Lessons of a remote-control war
Despite pinpoint bombing campaign, NATO's Kosovo victory came at heavy
Nato's 11-week battering of Yugoslavia was a victory for alliance technology and tenacity, and perhaps the first 21st century war.
That's because it demonstrated the military importance of not just air power, but information power - the ability to find and target opposing forces with lightning speed. Only the Pentagon has the web of satellites, communications, and precision-guided munitions that make such an effort possible.
But the Yugoslavia campaign also pointed out the limitations of armed might. A ferocious effort by billions of dollars worth of alliance aircraft was unable to control the situation on the ground in Kosovo. Bombs did not prevent ethnic Albanians from being ousted from their homes, nor did they destroy the Serb ability to carry out ethnic cleansing.
NATO won only after it lost.
"We expended an enormous effort and imposed a tremendous cost on the people we were trying to save and innocent civilians within Serbia in order to gain a settlement that is at best half satisfying," says David Tretler, a National War College professor of security policy.
NATO's war against Yugoslavia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic, began with a relatively light round of airstrikes on March 24. It was suspended on June 10, after thousands of sorties, with at least one remarkable record - no allied pilots, and only two aircraft, were lost to enemy fire.
At time of writing, the first elements of the Kosovo peacekeeping force were expected to begin entering the battered Yugoslav province as early as June 11. Enforcing the Kosovo peace will require upwards of 50,000 alliance personnel for an undetermined period of time, according to NATO officials.
When the bombs first started falling many experts were doubtful that an air war alone would bring Mr. Milosevic to heel. Ground troops would be necessary, many felt. Yet President Clinton had explicitly ruled out just such an option.
Even air power advocates felt the bombing was slow off the mark. The necessity of keeping hesitant allies behind the effort meant that it was a month before strategic targets such as power grids were added to pilot lists.
Only now, with the opportunity to do damage assessment firsthand, will NATO get a true idea of how much damage it has wrought. But whatever it was, it was enough to cause Milosevic to accept NATO boots on Kosovo's soil - something he had vowed would never happen. That marks a remarkable act of political coercion by a limited use of force.
"It's a mixed bag, but overall, it is the first time in military history that air power alone has done this," says retired Air Force Gen. Perry Smith.
Actually, ground troops were involved in the war, point out others. In recent days a desperate offensive by the Kosovo Liberation Army drew thousands of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo into the open, where they were devastated by B-52s and shell-spitting A-10 attack planes.
Furthermore, NATO had clearly begun to contemplate the need for a ground invasion force. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's open lobbying that the alliance had at least needed to consider the option may have had an effect on Milosevic's plans.
"To the extent there was victory, it became possible because the administration did escalate its public wrestling with the idea of possible ground intervention," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense issue specialist at the Brookings Institution.
For conflicts of the future, the lesson to be drawn from the Kosovo war may not be the necessity of air power, but the necessity of precision.
NATO dropped 20,000 precision-guided munitions during its bombing campaign. Of these, 99.6 percent found their intended targets, US officials claim.
This success rate may well be revised downward later, as happened in the wake of the Gulf War. Even the small percentage of munitions that missed caused many unintended civilian casualties.
But NATO's almost complete reliance on guided weaponry may mean the Western way of war has entered a new era.
One of the stars of the war, for instance, was the "joint direct attack munition," a cheap set of fins and electronics that converts dumb bombs into weapons that satellite beams steer through clouds and smoke.
"A ... larger lesson is that precision ordnance was very successful," says General Smith.
But bombs are blunt instruments. At times, NATO and Slobodan Milosevic seemed to be waging two different wars, with NATO carrying out a strategic campaign aimed at cracking a nation's will, and Yugoslavia fighting a tactical campaign of gun, thug, and ouster.
Despite some protests to the contrary, NATO appeared to be at war with the Yugoslav people, not just its leaders. How else to explain plunging Belgrade into darkness?
Furthermore, the bombs had an effect only after Milosevic had achieved his tactical goal of sowing terror and chaos in Kosovo and virtually emptying it of the people the bombs were supposed to protect.
For NATO leaders the conflict may have been akin to a wild plunge through rapids.
"NATO is not going to be doing this again for some time. No one envisioned it would go on this long," says Lawrence Korb, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.