A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Yugoslavia: Air Strikes Test of the Air War Doctrine
By G.D. Bakshi *
Persistence of Patterns
Patterns are self perpetrating. They tend to repeat themselves. That is the basis of the study of military history as a hueristic social science. Perhaps that is why it can help us to make fairly accurate forecasts of the future and analyse the trends of the present in relation to the patterns of the past. Pattern identification, therefore, is a very critical sphere of analysis. The social science of military history was given a more algorythmic base (as opposed to a purely hueristic orientation) by the use of operational research and statistical analysis methods.
Today the world is in the throes of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). This revolution has been put to the test in the recent air war by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) against the battered Republic of Yugoslavia. An analysis of this air campaign is of vital significance to military hierarchies all over the world, for it is the first test case of the recently refurbished Air-Alone Doctrine. Before we analyse the NATO air campaign per se, it would be essential to briefly analyse the historical backdrop of the development of the air power doctrine.
Historical Patterns of Air Power Usage
Air power is a product of the 20th century. The Wright brothers flew the first aeroplane in 1903. In World War I (1914-18), air power saw its first fledgling application, initially for scouting, artillery spotting and reconaissance, and thereafter for some very gallant air-to-air combat and limited strafing and bombing missions. The greatest development of air power doctrines occurred between the two World Wars. Air power represented the new technological highground. In the Continental powers, notably Germany and the erstwhile USSR, we saw the development of Land-Air Battle Doctrines. The Stuka Dive bomber formations, the Condor legions, provided close and intimate support to the Panzer formations on the ground. The maritime nations, however, tended to see air power as an independent outgrowth of an altogether new dimension of power. Thus, Japanese doctrines were heavily focussed on the development and aggressive exploitation of naval-aviation. The Italian genius, Douhet went much further. He spoke of strategic bombing, of bringing a nation to its knees by the application of air power alone. Douhets exciting new theories created a sensation and tremendous strategic ferment in that industrial era of mass and scale. The sea faring nations tended to view air forces virtually in terms of air fleets and were enthusiastic in their support for the theories of Douhet. Thus, the USA and Great Britain became the most enthusiastic votaries of Douhets theories of strategic bombingof bringing nations to their knees by the pure application of air power alone. The concept was taken up seriously and enthusiastically and billions of dollars and pounds were invested to actualise this concept in World War II itself. The problem lay in the state of the technology. The CEP (circular error of probability) of gravity bombs in World War II was 3,300 feet. This inaccuracy had to be compensated for by mass. Thus, huge fleets of air armies or armadas were raised by the sea faring nations for massive bombing campaigns which virtually darkened the skies. When we analyse the patterns of the past, it is essential to keep in mind the outcome of this first trial of the air-alone format of Douhets strategic bombing thesis.
US World War II Experience
The Americans, always great proponents of technology as the panacea for all military problems, were the most enthusiastic proponents of air power. The US 8th Air Force, therefore, persisted with a very costly daylight bombing campaign against Germany. This doctrine, using heavily armed B-17 Flying Fortress type of bombers in swarms, was put to the test in October 1943148 American bombers were shot down in this air offensive against the German heartland. These daylight raids cost the 8th USAF over 20 per cent of the bombers and 30 per cent of the air crews. Nevertheless, air power enthusiasts in the USA and Great Britain persisted with the air campaign right till the end of the warthe Americans by day and the British by night. This air campaign (states B.H. Liddle Hart) created so much rubble that it slowed down the final Allied advance in Europe. It did precious little to dent German morale.
Air Power in World War II
In the ultimate analysis, however, air power emerged as the prime force multiplier of World War II. Air superiority became a virtual sine-qua-non for the success of ground or naval campaigns. Thus, Japanese naval-aviation achieved stunning results in the opening campaign of the Pacific War in Pearl Harbour. Naval-aviation decided the course of the Pacific War. Strategic bombing went into an altogether different plane with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Enola-Gay changed the history of the world. The fire bombing of the plywood predominant Japanese cities, however, had already shaken morale and caused heavy casualties. The atomic bombing was a largely uncalled for exercise, meant more for post-war posturing.
