Another Look at the Air War That Was

Oct. 1, 1999

Identifying the proper lessons of Operation Allied Force will be a difficult task. For starters, it was a complicated war. Campaign planning went on for a year, and actual operations lasted for 78 days.

The typical day in the latter stages of the war saw some 500 airplanes taking off from 47 bases scattered across Europe, in all sorts of weather, refueling in midair, striking targets or flying other missions, then refueling again and returning, again in all kinds of weather, often at night. Other complications stemmed from American and European political realities, as well as Washington’s own determination to avoid casualties.

At a recent colloquy hosted by the Eaker Institute, the public policy arm of AFA’s Aerospace Education Foundation, four noted airpower authorities set about the task of drawing some preliminary lessons from a conflict that for the Air Force amounted to a major theater war.

Gen. Michael J. Dugan, USAF (Ret.), a former Chief of Staff, moderated a panel that included Gen. John P. Jumper, commander of US Air Forces in Europe; retired RAF Air Vice Marshal R.A. “Tony” Mason, director of the Center for Studies in Security and Diplomacy at the University of Birmingham, UK; and Edward N. Luttwak, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the National Security Study Group.

“We heard the word ‘victory’ used,” observed Dugan. “How should we think about victory? There is opinion in the United States that says, ‘The battle was never actually joined. It wasn’t exactly a war at all. It began without a formal declaration and it ended without complete victory. It had ended not with unconditional surrender but only a cease-fire.’ Are Americans so narrow that they only view unconditional surrender as an appropriate end to a war?”

Dugan went on to note, “For the first time in some 5,000 years of military history-5,000 years of history of man taking organized forces into combat-we saw an independent air operation produce a political result. What that means for the future we will still have to divine. … This kind of utility can do nothing but place greater demands on air and space forces for the future.”

The Eaker colloquy revealed that airpower experts are already seriously studying the implications of the very military strategy and operational concept that characterized Allied Force. It was a limited, virtually “air-only” war, fought under severe political constraints by a sometimes unwieldy alliance of 19 NATO nations.

Some Problems

Allied Force marked a dramatic advance in USAF’s ability to deliver destructive force with great precision, routinely-even as certain problems were revealed. Glaringly evident, for example, was a widening gap between the capabilities of the US Air Force and its Allies in Europe and Canada. The nation’s Electronic Warfare assets were also stretched dangerously thin and could represent a future weak link in force structure.

In the view of a number of panel members, the Air Force’s increasing ability routinely to hit targets with great accuracy has not been matched by a commensurate understanding of exactly which targets to hit to achieve specific outcomes-what is now called “effects-based targeting.”

Finally, a number of panelists saw a trend toward greater emphasis on force protection and casualty avoidance that, if left unchecked, could have troubling implications for the use of US military forces in future conflicts.

“Our problem with all of this is we make it look too easy,” said Jumper, who also commands NATO’s Allied Air Forces Central Europe. “We set the bar fairly high when we fly more than 30,000 combat sorties, and we don’t lose one pilot. It makes it look as if airpower is indeed risk free and too easy a choice to make.”

Jumper went on to say, “In an environment where the weather was bad and the terrain was bad, there were many things against us. [The fact that] we were able to do this without the loss of one single airman speaks to the incredible professionals involved, but it also speaks to damn good luck.”

All of the panelists generally agreed that the Western governments calculated that Milosevic would fold after a few days of relatively light bombing attacks. They also agreed that the political consensus-building process within NATO severely limited the types and number of targets that could be struck in the early weeks of the war. These two factors seriously diluted the shock effect of the initial air operation, they said.

“I think maybe we went [at] too few targets, with too few aircraft, for almost too long a period,” Mason argued. “You had the spectacle of the commander in chief one day threatening to destroy the Yugoslav military, but asking for triple reinforcements over just a couple of weeks, which suggests there were question marks to be raised over initial planning assumptions.”

Mason cautioned against drawing the wrong conclusions from the troubled first weeks of the operation. The existence of heavy political constraints that initially hamstrung the air campaign does not necessarily mean that airpower cannot, or should not, be employed in limited fashion as part of coercive diplomacy, he said.

“If we have to operate in a coalition, we have to be prepared for coalition interference,” Mason maintained. “You really can’t say, ‘Airpower don’t do coalitions.’ … Let’s not reject the concept of airpower in support of, or in cadence with, diplomacy. I don’t think that was a mistake. The mistake, I believe, was underestimating the amount of airpower needed to support the diplomacy.”

