War in The Balkans: US sends in another 82 warplanes

Pentagon Strategy
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THE UNITED States announced the immediate dispatch of 82 war planes and other hardware to the Balkans at the weekend. The Pentagon also hinted that it might call up reservists to fulfil certain functions, such as flying Air Force tankers or providing additional ground support in Albania.

Yesterday the National Security Council confirmed that "stand-by plans" had been drawn up for the use of ground troops. This was qualified by the usual disclaimer, namely that "there has not been a request from the Nato commanders, and the President has no intention of introducing them". The disclosure was a reply to critics who had said that if the US really had no plans for ground troops, then this was a serious oversight.

President Bill Clinton stayed out of the limelight, creating the impression - through a radio address devoted to the pensions and the health system - that he was not distracted by the situation in Kosovo.

But with Congress returning today from its Easter recess and a cross- party consensus building for the US to send ground troops into Kosovo, he is likely to face demands to end Nato's reliance on air power and commit American troops.

The new deployments, announced by the Pentagon late on Saturday, bring the number of US planes taking part in the Nato operation to almost 500 - 85 per cent of the total.

The additional planes were made available at the express request of Nato's Commander, General Wesley Clark, who disclosed at the end of last week that he was seeking a large increase in alliance airpower. But the Pentagon's announcement may also help to convince the newly hawkish Congress that the US is not falling down on its duty.

The new planes include another 24 F-16 fighters, another four A-10 anti- tank planes, and another six radar-jamming EA6 Prowlers. The majority will be transport planes and tankers for mid-air refuelling.

The composition of the new contingent adds credibility to reports that Nato is preparing for round-the-clock bombing raids on Yugoslav targets. It suggests the alliance may be preparing to penetrate deeper into Serbian territory, while implicitly acknowledging that Nato's assessment of its task has shifted considerably since the first air strikes more than two weeks ago.

The first elements arrived in Tirana, Albania, yesterday for the 24 Apache helicopter gunships that the US announced it would deploy almost a week ago. Although the Pentagon has denied that the arrival of the Apaches signals any plan to deploy ground troops, that is how they are widely seen by US analysts.

While Albania is outside Nato and has no claim to join in the near future, it is rapidly becoming a launching pad for the alliance operation against neighbouring Serbia, and especially the US contribution to it. Albania's air space was placed under US control at the end of last week; Tirana airport is being expanded and re-equipped to accommodate 24-hour take- offs and landings, and the 5,000 troops that will accompany the Apaches will be based there.

Moreover, at least one and possibly two big new refugee camps are to be established in the region, under Nato's Allied Harbour operation.

As the US publicly stepped up its military effort, it also gave increased attention to diplomacy. After attending today's Nato foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will travel to Oslo for her first face-to-face meeting with her Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, since the Kosovo crisis began.

This is the first high-level meeting since the Russian Prime Minister, Yevgeni Primakov, dramatically cancelled his planned visit to Washington after being informed that Nato would not refrain from air strikes until he left.

Yesterday, Mr Ivanov smoothed the way for the meeting by doing his best to calm fears aroused by some incendiary language from leaders of the Russian Duma last week. Calling for the resumption of "political dialogue", he told a Spanish newspaper: "Russia is not going to be the country that unleashes the Third World War or any other military conflict of an international nature."

While the possibility that reservists could be called up sent a frisson of anxiety around Washington, the Pentagon insisted that for the time being there were sufficient volunteers to fill any gaps. Military analysts noted, however, that warnings of shortages - whether of manpower or materiel - were not without their uses for the Pentagon, which has argued that its combat readiness has been dangerously impaired by successive budget cuts since the end of the Cold War.