Low fliers wage battle at treetop level

Yugoslavs take advantage of NATO's bombing focus

April 24, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- NATO's growing armada of warplanes dominates the skies over Yugoslavia, but only down to a few hundred feet off the ground.

Below that altitude, small but deadly Yugoslav helicopter gunships and ground-attack planes are waging a low-level, treetop air war, taking advantage of the hilly, wooded terrain, and NATO's focus on bombing armored forces, to terrorize ethnic Albanians and blast rebel fighters in Kosovo.

NATO officials say that effectively grounding Yugoslavia's low fliers would require diverting scores of planes that have already been criticized by some Air Force generals for not launching larger waves of bombing runs and hitting more targets.

Moreover, NATO jets would have to fly much lower to target the Yugoslav planes, putting allied pilots at greater risk from ground fire and surface-to-air missiles.

So while refugees streaming into Albania have reported strafings or bombings by low-flying green planes -- the signature color of most of Yugoslavia's aircraft -- NATO commanders say the threat does not justify altering the tactics of the allied air campaign.

"If they succeed in taking off, their mission has to be short, has to be of limited size and with limited scope," NATO military spokesman Brig. Gen. Giuseppe Marani of Italy said this week in dismissing the significance of Yugoslavia's air force.

Yugoslavia's Galeb and Super Galeb attack planes, and Gazelle and Hind attack helicopters, can take off and land quickly on remote landing strips, and cruise low enough to duck under the gaze of AWACS radar planes. They can also operate effectively under the same clouds and bad weather that have thwarted scores of NATO warplanes flying above 15,000 feet.

The Pentagon estimates that allied jets have destroyed nearly three dozen of Belgrade's low-end fighter-bombers. "We have reduced by probably around 50 percent [Belgrade's] airborne ability to conduct ground-attack operations," Rear Adm. Thomas Wilson, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday.

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