War in the balkans: allied strategy: Army of 200,000 needed for all-out ground war

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AMERICAN DEFENCE chiefs yesterday gave their most comprehensive account of the Balkans war and of the allied strategy for victory over the forces of Slobodan Milosevic.

Defending the campaign on Capitol Hill, William Cohen, Defence Secretary, appeared with Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee .

Mr Cohen said even the air operation was "very risky". The reason there had been no planning for ground troops was because "in truth, there was no consensus [in Nato] to do anything but this".

He noted that there had been no consensus in Congress either, even for the 4,000 men the US was planning to contribute to a Nato peace-keeping contingent of seven times that number.

Mr Cohen gave a warning that from now on Nato and US casualties were probable rather than possible.

Any debate on ground troops in Nato, he said, "could have been endless" and resulted in no one taking any action "while exterminations were taking place in Kosovo on an instalment basis".

He said Nato had conducted two "assessments" of its strategy in Kosovo. The first considered a "non-permissive environment", taking control by force of "just Kosovo" or Belgrade and much of Serbia as well. The first, he said, would require a force of 75,000; the second 200,000.

The other scenario presupposed a "permissive environment" and estimated a force of 28,000-30,000 troops for peace-keeping.

General Shelton warned that if ground troops were to be sent, the time from dispatch to deployment would be "long drawn out", and that nothing could be decided without the "support of Congress and the American people", otherwise it would "fracture the alliance".

The current position, he said, was that "the North Atlantic Council has said specifically not to commence planning [for ground troops]".

In his breakdown of the operation so far, General Shelton said the US had deployed 463 planes in the region, 247 of them fighters and bombers, 17 reconnaissance and the remainder support aircraft. Other Nato countries had contributed 217 planes, the majority fighters. US naval forces included an aircraft-carrier, two submarines and several minesweepers in the Adriatic.

It would not be easy, he told senators, to complete the operation with air power alone. "It will take a long time, but the military objective as outlined can be accomplished".

There had been a three-phase plan: 1. to create the conditions to facilitate the operation; 2. to "isolate Serbian forces" and 3. "to dominate or decimate those forces". At each stage the hope was that Mr Milosevic would choose a political settlement.

The first stage entailed the use of mainly long-range missiles and precision bombing to neutralise Yugoslavia's Russian, British and US-supplied air defences. In the second stage the range of ground targets had been increased to include the headquarters of the army and police, Yugoslavia's integrated command and control system, its military supply system, and the road and rail network. The third stage would concentrate on forces in the field. "That is about where we are now."

Cataloguing the damage, General Shelton said 50 per cent of Yugoslavia's frontline fighters had been destroyed with the bulk of surface-to-air missile storage sites, military headquarter buildings and barracks belonging to the police and army. A "considerable amount" of the country's fuel supplies had been destroyed and three-quarters of munitions production had been "damaged or destroyed" in all areas of Serbia.

Mr Cohen said it was wrong to believe the Kosovo Liberation Army had been destroyed; it had lost maybe "several hundred" men, but was fast being replenished as Kosovars were "radicalised" by the Yugoslav assault. One objective, General Shelton noted, was to "degrade" the Yugoslav forces to where "the balance of power shifts between uniformed members of the Serb forces and the KLA".

On the risk that Russia could become involved, Mr Cohen reassured senators that the US had no evidence that Russia was sending war supplies to Yugoslavia. But he disclosed that Washington had warned Moscow of "serious consequences" if the intelligence-gathering ship it was sending to the Adriatic was used to convey information to the Serbs.