NATO Pilots Set to Confront Potent Foe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 1999; Page A21
U.S. and European pilots poised to pound Serb forces in and around Kosovo will confront the most forceful enemy they have seen since the 1991 war with Iraq and, if the attack is prolonged, it could quickly become NATO's most dangerous operation in its 50 years of existence.
With thousands of antiaircraft missiles and artillery hidden in the valleys and woods of Serbia, manned by the well-trained 75,000-man Yugoslav army, the assault is expected to be very different from the antiseptic air campaign against Iraq, with its swiftly disabled defenses.
"The [Yugoslav defense] system is lethal, robust, redundant," said retired Adm. Leighton "Snuffy" Smith. "We should not delude ourselves into thinking this is going to be a cake walk. This is not going to be a one-day or two-day operation, and it won't be a pretty sight for the first couple of days."
To prepare for the worst, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen this week dispatched to the region special operations search-and-rescue teams similar to those that recovered Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady after his F-16 fighter was shot down over Bosnia by a Bosnian Serb SA-6 missile in June 1995. His jet was downed during a reconnaissance patrol a few months before NATO's only combat operation as an alliance – the bombing of Serb targets that helped end the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
"We have to be prepared for the likelihood that we will lose a pilot," said Navy Capt. Stephen Pietropaoli, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "This is not Iraq or even Bosnia."
Starting from the ground up, the military difference between Iraq and the Yugoslav republic of Serbia could not be more different.
Much of Iraq is a flat expanse that enjoys mostly clear days in the spring, but the southern half of Serbia is mountainous and more often than not covered with clouds. This makes spotting targets and the lethal flash of antiaircraft guns and missiles impossible.
The weather will make it nearly impossible to launch the simultaneous attacks characteristic of the Iraq operation, in which groups of planes – typically bombers protected by electronic countermeasure aircraft and higher-flying, intelligence-gathering planes – swoop in all at once to knock out command-and-control headquarters, communications nodes and air defense batteries before returning quickly to their bases.
Because of the low visibility – pilots will have to peek through breaks in the clouds – NATO aircraft flying over Serbia will likely have to pick off targets at a slower pace once ship-launched cruise missiles have taken out the air defenses in the initial round of the assault.
Rooting out the components of the lethal air defense system could easily become "like digging out potatoes one at a time," said Smith, who commanded NATO forces in Bosnia from 1994 to 1996.
Iraq's military men and machines have been ground down by eight years of economic sanctions and continual pounding by U.S. and British pilots enforcing the no-fly zones in the north and south. But President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav forces are well-trained, well-equipped and show no signs that they question the wisdom of their leaders' actions.
And while a low-grade air war over Iraq has wiped out significant parts of President Saddam Hussein's defense system – as much as 20 percent in the no-fly zones – the Serb weaponry that would be trained on NATO aircraft is both sophisticated and plentiful.
Serbian forces have at least two dozen mobile SA-6 surface-to-air missile batteries placed throughout the country and another 20 more rudimentary SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft batteries. Each battery usually carries 16 to 30 missiles, can be quickly resupplied and, in the case of the SA-6s, can be easily moved and hidden.
The Yugoslav Army also has hundreds of other antiaircraft weapons, which are less accurate and have a shorter range, but are still considered lethal.
For low-flying aircraft, which are generally more effective in destroying moving tanks and killing troops, there is an additional danger not found in Iraq: hundreds of shoulder-fired missiles similar to U.S.-produced Stingers. They have a range of just over three miles.
This weaponry is tied together by an integrated communications system that allows Serbian radar in one location to track incoming aircraft and transmit information about them to missile batteries and artillery in another part of the country. Such command-and-control centers, and the communications lines that carry such information, have been choice targets in the bombing of Iraq since Operation Desert Fox ended late last year.
The Yugoslav military's communications links will be harder to destroy, say military officials, because they are redundant, linked through fiber-optic cables, telephone lines and other means.
Unlike Iraq, where the targets usually have been military equipment in isolated outposts, the bombing of Serb troops in Kosovo is likely to kill some civilians who live in close proximity to the Kosovar rebels and Serbian troops.
"The American public is used to these instant gratification operations with zero defects," said retired Adm. Thomas J. Lopez, former commander of NATO's southern command. Once the military operation begins against Serbia, "they are going to pound the living hell out of it," he said.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company