The Kosovo Campaign: Airpower Made It Work
The NATO Air Campaign Succeeds

Around May 22, the pressure increased again. Better weather and more forces allowed NATO airmen to ramp up the pressure on the Yugoslav army. In about ten days, Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) confirmed that NATO airmen had doubled the number of tanks destroyed, hit three times the number of armored personnel carriers, and hit four times as many artillery and mortar pieces. "We're driving him to a decision," announced Clark at the end of May.

Also in late May the KLA began its first large-scale offensive in more than a year. About 4,000 troops pressed ahead from points along the Albanian border. The KLA's "Operation Arrow" soon met heavy resistance from Yugoslav artillery and troops. In about two days, the rebels were pinned down along Mount Pastrik. Heavy mortar and artillery fire ensued and the KLA was "creamed" according to a senior US intelligence official. 50

The small-scale offensive reportedly helped NATO identify more Yugoslav military equipment in the immediate area. "As the Serbs fire their artillery, they're detected, said Wald. "Then we go ahead and attack them and destroy them" with air. 51 US Defense Secretary Cohen emphasized that NATO was not coordinating operations with the KLA. Indeed, by this time, NATO air attacks on Yugoslav military installations and forces were spread widely across Kosovo and southern Serbia every day and night, well beyond the localized effects of the KLA actions.

By early June, military impact and a series of diplomatic events were coming together as powerful coercion. The diplomatic chain of events had started a few weeks earlier, with the G-8 meeting in Bonn on May 6. There, the major Western economic powers plus Russia agreed on a basic strategy to resolve the conflict. An international tribunal in The Hague on May 27 indicted Milosevic as a war criminal--an indictment, as Cohen pointed out, with no statute of limitations. Also, the European Union announced its appointment of President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari as its special envoy for Kosovo on May 17. Under Ahtisaari's auspices, the US, NATO, and Russia agreed to a NATO-drafted plan in late May. Yugoslavia's parliament voted to accept the plan on June 3.

The air campaign was also having a devastating effect. Roads, rail lines, and bridges across Yugoslavia had been knocked out, halting the normal flow of the civilian economy. Good weather and long summer days ahead meant that more of Milosevic's country and his military forces would be exposed to devastation. In late May and early June, the impact on fielded forces spiked.

Destruction of armored personnel carriers, artillery, and tanks continued to rise "almost exponentially" in the words of JCS Chairman Shelton. He said
the Yugoslav army forces lost 450 or about 50% of their artillery pieces and mortars to air attack. About one-third of their armored vehicles were hit: a total of about 122 tanks and 220 armored personnel carriers. (A later NATO assessment releases Sept. 16 put the numbers at 389, 93, and 153 respectively.) These heavy losses meant they could not effectively continue organized offensive operations.

The Cumulative Toll on Serb Mobile Targets
US Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed the immediate count of the results of the campaign on June 10. Better weather and more forces exponentially increased the hits on tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery. "I do not believe that Milosevic ever understood the level of damage that an expertly executed air campaign could achieve," Shelton said. Numbers subsequently confirmed by NATO on Sept. 16, 1999, were 93 tanks, 153 armored personnel carriers, and 389 artillery and mortars.

At the same time, Yugoslav forces in Serbia were also feeling the pressure. First army, in the north, had 35% of its facilities destroyed or damaged while 2nd army, near the Kosovo border, had 20% of its facilities hit. Third army, assigned to operations in Kosovo, had 60% of its fixed facilities damaged or destroyed. The Joint Staff assessed that the air attacks had "significantly reduced 3rd army's ability to sustain operations.

Belgrade was largely without electric power and about 30% of the military and civilian radio relay networks were damaged. Across Yugoslavia, rail and road capacity was interdicted. Some 70% of road and 50% of rail bridges across the Danube were down. Critical industries were also hard hit, with petroleum refining facilities 100% destroyed, explosive production capacity 50% destroyed or damaged, ammunitions production 65% destroyed or damaged, and aviation and armored vehicle repair at 70% and 40% destroyed or damaged, respectively.

Industrial targets and bridges would take a long time to repair. In many cases, electric power and communications could be restored more readily. However, the combined effect had brought the war home to Belgrade, and restricted Milosevic's ability to employ his fielded forces effectively. On June 9, after last-minute wrangling with Yugoslav military commanders, Milosevic accepted the NATO conditions.

Targeting Command, Control, and Communications

Paralyzing communications was a top priority. This chart details areas where air attacks knocked out and degraded radio and TV coverage. About 45% of the TV broadcast capability was degraded and a third of the military and civilian radio relay networks were damaged.

