The high-altitude bombing by Nato air forces during the Kosovo conflict was far less successful than claimed at the time, with only a fraction of the strikes hitting their targets. An internal United States air force report obtained by Newsweek magazine logs only 58 accurate strikes, compared with the 744 "confirmed" by Nato at the end of the war, raising new questions about the high-precision low-casualty techniques that were so lavishly praised after the Serb defeat.
The new figures were compiled by a special investigation team from the US and other Nato air forces which spent weeks combing Kosovo on foot and by helicopter looking for evidence of damage. They found that while the US top brass boasted that Nato forces had disabled "around 120 tanks", "about 220 armoured personnel carriers(APCs)" and "up to 450 artillery and mortar pieces" in 78 days of bombing, the true figures were probably less than one tenth of that.
According to the investigators, Nato hit just 14 tanks, 18 APCs and 20 artillery and mortar pieces. These figures are much closer to the losses admitted by Serb forces at the end of the war and dismissed by Nato then as "disinformation".
The investigation did find that high-altitude air power was effective in Kosovo, but chiefly against civilian targets. It was the bombing of cities and power stations that most damaged Serbia, it found, because it undermined the ability of the leadership to govern. The relatively small losses of military hardware played a far lesser role.
Another unwelcome discovery was how easily the high-altitude surveillance systems could be tricked from the ground. The Serbs protected one strategic bridge from attack by constructing another bridge 300m away out of polyethylene sheeting. The fake bridge was "destroyed" many times over. The Serbs also successfully built fake tanks out of black logs hoisted on to old lorry wheels: from the air the false tanks looked indistinguishable from the real ones - and took many more hits.
The report was commissioned by General Wesley Clark, Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who oversaw the Kosovo operation and was concerned by the discrepancy between pilots' claims and evidence from the ground. Completed last summer, the report's existence was never made public, and it was superseded by a second report, more to the liking of Nato and the Pentagon, which quoted strike figures closer to those originally claimed.