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Balkans Special Report

  NATO Struggles to Make Progress From the Air

By Dana Priest and William Drozdiak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page A1

Despite a rapid escalation in attacks against Yugoslavia made possible by NATO commanders' broader authority to select targets and more planes to attack them, the allied air war remains frustrated in its efforts to isolate and break the Yugoslav military, according to NATO and U.S. military accounts, and interviews with U.S. and European officials and analysts.

After more than 6,000 allied sorties during the first four weeks of Operation Allied Force, NATO has not made a perceptible dent in the Yugoslav military offensive in Kosovo that has created hundreds of thousands of refugees. There are 7,000 more Yugoslav forces now in and around Kosovo, for a total of 43,000, than when the NATO bombing started on March 24, according to U.S. intelligence reports.

The commander of NATO, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, has asked for nearly 400 additional aircraft and thousands of supporting crews, including about 33,000 U.S. Air Force reservists, to intensify the war. He also has sought and received 50 Apache attack helicopters and the tactical missiles known as the Multiple Rocket Launcher System. He is now considering calling for a second U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, to join the three others one American, one French and one British already in the Adriatic.

Even with this buildup, senior alliance diplomats and military officers acknowledge that airstrikes may stretch well into the summer before they break the back of Yugoslav forces or persuade President Slobodan Milosevic to accept Western terms for peace in Kosovo.

One Pentagon official involved in the effort said that he still evaluates the success of the campaign on the basis of whether it leads Milosevic to back down. "I know of no signs, no signals, messages or other indicators that would indicate that Milosevic is changing his strategy," he said.

Elusive Targets

Four weeks into Operation Allied Force, air operations have had a variety of setbacks, from bad weather to the mistaken bombing of a convoy in southern Kosovo last Wednesday that killed civilian refugees. While having success at turning ammunition depots, missile storage buildings and fuel tanks into fireballs, NATO has reported destroying just five air defense targets. While NATO has damaged other air defense targets, this shortcoming continues to restrict pilots to high altitudes.

Even some highly touted victories such as the elimination of 100 percent of Serbia's fuel production have been partial. Yugoslavia continues to bring in tons of fuel through ports in Montenegro, which have not been targeted.

Senior NATO and U.S. officials have given a series of upbeat public assessments of progress during the past week, reflecting what officials describe as genuine accomplishments on the ground and improvements in the way the war is being conducted. Last week, Clark presented charts and maps showing some of the 100 targets NATO has struck, and said: "This is a race of our attack against his reconstruction and repair. He's losing this race right now."

But Clark also acknowledges that Yugoslav forces in Kosovo "are regrouping, refitting, reconstituting and preparing for future operations. But we've not seen them leaving." Yesterday, Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army, the Belgrade government's chief fighting force in Kosovo, declared that his troops were settling in for a long war and that NATO would face tens of thousands of armed men if it mounted a ground invasion, according to an Associated Press account of his remarks.

During the past month, Clark has fought for, and won, a freer hand in directing the air campaign against Yugoslavia. During the past week, in what was widely described as a "dramatic" increase in daily missions, wave after wave of warplanes threw their munitions against vehicle convoys and staging areas within designated "kill boxes" in Kosovo.

Nightly bombing runs have been transformed into round-the-clock operations. Allied warplanes hover over the Adriatic Sea at all times with the help of airborne refueling tankers so they can be summoned quickly into action when a tank convoy or another target emerges from hiding. The number of support aircraft has grown to such proportions that Clark says the operation has become "the most heavily leveraged air campaign ever seen."

[Last night, after skies cleared over Yugoslavia, NATO escalated its campaign. Targets were struck in several cities, and Serbian television reported the death of a child and several injuries in an attack on a Belgrade suburb.]

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said it is unfair to judge the effectiveness of the campaign by taking a snapshot of it today. "I'd say Milosevic has lost," he said. "He's losing his military infrastructure and his ability to sustain his forces. He's losing his air defense system slowly but surely. We see signs of lower morale, evidence of desertions, leadership gaps, command and control problems.

"It's not over. . . . We're in the first 25 minutes of a two-hour movie. You can't predict how it's going to end from the first 25 minutes."

