THREE hundred air missions over Vietnam and five air-to-air victories taught me harsh lessons about surgical airstrikes: Chiefly, air missions are hardly surgical. Targets are destroyed much less frequently than one might suppose. If we embark on these strikes in Bosnia - or worse, if we allow the United Nations to direct American airstrikes for us - our pilot losses could be great and our impact low.
Let me first state what airstrikes are not: They are not Star Wars, video games, or precise and painless operations. Airstrikes are deadly and costly. The planes are flown by real people. In training operations alone one out of five United States Navy fighter pilots are killed. They leave families behind. As a Top Gun instructor and Adversary Squadron commander, I attended chapel services for lost comrades.
In war, it's worse. Dying for your country is serious enough, and every combat pilot knows that risk. Under no circumstances should we put our military men and women under UN command.
But why are airstrikes not more effective? Imagine speeding in a car across an interstate overpass at 700 m.p.h., dropping a golf ball out of the window and in the cup dug into the cross-street below. That is about as close as one can get to a real airstrike. Except in a real airstrike, the enemy is shooting at you, and you are flying in three dimensions, not driving in two.
Wielding air power is very difficult, even for the most talented military commander. Fortunately, our experiences in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf teach us quite a bit.
The jungles of Vietnam hid deadly artillery and surface-to-air missiles all too well. We normally flew on clear days. We could see the missiles coming and take evasive action. But in the Balkan winter we would be flying beneath an overcast sky, and our aircraft would be silhouetted against the clouds. (Flying under cloud cover in mountainous Bosnia would be risky even without enemy fire.)
In late 1971 in North Vietnam I flew in Operation Proud Deep, a massive strike that required Navy pilots to bomb Hanoi's supply depots and airfields. Despite bad weather, we were ordered to fly. Blinded by overcast, we were sitting ducks for surface-to-air missiles the size of telephone poles, rocketing toward us at twice the speed of sound. Anti-aircraft artillery was another threat. In five days, we lost over a dozen aircraft and pilots. Target destruction was minimal.
We were ordered to break the most common-sense rule of air power: Never attack through an overcast sky. In the Balkan winter, overcast is the order of the day, and the mountains there bristle with anti-aircraft artillery. Military planners would be tragically foolhardy to ask our pilots to place their lives at such extraordinary risk.
But even on the clearest days, surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft attacks are a constant danger. On May 10, 1972, after I had downed three enemy MiGs over North Vietnam, I turned my F-4 Phantom back toward the carrier Constellation in the South China Sea. Still 40 miles inland, a surface-to-air missile I saw too late exploded near my plane, disabling most of my controls. I barrel-rolled the burning aircraft until we reached the mouth of the Red River. My Radar Intercept Officer Willie Driscoll and I ejected just as the plane exploded. As we parachuted down, we watched the Viet Cong assemble on the beach, ostensibly to take us prisoner. But a Marine Corps helicopter rescued us in the water, just in time. If our pilots get shot down over Bosnia, I can't believe they would be as lucky or as blessed as we were to avoid capture.
Operation Desert Storm began with a blistering six-week air attack. Pilots dropped more tons of bombs in those six weeks than we did in all our years in Vietnam. And each Desert Storm bomb was generally more effective, thanks to high-tech targeting equipment not available to Vietnam-era pilots. The air war of early 1991 severely weakened the Iraqi army for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's masterful ground assault.
Even so, military writer Rick Atkinson, in his Gulf-war history ``Crusade,'' finds that after millions of air missions, including thousands purposely sent on ``Scud patrols,'' battle damage reports cannot conclusively say if we destroyed a single Iraqi Scud site.
And that was over open Iraqi desert. Our F-117 stealth fighters attacked heavily defended sites at night. But the ancient city of Sarajevo lies deep in a valley that is surrounded on all sides by steep, forested mountains, where Bosnian Serbs have placed heavy artillery. Surreptitious low-level nighttime raids would be nearly impossible.
Flying at 600 knots toward Mt. Zuc, four miles north of Sarajevo, the most eagle-eyed, well-equipped American pilot will have awful trouble finding even one artillery piece, much less destroying it. And should our pilots find and target an artillery piece (there are surely tens of thousands of guns in those mountains), they must fly toward the target, dodging small-arms fire or missiles from the ground. The pilot has to release the ordnance at just the right moment, then pull up and away while dodging more missiles. Even under optimum conditions, it's treacherous. And it can take days for battle damage assessments to determine whether the target was hit.
Can our pilots bomb from high altitude? Yes, but great altitude decreases accuracy. ``Carpet bombing'' from B-52s is a weapon of terror. Don't count on ``smart'' bombs to do the job. More than 95 percent of the bombs the allies dropped on Iraq were the conventional ``dumb'' kind.
But let us assume that despite all these concerns, airstrikes are ordered. The Bosnian Serbs can read history: As the North Vietnamese did, they will place their artillery in residential areas. They may even gather UN peacekeepers (read ``hostages'') around critical weapons sites. Americans will not stomach such horrors. We are not a warlike nation. Even our warriors much prefer peace, and would recommend staying out of wars if, as in Bosnia, our interests are not at stake.
Defense Secretary William Perry and Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili both caution against American airstrikes. Experience shows that these missions just won't work, and they'll get our pilots killed. A similar commitment of ground troops would prove costlier, in human lives and dollars, than Vietnam. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.