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First NATO Strikes Aimed at Serb Air Defenses

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 25, 1999 – The first wave of NATO Operation Allied Force primarily targeted Yugoslavia's extensive air defense system, according to the Pentagon's top leaders.

"The air defense system in Yugoslavia is very capable and it poses a considerable threat to NATO aircraft involved in the operation," said U.S. Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Although we have no indication of casualties to U.S. or NATO forces at this point, we're taking all measures to reduce the risk to pilots and air crews. But there is no such thing as a risk free military operation."

Shelton and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen addressed a packed Pentagon press conference here about three hours after NATO air strikes began March 24. Security concerns limited the amount of operational detail they would discuss, since the operation was still underway and allied forces remained at risk. They also said it was also too early to discuss damage assessment.

Sea-launched cruise missiles from U.S. and British naval vessels and air-launched cruise missiles from U.S. B-52 bombers began striking military targets throughout Yugoslavia at about 2 p.m. EST, Cohen said. The strikes were part of very carefully calibrated, integrated air campaign, he said.

NATO fighters, bombers, tankers, surveillance and other aircraft from 11 NATO nations are participating in the operation. Cohen said. All U.S. and NATO aircraft returned safely from the first wave of attacks, he noted. NATO officials in Brussels denied reports that a NATO plane had been shot down. Cohen said an air-to-air exchange had occurred between allied and Serb forces, but could not confirm reports that a Serb MiG fighter had been shot down.

"We are making every reasonable effort to protect our forces while eliminating, carefully defined military targets," Cohen said. "NATO's forces are well trained, they are well led and they are committed to working for a Europe that is stable and secure."

The initial attacks were followed by other strikes by NATO aircraft, including U.S. B-2 bombers, Cohen said. The mission marked the debut of the B-2 bomber, which the secretary reported had performed according to its capabilities. "It's a stealthy aircraft that can fly in all weather with considerable ordnance aboard," he said. "We are satisfied that it was able to conduct itself and carry out its mission accordingly."

NATO had an extensive target list, planned with great care, Cohen said. NATO authorities determined the military value of the targets in terms of the threat they pose to people in the region, he said. "We're doing our level best to minimize civilian casualties."

Shelton stressed that NATO is exercising extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties or other unintended damage. But, he said, "you can never eliminate risk in a military operation."

The first wave of attacks focused "on degrading air defense systems in order to reduce the risk and the threat to our pilots and air crews in subsequent operations," Shelton said. The strikes also targeted command and control systems and the military forces Yugoslavia is using to suppress Kosovar Albanians.

"We are attacking the military infrastructure President [Slobodan] Milosevic and his forces are using to repress and kill innocent people," Cohen stressed. "NATO forces are not attacking the people of Yugoslavia. They are attacking the military forces that are responsible for the killing and the carnage in Kosovo. It is Yugoslavia's protracted campaign of military repression of the Kosovar Albanians that has made this action necessary to avoid humanitarian disaster and prevent the spread of instability in Europe."

NATO and the international community "worked hard" to achieve a diplomatic solution, Cohen stressed. After two rounds of peace talks in Paris, however, Kosovar Albanians chose peace, while Yugoslavia chose continued aggression.

"The Yugoslav army, under orders from President Milosevic, intensified its brutal attacks, killing people, burning villages and creating a flood of refugees," Cohen said. "While the negotiators tried for peace, the Yugoslav army launched a force of more than 300 tanks, backed by hundreds of artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers to crush the Kosovar Albanians. NATO could not allow President Milosevic to use the peace talks as a cover for his savage plunder."

NATO air strikes are designed to reduce Serbian military forces' ability to continue offensive operations against the Kosovars, Cohen said. "There is united resolve among all 19 NATO members," he said. "We would like very much Mr. Milosevic to stop the slaughter of innocent people. In the event that he fails to do so, all of the NATO allies intend to continue the effort to damage his capacity to wage this war against the Kosovar people."

If Milosevic persists in his attacks on the Kosovars, Shelton said, "he will continue to lose the capabilities that he has -- that's air defense, command and control, tanks -- the full range of military capabilities will continue to go down."

Shelton saluted America's men and women in uniform who are taking part in Operation Allied Force as "well trained and dedicated professionals. "I'm confident that they will continue to carry out their assigned mission with the skill and courage that are the hallmark of U.S. armed forces," the general said. "Our thoughts are with these brave men and women, and their families, as they go in harm's way in pursuit of peace.

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Related Sites:
DoD News Briefing, Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and CJCS Gen. Shelton, January 24, 1999

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