NATO General Predicts Victory in Two Months
By William Drozdiak
VICENZA, Italy – The commander of NATO's air war against Yugoslavia says allied warplanes are finally inflicting serious damage to Serb-led forces inside Kosovo and he believes they will be destroyed or chased out of the province by bombing raids alone within two months.
As NATO authorities prepare to consider sending up to 50,000 ground troops to the borders of the separatist province, Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short said in an interview he is convinced the escalating air war – with more warplanes flying more daily missions than ever in the two-month campaign – will soon overwhelm the 40,000 Serb-led Yugoslav troops and police and paramilitaries now entrenched across the Maryland-size province.
Short said the firepower at his disposal is focused on annihilating the Yugoslav Third Army inside Kosovo. Along with intensified attacks by B-1 and B-52 bombers, he has deployed within the past week a second squadron of A-10 Warthog tank killers, which he described as the "optimum weapon" for finding and destroying targets in this environment.
"If you are getting pounded by B-1s and B-52s and A-10s are chasing you every day, and if you know that every time you move you are liable to be hit, at some point your spirit will break, particularly if you are not getting any help from Belgrade," Short said.
"I don't have a good feel for knowing how close they are to breaking, but I'll tell you that if we do this for two more months, we will either kill this army in Kosovo or send it on the run."
Short's upbeat forecast contrasted with other recent assessments, including one by Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon at a briefing Friday, that airstrikes alone may not force an end to the conflict in the next two months. Bacon's comments were aimed at focusing attention on the need to move now to send ground troops to the Balkans in time to bring ethnic Albanian refugees back to Kosovo before the first snow arrives in October.
Short's position – that air power will prevail by early summer, enabling peacekeepers to return the refugees with little or no resistance – is what the White House is hoping for so it can avoid having to answer for the casualties that would occur in a ground invasion.
Short, who is the commander of allied air forces in southern Europe, spoke in a wide-ranging interview Saturday at an Italian military base here that serves as the nerve center for NATO air operations over Yugoslavia.
[NATO continued striking hard at Yugolavia Sunday night, hitting major generating plants and severely disrupting power supplies, state television and residents said. The Beta news agency reported that most of Belgrade, all of Novi Sad, capital of Vojvodina, and Kragujevac in central Serbia were without power.]
Despite his confidence, Short expressed frustration with the political and military restrictions that he said have hampered the campaign since it began with cruise missile strikes on the night of March 24.
"As an airman, I would have done this differently," he said. "It would not be an incremental air campaign or a slow buildup, but we would go downtown from the first night . . . so that on the first morning, the influential citizens of Belgrade gathered around [President Slobodan] Milosevic would have awakened to significant destruction and a clear signal from NATO that we were taking the gloves off.
"If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in Danube for the next 20 years, I think you begin to ask, 'Hey, Slobo, what's this all about? How much more of this do we have to withstand?' And at some point, you make the transition from applauding Serb machismo against the world to thinking what your country is going to look like if this continues."
Short said he has been prevented from attacking what he considers vital targets because of anxiety among NATO's 19 governments that further civilian casualties could erode public support. Following the mistaken strike on the Chinese Embassy, NATO stopped hitting targets in central Belgrade for nearly two weeks while the blunder was investigated and alliance authorities sought to ensure that such intelligence disasters would not recur.
"There are targets I would like to hit that we are restricted from hitting because of 19 nations needing to agree," Short said. "But that's just a reality of working within a coalition. They all have a different view of the problem and they all want it solved a little differently."
Besides targeting restrictions imposed by the alliance of 19 democracies, the air campaign has come under sharp criticism even within the Pentagon and among retired Air Force officers for its extreme caution in flying at very high altitudes and avoiding all risks that might result in pilot losses. After more than 25,000 sorties, only two allied planes have been shot down and no pilots have been killed or captured.
