One of the moral requirements of war is that every conflict should be followed by an honest, open, rigorous lessons-learned assessment. From that standpoint, Jim Hoagland's July 11 op-ed column is a notable failure. Hoagland writes, "Russian-supplied weapons and defensive strategy were defeated by NATO as thoroughly as were Slobodan Milosevic's political goals."

In reality, the main military failure in Kosovo was NATO's air campaign. The air campaign failed utterly to halt the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Albanians from Kosovo: Serbian troops operated against the Albanians with virtual impunity, despite NATO's bombing. The air campaign also failed to inflict more than trivial damage on the Yugoslav armed forces. The Yugoslav army that withdrew from Kosovo was not a beaten army. Shortly after the cease-fire, 11 Serbian MiGs flew out of Kosovo. On the ground, NATO has so far identified three Serbian tanks destroyed from the air -- that's right, three. (If mobility kills are included, the total may be as high as 20.) The casualty total announced by Belgrade -- about 600 Yugoslav soldiers and policemen killed by air attack -- is clearly closer to the truth than NATO's claim of as many as 20,000. Indeed, throughout the war, the military information coming out of Belgrade was generally more accurate than that coming from Brussels.

NATO air power did substantial damage to fixed targets such as empty barracks and Serbia's civilian infrastructure. But as throughout the history of air warfare, the effect was to strengthen both Serbians' will to fight and Milosevic's political position. People who are being bombed want to get even.

Particularly misleading is Hoagland's statement that "Milosevic's highly rated air defense system, which contained modern Western-manufactured equipment as well as Soviet-era surface-to-air missile batteries, proved wholly ineffective."

The Serbian air defense missiles were ancient: SA-2s and SA-3s we had learned how to counter during the Vietnam War, and SA-6s the Israelis had outmaneuvered successfully by the end of the 1973 war. Despite their antiquity, they proved effective, precisely because the Serbs seldom used them. Adopting a "fleet-in-being" strategy, they kept them as a latent threat, nullifying the U.S. Air Force's doctrine of first destroying the enemy air defense, then flying with impunity. The practical effect was to keep our aircraft above 15,000 feet, where they could not see or hit much other than large, fixed targets: hence the few Serbian tanks destroyed from the air.

Washington seems eager to forget that immediately prior to the agreement ending the war (temporarily), even a desperately optimistic Clinton administration was on the verge of giving up on the air war and invading on the ground. It was, literally, saved at the bell by Serbia's capitulation.

-- William S. Lind

The writer is a center director

at the Free Congress Foundation.