War in the Balkans: Strategy - US takes first step towards war on ground

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The Independent Online
AMERICA HAS taken the first steps down a path that could lead to a ground war in the Balkans. Though it will not countenance putting US soldiers into Kosovo to fight Yugoslav troops, it has shifted from a total reliance on air power to win the conflict.

For the past two weeks Nato has relied on aircraft and missiles alone to achieve its war aims. Drawing on a US military preference for air power, it minimises allied casualties and means Nato can stand at a distance from the conflict. But the strategy has had grave weaknesses: the weather has meant aircraft have been unable to reach targets, the flow of refugees has moved the goalposts and criticism has mounted in Europe and America.

So far the option of sending in allied forces to defeat Yugoslavia militarily has not been seriously raised. It would involve a force of more than 100,000, would take weeks to deploy and would cause serious political problems. Any force would have to be approved by Congress, still a tough task.

Instead, there has been a more halting extension that carries an uncertain message. At the weekend the Pentagon decided to approve the use of Apache ground-attack helicopters backed by a missile system that would fire at anti-aircraft defences. That decision was approved by Nato ministers last night. Nato is already using missiles fired from aircraft based in Nato nations and from surface ships and submarines offshore. The new missiles would be fired from launchers based in Albania.

This shifts the argument in three ways. It introduces a weapons system that is on land, and means air power alone clearly is not sufficient. It involves neighbouring countries directly in the conflict, even though the principal aim had been to prevent any conflict from spreading beyond the borders of Yugoslavia. And it means that - to defend the missile launchers and helicopters - US troops and armoured vehicles will also be sent to Albania. Troops are also being sent to Albania to help with the refugee relief effort, and there is already a small force in Macedonia, alongside the putative Nato peace-keeping force.

This could be transformed into a situation where, de facto, a ground war was being carried out, even without an invasion of Yugoslavia. Existing weapons could be used in different ways, for instance. The Army Tactical Missile System (Atacms) being sent can fire deep into Yugoslav territory. It is for use against anti-aircraft fire, launching missiles that scatter bomblets across a wide area and kill troops. But it can also be used to strike at tanks and other armoured vehicles.

If America decides that it cannot hit Yugoslav troops using the A-10 tankbuster because of weather or concerns about using low-level aircraft, the Atacms could be used for the same task.

The A-10s, helicopters and other Nato aircraft would also be more effective with forward air controllers, troops on the ground to direct fire. There have been unconfirmed reports that Nato special forces have already been working within Yugoslavia, identifying targets and acting as a "trip wire" in the event that Yugoslav forces approach the borders.

The Kosovo Liberation Army is still providing the only armed opposition to the Yugoslav forces within Kosovo, and there has been some discussion in Washington of how to help it. So far there has been no effort to reinforce the KLA, but Nato could drop weapons and supplies. It could also consider using teams of military advisors infiltrated by land, a riskier option.

There are several possible ways to extend the action into a war on the ground short of an invasion. The first is if the Yugoslav forces respond to the placing of US forces in Albania by hitting back. This seems unlikely, given that Yugoslavia's air force is effectively grounded or destroyed. Also, it has shown no intention to launch missiles back at Albania, and its own army is probably unlikely to strike back across the border.

But Nato itself, which until now has said it would send in ground forces only if there was a fully fledged peace agreement, could shift its arguments. If and when the Kosovo Albanian population has been removed, it could try to establish a limited enclave within the province to which the refugees could return. The UN established "safe havens" in northern Iraq using only air power, but Nato would probably need ground forces in this case. This strategy has been raised but not endorsed at a political level.

The third and longest shot is that the alliance could try to "force the door" to return the refugees. This might not involve an extensive land war against Yugoslav forces, but an armoured and reinforced effort to take people back home.

So far, Nato has tried to use a military policy of escalation tied to a political strategy of persuading Slobodan Milosevic to back down, and neither has functioned very well. In effect, Belgrade has gained the initiative. But seizing back the advantage would require putting the lives of allied soldiers in much greater danger, causing a much more serious breakdown of relations with Russia and exposing Western governments to serious domestic criticism. Nobody yet seems willing to do that.