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Air Chief's Kosovo Lesson: Go for Snake's Head First

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 26, 1999 – If it had been solely up to U.S. military chiefs, the lights in Belgrade would have gone out a lot sooner, according to top Operation Allied Force field commanders.

"I'd have gone for the head of the snake on the first night," Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short said in an Oct. 21 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. The air chief during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's military, Short appeared with Army Gen. Wesley Clark, overall operational commander, and Adm. James Ellis, commander of NATO forces in Southern Europe.

U.S. military and political leaders are studying Operation Allied Force, NATO's first large-scale conflict, for ways to improve the security alliance and to ensure future success. The recent Senate hearing was one of several to review U.S. lessons learned and prepare a record for future military strategists.

"I'd have turned the lights out," Short said. "I'd have dropped the bridges across the Danube. I'd have hit five or six political-military headquarters in downtown Belgrade. Milosevic and his cronies would have woken up the first morning asking what the hell was going on."

According to the general, a combat aviator himself, the way to stop ethnic cleansing would have been to put a dagger in the Serb leadership's heart "as rapidly and as decisively as possible." Based on his personal experience with Milosevic, Short said, "If you hit that man hard -- slapped him up side the head -- he'd pay attention."

Clark echoed his air chief's hard line, but noted that political constraints affected the alliance operation.

"Once the threshold is crossed and you are going to use force, that force has to be as decisive as possible in attaining your military objectives," he said. In the case of Kosovo, however, he said, the consensus of 19 nations was required to approve action, and many countries had preconceptions about how to apply force.

"Every single nation had a domestic political constituency, and every single nation had a different set of political problems," Clark explained. "In some there were government coalitions. In others there were historic relationships. Some bore the agony of defeat in a previous conflict and the word 'war' couldn't be mentioned. Others were long-standing partners with American efforts elsewhere in the world."

Despite their political differences, Clark stressed, the allies pulled together and their cohesion and resolution got stronger.

"The fundamental lesson of the campaign is that the alliance worked," Clark said. "The procedures that were honed and developed over 50 years, the mechanism of consultation, the trust, the interoperability that we'd exercised time and again in preparation for missions, they all came together."

NATO prevailed despite bad weather, political constraints and the advent of a humanitarian crisis as refugees poured out of Kosovo. Clark stressed NATO's conditions were met -- the cease- fire, the removal of Serb military forces, the placement of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo and the return of refugees.

Yet, there is room for improvement, the three field commanders agreed. They highlighted the need to address the growing gap between U.S. and NATO allies' military capabilities. Clark said NATO allies clearly understand the gap and are committed to closing it.

"This operation had a remarkable effect in spurring European determination and resolve to pick up a greater burden within the alliance," he said. "They really want to strengthen the European pillar of NATO."

Allied Force naval chief Ellis called for improved secure communications among the allies and streamlined NATO procedures enabling timely political and military action. The admiral also stressed the need to recognize the complexities that emerged during the conflict.

"As we were successfully prosecuting an aggressive air campaign, we were at the same time and in the same region working to bolster the resolve and security of critical front-line states … while also conducting massive humanitarian relief operations literally under the guns of our enemy," Ellis said.

Short noted that Serb air defenses proved to be far less competent than U.S. and NATO officials expected. "We expected them to come up and fight; they did not," he said. "Their MiG-29 drivers turned out to be incompetent at best. And their surface- to-air missile system operators chose to survive as opposed to fight."

All three senior leaders' opening remarks praised the professionalism of the U.S. and allied troops who conducted the 78-day operation. More than 900 aircraft, two-thirds American, flew more than 14,000 strike and 24,000 support sorties. The United States suffered the only NATO air losses, an F-117A Nighthawk and an F-16 Fighting Falcon, with both pilots rescued safely. NATO lost no service members to hostile action.

Allied crews delivered more than 23,000 bombs and other munitions with less than 20 incidents of collateral damage. "That's an incident rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent," Clark said. "There's never been anything like it in the history of a military campaign, and I think it's a real tribute to the skill and proficiency of the men and women who flew and executed this campaign, to achieve that kind of precision."

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