Regrettably, with an the diplomatic efforts exhausted, NATO finally took military action against Yugoslavia (see Fragile Peace in Kosovo, April, p4) on Wednesday, March 24. US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke made a last-ditch attempt to secure peace when he met with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade on March 22, but an agreement could not be reached and two days later the NATO air raids commenced.
NATO has amassed a huge armada of aircraft in Italy. Many of them were initially grouped there as part of Operation Deliberate Forge in support of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199 (passed on September 23, 1998) which had been considerably reinforced during February. Approximately 400 aircraft were at NATO’s disposal, together with a fleet of warships in the Adriatic, including the USS Enterprise and its Air Wing.
In the UK, at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, eight B-52H Stratofortresses (callsigns ‘Havoc 11-18’) took off for the Adriatic at around 11am on March 24 conventionally armed with air-launched cruise missiles (each can carry 20 internally). At approximately 8pm local time the attacks began with a barrage of cruise missiles from the B-52s and warships — including the first ever firing of such a weapon by a British warship, the submarine HMS Splendid.
Speculation that only cruise missiles would undertake the initial attacks was quickly dispelled, as streams of NATO aircraft headed for targets in Yugoslavia. The world’s most expensive aircraft, the B-2A stealth bomber, made its debut in the combat theatre with two aircraft flying global bombing missions from their base at Whiteman AFB, Missouri. Meanwhile, Germany’s Luftwaffe undertook its first involvement in military action since World War Two, with Tornado ECR aircraft heavily employed on anti-radar missions.
It was unclear, as AFM went to press, exactly what NATO had targeted during the first few days — but it was not just air defence establishments. The UTVA aircraft factory near Belgrade was hit, as was the main Serbian air base at Batanjica. Radar and air defence installations at Podgorica and Danilovgrad in Montenegro were struck, while in the Kosovocapital, Pristina, the airport also came under attack.
The initial strike was intense, involving up to 350 aircraft from 13 NATO nations — Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The main hub for air operations is Aviano AB, near Pordenone in Italy — the regular home of the American 31st Fighter Wing. Air power there has been substantially boosted by the arrival of two KC-135RS from the 145th ARS Ohio ANG; four EC-130s from the 355th Wing; eight A-1OAs and 18 F-16CJs from the 52 nd FW; 12 F-117AS from the 49th FW; 20 F-15ES from the 48th FW; eight US Marine Corps EA-6Bs and three from VAQ-134 US Navy; six CF-18s from 425 Squadron, Canadian Forces; six EF-18As from Ala 12, Spanish Air Force; three F-16As from 201 Esq, Portuguese Air Force, as well as NATO and RAF E-3 AWACS aircraft.
At Brindisi AB all the American special operations forces were assembled, including AC-130U Gunships, MC-130Ps and MH-53Js. Cervia is hosting 18 F-15Cs of the 48th FW, Ghedi has 11 Turkish F-16Cs from 182° Filo, and Gioia del Colie has a detachment of RAF Harrier GR.7s from 1 Squadron together with a 39 (1 PRU) Squadron Canberra PR.9. Interestingly 37° Stormo relocated a number of F-104S-ASA Starfighters to provide additional air defence cover from its base at Trapani, Sicily. At Grazzanise a dozen F-16s from Denmark (Esk 730) and Norway (338 Skv) are detached, while the French assets at Istrana comprise five Jaguars from EC03.007 and 12 Mirage C/Ds from EC02.002 and EC01.003. The Luftwaffe Tornado ECRs of JbG 32 are operating from Piacenza, as are six Tornado IDS aircraft from AG 51. Other assets involved in the operations include USAF RC-135 and U-2S reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft, tankers from France and the US, and highly-specialised intelligence gathering platforms such as the US Navy EP-3Es of VQ-2 at Sigonella and an RAF Nimrod R.l from 51 Squadron which is detached at Pratica di Mare.
Air-to-air combat took place with several Yugoslav MiG-29s, three of which are known to have been shot down — one by an AIM-120B AMRAAM fired by a Dutch F-16 (seria I led J-063) from 322 Squadron.
The Supreme Allied
Commander, General Wesley Snipe, said on March 25 that NATO’s aims were to “systematically and progressively attack, disrupt, degrade, devastate and ultimately destroy his (Milosevic’s) forces, facilities and support”. It is clear that military action will continue until the Serbs are no longer able to repress the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair remarked that it will be a «lengthy, sustained campaign” whilst US President Bill Clinton said: «If we do not act now, on behalf of the people of Kosovo, clearly it will get worse. Only firmness now can prevent greater catastrophe later.»
In Yugoslavia the newspapers carried headlines screaming «NATO criminals attack». Russia has also been particularly vocal in its opposition to NATO’s armed response, and its veto against action was ignored. On March 25 the Russians tabled a Security Council Resolution at the UN demanding the immediate end to NATO attacks, though this looked likely to be defeated.
Although the stated aim of these operations is to prevent Yugoslavia violating the Kosovo Albanians still further, the likelihood that air power alone can achieve this is open to question. To effectively enforce peace in the Kosovo region ground troops would have to be deployed, yet NATO denies that such action will take place. The Yugoslavs have made it quite clear that they will not allow NATO troops into Kosovo — which is primarily why a peace agreement could not be signed with the Kosovo Albanians.
Unrest quickly erupted in neighbouring Macedonia with the US, German and British Embassies all being attacked at Skopje on March 25. After 54 years of relative peace in Europe the Continent once again finds itself embroiled in conflict -although at present this is confined to Serbia, the politics and nationalism in these areas is so volatile that what has begun as a NATO operation to quell the persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo has the potential to explode into something far more serious.
A comprehensive update will appear in our sister magazine Air International which goes on sale on April 23.