WESTERN airstrikes could blunt the armed aggression of Bosnian Serbs but would be unlikely to force them back from territory they have seized, according to United States officials and military analysts.
Serb artillery would be the primary target of US and allied warplanes. Even with their big guns silenced, the estimated 40,000 Serb troops in Bosnia would remain well-stocked with smaller arms. Whether the shock of Western intervention would cause them to fall apart or fight harder is difficult to predict.
"If we want to affect the military situation on the ground, certainly we can do that. Whether we can be effective in the sense of changing the political dynamic is something else again," said Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall last week.
For the moment, the Western intervention option is on hold. US allies apparently remain reluctant to commit themselves to more-forceful action in the Balkans.
President Clinton over the weekend turned his efforts toward ensuring that Serbia cuts off supplies to its Bosnian-Serb brethren. Mr. Clinton asked Secretary of State Warren Christopher to consult with allied leaders in the next few days to see how they can check on Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's promise to stop sending munitions, fuel, and food across the Bosnian border.
"This is a chance to test Mr. Milosevic's sincerity in this regard," said presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos on Saturday.
As of this writing, the Bosnian government and the rebel Serbs had agreed to a cease-fire and the demilitarization of the besieged Muslim towns of Srebrenica and Zepa. Many cease-fires have been signed in the Balkans conflict, with the vast majority of them lasting only a very short time.
PENTAGON officials have engaged in a very public debate as to the efficacy of airstrikes in the Bosnian context. For the most part, the opinions involved reflect traditional service attitudes.
Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Merrill McPeak, for example, has said air attacks on artillery would be completely effective. Marine and Army generals have told Congress that they feel ground forces would have to be introduced to stabilize the military situation.
These disputes mask a general agreement among officials that Serb artillery would be at least neutralized. Many guns might survive, but they would have to shoot and scoot - lob a shell or two and then scuttle back into hiding.
And US officials and nongovernmental experts agree that air power is not going to completely destroy the Bosnian-Serb military machine. They would retain hundreds of mortars, for instance, small but deadly weapons of terror against civilian enclaves.
An effective counter to the Serbs would be Clinton's proposed one-two punch of bombing, plus arming of Muslim ground forces. Allies remain even less enthusiastic about arming the Muslims than about airstrikes, however.
"The fighting will continue," bluntly notes Ron Hatchett, director of the Mosher Institute for Diplomatic Studies at Texas A&M University.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, known to its sailors as "The Big Stick," is currently off the coast of the former Yugoslavia. Its A-6 bombers and F/A-18 fighter planes could mount about 150 bomb runs a day against mainland targets.
The bulk of a bombing campaign, however, would likely be carried by Air Force F-117 and F-15E strike fighters carrying 500-lb. laser-guided bombs. As yet, it is not clear whether such planes have been moved to bases in Italy, the closest NATO facilities to the Bosnian fighting.
Besides artillery, bridges between Bosnia and Serbia might be airstrike targets. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said in a broadcast interview that Mr. Milosevic may be cooperating with the West out of realization that Serbia itself might become a bomb target.
"Clearly, strikes beyond Bosnia would have to be a very important part of the plan," Mr. Lugar said.