War In Europe: Airmen gamble on a break in the weather

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Late last week, on Saturday evening, after a day of frantic consultation, Javier Solana, Nato's secretary-general, solemnly announced that Operation Allied Force was about to enter Phase Two. Following days of repetitious briefings about how the allies were "degrading" the Yugoslav air-defence system, the prospect was finally being held out of direct, bloody strikes being made against the Serb troops and special police responsible for atrocities against the Kosovars. Here the shooting war would start, was the implication. President Slobodan Milosevic's murderous henchmen were about to be hit, and hit hard.

A week later, the net result of all this expectation has been one unconfirmed report of four Serb tanks being attacked and destroyed. Not the most impressive of results from a Nato air armada of some 400 war planes armed with the latest military technology that billions can buy.

Things were not improved by daily briefings which sounded increasingly like old-style British Rail apologies for the wrong kind of snow. The attacks had to be aborted because of bad weather, the commanders and spokesmen said repeatedly.

It is, however, the issue of the weather which highlights the political constraints under which this military campaign is having to be run. To avoid civilian casualties and "collateral damage" to the Yugoslav infrastructure, which would undermine the mission's legitimacy, precision bombing is needed. For the most part this is done using laser designators which require the pilot to see the target. If cloud gets in the way, the bomb will not be able to "lock-on" and could fall anywhere.

The advantage of this method is that it also keeps aircraft at heights out of range of anti-aircraft artillery and most Yugoslav missiles. For the other political imperative is to sustain few or no casualties.

But unlike in the Gulf War, where the precursors of these weapons were able to operate in near-perfect conditions, this technology has not had a chance to work. As a result the alliance has been forced to rely on expensive cruise missiles, to the extent that the US was last week reported to be running short of the weapons.

Left with no visual targets, and under pressure to maintain momentum, alliance politicians drifted into "Phase Three" - including yesterday's overnight attacks against government headquarters in central Belgrade connected with ethnic cleansing. The list of targets to be attacked by cruise missiles has been almost exhausted, while those which should have been attacked by manned aircraft are still unmolested. While there have been constant attacks against radar and command and control buildings, they have had little or no demonstrable effect on the Serb forces and their campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The longer this has gone on, and the longer the columns of escaping Kosovar refugees have grown, so the stakes in this conflict have been ratcheted up. Nato's credibility in now on the line, in the month that marks the alliance's 50th anniversary.

The next few days are likely to prove decisive. Nato members, including Britain, have committed more aircraft with special capabilities suited to low-level attacks against Serb ground forces, and these will be unleashed at the first break in the weather.

The RAF has sent four more Harriers, and is sending eight Tornados equipped with ground-following radar to allow low strikes in bad weather. The US has sent extra A-10 "Warthog" tank-busting aircraft, and five B1B Lancer bombers which can carry out precision bombing of Serb armour even when they can't see the target.

It might be asked why these "assets" were not deployed sooner. But when their attacks do begin they are likely to be prosecuted with a ferocity born of the past week's frustration. Two things are likely to happen - the Serbs in Kosovo will be hit hard, and Nato will probably start to lose aircraft and pilots. Then it will be a question of who blinks first. Certainly, continuing air strikes are the only option available for Nato. Having continually ruled out the use of ground troops, it is now in the position in which deploying them is not a practical possibility. Even if it was decided that a limited use, for instance to create a "safe haven" near the Macedonian border, was worth the risk, by the time that the necessary forces were assembled there would probably be no Kosovars left to protect.

Mr Milosevic has also had the best of the propaganda war in the past week. Within hours of Mr Solana's announcement, a US F-117 Stealth fighter was shot down and pictures of peasant women dancing on the supposedly invulnerable aircraft went round the world. This was trumped with the parading of three GIs from Macedonia before the TV cameras.

Even the pictures of hundreds of thousands of Albanian refugees which have so enraged public opinion in the West have only served to demonstrate the inability of Nato to deliver on its own stated aim - to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

This week, however, could be a different story. Opinion polls have shown that the British public at least is increasingly supportive of the campaign. If some success can be registered against those perpetrating the outrages, it could create a political mandate for longer, stronger action, and Mr Milosevic's early gains will be forgotten.