Disruptions to Electric Power



When airmen got permission to attack targets in Belgrade and across Yugoslavia, electric power became a major target. The chart shows that Belgrade had only limited power with frequent disruptions. More disruptions occurred across the country. Toward the end of the 78-day bombing campaign, Milosevic "hadn't had power in his capital for a number of days and wasn't going to have it for a number of days more," said USAF Lt. Gen. Michael Short, Joint Force Air Component Commander.

What exactly had the air campaign achieved? As Shelton briefed on June 10, "The strategy that NATO adopted, which was a phased air campaign, increasing the frequency and the intensity of our air operations and our airstrikes to reduce the Serb forces' capabilities--was successful." 52

"I think it was the total weight of our effort that finally got to him," said Short, the allied air commander. The 78-day air campaign brought about an ending that seemed almost impossible back in March. Milosevic agreed to a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, the entry of an international peacekeeping force, the return of refugees, and Kosovar autonomy within Yugoslavia. Kosovo would remain within the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. However, the international peacekeeping force would be armed and empowered.

Military historian John Keegan wrote with some awe, "Now, there is a new date to fix on the calendar: June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone." 53

Targets struck and effects imposed were important ingredients, but the overall impact registered as diplomatic success. On June 10, Secretary Cohen said, "When I announced the first NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia, I stated a clear military goal: to degrade and diminish the Serb military. Over the past 11 weeks, NATO pursued that goal with patience, with persistence, and with great precision. As a result, Serb forces are leaving Kosovo, and NATO troops are poised to ensure peace and stability in Kosovo so that more than one million refugees and displaced persons can begin to return to safety and start rebuilding their lives." 54


Almost as soon as the Yugoslav forces started pulling out of Kosovo, they also sought to minimize the impact of the air campaign. A London Sunday Times article of June 20, cited Serb sources who claimed that NATO air attacks had destroyed only 13 tanks. Significantly, both the Pentagon and NATO stuck by the numbers briefed at the time hostilities ceased. USAFE began a major battlefield survey to glean whatever evidence was left after the Serb forces pulled out. In this war, however, the immediate Bomb Damage Assessment resources far surpassed what had been available in previous conflicts.


Deployed to Aviano, A1C Jerry Heron (driver), SrA. Jason Caffin (left) and SSgt. Mark Nogel, of the 81st Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem AB, Germany, uncase an AGM-65 Maverick before it is loaded onto an A-10. A break in the weather meant the A-10s and other forces could resume the search for targets among the Yugoslav army forces dispersed throughout Kosovo. "Airpower alone is capable of rendering the Yugoslav military ineffective, and that's what our charter is, that's what our task is, and that's what we're going to do," said Gen. John Jumper, Commander, USAFE. (USAF photo by SrA. Jeffrey Allen)

Press reports of decoy tanks and positions also attracted attention. Ground decoys, deception and camouflage have been a commonplace feature of air war since World War I. In the Kosovo crisis, NATO pilots did hit some decoys, but according to Short, the pilots "became pretty adept at figuring out what was a decoy and what wasn't." Jumper was blunt about putting the decoy issue in perspective as a minor aspect of the campaign. "We did hit decoys," he said. "We had plenty of bombs and I was happy to have Serb manpower employed in the business of making decoys," he added.

The correlation of battlefield surveys and BDA reconciliation may never pin down a number of ground mobile targets destroyed with 100% accuracy, and Milosevic will probably never tell what happened to his forces. But the consistent attitude of senior military officials makes it likely that the immediate after-action numbers stand a good chance of proving out to be fairly accurate. The main point is, however many vehicles were killed, it was enough to take away the initiative of the Yugoslav ground forces and contribute mightily to Milosevic' decision to pull them out, lest they suffer more attrition at the hands of NATO airmen throughout the summer.


Debate raged over the value of airpower all during the 78 days of the air campaign. Detailed assessments of weapons systems performance, the impact on strategic targets, the effects on ground forces will come with the conclusion of internal study efforts by the Air Force and other Pentagon offices.


A pilot from the 510th Fighter Squadron at Aviano, just returned from an Operation Allied Force bombing mission. The 510th carried out numerous strikes on targets across Yugoslavia. (USAF photo by SrA. Jeffrey Allen)

Still, the main outcome is already known. NATO's air campaign accomplished its objectives. There are no political officials or military commanders within NATO who would contend that the war was waged just the way it should have been. However, the major results are already in, and they speak volumes about what aerospace power accomplished and what the Kosovo crisis has taught airmen.

