The Washington Post
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Related Items
In the Vault
  • Previous columns

    On This Site

  • Live Online: Arkin answered your questions on the Yugoslav air war.

  • Arkin's Fog of War and Desert Fox Iraq analysis

    On the Web

  • Resources from Arkin's "The U.S. Military Online"
  •   Yugoslavia Unplugged

        Bill Arkin

    By William M. Arkin
    Special to
    Monday, May 10, 1999

    "We regret the inconvenience that power outages have caused to the Serb people," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said May 3 after U.S. planes used new "blackout bombs" against the Yugoslav electrical network.

    What silly nonsense.

    The only point of turning off the lights was to bring the war home to the Yugoslav people.

    Electrical transformer yards were hit again on May 7, Shea said, to "confuse and degrade" Yugoslav command, control and communications systems. Shea and his American counterparts can proclaim "tactical advantage" from attacks on electricity until they are blue in the face. Air Force-proposed attacks on power sites had been vetoed by political decision-makers early in the campaign: The delayed bombing of the electrical system starting on the 40th day of the air campaign was purely for show.

    A New, Highly Classified Weapon

    At 9:45 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, Yugoslavia's high-voltage system collapsed after F-117 stealth fighters dropped new BLU-114/B bombs on five dispersed outdoor substations. The cluster bomb-like weapons projected bomblets that carry chemically treated spools of highly conductive carbon-fiber threads. As the bomblets fall to earth, the spools unravel, creating a spider web that blankets conductors, insulators and shield wires, and causes short-circuiting.

    The electrical system worked as designed. The transformers shut down to prevent further damage. About 70 percent of the country lost power for some seven hours.

    To attack Yugoslavia, CIA analysts mapped out Serbia's grid to find the most vulnerable points in the distribution network. The mission was essential to take down power without threatening the power plants and electrical generators themselves.

    The lights would be turned out, NATO finally agreed, but there could be no long-term civilian impact.

    An Unconventional and Ineffective Campaign

    Electrical attacks would join other miscues in the targeting choreography of Operation Allied Force were it not for the fact that bombing of electrical power also entails a humanitarian gamble. Civilian deprivations accumulate over time after electrical power is gone. In the Gulf War, bombing of electricity produced the worst civilian "collateral damage," making electricity a particularly politically sensitive target group.

    Now two rounds of electrical power-killing strikes against the urban network threaten the civilian populations with little or no military justification. Electricity is an easy target to hit, "signaling" to Yugoslav President Milosevic and his people that NATO means business, but the effect doesn't end when the smoke clears.

    A Juicy Target

    Modern electrical power networks are incredibly complex systems of generating plants, transformers and distribution lines designed to deliver uninterrupted service. Redundancies and protective systems are built in to satisfy consumer demand, as well as to compensate for intermittent failure. One plant goes down, excess capacity in others takes up the slack. When a transformer or distribution station fails, currents find their way through alternate routes.

    It goes without saying that virtually everything in urbanized society, such as water purification, sewage treatment, heating and refrigeration, is linked to electricity.

    "The dependence of highly industrialized states on electric power is so great that the consequences of an inadequate supply of electricity could be crippling to both civilian and military operations," the Air Force wrote in its 1994 "Dropping the Electrical Grid" report.

    It is no wonder, then, that electrical power has become one of the prime targets for air warfare. The grid is what Air Force targeters call "highly leveraged." A few weapons can do enormous damage.

    The irony is that the very sophistication of the grid aids attack: Power is either supplied or the customer is blacked out. There is no such thing as getting just a little electricity.

    The Little Inconveniences of Doctrine

    NATO was looking over its shoulder at Iraq.

    No aspect of Gulf War bombing has attracted more persistent criticism than that of Iraqi electrical power. The grid was attacked to induce a combination of direct military effects and psychological pressure on the Iraqi people and leadership.

    Despite sparse collateral damage from traditional rubble and shrapnel, the successful and precise destruction of electricity led to the collapse of Iraqi civilian life support systems.

    "It was recognized at the beginning that this campaign would cause some unavoidable hardships for the Iraqi people," the Defense Department conceded in its official report to Congress on the war. "It was impossible ... to shut down the electrical power supply for Iraqi C2 [command and control] facilities or CW [chemical weapons] factories, yet leave untouched the electricity supply for the general populace."

    After Desert Storm, the Air Force undertook development of the super-secret BLU-114/B, and the intelligence establishment redoubled its efforts to do more sophisticated network analysis for the very purpose of making it possible to get the military benefit of denying electrical power while sparing the civilian population.

    As planning for Allied Force began, Air Force targeters and experts argued for electricity to be hit precisely and early in the campaign for military, and not psychological, effect. "Shutting down electricity," one senior officer says, "along with the distribution elements of POL [petroleum, oil and lubricants] can impose paralysis on the regime rapidly by stressing power supplies for things like communications systems, air defenses, transportation, TV and radio."

    They were vetoed.

    When NATO needed to escalate the bombing campaign against stubborn Milosevic, electricity was added belatedly to the target list to send a message to Belgrade. The new weapons evidently worked. Avoiding damage to the power generators likely will limit long-term civilian harm. The gamble is still there, and hitting electricity as a frustration and demonstration target does not prove there is military advantage to be gained in hitting it at all.

    William M. Arkin, author of "The U.S. Military Online," is a leading expert on national security and the Internet. He lectures and writes on nuclear weapons, military matters and information warfare. An Army intelligence analyst from 1974 to 1978, Arkin currently consults for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, MSNBC and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

    Arkin can be reached for comment at

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar