WASHINGTON -- Despite four weeks of bombardment, Yugoslavia's air-defense system in Kosovo is still largely intact, hampering NATO operations and limiting the usefulness of the Apache helicopters that have begun arriving in Albania to escalate attacks on Serbian ground forces.
With the Yugoslavs holding air-defense weapons in reserve for later use, the tank-busting Apaches -- meant to target the forces that are terrorizing Kosovo's ethnic Albanians -- may not be sent into battle for days or even weeks because of the continuing risk to low-flying craft.
"The risk is still very much there," one U.S. defense official said. The Apache "is not a silver bullet."
Added Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and administration ally who was briefed last weekend in Europe by NATO commanders: "Do not expect substantial results from the Apache for quite some time."
The air defenses have been a top NATO target since the air campaign began, and alliance officials say they have made substantial progress in some areas.
But Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has opted not to use his defense weaponry to the utmost, making it harder for allied planes to find and target his equipment. This approach contrasts with that used by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who aggressively responded to allied air attacks during the 1991 Persian Gulf war but lost most of his defenses in the process.
The Yugoslavs have managed to shoot down only one allied plane -- an F-117 stealth fighter March 28 -- but have preserved the threat posed by a potent anti-aircraft system.
Allied officials say their airstrikes have managed to bash command posts and sever communications links between air-defense radars and missiles, so that they no longer function as an integrated system. And, using radar-jamming planes, especially the EA-6B Prowler, NATO has been able to temporarily disable air-defense radars so that warplanes can fly through any part of the province.
Yet after more than 7,000 sorties, NATO planes and missiles have destroyed only five air-defense facilities and inflicted "severe damage" on an additional four, NATO says. They have inflicted "moderate" damage on 21 more, a designation that means they may still be operational.
NATO aircraft are vulnerable in several other ways.
They can still be hit at low altitudes by anti-aircraft artillery and by shoulder-mounted heat-seeking missiles.
At higher altitudes, the planes may have at least some vulnerability to the mobile SA-3 and SA-6 surface-to-air missiles.
Pentagon officials have said the Serbs have been firing SA-3 and SA-6 missile batteries "ballistically" -- without radar guidance. Used this way, they are not highly effective.
But Yugoslavia's military communications system was built to include extra communications lines. It is possible, say experts, that the Serbs have been able to provide some tracking data to the missile batteries.
This would be bad news for the Apache, which swoops along the terrain at speeds of only 150 mph, at altitudes of several hundred feet or less.
In an operation like this, the helicopter will hover behind hilltops, out of sight, until mobile rocket batteries have sprayed the terrain ahead with cluster bombs to clear away any threat before it comes into view. The Apache gained a reputation in the gulf war as a tank killer, and it can fire rockets from a distance of three miles.
Even so, defense officials acknowledge that Apaches can be downed with even a heavy-caliber machine gun.
The Kosovo terrain poses special risks: Yugoslav troops and security police are dispersed to the point that there are no real battle lines. Concealed under trees and in rough terrain, they may be able to shoot at passing Apaches with impunity.
Pub Date: 4/23/99