United NATO Front Was Divided Within |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 1999; Page A1
Third of three articles
In the midst of the war over Kosovo, NATO commanders at 13 bases across Europe watched with growing discomfort during daily video conferences as tensions between their chief, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, and his top Air Force officer, Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, broke into the open.
Clark insisted that the Air Force hunt down tanks and artillery in Kosovo. Short considered such missions all but useless; he wanted to destroy "strategic" targets such as Yugoslav ministries and power plants.
"This is the jewel in the crown," Short said.
"To me, the jewel in the crown is when those B-52s rumble across Kosovo," replied Clark.
"You and I have known for weeks that we have different jewelers," said Short.
"My jeweler outranks yours," said Clark.
The video conferences were secret. But for weeks, the American people and much of the world also looked on with discomfort as NATO's limited, incremental intervention failed to stop Yugoslav forces from murdering, robbing, raping and expelling the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.
Outwardly, the Western alliance maintained unity and fought what Clark repeatedly described as a "step-by-step, systematic and progressive" campaign.
But the view from within was different. Among the commanders, there were sharp divisions and frustrations. Air Force officers thought of the enemy as a snake and wanted to chop off its head by bombing Belgrade. Some bristled at orders to attack what they considered the tail: individual tanks and small units of soldiers in Kosovo.
The Air Force's discontent grew partly from the chaotic, unscripted nature of the campaign during the first few weeks.
NATO's political and military leaders had expected Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to back down after just two or three days of bombing. So by the second day, as Milosevic's forces pushed forward rather than retreated from Kosovo, Clark and his deputies began racing through their original war plan and building a more aggressive one.
This forced Clark to wage internal battles not just with the Air Force over tactical bombing missions, but also with NATO allies over permission to target sensitive sites in Serbia and to bomb relentlessly, without a single day's pause.
The result often was confusion. Fighter pilots were pulled from the tarmac, their missions scrubbed at the last minute by politicians far away. Sailors were rousted at night to fire Tomahawk missiles with little time to recheck their flight paths. Generals raced across the Potomac River with satchels of targets to get the White House to approve the next night's work.
The question of how many aircraft to send over Kosovo and how many to direct at the rest of Serbia was a constant source of friction, particularly in the first weeks of bombing. By the end of the 78-day air war, NATO had so many planes available that it could cover all the bases. But the debate continued – and continues today – over the best strategy for such an air campaign.
No Plan B
Planning for the campaign dated back to June 1998. By the opening night, strategists had produced 40 versions of an air war, according to Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. Some of these documents were highly critical of using air power alone, without troops on the ground to help flush out the enemy. But NATO ultimately settled on a three-phase air campaign.
In Phase I, NATO would strike antiaircraft defenses and command bunkers. Phase II would extend the strikes to Yugoslavia's infrastructure below the 44th parallel, well south of Belgrade. Only in Phase III would the alliance hit targets in the capital.
That was Plan A. There was no Plan B. NATO did not have a contingency blueprint for a longer campaign, officials now say, because the Clinton administration and Clark feared that if the alliance's 19 member states were asked to contemplate such a possibility, they would not agree to begin the war at all.
On March 24, the opening night of the war, General Short sat in a darkened room full of computer screens, the Combined Air Operations Center at Vicenza Air Base in Italy. Yellow, green and red tadpole-shaped symbols moved across large electronic maps on the walls, representing all the enemy and NATO aircraft over Yugoslavia.
As Short waited for the first missiles to strike, he clenched his jaw and kept his silence, a self-control that some subordinates noted and admired.
The three-star general with a drilling blue stare and gruff manner had argued many times to his superiors that the most effective tactic for the first night of the war would be a knockout punch to Belgrade's power stations and government ministries. Such a strike had worked in Iraq in 1991, and it was the foundation of air power theory, which advocates heavy blows to targets with high military, economic or psychological value as a way to collapse the enemy's will.
Yet on the first night he was overseeing an operation with only 53 targets. They were mostly Yugoslav air defenses and radar sites chosen to make the skies safe for allied pilots and to avoid hitting civilians.
Clark also harbored doubts about the initial plan's meager size. But after a year of coaxing the allies, he felt this was the biggest and best operation he could get NATO to approve. He also believed there was a 40 percent chance that the war would end within three days, since Milosevic might just be looking for an excuse to withdraw from Kosovo.
