U.S. pilots think NATO land assault is inevitable

Many feel frustrated airstrikes have done little to help refugees

April 06, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Pilots of the Air Force's 31st Fighter Wing are frustrated that their hammering of Yugoslav army positions has done little to stop President Slobodan Milosevic's expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

The American pilots, along with the support teams that surround them, seem convinced that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will inevitably need to send in troops to stop Milosevic and secure peace.

"We will have to execute an air campaign effectively so as to allow ground troops to go in, in a contained way. We have to limit their risk on the ground. But I think ultimately they will have to go in to enforce the peace on the ground. It's the only way," said one F-15E pilot with the 494th Fighter Squadron.

`Don't let it get to me'

Shouting over the roar of the engines, the 33-year-old captain, who comes from Brooklyn and is known by his call name "Chili," said it was "very difficult" to watch television images of tens of thousands of refugees streaming out of Kosovo every day after finishing a night of heavy bombing.

"I don't let it get to me," he said. "I can't. We have to keep our pace, our focus, and our patience." (Air base officials allowed pilots to be interviewed only if their full names were not published.)

The same sentiments were echoed across the base.

"You need ground troops. You can't do it from the air. History proves that," said Senior Airman George Tharpe, 25, of the 555th Fighter Squadron.

A Marine major who pilots an EA-6B radar-jamming plane agreed that air power without the use of ground troops would ultimately be futile.

"To claim control, you have to use air and ground forces in combination," the pilot said, shoveling down dinner as he and other pilots on "alert status" braced for another evening of airstrikes.

Unlike the Persian Gulf war, in which the 38-year-old major also fought, the Yugoslav conflict doesn't seem to have an overall strategy, he said. "We'd like to see an endgame, and right now we don't," he said.

More refugees, despite raids

The air crews said it is difficult to see a seemingly endless stream of refugees pouring out of Kosovo despite their bombing raids. Sometimes, they said, it seemed that Milosevic was winning the war.

Set in Northern Italy's patchwork of fields and freshly plowed farmland, the base tries to provide ways to deal with that strain.

A cluster of buildings called the "morale center" houses a state-of-the-art workout facility and a bank of computers for sending e-mail, as well as phones that allow servicemen and women to communicate easily with families back home. One booth provides video teleconferencing so air crews and their families can see each other.

At the moment, Aviano holds 2,000 personnel and 150 aircraft. The base is the size of a small American town, with a nine-hole golf course, three baseball diamonds, a television news station, two radio stations and a daily newspaper.

A tent city has been built to house the several hundred added personnel who have come from other European bases to assist in the operation. The air crews were debating their mission, amid the smoke of barbecues grilling hot dogs and the blaring sound of rap music,

At a "hooch," or makeshift pub set up in one of the tents, a group of airmen were drinking beer, eating pork rinds, and voicing their opinions on the conflict.

"I think everyone agrees you need ground troops, but I say, let Europe handle it. This is their back yard. Why should we risk American lives?" asked a master sergeant from Mississippi.

But a staff sergeant from Tennessee replied:

"I think they should just let us do it. We are the policemen of the world, and that comes with risks. But the point is to stop playing the political games and let us get our job done. Let us just do it."

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