Updated: 30 August 1999 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 47 - No. 2
Summer 1999
p. 14-18

When force is necessary:
NATO's military response to the Kosovo crisis

General Wesley K. Clark
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

General Wesley Clark, SACEUR, in the cockpit of a jet fighter during his visit to the Istrana air base in northern Italy on 29 May.
(AP photo - 49Kb)

After months of escalating repression against the Kosovar Albanians and a string of broken agreements with the international community, NATO took a stand against the military machine of Slobodan Milosevic on 24 March 1999. NATO's air operation sought to force Belgrade to stop its brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo, while at the same time NATO forces have been providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of his onslaught. The success of the air campaign forced Milosevic to meet NATO's demands and laid the foundation for the implementation of peace. A NATO-led international force began to deploy immediately on the heels of the Serb withdrawal, its mission to implement the peace agreement and secure the return of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees.

From the air over Kosovo, at refugee camps in Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (1), Allied military forces were confronted daily with the horrific consequences of "ethnic cleansing" - the deliberate violent expulsion of an entire people from their native land. Even from 15,000 feet above Kosovo, the evidence was all too clear: empty, destroyed villages; hundreds of thousands of people on the move; the smoke of thousands of burning homes. On the ground, the stories of cruelty and abuse - summary executions, organised rape and beatings perpetrated on young and old alike - bore even closer witness to the campaign of terror waged by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia against its Albanian minority. Operations Allied Force and Allied Harbour were intended to reverse the effects of this crime.

Applying force and lending assistance

A line of Serbian military vehicles leaving southern Kosovo passes a KFOR contingent of US Marines deploying to the town of Pozaranje on 14 June.
(AP photo - 78Kb)

These two NATO operations - one applying direct force and the other humanitarian assistance, along with advance elements of a peace implementation force -represented the commitment of military forces to the attainment of NATO's political objectives. They were the latest in a series of military responses directed by Alliance political leaders that began almost immediately after the Yugoslav government started violently repressing the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

NATO demonstrated its resolve to stem the rising tide of violent repression in Yugoslavia with an Alliance air exercise back in June 1998, a port visit to Durres by Standing Naval Force Mediterranean the following month, and two regional PfP exercises in August and September 1998. The Alliance's political leaders employed the well-developed planning capabilities of the Allied Command Europe command structure to signal to the Yugoslav government our determination to come to grips with the problem. President Slobodan Milosevic did not heed the message, and by October 1998, the situation had deteriorated nearly beyond salvaging.

As Yugoslav attacks on Kosovo's civilian population grew in ferocity in the autumn of 1998, it became clear to the North Atlantic Council (NAC) that stronger measures would be required. Consequently, following Serb refusal to meet NAC demands for compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199, requiring the withdrawal of excess forces from Kosovo, and in light of the pending humanitarian catastrophe, the NAC prepared orders to Allied forces to organise air operations against Yugoslavia. Hundreds of Allied aircraft assembled for the attack and diplomatic initiatives gained momentum from the explicit NATO threat.

Milosevic agreed to a cessation of hostilities, deployment of Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ground verifiers, and a NATO air verification mission. After NATO issued an activation order (ACTORD)(2), he was coerced into agreeing to pull back his excess forces and take heavy weapons away from his police, revert to normal peacetime police activities and respond with proportionate force to provocation. The Alliance's military forces provided essential support to the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) with its own aerial verification mission, a verification coordination center and an extraction force for the OSCE mission.

Escalating violations

True to form though, Milosevic violated even that agreement. By December, it was clear that military reinforcements had moved in: a battalion near Podujevo and another battalion on the line of communication from Stimle. The Yugoslav government billed these movements as routine training exercises but failed to notify the OSCE as previously agreed. These "training exercises" developed into full-fledged offensive operations. In successive meetings in late December in Belgrade, we reminded the new Yugoslav Chief of Defence General Ojdanic and Police Chief General Djurdevic that they were not in compliance with their commitments to NATO.

During January and February, more forces appeared in violation of the October agreement. Even in the midst of meetings and peace talks at Rambouillet and subsequently in Paris, the VJ (Yugoslav Army) and MUP (Special Police) attacked around Vucitrn and Kosovska Mitrovica. All evidence pointed to massive reinforcements, a steady increase in fighting, and deliberate preparations for future operations.

