War in the Balkans: Intelligence: RAF hits targets despite cloud cover

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The Independent Online
IMPROVED INTELLIGENCE on targets in Kosovo and Serbia has allowed RAF Harrier GR7s to "bomb blind" accurately through cloud cover for the first time. The development was said to have been aided by better information from the ground, suggesting increased co-operation between Nato forces and Kosovo Liberation Army units. It also suggests that the SAS and other special forces have been deployed in Kosovo to spot targets.

The raids were launched from Gioia del Colle in southern Italy on Sunday, when eight Harriers took off armed with unguided "general purpose" 1,000lb bombs. Most were said yesterday to have struck Serb vehicle compounds.

General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, said bombing techniques had been worked on over the past few weeks to improve accuracy without the need to see targets. "As the campaign develops we are able to get more intelligence - some from the ground, some from aircraft and some from satellites. The picture is building up and it is now a much better picture than when we first launched attacks," he said.

"We are now satisfied that the degree of target information and the accuracy of such attacks allows us confidently to carry them out whilst minimising the risk of collateral damage." The development will be a relief to Nato commanders and pilots, who have seen aircraft carrying laser-guided weapons repeatedly return to base without dropping their bombs because of bad weather. At one point this happened for eight days in a row.

All the precision-guided weapons used by the RAF - which zero in on targets using lasers, TV or infra-red - require eye contact with the ground. But aircraft operating at medium level (about 12,000ft to 15,000ft) have often been above the clouds. Constant surveillance by satellites, spy planes and unmanned "drones" has been building up an accurate picture of potential targets as the campaign has progressed. Troops on the ground, be they from special forces or the KLA, would provide even better information.

The refined technique, which has not been used on real operations before, utilises the Harrier's Global Positioning System navigation equipment. If an accurate "fix" is known of a target, then the aircraft can be flown to it and the bombs automatically released by computer when it reaches the optimum point. If this information can be relayed quickly enough, the system could be used to attack Serb tanks or other mobile units as well as buildings and other fixed targets. It can be operated with 1,000lb bombs or with cluster bombs, each of which releases 147 armour-piercing bomblets over a wide area.

General Guthrie reported that targets hit on Sunday included a column or military vehicles and a Serbian surface to air missile battery. Yesterday Nato struck an oil refinery north of Belgrade and several industrial areas, in some cases returning to sites already hit during the campaign.

According to Yugoslav state-run Tanjug news agency, several detonations were heard around Pancevo, north-east of the Belgrade early in the day. Serbian TV showed orange flames leaping into the night sky as fire engulfed Pancevo oil refinery, attacked for the second time. A car factory in Kragujevac that was seriously damaged last week was also targeted again. Parts of the assembly and tools sections were badly damaged.