The patterns of air-power usage in World War II, therefore, tended to follow the national geo-strategic predilictions of the nations involved. Continental powers like Germany and Russia went in for a land-air approach, with dive bombers, paratroopers and glider-borne troops, providing momentum, depth and simultaniety to the ground campaigns. Maritime nations tended to treat air forces like air fleets and were enthusiastic proponents of the strategic bombing school. This had mixed results in Europe but was more successful in the Asia-Pacific theatre.
The Vietnam War
Despite this historical pattern and precedent, the theory of air action alone as a substitute for ground/naval campaigns has persisted over the years. The Korean War saw the advent of the jet age and helicopters. Air power was applied in a big way in Korea. However, there it was clearly in support of the land war and marine landings. By the time of the Vietnam War, technology had taken tremendous leaps and the air war enthusiasts felt ready to test the air-alone thesis again. The political costs of body bags from Vietnam were mounting and the political establishment was eagerly in search of neat, new solutions that could maximise on technology to minimise on casualties. Vietnam was absolutely the wrong terrain for testing out an air power doctrine. Morale-wise, the Vietnamese were the wrong choice. This, for a change, was a real battle hardened army and a people who had made tremendous sacrifices time and again against the Japanese, the French and then the Americans. It was impossible to break their morale by a graduated and incremental air campaign that escalated slowly and steadily, hardening its victims and allowing them enough time to stabilise and learn/perfect defensive measures. The Vietnam air campaign (Rolling Thunder) nevertheless turned out to be the most extensive and massive bombing campaign in human history. More bombs were rained on Vietnam than in the entire World War II. There were more bomb craters in Vietnam than on the moon. Despite all this sound and fury, however, in 1975, the Americans had to flee Saigon, having suffered almost 57,765 casualties. The Vietnam experience was to scar the American military psyche for decades and McNamara later admitted, We were wrong, terribly wrong.
The second flowering of air power doctrines occurred just before the Gulf War. Actually this revolution can be traced to the introduction of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) by the Israelis in the Bekka Valley campaign of 1982. This clearly showed what a massive impact electronics could have on the outcome of air battles. The rout of the Syrian Air Force (over 80 MiGs shot down in one day) somehow went unnoticed by many nations. At the heart of this quantum jump in the lethality of air power was the transition from the industrial to the electronic revolutionthe transition from mass to custom built, niche products of the information era. The Israeli efforts, however, were in the air-land format. The originator of the revival of the air bombing doctrine was the American Colonel John Warden III of the USAF. In his brilliant book The Strategic Air Campaign, Warden put forth a strong case to harness the ongoing RMA to resurrect the earlier Douhetian concept of winning wars by the application of air power alone. Warden relied on two key facets:
Wardens thesis turned the air-land doctrine on its head. It generated a tremendous amount of enthusiasm in the US Air Force circles. The earlier Air-Land Battle Doctrine was hurriedly given the go-by as not being revolutionary enough to exploit the full potential of RMA. Wardens thesis of air power alone, provided a very clinical and bloodless (for the attacker) blueprint for bringing an adversary to his knees, purely by the application of very precise and very lethal air power alone.
