WASHINGTON -- As the United States and its NATO allies edge closer to sending ground troops into Kosovo, current and retired military officials envision a campaign that could include tens of thousands of U.S. Army regular and reserve troops.
Some of them would not come home alive; many others could remain for years of tense peacekeeping duty.
Because the monthlong NATO air campaign has failed to halt the Serbian assaults in Kosovo or to curb the expulsion of Kosovar Albanians, NATO officials increasingly foresee the need for a combat ground expedition.
After continuation of the allied bombardment for several more weeks or months, this force would be sent into Kosovo to battle Serbian troops. NATO troops would also help return hundreds of thousands of refugees to their homes in Kosovo.
Since the precise mission of any allied ground forces is not settled, military officials say it is difficult to say how many soldiers would be needed -- or how many of those the United States would contribute.
Last fall, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, estimated that 75,000 to 200,000 allied combat troops would be needed to subdue Kosovo or all of Yugoslavia.
NATO planners will revise those figures and update plans for a proposed 28,000-troop allied peacekeeping force that would have been considered for deployment in Kosovo if Serbs had signed a peace agreement for the province before the bombing campaign began.
"It's mainly an estimate of troops that would be required to achieve certain goals," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman.
"[There's] not a firm plan as to what sort of divisions you'd send in, a sequencing of how they'd get there, what entry points they would use."
Most Pentagon officials and retired officers say that elements of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Armored Division, both based in Germany, would likely be part of the mission.
Other possible U.S. units include the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Meanwhile, the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., is scheduled to deploy to Bosnia for peacekeeping duties this year and could be part of an incursion into Kosovo.
More than 5,300 U.S. troops are in Albania and several hundred in Macedonia. NATO troop strength in the region is about 21,000, many of them taking part in humanitarian efforts.
Despite the relatively small number of U.S. troops -- 4,000 -- that were envisioned for the 28,000-member peacekeeping force, the United States is expected to provide a larger share of any combat mission; it might form the largest single contingent in the combat force. This is partly because of America's military might, its skills and technology.
Of the 19 NATO members, only the United States has the logistics capability, the cargo ships and planes, trucks and engineers to move and create facilities for a large modern army, officials said.
Moreover, U.S. high-tech equipment -- from surveillance aircraft and tanks to attack helicopters, night-fighting gear and missile systems -- would be a key element of any ground campaign.
The worst case
"I think you have to plan for the worst-case scenario -- invasion," a top Army official said. This official noted that, given the likelihood of casualties, NATO would likely push for the "heavier stuff" -- armored and mechanized divisions.
Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers would likely be part of such an operation, along with thousands of reserves, who form the bulk of the logistics force, current and retired military officers said. Other reserve units would include those involved in civil affairs, medicine, supply, ordnance -- and mortuary affairs.
President Clinton is expected to call up about 33,000 Guard and Reserve members, mostly Air Force pilots and ground crews, for the current bombing campaign. If NATO sent in a ground force, tens of thousands more U.S. reservists would likely be called up.
The need for reservists -- particularly from the Army -- would rise quickly, current and former military officials said. Clinton has authority to call up to 200,000 reservists for up to 270 days, a Pentagon official said.
Possibility of casualties
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, said: "If U.S. ground troops are ordered into Kosovo, it's going to affect everybody. Whenever you have combat troops, you also have support troops, noncombatants."
Wynn called the possibility of American casualties "very disturbing."
"That's why the objective has to be set out clearly," he said. "We're not going to risk American lives without clear, definable and attainable objectives."
Pentagon officials worry about whether a clear objective for ground forces can emerge from the many and varied NATO voices.