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Cohen Orders 51 Aircraft to Bulk NATO's Kosovo Muscle

By Jim Garamone and Linda Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 1999 – Fifty-one U.S. aircraft will deploy to European staging areas to support possible air operations in Yugoslavia, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said Feb. 17.

Cohen ordered 12 Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft and 10 Marine Corps and Navy EA-6B Prowlers to move closer to the scene of possible action; the remaining 29 are refueling aircraft. Other Pentagon officials said the air forces will be prepared to move within 48 hours.

Peace talks between the Serbian and ethnic Albanian Kosovar separatist factions continue in Rambouillet, France. NATO officials called for a peace agreement by Feb. 20, after which the alliance might use military force to pressure Serb authorities into resolving the conflict.

NATO issued an activation order last fall giving Secretary- General Javier Solana the authority to order air strikes against Serb-dominated Yugoslavia if necessary. Solana postponed attacks, but the NATO order is still in effect.

DoD officials called the 51-aircraft deployment a precaution to ensure NATO can conduct operations if they prove necessary. They stressed NATO has made no decision to use force, but noted the United States would provide most of the alliance's strike aircraft. Great Britain, Italy, France and Belgium also would provide air forces and other NATO allies are committed to support roles.

The United States has designated about 260 Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft and crews to Operation Noble Anvil, the U.S. portion of NATO's air campaign, if one occurs. The U.S. forces would include the USS Enterprise carrier battle group, on station in the Mediterranean, and standby aircraft in the United States. Cohen said the standby "package" could include B-2s.

U.S. forces "are prepared to carry out the NATO mission in the event [Serb President Slobodan] Milosevic remains an obstacle," Cohen said. The purpose of any strikes, he said, would be to reduce the Serbs' ability to pose a threat.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Feb. 17 the United States is determined to protect regional stability in the Balkans. Escalated violence in Kosovo would further the exodus of refugees, which could destabilize other nations in the region, he said.

"We think that Albania would increasingly become a staging area for the Kosovo Liberation Army and, thus, increase the risk of cross-border conflict," he said. "We think the massive refugee flow could spread instability to the fledgling democracy of [the Former Yugoslavian Republic of] Macedonia. We also think violence in Kosovo could reduce the prospects for political reform in Belgrade, which we think are important."

NATO's credibility as a force for peace is also at stake, Lockhart said. The decision to use force is never taken lightly, he stressed, "but we do have interests around the world and there are times where we only have one choice, and we exercise that choice as cautiously and sparingly as we can."

If the Serbs and Kosovar Albanians agree to acceptable peace conditions, President Clinton has promised to commit 4,000 U.S. troops to NATO's planned Kosovo Force. If that NATO peacekeeping mission begins, the U.S. portion of it will be called Operation Joint Guardian.

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