For the Pentagon, the war against Yugoslavia demonstrated the enormous potency and precision of modern-day air power. But the way that airstrikes were applied--incrementally and without the use of ground forces--left even some of the most ardent air power advocates dissatisfied with the results.
Far from seeing the NATO operation as validating the sole use of air power, even the Pentagon's military chiefs concede the way the war was won should hardly be a model for the future.
"I don't think anyone should walk out of this thinking we ought to only have air power," Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview.
Another high-ranking military officer was more blunt. "The lesson for NATO should be: If you're serious about applying power, don't screw around, get at it--turn out the lights, take the phone system down, not this incremental 'maybe we'll hit it, maybe we won't,' " he said. "That's no way to fight a war."
The Pentagon was compelled to pull punches in the conflict in the interest of maintaining a consensus in NATO for some military action. Both Shelton and, in a separate interview, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen hailed NATO's demonstrated ability to hold together--despite arguments over bombing pauses and target lists--as an important and surprising lesson of the air campaign.
But other defense specialists said the price paid in the name of alliance unity argued for fewer, not more, such coalition efforts in the future. By restraining the way force was applied against Yugoslavia, these critics contend, NATO ended up unnecessarily prolonging the campaign and extending the suffering of ethnic Albanians.
"The lesson we've learned is that coalitions aren't good ways to fight a war," said retired Adm. Leighton "Snuffy" Smith, who commanded NATO forces in southern Europe from 1994 to 1996. "What has to be done is streamline the political process in NATO--or any other coalition that we choose to gather up military might--so we can do militarily what makes sense."
Still, whatever the shortcomings, fighting in coalition arrangements appears to be an unavoidable fact of post-Cold War life. And limited warfare, with its emphasis on precision attack capabilities and low casualties for allied forces and civilians, is becoming the norm for U.S. forces, according to defense experts.
"We need partners both for political legitimacy and for risk-sharing," said David Ochmanek, who served as a senior Pentagon planner earlier in the Clinton administration and is now at the Rand Corp.
The pressures of dealing with conflicts that fall short of all-out warfare, experts inside and outside the Pentagon said, should drive the United States and its allies to develop more expeditionary forces geared to getting troops to remote places rapidly and keeping casualties to a minimum. In this regard, the air campaign against Yugoslavia offered important lessons in military tactics and weapons likely to influence future defense budget debates.
It provided a particular boon for Air Force systems, especially stealthy planes, "standoff" weapons and electronic jamming gear. Among the big winners was the B-2 stealth bomber, which made its combat debut, flying regular round-trip missions from Missouri, where the planes are based. The Air Force has long boasted that the B-2 gives it "global reach, global power," but this was the first time it demonstrated such capability in a sustained campaign.
Also featured were a host of precision weapons--notably cruise missiles, satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions and video-guided AGM-130 missiles--that allowed U.S. planes to hit with what the Pentagon's senior military briefer, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, claimed was a 99.6 percent accuracy rate.
But even with their high-tech weapons, NATO warplanes were stymied in the first weeks of the campaign by heavy cloud cover, underscoring a pressing need for more all-weather capabilities.
"We've got a lot of ways to kill things when we can see them, but not very many to kill them when we can't," Ochmanek said.
The news for the Army is less encouraging. NATO's reluctance to commit any combat ground forces--and especially the very public controversy over the Apache attack helicopters, which were sent to Albania but never used--left troubling questions for the Army about the role it has to play in future operations, so long as U.S. authorities remain deeply wary of risking casualties.
The more than four weeks that were required to deploy the Apaches and their associated task force of protective armored vehicles and artillery also gave rise to concerns about the Army's ability to move combat forces to distant hot spots quickly enough to deal with today's crises.
"The lesson for the Army is, it's not going to be in the game unless it develops some sort of medium-weight force that it can deploy rapidly," said John Hillen, a defense expert in Washington.
CAPTION: Among the big winners of the war in Yugoslavia was the Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber, which made its combat debut, flying regular round-trip missions from Missouri.