Speaking publicly for the first time since the end of NATO's war against Yugoslavia, the top allied air commander said yesterday that the 78-day campaign could have ended earlier had political leaders allowed warplanes to attack Belgrade on the first night.

"I believe the way to stop ethnic cleansing was to go at the heart of the leadership, and put a dagger in that heart as rapidly and as decisively as possible," Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

From the second day of the campaign, NATO's top military commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, pushed for approval to bomb Belgrade. But NATO political leaders, particularly the French, were reluctant.

Asked by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) what he would have done differently, Short answered: "I'd have gone for the head of the snake on the first night. I'd have turned the lights out the first night. I'd have dropped the bridges across the Danube. I'd have hit five or six political and military headquarters in downtown Belgrade. [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and his cronies would have waked up the first morning asking what the hell was going on."

NATO commanders tailored the air campaign to minimize pilot losses. But Short also argued that NATO placed its own air crews at increased risk by taking certain steps to reduce civilian casualties, such as bombing bridges only on weeknights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.--a regular schedule that made NATO planes more vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.

His voice cracking with emotion, Short recalled that his son, a fighter pilot, called one night during the war to say that a surface-to-air missile had struck part of his plane. "This is a personal thing to me, senator," Short told Warner.

Overall, Short called the campaign "an air power success" and said it demonstrated the high quality of U.S. military personnel and technology. While acknowledging that he had some "differences in philosophy on how to conduct the air campaign," he said, "those differences at no time prevented me from doing my job as well as I possibly could."

Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe, told the panel that political and military leaders need to talk with one another before the next crisis "so that we all understand what the political dynamic is and what the military requirements are."

In future conflicts, Clark added, NATO should consider nonmilitary ways of crippling the enemy, such as legally closing ports and rivers. He also suggested that isolating "Milosevic and his political parties electronically" might have been "even more powerful than the military instrument, maybe would have prevented the use of the military instrument."