National Guard plane `shoots' message at Yugoslav audience

U.S. perspective on war, rebuttal of Milosevic

War In Yugoslavia

June 05, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Beginning at 4 p.m. each day for more than two months, Serbian TV and radio have aired a program with a cold slap of a name: "The Big Lie" -- a point-by-point rebuttal of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

It is not the work of some renegade Yugoslav program director but an Air National Guard unit from Harrisburg, Pa., flying a high-tech plane with the motto "Electrons not bullets." The plane searches out unused radio and television frequencies and broadcasts on them.

For more than 30 years, the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard has been something of an itinerate combat broadcaster.

It flew above Grenada in 1983, alerting American medical students that help was on the way. Later broadcasts called on tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers to surrender during Operation Desert Storm and urged hundreds of Haitians to forgo perilous raft trips to American shores.

`Counter the propaganda'

These days it is some 20,000 feet above the Balkan landscape outside Yugoslavia. The crew of 11 spends four hours broadcasting music, wire-service news and, of course, "The Big Lie," described on air as "an analysis of the propaganda and lies spread by Milosevic and his regime."

"Our words, our thoughts to counter the latest propaganda," explained Navy Capt. Stephen Honda, a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force in Naples, Italy, comparing the format to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" with music attached.

Although Milosevic has agreed to NATO's demands, the guardsmen continue to fire electrons at their target audience. "We're still flying until we're told not to," said Honda.

Last night's broadcast offered comments on the peace plan from President Clinton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, before the announcer added: "It is now up to Milosevic and his field commanders to bring peace to the people of Yugoslavia and the Balkans."

On April 1, one week after the bombing of Yugoslavia started, members of the special operations wing flew south from an air base in Ramstein, Germany.

Aboard an EC-130 known as "Commando Solo" and crammed with electronic gear, a mission control chief and five electronic communications systems operators searched for unused frequencies from inside a compartment crammed with broadcast equipment.

They zeroed in on open frequencies in northern Serbia -- AM 1003, FM stations 102.5 and 106.4, and TV Channel 21.

Leaflets dropped by other NATO aircraft tell the potential audience where to tune, said Honda, adding that the pre-recorded programming runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. each day and can be heard in Belgrade and Novi Sad.

The message is created by the U.S. Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, N.C., under the direction of the State Department.

If a decision is made to broadcast live, a linguist from Fort Bragg will fly with the 193rd to speak to the target audience. So far in Yugoslavia, all broadcasts have been recorded.

John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists said the main problem with Commando Solo is its lack of broadcasting power.

The aircraft's AM capability is 16,000 watts and just 1,000 watts for FM. The TV signal is 10,000 watts. Some commercial radio station have signals stronger than 50,000 watts.

Daniel T. Kuehl, a professor of information warfare at the National Defense University, said the plane can't fly close enough to Yugoslavia to reach a wide audience. Military officials said the plane flies outside Yugoslav airspace to avoid missile attacks.

Not worth being shot down

Air Force Col. E. Thomas Kuhn, commander of the 193rd wing, acknowledged the distance is a problem. "You don't want to have a plane shot down to get a better TV picture," he said.

Kuhn said officials have heard from ham radio operators about the radio reception. "From reports we've had from amateur radio folks, it's been excellent," he said.

He would not comment on whether the broadcasts are having an impact in Yugoslavia or whether Milosevic's troops are picking up the transmissions.

At least, he said, the airborne station appears to be getting under the skin of Milosevic.

The official Yugoslav media have grumbled about the broadcasts and said the announcer "sounded like a Serb who lived in the United States too long."

Pub Date: 6/05/99

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