Nato's troubled path to takeoff

European allies have succumbed to America's campaign for air strikes. Andrew Marshall explains why
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NATO TOOK the first steps yesterday towards air strikes to defend Gorazde, taking the West one step deeper into the Bosnian war. It is the culmination of two years of US pressure, but the decisions leave many in Alliance capitals worried and uncertain of the future.

Military planners and Nato ambassadors met yesterday to draw the conclusions from Friday's meeting in London. If the Bosnian Serbs press attacks on Gorazde, there will be air strikes according to a graduated "menu" drawn up in advance. These targets will include command and control installations, ammunition dumps and air defences. The cumbersome process for approving air strikes - the "dual key" held by both Nato and the UN - has been simplified. And the political will for more active measures seems to be building.

It should not take long for the strategy to emerge. "We have a plan, and the Nato military committee is going to put the details on the plan," William Perry, US Defense Secretary, told reporters on the plane heading back to Washington. The plan on the table goes back to last October, when it was unceremoniously ditched after criticism from Britain and France. The equipment required to carry it out is already in place."We've got enough airplanes there," Mr Perry added.

The US has been pressing for the aggressive use of air power in Bosnia since May 1993. Then, Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, came to Europe to press the case for "lift and strike" - removing the arms embargo on the Bosnian government and mounting air operations. The European Allies shot him down in flames, leaving US policy in tatters and setting the stage for two years of disagreements.

Since then, on nearly every occasion when the Bosnian government has come under pressure, the option has been raised again. Each time, it has been defused. The Europeans have insisted air strikes must be proportionate, must be co-ordinated with the UN, and only for defensive purposes. The result has been a series of pinprick strikes, often too late; clashes between the UN and Nato, which have caused increasing rancour; and finally, the virtual end of air operations as UN peace-keepers were taken hostage. The risk from further strikes was such that air operations over Bosnia virtually ceased, and Nato was forbidden to take out Bosnian Serb air defences.

The US believes that by allowing the threat of hostage-taking to become a factor in restraining the use of aircraft over Bosnia, the Allies have allowed the initiative to pass to the Bosnian Serbs. Because this also prevents any further strikes to take out Bosnian Serb air defences, they have also conceded air superiority - to an enemy that has hardly carried out a single combat air operation. "Douhet must be spinning in his grave,'" said a senior Nato diplomat last week.

Giulio Douhet, an Italian air force officer, was an early prophet of the idea that air power conferred a unique ability to dominate, confuse and annihilate an enemy. It is a highly important idea for Washington. The US has, since the Second World War, had a high regard for the ability of the Air Force, a view that was honed in the daylight raids of 1944- 5, and dented by the failure of successive waves of bombing during the Vietnam war, but which emerged triumphant in the Gulf war, culminating in the "turkey shoot" of Mutla Ridge in 1991, when Allied aircraft cut off and wiped out retreating Iraqis

It is not a view that America's allies can buy into wholeheartedly. In general, they believe the US is over-reliant on air power, because it is constrained from risking the lives of troops on the ground. In particular, they think that in Bosnia air strikes would not assist peace-keeping but rather bring the operation to a grinding halt. And they have resisted US attempts to send in the bombers at every turn. Each time, the principal objection has been that the US has no ground forces, and that the peace- keepers would be at risk.

This time, the US pressed harder and came closer to getting what it wanted. Ask senior diplomats why they pressed so hard, and why they believe air strikes can work now, and a note of desperation enters. "If not now, when?" said one. "If not this, what?" The top echelon at Nato was united this time in believing something had to happen. The first reason for that is practical: without US air support, any reinforcement of Gorazde would be virtually impossible. Even the much-vaunted rapid reaction force would be too vulnerable. The second is that as the pressure for lifting the arms embargo grows on Capitol Hill, the Allies are concerned to appear resolute. The third is that in very short order, they may need air support for evacuation. A withdrawal operation would be led by Nato, with Alliance aircraft holding the ring in the skies above former Yugoslavia.

It is a high-stakes gamble. If, after publicly committing themselves to a more active policy, the Allies now stall once more, it will set the seal on Nato's failure to get to grips with Bosnia and spark fresh action to lift the embargo. If they do agree, that, too, will bring risks. "We are crossing the Mogadishu line," says one Nato source. "Air strikes like this are simply not compatible with peace-keeping."

The UN has adopted a strategy of deliberate vulnerability up until now. A-10 ground attack aircraft, heavily armed, armoured and highly potent, simply do not fit that pattern.

Down the road, the prospect of withdrawal still looms. The US would be asked to provide up to half the 50,000 troops that Nato would deploy to bring out the peace-keepers, and then all the Allies would be faced with the task of deciding whether, and how, to intervene.

The plans for air strikes that were being drawn up yesterday in the darkened rooms of Nato headquarters may help stave that off; but they may be the first step towards much deeper involvement by the West, in a much wider conflict.

Tangled in so many 'turning points' 1991-1995

MANY IN the West and most of the combatants in the former Yugoslavia do not believe that this week's conference in London marks a genuine turning point in the Bosnian conflict. The recent history of the Bosnian conflict is littered with "turning points", which have turned out to be nothing but talking points.

December 1991: Britain agrees to recognise the breakaway republics of Croatia and Slovenia, a "turning point" in its involvement, according to the British Government.

21 June 1992: "When the chronicles come to be written, Mostar will be seen as a magnificent victory. It is a real turning point in the war in this part of the country" - Mate Boban, president of the Croatian Defence Committees of Hercegovina after his forces counter-attacked along the Dalmation coast.

20 April 1993: "Clearly we're at a turning point in connection with the Bosnian situation" - Warren Christopher, US secretary of state, as American congressmen called for air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs.

4 February 1994: "After the market massacre, doing nothing was no longer an option. This could be the turning point" - a cabinet source after Nato's ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs to pull back their artillery or face air strikes.

15 February 1994: "This war has reached what Clausewitz called the culminating point [Schwerpunkt]" - Lt General Sir Michael Rose.

15 April 1994: "The intervention of Nato planes at Gorazde has the character of a warning shot. But this warning shot marks a turning point, for it represents, for the first time, the thin end of the wedge of UN military intervention in Bosnia" - (French newspaper) La Charente Libre.

5 October 1994: "It is a very important development, a turning point in resolving the conflict in former Yugoslavia" - a senior British foreign ministry official describing a 100-day easing of UN sanctions against Serbia.

31 May 1995: "Bosnia is at a turning point. It must be made clear to the parties that, if they turned to all-out war, the protection force could not remain. It would be unable to carry out its tasks, and the risks would be unacceptable" - John Major, the British Prime Minister, defending his decision to send a further 6,000 troops to Bosnia.

9 July 1995: The UN peacekeeping effort is "at a turning point" - Boutros Boutros Ghali, UN secretary general, after a meeting in Geneva with senior UN officials as Serb tanks pushed towards the outskirts of Srebrenica.

11 July 1995: "This is a turning point. Either they [the UN peace keepers] will stay or they will leave" - a senior Clinton official after the fall of Srebrenica.