Pull America's Fat out of the Fire

April 1, 1999

Comment: #250


[1] Email From: LTC XXX, US Army [Background: West Point, Lt Infantry, & Airborne], U.S. Intervention in Kosovo, Mon, 29 Mar 1999.  Attached.

[2] Email from Col Carl Bernard (USA-Ret), Can Serbia Tolerate Bombing?, 28 March 1999. Attached.

This message is the first in a series of occasional comments about events in Kosovo.

The news coming out of Kosovo is not good.

According to today's Washington Post, the Serbs have now captured three American soldiers on the border with Macedonia, and they are now speeding up rate of ethnic cleansing by using trains to ship Albanian Kosovars from Pristina to the Macedonian border.

A front page report in today's New York Times indicates that NATO's response to the deteriorating situation in Kosovo is break Milosovic's "will" by increasing the list "strategic" targets in Serbia, to include headquarters in Belgrade, or put another way, to escalate a strategy that is clearly not producing its predicted effects. Ominously, the Times also reported that "the air operations will FALL SHORT [emphasis added] of the Phase 3 plan that the United States had wanted to carry out. Some of Yugoslavia's military-industrial complex and infrastructure north of the 44th parallel will remain off-limits for now.

Inside Versailles on the Potomac, the emergence of a public targeting debate is one of a growing number of signs that bureaucrats and politicians have begun to use the press to position themselves to shift the blame for, or exploit the possibilities of, a possible debacle.

Yesterday, for example, the Washington Times began to prepare that battlefield by reporting that the military's readiness problems (which have been discussed ad nauseum on these pages) have stretched the military too thin [which may indeed be true, but get ready to hear how budget cuts of the Clinton Administration caused the problem, which is utter hogwash]. Today's Washington Times escalated the shaping operation by reporting that pilots think the targeting policy a disgrace [which may also be true, but get ready for re-run of another strategic bombing debate, where airpower advocates trot out all sorts of claims that their theory could have stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, if only they were permitted an unlimited strategic bombing campaign against infrastructure and leadership targets in Belgrade].

Like it or not, our nation is now in an undeclared WAR. There has been little debate, and the internally-focused, confused passions of Versailles are now pitted against a shrewd adversary.

Can air power pull America's fat out of this fire?

The References to this message address this question:

Reference #1 below is an active Army officer's opinion. He is a West Pointer, with a fine record in combat arms (airborne and light infantry). Reference #2 is Colonel Carl Bernard's (Army Ret) opinion — he served as a L in the infamous Task Force Smith during opening days of Korea as well as a colonel in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation's second highest award for bravery — and he has been bombed by friendly air more than once.

Both are worth reading and thinking about.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Date: Mon, 29 Mar 1999 15:40:27 -0800
From: LTC XXX [Background: West Point, Lt Infantry, & Airborne]
Subject: U.S. Intervention in Kosovo

Our national policy towards Kosovo is feeble. We should either have not intervened in their civil war at all (the preferred option) or, we should have gone in to win. We're trying to fight from afar and keep it cheap (in terms of U.S. lives) for domestic consumption and that's not going to convince Miloslovic to change his course.

Colin Powell describes his criteria for the use of force in "My American Journey":

"Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes. Decisive force ends wars quickly and in the long run saves lives." (pp. 420-421)

A bombing campaign by itself is not decisive force.

The President and his advisors should learn from history. T.R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War, written in 1962 about U.S. involvement in the Korean War, makes this observation:

" may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do it on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud." (p. 290)

We're not going to win anything by air power alone. The Serbs are not going to stop their offensive merely because we are bombing them. It will only harden their resolve and encourage them to increase the tempo of their operations in order to complete their subjugation of Kosovo before NATO finally realizes it must commit ground troops if it is to do any good. By the time that happens it will likely be too late.

We're only doing this half-way. If we as a nation really intend to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, there is no other way than to commit ground troops who have the clearly defined mission to destroy the Serbian forces in Kosovo and drive them out, then provide nation-building assistance to create an independent nation of Kosovo. This requires a commitment to fight and win a war against the Serbs then stay around for years afterward to protect the fledgling nation until it can stand on its own. But is this really in our national interest? Are we willing to make that commitment?

The administration wants to do something about the bloodshed but it wants to do it cheaply and, unfortunately, there is no cheap way to do it. Miloslovic respects strength; we're not showing it.

