NATO compiles hits, misses of Kosovo campaign

Lack of ground troops, technology shortage hurt

new U.S. bomb did well

September 14, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In NATO's bombing campaign in Kosovo, the lack of sophisticated technology among the U.S. allies, the failure to use ground troops and the absence of effective computer warfare prolonged the 78-day conflict and left the United States to do the bulk of the fighting.

Moreover, such failings could easily be repeated in future conflicts and must be addressed, according to comments by top defense leaders and reports prepared by NATO commanders and Pentagon officials.

Among the top concerns was the ability of President Slobodan Milosevic to spare the destruction of his air defense system by craftily using it for short periods or by simply turning it off. As a result, even the U.S. military's high-tech weapons could not pinpoint his radar and anti-aircraft systems, forcing allied aircraft to fly at higher altitudes to avoid those threats.

"That's something we've got to figure out," said one military officer involved in the bombing campaign.

On the other hand, military leaders have concluded that NATO's unshakable solidarity, as well as a new -- and relatively inexpensive -- U.S. bomb helped secure victory against Yugoslav forces.

Initially, military leaders were surprised that Milosevic did not yield quickly in the face of punishing airstrikes, and they had to react quickly to his unorthodox tactics. Defense experts have long warned that second-tier nations and state-sponsored terrorists will turn to unconventional means -- such as chemical, biological or nuclear weapons -- to fight a military power such as the United States. In Kosovo, Milosevic came up with a new twist: hundreds of thousands of refugees.

"Belgrade's battle strategy included a deliberate, manufactured humanitarian crisis, a crisis that required NATO to undertake a massive humanitarian mission at the same time that we were conducting combat operations," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in a speech last week in California.

Although Cohen said NATO's "flexibility" allowed it to handle both challenges, he called Milosevic's forced expulsion of ethnic Albanians a "crowning lesson" for a superior force battling a lesser but determined foe.

Cohen also said that because many of America's NATO allies have not kept pace with the high technology of war -- from precision-guided weapons to communications equipment that enemies cannot penetrate -- the United States had to carry out two-thirds of all support flights, from intelligence gathering to refueling, along with half the combat missions.

"If our European allies are to close the distance with American technology, they simply must make a greater investment in national security," Cohen said.

Similar concerns were raised in briefing documents on Kosovo being prepared by the staff of Adm. James O. Ellis, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Southern Europe and one of the senior military leaders in the Kosovo operation.

One portion of the briefing documents, scheduled to be given to top Pentagon officials and obtained by The Sun, discusses "the new `American Way of War,' " noting that the United States is the only country with all the best weapons, aircraft and training, "but our allies cannot match us."

Meanwhile, divisions within NATO's political leadership led to an "incremental war" instead of "decisive operations," the documents say, hinting at the military's complaints that the 19-nation alliance debated and delayed action on all aspects of the war, from bombing targets to ground troops and humanitarian aid.

The air war was "superbly executed" -- with 38,000 round-the-clock sorties and no loss of an aircrew -- but "politically constrained," the documents say. Cohen himself alluded to the tensions within NATO in his address to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in San Diego, though far more delicately.

Consensus is both the "heart" and the "hindrance" of a coalition, Cohen said, before noting that as the conflict progressed, the allies "shifted more authority to commanders in the field."

Those withering airstrikes succeeded against the Yugoslav tanks and armor only after the Kosovo Liberation Army had mounted a major offensive and had drawn the enemy into the open, where they could be hit by NATO aircraft, the briefing documents said.

Capt. Steve Burnett, a spokesman for Ellis, cautioned that the briefing papers, titled "The View from the Top," are only a "working document" that has yet to be approved by the admiral.

Yet the briefing papers echo what defense experts have been saying since shortly after the war began in March.

Indeed, some of the same issues are expected to come up this week, when Gen. Wesley K. Clark, NATO's supreme commander, briefs allied leaders on the lessons learned from Kosovo. By the end of the month, another post-mortem is expected from Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre and Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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