With Yugoslav air defenses failing, NATO drops cheaper, `dumb' bombs

Use of cluster bombs draws criticism for delayed blasts

War In Yugoslavia

May 29, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The air war over Yugoslavia, heralded for an unprecedented use of precision munitions, is turning to old-fashioned "dumb" bombs in hopes of finishing off Serbian forces.

With Yugoslav air defenses posing less and less of a threat, NATO has been dispatching B-52s, B-1s and other bombers to shower Yugoslavia with off-fashioned, unguided gravity bombs.

Also in greater use are the unguided cluster bombs that spray shrapnel over a wide area to wipe out troops and vehicles.

Through the beginning of May, some Pentagon officials boasted that nearly all of the ordnance used in Yugoslavia was sophisticated guided munitions capable of striking targets while sparing nearby structures.

Now, officials say alliance forces have dropped more than 4,000 unguided bombs, about 30 percent of the more than 14,000 that have been unloaded on Yugoslavia since the air war began March 24.

The surge in percentage of gravity bombs suggests that in recent days their use has been high.

"As the [Yugoslav] integrated air defense has been taken down to where we had local air superiority and could fly with less danger we've switched," said Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, a senior planner with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Most "collateral damage" -- unintended civilian casualties and property losses -- during the air war has been connected to the use of guided munitions.

NATO officials insist they use the unguided variety only where targets are large and distant from civilian sites.

Yet the use of more unguided ordnance has not pleased critics of cluster bombs. They contend that such strikes leave behind duds that later kill and maim civilians.

About 5 percent of such "bomblets" -- the small projectiles within each cluster bomb -- are unexploded, they say.

"We've noticed this trend," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms-control unit of Human Rights Watch, which opposes the use of cluster bombs.

The bombs' optimal use is on targets that cover a wide area, officials said.

NATO officials have acknowledged using 500-pound Mark 82 gravity bombs on ammunition storage areas, fuel depots, barracks and airfields; they say cluster bombs have been used on airfields, ammunition dumps, supply centers and areas where military vehicles are concentrated.

Air Force Col. Phil Meilinger, an air power expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said that while some observers might conclude that use of unguided bombs suggests NATO is "taking off the gloves and getting nasty," the use of these weapons in such circumstances is customary.

One advantage of the unguided bombs is cost: Each Mark 82 costs about $1,100, while so-called "smart" bombs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Cruise missiles cost about $1 million apiece.

And, as NATO is hoping to frighten Yugoslav officials to the bargaining table, there is the psychological impact of thunderous B-52s.

They typically fly in groups of three and drop as many as 51 of the 500-pound bombs.

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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