Army's Apache Helicopter Rendered Impotent in Kosovo
By Dana Priest
Instead, they were grounded by Pentagon fears about potential U.S. casualties. Field commanders were convinced the casualties would be low and they argued forcefully in secret video teleconferences to go into action. But top military officials and the White House never came close to using the helicopters.
A detailed reconstruction of the operation known as Task Force Hawk, based on interviews with more than four dozen pilots and U.S. military commanders in Europe and top defense officials in Washington, including seven four-star generals, reveals how White House and Pentagon concerns over the risks inherent in combat can sideline the very weapons that the government has spent decades and trillions of dollars to acquire and perfect.
The issue was particularly relevant to Kosovo. Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's campaign against ethnic Albanians killed 10,000 by U.S. government estimates before he withdrew his troops and allowed in NATO peacekeepers. Had the Apaches been used early enough, some military officials believe, the fearsome tank-killers may have saved some of those lives.
Instead, the vaunted helicopters came to symbolize everything wrong with the Army as it enters the 21st century: its inability to move quickly; its resistance to change; its obsession with casualties; its post-Cold War identity crisis.
"Task Force Hawk is a useful metaphor for the Army and why we need to transition to a lighter, more agile force," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said in an interview. "I use it to talk to senior leaders about whether the Army was willing and able to get into the fight."
Looking back on the Kosovo war, Caldera said, "We seem to be more willing to suffer casualties in training than in real operations. It sets the wrong standard for the soldiers."
Some current and former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Pentagon officials dismiss the notion that they were overly concerned about casualties. They say Task Force Hawk had many problems. It was too unconventional. Too slow getting to Albania. Unlikely to hit enough targets to make a difference. Unlikely to do anything the Air Force couldn't do more safely, especially by the time the slow-flying, tank-busting A-10 "Warthog" jets arrived in mid-May.
Retired Marine Corps commandant Gen. Charles C. Krulak, who voted against using the Apaches in the Joint Chiefs' secret "tank" sessions, said the difference of opinion with field commanders reflects the military's historical checks-and-balances system, one "that has kept mothers and fathers from suffering more white crosses. It is not bad. It is good."
Army Lays Out 'Risks'
From the beginning, the NATO mission in Kosovo was beset by a strategic Catch-22.
NATO political leaders ruled out sending ground troops to Kosovo because they believed their people would not support it. Instead, they backed a limited air campaign that used jets and Navy ships to hit Yugoslav targets with missiles and bombs from three miles up, a strategy designed to limit pilot losses. They believed that such a show of force would within days make Milosevic call off the Serbian paramilitaries and the Yugoslav army troops carrying out the "ethnic cleansing."
Top Pentagon officials and NATO's top commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, repeatedly warned the White House that jets could not reliably destroy troops and tanks on the ground.
Just hours after the cautious air war began on March 24, the White House was faced with reports of massacres and hordes of refugees created by Milosevic's rampaging forces. A senior Joint Staff official phoned Clark with a question from White Housse national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" R. Berger: When would they hit the Yugoslav troops and tanks?
There was no quick fix in sight, but it was the kind of mission the Apaches had been created to perform.
The Army has spent $15 billion over the past two decades to make the Apache the most lethal and least vulnerable attack helicopter in the world. It had proved its tank-killing capabilities in the Persian Gulf War. One Apache, carrying 46 rockets and missiles, can fly at night, just above the tree tops, at 100 miles per hour, without a single visible light. Armored flaps on the side windows shield the control panel's illumination, curved rotor blade tips dampen its noise and the exhaust system cools the engine quickly to fool heat sensors.
The Apache can also fly in the kind of rainy, cloudy weather that was grounding so many jets in the first month of Kosovo war.
The notion of using the Apaches had surfaced earlier. The week before the war began, the Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the Apaches to Clark, who then tasked his subordinates to develop a plan to use them.
Traditionally, Apaches are used to attack enemy troops far behind the front lines. Long-range artillery barrages secure safe passage for the Apaches deep inside enemy territory, and nearby Army troops and armor help spot and herd masses of enemy forces so the Apaches can destroy them.
But there were no U.S. ground troops in Kosovo, so Clark's plan would rely on drones, radars and satellites to find targets.
Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, the vice chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was immediately dubious. He and the service chiefs thought Clark's operational plan to use the Apaches was too vague and unconventional. Ralston believed a stepped-up air campaign by Air Force jets hitting "strategic" targets such as ministries and power stations in Belgrade was more likely to cause Milosevic to relent.
Clark and his field commanders disagreed. However, they weren't just dealing with Air Force qualms, but also with reluctance among the Army leadership.
Army Chief of Staff Dennis J. Reimer, then the top-ranking Army officer, saw a "classic risk-benefit analysis. Does the benefit exceed the risk?" He doubted the task force could locate good targets. "It's like looking through a soda straw," Reimer said. He worried that Army's Apaches would be a step toward the use of ground forces, something the Army leadership did not favor.
Risk dominated the Army's thinking. Early in the war, Army officers gave Clark a preliminary briefing on the Apaches using three pages of slides labeled "Risks." They included every type of caliber of weapon known to be in use in Yugoslavia, from the smallest bullet to the biggest shell: "5.56 millimeter. 7.62 millimeter. 12.51 millimeter. . . ."
