The Kosovo war was not the ultimate triumph of technology that the enthusiasts claim. But the remaining weaknesses can probably be overcome
DEFEATED armies, like the Russians who limped out of Chechnya in 1996, eventually work out where they went wrong and—as the unfortunate Chechens are now discovering—try to do better next time. But military planners who reckon they have won, like the Americans who oversaw NATO’s air war against Serbia, have less incentive to re-examine their assumptions.
In the six months since Yugoslavia’s President Slobodan Milosevic sued for peace, hundreds of thousands of words have been penned on the military “lessons of Kosovo”. But to the dismay of more radical thinkers in the world of defence, there is little sign of nettles therefore being grasped, or vested interests faced down.
There are some features of NATO’s 78-day war that every chronicler agrees on. So long as the definition of success is kept fairly elastic, this was the first war in history to be won by air power alone. The winning side lost no men killed in action and suffered very few other losses; only two manned aircraft were shot down. On the other hand, it took much longer, and much more firepower, to bring President Milosevic to heel than NATO’s political masters had originally expected, so the Pentagon had to scramble hard to increase the number of aircraft and missiles used against Serbia. This tempted a man as usually sensible as Mikhail Gorbachev to say, late in the war, that regardless of the eventual peace terms the moral victor would be Serbia, simply because it had held out for so long against so powerful a coalition.
Even the Pentagon, in its most self-congratulatory moments, has acknowledged that the campaign against Serbia did expose some weaknesses. The credibility of its claim to be able to conduct two big local wars at roughly the same time looks distinctly strained, to say the least.
For example, the Pentagon was only just able to field enough “jammers”—aircraft which use electronics to suppress enemy air defences—to keep the skies safe for its own bombers and those of its low-tech allies. As Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, points out in a forthcoming book, Serbia could have posed a much more deadly threat if it had called on Russia's best technology by using S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Future adversaries will take the point.
There is also a broad consensus on the weapons that saved the day for NATO. Two sorts of satellite-guided bomb—one cheap, the other expensive, and both in embarrassingly short supply—have been singled out for laurels. One is the JDAM or Joint Direct Attack Munition, a device costing around $20,000 which can be strapped on to a “dumb bomb” to give it deadly accuracy. The other is the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile, which can accurately deliver explosive power from 1,000 nautical miles out to sea, at $lm a shot.
The other technological star of the war was the UAV, the unmanned aerial vehicle, which in Kosovo was used only for reconnaissance but can almost certainly be used for more violent purposes. The fact that the UAVs could loiter over dangerous areas without risk to human life or at unbearable economic cost (they are only $3m apiece) was of huge value. Up to 15 of these gallant machines made the ultimate sacrifice.
So much for the winners. Among the losers cited by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, another Washington think-tank, is the whole principle of “tactical air power”—the powerful but relatively small and short-range fighters and bombers which have to be deployed, maintained and protected at far-flung bases around the world. The effectiveness of giant bombers based in the United States, such as the B-2, is on the other hand offered as evidence that this was a pretty good war for air power of the longer-range sort.
Others agree with this assessment. Yet the supporters of “tac air” remain robust. The Pentagon is still preparing to spend more than $300 billion on three new types of tactical aircraft: the F-22, which is one of the air force's pet projects, the navy's FA-18E/F, and the Joint Strike Fighter which will serve all the services. There have, however, been some signs of a political backlash in Congress against “tac air”. Jerry Lewis, a Republican congressman whose half-desert district contains weapons-testing sites, led a successful move in October to stop the first procurement money for the F-22. He would rather spend the cash on more research.
The fact remains that all these aircraft-building programmes are backed by powerful lobbies in the armed forces, as well as by legislators whose districts contain the factories which make the fighter-bombers. The result is that there is little evidence that defence planners are taking to heart what is perhaps the chief lesson of Kosovo. That would mean questioning the whole logic of manpower-intensive weapons systems such as fighter-bombers.
In the Kosovo fight, the average $50m tactical bomber which took off from an airfield in, say, Italy to drop its deadly load over Serbia had to be accompanied by a “strike package” of electronic-warfare aircraft and refuelling planes as well as interceptors to protect it from enemy fighters. Teams of highly trained rescuers had to be at the ready to recover pilots if they were shot down. And the tactical bombers that were not operating from land bases needed billion-dollar aircraft carriers to get them close enough to where the war was. Maintaining and protecting all these forces at overseas bases was such an expensive and politically sensitive business that it apparently makes sense for the American air force to send $2-billion, two-man B-2 bombers, each of which can drop up to 32 big bombs or missiles, direct from the United States to anywhere in the world, and then have them fly home again.
Avoiding casualties is a costly business. So would it not be a good idea to put some of the money instead into the development of unmanned aerial vehicles which can do everything a piloted aircraft can? Within a decade or so, UAVs could be as effective as manned fighters at dropping bombs, air-to-air combat and silencing the enemy’s air defences. Yet there remains a powerful bureaucratic resistance to the development of a technology which could make a generation of much-loved aircraft irrelevant.
The Kosovo war poses a similar challenge to naval planners. If the main purpose of sea power is to deliver explosives to targets on land, is there not some cheaper way of doing it than building aircraft carriers which cost $5 billion each, and need an armada of other ships to protect them? An alternative exists in the idea of small “arsenal ships” which could be packed with every known type of projectile, and yet need a crew of only 50 (compared with a big carrier’s 5,000) and cost only about $500m. But so far the navy has shown hardly any interest in these deadly little boats. It plans to build up to 30 small new destroyers, which need fewer men than the existing sort; but this is only half a step forward. And it still intends to build three new carriers.
Vago Muradian, who keeps an eye on military matters in Washington, says that there is support for radical changes in defence technology—including unmanned aircraft, arsenal ships and airborne lasers—at the highest levels of the Pentagon, and among junior officers. The resistance comes chiefly from middle-ranking officers who cannot bear to wave goodbye to the weapons with which they have grown up. So it is just a matter of time, reckons David Bookstaber, an air-force lieutenant who has written a lot about UAVs. “In the near future, unmanned weapons systems will prevail over their manned equivalents by every indicator,” he predicts. “To products of the Nintendo generation like myself, that’s obvious.”
THE ECONOMIST DECEMBER 18TH 1999