Updated: 30-Oct-2000 Kosovo one year on

The conduct of the air campaign

The concept for Operation Allied Force envisaged a phased air campaign, designed to achieve NATOs political objectives with minimum force. The phases ranged from a show of force in the initial stages, to operations against Serb forces in Kosovo, expanding if necessary to targets throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that supported the regimes ability to attack the civilian population of Kosovo. It had been hoped, but never assumed, that President Milosevic would quickly realise NATOs determination, and accept its demands. Instead, his campaign of ethnic cleansing escalated and, in response, NATOs leadership accelerated and strengthened its air campaign considerably.

Selecting targets

US F-16 fighter bombers line up for take-off at Aviano airbase in Italy during Operation Allied Force.
(Photo: DoD (US) - 325Kb)

The air campaign set out to weaken Serb military capabilities, both strategically and tactically. Strikes on tactical targets, such as artillery and field headquarters, had a more immediate effect in disrupting the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Strikes against strategic targets, such as government ministries and refineries, had a longer-term and broader impact on the Serb military machine. Just over 38,000 combat sorties, including 10,484 strike sorties, were flown by Allied forces, with no Allied combat fatalities a remarkable achievement.

Initially, it was vital to defeat the Serb air defence network. This proved a tough challenge, as it was highly developed and had many mobile elements. But without air superiority, NATO would not have been able effectively to achieve its military objectives while protecting its own forces, and the ability of Allied forces to strike military targets precisely and minimise collateral damage would have been reduced. While NATO successfully suppressed the threat, it was never eliminated, requiring constant vigilance throughout the campaign.

A US F-15E Strike Eagle takes off from its Italian base.
(Photo: DoD (US) - 79Kb )

The bulk of NATOs effort against tactical targets was aimed at military facilities, fielded forces, heavy weapons, and military vehicles and formations in Kosovo and southern Serbia. Many of these targets were highly mobile and hard to locate, especially during the poor weather of the early phase of the campaign. Strikes were also complicated by the cynical Serb use of civilian homes and buildings to hide weapons and vehicles, the intermixing of military vehicles with civilian convoys and, sometimes, the use of human shields. In this way, NATOs concern to avoid civilian casualties was exploited by the Serbs. But the constant presence of NATO aircraft inhibited the Serbs by forcing them into hiding and frequently punishing them when they did venture out.

Strategic targets included Serb air defences, command and control facilities, Yugoslav military (VJ) and police (MUP) forces headquarters, and supply routes. NATO was sometimes criticised for such strikes, by those who said NATOs actions also risked both civilians and civilian property. In fact, the Alliance carefully selected targets based on their role in the Serb war effort. Facilities were only attacked when it was assessed that they made an effective contribution to the Yugoslav military effort and that their destruction offered a definite military advantage. Massive effort was made to minimise the impact of the air campaign on the Serb civilian population.

Minimising the risk to civilians

The selection of targets was carefully reviewed at multiple levels of command, as well as by the Allies carrying out the strikes. These reviews ensured they complied with international law, were militarily justified, and minimised the risk to civilian lives and property.

In fact, the concern to avoid unintential damage was a principal constraining factor throughout. Many targets were not attacked because the risk to non-combatants was considered too high. But such restrictions did not alter the ultimate outcome. Modern technology, the skill of NATOs pilots, and control over target selection made it possible for the Alliance to succeed with remarkably few civilian casualties.

The actual toll in human lives will never be precisely known, but the independent group, Human Rights Watch, has estimated that there were 90 incidents involving civilian deaths, in which between 488 and 527 civilians may have lost their lives 87 of these at Korisa, where the Serb forces forced civilians to occupy a known military target. These figures are far lower than the 1,200-5,700 civilian deaths claimed by the Yugoslavs.

NATO deeply regrets any civilian casualties it caused, but these losses must be viewed in perspective against what NATO was seeking to prevent, and the actions of the Belgrade regime. Any historical study shows that Alliance aircrew set and achieved remarkably high standards. It is unrealistic to expect all risk to be eliminated. This is something that was well understood and was frequently stated openly by Kosovar Albanians themselves.

Despite cynical Serb attempts to exploit images of accidental civilian casualties from NATO air strikes, the Alliance held firm. President Milosevic calculated that if he held on long enough, it would weaken. He was wrong. The length of the air campaign did put stress on the Allies, but the unity and common purpose that lies at the core of NATO was equal to it. The steady increase in Allied airpower and effectiveness, and the realisation that NATO was holding together played a fundamental part in the Serb climb-down.

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