 Like it or not, we're at war and the American public doesn't seem to comprehend it (the lead news story on the hourly radio news today was "Today may be the day the DOW closes above 10,000").The Serbs consider themselves at war with NATO although we haven't galvanized public opinion the way the Serbs have.

The U.S. has set a precedent for withdrawing from overseas deployments when we incur large numbers of casualties and public opinion swings against involvement. This happened when we pulled out of Beirut in 1983 after the Marine barracks bombing and again when we pulled out of Somalia in 1993 after the 18 Rangers were killed in one day, despite the fact that they killed at least 500-1000 Somalis in the same fight. The terrorist Osama bin Laden said this in an interview with Time magazine last year. Any potential adversary can look at our track record and know this is the way to combat the U.S. This was the strategy the North Vietnamese took in the Vietnam War and was the reason they launched the Tet Offensive which, although a tactical disaster for them, led to their ultimate strategic victory, our withdrawal from Vietnam.

What is to keep the Serbs from attacking U.S. or NATO forces in Macedonia or Bosnia? All the Serbs have to do is successfully attack a U.S. base in Bosnia with a car bomb or slip a MiG through our defenses, kill a number of American troops, and we are likely to pull out. I'm afraid our administration doesn't have the stomach or the toughness to stick it out. We've stirred up a hornet's nest and shouldn't be surprised that angry hornets are starting to sting us.

Reference #2

From: Carl Bernard
Date: Sun, 28 Mar 1999 04:36:33 EST

A looming "what if" on the Kosovo horizon is the ability of Slobodan Milosevic’s people to tolerate the bombing now well underway. The solution now being discussed for this eventuality is the commitment of ground troops; this against a people who held out against eight German Divisions during WWII! How many do we and our "allies" from NATO have ready to commit? How many will be necessary? For how long?

Our soldiers put their faith in the magic of CAS (Close Air Support), but it is not real. This was demonstrated ad nauseum during the first year of the quite conventional mobile part of the Korean war when we dominated the skies.

The "people’s war" in which we participated in Vietnam is far more like what fighting Serbs will be. Our clouds of aircraft then, whether used in the North, along the Ho Chi Minh trail, or to support our ground forces in the South, were insufficient to win this war. A hard look at the past needs be taken by our decision makers. One soldier’s set of experiences is offered before the "big" decision to commit today’s Army is made.

CAS, from an inexperienced walking infantryman’s point of view, is a special, and near magic focusing of death and destruction on his enemy. This mostly psychological hope for and expectation of omnipotence from the sky has made the promise of CAS indispensable to infantrymen in rifle squads. It would be useful, if not yet on the horizon, if some way could be found to provide it.

All the soldiers with real combat experience have faded away, and American soldiers of today have been reared with marvelous Hollywood motion pictures and a golden-voiced interpreter explaining the evening news. They have seen airplanes dive down, explosions and smoke come up, the bad guys being blown away, and many of them believe in this. This is comforting now, but reality may bring a powerful back fire with it. Recall what happened to the first infantry division we sent to Korea when what they had been lead to expect turned out not to be true.

This is not real. When sent to combat, soldiers will be on the ground in an unfriendly place and in a very fearful situation. Often there are folks out there well hidden in the neighboring ground. His enemies are often a competent group dedicated to hurting him. In many Korean and Vietnam battles, the only things that U.S. soldiers had that the enemy lacked were supporting airplanes. CAS was the American’s umbilical connection to the "real" world.

At first, ignorant and trusting American soldiers don’t know that airplanes won’t do his fighting for him. He only has a movie born image in his mind fed by war stories and propaganda. He believes this marvel will swoop down from the heavens, destroy his enemy, and let him survive.

The psychological need for supporting aircraft is a respectable excuse for stalling action and staying away from close combat. The point elements of entire U.S. regiments in Korea halted while awaiting aircraft to take out two enemy soldiers with one well-sited machine gun. Did this really happen? Yes. Will it happen again? Of course.

The Services’ available aircraft can not provide the CAS that soldiers believe they need and can/will get. We invest enormous energy and resources for this psyched-up need however, because military planners think the services cannot function without it.

In 1956, the Army’s Chief of Military History needed some detailed  information about one of the first successful actions against the Chinese at the start (February 1951) of "Operation Killer" in Korea. He wanted to know what had been done right. The rifle company commander present at this battle was told to write what he thought had happened. Military History came back with some questions, including why no mention was made of the company’s being strafed by friendly B-26s.