Officials say they have recovered from early miscalculations about the effects of bombing, and have succeeded in shifting the campaign from one designed as a swift, coercive blow to Belgrade into a long-term war of attrition. The original aim compelling Milosevic to sign a Kosovo peace accord within days has been all but forgotten.

This early miscalculation about Milosevic's staying power influenced the original design of the air war. With contributions from 16 nations, NATO mustered only 400 planes, about one-seventh of the 2,700 planes it sent to force Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"If we knew then what we know now about Milosevic's game plan, we would have deployed a lot more aircraft at the start," a NATO military officer said. "But none of the allies wanted to assign more planes than were necessary for a limited campaign, so we were caught up short."

The first weeks of NATO's air campaign were hampered by a variety of other factors. Pilots were ordered to avoid risks of civilian casualties and collateral damage. They were told not to drop bombs unless they were absolutely certain of their targets. "These rules of engagement are as strict as any I've seen during 27 years in the military," said U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald.

'No Greater Priority'

Allied pilots were also given firm instructions to take no chances with Yugoslavia's vaunted air defense network by flying at low altitudes; in most cases, a threshold was established at 15,000 feet. "There is practically no greater priority than avoiding the loss or capture of one of our pilots," a NATO military officer said.

Even now, after weeks of strikes against Yugoslavia's air defenses, NATO commanders are loath to allow pilots to fly at low altitudes or in slow planes because they fear they could be hit by shoulder-fired SAM-7 missiles or other mobile antiaircraft artillery. "The Serbs are using classic cat-and-mouse tactics in protecting their defenses," a NATO military officer said. "We may be faced with the dilemma of taking much greater risks or accepting a much slower pace in the air campaign."

Bad weather has made it even more difficult to sustain an intensive assault. During the first three weeks, Clark estimates the campaign enjoyed only seven days of favorable weather. On 10 days, more than 50 percent of airstrikes had to be canceled. The number of sorties over Yugoslavia has averaged about 300 a day, about one-seventh as many as in the air campaign to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait during the Gulf War.

NATO's initial unease with its first major military operation in 50 years was also reflected in its carefully constructed mechanism for approving targeting. Every day for at least the first week, "every single target" was scrutinized by military officers from each of the 19 allied nations, according to a senior official.

They looked at the "aim points" where the precision-guided missiles were supposed to hit the target. They discussed the kinds of bombs or missiles that would be best to to minimize inaccuracy and civilian casualties. NATO countries had the power and exercised it to disapprove of the bombing of targets they believed would accidentally cause civilian deaths. If a military building was too close to a hotel or hospital as many were it was scratched from the list.

Clark's frustrations about this arrangement came to a boil in private one day after an aide remarked that he seemed to be running a war with one hand tied behind his back.

"I've got two arms and one leg tied behind my back, while I'm hopping around trying to figure out the best way to conduct this mission," Clark responded, according to someone present.

Broadening the Targets

After the first days of bombing, as Milosevic's forces unleashed brutality against the Kosovo Albanians, Clark scrambled to loosen the constraints on targeting and to be allowed to go after "strategic" targets dual-use facilities such as fuel production and other industrial plants.

By March 27, with the brutality of the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo already three days old, Clark asked to broaden the target set from the mostly air defense sites in what was known as "Phase I" to the "Phase II" targets below the 44th parallel military depots, ammunition and weapons storage facilities that would directly affect the Yugoslav military capability in Kosovo.

More than a week later, Clark again sought and received permission to hit some targets initially reserved for the final, third phase of the air war.

About a week ago, NATO's North Atlantic Council approved new guidelines that increased Clark's autonomy even further. Clark is now required to consult with NATO's political leader, Secretary General Javier Solana, only before ordering strikes against three of the most sensitive types of targets: those in downtown Belgrade, those that are industrial and those that risk large numbers of civilian lives.

"He now has authority to hit all the targets he needs, which means basically everything except downtown Belgrade and Montenegro," Yugoslavia's smaller republic, said a senior NATO diplomat. "The allies have swallowed any misgivings about bridges, petroleum depots and other infrastructure sites that could affect civilian life."

Although top officials have portrayed the air war to date as a 24-hour business, one officer close to the operation said it would only truly become that when with the next wave of planes.

"Right now there are periods when everyone can come out of their shelters and take a breath," one official said. "When you get to the point where you can't come out," the equation will really change. "Right now, every time you give them a breather, life flows back in" to the Serbian forces on the ground.

