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  Yugoslav Air Defenses Mostly Intact

The sky over Pristina is illuminated by Yugoslav anti-aircraft fire. (Reuters)
By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 1999; Page A1

When NATO launched an air war against Yugoslavia, its first target was the country's formidable air defense network, which officials said had to be destroyed before lower-flying warplanes could safely swoop in to stop fighting and ethnic cleansing on the ground in Kosovo.

Three weeks and at least 4,000 sorties later, U.S. and European officials say NATO pilots have badly damaged communications links and early warning radar that allow Yugoslav forces to aim their surface-to-air missiles, but they also acknowledge much of the weaponry remains intact and still poses a significant threat to NATO warplanes that dip too low.

The resilience of the Yugoslav air defense system, added to cloudy weather that has shrouded the Balkans for most of the campaign, has been a major factor in slowing down NATO's ability to dispatch close-in attack planes against Yugoslav army troops and special police responsible for smashing the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army and driving up to half the Serbian province's 1.8 million residents from their homes.

Only last week several vehicles were destroyed and an unknown number of troops in the field were killed during a barrage that NATO launched against several Yugoslav military convoys in southwestern Kosovo.

Defense sources said one problem is that many of the Yugoslav military's 150 surface-to-air missiles have been hidden from NATO aircraft, as have the thousands of antiaircraft artillery batteries and hundreds of shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles similar to the U.S. Stinger.

Despite the large number of NATO aircraft that buzz overhead each day, however, Yugoslav forces have shown a continued willingness to bring out their equipment if only briefly and to fire it against enemy planes. "They fired several SAMs last night; the triple A is heavy," said Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, vice director for strategic plans for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was referring to surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.

U.S. intelligence reports indicate the Yugoslavs have weathered hits to communications links the network that allows radars and operators in one part of the country to see flying planes and pass the information to missile sites best located to shoot them down by using a system of reinforced underground command sites and mobile communications centers. They are also able to repair or make up for damage to some command headquarters within 24 hours, according to U.S. intelligence reports, and senior commanders are operating from dispersed underground bunkers.

"The air defense system is far from demolished," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said yesterday. "It's one we have to fly both around and through. . . . they are very adept at moving [air defense missiles] around. They have continued to adapt to the challenge."

Some defense officials have said they underestimated how effective the Yugoslav Army would be at hiding its wares. Yugoslav commanders may also have learned some valuable tactics from Iraq, whose damaged but still operational air defense network continues to shoot at U.S. and British aircraft.

Because neither NATO nor the Pentagon has released concrete battle damage assessments for Operation Allied Force, it is impossible to independently judge the state of the air campaign to date. From the outside, however, there seems to be a gap between the brutality of the Yugoslav offensive against Kosovo residents of Albanian stock and the air response that aims mainly at infrastructure, industry, transportation and supply targets. Asked about it, Pentagon and NATO officials have been unflinching in their optimistic assessment of the war so far.

"Is it working? Yes," Wald said at yesterday's Pentagon briefing. "How much, I can't tell you that now."

"This is a mission that is proceeding on course," the NATO supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, said Sunday. In another version, Bacon said, "The end result is we've achieved the ability to fly where and when we want with an acceptable risk."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, with a slightly different tack, said yesterday the air war has achieved "tactical maneuverability." This means, according to Pentagon officials, that a team of NATO aircraft can fly over a given location with acceptable risks because they bring along electronic jamming aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler that can disrupt the targeting of missile batteries, and also planes such as the F-15CJ that fires HARM anti-radiation missiles designed to destroy radar-equipped air defense systems.

Clark asked the United States last week to send over 82 more planes, including 24 F-15CJs and six Prowlers. "The package suggests that we haven't achieved our first objective," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official and Balkans expert. The sheer increase in the number of airplanes involved in the mission over the last week suggests that the course has changed with the ground situation. The NATO operation began with about 430 allied aircraft, including 250 American planes. Yesterday there were about 700 aircraft, including about 500 U.S. warplanes, assigned to the operation.

Clark is about to request that the United States and other allies assign about 300 more planes to the operation, including more strike fighters appropriate for direct attacks on troops and armor in Kosovo.

The Pentagon has been keeping the public informed about its progress through generalized charts. A week ago the so-called "battle damage assessment summary" said the Yugoslav air defense system was "degraded but functional," that half its inventory of MiG fighters was destroyed, but that a threat remains from surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery.

Yesterday the chart was changed to read that the air defense system was "degraded but functional," that the Yugoslav forces retained "significant capability to engage with SAMs," but that "SAM sustainability" had been "substantially reduced."

"The capability of the Serb air defense system to react in an integrated manner has been severely damaged or destroyed," said one European official with access to damage assessments. "But the arms themselves are still there. . . . It's much more difficult for Serbians to use them and they are reluctant to use the few radars they have. It's still a danger to low-flying planes."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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