Europe should go in alone

THE FIRST chilly wind of Balkan winter has begun to blow through the corridors of Nato.The mountainous terrain around Kosovo becomes ever more difficult for military operations from the middle of October each year. By that time, either the refugees will feel secure enough to return to their home towns, or there will be more than a million displaced people who will be needing warm shelter in Albania and Macedonia.

Any military planner must start with the desired political aim and then plan how to achieve that aim with the best chance of success and least risk of failure, given the constraints of time, ground and resources. Nato's aim is to get the Kosovo Albanians back to their land in safety. A delay into winter would make this doubly difficult. Better shelter than tented camps would be needed in Macedonia and Albania for the winter, and rebuilding new housing to replace the destroyed towns in Kosovo would be much more difficult.

All of this means that any sensible plan will seek to provide secure warm shelter in Kosovo by around mid-October. This in itself will need a vast civil-military operation. Prefabricated dwellings will need to be airlifted in with teams of construction workers and military engineers to clear the debris of war and erect the buildings. It might be that, with some sharing of housing, a useful provision could be made over a period of perhaps six weeks.

The ticking clock of winter and the practicalities of rehousing the refugees mean that the international armed peacekeeping force will need to be in place in Kosovo around the beginning of September. If air power provides the lever for an agreement between Serbia and the international community, time will still be needed to install the peacekeepers. However under benign conditions, where the troops were not officially opposed by the Serbs, the build-up of peacekeepers could be done in a progressive way, starting with the Nato force currently deployed in Macedonia.

These 16,000 troops would need to move quickly to ensure that no power vacuum existed in Kosovo following a withdrawal of Serbian forces. With feelings running high between Serb and Albanian groups, the number needed by the time of the return of the refugees is likely to be nearer 40,000 than the 28,000 assumed in the Rambouillet discussions. These would take at least a month to put on the ground. If a diplomatic settlement is to be successful, it will need to be delivered by the end of July.

The military planner must always look at the worst case. When you plan for the worst, things usually turn out better; when you fail to make such plans, the outcome is invariably worse. In order to get the necessary agreement to start the air campaign, Nato leaders had from the start to discount the use of ground troops entering Kosovo opposed. This posture has made the need for ground troops fighting their way into Kosovo more likely. A steady build-up of Nato forces in the surrounding countries, coupled with masterful ambiguity, would have been much more coercive to the Serbian leadership. The military planners will have made this point and prepared and updated contingency plans as time has gone on. The UK Government was the first of the Nato members to indicate that it was prepared to think about the ground option. Tony Blair tried hard to bring US opinion round when he went to the Washington summit at the end of April. However, all the signs are that America has hardened against committing its men to fight a war in the Balkans.

Keeping our aim of getting the refugees home before winter is in sight, where does that leave us now? The constraints of time mean that if we wish to launch a ground invasion we should allow perhaps four weeks for it to be carried out. It therefore needs to be started by mid-July. That leaves just eight weeks to put together the necessary force. The two months could be spent in continuing efforts to persuade the United States to change its mind, or, more productively, in getting on with forming an ad hoc coalition from European nations and any others that wanted to contribute.

How big a force would be needed? After all the atrocities and ill-feeling generated between Serb and Albanian, the number is now likely to be about 40,000. More would be needed to intervene into a hostile, defended Kosovo. Much would depend on how successfully the air campaign had degraded the Serbian forces on the ground.

In the Gulf war, six weeks of an air campaign meant that the ground campaign was a four-day walkover. After three months of air attacks on Kosovo, a much smaller area than Iraq, the ground forces may well be demoralised. Nor may they be the hardened fighters that their grandfathers were in the Second World War. The fact that they use heavy armour for "ethnic cleansing" suggests less than a warrior culture.

Nevertheless we must plan for the worst case, just as we did in the Gulf war. A force of about 80,000 might be necessary, prepared to take casualties and to fight until Kosovo was free for its people to return. The air support for such a campaign would be provided by the Nato air forces that are currently being deployed, but supplemented by more ground attack and helicopter capability.

Could Europe put together such a force at such short notice? Certainly, in raw numbers the continent has no lack of men in uniform. However, we must discount most conscripts and reserves.

Nevertheless, if France, Germany and the UK were to take a lead in proposing such a force, they should be able to find assistance not only from other EU members, but also from new Nato members, prospective Nato members and even countries further afield. Eighty thousand troops should not be beyond the bounds of possibility.

This is exactly the operation that has been discussed in seminars endlessly over the past five years: a military operation to be conducted by the Europeans using Nato assets. If the major EU player governments agreed, with support from other EU members, we could see the European defence identity take a great leap forward, and we might have a chance of rescuing the Kosovars from "ethnic cleansing" and Nato from oblivion.

How would the operation be conducted? Once a European-led ground force option became a reality, the air campaign would be orchestrated to prepare for the ground intervention. Operating height restrictions on aircraft would be removed. Harriers, A10s (if the US so wished) and other Allied ground attack could be used to create cleared bridgeheads for the ground forces. The Apache armed helicopters would have a useful role in the early stages of any insertion, whereas they have no useful role under current constraints.

It might be that a diplomatic settlement would come before such a force was launched. It might be that the Serbian defences would crumble at the first engagement. But it could also be a hard war that would take weeks to finish. In any of these cases, Nato's aim to restore the refugees to their homes would be achieved. Europe would face a brighter and more confident future. The relationship between the United States and Europe would have changed for the better, to one of equal partnership in promoting international peace and security.

The next month will see a critical point in the way the world is to be in the future. The UK Government has a pivotal role to play, for enormously high stakes.

If we fail, and Kosovo ends in an inadequate diplomatic fudge that leaves Milosevic the winner, then neither Nato nor a European security and defence identity has any future. The transatlantic relationship will be in jeopardy and isolationism on both sides of the Atlantic will be the way of nations. Not often are the stakes so high and the prizes so great.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a former assistant chief of the Defence Staff

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