Past conflicts highlight limits of airstrikes

NATO steps up and broadens bombing campaign in Serbia to stem refugee

The limits of waging war through airstrikes alone has become increasingly clear over the past week to the United States and its NATO allies.

Now, amid reports that the alliance will intensify and broaden its air attacks in hope of doing more to weaken Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his armed forces, NATO faces a key question: What are the capabilities of a military strategy that is based largely on airstrikes?

The equipment today is far advanced and the action over the Balkans is in conjunction with the 19-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet the purpose is generally the same as it was in Vietnam - to force a diplomatic resolution by hammering one's adversary from the air.

"We've done this for years in theaters around the world," says Eugene Carroll, a retired rear admiral who once commanded US Navy attack squadrons. "You can punish, you can destroy, you can weaken, you can set the stage for much easier ground campaigns, such as we had in Desert Storm, by intense aerial bombardment.

"But the limit is you cannot control the situation on the ground, either militarily or politically, from the air alone," says Admiral Carroll, now deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private think tank in Washington.

In Vietnam, he adds, "We used everything we owned except nuclear weapons and never, ever stopped [North Vietnamese] control of the situation on the ground. They moved where they wanted to move, they could get their supplies through, they could get their reinforcements in."

Many experts caution against likening the current conflict to the air war the US and its allies waged very successfully against Iraq eight years ago.

"That war was fought under almost ideal circumstances from a US point of view, whether it was the weather, whether it was the terrain, whether it was the lead time we had to build up to the war, whether it was the effective suppression of air defenses, the control of the air, the complete monopoly we had on intelligence," says Frank Gaffney, assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. "It was about as good as it gets, and the results were evidence of that."

"But this ain't as good as it gets," says Mr. Gaffney. He cites the weather and rugged terrain as major factors inhibiting NATO. These difficulties may have made it easier for Serb antiaircraft crews to track and down a US F-117A Night hawk "stealth" fighter - the most advanced operational combat jet in the world - with a 30-year-old ground-to-air missile system.

As thousands of refugees fleeing a Serb onslaught continue to stream across the Yugoslav border, NATO this week stepped up its air attacks against Mr. Milosevic's forces. Yesterday, the campaign broadened to include government buildings in Belgrade.

Added to the US arsenal were five B-1B bombers, five Navy EA-6B radar-jamming aircraft, and 10 air-to-air refueling tankers. The B-1Bs typically carry 84 bombs weighing 500 pounds and 30 cluster munitions. Also entering the fray for the first time are Air Force A-10 "Warthogs," low- and slow-flying aircraft designed to attack tanks with large-caliber cannons. The B-1Bs and A-10s are part of the second phase of NATO's air war, which began by targeting missile batteries, radar sites, and other air defense systems.

THIS increase in NATO air power is an indication of how difficult the job is, and again the comparison with Desert Storm is instructive, experts say. There, Iraqi troops were concentrated in large numbers in relatively fixed positions. In Kosovo, says Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon, Serbian troops and special police are harder to detect and shoot at - especially from the air.

"They're attacking villages from different directions in small groups, so that is a complicating factor," he says. "There is not a quick solution. There is no magic military bullet here." The history of following a strategy of heavy bombardment may not be encouraging.

"Germany hammered ... Great Britain [in World War II] and made them into an implacable force," Carroll says. "We hammered ... Germany, and they didn't surrender until the Russians and the US invaded on the ground."

Part of the emphasis on air power, especially by the US, comes from the attraction to high-tech fixes wherever possible, and the strong desire to avoid casualties. In Iraq, President Bush and his regional allies waged aerial war against Saddam Hussein for more than a month before US ground forces entered the war. In the end, 383 American lives were lost (most of those were noncombat fatalities, including those due to "friendly fire").

As the NATO air war continues, concern over the status of US air capabilities is growing. Some warn that with requirements to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq, help keep the peace in Bosnia, and now mount continuous attacks in Kosovo, the US Air Force may be stretched to the breaking point. In addition, the service is declining in readiness.

"We are substantially less ready today than we were just a few years ago," Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley, head of the service's Air Combat Command, told a congressional panel last September. The percentage of airplanes rated as "mission capable" has declined, the percentage of experience aircraft maintenance chiefs who reenlist is dropping, and pilots "are leaving us at an alarming rate," General Hawley warned.

Current trends indicate the Air Force will be short 2,000 pilots by 2002. In addition, those pilots who stay in the Air Force are getting less flying time, which reduces their sharpness in the air. These days, the typical Air Force pilot gets about half the monthly flying time that military pilots did in the Vietnam era.

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