The main contribution of aerospace power in the Kosovo crisis was to give the NATO allies a strategy that fit their military objectives, and their political consensus--while denying Milosevic the ability to continue to employ the strategy of his choosing. Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, RAF, put it this way: "Milosevic really wanted us to get into ravines and into gorges. He really wanted us to relive the Serbian situation in the 1940s." 55

However, the skillful and successful employment of NATO airpower meant that Milosevic did not stand a chance of luring the allies into a ground battle. As Mason summarized, NATO was able to use aerospace power "to shape an environment, to deny an opponent the strategy of his choice."56 Aerospace power handed NATO a strategic success because it let NATO achieve its stated goals while employing its first-choice force: its airmen. There is perhaps no better measure of victory than the ability to win by sticking with the preferred strategy.

For all the ambiguity surrounding Kosovo and its future, there is no doubt that the air campaign has brightened the future for the beleaguered province. In the year before NATO took action, a quarter of a million Kosovars were made refugees in their own homeland. When Rambouillet failed, Milosevic massed his forces, bet against NATO being able to act swiftly, and tried to steal Kosovo through the most massive and brutal wave of ethnic cleansing seen to date in the former Yugoslavia. Diplomacy failed to stop him. By using aerospace power, NATO was able to force Milosevic to agree to conditions that allowed the Kosovo refugees to go back home under international protection. The people of Kosovo now have at least a better chance to create peace.

Finally, there is no doubt that aerospace power was the right military tool for the crisis. It was a tough job, but with an overwhelming effort from the US Air Force, NATO airmen made the campaign work. The air campaign got off to a difficult start. Political constraints, weather, and the deteriorating situation on the ground in Kosovo came together to set up almost impossible conditions. In the words of USAFE head Jumper, "All of those things that remind us of Vietnam conspired to work against what I would call an efficient air campaign." However, NATO airmen were able to do the job, even if they had to do it the hard way. Even "without the efficiency I would have hoped for, we were able to do it anyway," Jumper concluded. 57

Sustained, persistent effort and the combination of targets made the air campaign effective. Within days of the start of the campaign, internal NATO guidance had refocused the effort on the two pillars of air strategy: strategic targets and fielded forces. Only the adversary knows what his center of gravity really is. But long experience has shown that when a leader, like Milosevic, is using ground forces to carry out his aims, the state of those ground forces is a crucial part of his power. At the same time, no modern state functions well when its electricity, petroleum supplies, communications, and key transportation nodes are being destroyed. Somewhere in and amongst these target sets there is a combination of effects that can make it impossible for the adversary to keep up the fight. Prudent air planners go after all these little centers of gravity to foreclose options and accumulate impact.

In operational terms, the problems associated with attacking fixed, strategic targets and in going after ground forces presented two different kinds of challenges. In the Kosovo crisis, political restrictions kept NATO airmen away from many key strategic targets. As targets were released they could be struck with precision weapons, to great effect and with devastating efficiency. On the other hand, attacking fielded forces took time and a big share of the strike aircraft committed to Operation Allied Force. Because Milosevic's ground forces were engaged and dispersed, NATO airmen had to hunt, find, identify, and attack ground forces, keeping up the pressure with 24-hour air interdiction operations.

Airmen make a distinction between "strategic targets" and "fielded forces" when they plan and execute operations. The difference often applies as well in assessing the strike results. They know, however, that the goal is to produce synergistic effects and that is what the NATO air forces did.


The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve were significantly engaged. Here, two Reserve F-16 pilots from Shaw AFB, S.C., prepare to fly Operation Allied Force combat missions from Aviano. (USAF photo by SrA. Jeffrey Allen)

To their credit, the alliance airmen delivered their victory with quiet determination. During the conflict most airmen kept a hopeful, but sober view of what aerospace power was being asked to do. "No airman ever claimed that airpower would be able to stop genocide, especially genocide that was started long before the air campaign even started," Jumper emphasized. 58 USAF Chief of Staff Ryan wrote in early June that aerospace power was simply "the most available, effective, and rapid means to strike back against Milosevic's aggression." 59

"We airmen were wrong in one area," conceded Brig. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano AB, Italy. "We never expected that we'd be able to conduct these extraordinarily complex missions around-the-clock against robust air defenses without a single combat fatality." 60

Still, it was "very easy to criticize airpower for what it did or didn't do," observed Air Vice Marshal Mason. This meant that the air campaign would take the heat of criticism and debate-debate that often sprang from much larger questions about the role of military force and the timeliness of NATO action. Yet the fact was "that politically, operationally, temporally, and for every other conceivable reason, it could only be airpower, whether airmen wished it to be airpower on its own or not," he stated. Airmen were caught between knowing that under ideal conditions they would have waged the campaign differently-and feeling a wholehearted commitment to make it work, no matter what it took.