As a result of such caution, NATO planes were slow to attack the Yugoslav troops and Serbian police who have expelled more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, according to U.N. figures, and displaced nearly 600,000 others inside the province, according to the State Department. By the time allied planes began striking those forces in earnest, Milosevic's brutal campaign of forced deportation was nearly complete.
Showing contempt for his critics, Short said those who question his decisions are "people who don't know what the hell is going on." He said the strategy was meticulously prepared in close consultation with his superiors, Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., the commander of allied forces in southern Europe, and Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the supreme allied commander and chief of U.S. forces in Europe.
"We decided to start out at an altitude we felt appropriate for the threat we expected to see and which allowed us to attack fixed targets with guided munitions in Kosovo and around Belgrade," Short said. He insisted that Clark never gave him any special guidance not to lose any airplanes, as previously reported, but he acknowledged that "zero losses" was a primary goal.
"I wanted to destroy the target set and bring this guy [Milosevic] to the negotiating table without losing our kids," Short said, confessing his amazement that no allied pilots have been killed or captured in the first 60 days of the campaign.
Before the bombing started, Short met with all of his pilots at Aviano Air Base, about two hours from here, and gave them final instructions. "I told them in no uncertain terms that we were not going in below 15,000 feet," he said, emphasizing they would be flying only at night and should not make multiple passes or other maneuvers that would entail unnecessary risks.
Short said this initial approach was driven by the threat from Yugoslavia's integrated air defense system, which featured a vaunted array of Soviet-style surface-to-air missiles. But instead of challenging NATO pilots, the Yugoslavs sought to preserve their defenses by not turning on their radar systems, which would have made them vulnerable to rapid strikes by HARM missiles and other allied weapons.
"They did not react the way we thought they would," Short said. "We thought they would make every effort to shoot us down, but they chose to shoot unguided missiles that were not very effective. They are good at concealment and constantly on the move, but they have stayed in a survival mode. It shows us there are not too many air defense operators willing to die for Milosevic."
After allied planes struck two civilian convoys on the same day traveling near Djackovica, Short said he realized the time had come for a change in tactics requiring pilots to fly at lower altitudes to identify targets better, even if that made them more vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.
"I met with all of my squadron commanders and said, 'Okay, what do we need to do to keep this from happening again?'" he said. "They gave me feedback as to altitude limits they felt were appropriate in getting down closer to the target set. I approved it and we've been operating under those guidelines ever since.
"I am convinced I have given them more than adequate latitude." Short said. "I'd be real surprised if you could find an air crew out there now that says they want to go lower than the altitude I have cleared."
Short said he felt "very uncomfortable" after authorizing lower-level flights because he feared allied planes had not properly suppressed Yugoslav defenses. But over time, he said, they have established clear air supremacy. "Now there is no place in the country we cannot fly at a time and place of our choosing," he said.
With nearly 1,000 aircraft now available – more than double the number at the outset of the campaign – and with Hungary and Turkey opening up air bases that will allow allied warplanes to attack from all fronts, Short is confident he will be able to defy history by defeating an indigenous army with air power alone within the next few weeks.
He said Yugoslav soldiers are becoming tougher to find because they have dispersed into the woods or dug in among Kosovo's civilian sites, but he said that makes them unable to move around and terrorize the ethnic Albanian population. And he said there are signs they are running out of fuel; recent airstrikes against Yugoslav fuel depots produced no secondary explosions, meaning they were probably empty.
Short has an important family stake in the air campaign; his son, Christopher, is one of the A-10 pilots leading the assault on Yugoslav armor. He also had a memorable encounter with Milosevic, whom he visited last autumn with special Balkans envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to explain the consequences of not signing a peace settlement for Kosovo.
"He asked me if I was the guy who was going to bomb Belgrade, and I told him I had B-52s in one arm and U-2s [surveillance planes] in the other," Short recalled. "He made the right choice last autumn [by avoiding a conflict] but the wrong choice this spring."
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