Operation Allied Force

A Royal Air Force Harrier jet armed with rockets and air-to-air missiles streaks through cloud cover.
(Reuters photo - 78Kb)

After diplomatic efforts failed to gain Milosevic's agreement to a peace plan, endorsed by NATO and the Contact Group(3), including Russia, NATO responded on 24 March. Operation Allied Force launched a systematic air campaign to attack, disrupt and degrade Serb military potential and deter further Serb actions. Allied forces faced a formidable enemy, but because of their courage and professionalism, that enemy is much less formidable today than when this conflict began.

Operating on two lines of air operations, the NATO campaign focused at the outset on destroying, isolating and interdicting the VJ/MUP forces inside and around Kosovo, and preventing a continuation of their aggression, or its intensification. At the same time, the Allied campaign pursued an array of strategic target sets. These included logistics forces outside Kosovo with the ability to reinforce or support forces in Kosovo, the integrated air defence system, higher-level command and control, petroleum storage facilities and other targets that feed Serbia's military and security machine.

As the campaign progressed, it grew in intensity. However, it was not a campaign against the Serbian people. It focused specifically on the forces of repression from top to bottom to coerce a change in their behaviour or, failing that, to degrade and ultimately destroy their means of repression. Allied planners, targeters and pilots worked diligently to prevent injuries and loss of life among the civilian population and to prevent collateral damage.

Aiding their endeavour was precision weaponry, which reduced collateral damage and limited the exposure of aircraft to Serb air defences. The campaign employed the highest proportion of precision weaponry ever used in an air operation. Precision strike weapons were used against point targets and, in some cases, strike aircraft actually attacked individual tanks on the ground with laser-guided weaponry.

With the weather creating unfavourable conditions, pilots often flew through heavy overcast and clouds, hampering their ability to see the targets. Despite cancellation of air strikes and very few days of favourable weather conditions, the results tell the story of the power of the campaign.

Allied pilots flew 37,465 sorties, of which over 14,006 were strike missions. By comparison with previous campaigns, support sorties outnumbered strike sorties. This campaign, facing unpredictable reactions from Yugoslav defences, required protective combat air patrols in multiple locations, on some days up to seven, around the area. The incident involving the two MiGs, shot down by a combat air patrol over Bosnia and Herzegovina on 26 March, illustrated the need to maintain these patrols and their effectiveness.

Long distances between targets and air bases required a high number of tanker support sorties. Tankers kept our fighters and bombers in the air for extended time periods, enhancing flexibility and maximising their loiter time over Kosovo. The number of sorties also reflected considerable ancillary support: reconnaissance and airborne early warning and control aircraft. In this respect this was the most heavily leveraged air campaign yet seen.

The air campaign's success

A storm over Kosovo is viewed on a radar screen in the Combat Information Center aboard the USS Gonzales in the Adriatic Sea.
(Reuters photo - 42Kb)

The Yugoslav integrated air defence system had been seriously damaged. Without continued suppression it would have recovered quickly; it was a race of Allied destruction against Serb reconstruction and repair. Day by day, Yugoslavia lost its early warning radars, missiles, and fighters; and slowly but steadily the Yugoslav forces lost the ability to maintain situational awareness of the air campaign.

Command and control, the brains behind the brutality, was degraded but was still functional at the campaign's conclusion. This network, hardened for decades with redundant command and control and facilities, experienced frequent failures. The impact of these failures was reflected on the ground and in disruption of the chain of command's ability to manage the battlefield. Television stations and transmitters were struck because they were a part of his military machine, prolonging and promoting this conflict.

Regarding other significant strategic targets, the Allied operation hit the Serb electric power system because, like the body's circulatory system, everything in the military system depends on it. Air strikes also destroyed oil and petrol facilities and stocks needed to keep tanks on the move. Serbia had been importing fuel by ship through Bar and up the Danube to close the gap between what it had and what it needed. Analysts reported temporary disruptions in the Yugoslav supply chain; units in Kosovo were told to cease operations, to hold back, conserve fuel, and wait. Some units had even run out of petrol.

British Puma military transport helicopters bring KFOR soldiers and equipment into Kosovo on 13 June.
(Belga photo - 42Kb)

It was vital to cut off the supply routes that allowed Milosevic to keep his forces fuelled and able to continue their missions of ethnic cleansing. Destroyed bridges prevented Serb forces from moving reinforcements into Montenegro, and slowed down reinforcements moving into Kosovo.

