War In The Balkans: Obstacles to ground force are political and physical

Land Offensive
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The Independent Online
AS THE world is confronted with its inability to prevent the "ethnic cleansing" and murder of thousands of Kosovo Albanians, demands for Nato to send in ground troops are getting louder. But, leaving aside the constant assurances in recent weeks that Nato would never fight its way into Kosovo, any reversal of strategy is likely to encounter huge physical and political obstacles.

Critics of the present strategy of attacking Serbia only from the air argue that soon there will not be a single Albanian left alive in the province, and that the 12,000-strong Nato troops in Macedonia, sent as the advance party of a peacekeeping force, should move into Kosovo immediately. But military strategists say if they had to fight their way in, it would take a heavily armoured force many times bigger.

"There are believed to be about 40,000 Serbian troops in Kosovo, to say nothing of possible reinforcements not far away," said Phillip Mitchell, ground forces specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). "The rule of thumb is that an invading force should outnumber the defenders by three to one. Even if Nato took the decision to assemble such a force today, I estimate it couldn't be done in less than four to six weeks."

It might theoretically be possible to fly 100,000 troops into the region, but it would be suicidal for them to go into Kosovo without the kind of heavy weaponry that in practical terms can be transported only by sea.

Britain currently has a reinforced armoured battle group and headquarters of 4,800 troops from 4th Armoured Brigade in Macedonia. If the peace talks in France had succeeded, a second battle group would have been added, bringing the British contribution up to 8,000. Fully deployed, they would have had 30 Challenger tanks, 40 Warrior fighting vehicles and 12 AS-90 155mm heavy, self-propelled guns. This was planned to be the largest contingent in the 28,000-strong Nato peace-keeping force under British command.

Even to assemble a force of that size would take another two weeks, however. The remaining battle group is on 72-hour stand-by in Germany, but it would take at least 10 days to transport its heavy equipment by sea to the region through Greece.

Contrast this with Britain's contribution to the allied force that fought in the Gulf eight years ago. At its peak, it had a reinforced division in the field, consisting of 40,000 troops, some 200 battle tanks, over 90 artillery pieces and at least 18 attack helicopters. "Just to get their basic equipment there took three or four weeks," said Mr Mitchell. Even then, Britain had to beg and borrow men and equipment from almost every corner of the military; with the cuts the armed forces have undergone since then, it would be impossible to muster a force of that size today.

Assembling an armoured division strong enough to fight the Serbs would inevitably require the US to take the lead - unlikely, given the degree of opposition in Congress. Macedonia and Greece were uncomfortable enough hosting the peace-keeping force of 28,000, and would probably face insurmountable political difficulties if they were asked to allow a much bigger invasion army to gather on their soil.

Then there are the logistical difficulties. "Port facilities were much better in Saudi Arabia," said Mr Mitchell, "and it took months to get all the pieces for Desert Storm in place. You would need almost as big a force here, and Salonica, through which all the heavy equipment now in Macedonia was shipped, could not cope."

Albania would have far fewer political qualms about being the jumping- off point for an invasion force, but its best port, Durres, is even less adequate for the task, according to another IISS expert. "Nor is that the end of the matter," said Mr Mitchell. "You need all-weather roads capable of carrying heavy armour, and Albania doesn't have them."

Even if all these difficulties could be overcome, there are few routes through the mountains that ring Kosovo. The main roads into the province from both Macedonia and Albania run through narrow gorges and are punctuated by tunnels and bridges. Preventing the Serbian forces from blocking them would be a major military operation in itself.

Mr Mitchell gave short shrift to the idea of an airborne assault on Kosovo. "It might be possible to drop large numbers of men with some light armour and artillery into the province," he said, "but unless they were joined within two to three days by a mechanised, armoured force, they would be defenceless." Not quite as defenceless, however, as the Albanians still in Kosovo.