AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The only visible signs of the target were the tire tracks disappearing under a camouflage net in a row of burned-out buildings near the Pristina airport. That was enough for Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Grabey. He dropped two laser-guided bombs from his F-16 fighter jet.
Thirty seconds later, an SA-6 missile launcher exploded into a fireball, missiles corkscrewing into the sky, and Grabey "jinked like crazy to get out of there."
The air war over Yugoslavia has pitted a tenacious and inventive Serbian military against a massive NATO force hamstrung by political constraints. The result so far has been a painstakingly slow cat-and-mouse game that has forced allied pilots to hunt, one target at a time, and to destroy, one bomb at a time.
The Serbs' creative tactics and NATO's restrictions are also making this war unlike any that has gone before. Unlike World War II, mass civilian casualties are intolerable. Unlike Vietnam, where pilots bombed from the treetops, captured or dead pilots are nearly unthinkable.
Unlike the Persian Gulf war, when waves of 200 aircraft struck Iraq, the tiny airspace over Kosovo -- the size of Rhode Island -- restricts the number of warplanes that can fight. Strike packages consist of just 30 warplanes raiding fixed targets such as roads and bridges with 500- and 1,000-pound laser-guided bombs.
Fewer jets mean fewer bombs. And because the Serbs have preserved so much of their air defenses, strike packages are heavy with protection -- EA-6Bs hunting air defenses, F-16s and F-15s flying combat air patrols at 25,000 feet -- and comparatively light with strike planes, said Capt. Mitch Reed, 31, who has planned many of the 5,000 strike missions launched from this northern Italian air base.
"We're not fighting the Iraqis or the Panamanians here," said Reed. "These guys are better than anything we've faced in a long time."
The air war got off to a slow start because NATO underestimated what it would take to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to agree to its terms, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short, the commander of the air campaign.
But the alliance also misread Yugoslavia's air defense strategy, thinking that the Serbs would respond to the first strikes by switching on their radars to locate and attack incoming aircraft. That would disclose the positions of missile batteries, which NATO then could bomb.
But to this day the Serbs use their radar sparingly, allowing them to preserve some of the mobile missiles, such as the SA-6, and to keep fighting a protracted war long after NATO had expected them to give up.
The allies claim to have nearly wiped out Yugoslavia's longest-range missile, the SA-2. But even as NATO destroys these, pilots report seeing increasing launches of SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, which home in on a jet's exhaust and reach up to 10,000 feet. And recently, a round of large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery exploded just behind a U.S. F-16 fighter flying above 10,000 feet.
Equally confounding as targets are the Serbian soldiers. The 40,000 troops of the Yugoslav 3rd Army and Special Police of the Interior Ministry have proven expert at concealing themselves both in Kosovo's hilly terrain and the man-made moonscape of the province's towns and villages. Units are generally no larger than 100 troops, hidden by the spreading forest canopies of summer.
Increasingly, Serbs haul their heavy weapons to the centers of villages they know NATO won't bomb for fear of killing civilians.
The Serbs have also learned a new tactic from observing NATO's anguished response to its accidental bombings of civilians. Serbian troops have begun avoiding their telltale olive-green trucks and travel instead in bright-red tractors pulling wagons -- that once belonged to ethnic Albanian farmers, allied pilots said.
Pilots know where to look for the well-hidden Serbs only because of some of the United States' most sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, pilots at Aviano have received radio intercepts of Serbian commanders ordering units to new hiding places.
Gathered by U.S. satellites, the intercepts leave the National Security Agency in Fort Meade and reach Aviano eight to 10 hours later. One recent strike took place just three hours after a missile launcher had been moved into hiding.
"The first few days we were making tactics up" to find and hit Yugoslav units, said Grabey, the F-16 pilot and commander of mission planning. Now, "I walk out to the plane with more pieces of paper than I know what to do with."
"As time goes by, we're not losing resources or lives, and the other side is. We're still the superior chess players so we'll win," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Chuck Link, a former top strategist in Washington. "But we've bungled the first moves, and it's going to be a much longer and more painful game."
Pub Date: 5/30/99