Lessons Drawn and Quartered

Dec. 1, 1999

You may have thought that airpower–being the only military force engaged–was the decisive element in the Kosovo campaign last spring. If so, you are probably astounded by the theories now in vogue saying that airpower was a failure, or nearly so, and that the outcome was attributable to something else.

It has been almost six months since the conflict ended, and the “Lessons Learned” commentaries have begun to flood the market. Some of the conclusions drawn defy credibility. The attempt to discredit airpower is particularly strange. At a superficial level, it rests on two suppositions, both wrong: that the Serb field army in Kosovo escaped with virtually no damage and that the Serb field army was the primary target.

Western reporters were quick to accept the claim of Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, Yugoslav 3rd army commander, that NATO got only 13 of his tanks. (He also says he shot down 47 NATO aircraft.) In actuality, about a third of Pavkovic’s tanks, half of his armored personnel carriers, and half of his mortar and artillery pieces were destroyed.

The measure of success for the air campaign was not demolishing tanks, one by one, in Kosovo. The main objective, the only one we had any realistic chance of achieving, was to defeat Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic by attacking strategic targets in Yugoslavia.

It was never feasible for airpower to stop the house-to-house violence by direct attack on the military and police forces intermingled with the civil population. Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, acknowledged a “moral imperative to take on the forces in Kosovo,” but made a distinction between that and the “strategic imperative.”

When the Serbs gave up on June 3, the air campaign was deemed a success. That judgment was soon disputed.

“The reason Slobodan Milosevic finally caved in-a primary reason-was the presence of US Army ground forces in Albania,” said Lt. Gen. John W. Hendrix. His reference was to Task Force Hawk, a brigade-size unit he had commanded. It consisted largely of 24 older-model Apache helicopters.

Pointing to that task force and to the activity of Kosovo Liberation Army irregulars, retired Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr. of the Association of the US Army said, “That is what brought about the negotiated settlement, not the bombing of water supplies, power grids, and Yugo factories.”

Task Force Hawk was deployed but not engaged. There is scant evidence that a much-heralded KLA “counteroffensive” had any real effect. Nevertheless, these arguments are finding some acceptance. In September, for example, a five-column headline in the Washington Post said, “Land Threat May Have Won War.”

By most estimates, a ground invasion required 100,000 to 200,000 troops and several months to prepare and execute. Milosevic knew that as well as we did but supposedly became convinced in late May that NATO was on the verge of cranking up just such an operation.

To buy the Land Threat theory, we must believe that Milosevic was more worried about a ground invasion force that wasn’t there–and against which his own dug-in forces could have put up a fight–than he was about NATO airpower, against which he was powerless to retaliate and which was taking apart more of his regime with each passing day. To whose advantage was it for NATO to trade a situation in which it held the asymmetric advantage for one in which it did not

Airpower is faulted for not stopping the persecution of the Kosovars. It is said that ground troops could have done better. By the time NATO decided to take military action, the Serbs were well along with their atrocities in Kosovo, and almost 250,000 refugees were already on the move.

Suppose, though, that a ground force had deployed and our massed armor had subsequently moved against the Serb armor, artillery, and infantry entrenched in and around the towns and villages. Would the Kosovars, caught in the middle of a vast tank battle, have been better off? Would more of them have returned to their homes afterward? Would the casualties have been worth it

There was plenty wrong with Operation Allied Force. We lurched into war with no plan that looked beyond the first few days. The politicians micromanaged the target list. Time and again, we revealed our intentions to the enemy. That fumbling approach was no model for future strategies. Even so, the initial judgment was right. The air campaign succeeded.

Airpower has become the force of choice for crisis response. We have moved from an era in which airpower was always the supporting element to one in which, more often than not, we lead with airpower. The Army, stung by criticism for lack of agility, has begun a “comprehensive transformation” to retain its relevance. The strained disparagement of airpower is not unrelated to these developments.

We do not know exactly why Milosevic quit. It was probably for a combination of reasons. A number of forces and factors, including the mounting pressure of world opinion, probably had a bearing on it.

However, Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the NATO supreme commander, nailed the central point in his testimony to the Senate in October.

“I think the end result occurred from a variety of factors,” he said. “I believe the indispensable condition for all the other factors was the success of the air campaign itself.”