The Yugoslav War: Where to Now?


Current Issues Brief 9 1998-99

Gary Brown
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
21 April 1999

Contents

Introduction

A New Kind of War

Air Power Alone
Precision and Economy
Yugoslavia is not Iraq

Progress of the War

Unachieved Aims, Lost Objectives
Shifting Aims?

Where is the War Going?

President Milosevic's Strategy and NATO's Dilemma

The View from Belgrade
NATO's Dilemma

Reassessment Required

New Political Objectives
New Military Strategy

A War of Wills

Endnotes

Introduction

It is now almost four weeks since NATO launched its air war-Operation ALLIED FORCE-against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). Prosecuted with a combination of strategic bombers, tactical ground-attack aircraft and cruise missiles, supported by the military and economic resources of an immensely powerful alliance, this war has already inflicted significant damage on FRY infrastructure and, to an unquantifiable extent, on elements of its military.

This brief is a short analysis of the war, primarily from the standpoint of military strategy.(1) It considers the nature of the war and examines its development thus far. It suggests that in the final analysis the war has become a contest of political wills, that the Milosevic regime believes that the NATO countries lack the will to take the steps probably necessary to defeat it and that the accuracy or otherwise of this calculation will probably determine the outcome.

This paper is current to noon 21 April 1999, Canberra time.

A New Kind of War

Air Power Alone

This war is quite different from any other in history. Notably, it is the first to attempt achievement of its aims by the use of one arm of military power, air power, alone. Of course, air power has often been used to carry out specific missions, but never before has it been employed as the sole means of waging major war. In modern times, where military thinking and organisation has continually stressed integration of ground, maritime and air elements into increasingly seamless force structures, this is a radical departure. Whether it is also a viable departure remains to be seen.

Precision and Economy

Even as an air operation this war is unique. It has nothing in common, for instance, with the great bombing campaigns of the Second World War. In those days thousands of bombs were dropped from hundreds of aircraft in only partly effective raids on key industrial targets, which were almost always in large cities. Due to the highly inaccurate nature of free-fall ('dumb') bombs civilian casualties around industrial targets-what are now called 'collateral' casualties-were usually numbered in hundreds if not thousands. For example, in August 1943, and again in October, numerous US aircraft attacked a German ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. The raids halted production for only six weeks and caused some ongoing dislocation for perhaps six months. Very heavy losses in US aircraft and crew were incurred. Hitler's Armaments Minister, Albert Speer has testified that Germany actually increased industrial production under the Allied bombing.(2) Hundreds of planes and thousands of bombs could not then reliably destroy a target, even at the price of heavy casualties to both sides.

By contrast, the essential characteristics of modern air power are its precision and economy of effort. It is the norm (though exceptions do occur) for a 'smart' weapon to strike what it is aimed at. And with cruise missiles it is normally possible to strike a discrete target from a thousand kilometres away. What could barely be done with hundreds of aircraft and with serious casualties in 1943 is now possible using a few aircraft and cruise missiles. Thus we hear of FRY installations-oil refineries, industrial plants, bridges, even individual buildings in Belgrade-being successfully targeted by NATO aircraft and/or missiles.

The present war is also noteworthy for the remarkably passive nature of FRY resistance to the NATO attacks. In this respect it resembles the Iraqi failure in 1991 to oppose the Coalition's air power-it may be recalled that large numbers of Iraqi aircraft actually flew to Iran to avoid destruction. FRY air defences naturally fire on NATO aircraft where they can, and have achieved only limited success (one Stealth fighter is confirmed lost by NATO), but since the first few days the Air Force has hardly been seen. It is not known how many FRY combat aircraft (it began the war with about 240 combat aircraft and 56 armed helicopters)(3) have survived the NATO attacks on their bases, but few if any bases should be operational after sustained air assaults.

Yugoslavia is not Iraq

For all of that, the air war against the FRY does not readily compare with that conducted in 1991 against Iraq during operation DESERT STORM. The air operations against Iraq were always intended to pave the way for a ground campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation and were not expected to win the war in their own right. And the open, flat, desert environment of the Middle East is far more friendly to air power than the hilly, even mountainous, woody terrain of the FRY and Kosovo. Likewise, the desert climate rarely interfered in the Middle East, whereas in the Balkans the fickle early (northern) spring weather has significantly restricted NATO operations.