The Gulf War was on the horizon when this book was written and the US Air Force Checkmate Staff in the Pentagon basement (led by Warden himself) excitedly worked to translate the Warden thesis into reality in the air campaign against Iraq. This led to a virtual doctrinal-storm of protest from the US Army, and other services. National Security Advisor (NSA) Brent Scrowcroft and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Gen Colin Powell, were horrified by this brave new doctrine that (they felt) could give the politicians escapist illusions of clinical and bloodless campaigns that could do away with bloody and messy ground combat and body bags and employ technology (PGMs) to achieve no-cost-low-cost victories. Body bags (after Vietnam) carried a frightful political cost. The air-alone doctrine offered the American politicians a very tantalising by-pass that avoided the use of ground troops altogether. The then American NSA, the chairman, JCS and the defence secretary (Dick Cheney) were, however, firm in their resolve that they would not let such a heretical air-alone doctrine feed political illusions in Washington. Inter-services cooperation and joint services synergy were vital for success. Therefore, they reined in the air-alone theorists and went to the extent of sacking the then American Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Michel Dugan (when he persisted with peddling these starry-eyed visions of a victory by the use of air power alone). In the end, the Gulf War against Iraq required the massive use of ground forces to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The results, however, were some what paradoxical: 43 days of non-stop bombing had almost served to collapse Iraqi morale. The ground war hardly lasted 100 hours. It was all over suddenly and there were astonishingly few coalition casualties. The ground armies had just to mop up in the wake of the air campaign. Did that mean that the air-alone strategy had worked? Were the prophets of a starry-eyed future right after all? Were clinical, precise and casualties-free wars possible because of the new technologies of precision? Had the fraggers (the targetting staff) come up with just the right target lists at last? Had they been able to hit and paralyse the info-structure of Iraq so completely, that its battle-hardened armies were routed without a serious battle?
CNN had unleashed the worlds first info-war and a global telematic assault during the Gulf conflict to shape opinion and attitudes. Even though only 7.3 per cent of the ordnance used had been PGMs (the rest were plain gravity bombs), an erronous impression was spread that the entire air campaign was based on clinical PGMs that were totally precise and inflicted no collateral damage. Wildly exaggerated claims of casualties were made. The coalition forces wanted to believe that they had inflicted an unimaginable slaughter. Initial claims of over 100,000 Iraqi casualties were rapidly cut down to half and then to one-fourth. A few years later, the truth began to surface. The actual casualties were less than 10 per cent of the wild and exaggerated initial claims. Later, casualty estimates were brought down to 8,000. The following facts merit highlighting.
The Gulf War: The Maximalist Mindset
The Gulf War showed that the American establishment had truly learnt and internalised some very pertinent and painful lessons from Vietnam. Gen Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was determined that never again would America opt for a graduated and incremental strategy. No constraints were to be put on the exercise of American military power. The collapse of the USSR had demolished the bipolar world order and removed the prime political and military constraints on American power. Right from the outset, the Powell Doctrine was visible and clear. It was a maximalist mindset. To quote Powell, The USA had to be the biggest guy on the block. The grand success of the Gulf campaign was not so much the air war as the logistical exercise of transporting over half a million men and thousands of tons of material from the continental United States and Europe to the Middle East. After the Vietnam debacle, the Americans were simply taking no chances with their military reputation. The American build-up was meticulous, herculean and impressive. The US Navy and Merchant Marine played a silent but very significant role in this regard. It took the USA and its allies, six months to build up the full orchestra for total war in the Middle East. As a precaution against chemical attacks by Saddam Hussein, almost 600-800 tactical ballistic missiles/nukes were staged forward in that war. Coalition strength in the KTO (Kuwait theatre of operations) was built upto 795,000 troops. The actual combat ratio between Iraqi troops in Kuwait and the coalition forces was a staggering 8.1. The 43-day air campaign averaged almost 1,500 sorties per day. Over 88,300 tons of ordnance were dropped. The PGMs, however, accounted for only 6,520 tons (or 7.3 per cent of the total tonnage). This, however, was the tonnage that did the real damage.
The Switch From Lo-Lo to Mid and High Altitude Attack Profiles
The most significant tactical switch in the air campaign was:
Lessons of the Gulf Air Campaign
The prime lessons of the Gulf air campaign, therefore, were:
Desert Fox: Full Dress Rehearsal for Yugoslavia
In December 1998, the USA and Britain mounted massive air strikes over four days, designed to take out the so-called Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Ironically, the refusal of local allies to provide their air bases, led to the US Navy Carrier Battle Groups putting to test the new air power alone doctrine. Over 300 cruise missiles were employed and a brief but intense four-day-long air campaign was launched. GBU (case hardened glide toss bombs) were employed to try and kill Saddam Hussein. The after-action reports left the dispassionate military observers distinctly uneasy. The sound and fury were impressive. There were no aircraft or air crew losses but what were the effects on the target end? Saddam Hussein had survived and was as defiant as ever before. Somehow these lessons were overlooked in a climate rife with self-congratulation and military psychophancy.