"Had the United States been planning this operation, it would have been different," Defense Secretary Cohen acknowledged in late May. "There were a lot of difficulties as to how this was put together," he continued. 61

The air campaign occurred after everything else had failed. When the diplomats must have been discouraged at the intransigence of Milosevic, and then at his violence, the only hope for a shift in the situation lay with what NATO could do from the air. The quiet confidence of the US Air Force and its ability to deliver expeditionary aerospace power under tough conditions made a big difference at a time when the alliance itself seemed to ride on the spin of a roulette wheel.

Leaf offered a straightforward view of the Kosovo crisis, "The conflict will be described in complex and diverse terms, and each element subjected to a microscope. For those of us who fought here, however, it was really quite simple. This was an old-fashioned contest between good and evil. Good won." 62


Operation Allied Force required 40% of the Air Force's tankers. An amazing 80% of the tanker crews were called to action. This KC-135 Stratotanker from the 117th Air Refueling Wing, Alabama Air National Guard, in Birmingham, has just arrived at RAF Brize Norton in the United Kingdom. (USAF photo by SSgt Randy Mallard)

Thoughts for the Future

The Kosovo crisis showed off the mature capabilities of aerospace power-and its backbone, the US Air Force-at its very best.

All the elements of aerospace power went through another cycle of close integration. The Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) functioned like a weapon system in itself, as aerospace operators from many different specialties combined their talents to find targets and direct strikes to kill those targets. New systems, like the B-2 with JDAM, proved what precise, all-weather munitions could do. True to form, the airmen raced to modify systems like the Predator UAV to increase its combat capabilities while the war was underway. By the end of the campaign the warfighters in the CAOC were able to find new targets and strike them within hours, often under difficult weather conditions.

Most of all, Kosovo confirmed that expeditionary aerospace power is the name of the game. Having the expeditionary aerospace force concept in place helped the Air Force to calibrate its deployments to Kosovo while meeting ongoing operations in Southwest Asia and elsewhere. According to Ryan, Operation Allied Force demonstrated again that "in almost every situation, you'll have to have airpower involved," whether for humanitarian relief, lifting forces or strike operations. 63 With its expeditionary posture, USAF was able to summon almost half its forces to the theater and take the lead in turning around an air war that had been given a shaky political start. "We were the ones that surged," Ryan pointed out. 64

For the future, though, Kosovo also held up many signs. The first was that air superiority remains a basic precondition for successful military operations, especially NATO operations. Dealing with air defenses will continue to be a No. 1 priority. "I can tell you that what Clark and I worried about every day was that somehow, Mr. Milosevic would find a way to float an SA-10 or SA-12 up the Danube River, put it together and bring it to bear," Jumper recalled. Modern SAMs and fighters, like the Su-35, "would have had a profound impact," Jumper warned. 65 Likewise, the F-16CJs proved indispensable to the operation but were heavily taxed, as were the EA-6Bs. Several USAF leaders have commented that the whole arena of electronic warfare and defense suppression will be re-examined. Other requirements, from air mobility to precision munitions inventories, will also get a hard look.

Beyond this, the Kosovo crisis illustrated again that the art of commanding aerospace power is at the heart of how America fights. The US Air Force has many new tools of air warfare, but its most important asset is the ability of its people to master the execution and the command of aerospace operations. Cultivating the art of the aerospace campaign among new generations of airmen and commanders is still the abiding challenge.

Country Aircraft
US (Air Force) A-10, AC-130, B-1B, B-2, B-52H, C-5, C-17, C-130,
C-135, C-141, E-3B/C, E-8C, EC-130, F-15, F-15E, F-16, F-117, KC-10, KC-135, MC-130, MH-53J, MH-60G, Predator UAV, RC-135, U-2S
US (Other) EA-6B (Navy), F-14 (Navy), F/A-18 (Navy and USMC), KC-130 (USMC), P-3C (Navy), Hunter UAV
Belgium F-16
Britain E-3D, GR-7, GR1, L-1011K, Tristar, VC-10, aircraft on HMS Invincible
Canada CF-18
Denmark F-16A
France C-135F, C-160, E-3F, F1, Jaguar, Jag-A, Mirage 2000C/D, MIR-IVP, Puma SA-330, Horizon, UAV CL-289, UAV CR, aircraft on FS Foch
Germany Tornado PA-200H/E, UAV CL289
Italy AMX, Boeing 707T, F-104, PA2001, Tornado ADV, aircraft on ITS Garibaldi
Netherlands F-16A, F-16AM, KDC-10
NATO Common E-3A
Norway F-16A
Portugal F-16A
Spain CASA, EF-18, KC-130,
Turkey F-16, KC-135, TF-16C


