Can we win from the air?

If Milosevic remains intransigent there will be no lack of targets for a campaign of many weeks
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FIVE DAYS into the air campaign, and the reality of war is with us. However miraculous the technology, men and machines are at risk. The loss of the stealth F117A over Serbia reminds us that once combat is joined, we cannot be sure how it will run its course. The contrast between the medieval slash and burn tactics of Serbian forces in Kosovo and the high-tech Nato air campaign could hardly be greater. Yet, the measure of Nato's military success will be how effective air strikes are in reducing the Serb violence against ethnic Albanians. All military operations seek in the end to achieve a political solution, but the current conflict requires great subtlety in the application of air power if the aim is to be achieved. As Nato announces its move into "Phase II", the destruction of the army and police units in Kosovo, can air power deliver a solution?

We have grown used since the Gulf War to the extraordinary change that precision weaponry has brought to the effectiveness of bombing. A bombing aircraft will be travelling at 500mph, flying three miles above the ground, releasing its 1000lb of high explosive into an unpredictable air flow, while at the same time having to take measures to avoid enemy air defences. Until the advent of smart weapons, the accuracy of such tactics meant that repeated attacks were needed to ensure the destruction of targets. Now, the planner can be assured that most weapons will be delivered to the required point of impact. Fewer aircraft have to be risked to achieve a desired level of destruction.

But there are new factors in the modern world which make the air planners' work more difficult. The Kosovo operation was launched with the agreement of all 19 Nato nations. Each member country is a democracy, with the need to carry its public. In such a humanitarian relief operation, there will be great sensitivity to losses of Allied aircraft, as well as to unintended civilian casualties on the ground. Added to these complications, the planner must ensure that each of the participating 13 different air forces, with different aircraft and capabilities, has a role to play.

Classical air doctrine always looks to gain control of the skies as soon as possible. If enemy air defences can be neutralised, the attacking aircraft have much more freedom to carry out their missions in greater safety. The military need coincides with the political requirement to prevent Allied aircraft losses. On Wednesday, when Operation Allied Force began, the now routine opening salvo of cruise missiles was launched. These came from elderly American B52 bombers that had taken off from England earlier in the day; from warships in the Adriatic and from a submerged Royal Navy submarine. The missiles are small jet aircraft that fly at low level using satellite navigation, ground contour matching and optical image data to arrive at their targets. They can be used to attack the key heavily defended air defence elements of fixed radars, airfields, headquarters and control centres. However, they are expensive and, unlike aircraft, cannot be tasked for multiple missions.

The Yugoslav air defences are rightly taken seriously by planners. In the jargon, they have an integrated air defence system: civil and military radars are linked by fibre optic cables to control centres, missile sites, fighter bases and aircraft. They will have ensured that the system is connected so that it can sustain the loss of some parts. They had a dozen of the MiG 29 Fulcrum modern Russian fighters, but may have lost more than a third of these already. More numerous are the 70 much less capable MiG 21 Fishbeds, which can be systematically attacked on the ground.

The real worry for the planners is the mix of surface-to-air missiles. Some, like the SA-2, are a very old design - this was the missile that brought down Gary Powers in 1960. Others, like the SA-6, are mobile and effective at the heights at which Nato aircraft are operating. Enormous effort is devoted to electronic counter-measures, and each attacking aircraft will be fitted with radar and infra-red decoy systems. Yet there remains the risk that a missile may get through to its target. Anti-aircraft guns are limited in range and height, but can bring down cruise missiles with a lucky shot. They become more important as we move into Phase II, when Nato aircraft will have to fly lower to attack their targets.

As the initial assault on all parts of the air defences nears completion, the planners are giving greater priority to targets for this next phase of the campaign. The Yugoslav army and the Ministry of Interior police are the forces of repression in Kosovo. To curb them from the air requires a number of different approaches. Coercion may be achieved by systematic destruction of all the military capability, but there is also a need to put the troops on the ground in Kosovo on the defensive. If they need to disperse and protect themselves, they may have less capacity to continue the ethnic cleansing.

The chain of command reaches from Belgrade through 3rd Army HQ in Nis to the 52 (Pristina) Corps HQ, and then on down to the units throughout Kosovo. The interior police are largely co-located with the military. The army have relatively few infantry on the ground, preferring to use tanks and artillery for their work. This makes the work of Nato air power slightly easier. The headquarters, the fuel and ammunition dumps, the communication centres and the tank and vehicle parks will be high on the target list. Damaging the logistic supply chain can bring a rapid degradation in capability.

Dispersal of important equipment will become a priority for units under attack, and that will compound their communication problems. Nevertheless, if these smaller targets are to be found and destroyed, without risking civilian casualties, aircraft like the Harrier, the A10 and perhaps even attack helicopters will need to fly at lower levels than we have seen so far. This puts them at higher risk from air defence guns, portable missiles and small arms fire.

The timing of the individual phases and the length of the air campaign are subject to many factors, some political and some military. For long- term stability in Kosovo, an armed international peacekeeping force will be needed. The phasing and intensity of the attacks can be adjusted to encourage President Milosevic back to the negotiating table. As we are seeing, an increase in atrocities in Kosovo can be punished by an increase in the intensity of strikes, while a reduction in Serbian forces in the region could be rewarded by longer pauses between attacks. The military factors include, as in all operations, the effects of weather. Some operations, particularly if civilian casualties are to be minimised, require a clear view of the target. Assessment of results can take some time, and may not always be conclusive without a ground inspection. This means that some targets may need to be attacked more than once to ensure that they are destroyed.

Balancing the military needs against the many political imperatives, particularly when trying to keep all 19 Nato nations aboard, will be hard as the campaign goes on. If Milosevic remains intransigent, there will be no lack of targets for an air campaign that runs into many weeks. But the political pressure to ensure early results will also drive the timetable. While air planners might have wanted to spend longer destroying the air defence system, the quickening pace of events in Kosovo is perhaps pushing them into an earlier move to Phase II with added risks to aircraft and aircrew.

Can this strategy work? Only time will tell. Nor should it be forgotten that war is a two-sided affair. The Yugoslavs may yet decide to fight back against Nato forces in Macedonia, Bosnia, Italy or even further afield. The small and ragged forces of the KLA in Kosovo may try to capitalise on the cover that the Nato air campaign will give them. They are, however, few in number, and are unlikely to be a match for the mass of Serb forces on the ground. While Nato's military can conduct an air campaign for as long as necessary, in the end it is the political will which counts. The final stabilising of the region will need an armed international ground force to be present for a very long time. If it has to be put in place against the wishes of the Serbs, Nato leaders will have some difficult choices in the coming weeks.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a former Assistant Chief of the Air Staff