Experts divided on overall success of Allied Force
March 24, 2009
Ten years after NATO’s first large military operation, experts are still somewhat divided on its success.
Operation Allied Force ultimately ended when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull his forces out of the province of Kosovo and let an international peace force maintain security.
"OAF has been characterized as not an effective use of air power; however, the air offensive did bring about Milosevic’s decision to submit to stated NATO terms," said Michael S. Lamb, a retired Air Force colonel who wrote an assessment on the campaign submitted to Congress. "Many analysts have noted many flaws, both at the strategic and operational levels, but the objectives regarding air operations were met."
And a number of "firsts" were achieved:
The B-2 Bomber made its debut, flying sorties from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and returning each time.C-17 Globemasters, relied upon heavily by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan today for moving around cargo and personnel, saw their first wide-scale use into a theater where bullets were flying and bombs were dropping.Unmanned aerial vehicles were able to fly much lower than piloted aircraft during the campaign and were used to report enemy movements as well as certify targets."Predators in combat were a key platform in combat operations and we have since seen the growth in requirements for these platforms in campaigns since," Lamb said.
Just how the operation brought about Milosevic’s capitulation is still debated, though. More than a few of those writing books or reports on the subject believe that it was only after NATO bombs destroyed various Serb infrastructure projects — such as bridges and power grids — that the local population pushed Milosevic to back down.
U.S. attacks on Serbian forces in Kosovo were less effective. Some critics claimed that NATO bombs were only able to destroy about a dozen Serb tanks and that Serb military units were largely intact.
Others shot back that destroying those assets was only a secondary goal.
Not only was there a difference of opinion of what the planes should be targeting within the NATO alliance, but there was a clash within the U.S. military itself.
Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the supreme allied commander, favored attacking Serb forces and positions in Kosovo.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Short, who directed the air campaign from a NATO post in Vicenza, Italy, was in favor of bombing targets in and around Belgrade much more heavily and much sooner than he was allowed to.
The Washington Post reported that Short said a little more than a week after the campaign ended that "as an airman, I’d have done this a whole lot differently than I was allowed to. We could have done this differently. We should have done this differently."
In his book, "NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment," the RAND Corporation’s Benjamin Lambeth quotes former Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogelman as saying "just because it comes out reasonably well, at least in the eyes of the administration, doesn’t mean it was conducted properly. The application of air power was flawed."
Some critics believe the Clinton administration was so concerned with American casualties that it told military leaders to avoid missions with higher risks and higher rewards.
"Although OAF was considered a successful campaign, the policy constraints placed on the combatant commander unnecessarily lengthened the conflict," Lamb said. "We have seen that longer conflicts, i.e. Enduring Freedom, mean greater risks assumed by the U.S. Policymakers must understand in terms or risk management that acceptance of some risks in the short-term mitigate risk in the long term and yield a better state of success."
"Our problem with all of this is we make it look too easy, " Air Force Gen. John Jumper, then commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told an audience at the Eaker Institute a few months after the campaign. "We set the bar fairly high when we fly more than 30 thousand combat sorties, and we don’t lose one pilot. It makes it look as if air power is indeed risk free and too easy a choice to make."
Lamb said that NATO forces aren’t the only ones to learn lessons from the campaign.
"There is little doubt that U.S. adversaries have learned from OAF how to offset U.S. airpower advantages in future conflicts. In Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan and Iraq, we have seen the enemy "digging in" to protect its assets by dispersing, concealing, and burrowing in order to evade detection and destruction by U.S. air strikes."