The NATO Air Campaign Against Yugoslavia
This lengthy historical preamble is most essential to put the current NATO airstrikes in their correct historical perspectives. Yugoslavia is a historical quagmire. World War I started with a single shot fired in Sarajivo in 1914. In World War II, Yugoslavia was the graveyard of over 37 German divisions that were sucked into this historical morass. Its hilly and forested terrain is ideal guerilla country. The unopposed air strikes against Iraq had led to a feeling of hubris in Washington and London. The politicians had found the ultimate, clinical doctrine of a no-cost, body bag-free doctrine of winning wars by air campaigns alone that were virtual and bloodless (for the attackers); that gave a star-wars style feeling of a surreal and fictive reality to the mesmerised TV audiences. When the peace talks in France broke down in March 1999, most of the NATO nations (led by the USA) were convinced that Milosevic would only have to smell the cordite of air strikes before he backed down and signed on the dotted line. This grossly underestimated the sense of Serb nationalism and missed the historical symbolism of Kosovo altogether. Slobodan Milosevic did not blink. The American envoy Holbrooke asked him incredulously You realise the consequences? You will bomb us, he replied in a flat, emotionless tone.
The Incremental Air Campaign
The air campaign against Yugoslavia, therefore, was incremental and graduated. As against the Gulf War sortie rate of 1,500 per day, the Yugoslav air campaigns initial average sortie rate varied from 50-70 per night. Phase I of the air campaign was aimed entirely at degrading and suppressing the Serb air defence capabilities. The following categories of aircraft were employed:
Having suppressed the Serb air defences in Phase I, the NATO aircraft were to switch to ground and military targets in Phase II.
The attack delivery profiles/patterns have been as under:
B-2 and B-52 from 50,000 feet and above.
F-15/F-16/F-18 30,000 from feet and above.
A-10 ground attack aircraft from 15,000 feet and above. This has led to some of them mistaking Kosovo refugee vehicles for Serb tanks/army vehicles.
Appache-attack helicopters. These have (at the time of writing) to be committed to action.
Results. By April 23, 1999, NATO claimed its Phase I had been successfully completed. Over 9,300 sorties (one-third combat, the rest electronic suppression or SEAD) had been flown. Claims included:
The NATO attacks thereafter shifted to the info-structure and communications infrastructure. Sorties were increased to almost 300 per day and then to 600 per day. Targets struck included the presidential residence of Slobodan Milosovic, the Serb Army and Internal Security Forces Headquarters, the Headquarters of the Political Party, the Serb television stations at Belgrade, along with electrical power stations, rail and road bridges (which also carry telephone and micro-wave cables) and, lastly, oil storage depots, installations and refineries. In the end, NATO enforced an oil embargo and began to use cluster bombs to target Serb mechanised forces in Kosovo. Most of these were inaccurate and heavy collateral damage occurred. The centre-peice was the attack on the Chinese Embassy which drew an enraged reaction from Beijing that was surprising in its intensity.
President Milosovics stance seems to have surprised NATO. They apparently misread the Serb leaders reactions totally. Instead of capitulating, he mounted a major military campaign in Kosovo against the KLA guerillas. In the process, almost one million Kosova refugees streamed out of Kosovo into Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia. Janes Defence Weekly (April 7, 1999 issue) has given some interesting insights into Serb tactics. It quoted Gen Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces to the effect that NATO air strikes had caused minimum damage to Serb air defences. Yugoslav armed forces had analysed past NATO operations in Iraq and Bosnia and developed their defensive tactics accordingly, retaining survivability and capability to counter NATO aircraft and missiles.
