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  •   Air War Joined by Low-Flying 'Spectre'

    AC-130 Spectre aircraft
    AC-130 Spectre aircraft. (US Air Force)
    By Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page A1

    U.S. pilots have begun flying low-circling AC-130 "Spectre" gunships over Kosovo in an effort to hasten the destruction of Yugoslav troops, tanks and artillery concentrations, according to officials briefed on the operation.

    Use of the slow-flying gunships, which spit out howitzer and cannon fire at a withering 2,500 rounds per minute, marks a new, slightly more daring tactic in an air war largely characterized by its lack of risk-taking. Because of their slow speed and low altitude during operations, the gunships are more vulnerable to antiaircraft missiles than the high-flying jets that have provided the firepower so far in NATO's eight-week-old air war over Yugoslavia.

    The NATO commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, remains in a standoff with Pentagon officials over use of the Army's 24 AH-64A Apache helicopter gunships stationed in Albania because of fears in Washington that the helicopters would be too vulnerable to antiaircraft fire. But he quietly ordered elite Air Force Special Operations pilots to begin flying the AC-130s in missions against Yugoslav forces along the border with Albania and elsewhere about three weeks ago, according to NATO and Defense Department officials.

    "This is the main new tactic they are using," said one official. "It shows the seriousness with which we're pursuing them. It's quite refreshing."

    The gunships are part of the 16th Special Operations Wing from Hurlburt Field in Florida, where the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command is headquartered. They were originally deployed to Brindisi, Italy, at the beginning of Operation Allied Force as part of a larger Air Force special operations search-and-rescue team. The team rescued the pilot of an F-117A stealth fighter that was shot down in March over Yugoslavia.

    U.S. military officials, speaking on condition they not be named, sought to play down the notion that the Spectre gunships represent an increased danger to pilots or show that NATO commanders are willing to take new risks to make gains against Yugoslav troops in Kosovo.

    "I don't think this is a significant change in tactics," said Navy Capt. Stephen Pietropaoli, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We are doing what we need to do, what allows us to get the job done."

    Another officer with knowledge of the operation said the AC-130s are being used "only on the margins where they are confident they would be safe" and where there is no evidence of operational surface-to-air missile batteries. The number of missions they have flown was not determined.

    Only about eight of the propeller-driven AC-130Hs and 13 AC-130Us are in the Air Force Special Operations Command inventory, in part because they are so vulnerable and because their firepower is so "horrendously effective," as one Air Force officer put it. Three of the gunships are deployed on the Kosovo mission.

    The flying cannon platforms were developed for the Vietnam War and their use there was considered "an unmitigated success," according to the Air Force Association.

    The gunships, essentially a heavily armed version of the workhorse C130 Hercules cargo plane, began operations in Vietnam in December 1968. Four gunships operated by the 16th Special Operations Squadron within three months destroyed 607 trucks, more than a quarter of the total in the Vietnam theater at the time, according to the association.

    The aircraft carries a crew of 14, including five gunners, a 40mm Bofors gun, two 20mm Vulcan Gatling guns which fire from the port side and a 105mm howitzer mounted just ahead of the rear cargo ramp. While today's version is more precise than those in past years, the plane sprays rounds across a large swath of territory.

    The gunships were used to attack ground forces in the 1983 invasion of Grenada and to destroy Panamanian Defense Force headquarters during the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, according to the Air Force. The downing of an AC-130 in 1991 represented one of the biggest losses of life for U.S. forces during the Persian Gulf War. All 14 crew members perished.

    The Air Force also unleashed the gunships in its air war against Bosnia in 1995 when they were used to rake Serb artillery positions.

    There has been considerable criticism within the Pentagon and among recently retired Air Force generals that in its effort to avoid pilot and civilian deaths, NATO has constructed an ineffective air campaign. The campaign has been unconventional in many ways, including in the amount of time it took warplanes to begin attacking Yugoslav troops and police driving out Kosovo's inhabitants of Albanian stock.

    In fact, Yugoslav forces had all but emptied the rebellious Serbian province of the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army and pushed the vast majority of its ethnic Albanian population into the hills or outside the province before NATO's planes began their assault on troops inside Kosovo.

    NATO said it took so long to begin those attacks because the Yugoslav air defense system continued to function and because Yugoslav forces were operating in small units and protecting troops and equipment by scattering them among civilian populations, which NATO tried not to hit.

    NATO officials said yesterday that alliance warplanes by now have struck 11 battalion or brigade command posts and a total of 556 individual pieces of military equipment since the war began, including 312 tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers. NATO commanders believe they have "removed the majority of the artillery in Kosovo, perhaps as much as 90 percent" and about one-third of the "total armored vehicles as well as many other vehicles, such as trucks, supply trucks, fuel trucks," spokesmen added.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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