As early as the second day, Clark began prodding NATO diplomats and Washington officials to reassess their initial prognosis of a very short conflict, and he began talking privately about the need to plan for the worst case, a ground war. He asked the Pentagon for 48 Apache attack helicopters. He tried to steel a senior State Department official who called to suggest a bombing pause. NATO, Clark said, was ready to bomb for another "five to seven days ... maybe more," according to notes on the conversation.
Most important, Clark asked NATO Secretary General Javier Solana to allow him to jump over Phase II and reach into Phase III targets such as key ministries in Belgrade. That disturbed some of the allies.
"From the very beginning, Clark changed the strategy," says a European diplomat in Brussels. "He quickly decided to strike on a broader geographic scale and, second, to strike a different type of target. ... It made us worried about the political risks, the political impact."
Clark says he was acutely aware of the allies' concerns. "I was operating with the starting assumption that there was no single target that was more important, if struck, than the principle of alliance consensus and cohesion," Clark said in a postwar interview at NATO headquarters in Belgium.
"My idea was to press the envelope in terms of consensus and cohesion. I would talk to people on the telephone each day, and meet with them to expand the envelope of thinking. All of this was in the context of intensifying the air campaign," he said.
His aggressiveness bothered some people around him. "Can't you act less American?" one European diplomat demanded, believing Clark's firm, military bearing scared the Europeans.
Forceful in public, in private Clark's feelings bubbled to the surface at times when his voice would deepen and boom, and he would rise out of his seat and slap the table. "I've got to get the maximum violence out of this campaign – now!" he said during one such conversation in late May.
While the allies were hesitating to approve strikes on Belgrade, however, Air Force commanders were unhappy about searching for tanks and troops in Kosovo.
"There was a fundamental difference of opinion at the outset between General Clark, who was applying a ground commander's perspective ... and General Short as to the value of going after fielded forces," says Vice Adm. Daniel J. Murphy Jr., who was commander of all naval forces aligned against Yugoslavia.
Short, a warrior's warrior who flew 276 combat missions in Vietnam and led F-15E strikes in the Persian Gulf War, seldom spoke to reporters during the Kosovo conflict. But his strongly expressed views became known through his colleagues. Topping the list was that it was a waste of time and resources to strike Milosevic's 3rd Army in Kosovo. "I never felt that the 3rd Army was a center of gravity," Short said in a rare interview published this month in Air Force magazine. "Body bags coming home from Kosovo didn't bother [Milosevic], and it didn't bother the [Yugoslav] leadership elite."
Short never disobeyed an order from Clark, but his body language – slumped in his chair, arms folded, scowling – sometimes reflected his discontent. "Short is a very good man," said one senior officer who witnessed such episodes, but "he was just driven to distraction" by the unorthodoxy of using million-dollar missiles to strike targets worth less than a tenth as much.
Moreover, other air force commanders shared Short's reservations about "tank plinking" in Kosovo, which they equated with the fruitless hunt for Scud missile batteries during the Persian Gulf War. And they particularly disparaged the notion that destroying a certain number of tanks would stop the rampage on the ground.
"The tank, which was an irrelevant item in the context of ethnic cleansing, became the symbol for Serb ground forces," said Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "How many tanks did you kill today? All of a sudden this became the measure of merit that had nothing to do with reality."
In the Air Force magazine interview, Short said that Clark urged him even before the conflict started to "get down amongst" Yugoslav armored vehicles and troops in the field. Eventually, he said, "we, the airmen of the alliance, were able to convince General Clark" of a need to conduct sustained operations against "more lucrative and compelling targets ... in Serbia proper."
Clark says he didn't need any convincing about strategic targets, but he wanted to strike Serbian forces in Kosovo, as well. Meanwhile, he was fending off proposals from the political leaders of some NATO countries – particularly Italy and Greece – who wanted to suspend the bombing altogether.
Clark's frustration with the alliance's timidity was reflected in a video conference on March 27. These live, highly secure communication links replaced the crackly field telephones and urgent cables of previous wars. They were part theater, say some of the people who sat through them, with a dozen large personalities on the stage.
NATO must strike "as many targets as we can each night," said Clark, seated at the head of a classroom-style conference room, staring at a television screen hanging from the ceiling. "I don't want to let the perception get started that we're not doing much, so we can have a pause."
Clark had lived through the defining military experience of his generation – Vietnam – where he was shot four times on a reconnaissance patrol near Long Thanh. In addition to a Purple Heart, he earned an appreciation of how vital public support is to successful warfare.
He applied that lesson to Kosovo. "I don't want to get into something like the Rolling Thunder campaign, pecking away indefinitely," he said in the video conference, referring to the early, light U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. "We've got to steadily ratchet up the pressure. ... We also need to become increasingly relevant to the situation on the ground. Otherwise we are at risk of being paused indefinitely. We'll lose public support."
