, 1995|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The downing of U.S. pilot Scott F. O'Grady's plane has exposed the twilight realm between war and peacekeeping in Bosnia, a shadowy, shifting zone posing unique risks to American and allied forces by restricting their ability to fight back.

Capt. O'Grady's F-16 fighter was shot down over what the U.S. Southern Europe commander, Adm. Leighton Smith, described as "enemy territory." Any doubt about the Bosnian Serbs' hostile intentions was dispelled by the Air Force pilot himself during a news conference yesterday as he described Serbian soldiers firing weapons around his hide-out.

"I thought maybe they saw something they thought was me and it wasn't. They were trying to kill me," he told reporters in Aviano, Italy.

But neither the United States nor its European allies act as though they are at war with the Bosnian Serbs. Instead, the West uses NATO's formidable air power to limit the fighting between the rebel Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government, and thereby prevent the Balkan war from spreading.

This ambiguous role has ignited debate on Capitol Hill reminiscent of the Vietnam era, when commanders complained hTC that they were forced to fight a war of limited objectives with artificially limited means.

During the Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1991, U.S. and allied aircraft launched pre-emptive strikes against Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and radar sites. And this, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday, is "the most dramatic way" to deal with threats to U.S. planes.

But Bosnia is different.

In Bosnia, the task officially is peacekeeping, not war-fighting. The purpose of the air patrols conducted by Captain O'Grady and his squadron-mates is to prevent the combatants from launching bombing raids.

Although Serbs were known to have sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry and had threatened NATO planes before, there has been no systematic effort to knock out the Serbs' air-defense system.

Captain O'Grady and other pilots have also been hampered by a shortage of protective equipment, an apparent intelligence failure and restrictive rules that limit retaliation.

The area that the pilot flew over June 2 had no history of having the SA-6 surface-to-air missiles used to shoot down his plane, top Pentagon officials told Congress last week. They stressed that NATO has a remarkable safety record in Bosnia, having flown some 69,000 sorties with only two aircraft shot down. But since the Serbian missiles are mobile even in rough terrain, NATO could not rule out their presence.

In Captain O'Grady's case, the mission's planners apparently misjudged. The two U.S. F-16s sent over Bosnia were not accompanied by support aircraft specially equipped to suppress enemy missiles and radar.

"We don't necessarily send suppression equipment just when we're doing an air patrol," said Nigel Branston, a spokesman for Allied Forces South, based in Italy.

"The problem was an intelligence failure that led to a planning failure," Lt. Gen. Wesley Clark, director of strategic planning and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House committee Thursday.

Neither Captain O'Grady's plane nor its partner aircraft was prepared to retaliate by knocking out the missile site, since the planes lacked the necessary missiles.

Asked if the two pilots had been sent into an operation "without the ability to respond to this kind of threat," he replied: "I think the statement of fact that you're making is correct."

The issue has already become part of domestic U.S. politics. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday that it was "inexcusable" that the American forces that rescued Captain O'Grady were ordered not to destroy a Serbian radar battery that tracked the rescue mission.

Mr. Gingrich, who was in New Hampshire, said he would have the House National Security Committee hold hearings on the incident and said the policy should be: "You turn on the radar, and we will kill it. And they will keep the radar off."

Although NATO pilots are allowed to fire in self-defense, the whole question of retaliation has become a difficult subject for NATO. Even after one or more missiles were fired at Captain O'Grady's plane, the plane flying alongside him might not have felt authorized to destroy the missile site unless his own plane were being targeted by radar, according to Mr. Branston at Allied Forces South.

"Everyone feels they have to exercise more caution than they would like," he said. Even since the shoot down, senior military commanders have said they would need a "political decision" before targeting all the Serbian missile sites.

Even with all the constraints Captain O'Grady faced, the senior Pentagon official said yesterday, there are still ways an F-16 pilot can evade an oncoming missile. The aircraft are equipped with their own jamming devices to prevent radar from locking on, as well as aluminum shavings that can be dropped to confuse radar.

"The mere fact that an SA-6 was fired is not unusual. What's unusual is that [the plane] was shot down," the official said.

Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said yesterday that he may send additional radar-jamming aircraft for use over Bosnia. The EF-111 jets send out electronic signals to jam air defense radars and were used in the gulf war against Iraq.

But that step may not be enough to quell a mounting furor in Congress that may affect any deeper U.S. commitment.

"If you're going to have them fly over territory where they have SAM missiles," said Sen. Hank Brown, a Colorado Republican. "I think it's irresponsible not to have acted to protect them."

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