After Kosovo, US Air Force and Army in a tug of war

Few see major shift in Pentagon spending, but importance of air power

To some, Kosovo is proof that war can be won with concentrated bombing alone.

To others, the lessons from NATO's air campaign are not that clear.

But the analysis and interpretation of the 11-week campaign waged against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic represents more than a strategic debate between armchair generals.

For those with a stake in the future of the United States military, what worked and what did not will have a long-reaching impact on new weapons technology, allotment of billions of dollars in defense funding, and the shape of tomorrow's troops.

"The standard debate is going to be, for the first time ever we won on air power alone," predicts Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "But I think you do have to have ground forces. We had a lot of trouble with weather and terrain."

Even fundamental military tactics are being reexamined, such as the so-called "Powell Doctrine," the application of immediate, overwhelming force that proved effective in the Gulf War.

The gradual escalation applied in Kosovo was deemed successful, but risky.

"You run the risk in the gradual approach to the enemy building up resistance," says David Tretler, a professor of national security policy at the National War College near Washington.

A classic strategy for the weaker side is to conduct a protracted war that the stronger side is not willing to bear.

"In this case, though, it seems we were," says Dr. Tretler.

But the focus of the post-Kosovo evaluation is on the Air Force's performance, instead of the Army's. Both in terms of current structure and budget, it is seen as the most likely to be transformed, analysts say.

"Military organizations don't often get real feedback on how effective they are, since we aren't fighting wars all the time," says Andrew Krepinevich, executive director at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

"There are these long periods where you don't know how something is going to perform in combat," he adds.

WHAT does work, military planners say, are reconnaissance drones, long-range bombers, and newer, satellite-guided munitions upgraded from the Gulf War.

"Precision ordnance was very successful," says retired Air Force Gen. Perry Smith who believes the success achieved through air power is historic.

"[In Kosovo], you only had about 33,000 total sorties. [In the Gulf War], we had 110,000 sorties," General Smith says. "The point is, if you use precision, you don't have to go back and back and back."

Other factors that contributed to success from the air include territory size and Balkan geography. While Iraq is roughly the size of California, Kosovo and Yugoslavia are roughly the size of Ohio. The smaller area concentrated the devastation of the bombing campaign.

Given the Air Force's ability to project American might from the air, it is beginning to wage a second, equally aggressive campaign for future funding, as seen yesterday before the House Armed Services Committee. It will make a strong case that it has become the principal military force.

Nevertheless, analysts say it's unlikely the Defense Department will do any major restructuring of its budget and unlikelier still that the Pentagon will vary from dividing its assets into thirds for the Air Force, Army, and Navy-Marines.

"But we could be at a moment in time where folks perceive such a fundamental shift that they are willing to break that formula," Tretler says.

The Army is frustrated with the perception that it was incapable of timely and effective deployment in Kosovo, especially in its handling of the AH-64 Apache helicopters.

Some bemoan the fact that analysis doesn't take into account the presence of the Kosovo Liberation Army needed to draw Serb forces into position for NATO attack. Ground troops were needed, they say, even if they weren't US troops.

"People who control the purse strings might get a misperception of the Army's contribution to this effort," says an Army official. "We were ready to go on the ground. That option was taken off the table for political reasons. It had nothing to do with readiness."

The most likely legacy of Kosovo could be an acceleration of the Army's "strike force" concept. The force is a rapidly deployable ground force capable of dropping infantry, heavy armor, and Apache backup into hot spots.

"[Kosovo] illustrated the need for a lighter, more lethal force. And the lessons will be applied to the structure and training and equipment of the strike force," says the Army official.

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