War in the Balkans: General says Nato can win war in the air

War in the Balkans: Strategy
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The Independent Online
WITH US public interest in the Balkan conflict waning and military specialists voicing doubts about the air-only strategy, Nato marked the start of the third month of military operations yesterday with a concerted effort to signal that the air strikes were working and an end to the conflict is in sight.

Augmenting recent statements by President Bill Clinton that the air campaign would continue, the overall commander of the air operation, Lieutenant- General Michael Short said allied aircraft were "finally" inflicting serious damage on Yugoslav forces in Kosovo and that they could be destroyed or "chased out" of Kosovo within two months.

Lt-Gen Short made his assessment in an interview with The Washington Post. General Short's remarks were published on the same day the German Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping, played down differences over the deployment of ground troops and said that the air campaign was proving successful and could be stepped up. "I think we must have this possibility to escalate military action in order to reach a political settlement," Mr Scharping said at Nato headquarters in Brussels. He was speaking on a video link from Macedonia, where he was visiting refugee camps.

Both Mr Scharping and Lt-Gen Short have a clear interest in presenting the air campaign in the most positive light - Mr Scharping as Defence Minister of a country that opposes the use of ground troops and Gen Short as the air operation's commander. But Lt-Gen Short took Nato's defence of its air-only strategy to a new level of authority and detail.

He told The Washington Post that his operation was focused on destroying Yugoslavia's Third Army in Kosovo, and hailed its escalation - with intensified attacks by B-1 and B-52 bombers and the arrival of a second squadron of A-10 "Warthog" ground attack planes last week - as the key to forcing the capitulation of President Slobodan Milosevic.

"If you are getting pounded by B-1s and B-52s and A-10s are chasing you every day, and if you know that every time you move you are liable to be hit, at some point your spirit will break, particularly if you are not getting help from Belgrade," Lt-Gen Short said. He went on: "I don't know how close they are to breaking, but if we do this for two more months, we will either kill this army in Kosovo or send it on the run."

General Short's interview suggested a renewed effort by Nato to counter complaints about the limited effect of the air war. Among the criticisms that stung the US Administration most were comments from General Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff of the US armed forces during the Gulf War, whose plan to "hit hard at the outset" was the key to the allied victory there.

This past weekend the same point was made by the Canadian general, Lewis MacKenzie, who commanded the UN troops in Bosnia in 1992. In a newspaper commentary, he said that Nato's strategy in Kosovo would "be used for generations as an example of how not to wage war". "If students in this year's US Army, Navy and Air Force war colleges had come up with the Nato objectives now being pursued in the Balkans, each and every one of those students would have - or at least should have - been failed on the spot.'

In his Washington Post interview, Gen Short conceded that "as an airman, I would have done this differently. It would not be a slow build-up, but we would go downtown from the first night ... so that on the first morning the influential citizens of Belgrade ... would have awakened to significant destruction and a clear signal from Nato that we were taking the gloves off.'

But he defended his conduct of the operation, including the decision to fly no lower than 15,000ft at the outset because of the risk from Yugoslav anti-aircraft fire. With lower flying, and an increased number of planes - almost 1,000 are now at his disposal - he was confident that he would disprove the maxim that an indigenous army cannot be defeated with air power alone.