Assumptions Fall in Kosovo

June 1, 1999

May 10

Operation Allied Force began on March 24 with cruise missile strikes against carefully selected targets in Yugoslavia. It was the first step in a NATO campaign to break the will of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and restore order in Kosovo.

In a television interview that evening, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “I don’t see this as a long-term operation.”

Unfortunately, Milosevic did not cave in as anticipated. On April 28, the 36th day of the conflict, President Clinton dropped hints to news reporters that the bombing might continue into July.

The theory of a quick finish was only one of the assumptions that had fallen away by early May when Operation Allied Force went into its seventh week.

NATO’s ability to effectively prosecute a military campaign had been left in doubt. Questions also arose about the adequacy and sustainability of US forces in an extended conflict. It remained to be seen if the Kosovo experience had shaken the Clinton Administration’s dogged belief in using limited military force to send signals while concurrently shying away from actual warfare.

The Alliance chose to disregard advice that it was unrealistic to expect airpower alone to root the Serb troops out of Kosovo, where they were engaged in door-to-door violence. It might have been possible to essentially shut down the Milosevic regime. The best chance of that was for airpower to strike with surprise and great strength at the full set of strategic targets, especially those in the Serbian heartland. And that, NATO was not willing to do.

The Clinton Administration’s tendencies toward incrementalism and gradualism were amplified by NATO, where the political representatives of 19 nations vote on everything, including targets. According to the New York Times, lawyers in Britain reviewed every target before it was hit to ensure that it was of a justifiably military nature.

The first week, aircrews flew an average of only 48 strike sorties a day against a limited target set. It was regarded as a bold stroke when NATO let the operation go on to Phase II and an expanded target list without a bombing halt. The emphasis was on avoidance of casualties and collateral damage rather than on military results.

The operation escalated gradually to more than 600 sorties a day, but the politicians were not ready to call it war, and the objectives were still constrained. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair said NATO wanted to oust Milosevic from power, he was publicly corrected by Albright. She said that we did not seek the removal of Milosevic, although the Administration earlier had compared him with Hitler.

In the official lexicon, Kosovo was a “smaller-scale contingency.” US forces are supposedly able to sustain two “nearly simultaneous” major theater wars and handle lesser contingencies in between. Operation Allied Force exposed the shallowness of that assumption.

After the first month, the US Air Force–which flew most of the missions–was running short of cruise missiles and all-weather precision guided munitions. Stateside units had been stripped of spare parts and experienced aircrews. Except for frontline units, readiness rates were dropping. Commitments were so heavy for crews of Joint STARS surveillance aircraft that no instructor force was left at home to train new crews.

Last fall, the Air Force announced plans to organize its contingency response capability into 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces, two of them to be on call for deployment at any given time. Since the Gulf War, deployment demands had never exceeded the level of two AEFs, consisting of about 175 aircraft each. In April, acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters told the Inside the Air Force newsletter that about four AEFs’ worth of assets were already deployed for the Kosovo operation and that the concept would have to be re-examined.

The military objective in Kosovo, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee, was to “degrade and damage the military and security structure” that was committing aggression in Yugoslavia. Measured against that mission, airpower achieved a number of successes in the first six weeks. Much of Milosevic’s military infrastructure had been destroyed, and more of it was disappearing nightly.

Operation Allied Force will be studied in the world’s war colleges for years to come. Among the points of interest will be the decision, disclosed ahead of time, not to put troops on the ground in Kosovo. That, along with the pattern of restricted targeting and slow escalation, gave Milosevic an early initiative. Assured that a severely punishing attack was not imminent, he could afford to watch and wait. Both the strategic and the operational decisions were made by a committee of political leaders, while air commanders were relegated to the tactical job of servicing targets.

Diplomacy and war are related, but they are not the same. Diplomatic objectives are ambiguous by design, leaving room not only for negotiation but also for varying interpretations, which is often beneficial for political purposes. This was seen, for example, in the Allied peace proposal of May 6. Military objectives are–or should be–as unambiguous as possible. They are about employing lethal force and putting ordnance on targets.

The difference goes a long way toward explaining why so many assumptions went awry in Kosovo.