Progress of the War

Unachieved Aims, Lost Objectives

The declared political aim at the outset of operation ALLIED FORCE was to force FRY President Milosevic to accept two conditions:

  • autonomous status within the FRY for the Albanian-majority Kosovo region, and
  • NATO troops in Kosovo to ensure FRY and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) compliance.

Once operations began, there was in addition a third objective:

  • damaging the Yugoslav forces so as to prevent or at least seriously hinder their campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

NATO's attacks are undoubtedly inflicting significant damage on their targets. Much infrastructure-notably oil refineries-has been destroyed. Less damage will have been taken, however, by mobile elements and installations which are below ground or have been effectively camouflaged. On one day NATO claimed the destruction of only seven Yugoslav tanks.(4) The FRY has about 1270 tanks, most of which are doubtless carefully hidden.(5) As noted, airfields should be useless by now and can be kept so by frequent bombing with cratering weapons. Any fixed military installation (bases, barracks, facilities of various kinds) will presumably have been targeted and destroyed by NATO. Physical communications within Yugoslavia have been disrupted by the destruction of key bridges, and electronic means-especially those used by the military-have also been heavily targeted.

Despite all this, at the time of writing the first two aims mentioned above have yet to be achieved, while the third is clearly now unachievable. Since the start of NATO operations the FRY has systematically organised the deportation (or worse) of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in an 'ethnic cleansing' operation on a scale paralleled only by the Nazi atrocities of World War II and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Kosovo is now well on the way to becoming, if not an Albanian-free zone, at least one where Albanian numbers have been drastically reduced. The FRY forces have also launched operations designed to destroy or at least cripple the armed ethnic Albanian irregular forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Some allege that this is the direct result of NATO operations.(6) However the Milosevic regime has a track record of ethnic cleansing campaigns and, in the situation as it was prewar, it is likely that Belgrade would have attempted some such operation in Kosovo regardless (this is why pressure was exerted on Yugoslavia in the first place).(7) However, the NATO attack has allowed the 'cleansers' to invoke the cover of wartime censorship and restrictions, expelling all foreign observers from the area, while air power has proven to be of small value in actually hindering the operation. NATO attacks no doubt catalysed, rather than caused, the anti-Albanian action and were also a convenient cover story with which Belgrade could explain the exodus from Kosovo.

Ethnic cleansing, unfortunately, requires little more than a reasonable number of lightly armed irregulars willing to stomach the dirty work, light FRY regular forces to protect them from the KLA, plus minimal logistics to move them from place to place. And of course large scale movements of the 'cleansed', by foot, road transport (or even trains provided by a thoughtful Belgrade regime), can hardly be prevented by air power and also serve as cover for FRY troop and equipment movements. The recent mistaken NATO attack (14 April) on a refugee convoy shows that the movements of deportees cannot be prevented unless one is willing to fire on them. This NATO will not do.

Shifting Aims?

In present circumstances it is at least questionable whether the originally declared political aims remain relevant. Kosovo in effect is now well on the way to being ethnically 'cleansed'. It is now inconceivable that, for all their declared determination, those ethnic Albanians who survive eviction, expropriation and deportation will ever consent to return to a Kosovo under the authority of a Serb dominated regime. For this reason, if Albanians are to return to postwar Kosovo the political status of the region may well have to change. It may have to become a kind of UN or NATO protectorate, or be allowed to join Albania.

None of this, however, has yet been clarified by the NATO political or military leadership. Nonetheless it is becoming more and more difficult to believe that the aims for which the war was started can ever be achieved. There is a risk, therefore, of this war becoming that most dangerous of things, a war with no clear aims. As was seen in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, no practical amount of military power, even that of a superpower, can win such a war.

Where is the War Going?

If one accepts pronouncements from NATO and the United States, the war will continue to be exclusively an air war and will be prosecuted as such for as long as it takes. Calls from military analysts for the use of ground troops against the FRY have been consistently rejected at the highest level. President Clinton has called for war funding for a further six months. Until very recently it has seemed that the US at least is determined not to commit ground troops to combat. At the time of writing there has been perhaps a hint of a softening in this position, with unconfirmed reports that NATO is now planning for an invasion with 80,000 troops in late May.(8) Officially, however, there is still great reluctance to contemplate a ground campaign.

