Soldiers' release: a tactic for sympathy?

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For months, Western officials have grappled with how to deal with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. They have tried diplomacy, which did not work. And for five weeks they've been trying airstrikes, which have made the Serbian chief only more defiant.

But for whatever reason, Mr. Milosevic agreed to the release of three US soldiers captured March 31 after meeting with Jesse Jackson.

Yet whether the success may pave a new approach to resolving the conflict in Yugoslavia is an open question. "We certainly have done a lot of negotiating and a lot of bombing," says a Western diplomat. "Milosevic has had his chance to end it - but he spurned it. [The release of the soldiers] is nothing more than a smooth move, a lovely public-relations move."

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The release of the prisoners, says Vladimir Goati, a political analyst in Belgrade, is likely to leave a more lasting impression on America's public than its leaders.

"This is a message Milosevic sent to the average American."

where troops are training for Balkans duty. "In Desert Storm, it took six months to assemble that force."

One reason the Pentagon is not yet fully equipped, trained, and organized to fight in Balkans-like situations is that during the 1990s the US miliary has hardly had time to catch its breath.

From the Persian Gulf War to Somalia, Haiti, and the long breakup of the former Yugoslavia, contingency has piled upon contingency.

The deployment rate of Air Force personnel has increased fourfold this decade, for instance. The Marines and Navy have responded to more crises in the past 10 years than they did in the 20 before that.

At the same time budget cuts have resulted in the reduction of the active-duty US military from 2.1 to 1.4 million people.

Nor can the military quickly rearm for a new kind of fighting. The difficulty and expense of fielding new weapons mean that the time between first plan and operational use of a tank or aircraft is measured in decades.

Against this background, all the US services have taken some steps to make themselves more flexible and faster to get to a fight.

*The Air Force is splitting itself into 10 Air Expeditionary Forces. These self-contained wings will have a mix of planes, and will be able to pick up quickly and move overseas. Like teams of firefighters, the AEFs will take turns on alert, waiting for a deployment bell to ring.

*The Navy is buying 19 new cargo ships to increase its capability to carry M1 tanks and other heavy weapons. Five are already afloat, but the last won't join the fleet for some two years.

*The Army has outlined a Strategic Mobility Program to speed movement of its units overseas. And it is moving to train soldiers for the duties of peacekeeping and peace enforcement - jobs far different from all-out war.

Bosnia in Colorado

Fort Carson, Colo., is one place where this training is taking place. Its mountainous terrain and blustery spring weather are vaguely reminiscent of the Balkans. And soon it will have its own Balkans village - or, rather, a simulated town meant to mimic the actual Bosnian village of Brcko and its surrounding area.

A brigade of Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division will use the fake training set when it's completed in June. They'll be rotating into Bosnia next march for peacekeeping duty, replacing the largely European-based US forces that have had that duty to this point.

A recent visit to the site in the company of the Army secretary showed a construction site where the sound of cement mixers mixes with the thud of artillery from nearby ranges.

"Brcko," Colo., will eventually have a church, a cemetery divided along ethnic lines, various buildings, and underground tunnels. It will be "occupied" by actors trained to interact with soldiers.

Hypothetical situations soldiers will encounter will include civil disturbances, farmers walking up with land mines they've dug up, and altercations with the soldiers who guard weapons storage sites.

Even manure will be spread on the streets of the simulated village to recreate the actual smell of a Balkan village, said officers.

"This is the type of real-world training ... we in the Army do to fulfill President Clinton's peacetime engagement strategy," says Army Lt. Col. David Stockwell.

But while the US military is trying to become more limber, it is still far from becoming a Muhammad Ali-like dancing heavyweight.

Call it the problem of the Apaches. It has taken over a month to deploy 24 US Army Apache attack helicopters from Germany to Armenia - partly because Apache units aren't trained for such deployments, and partly because the aircraft have a huge accompanying force of parts, maintenance personnel, protective forces, and supplies.

The Army does not have much between airborne troops, which are quickly movable but lightly armed, and regular divisions, which are heavily armed but slow.

An effort to develop an armored gun system lighter than the M1 Abrams tanks died in the mid-1990s. A move to reshape the Army's 10 combat divisions into 25 smaller, quicker mobile combat groups met a similar fate.

The Air Force is, by definition, mobile. B-2 stealth bombers have taken off from US bases, hit Serb targets, and returned home without touching the ground.

But even the Air Force has mobility problems. Its airlift capacity will remain below what military leaders would like, even after delivery of the last of the new C-17 airlifters.

And crucial assets such as AWACS radar planes are so few and far between that, in essence, some aircraft will have to be part of all 10 Air Expeditionary Forces.

What force might look like

If Clinton ordered troops into Kosovo, what would that entail?

That could vary widely, depending on the perceived willingness of the Yugoslav army to fight, and the amount of force planners deem necessary.

But "I think the most likely scenario is moving in two mechanized divisions and one air mobile division to take over Kosovo," says John Hillen, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr. Hillen and others estimate such a force would require between 60,000 and 70,000 troops, take one to three months to field, and run up to $10 billion. US casualties could reach 2,000.

To take over Kosovo and seize Belgrade, Serbia's capital, the force size, the preparations and cost, and the duration of the battle would double, analysts say. Casualties could multiply by four times.

*David Abel contributed to this report from Washington.

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