WASHINGTON -- An allied attack on Serbia would begin with a barrage of sea-launched cruise missiles aimed at destroying the sophisticated air defenses that pepper the country's craggy hills, Pentagon and NATO officials say.
The missiles, each armed with a 1,000-pound warhead, are to pave the way for attacks by hundreds of NATO warplanes. Even so, officials expect casualties because of the anti-aircraft system, which is far more advanced than the ones encountered in the NATO bombing campaign in Bosnia in 1995 or in the continuing raids over the Iraqi no-fly zones.
To cripple the system, allied warships in the Adriatic Sea would unleash hundreds of missiles, possibly followed by attacks by B-52 bombers firing cruise missiles carrying 2,000- and 3,000-pound warheads.
100 SAM sites
President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia has amassed an impressive array of 1,850 anti-aircraft artillery pieces and more than 100 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites concealed in Serbia's forested and mountainous terrain, which resembles West Virginia's.
Serbia's terrain would be far more dangerous than the "tabletop" desert of Iraq, where air defenses can easily be spotted and destroyed. No allied planes have been hit in the patrols of the Iraqi no-fly zones.
"You can hide [artillery and missiles] behind a hill and stick an antenna up," said a NATO official, explaining that even powerful cruise missiles will be hard-pressed to destroy Serbian anti-aircraft sites that have been dug in.
Moreover, Milosevic has put together heavier concentrations of air defenses than has Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Air Force chief's warning
Consequently, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, has warned lawmakers to expect casualties among U.S. pilots.
"There is a distinct possibility we will lose aircraft in trying to penetrate those defenses," Ryan told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "This is a very substantive air-defense capability."
A Soviet-made surface-to-air missile brought down the F-16 piloted by Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady over Bosnia in 1995. Several days later, O'Grady was recovered in a helicopter rescue by U.S. Marines.
Despite such sophisticated weaponry, no casualties occurred in the Bosnia bombing campaign, which some say convinced Milosovic to enter talks that led to the Dayton peace accord.
Ryan said the Yugoslav defenses are "more modern, put together in a better way, strung together in-depth" than the ones faced by allied pilots in neighboring Bosnia.
The heavier striking power of the B-52s could be used to whittle away at Serbian air defenses, said the NATO official. The B-52s can launch their armaments 1,500 miles from their targets, with a jet engine propelling the missile at nearly the speed of sound.
More radar jamming planes
In addition, the Pentagon last weekend ordered three more radar-jamming planes, the EA-6B Prowler, into the region. Those planes can blind a radar site with an electronic pulse or destroy it with a missile.
After attacking air defenses, the allies would turn to Serbia's command-and-control centers, hoping to knock out the ability of commanders to communicate with troops in the field.
Military planners might temporarily halt the bombing after the cruise missile strikes to see if Milosevic has changed his mind about not signing Kosovo peace settlement, military officials say.
Should the Yugoslav leader balk, the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's policy-making body, yesterday authorized Javier Solana, the NATO secretary-general, to widen the range of bombing targets. Precise details weren't known.
NATO has more than 400 aircraft -- including 200 U.S. planes -- ready to take part in sustained attacks on sites in Serbia and its separatist province, Kosovo. Among the U.S. force, mostly based at Aviano, Italy, are F-117 radar-evading stealth fighters, F-15 and F-16 fighter/bombers, as well as A-10 ground-attack aircraft.
The allied planes would seek to destroy what officials say are targets "dear to Milosevic" -- including tanks and other armor as well as police and troop emplacements. "Things that would make him feel pain," the NATO official said.
Yugoslavia has 1,270 tanks and 825 armored vehicles, as well as 241 aircraft and 48 attack helicopters, along with an active military of 114,000 soldiers.
Still, Pentagon planners noted that in addition to the terrain and the concentrated air defense sites, the cloudy and drizzly weather that often enshrouds Yugoslavia may pose another obstacle to an effective bombing campaign.
Pub Date: 3/23/99