Kosovo War

In 1999, NATO intervened in a messy conflict in Kosovo, starting the Kosovo War. Here are my thoughts shortly after it was over. (By the way, I think of this war as the closest analog to the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya.)

The recent history of Yugoslavia is that Slobodan Milosevic gained power by whipping up Serbian ethnic pride and hatred against other groups, taking advantage of divisions that had been suppressed during the Communist era. As a tactic for maintaining Milosevic’s personal power it has worked great. As a strategy for prosperity it’s been a disaster—target groups fought back against repression, the country has been chopped into pieces, and the Serbian economy has been on a decade-long downtrend because of the wars and UN economic sanctions.

The Western reaction over the same decade was gradually increasing exasperation. Western politicians, looking for the easy way out but finding that the easy ways don’t lead out, were ever more willing to consider drastic measures. Finally NATO made serious threats of war, and then found itself obliged to carry them out.

The war was longer and nastier than it should have been, because each side underestimated the other. NATO expected that Milosevic would back off from a confrontation with overwhelming military force, so NATO didn’t bother to actually prepare to fully apply that force. NATO planned for a few days of air strikes with a small number of aircraft, considering that to be the worst likely case. Milosevic no doubt saw the overconfidence, and remembered how many times the West had backed off its threats, and listened to what his generals told him about the limits of air power, and prepared to ride it out. He didn’t seem to realize that once NATO finally went to war it would be with pent-up determination. As events actually unfolded Serbia did not have a chance, but he acted as though it did and held out as long as possible. And why not? He had some justification, and his record shows that he doesn’t care how many die or what industries are destroyed.

political decisions

NATO’s strategy of relying solely on air power was politically driven and did not make military sense. I was distressed by the unrealism of political decisions that were based on keeping the coalition together and keeping the voters happy. Politics is more important than war, so the priorities were correct, but it’s horrible that the politically-necessary decisions were so destructive. We are dumb. Collective stupidity beats individual knowledge. Of course it didn’t help to have pro-Serbian Russia on the Security Council to paralyze the UN.

Politically, the decision was made that this was to be an air power-only war. To keep politicians and voters happy, the decision was announced openly. Militarily, that’s crazy. Air forces and ground forces are much stronger working together than either one is alone. But even if you’re unable to bring troops to the action, you want to give the impression that you’re planning it, because your enemy will have to divert resources and organize to prepare for it. You want to issue disinformative press releases about paratroopers training with a mockup of the control tower at Pristina airport and so on. I’ll explain more below why this decision was harmful.

Politically, the decision was made that this was to be a low-risk war. Any loss of life among the “good guys” was thought to add to the danger of backlash. I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes some sense. And as it turned out, no NATO lives were lost in the fighting, though there were deaths in training and close brushes. Militarily, that means that only light force was applied from the air in Kosovo. Planes were ordered to fly at 20,000 feet and above, out of range of portable antiaircraft missiles but also too high to see all the bad guys. In particular, they couldn’t be sure of telling the difference between enemy vehicles and refugees. Kosovar refugees don’t vote in France. It was considered bad to blow them up, but not as bad as risking a pilot’s life. [The ubiquitous surveillance drones that would be used today to get a better view were not available then. That’s an interesting story in itself, because they were technically possible.]

Defeating an enemy is a classic goal that air power cannot promise to attain by itself. I’ll say it a different way: If Yugoslavia did not care about its industries and bridges, and had no internal dissent to destabilize it, then Yugoslavia could survive air bombardment forever. I don’t mean “as long as necessary,” I mean literally forever. The people might be reduced to subsistence farming, but the countryside will support that. Nothing would force them to surrender.

