NATO's high-technology weapons use more buck for the bang in Balkan war

Precision munitions cut civilian casualties but cost millions

War In Yugoslavia

May 03, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- For an air war that many U.S. generals believe has been run on the cheap, tactically, the bombardment of Yugoslavia could go down as the most expensive military campaign, bomb for bomb, in history.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, likes to brag that 90 percent of the bombs dropped in the 40-day operation have been precision-guided, compared to only 9 percent in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, reducing risks to civilians on the ground.

But the cost of keeping the civilian casualties low is steep. Cruise missiles fired from ships and submarines run $1 million apiece, and their heftier cousins launched from B-52s cost twice that. A laser-guided, 2,000-pound bomb dropped from a radar-evading F-117 costs $26,200, compared with unguided bombs pitched from B-1 and B-52 bombers, which run about $600 each.

When asked the other day if NATO was using million-dollar weapons to bomb $10,000 targets, like military trucks and small bridges, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's military commander, bristled. "This is not a war that we're running on a checkbook budget," he snapped. "We're running this war to be effective."

Even with all the armaments money can buy, though, the air war has yet to achieve its goal of forcing Yugoslavia to withdraw its troops in Kosovo and allowing refugees to return with international military escorts. Politics and the elements have conspired to level out the allies' technological edge. Bad weather trumps a pilot's ability to aim a laser-guided bomb.

Moreover, NATO's political leaders have restricted the targets pilots can hit and the tactics they use to hit them.

Low-flying ground-attack planes like the A-10, ideal for blasting tanks, have flown few bombing runs for fear they are too vulnerable to Yugoslav missiles. High-flying jets have picked up many of those missions, but it's difficult to distinguish a farmer's truck from an armored infantry vehicle at 20,000 feet.

Entering the sixth week of a campaign many NATO commanders thought would last only a few days, the Pentagon is running up bills that approach $1 billion, and Congress is preparing to approve the Clinton administration's request for $6 billion to finance the war through September, if needed.

It's far less than the much larger Persian Gulf war, which lasted 44 days and cost $61 billion (most of which allies like Saudi Arabia paid for). The Pentagon says this war is costing about $37 million a day, not counting the relief operation for refugees.

Even as Congress prepares to add billions of dollars to the administration's war tab to buy new bombs, missiles and other weapons the Pentagon didn't request, some lawmakers are criticizing the Pentagon's spendthrift ways in the Balkans.

It's costing $700 million to send 24 Apache helicopters and long-range artillery from Germany to Albania, said Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. He said he's angry that every night, NATO launches 300 to 600 missions to bomb perhaps two dozen targets.

"I need to hear why so many planes are up and there are so few targets," said the gruff former Marine.

Another problem is that NATO hasn't had enough bases for the more than 700 allied aircraft joining the air war. Aerial refueling planes have had to fly from as far away as Spain, England and France, burning up precious fuel that could keep fighters flying.

One seasoned F-16 pilot, stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy, said that the airspace is so crowded that the most dangerous part of flying in the Balkans is circling at night, along with dozens of other fighter jets, at 500 miles an hour in thunderstorms and lightning, to get more gasoline from airborne refueling planes.

"It's kind of like New York City traffic up there," the pilot said.

To make matters worse, Pentagon officials said, the Air Force didn't plan, as the Navy and Army did, to equip all its aviators with night-vision goggles that cost $7,000 a set.

"It's the difference between driving with your parking lights or headlights," said the F-16 pilot.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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