Airpower and Its Critics

July 1, 1999

Operation Allied Force was barely begun in March before the clamor arose that airpower had been a failure in the Balkans. At the end of the first week, the eminent British military historian John Keegan said with measured condescension that “airpower simply does not seem to be working.”

As the days rolled by, criticism of the operation in Kosovo-and of the air campaign which was at the center of it-grew more strident. Some of the comment recognized the political hobbles imposed on the airmen who were flying the missions. Some didn’t.

Two months of bombing, it was pointed out, did not remove Slobodan Milosevic and his regime in Belgrade. It did not stop the ethnic cleansing under way in Kosovo. It had not restored stability to the Balkans.

In its May 17 issue, Time magazine said, “NATO’s air campaign has begun to rack up an ugly record of accidental civilian casualties.” (At that point in the action, according to the Associated Press running tally of “NATO’s unintended targets,” there had been exactly 10 instances of ordnance going astray in seven weeks.)

A particularly sour strain of criticism came from disgruntled advocates of ground power. Soldier-strategist Harry G. Summers said that if President Clinton had studied war, “he would have known that airpower alone has never been decisive.” For example, Summers said, bombing had not broken the will of North Vietnam. (He did not say anything in that regard about ground power, which was not “decisive” in Vietnam, either.)

The criticism abated temporarily on June 3, when Milosevic and the Serb parliament agreed to yield to NATO’s terms, but it then resumed when peace negotiations hit a glitch June 7.

Airmen would be among the first to agree that the strategy in Kosovo was ill-conceived. The political rhetoric was difficult to translate into missions that could be achieved by military means. The politicians insisted on micromanaging the war and picking the targets themselves. The most senior military leaders in the chain of command were all soldiers, not airmen.

The operation began with great caution and phased escalation, Vietnam-style. The effects of shock and surprise were lost. It took weeks to strike targets that should have been hit the first night.

Critics drew unfavorable comparisons with the Gulf War. It escaped their notice, though, that only about a tenth as many strike sorties per day were being launched in Kosovo as in the Gulf. Through May 27, US and Allied aircraft had flown a total of just 6,950 strike sorties in 65 days. In the Gulf War, by contrast, the coalition flew 47,588 strike sorties in 43 days. In Yugoslavia, about 25 percent of the total sorties were strike missions, compared with 42 percent in the Gulf.

During the first three weeks, NATO aircraft averaged only 84 strike sorties a day. The air campaign was a month old before the target list was expanded to produce strategic results.

Despite the flawed strategy, airpower did well. Airmen made their sorties count, and they did it within restrictive rules of engagement that were enforced to prevent casualties and collateral damage.

“Of all the bombs we’ve dropped, 99.6 percent have actually hit the target, out of the 20,000 bombs,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles F. Wald said at a Pentagon news briefing June 2. Wald did not make any “one target, one bomb” claims. Some targets took dozens of bombs. Wald emphatically confirmed a reporter’s observation that this had been “the most accurate air campaign in the history of air warfare.”

In the most famous mistake of the conflict, a B-2 bomber put its ordnance precisely on the assigned spot. That the spot was occupied by the Chinese Embassy was a failure of Intelligence, not of airpower.

Summing up the effect of the air campaign in a signed column in the Washington Post June 4, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, said that “Serbia’s air force is essentially useless, and its air defenses are dangerous but ineffective. Military armament production is destroyed. Military supply areas are under siege. Oil refinement has ceased, and petroleum storage is systematically being destroyed. Electricity is sporadic, at best. Major transportation routes are cut.”

One of the many errors in Operation Allied Force was telling Milosevic ahead of time that he did not have to worry about a ground offensive. That knowledge no doubt reinforced his defiance.

However, even if a ground offensive had been planned, it would have been preceded by an air campaign. The casualties from an immediate ground assault would have been intolerable, both to the invasion force and to Kosovars caught in the firepower of the battlefield.

It was a surprise to many when the air campaign brought the Serbs to the bargaining table. As negotiations to reach a settlement continued, there was no shortage of commentators ready to explain away what happened, but John Keegan was not among them. Long noted for his doubts about airpower, he had a change of mind and said so with alacrity.

Writing in the London Daily Telegraph, Keegan acknowledged that he had been wrong and said that June 3 marked a real “turning point” in history “when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.”