Countering Cruise Missiles
A Russian source told Janes Defence Weekly that US cruise missiles have been only 20 per cent effective against Yugoslav targets (the lowest success rate ever). The Yugoslave Army has used both passive and active means to counter cruise missiles. These include:
Mismatch Between NATO Propaganda and Air Blitz
On the Gulf War pattern, CNN and BBC went into high gear to demonise Milosovic and spread the images of a Kosovar genocide and refugee exodus all over the world. Paradoxically, however, this propaganda blitz, designed to tarnish the image of the Serbs, served to highlight the total ineffectiveness of the NATO air strikes. The Serbs remained blatantly defiant and the air-war alone enthusiasts began to look sillier by the day. There was a shrill outcry in Washington. The propaganda and psychological gains of the Gulf War were being dangerously frittered away in Serbia. US Army Secretary Louis Oldera warned, It took ground forces to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. There are limits to what one can do with bombing and cruise missiles. The cruise and bruise strategy is increasingly coming under vociferous attack in Washington. Air power enthusiasts like Brig Gen Buster Glasson (of the Gulf War fame) fairly bristle. Yugoslavia with its incremental approach of just 50-70 sorties per day is no test of the air war alone doctrine, they claim. They have pointed out to the 1,500 a day sortie rate of the Gulf War. The incremental and graduated approach is reminiscent of the Vietnam quagmire. What is not stated, however, is that initial sorties were deliberately restricted in numbers to employ mostly stealth aircraft and PGMs to cut down casualties. The low sortie rate is a compulsion of the political dictum of a zero casualty rate. The prime feature of this war is a far, far greater reliance on PGMs and hence the need for lesser sorties. Traditionally, the larger number of sorties are meant to hedge bets against the inaccuracy of the dumb conventional bombs. Air power can punish a foe, but rarely force him to change his mind, said Mark Thompson of Newsweek. The US Army is justifiably citing the two basic tenets of the unwritten Colin Powell Doctrine:
It used to take 5,500 aircraft delivering 33,000 tons of gravity bombs to destroy a Soviet Army Group exploiting a breakthrough. New generations of smart munitions permit that task to be done with just 300 sorties and 3,000 tons of bombs. The next generation of brilliant munitions will let that be done by just 50-100 sorties delivering upto 500 tons of bombs. The reduced sortie rate (vis-a-vis the Gulf War), therefore, appears to be a deliberate tactical decision flowing out from a greatly enhanced rate of use of PGMs in Yugoslavia.
Rate of PGM Usage
Janes Defence Weekly in its April 7, 1999, issue has given a clear insight into the very heavy usage rate of cruise missiles and PGMs which has dangerously depleted the US stocks. The stated rates of expenditure are as under:
Cost of the Campaign
This is clearly highlighted by the steep rise in the cost of the air campaign. The PGMs are prohibitively expensive. Till end-April 1999, the NATO air campaign had cost the Americans as under:
Yugoslav Air campaign: $6 billion.
Gulf War 1990 campaign: $7.5 billion.
Yugoslav campaign with ground troops: likely cost $15 billion.
The Ethical Dimension of the Air Campaigns: War Without Casualties
The political situation in the USA (prior to the launch of the Yugoslav air strikes), the analogies of the Wag the Dog fictive scenario definitely constrained the maximal option and led instead to incremental and graduated air attacks. The low sortie rate was also tactically dictated by reliance on stealth aircraft and PGMs only, especially for the initial phase. A much larger proportion of the air ordnance being delivered is of the PGM class. Hence, the exorbitant costs and low sortie rates. The political compulsions of a no-casualty war, however, are now being stretched to bizzare limits. Gwynne Dyer, in her spirited piece entitled War Without Casualties had this to say: It is grotesque and somewhat shameful to try to wage war without suffering any casualties at all. NATO soldiers understood, she wrote at a more profound level that this demeaning and ludicrously impracticable notion of a war without casualties (on our side) robs soldiers of their dignity. What gives the soldier moral stature is not his proficiency at killing but his willingeness, if need be to sacrifice his own life. She continues, Of course, a good soldier will always try to keep casualties down, above all, on his own side but also on the other side, if that is compatible with attaining the objective...But to ban casualties, to build a strategy around a policy of no casualties at all, is to reduce a soldier to the level of mere technicians of killing. Soldiers deserve better than that.