What about Kosovo itself? Toward the end of the air war, a NATO official said: "When we look back on this conflict, the air war may be considered the easy part. It is going to be much harder to get these people to forget the violence and live in peace." 66 What about Milosevic? As President Clinton made clear, removing Milosevic from office was "not part of the terms that NATO set out at the beginning. That question is left open." 67 Whatever the course of events in Yugoslavia, NATO air achieved an impressive set of goals and turned around a crisis of epic proportions.


A Dutch F-16, like the one pictured here, shot down a Yugoslav MiG-29 at the beginning of Operation Allied Force. NATO turned to its airmen to accomplish objectives after diplomacy failed. Allied cohesion brought about the success in Kosovo. "NATO had one consensus and that was for airpower," said Defense Secretary Cohen. (USAF photo by SrA. Greg Davis)

What does this say about expeditionary aerospace power? Was it dominant? Yes. The results speak for themselves. Milosevic's forces suffered high levels of destruction and agreed to withdraw. In April, they had the KLA on the run, refugees streaming over the borders and Kosovo under their control. By June, after 11 weeks of air attacks, Milosevic had agreed to pull out his forces and admit NATO peacekeepers. Was it decisive? Yes. Airpower fulfilled NATO's clear military objectives of degrading and diminishing the Serb military.

The Kosovo crisis demonstrated that an air campaign works as the centerpiece of joint operations. For airmen, this is not a new lesson. It is a legacy of excellence that reaches back all through the 20th century. In World War II, in Korea, in Vietnam, in Desert Storm, airpower has performed its unique and special role in fighting and winning the nation's wars. The Kosovo crisis reconfirmed the central role of joint airpower in modern expeditionary operations.


B-52H Stratofortress crews from the 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, La., and the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, N.D., conduct a formation brief at their in-theater base, RAF Fairford, UK. The bombers launched cruise missiles at targets in Yugoslavia. B-52Hs kept up the pressure from the first night through the end of the campaign. (USAF photo by SSgt. Efrain Gonzalez)

Using air to attack the enemy's military forces and targets of unique strategic value is the aerospace warrior's essential first step to shape and control the battlespace. The job of airmen is to achieve as many objectives as possible. In Kosovo, despite many obstacles, aerospace power did this job well. With patience, persistence, and precision, NATO airpower helped force Milosevic to capitulate and to withdraw Yugoslav forces before NATO peacekeepers came in. That is what mature aerospace power can do.



50 Dana Priest and Peter Finn, "NATO Gives Air Support to Kosovo Guerillas," Washington Post, June 2, 1999.
51 Jon R. Anderson, "Underdog KLA Works Its Way Up," European Stars 52 US Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, CJCS, June 10, 1999.
53 John Keegan, London Daily Telegraph, June 6, 1999.
54 Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, news briefing, June 10, 1999.
55 RAF Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, Eaker Institute program, "Operation Allied Force: Strategy, Execution, and Implications," Aug. 16, 1999.
56 Mason, Eaker Institute program, Aug. 16, 1999.
57 Gen. John P. Jumper, Eaker Institute program, Aug. 16, 1999.
58 Jumper, Eaker Institute program, Aug. 16, 1999.
59 Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF Chief of Staff, "Air Power is Working in Kosovo," Washington Post, June 4, 1999.
60 Brig. Gen. Daniel Leaf, Commander, 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano AB, Italy, June 12, 1999.
61 Richard Parker, "Cohen Admits Flaws in NATO Strategy," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, May 29, 1999.
62 Leaf, June 12, 1999.
63 Ryan quoted by John A. Tirpak, "Lessons Learned and Re-Learned," Air Force Magazine, August 1999.
64 Tirpak, "Lessons Learned and Re-Learned," August 1999.
65 Jumper, Eaker Institute program, Aug. 16, 1999.
66 William Drozdiak and Anne Swardson, "Military, Diplomatic Offensives Produced Agreement," Washington Post, June 4, 1999.
67 President Clinton, ABC "Good Morning America."




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