Stop Grumbling, He Said

He went on, “The military must respond to political decisions. There is no point, really, for airpower exponents grumbling about escalation or gradualism. If we are going to maximize airpower responsiveness, we will have to turn it on and turn it off. The important thing is to make sure we reach the necessary impact before we turn it off and establish hard-nosed rules for gaps.”

Jumper, who was a key airpower advisor to US Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, noted that, after the Washington summit in April, the Alliance reached consensus behind a major intensification of the air campaign, with the end result being that the Serbs ultimately capitulated to NATO demands. He said that military commanders will need to argue persuasively for the latitude necessary to accomplish future missions, but he also noted that Coalition wars in the future will likely feature similar political constraints.

“From the air campaign planning point of view, it is always the neatest and tidiest when you can get a political consensus of the objective of a certain phase, and then go about [achieving] that objective with [the] freedom to act as you see militarily best,” said Jumper. “[But that] is not the situation we find ourselves in. We can rail against that, but it does no good. It is the politics of the moment that is going to dictate what we are able to do. … If the limit of that consensus means gradualism, then we are going to have to find a way to deal with a phased-air campaign with gradual escalation. … Efficiency may be sacrificed. … We hope to be able to convince [civilian politicians] that is not the best way to do it, but in some cases we are going to have to live with that situation.”

Certainly the risks and limitations of coalition warfare were on clear display during Operation Allied Force. To minimize the constraints dictated by political requirements, Mason suggested that allies consider approaching future conflicts not necessarily as an alliance of 19 nations, but rather in a smaller and more united “coalition of the willing.”

Luttwak maintained, “The largest dramatic fact is that NATO could have failed. … When the bombing started, and if Milosevic hadn’t moved and hadn’t expelled Albanians, I believe two crucial European governments [of Germany and Italy], without which the war could not be pursued, would have insisted on the suspension of the air war. … If Milosevic hadn’t solved the problem for us by sending out the Albanians, this war could have ended and been a fiasco. … In other words, there were big risks in this war.”

A number of panelists were also disturbed by the widening gap in capabilities between the air forces of the United States and its NATO Allies that was revealed during Allied Force. The American forces shouldered the lion’s share of the operational burden in areas as critical as Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance; command and control; airlift; and Electronic Warfare.

Focus on Targeting

“We know there are two kinds of airpowers-the United States’ airpower and … everybody else’s,” Mason said. “When we talk about what airpower can do and what airpower can’t do, we’ve really got to decide whose airpower we are talking about. When we look at Kosovo and the air campaign, General Jumper has made some very complimentary comments about the contribution of X number of air forces, but we all know what proportions were done by the United States Air Force. We also know what kind [of] bombs were [dropped] by the United States Air Force.

“Europeans spend over $160 billion a year on defense, and you better ask what you get for it. We spend, for example, less than one-half of the United States on aircraft and less than one-third on R&D. … Unless we in Europe do get our act together, we are going to finish up as spear carriers to the United States.”

There’s also a somewhat deeper issue of what the US Air Force is looking for from its coalition partners. How far is the United States willing to go in sharing its technology with Europe

No one knows for sure which attacks, or combination of attacks, were the most influential in persuading Milosevic to accede to NATO demands. Some-such as Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, the NATO joint force air component commander-argue that strategic attacks on power grids, broadcasting stations, and bridges brought the war home to everyday Serb citizens and ultimately proved the most effective types of operations.

Others suggest that attacks on Serbian forces massed to counter an offensive by Kosovo Liberation Army forces in the latter days of the war were most important in convincing the Serbian army to relent. The dawning realization that Allied air forces were able to intensify the attacks while suffering virtually no casualties of their own-coupled with the obvious cohesion of the Alliance through 78 days of bombing-may have finally convinced Serbian officials that they could not prevail, said panel members.

Some panelists believed that, if coercive diplomacy and limited war factor into future conflicts, the Air Force will need to have a better understanding of the critical aim points and centers of gravity of potential adversaries.

“The central problem is this: If we are going to make it with this kind of precision airpower in very low volume, akin to acupuncture, we really have to know where to put the needle,” said Luttwak. “To make the other guy back down, you must understand his politics, his soul. You can’t photograph his soul.”

