High technology lets NATO keep eye, ear on Yugoslavia

U.S. spy planes can monitor radio messages by troops

War In Yugoslavia

May 02, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When troops from the Yugoslav 2nd Army left Montenegro and moved south last week to reinforce units in Kosovo, NATO tapped into the troops' communications and carefully plotted their every move, according to an alliance officer.

High above the bloody Balkans, a surveillance aircraft, bulging with sophisticated high-tech wizardry, listened in. The crew pinpointed, recorded and analyzed every Yugoslav army radio dispatch.

Chalk up another success for a little-known spy plane by the odd name "Rivet Joint" and nicknamed "the hog." The U.S. Air Force's RC-135, with its snout-nose and jowly profile, is built to sniff out electronic communications.

As NATO bombs pummel Yugoslavia, and Serbian troops move through the craggy reaches of Kosovo, a silent war is taking place at every level of the skies.

Still, just as military experts and planners concede that the only way to rout the Yugoslav forces is by sending in NATO ground troops, the sophisticated surveillance technology hardly guarantees success for NATO.

While the intelligence systems have helped pinpoint scores of targets -- surface-to-air missile sites, military headquarters, radar systems and troop concentrations -- they cannot overcome some Serbian tactics and military hardware.

Serbian soldiers and tanks, for example, have been mingled with refugees to avoid NATO bombs.

Deadly shoulder-fired missiles have proved almost impossible to detect and are therefore preventing low-level bombing. Some surface-to-air missile sites are not using radar that a satellite or plane can detect, but rather are firing by sight.

Since NATO is unwilling to fight on the ground, it is left to spy and bomb from the heavens.

Miles above the ground, satellites snap pictures through the clouds. In the middle distance are high-flying U-2 spy planes. Closer to Earth, pilotless drones send back live video pictures 26,000 feet above the Yugoslav army troops, tanks and artillery.

As Rivet Joint targets the Serbs' communications, another spy plane known as the Joint STARS, a modified Boeing 707 laden with antennae, locates and tracks ground targets in all kinds of weather.

Rapid dissemination

The intelligence from both planes can be quickly processed and then zapped to NATO officers in a roving high-tech command aircraft. The NATO officers, in turn, message a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon with targeting information.

"One of the great leaps forward since the [Persian] Gulf war is our ability to rapidly disseminate information," said retired Maj. Gen. Bill Nash, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Bosnia from 1995 to 1996.

What's different from the 1991 gulf war are upgraded high-tech systems and more satellite capacity, both of which offer commanders a broader and more instantaneous picture of the battlefield, current and former Pentagon officials say.

The speed with which information can get into the hands of commanders "has gone from days to hours" since the gulf war, said John Pike, a spokesman for the Federation of American Scientists.

In the fight against Saddam Hussein, Pike said, intelligence officials had to move a "caravan" to the region in order to process the pictures from U-2 spy planes. Now those pictures are quickly developed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and sent electronically to a NATO intelligence center in Vincenza, Italy.

The intelligence tapes from Rivet Joint would require several steps of analyses during the gulf war before useful information could be provided to attack aircraft, Pike said.

Now, he said, Rivet Joint's catch is being analyzed and transmitted in near real time, significantly increasing the ability to inform pilots of target coordinates.

The spy data gleaned from both Rivet Joint and Joint STARS are sent electronically to a windowless building at Vincenza.

"They put two and two together," Pike said, and beam the information to an Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center (ABCC), a lumbering EC-130 aircraft full of electronic gear and a large staff.

There are 23 secure radios aboard, as well as a Teletype and 15 computer consoles. It is essentially a spy headquarters in the sky.

But while target information can now quickly get to the pilots, these high-tech systems are still operated by fallible humans.

Three weeks ago, U.S. Air Force F-16s carried out airstrikes on what they thought were two Serbian military convoys in western Kosovo. It turned out there were probably civilian refugees in both convoys, and an untold number of them died.

It wasn't until after the F-16s completed their attacks that officials aboard the ABCC received word from intelligence experts in Vincenza that Serbian armed forces rarely travel in such large convoys.

"As soon as there was any doubt, they stopped attacking," Air Force Maj. Gen. Daniel Leaf explained shortly after the incident. Leaf also acknowledged that while British Harrier jets reported civilians on the ground in the area around Dakovica, "they were not in communication with the [F-16s]."

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