This very spirited piece by Dyer sums up the frustrations that the so far lack of any visible success in the air campaign has been breeding in the Western media. It also highlights some of the ethical dimensions of this new strategy of a clinical killing of lesser human beings. At the tactical level, such a low risk strategy has ensured that despite all the sound and fury, the military effect of the bombing at the target end has been minimal, especially where PGMs have not been used. Accuracy of the strikes calls for coming in low, and that entails the risk of casualties. Kosovo is going to be the test case for this new doctrine. Inventories of PGMs are limited even with the USA and NATO countries. These restrict the number of sorties and exponentially raise the costs of the air campaign. The results (when faced with a tough opponent) may often be illusory. Over time, opponents are likely to lose their awe of such clinical air strikes (where the emphasis is primarily on survival). At the end of the day, it would still be essential for ground forces to go in and do the messy business of killing at close ranges. Only that can ensure victory.
Lessons of the Kosovo Carnage
Patterns persist. So far, the NATO air campaigns apparent lack of success only reinforces the age-old dictum of the need for inter-services cooperation and jointmanship. The three wings of the armed forces have to act in concert. With each increment in technology, the Western political elite have sought easier ways to inflict casualties on opponents with minimal risks to their soldiers and personal political fortunes. This generates problems not just at the ethical level but also at the tactical level of the efficacy of such strikes (especially if they are executed with plain gravity bombs).
The fountainhead of military doctrine is war. To understand doctrine, one must understand war. Technology had generated visions of neat clinical wars, where knowledge intensive weapons would enable precise targetting, high lethality and minimal collateral damage. In practice, these do not appear to have fructified even with the current RMA. It is imperative for the military professional to sift propaganda and rhetoric from military reality. Kosovo was a real test case for the stand alone doctrine of winning purely by the application of air power alone. The results so far are somewhat paradoxical. Almost two months of bombing at the cost of just one F-117 and one F-16 shot down seem to call into open question the efficiency and cost effectiveness of present day air defence weapons systems. However, the emphasis on safety of aircraft and air crew has led to mid and high altitude bombing. This has been effective only with PGMs. Since these are in limited supply, the overall damage has not been sufficient to force an opponent to submit to the will of the attacker. Mere bombing from the air, when unaccompanied by a ground threat, does not seem to erode morale in a determined populace. It only hardens attitude. For the present, the modern proponents of Douhets doctrine would have to rest their case here. Jointness should continuefor joint action alone ensures victory. Stand alone doctrines are divisive to the national effort. We need to treat them with caution.
Yugoslavias ultimate capitulation in Kosovo resulted largely out of a NATO threat to use ground troops. This option was vigorously lobbied for by the British and covertly expressed/communicated by the Americans to the Serbs. To that extent, the central theme of this paper that air power by itself cannot bring a country to its knees remains valid even in todays technological context. This pattern has been re-emphasised by NATO air strikes in Kosovo and by Operation Desert Fox earlier. The capability of modern air defence systems forces an attacking air force to fly high. Since the number of PGMs are limited (even in US and NATO inventories) this leads to a largely inaccurate delivery of ordnance. Despite NATO rhetoric, bombing in Kosovo was notoriously inaccurate. As NATO troops are moving in for peace-keeping, they are realising that they had been able to inflict surprisingly little damage to the Yugoslav armed forces. Deception (even simplistic mock-up tank models) proved surprisingly effective in diverting NATO attacks away from real targets. The need for synergy and jointmanship in modern warfare remains paramount. That is a pattern from the past that remains equally valid today. We can ignore it only at our peril. In conclusion, therefore, there is an urgent need to analyse the NATO air strikes in greater detail as more informative material becomes available. Stand-alone doctrines of the employment of air power may not stand up to the rigour of operational validation.