A smart ministry would admit that 'smart' bombs miss

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The Independent Online

It is not exactly an earth-shattering surprise to learn that fewer than two in five of the bombs dropped by the RAF during the Kosovo war hit their targets. The conclusions of yesterday's leaked Ministry of Defence study mirror those of an internal US air force report that became public three months ago; it disclosed that high-altitude bombing of Serb military targets in Kosovo produced only 58 accurate strikes, a far cry from the 744 "confirmed" hits claimed by Nato at the time.

It is not exactly an earth-shattering surprise to learn that fewer than two in five of the bombs dropped by the RAF during the Kosovo war hit their targets. The conclusions of yesterday's leaked Ministry of Defence study mirror those of an internal US air force report that became public three months ago; it disclosed that high-altitude bombing of Serb military targets in Kosovo produced only 58 accurate strikes, a far cry from the 744 "confirmed" hits claimed by Nato at the time.

We have always suspected that it was not the wizardry of pinpoint "smart" bombs and the losses of tanks and artillery on the ground that broke the resistance of Slobodan Milosevic last year. Almost certainly, that was brought about by Nato's old-fashioned pounding of power stations and the like in Serbia proper and - most important - by Russia's signal to Milosevic that support from Moscow had reached its limit. Nor, in fact, is the failure rate especially astonishing, given the poor Balkan weather and the reliance on high-altitude strikes, a tactic designed to keep pilots out of danger.

What is unacceptable is the Government's blatant attempt to mislead, its mendacious claim at the public portion of a Kosovo review conference in February that the RAF had conducted the most precise campaign in its history, followed by an utterly different version when discussions went behind closed doors.

Perhaps the MoD was nervous at charges from human rights groups that "collateral" losses of civilian lives amounted to Nato's own war crimes. More likely, it was just another example of Whitehall's addiction to secrecy. "We wanted to keep the report confidential while we look at the issues," John Spellar, the Armed Forces Minister, declared in the latest admission of Britain's chronic aversion to openness.

But there is another reason which makes doubly unacceptable the refusal to come clean. Quite possibly, Nato will soon face another decision whether to attack Yugoslavian territory - should Milosevic use force to crush the independence-minded government in Montenegro, Serbia's lone remaining partner in the Yugoslav federation. If so, then bombing, supplemented by shells and missiles from warships off the Adriatic coast, would almost certainly be the chosen method. But the case for intervention in Montenegro, more than a third of whose population backs Milosevic, would be far less clear cut than in Kosovo. If we do go in, the public has an absolute right to know whether the tools of that intervention actually work.

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