There is good reason for this reluctance. The FRY will most likely offer more effective resistance than Iraq. The terrain favours the defence to an extraordinary degree, and there is a strong will to fight what are perceived-due to successful propaganda and prewar media censorship by President Milosevic's government-as aggressors and invaders supporting Albanian terrorists determined to strip Serbia of part of her ancient heartland. In a sense Yugoslavia has been ready for war since Tito broke with Moscow in the late forties and prepared the country for possible Soviet attack. As might have been expected, the coming of war has caused the Serbs to bury their internal differences and unite in the face of foreign attack, and they have a proud military tradition of their own.

Part of that tradition, the successful Yugoslav guerrilla war against the Nazis (1941-45), is often cited but is perhaps less relevant than some think. Though Tito's partisans did tie up large numbers of Germans and inflicted significant losses on them, it needs to be recalled that at no time could Germany employ its full might against Tito's forces. Simultaneously Germany was fighting a huge war in the East against the Soviets and, after D-Day (mid-1944), against the Western Allies as well. Tito's partisans moreover received extensive supplies and support, especially from the British.

If NATO desires, however, it can deploy its full power against the FRY. This would represent overwhelming force. Yugoslavia can be isolated from any significant sources of resupply and its Armed Forces in effect starved to death. Russia, Serbia's traditional ally throughout this century, is presently too weak to do more than register empty protests unless it wishes to employ nuclear weapons-something already ruled out by the Russian Foreign Minister.(9) Nevertheless it is clear that ground operations against a determined FRY defence would result in losses to NATO. There would be body bags returning to the countries that committed troops to a ground campaign.

President Milosevic's Strategy and NATO's Dilemma

The View from Belgrade

The preceding is probably the assessment made in Belgrade. There it is most likely believed that the political will to employ ground troops is lacking in NATO and that the FRY can endure the air war until such time as NATO tires of the effort and expense, and international political pressures can be brought to bear to terminate the campaign. If so, then the FRY may yet emerge battered but territorially untruncated and, moreover, with the clear gain of an 'ethnically cleansed' Kosovo.

Such an outcome would represent a serious blow to NATO and especially American prestige and would of course be a catastrophe for the remaining Albanian people of Kosovo. Nevertheless, in going to war NATO was always risking some such outcome. When a decision is made to invoke force to settle political disputes, it is necessary to consider carefully what level of force is likely to be necessary to achieve the aims. President Milosevic probably thinks that NATO's leaders failed to do this.

NATO's Dilemma

Naturally, NATO has not disclosed its military strategy concepts or operational plans. Nevertheless, on the basis of what is publicly known, NATO-or at least the civilian Governments which control NATO policy-appears to have believed that air power alone could bring Yugoslavia to an acceptable position and simultaneously prevent (or at least retard) the 'cleansing' of Kosovo. Certainly NATO has failed in this last aim and, as noted, the original political objectives seem increasingly irrelevant.

One can only speculate as to how long the air war will be allowed to continue. In theory, given enough aircraft, ordnance and time NATO could bomb the FRY back into the proverbial 'stone age'. But few if any Kosovar Albanian lives would be saved thereby, and such a process would take a long time-longer, perhaps, than domestic and international pressures will allow. At the time of writing NATO, for all its military power, actually seems little closer to achieving its aims than it was at the start of the war.

The only military way out of this trap is for NATO to invade Yugoslavia, defeat the FRY armed forces and dictate terms to the Milosevic regime. But this involves a ground war and therein lies NATO's apparent dilemma: a continued air war with dubious prospects of success or a ground war with numerous body bags?

Reassessment Required

New Political Objectives

If as suggested above the original war objectives are now irrelevant, then for what is this war now being fought? A clear restatement of NATO's terms is necessary: without this, even the Belgrade government can have no clear idea of what NATO's demands now are. If Kosovo is to be taken from Serbia but retained in the FRY, if it is to be a UN protectorate of some kind, if it is to go to Albania-these points need to be clearly understood. Likewise, it needs to be understood that the harsher the terms the stiffer will be the resistance-the 'unconditional surrender' demand in World War II is widely held to have prolonged that conflict.