The briefing infuriated Clark, who believed it revealed that the Army was resistant to using the Apaches, according to two participants.
On March 29, five days after the war began, the Joint Chiefs met on Clark's proposal to use the Apaches. They were not supportive. As Clark later explained in a video teleconference with his commanders: "People look at this as a ground war if you put Apaches in."
Shelton and Ralston came up with a compromise. They recommended to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen that the Apaches be sent to Albania but not used in combat until the Pentagon generals were convinced that the mission made sense. Shelton would then make a recommendation to President Clinton, who had the final say.
Cohen bought the idea and on April 3 Clinton signed the order sending the Apaches to Albania.
In announcing the deployment, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon suggested that the Apache's arrival could change the course of a war. The helicopters, he explained, "will give us the capability to get up-close and personal to the Milosevic armor units in Kosovo."
Albania's Sea of Mud
The expectation, even at the top levels of government, including Army Secretary Caldera, was that the Apaches would arrive within 10 days and dive into combat.
But that was not to be.
The Apaches were supposed to go to Macedonia, where a NATO base was set up in Skopje. But, flooded by hundreds of thousands of Kosovo refugees, Macedonia refused permission.
Albania quickly agreed to provide a base for the Apaches, but there was no suitable airport and no base close to the border for the artillery support the Apaches required. The Army settled on the Rinas airport in Tirana, about 45 miles from the border of Montenegro, where 40,000 troops from the Yugoslav 2nd Army and jets at the Podgorica Airfield were both within striking range.
Then there was the mud at Tirana. It was so thick that one military intelligence officer sank up to her chest. Soldiers were ordering thigh-high fishing boots from home.
It took just four days for the Army to remake the tiny Tirana airport into a 24-hour thoroughfare that could support 20 flights a day. This required 667,000 square meters of rock fill. Because of the muck and a record rainfall, engineers had to construct 58 specially designed landing pads for the Apache base. They were delayed for nearly a week in finishing because they did not have enough landing pad mesh.
To construct the base and make Task Force Hawk as invincible as possible, the Army brought in 10,300 pieces of equipment on 550 flights of the huge C-17. The cargo included 14 70-ton M1A1 Abrams tanks--too heavy to use on most Albanian roads--42 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 20 5-ton Expando Vans for the V Corps headquarters, 190 containers of ammunition and enough repair kits for twice the number of Apaches there. Thirty-seven Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters went along too.
All that heavy equipment was baffling to some.
"Those of us looking at it said to ourselves, 'Why are you bringing M1 tanks to Tirana?' " remarked one Air Force general involved in the move.
In all, the Army sent 6,200 troops and 26,000 tons of equipment to Tirana, at a cost of $480 million, to support and protect the Apaches.
"We probably went in a little too heavy," said Reimer. "Army people will always err on the side of overwhelming force necessary to do the job. I don't apologize for that. . . . The people on the ground knew they were protected and that gives them a lot of confidence."
While soldiers worked furiously to build the base, Gen. John W. Hendrix, then commander of Task Force Hawk and the Army's V Corps, said Washington was far from a decision to use the helicopters in combat, so "there was no rush."
"I didn't realize the world was waiting to see an Apache landing in Albania," Hendrix said.
The first Apaches finally lifted off on April 14 from their base in Germany, but it took 12 long days for all 24 of them to get to Albania. The weather delayed some. Then the Italian government held them in Pisa for five days while it debated whether to permit overflights with live ammunition. And the French, who were blocking the Apache landing ramp at the Tirana airport with a refueling depot, refused to budge for a week.
A 'Bleak' Casualty Estimate
Back in Washington, Shelton and Ralston were making a persuasive case to White House officials that the Apaches should not fly. It was not a hard sell, given the White House's own aversion to casualties. Key to the discussion were the casualty estimates, which commanders in the field said were merely fluid projections based on computer simulations. Privately, they called them "WAGs," Wild Ass Guesses.
Clark and Hendrix had told Pentagon officials that any casualty estimates would not be reliable, given the unique mission. But in an air war designed in part to safeguard pilots, it was a central question.
In a teleconference with top Pentagon officials April 16, Hendrix was pressed for an answer on what casualty rates could be. Around 5 per 100 sorties, maybe slightly higher, the Task Force Hawk leader said, according to interviews with Hendrix and several people who were at the meeting. One officer's notes show that Hendrix estimated there might be "zero to five" pilot casualties. But a senior Pentagon official recalls Hendrix giving a higher figure, six to 15, which was one estimate the Joint Staff used in White House discussions. That higher figure is disputed by several Army generals in attendance.
Somehow, an even higher figure made its way to the White House, although senior Pentagon officials said the Joint Staff produced no independent estimates of its own.
One senior White House official recalls Pentagon officials saying that the Apache deployment could result in casualties as high as "50 percent within days."
"Their assessment was so bleak," the official said. "It was almost a no-brainer."