So the political decision that this was to be an air-only war, never mind the additional decision to blunt air power by keeping it a low-risk war, was extremely risky. It might have failed, and then to win the war the pre-announced political decisions would have had to be changed. I think this would have been done if necessary, but if I’m wrong then Milosevic was right to try to ride the war out. If I’m wrong, then he had a real chance to win.

the course of the air war

The air war had two prongs, strategic and tactical. They were sometimes called “phases”, but that’s misleading because they were both continual. The strategic attacks aimed at infrastructure, mostly in Serbia, that was thought to physically, politically, or psychologically support the war. That includes communications like telephones, transportation like fuel and bridges, arms factories (many or most of which also had civilian use), the electricity supply, command bunkers, military radio towers, anything valuable that was owned by Milosevic or his family or his political associates (including cigarette factories), and even civilian radio and television on the grounds that they spread propaganda. Personally, I think that bombing the television stations proves that the NATO generals in charge had as little understanding of politics as the politicians have of war.

These are all fixed targets, and NATO is skilled at identifying and destroying those. Except for the incredible blunder of bombing the Chinese Embassy, which lengthened the war, this part went well militarily. [Note added later: At the time, I bought the official U.S. story that the embassy bombing was a mistake. More information has come out since, and I’m not so sure now. Wikipedia covers the topic: U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.] I’ll just point out that even though most of these targets are valid military targets, targets whose destruction contributed to winning the war, many of them are also basic economic infrastructure. The economic damage will keep hurting people for many years to come.

The tactical prong focused on attacking Serbian forces in Kosovo. Thanks partly to Joint STARS radar aircraft that can see moving vehicles, NATO was able to destroy hundreds of military vehicles in Kosovo. (Reports that NATO destroyed few enemy vehicles are either Serbian propaganda or baseless rumors. No claim of this that I’ve seen gives a source. It is true that NATO bombed a lot of decoys, probably including many that they didn’t recognize as decoys.) But as long as the enemy dispersed and didn’t move around, they were pretty safe. All you need to carry out "ethnic cleansing" is gangs with assault rifles, and aircraft can do nothing against gangs. Airplanes cannot force surrender.

What actually happened was that, toward the end of the war, the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army gathered enough strength to attack Serbian forces on its own. To meet air attack, you have your forces disperse and hunker down; to meet ground attack, you need to concentrate them on the enemy threats and keep them mobile as the situation changes. That’s one reason that air forces and ground forces are so much stronger together than apart. As long as Serbian troops stayed dispersed in small groups, the KLA could muster attacks large enough to hurt them; when they concentrated to meet those attacks, they became vulnerable to air raids. Casualties must have increased greatly (I doubt that anybody has accurate figures). I think that this was when Milosevic decided to give in.

gosh, that was lucky

The KLA resurgence was not foreseen. Early in the war, NATO’s assessment was that the KLA had been decimated by swift Serbian moves. So it looks to me that the war was won because NATO got lucky. The military strategy was dictated by overconfident politicians, and it might have worked or it might have failed. NATO got lucky, and it worked. If it had failed, and nothing changed enough to win the war, then NATO would have eventually had to change its strategy—or give up.

The rule was articulated clearly after the Vietnam war: If you’re acting from a position of strength in deciding whether to use military power, then the safe choices are to stay out, or to attack in overwhelming strength. Since Vietnam, when the U.S. has been the main decision maker this rule has been followed. [Later note: Wow, there have been a lot of exceptions to this claim. But I still think Americans have continued to apply the rule where it makes sense. On the other hand, another reminder from Vietnam was “First ensure domestic support, you idiot” and that one was quickly forgotten. Hmm!] In this case, Europe was the main decision driver (no matter that America provided most of the firepower). But that’s no excuse; military strategists understood the dangers from the start, and said so, and the politicians overrode them.

The war was not only risky, it was shortsighted and selfish. With only limited force brought to bear, the war was longer and the destruction was greater than it needed to be. There was time for “ethnic cleansing”, many villages were burned, many factories were bombed, the region’s economy was devastated. Whether you consider the end result to be better than allowing Milosevic his will is a matter of taste. NATO’s policy of less risk for the attackers meant that there was more risk for the innocent. The real goal of the war was not to cure an ill; it was to find the easiest way out—and it’s still true. The easy ways don’t lead out.

Original version, October 1999.
Updated and added here January 2012.