Thoughts on NATO's Military Options
31 March 99

As we have been saying, it is imperative for NATO that it begin to have a decisive effect on the Yugoslavs, both to limit the deportation of Albanians from Kosovo and to set the stage for effective negotiations. Thus far, neither the first phase (attacking Serbian air defenses) nor the second phase (attacking Serbian forces south of the 40th parallel) have been effective in deterring Belgrade. Since NATO has rejected the Primakov proposals, it follows that it must increase military pressure. It is time to consider what form that pressure might take.

The alternate strategies divide between pure air power strategies and combined arms strategies. The weakness of the combined arms strategy, which includes attacks into Kosovo and/or Serbia proper, is time. It took approximately six months from Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait to the allied counter-attack to bring men, equipment and above all, supplies, into theater in sufficient quantity to mount an attack. There are more NATO forces around Serbia today than there were around Kuwait at the beginning of August 1990. However, the Serbian forces are substantially more powerful and the terrain favors the defense. Therefore, we would have to argue that no direct assault by major armored or mechanized formations are possible at this time.

This leaves a Special Forces option. There is no doubt but that NATO Special Forces are operating throughout Kosovo at this time. Nor is there a doubt that they are in close contact with the KLA and other Albanian forces. There is certainly the opportunity to mount a guerrilla campaign in Kosovo that could, over time, sap the strength of the Serbs. The weakness of this strategy is, again, time. By definition, guerrilla insurgencies are long-term operations and are not designed to inflict sufficient pain to compel a change of policy in a short period of time. Even a strategy of assassination of senior personnel is not likely to succeed. Assassination teams tend to get used up very quickly and the number of assassinations carried out in a short period of time is unlikely to disrupt the chain of command.

Thus, in the short term, ground operations are severely limited. Air operations, possibly in cooperation with Special Forces, might have a greater disruptive value, particularly in Kosovo. There have been suggestions of supplementing air operations with helicopter operations. The targets would be units operating in Kosovo involved in the deportations and executions that are reportedly underway. The helicopter has in fact evolved into a highly effective and psychologically frightening weapon. It is also a highly vulnerable weapon. In its anti-tank and anti-personnel role, the helicopter is vulnerable not only to anti-air weapons but also to commonly available ground fire. Even armored attack helicopters can be brought down with some ease. The helicopter can rapidly find itself at a disadvantage in an anti-tank role, when it is attacking armor deployed with infantry that is armed with shoulder-fired, anti-air missiles. Since there are relatively few attack helicopters in theater now, a massive campaign would have to wait for deployment, while a piecemeal insertion could chop them up rather quickly.

The most likely immediate option appears to be intensified air strikes. What would be the target? There are two new target sets to be considered. The first would be a direct assault on critical infrastructure in Serbia and around
Belgrade in particular. Attacks on the electrical grid, water supply and communications facilities could render Belgrade uninhabitable rather quickly. Apart from creating another humanitarian crisis, it is not clearly doable. One thing that has been learned is the rehabilitative ability of infrastructure. It can be repaired. An intense air attack on a facility over a three-day period can sometimes be repaired in a day. Moreover, indispensable infrastructure can frequently be worked around or compensated for. Making devastating attacks on infrastructure is frequently easier to announce than to execute. The idea that Serbia would abandon fundamental national interests in Kosovo to avoid an attack on infrastructure is as reasonable as expecting Hanoi to abandon its strategic goals in order to stop the bombing, or to expect Iraq, Britain or Germany to do so. It is a fantasy without any historical precedent.

Within this model there is the option of a decapitation attack: killing Milsosevic and the other leaders. Decapitation in the sense of cutting the leadership off from its military was obviously part of the first phase of bombings and clearly failed. This would be a more radical application directed at the physical elimination of the leadership. NATO has conducted a propaganda campaign that implies that Milosevic is a vicious dictator who is personally responsible for what has happened. He may be a dictator and he may be vicious, but the idea that he is acting alone or that he is unpopular is nonsense. Killing Milosevic would create a martyr and a new president. It would not affect Serbian policy. Moreover, decapitation attacks suffer notoriously from intelligence failures. Finding him or the rest of the government is not as easy as it sounds.

The final option is to use air power to prepare the way for a ground attack with forces currently available. That would require a massive reduction in Serbian forces in place along its frontiers. Since they are unlikely to leave, it would be possible to use strategic bombers (B-52, B-1 and B-2) in a Vietnam style role as a massive anti-personnel weapon directed against large, massed formations of troops. The situation along the Kosovo-Macedonian border would certainly recommend itself for such operations, save for the fact that the troops are intermingled with refugees. Indeed, the same problem exists inside of Kosovo as has been shown by the bombing of barracks that turned out to house refugees under the protection of CARE.

NATO must have a decisive success in the next few days. Unfortunately, there is no obvious operation that can assure such success. From a strictly military standpoint, the strategic bombardment of forces along the borders makes the most sense. By attriting them decisively, a ground attack option opens up. The opening of that option is the most likely to affect Belgrade’s political calculations. Creating a sense that NATO is prying open Serbia’s borders so that even the limited troops available might be able to enter Kosovo, engage Serbian forces and defeat them, is most likely to generate serious concern in Belgrade. The strategically decisive option is an invasion. The only credible way to invade Kosovo at this point is to dramatically reduce the number of Serbian forces defending its frontiers. The only way to achieve that is through a systematic strategic bombardment along the Serb-Macedonian border followed by an attack into Kosovo by available forces.

But even this is a great gamble. Are there sufficient strategic bombers in theater to deliver a decisive blow? Can a decisive blow be delivered against forces in this sort of terrain who are well dug in? Can the level of attrition reached be sufficient to permit forces inside of Macedonia to successfully attack and breakthrough? Are there sufficient forces in Macedonia to exploit a breakthrough?

None of this is clear. But the massive loss of key units along the frontier is the only obvious way to redefine the strategic equation that currently exists and increase the risk in which the Belgrade government finds itself. Attacking infrastructure may hurt but it will not be decisive. Opening the door to invasion may create the level of uncertainty needed to create leverage.

However, there are so many "buts" and "maybes" associated with this strategy that it remains chancy at best. However, it would appear to us that as NATO debates what its third phase will look like, the debate might wind up centering around this option of a strategic attack on Serbian forces defending the borders.