As the campaign progressed, Allied forces closed in on Serb forces on the ground in Kosovo - the campaign's top priority. In favourable weather, these forces felt the full weight of NATO air power. Serb forces were relegated to hiding during the day and manoeuvring at night. When they formed up to fight the UCK, the Kosovar armed elements, they greatly risked NATO strikes. They dispersed into smaller units, which made them more vulnerable to the UCK, whom, after a year of continuous operations, the Serbs could not defeat. This was an army in decline; an army that knew it was losing.

Serb forces were transformed from well-equipped, efficient, and lethal units into isolated forces increasingly weakened in their campaign of brutality. Every day marked another event that highlighted the disruption in their ranks - mass desertions, resignations by senior army officers, and generals under house arrest.

Humanitarian response

A Kosovar boy in the Stankovac refugee camp waves to a KFOR helicopter carrying troops and supplies into Kosovo on 13 June.
(Reuters photo - 36Kb)

In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania, forces from the ACE(4) Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) and ACE Mobile Force (LAND) (AMF(L)) have been addressing the direct results of Milosevic's actions against Kosovo Albanians - easing the suffering of hundreds of thousands of refugees. In the process, they have foiled Milosevic's attempts to destabilise Yugoslavia's neighbours.

As the scale of the humanitarian crisis grew exponentially in early April, the Alliance's political leaders ordered its reaction forces into action. The ARRC had begun deployment to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia during the Rambouillet talks to prepare for immediate introduction as the Kosovo implementation force in the event of a peace agreement. As thousands of refugees entered the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the ARRC swiftly reorganised to deliver food, water and other supplies, build refugee camps and shelters, and transport people away from the border areas. The AMF(L) deployed its headquarters to Albania and, in what became Operation Allied Harbour, took over control of national forces that were rushing to aid the refugees pouring into that country. In both cases, NATO's reaction forces brought order to chaos within a few days.

The ARRC and AMF(L) saved countless lives and provided an essential emerging response until other agencies, chiefly the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), could arrive on the scene. Although UNHCR has taken over as lead agency today, the ARRC and AMF(L) continue to support humanitarian relief operations in both countries.

Bringing it to a close

Jubilant Kosovars greet German KFOR troops arriving in Prizren, Kosovo on 13 June.
(AP photo - 74Kb)

So, as the Serb regime's forces were weakened, ours strengthened. The Alliance gained air superiority. Serb planes were destroyed whenever they challenged NATO aircraft. Allied pilots destroyed over 90 Yugoslav aircraft, six in flight. We knocked out large numbers of surface-to-air missile launchers and radars. And with each passing day, NATO dictated events on the ground. By the suspension of the air campaign on 10 June, Operation Allied Force had 912 aircraft and over 35 ships - almost triple the forces that the campaign started with.

In summary, the air campaign was a success. We prosecuted the campaign in an effective, methodical, and systematic manner that avoided needless casualties, minimised collateral damage, and achieved its objectives. It was progressive and intensified during its course of 78 days, aided by the arrival of spring and improved weather.

Clearly President Milosevic was willing to absorb a high degree of punishment. But in spite of this, the Yugoslav forces were vulnerable to collapse. Erosion of supporting infrastructure and morale had cumulative effects that could not be hidden for long behind propaganda or his silence to the international community. In error, he banked on the crumbling of the Alliance. Instead, NATO's resolve and determination strengthened. Milosevic knew he had miscalculated and could not win. This became increasingly clear to his armed forces and the Serb government too, resulting in the signing of the Military Technical Agreement by Yugoslav authorities and NATO on 9 June.

Now NATO is fully occupied with its next task - deploying the Kosovo peace implementation force (KFOR). KFOR began deploying on 12 June on the heels of the withdrawing Serbs. This is a huge operation that is not risk free. Our forces are entering difficult territory but approach this task, too, with courage and professionalism. However, this operation will not be complete without the safe return of the refugees, our central objective. Only then will military commanders count their tasks as successfully completed. Success here means another beginning. The end to racial conflict and ethnic cleansing would mean a turning point toward a new future in the Balkans, where democracy flourishes rather than the evils of intolerance and repression.

  1. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.
  2. An ACTORD puts the national forces designated for the operation under the operational command of the Major NATO Commander responsible and authorises him to begin operations at a time and under conditions specified, as necessary, by the North Atlantic Council.
  3. The Contact Group on the Former Yugoslavia consists of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
  4. Allied Commander Europe