Luttwak continued, “The Serbian population forced Milosevic to call the war off when the life of the Serbian population was made very uncomfortable. … [In the case of Iraq], you cut the bridges in Baghdad, you cut off the power supply, you cut off the television, and you make the population completely miserable, then … we have made it easier for Saddam Hussein to stay in power by forcing his population into a survival mode.” The difference between the Serbs and Iraqis is a matter of culture, he stated. “The US Air Force needs a department of culture.”

Effects, Not “Targeting”

Because many of the highest value targets will have dual military and civilian uses and are located in urban areas, they are also likely to prove the most politically sensitive. The accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy also indicates the risks the Air Force assumes when it relies on other agencies for sensitive targeting intelligence.

Both Dugan and Jumper believe the discussion too often focuses on targeting as opposed to desired outcomes.

“I have grown to despise the word ‘targeting,’ ” said Dugan. “Targeting is a terrific concept for the captain and for the sergeant. In my mind it is not a useful concept for the colonel and the general. They need to be thinking about what is the outcome of having targeted and destroyed or degraded or otherwise disposed of this spot on the ground where somebody puts the crosshairs. Somehow we ought to be talking about the objectives of this when we get in public and are trying to explain ourselves.”

Within Air Force ranks, the issue is referred to as effects-based targeting, and it has emerged as a hot topic of conversation. “Effects-based targeting has to be the objective of the air campaign planners, as opposed to campaign by target-list management, which means that you take a list of approved targets, and you sort of manage them on a day-to-day basis,” said Jumper.

Effects-based targeting is a sophisticated target analysis, he said, that ties destruction of targets and critical nodes to desired outcomes measurable in hours, days, and weeks. “That assumes that you have the freedom to go after all those targets in a near simultaneous way, and the political sensitivities to one or two of those targets might disrupt the whole plan,” said Jumper. “We have to find a way to get the political consensus behind the effect, rather than focused on the target.”

Few have argued with the premise that Allied Force created a new benchmark in air warfare. During 78 days of operations, NATO conducted 35,000 sorties with a nearly 99 percent accuracy rate in precision strikes and zero friendly combat casualties. In the process, the US Air Force demonstrated that it had made a quantum leap in its ability routinely to put ordnance on target with great precision.

One obvious advance over the force that carried out Desert Storm in 1991 was the ability to get nearly real-time targeting intelligence into cockpits. “We are getting one hell of a lot better,” said Jumper. This time, for instance, he noted, “We had U-2s [reconnaissance aircraft] that allowed us to dynamically retask to take a picture of a reported SA-6 [surface-to-air missile site], beam that picture back to Beale AFB [Calif., command and control center] for a coordinate assessment within minutes, and have the results back to the F-15E as it turned to shoot an AGM-130. … It wasn’t all like that, but that is the capability we demonstrated more than once.”

Through the Clouds

Another major advancement was represented by the extensive use of the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Especially on the many days of bad weather and low cloud cover, Predators were able to loiter under the cloud ceiling and identify mobile and camouflaged targets.

“You have to remember that the Predator [program] only in April of 1999 delivered its first fully operational system. … From 1994 until 1999 we had the system deployed in Bosnia with preproduction equipment,” said Jumper. “What we can say here is we were just able to conclude a very extensive test and evaluation over the skies of Kosovo.”

Jumper was especially impressed by the UAV’s potential in actually designating targets with onboard lasers. “[The idea is to] put the UAV below the clouds with a laser spot and drop the laser bomb through the clouds,” he said. “We were just about to start doing that with a laser-equipped UAV when the war ended. … We will put the UAV much more in the targeting loop than in the collection loop.”

Indeed, the day may be dawning when the Air Force is able to seamlessly combine information from U-2s, UAVs, and other ground- and space-based sensors. “We will be where we need to be in the ISR world when we have transparent linkages … among our platforms,” said Jumper. “When the amalgamation of these and the product of these sensors are presented in a way that … is in targetable, quality data, that is when ISR will have come of age.”

Until that time, Jumper conceded, the Air Force will have problems hitting mobile targets in bad weather.

Perhaps the biggest shortfall glimpsed in the Allied Force air campaign, however, concerned Electronic Warfare assets that were reportedly stretched precariously thin. That prompted more than one panelist to second-guess the Air Force’s decision to phase out the EF-111 Raven escort jammer and rely almost exclusively on the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler.

“I was uneasy and said so, and wrote so, when I heard of the decision. … I was even more uneasy when I saw this small number of US Air Force crews to be cross-trained into the Prowler,” said Mason. “I assumed-and I still hope I wasn’t entirely wrong-that somewhere there was a [classified] UAV program existing to make up for the deficiency. I believe that deficiency in Kosovo was particularly significant.”

