NATO `smart' bombs taking heavy civilian toll

Ton for ton, bombings killing as many as other campaigns of last 25 years

War In Yugoslavia

June 02, 1999|By BOSTON GLOBE

Despite NATO's efforts to keep its war against President Slobodan Milosevic as surgically "clean" as possible, the bombing of Yugoslavia has killed, ton for ton, as many civilians as other air campaigns of the past quarter-century.

In a little more than two months, NATO has dropped about 15,000 bombs, releasing about 13,000 tons of explosive power. Only a few dozen of these weapons have gone astray or hit the wrong target. Yet Serbian sources have reported, and NATO officials do not deny, that those errant bombs have killed 1,200 civilians -- or roughly one civilian for every 10 tons dropped.

The ratio is remarkably similar to that of major bombing campaigns in the Vietnam War. In 1964-1967, about 650,000 tons of bombs unintentionally killed 52,000 North Vietnamese civilians. In the Christmas 1972 bombing around Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, 20,000 tons killed 1,600.

By this measure, the rate of civilian casualties was lower during the 1991 air war against Iraq, when 100,000 tons of bombs -- more than seven times as many as have been dropped in Yugoslavia -- killed about 2,500 civilians, twice as many as have been killed in Yugoslavia.

The weapons dropped on Yugoslavia are more accurate than those of past wars. But that very fact has emboldened commanders to drop more of them on targets that require accuracy -- for example, a particular building on a downtown street. And since, as Pentagon spokesmen note, some of these bombs are bound to miss, more civilians die than anyone had predicted.

"It's like engineers building bridges," said Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies and chief author of the Air Force's five-volume post-war study of the Iraq air campaign. "Technology is so much better now, you'd think there wouldn't be any failures at all.

"So why do they happen? Because, with the new technology, engineers will go closer and closer to the tolerances of what the materials will handle," Cohen said. "They're pushed to their limits -- and so, something goes wrong."

Robert Pape, professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and the author of "Bombing to Win," a book about strategic bombing through the century, makes a similar point: "It doesn't take much, in the way of bombs missing their targets, to produce a lot of dead bodies."

In this respect, the comparisons of deaths per ton in previous wars is somewhat misleading. In the earlier wars, relatively few bombs -- in the case of Iraq, only about 5 percent -- were dropped on the centers of cities. In Yugoslavia, well over half the bombs have been aimed at targets in the middle of Belgrade and other towns.

In other words, if NATO were hitting Belgrade targets with the weapons of Vietnam or Desert Storm, the level of casualties would be far higher.

By any measure, the bombing campaigns of recent times have caused far less wanton death and destruction than those of the less recent past.

In World War II, which heralded the age of air power in a big way, there was scant concern about civilian casualties -- partly because it was a "total war," and partly because nothing much could be done about it.

Bombing killed nearly 300,000 German civilians and wounded 780,000. One-fifth of all German homes were destroyed.

Official U.S. studies after the war concluded that the destruction had no effect on the German war effort and, if anything, stiffened the German morale it was supposed to be undermining.

In the war against Japan, "precision bombing" failed to hit much of anything. So the U.S. air commander, Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, reverted to the British strategy of bombing cities, not specific targets -- and mainly with firebombs, to spread the damage.

In a single attack over Tokyo, on March 9, 1945, a convoy of 334 B-29 bombers burned 16 square miles, killing 83,793 Japanese civilians, wounding 40,918, and leveling 267,171 buildings.

LeMay said in a 1981 interview that he picked his targets out of the World Almanac, looking at a list of Japan's largest cities and how many square miles they comprised. Square miles were all his bombers could hit. In the spring of 1945, he calculated that the war would be over by September -- when, he reasoned, he would run out of square miles to burn.

The Vietnam War saw the debut of air-to-ground missiles that were guided to their targets by a crewman watching on a TV screen.

But according to Pierre M. Sprey, a former Pentagon official who conducted an official study of guided missiles, the screens had poor resolution, smoke or fog rendered them useless, and a pilot had to fly straight and level for 15 seconds -- a very risky situation.

Nearly 20 years passed before "smart bombs," as they have been nicknamed, came of age. In Iraq, laser-guided bombs hit the smallest of targets -- narrow bridges, an airplane on a runway -- and, in one celebrated case, darted straight down the chimney of a ministry headquarters, blowing the building to smithereens.

Air Force studies after the war revealed that the successes had not been as universal as the widely broadcast film clips suggested. Still, the new technology allowed commanders to bomb more targets in cities, while doing less damage to surrounding areas.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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