An Army View on Kosovo

By Arbogast, Gordon W. | Aerospace Power Journal, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

An Army View on Kosovo


Arbogast, Gordon W., Aerospace Power Journal


THE RECENT WAR in Yugoslavia provided a new data point in military history. By reflecting upon this engagement, we may derive lessons learned, as well as validate traditional strategies and tactics. I believe that I can add objectivity to such an exercise since (1) my Army background gives me a perspective from a service not heavily engaged in the actual fighting and (2) my son Scott flew over 150 combat hours, engaging surface-to-air missile batteries over Kosovo as an F-16CJ pilot in the 23d Fighter Squadron based in Aviano, Italy.

The Classical View and Reality

As soon as the latest war against Yugoslavia began on 24 March 1999, a number of eminent Americans began to criticize sharply the decision of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not to consider sending a ground element into Kosovo. Conventional wisdom asserted that an air war would not be sufficient to achieve NATO's objectives in Yugoslavia. According to a long-standing axiom of war, one cannot defeat an enemy by airpower alone. In Army terms, a victor must send in ground troops to break the enemy's will to resist and to occupy terra firma. Indeed, William Odom, a retired Army general, advocated a massive, high-speed armored attack from Hungary and a sweep by ground forces down the Danubian plain to Belgrade. He proposed a concurrent push from the south, forcing the Serbs to fight on two fronts.1 Other retired military officers agreed, arguing that the allies could establish peace only with a strong ground force and considerable loss of life. They advocated concentrating a superior force for a Clausewitzian "set-piece" battle at a decisive time and place. This line of thinking maintained that the center of gravity was the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and that only a powerful ground force could topple it. Estimates of a ground force to defeat the Serbian army rose to two hundred thousand men with high casualties expected. Within the Central Intelligence Agency, there were also memos showing that aerial bombing would not work.2

In the face of criticism, the Clinton administration and NATO stood firm. In 1995 airpower had succeeded in bringing Milosevic to the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio, and it had played a major role in destroying Saddam Hussein's divisions in Kuwait and southern Iraq prior to the ground offensive in Operation Desert Storm. Rejecting the doctrine advocated by Gen Colin Powell of committing troops only if one could fight a war with superior ground and air forces, NATO chose an escalating air campaign. Criticism rose sharply when Milosevic initiated savage ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and when allied bombing damaged Belgrade-- especially the Chinese embassy there. Skeptics predicted that NATO would fracture, but the alliance and the US administration remained resolute, asking for patience to allow the air campaign time to take effect.

Early on, one saw little indication that this strategy was succeeding. Frustration was apparent on the part of Air Force officers, who viewed themselves merely as administrators carrying out the directives of Washington and Gen Wesley Clark, the NATO commander. Officers of all grades became disconcerted over the restrictions and failure to hit key target groups, particularly the national electrical grid and the Yugoslav leadership. In early May, Lt Gen Michael Short, the NATO air commander, hinted at such disagreement with the targeting strategy and the relative restraint of the early days of the bombing.3 He stated that the main targets initially had been Yugoslav antiaircraft defense systems and military targets, none of them especially close to Belgrade. Perhaps not coincidentally, the air strategy then quietly but effectively changed. Additional airpower deployed to the region, and the number of air sorties escalated rapidly. By late May, General Short became more sanguine in his assessment, affirming that the air campaign was having a major impact, especially within Kosovo. …

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