Dugan said that, after reviewing the matter recently, he concluded that the dearth in Electronic Warfare assets may be the unintended consequence of personnel decisions made nearly a decade ago.

EW in Trouble

“I have been spending a few days with [the] Air Force Scientific Advisory Board here in the past month or two, looking at the intersection between stealth vehicles and electronic combat,” said Dugan. “After listening to a lot of briefings and doing a little bit of thinking, it seemed to me that electronic combat in general and the Raven program in particular got in trouble-probably on my watch-in 1990, … when we did not replace a couple of the senior officers both in the acquisition community and in the operational community that looked at the contribution of electronic combat to the warfighting output. …

“There was nobody at the table to argue [for electronic combat]-and there is a huge debating society that argues priorities and argues relative importance and argues for ideas and for resources. … The natural consequence of that was for the resources to go away, and we’ve made a serious misstep. I don’t know how to build that back.”

While endorsing a fundamental reassessment of the Air Force’s needs in Electronic Warfare, Jumper cautioned against preconceived answers. “Do we have to take a look at this again?” asked Jumper. “The answer is yes.” He added, however, “The focus has to be on the best way to get airplanes or the platforms in and out safely in a high-threat environment. Is it defensive systems that you put on board the airplanes? Is it a combination of stealth and defensive systems? Or is it the sort of offensive electron-bashers that are represented by the [Prowler], and formerly the Raven, community? We have to reopen [the debate] and re-ask ourselves the question. … The answer is not necessarily another platform.”

Another question some panelists felt needed to be asked is whether casualty avoidance and force protection have been elevated as operational goals to the point that they have a major negative impact on mission accomplishment. The United States is misdirecting huge amounts of defense resources on such assets as ground forces and Apache helicopters, Luttwak suggested, if it will not use them for fear of casualties.

“I was under the impression that I paid for Apaches with my taxes so when they wanted to go and hit these armored vehicles, I wanted the Apaches to go into action,” said Luttwak. “When they told me they couldn’t send them into action because they might get shot down, I had no sympathy for that.” He added, “At the political level, on the other hand, something new: The rule is that Americans can kill themselves bungee jumping, skydiving, and canyoneering, but they are not allowed to kill themselves in the country’s interest.”

By causing the US to assign a disproportionate amount of assets to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and forcing pilots to fly at relatively high altitudes, Mason argued, the focus on avoiding casualties is having a real impact on operational effectiveness.

“It looks to the outside that consequently SEAD drew a disproportionate amount of shooter sorties, priorities further emphasized by the conscious decision to seek zero casualties,” he said. “I know it is very easy for me to sit here a long way from the F-16 squadrons and bang on about casualties. Force preservation must be a major concern for any commander. My own view is that, if St. George’s first priority with tackling dragons had been force protection, I don’t think he would now be the patron saint of England.”

Mason said, “It [the conduct of the war] gave an impression to the world at large that an unfortunate minimum of civilian casualties was an unavoidable and acceptable feature of a war waged for humanitarian causes, but the loss of professional military aircrew was not. That was the unfortunate impression that was given.” Even so, said Mason, “There is obviously nothing dishonorable in seeking to minimize one’s own casualties. I am somewhat at a loss, if I may say so, when I see some military formations apparently still thinking in terms of putting very large numbers of troops on the ground, regardless of national inclinations in their area or direction.”

As many saw it, the overriding lesson of Allied Force and other recent conflicts was that modern airpower as wielded by the Air Force has become an indispensable tool in shaping the battlespace to the United States’ advantage.

As Mason summed up the situation: “Back through Desert Storm, through Bosnia, and to Kosovo, you can identify a series of common themes. … You have airpower shaping an environment, you have it denying an opponent the strategy of his choice, and imposing our strategy and capitalizing on Western advantages.”

“Milosevic really wanted [NATO] to get into ravines and into gorges,” said Mason. “He really wanted to relive the Serbian situation [fighting the Nazis] in the 1940s again.” Instead, airpower was able to ultimately achieve Coalition objectives, he emphasized, even while minimizing casualties.

He added, “In a society like yours and ours, which sets a high premium on individual life, it seems to me to be a very noble aspiration to seek a way of war which not only reduces our casualties to a minimum but reduces the opposition’s casualties to a minimum as well.”