New Military Strategy

Defining acceptable terms is one necessary thing, but the means to force Belgrade to agree to them are another. If the military strategy of an air war does not produce significant results within an undefinable but probably not extensive timeframe, then NATO will be perceived to have failed. Before that happens, if NATO desires military victory over the FRY then a more developed strategy is required. It is now clear that any such strategy will need to include the extensive use of ground forces. Air power alone has already failed to stop the 'cleansing' of Kosovo and thus far there is little indication that it has weakened Belgrade's will to fight on.

For ground operations the next four months are the critical time, because large forces can move freely in this poorly developed region only during the northern summer. But a substantial NATO force will need to be deployed, operational plans drawn up, the political difficulties of embarking on direct combat addressed. All this, especially deployment, takes time. Just how much time is open to debate: some believe that the US has compromised its ability to rapidly deploy forces, though this conclusion is by no means beyond dispute.(10)

There is little doubt that NATO can defeat the FRY forces in a properly conducted ground war (which would of course be supported by the continued use of air and even sea power). However there remains the question of casualties. The defensive advantages enjoyed by the FRY forces-they are far better placed than were the Iraqis-suggest that a NATO victory will not come cheap. In some ways the effects of the air war will assist the ground defence, because (for example) destroyed bridges will hinder the movement of fast NATO forces along the few good roads. This is a consequence of the initial decision to use air power alone: because no thought was given to ground operations, the destruction of bridges which, it now seems, might later be needed by NATO forces was not seen as a problem.

Whatever NATO's real intentions were, it is arguable that it was bad military strategy to so emphatically rule out ground operations. There is a possibility that if Belgrade can be convinced that NATO will undertake an invasion, it might give up the struggle. Whatever the casualties NATO might take in a ground war, the FRY forces would suffer far worse. And Serbia itself, which dominates the FRY, would be crippled for years to come if NATO invades and defeats its armed forces in open combat. Kosovo would certainly be lost, while Serb minorities in Bosnia and other former Yugoslav republics would lose a powerful protector. Montenegro might abandon its Serbian alliance. Instead of 'Greater Serbia', Belgrade might become the capital of a much reduced 'lesser' Serbia. Anti-Serb wars promoted by neighbours seeking vengeance for past injuries might be waged. Milosevic's military advisors, if at all competent, will no doubt tell him this. A truly credible threat of invasion might, therefore, suffice. No such threat has yet been posed: on the contrary, NATO leaders are taking every opportunity to state the exact opposite. This must greatly reassure President Milosevic and reinforce his domestic position.

A War of Wills

This war has quickly become one of wills. On the one hand is the will of the Belgrade regime, now with overwhelming popular support, to endure whatever NATO air power can throw at it for as long as necessary. The air war is NATO's attempt to break that will. Thus far it has not succeeded.

On the other is the will of NATO-again, of the civilian Governments which control NATO-to win the war. NATO faces a hard choice between a continued air campaign, which has yet to produce decisive results to compensate for the loss of life caused, and a ground war which will deliver results but only at the cost of the lives of many NATO soldiers.

Whichever side has the stronger will to win is the factor that will ultimately decide this war.

Endnotes

  1. On 30 March 1999 the FADT Group issued a Research Note, The War Over Kosovo, which provided some background to the conflict.

  2. John Sweetman, Schweinfurt: Disaster in the Skies, Ballantine Books, London 1971, pp. 108-119 and pp. 137-43. Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, Sphere Books 1971, pp. 390-92.

  3. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1997-98, p. 100.
  4. NATO Press Briefing, 17 April 1999. From NATO Website: http://www.nato.int/docu/speech/1999/s990417a.htm.

  5. Of these tanks, however, about 970 are obsolete types-World War II Soviet T-34s (about 180) or early postwar T-55s (about 790). International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1997-98, p. 99.

  6. Jennifer Hewitt, 'Lack of direction worries Congress', The Age, 14 April 1999.

  7. For a good historical survey of the breakup of Yugoslavia, see David Anderson, The Collapse of Yugoslavia: Background and Summary, Research Paper No.15, 1995-96, issued 23 November 1995.

  8. Geiif Kitney, 'Serb vow: we are ready for all-out war', The Age, 18 April 1999.

  9. 'Foreign Minister Ivanov Denies Missile Retargeting, Says Russia Committed to Peace', Russian Federal News Service, in English, 1348hrs (GMT), 9 April 1999.

  10. Thomas Ricks, 'Sending in ground troops is out of US reach,' Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1999.

 

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