Officials say that 90 percent of all weapons fired at Yugoslavia during Allied Force have been precision-guided munitions "the highest proportion of precision weaponry that has ever been used in any air operation anywhere," according to Clark. Still, important targets remain highly elusive.

So far, officials say they have had the most success damaging or destroying the military assets that will enable Milosevic's war machine to keep going in the future; half of its ammunition production and all of its fuel production has been destroyed. There has been considerably more difficulty targeting military assets involved in the ongoing destruction of Kosovo, such as Yugoslav troops and the weapons they depend on.

NATO's first and most pressing targets have been Yugoslav air defenses. Clark's plan called for hurling hundreds of missiles against the integrated system, the best among the former Warsaw Pact nations. To date, about 30 air defense targets have been hit. Of those, five have been destroyed and about 21 have suffered moderate damage.

NATO pilots have badly damaged the communications links and early warning radar system that allows Yugoslav forces to aim their surface-to-air missiles, but most of the weaponry itself remains intact, including thousands of shoulder-fired rockets that NATO never expected it would be able to destroy.

A dozen such rockets flew up at NATO aircraft last Thursday, and several more on Friday. An assessment last week by the U.S. European Command's staff said the Yugoslavs have found ways around the limited destruction of its early warning radars and communication links. Senior commanders were still operating from underground bunkers with a jury-rigged mobile command system. In some cases, they can repair the communication lines within 24 hours.

The NATO attack has had a greater impact on the Yugoslav forces' command and control structure, hitting dozens of building, barracks and headquarters of the army and Interior Ministry. Pentagon officials say they believe most of these buildings were empty, but they argue that striking such facilities affects morale and creates instability, because troops and commanders have a harder time coordinating their actions.

Others are not so sure. There are indications that the army and police can still carry out coordinated operations and find KLA guerrillas, suggesting that their command and control structure is so low-tech hand-held walkie talkies and other rudimentary radio communications hat NATO high-tech bombs haven't stopped them.

Reduced Fueling Capacity

"Serbia does not need the advanced communications facilities in these buildings for the kind of war it is now fighting," wrote defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman in a recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Worse, destroying some facilities in Kosovo has already led the military and police to drive out even more Kosovars and using their facilities as headquarters."

Bombing raids have severely handicapped Serbia's ability to produce, store and transport fuel oil. Maintenance hangars and supply facilities have been damaged. NATO has destroyed all the rail lines and damaged most of the roads and bridges leading into Kosovo. This makes it considerably more difficult for military convoys to reinforce troops and makes slow-moving traffic vulnerable to air attacks.

Nonetheless, Milosevic has managed to keep his war effort from starving. NATO intelligence officials say Yugoslav forces prepositioned large fuel stocks and have been able to maintain mobility in Kosovo. In addition, they are bringing in large amounts of fuel from Montenegro, whose ports have been jammed with foreign oil tankers.

NATO diplomats say a blockade of Montenegrin ports would be an act of war that many allied governments are reluctant to commit, especially since some European capitals are still troubled by the dubious legality of the airstrikes in the absence of explicit authority from the United Nations.

The most difficult targets have been the small units of special police, backed up by company-size units of the Yugoslav army. Some 33 barracks, headquarters and other facilities have been bombed as of April 13, when Clark gave his most detailed account so far. Twenty-one of the 33 buildings suffered moderate damage, according to NATO figures. As of a week ago, NATO planes had struck only about six convoys of military vehicles, in part because bad weather made such precision targeting impossible.

But beginning this week, pilots have begun to operate in "kill boxes." With precision timing, pilots take turns shooting at all mobile enemy targets troops, tanks, artillery pieces, convoys in a small, predesignated geographic area. In the case of Kosovo, these kill boxes are selected when unmanned reconnaissance vehicles or spy planes know there is a high concentration of enemy troops and a low number of civilians who could be accidentally harmed within the designed box.

Flying against these targets, pilots are given complete authority, within the existing rules of engagement, to strike at any enemy targets they see and believe they can hit.

"It's just like hunting," said a Pentagon official who keeps track of the bombing. "One day you get a good day and you bag a lot. The next day you just don't get anybody."

Priest reported from Washington; Drozdiak, from Brussels.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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