But the Air Force complaints against Clark went beyond the debate over fielded forces. Clark also annoyed his commanders by micromanaging, dipping into every level of the execution of the war – even choosing, at times, the type of bomb to drop on a specific target.
He particularly riled some Air Force commanders with what they called "ad hoc" targeting: demanding strikes on targets the same day they were approved by political leaders, shifting the mix of targets from week to week, assigning missions that had not yet been approved and then calling them back if approval didn't come.
"We don't like this kind of process where something could be left on by omission," Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., commander of allied forces in southern Europe, told Clark during one video conference. No mistakes of omission were made, however.
To increase the safety of pilots, the Air Force assigned half a dozen planes to fly as security guards for each pair of attacking fighters or bombers. This complicated the "air tasking order" – the script for each night's bombing – and prevented quick changes in missions. So Clark often turned to the Navy, whose role in the war was much greater than previously acknowledged. According to a postwar military assessment, naval missiles and planes were responsible for nearly half the damage done to Yugoslavia's electric power system, army headquarters and police buildings.
Some Air Force officers were so critical of the war's execution that they encouraged retired colleagues to speak out. The Air Force public affairs staff at the Pentagon quietly fed information to a group of retired generals, according to two spokesmen. On television and in newspaper interviews, these "senior statesmen" asserted that air power was being used improperly and might well fail.
With the ready smile of a politician, Clark is one of the rare generals who thrives at the diplomatic-military axis. He graduated first in his class at West Point, studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, and has taught both political philosophy and Army tactics and strategy – all of which has tagged him in some military circles as too political, too intellectual, and not always in step with the organization.
Yet, in the end, Clark pushed hard for approval to go after exactly the kind of targets that the Air Force wanted. And it was then that his political acumen proved useful.
On March 28, Clark's black Mercedes drew up to NATO Secretary General Javier Solana's home in Brussels. In the dining room, the general gave the Spanish diplomat a detailed lesson in targeting. He explained the blast radius of various weapons. He talked about picking "aim points" – crossbeams, keystones or baseboards that could be struck to make a building collapse inward, upon itself. NATO planners, he said, could calculate how far shattered glass would fly and whether it would simply graze or embed in a person's skin. If they changed the warhead or angle of impact, they could determine whether concrete would be blown one block away, or three.
Clark wanted Solana to understand all of this, because he wanted approval for two particular targets.
On one side of Knez Milos Street in downtown Belgrade was the Yugoslav Interior Ministry, a massive, seven-story building of white stone. Across the way was the headquarters of the Serbian special police, an even larger complex of steel and dark brown glass. It didn't matter to Clark that they had been emptied, days earlier, of all people, computers and furniture. NATO commanders hoped that this airstrike – the first on the Yugoslav capital – would make a psychological point: As long as atrocities were occurring in Kosovo, Belgrade would not be safe.
On March 30, day seven of the war, the NAC debated Clark's request but made no decision. Instead, the council left Solana with the job of interpreting its wishes. A few days later, he gave the go-ahead.
By winning approval for continuing strikes on Belgrade as well as Kosovo, Clark finally brought the allies and the Air Force together, creating the broader war that led Milosevic to capitulate. But military historians, air power strategists and budding commanders at war colleges will long debate the merits of Short's position vs. Clark's.
Last week, Clark released some long-awaited figures on the Kosovo campaign: Allied warplanes destroyed or damaged 93 tanks, 153 armored personnel carriers, 339 military vehicles and 389 artillery pieces and mortars. Those numbers represent only about one-third of all the weaponry and vehicles that the Yugoslav army had in Kosovo; two-thirds survived intact.
To those in Short's camp, this is strong evidence that the war was won by strategic bombing of Serbia proper, where NATO damaged or destroyed 24 bridges, 12 railway stations, 36 factories, seven airports, 16 fuel plants and storage depots, 17 television transmitters and several electrical facilities, according to a Yugoslav government report.
Clark is not swayed. He argues that Yugoslavia was defeated by steady losses both in Kosovo and in the rest of Serbia, combined with diplomatic pressure and the threat of an allied invasion.
The air campaign "was an effort to coerce, not to seize," said Clark. "It only made good sense that at some point, if [Milosevic] continued to lose and we didn't, that he would throw in the towel. But we could never predict how long he would hold on because it wasn't a function of any specific set of losses. It was a function of variables that were beyond our predictions – ultimately, his state of mind."
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this series.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company