Although NATO’s use of air power in Allied Force must, in the end, be adjudged a success, some troubling questions arose well before the operation’s favorable outcome over a number of disconcerting problems that were encountered along the way. Among those arousing the greatest concern were the following:

• Assessed deficiencies in the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD).

• Locating, identifying, and engaging dispersed and hidden enemy light infantry forces in Kosovo.

• Inadvertent civilian casualties.

In contrast to the far more satisfying SEAD experience in Desert Storm, the effort to neutralize Serb air defenses did not go nearly as well as hoped. The Serbs kept most of their surface‑to‑air missiles (SAMs) in standby mode with their radars not emitting, prompting concern that they were attempting to draw NATO aircraft down to lower altitudes where they could be more easily engaged. The understandable reluctance of enemy SAM operators to emit and thus render themselves cooperative targets made them much harder to find and attack, forcing allied aircrews to remain constantly alert to the radar‑guided SAM threat. By the same token, the enemy’s heavy man‑portable air defense system (MANPADS) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA) threat forced allied aircrews to bomb from above 15,000 ft, for the most part, to remain outside their lethal envelopes. Moreover, because of the mountainous terrain of Kosovo, the moving target indicator and synthetic aperture radar aboard the E‑8 Joint STARS could not detect targets at oblique look angles, although the sensors carried by the higher‑flying U‑2 often compensated for this shortfall. On the plus side, although enemy SAM operators aggressively attempted to engage allied aircraft throughout the air war, superior allied SEAD operations forced them to employ emission control and mobility tactics to enhance their survivability, which significantly decreased their effectiveness. In the end, only two NATO aircraft were brought down by enemy fire, thanks to allied reliance on electronic jamming, the use of towed decoys, and countertactics to negate enemy surface‑to‑air defenses. However, NATO never fully succeeded in neutralizing the enemy’s radar‑guided SAM threat, even though no areas of enemy territory were denied.

Still another disappointment centered on what turned out to be NATO’s almost completely ineffective efforts to engage mobile enemy troops operating in Kosovo. That disappointment underscored the limits of conducting air strikes against dispersed enemy forces hiding in favorable terrain in the absence of a supporting allied ground threat. Had Serb commanders any reason to fear a NATO ground invasion, they would have had little alternative but to position their tanks to cut off roads and other avenues of attack, thus making their forces more easily targetable by NATO air power. Instead, having dispersed and hidden their tanks and armored personnel carriers, Serb army and paramilitary units were free to go in with just a few troops in a single vehicle to terrorize a village in connection with their ethnic cleansing campaign.

Senior civilian defense officials and U.S. Air Force leaders freely conceded after the Serbian withdrawal that the problems encountered by the largely failed effort against fielded enemy forces reflected real challenges for the effective application of air power posed by such impediments as trees, mountains, poor weather, and an enemy ground force that is permitted the luxury of dispersing and hiding rather than concentrating to maneuver to accomplish its mission. Yet while it was essential for NATO to try its best to keep Serb forces pinned down and incapable of operating at will, the majority of the sorties devoted to finding and attacking enemy troops in Kosovo entailed an inefficient and ineffective use of munitions and other valuable assets. That said, the targeting of enemy ground forces operating within Kosovo was an inescapable political necessity, considering that those forces were responsible for committing the ethnic cleansing acts that NATO had vowed to stop. Failure to target those forces would almost certainly have caused the bombing effort to lose credibility in the eyes of the NATO civilian leadership.

Pressures to avoid civilian casualties and unintended damage to nonmilitary structures were greater in Allied Force than in any previous combat operation involving U.S. forces. Nevertheless, there were recurrent instances throughout the air war of unintended damage caused either by errant NATO munitions or by mistakes in targeting, including a dozen highly publicized incidents in which civilians were accidentally killed. One such bombing error resulted in part from constraints imposed by the requirement that NATO aircrews remain above 15,000 ft to avoid the most lethal enemy threats, making visual discrimination between military and civilian traffic more than routinely difficult. Another contributing factor was the occasional tendency of allied aircrews to maneuver their aircraft in such a way as to put clouds within the targeting pod’s field of view between the aircraft and the target, thus blocking the laser beam illuminating the target and depriving the weapon of guidance. Moreover, Serb forces often used civilians as human shields in an effort to deter NATO from attacking military vehicles. The extraordinary media attention given to these events bore ample witness to what can happen when zero noncombatant casualties becomes not only a goal of strategy but also the international expectation. Thanks to unrealistic efforts to treat the normal friction of war as avoidable human error, every occurrence of unintended collateral damage became overinflated as front‑page news and treated as a blemish on air power’s presumed ability to be consistently precise.


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