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NATO Airstrike Strategy Cautious

April 12, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Well before the first bombs fell, NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia was limited by two overriding priorities: minimize civilian casualties and limit the risk to allied pilots. The bombs and missiles unquestionably have taken a toll on Yugoslavia _ but after three weeks they haven’t seemed to deter Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Why hasn’t NATO hit harder?

``The politicians are absolutely scared to death they will lose the political support, which was thin to begin with, if body bags start coming home,″ said retired Adm. Leighton Smith, who oversaw NATO’s brief and successful 1995 air campaign against Bosnia, which led to the Dayton peace accords. He wasn’t talking about sending ground troops; he was referring to more forceful use of air power.

Smith says pilots are trained to take great risks in combat _ ``that’s what they get paid for″ _ but that U.S. and allied political authorities put a higher priority on avoiding NATO casualties and minimizing ``collateral damage,″ the military euphemism for civilian death and destruction. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander in Europe, underscored this Sunday on CNN’s ``Late Edition″ by saying, ``I don’t think there’s ever been an air campaign that’s run with any more care to avoid collateral damage.″

Despite these precautions, civilians have been killed. On Monday, NATO struck a passenger train, killing at least nine people. Alliance officials said the target was the bridge on which the train was traveling at the time, but they had no fuller explanation. Yugoslav officials called it a ``criminal attack.″

Even with occasional mistakes like that, some say NATO planners are overly worried about civilians.

``We let (fear of) collateral damage outweigh the desire to kick this guy in the butt and get his attention,″ Smith said.

The Pentagon also sees benefits in limiting Serb troop casualties.

``I think it keeps us on the moral high ground if there aren’t a lot of casualties,″ Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, a Pentagon strategist, told reporters recently when asked why NATO bombs were hitting empty Serb military barracks. ``What I’m not going to say is that we’re out necessarily with the desire to destroy humanity. Our desire is to destroy his military. If they’re part of his military, so be it.″

Initially the NATO attacks were largely limited to cruise missiles strikes against the Serb air defense network. Day by day, NATO has widened the campaign and added more punch to its air armada. It moved a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Adriatic last week, and a British carrier is on its way. It has begun deploying Army Apache helicopters for tank-killing missions, and it will add 82 American planes in the days ahead.

The alliance’s focus on avoiding civilian casualties reflects two realities of this war. One is that NATO also is in a battle for public opinion. It hopes its restraint will stand in stark contrast to the human atrocities committed in Kosovo on orders from Milosevic, thereby strengthening its argument that Milosevic, not the Yugoslav nation, is the enemy.

The other reality is that today’s U.S. combat planes are more dependent on weapons guided by lasers. This makes them more accurate, but a fighter pilot must be able to see his target on the ground in order to point his laser at it. So the low clouds that have bedeviled NATO on many recent days have presented pilots with a choice: scrap the mission or fire away anyway, risking a miss and more civilian damage.

Thus many attack missions have been ``weathered out,″ as NATO puts it. Even so, some civilian areas have been hit by mistake.

Similarly, NATO military planners are doing all they can to minimize the chance of pilots being shot down by Serb air defense missiles and artillery. Thus in the first two weeks of bombing, few low-flying fighters were sent into Kosovo. Result: Serb ground forces had a relatively free rein to wreak havoc in ethnic Albanian villages, routing families from their homes and pillaging what remained.

So far only one NATO combat plane has been shot down, an Air Force F-117A stealth fighter-bomber.

Now, after nearly three weeks of airstrikes, NATO leaders are facing the disturbing results of their strategy of gradually accelerated bombing: Milosevic is holding tough, his military and police forces in Kosovo have forced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes and created a refugee crisis, and many in the Congress are questioning whether NATO can win without sending in ground troops.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Robert Burns covers military affairs for The Associated Press.

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