Serbs Capitalize on NATO Unwillingness to Absorb Casualties
1 April 99

NATO’s air strikes have now gone through three phases, defined by target sets. The first phase was aimed at destroying Yugoslav air defenses and strategic targets such as air bases, major army bases, the UTVA aircraft factory at Pancevo, and the T-84 tank factory at Kragujevac. The second phase was to involve the targeting of Yugoslav forces inside Kosovo which were directly involved in actions against the Kosovar Albanian populace.

The problem is, since Yugoslav air defenses did not rise to the challenge of the first wave of strikes, turn on their radars, and make themselves nice glowing targets for NATO SEAD attacks, NATO is unsure of the extent to which Yugoslav air defenses have been degraded. Because of this, NATO forces have been reluctant to attack the small units and individual vehicles designated in the phase two target set. NATO also cites poor weather and the Yugoslav use of refugees as human shields for its inability to carry out these strikes. The refugees are a problem, but weather deters the high altitude, high speed bombing runs more than ground attack aircraft. No, NATO’s real fear is Yugoslav air defense – despite its only one verified success thus far.

And so phase two concentrated briefly on barracks and staging areas, NATO declared airpower’s inability to stop atrocities on the ground, and quickly moved on to stage three – attacks on infrastructure throughout Yugoslavia. The short-lived phase two of the air campaign demonstrated the major failing of NATO’s Kosovo strategy. It clearly exposed the limits to which NATO was willing to go to affect the situation in Kosovo. NATO, which already stated publicly that Kosovo was not worth the casualties that would inevitably come from a ground assault, let it be known that Kosovo was not worth risking NATO pilots and aircraft either. NATO’s strategy in Kosovo, mirroring that of the U.S., is to pressure through surgical strikes. NATO casualties of any kind are unacceptable. That said, NATO defined its mission in such a way that it was impossible. Strategic bombing would not alter the situation on the ground in Kosovo before the Serbs could present NATO with a fait accompli.

Operation Allied Force will be a lesson to NATO and its future foes. The side that is willing to absorb casualties has a built in advantage over the side that is not. The Serbs structured the battle so that NATO could not avoid risk without switching to largely ineffective tactics. NATO preferred to avoid risk.