These aircraft had hit the air controller’s jeep and "M" Company’s supporting 81mm mortars. However, the "L" Company commander dismissed this, saying it "happened often enough that it wasn’t worth mentioning." The mortar platoon kept firing, and was the critical element in supporting the counter-attack that recovered the position lost to the attacking elements of a Chinese regiment.

Strafings by friendly air were nearly routine. Infantrymen always assumed the pilots couldn’t tell at what they were shooting. The solution was very simple—and learned by the Koreans and Chinese, as well as Americans with a little experience—just keep from being seen. The first time the "L" Company commander—then posted to Task Force Smith—was fired on by friendly aircraft was four days after the U.S. forces debarked on July 1, 1950. Several Australian P-51s shot at his company for 20 minutes with .50-caliber machine guns and rockets. The only casualty was one ignorant soldier who got under a mess truck, something the pilots could see.

This soldier’s follow-up to his well-confirmed experience in the futility of expecting aircraft to do an infantryman’s work for him was convincing. This happened repeatedly in the province (Hau Nghia, rated 44th in security in the 44 in country) located between Saigon, and the "parrot’s beak in Cambodia. From the air, parts of the province looked like a checkerboard with 50-meter squares of huts surrounded by bamboo hedges every 500 to 1000 meters of rice paddy. These weren’t formal hamlets, just rural living areas. If a U.S. or Vietnamese task force—usually a few tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a couple hundred walking infantrymen—got within 300 meters of one of these rectangles occupied by the Viet Cong, machine gun fire stopped the walk. Vehicles within range of the RPG-7 got hit.

The unit would call for air support. Depending on the time of day, they could get as many as eight or nine strikes. They would go in again. They might get within 150 meters of the bamboo hedge this time and would be stopped by more casualties and darkness. That night the Vietnamese would leave. Their position would be occupied the next morning. This regular U.S. or South Vietnamese Army unit was being opposed only by competent infantry, not dependent on the myth of air power. Their very effective counter to our clouds of aircraft was the infantryman’s most capable tool and faithful ally, the shovel.

Unquestionably, an aircraft attack can be terrifying, but it turns out not to be very dangerous, as we teach our enemies very quickly. An infantryman soon learns that he is not very easy to see or hurt. A pilot cannot see a regulation infantry foxhole from the air. The largest part of a hole is only about the size of a manhole cover. Most Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese holes were smaller than that. Fighting and patrolling induce more stress, but a protective hole is always an important possession, and always protection against any airplane, friendly or enemy.

David Hackworth’s About Face is a striking account of his war in Vietnam and abounds with such stories. It is filled with instances of friendly fire gone wrong and inflicting casualties on our own troops. Many of the Army’s casualties on Grenada were attributed to friendly fire as were those of Desert Storm. Somalia?

The United States forces will always include aircraft. They are necessary for their psychological impact on our soldiers. It would be much better if they were also effective.

The hypocrisy involved in declaring that F-16 baptized A-16 ("A" for attack) as the CAS solution is staggering. It may bring more money to General Dynamics, more aircraft into the Air Force, and more exciting flying hours for pilots, but it will not furnish the useful support to the ground troops who believe they must have it.

There are no good solutions. The effort just before Desert Storm to evaluate CAS aircraft was made to keep this mission for fixed wing aircraft, hence funding, rather than let the Army and Marines grab it for their helicopters. It might be better for infantrymen if the CAS mission budget and its personnel billets were turned over to their fearful bosses. This would frustrate the enduring fraud of acquiring more A-16s, ill suited at best for this mission.

The U.S. Air Force itself has never been serious about this task, beyond the possibility of acquiring more F-16’s to divert for its "real" missions. This Service even had to buy back propeller-driven Skyraiders when it went to Vietnam because there were no aircraft remotely able to handle the CAS mission. Note also its subsequent handling of the A-10 forced on them before Desert Storm.

The only valid role of CAS aircraft is that of an essential boost to the morale of scared, inexperienced young soldiers. This means these aircraft must be ubiquitous, responsive and effective. None in the present inventory meet this real requirement of the infantry. It would also be useful if they were capable of destroying tanks given the Army’s traditional inability to field an effective anti-tank weapon for its walking infantry.

To sum up: don’t go to Kosovo with ground troops if their success against Serbs dug into the ground is going to depend on an effective CAS.