Pentagon officials now say they have no record or recollection of having mentioned a 50 percent figure at the White House. But such a figure was included in a confidential message sent to officers in Germany by an Army major on an early base planning mission to Macedonia.
It was a back-of-the envelope guess, but it was informally passed on to the Joint Staff. One senior Pentagon official queried Clark about the figure.
"There was no analytical basis for the 50 percent figure," Clark said. "It was just pulled out of the air. I conveyed that."
The casualty estimates remain to this day a point of disagreement between the Pentagon and the commanders who were in the field.
Friction Between Services
These stratospheric discussions went on unbeknownst to the pilots, who believed they had been brought to Albania to fly into Kosovo within days.
They faced plenty of difficulties of their own.
The enemy had time to disperse into small groups before the Apaches arrived. The wooded mountain passes of Albania were shelter for scattered refugees and hundreds of Serbs with shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles.
And then there was the terrain itself. Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Seymour remembers the first time he saw the spiked Albanian mountains. "It's like, 'This is ugly, this is really ugly,' " he said in an interview in Germany.
Pilots would have to fly through three micro-climates to reach Kosovo from Albania. Extra fuel tanks made the aircraft hard to handle, and there were only a few mountain passes wide enough to navigate. On the third day of mission rehearsals, these conditions caused one pilot to lose control and crash. He survived, but the mission's public profile was wounded.
Although qualified to Army standards, none of the pilots was used to flying with night-vision goggles. More than 65 percent were relatively inexperienced. At times there was a "complete loss" of radio contact because of the high mountains, a confidential military after-action report states.
"It was painful and high risk [during] the first three weeks in Albania," Maj. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the task force deputy commander and a legendary special operations Apache pilot, wrote in a separate memo.
The Army and Air Force did not work well together, according to the report: "There was friction. . . . Individuals in both services neither understand nor appreciate the capabilities of one another."
Sixty percent of all rehearsals were canceled because the supporting Air Force aircraft were not available, either because they were engaged in air war operations or were grounded by weather.
To convince the Pentagon to employ the Apaches, task force commanders worked at speeding intelligence-gathering on targets and synchronizing operations with a huge array of aircraft: U-2 spy planes, AWACS airborne warning and control planes, three types of helicopters, air tankers and Air Force jets.
When two pilots died May 4 in a crash, apparently caused by a mechanical failure, their colleagues were determined that "it wasn't all for naught," said pilot Seymour. "Everybody was saying, 'Let's go in there and kick their tails now.' "
By mid-May, the commanders felt the risk had been minimized. What Washington saw as threats, the pilots viewed as advantages. "That terrain was our friend," said Cody. "That night-time was our friend."
Most of all, each pilot had a $14.5 million Apache, the world's best combat helicopter. The plan was to zip through the Albanian mountains at 90 miles per hour. Bomblet-spewing ATACMS tactical missiles would have already pummeled the enemy troops along the flight path. Dart-filled rockets would deal with the remnants. Six rescue helicopters would be 10 minutes away. Five Apaches would fly a feint close by. A half dozen Air Force jets would provide protective cover.
Like a mosquito darting for blood, each Apache would stay in the battle zone a mere five minutes, with its infrared jammer turned on to throw off incoming missiles.
Still, nothing could give a guarantee against what Seymour called "a little bullet in the big sky" shot by some lucky Serb with an AK-47 or, worse, a shoulder-fired SA-7 missile.
Fear of more losses seemed to obsess Washington visitors to Albania. Lt. Col. George M. Bilafer, a Task Force Hawk squadron commander, got asked repeatedly: Don't you think the Apaches are too risky?
"Listen," Bilafer said he would reply, "you're not the one who has to go notify the family, I am. . . . Am I worried about a guy with an SA-7 on the ground shooting at me? No, I'm not because he can't see me and he has to be able to see me to shoot me."
Hendrix said he tried "over and over again" to convince Pentagon officials that the risk would be less than they expected and the military rewards would be significant.
Around that time, Gen. Reimer faced a roomful of Apache pilots who had what he recalls as an "I-can-take-on-the-world" confidence. "I still felt," said Reimer, "that we really didn't have the targets to justify their use." Besides, he said, the Air Force's A-10 jets were about to arrive. But the A-10s, like the Air Force's high-flying jets, did not manage to destroy a large part of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo.
Hendrix said in an interview he believed the Apaches would have hit "12 to 15 tanks" each mission. Pentagon officials still disagree that there were enough available targets. "There weren't 12 to 15 tanks to be taken out" in the open, said Krulak.
That's not the way Cody, the deputy commander, remembers it. By June, he said, "We would have taken [the Yugoslav army] out, and I don't think we would have lost anybody."
Some military officers suggest the nation has forgotten that the Army's job is inherently dangerous. "Wake up, hello! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!" said Col. Oliver R. Hunter IV, former commander of Task Force Hawk's 11th Aviation Regiment. "We were accepting the risk. It was within our limitations."
The Apaches are now back at their base in Germany. It took 30 trains, 20 ships and 81 C-17 flights to send Task Force Hawk back home.
The Army is now spending $1.9 billion to upgrade one-third of its 743-helicopter Apache fleet to make the helicopters even more lethal.
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