KOSOVO: Learning the Lesson We Want to Learn?

September 9, 1999

Comment: #318


Learning the Lesson We Want to Learn?, Franklin C. Spinney, Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, September, 1999, pg 6. Attached.

The central problem facing the U.S. Navy is that it is designed to sink the Japanese Navy…but it already sunk it. The end of the Cold War made the contradiction implicit in this problem overwhelming evident. There is no open-ocean threat, and therefore traditional Navalists intent on preserving the "control-of-the-sea" tradition of Mahan face a central question: How should the Navy re-invent itself to be a relevant global maritime force in the 21st Century without becoming a mere supporting appendage of the dreaded Marine Corps, whose role of operating in the unstable littorals of the world is clear for all to see?

The surface and sub-surface Navies believe they have hit on the answer and are now struggling to re-invent themselves into an intervention strike force of choice by exploiting the limited "precision" bombardment capabilities of conventional land attack cruise missile. But cruise missiles are so expensive and the warheads are so small, the bombardment capabilities are miniscule compared to those of Air Force bombers dropping JDAM GPS-guided bombs or cluster munitions. Not surprisingly, the Navalists are becoming wedded to the dogma of using limited, low-risk strikes in support of coercive diplomacy, like the drive-by-shooting attack on the pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan.

Our recently completed experience in Kosovo stood out as an experiment in this kind of coercive diplomacy. Attached, for what it is worth, is my view of how the results affect the emerging theory of 21st Century naval power, which was just published in Proceedings.


Learning the Lesson We Want to Learn?

Franklin C. Spinney
Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute
September, 1999, pg 6

The lessons learned in Kosovo will take a long time to digest, but one already is becoming clear: the miscalculations at the war's beginning prove that the unholy marriage between coercive diplomacy and limited precision bombardment is a loser. It's time for a divorce, and the breakup has important implications for a surface Navy struggling to reinvent itself into a sea-based land-attack force using "tricky Tomahawks." [Comment: this is a variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile that dispenses guided armor-killing guided submunitions -- sometimes known as "brilliantly guided munitions to distinguish them from the cruder "smart" munitions that could not hit mobile targets in Kosovo.]

Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment will persuade an adversary to act in a way that we would call acceptable. Limited precision bombardment assumes we can administer those doses precisely on selected targets using guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage.

This marriage of pop psychology and bombing lionizes war on the cheap, as is evident in our country's increasing addiction to pointless drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs--bombing a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, for example, or destroying an obstacle course in Afghanistan, not to mention the endless attacks on Iraqi air defense sites. While such policies may infatuate the foreign policy and media elites, they seem to have more of a deterrent effect on U.S. policy makers than on people like Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. ABC News reported that Secretary of Defense William Cohen, for example, recently cancelled a trip to Albania over concerns for a terrorist attack, and the Pentagon's multibillion dollar renovation includes $100 million or a five-story führer bunker to protect senior leadership from terrorist counterattacks.

Not fair, some will say. What about Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in September 1995? Surely, the damage done in 11 days by the 708 guided weapons striking 48 target complexes forced Milosevic to the bargaining table at Dayton. Does that not prove, to paraphrase Richard Holbrooke's remarks to the annual convention of the Air Force Association in 1996, that more bombing leads to better diplomacy?

That argument, however, ignores the decisive effects of Operation Storm, the August 1995 Croatian offensive that cleansed the Krajina of more than 200,000 Serbs and changed the situation on the ground in Bosnia by cutting the Bosnian Serb supply lines. It also fails to consider that all of the belligerents were exhausted and needed a rest. Nevertheless, the "lesson we wanted to learn," namely that a weak-willed Milosevic would respond predictably to precision-guided coercion, did have one effect: It set the stage for the gross miscalculation at Rambouillet.

This can be seen in an intelligence analysis of Milosevic's psychology in late 1998 and early 1999. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 1998 (quoted in the Washington Post of 8 April 1999) said, "Milosevic is susceptible to outside pressure. He will eventually accept a number of outcomes [in Kosovo], from autonomy to provisional status with final resolution to be determined, as long as he remains the undisputed leader in Belgrade." An interagency report coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency in January 1999 (reported in the 18 April 1999 New York Times) went even further, saying "After enough of a defense to sustain his honor and assuage his backers [Milosevic] will quickly sue for peace."

The Rambouillet "Accord" aimed to give Milosevic a chance to defend his honor. That NATO's demands were unacceptable should be no surprise. Like the infamous Austro-Hungarian diktat to Serbia in 1914, they were blatant infringements on national sovereignty. The Accord's little-noticed military implementation annex (Appendix B) proposed to give NATO forces "free and unimpeded access throughout the FRY" [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo], immunity from "arrest, investigation or detention," and authorized NATO to "detain" Serbian individuals and turn them over to unspecified "appropriate authorities."

While this language gave Milosevic an opportunity to defend his honor by capitulating after a few days bombing, the plan backfired because he did not react like a mechanical thermostat, but chose instead to escalate rapidly--whereupon the "carefully calibrated" limited bombing campaign aimed at changing one man's behavior exploded into a general war against the Serbian people. NATO had expanded the target list to include the Serbian power grid and civilian infrastructure, the war settled into a grinding siege of attrition, and planners worried about running out of cruise missiles. At war's end, U.S. forces had flown only 15% as many strike sorties as in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq, but had expended 72% as many precision-guided munitions and 94% as many cruise missiles.

No one knows if these expenditures caused Milosevic to cave in on 3 June. We do know the Serbian Army left Kosovo intact. We also know that General Sir Michael Jackson, NATO's commander in Kosovo, credited the Russians rather than the allies' air campaign for persuading him to withdraw his forces from Kosovo (see The Telegraph, 1 August 1999).

That an alliance of 780 million people eventually prevailed over a country of ten million with a gross domestic product equal to two-thirds that of Fairfax County, Virginia, should not be allowed to obscure that the marriage of coercive diplomacy to limited precision bombardment was a colossal failure.

As the surface Navy tries to reinvent itself for the 21st Century, it would do well to ponder this failure before it hitches its star to the limited precision bombardment capabilities of the proposed land-attack destroyer.

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Chuck Spinney

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