Serbs Put Up Tough Fight, U.S. Commanders Say
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy, June 23, 1999 U.S. field commanders say Operation Allied Force was a tough fight for the joint, combined NATO air team that took to the skies against Yugoslavia.
"The airmen flew through heavy anti-aircraft fire virtually every single day and night," said U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, Operation Allied Force commander. "They flew against very capable, integrated air defense systems, including medium-altitude, surface-to-air missiles. Against a lesser force, there would have been scores of aircraft down."
Beginning March 24, more than 730 U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft and 37,100 service members took part in NATO's effort to stop the Kosovo conflict. NATO pilots flew more than 36,000 sorties before the campaign that ended June 20 when NATO confirmed Serb forces had pulled out of Kosovo.
Clark said the 5,000 U.S. service members who served in Task Force Hawk in Albania also played an important role. The combat punch of the task force was 24 Army Apache helicopters. Although the Apaches didn't fly as part of Operation Allied Force, Clark said, they played an important part in achieving the mission. "They moved in there under the most difficult and demanding circumstances," he said. "They established their proficiency quickly and made a strong contribution to the outcome of the mission."
Clark, who also heads U.S. European Command and serves as NATO's supreme allied commander Europe, said the American public may not fully appreciate the risks U.S. and NATO pilots faced or the courage they displayed during the 79- day air campaign. Going against Serb air defenses and decisively beating them on their home turf was an incredible achievement, he said.
"These pilots are heroes," the general said. "They went in there time and time again. They knew what they were facing. They knew that a mistake would mean loss of an aircraft. They were extremely well prepared. They're very competent and they didn't lose."
The need for absolute strike accuracy was an extra burden for the pilots, Clark said. Each time they prepared to strike, air crews had to think twice about the consequences of missing the target. "Thinking twice takes time, and that time -- those milliseconds or seconds -- adds to the risk," he said.
Clark also commended U.S. ground crews. Disciplined, exacting Air Force, Navy and Marine crews maintained high technical standards, and it showed, Clark said. No aircraft were lost due to maintenance problems.
"They were quick to refit the aircraft and get them ready to go in again," he said. "We had aircraft that had a very high mission rates. When they got up there to fly and fight, they had all the gear they needed to do it, and do it successfully."
Even though NATO allies have trained together for years, Clark said, the interoperability displayed during the campaign surprised alliance military leaders. "We were one team," he said. "We ran one fight together. It was truly remarkable. The allies performed extremely well. They've got some great pilots and equipment in many of the air forces. They're competent and they've got a lot of courage."
Throughout the operation, aircrews and support personnel at Aviano Air Base, Italy, did the impossible, according to U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan 'Fig' Leaf, commander of the 31st Fighter Wing. "These people have just spent every day doing things other people said couldn't be done," the F-16 pilot said. "People said, 'You can't bed down this many people. You can't operate this many aircraft. You can't fly this many sorties. You can't sustain it.'
"But these great American men and women and their NATO partners refused to listen," Leaf said. "They achieved what many thought couldn't be done -- everything from building a tent city to putting bombs on target under very difficult threat conditions and occasionally quite lousy weather.
The troops wanted to win the contest between good and evil, he said. "They understood the importance of trying to stop the atrocities in Kosovo. This really galvanized them and allowed them to sustain the effort for 79-plus days of uninterrupted air combat."
U.S. and NATO counterparts maintained a steady, intense determination -- a deep commitment to win, Leaf said. Whether he was walking through tent city, going through the engine shop, launching on a sortie, talking to the arming crew at end of runway or returning pilots, the wing leader said he sensed their determination to see the mission through.
"The only ebbs and flows in the operation came from weather," Leaf said. "There was ramp up for our sorties, but it was a steady build. We felt both our potential to be victorious, and the need to be victorious, grow. I know there's some impression that this was easy. This was not easy. They were really shooting at us a lot."
Leaf expressed his utmost admiration and respect for America's men and women in uniform. "I know how much they'll give," he said. "I know how selflessly they serve."
The wing commander said he is inspired by his troops each day. "Like the buildup of tent city," he said. "They did it in four and a half days. It should have taken 14 to 21 as we were bedding down 2,000 people.
Or, like the F-16 pilot who had "an air burst right under his aircraft as he was guiding the weapon in on the target. His flight leader asked, 'Did it hit you? Are you OK?' And the pilot said, 'Something hit me but I'm still running.' So he continued the mission and hit the target, even while thinking that his aircraft had been struck. As it turned out, it had not sustained any damage, but that's how close the explosion was."
Leaf said he's been impressed not just by the airmen's dedication, but also by their intellect. Shortly after the war crimes tribunal indicted Milosevic as a war criminal, he said a bomb loader asked what he thought of the development.
The loader "began talking in extraordinarily eloquent, articulate terms about the political-military significance of the indictment," Leaf said. "Now that's something," he exclaimed. "Here they are, fighting a war, working 12 plus hour shifts in the cold and the rain and they're still that aware of the details of the conflict and some pretty complex issues. I get inspired every day by our people.