Select Committee on Defence Fourteenth Report


The Air Campaign


84 In assessing the coercive credibility of NATO's air campaign, a number of factors must be taken into account. If the coercive strategy adopted required that it was to be a graduated campaign starting at a low tempo, it also needed to be demonstrated that it could be sustained beyond an initial stage. The campaign was intended to be phased, but when Milosevic failed to capitulate immediately, and when the humanitarian catastrophe it was ostensibly intended to avert began instead to accelerate, the phases had to be hurriedly concentrated. Indeed, as we recount below, the campaign moved from its first to its final stage in the space of less than a week.

85 The supply of air assets did not evidently keep pace with the largely unexpected demands of the campaign. When operations began on the night of 24 March, NATO had around 350 aircraft and 10 cruise missile platforms available to it. Over the course of the next 78 days, Alliance aircraft flew a total of around 38,000 air sorties.[188] A little over 60% of these were flown by US aircraft, but US contributions to attack sorties represented a higher proportion. The sortie rate varied from just over 200 per day at the beginning of the conflict to over 1000 per day at the end.[189] By the end of the operation, NATO had around 1000 aircraft[190] and nearly 20 cruise missile platforms available. It has not proved possible to disentangle exactly the degree to which the supply of aircraft dictated the tempo of the campaign or the requirements of the commanders dictated the rate of supply of aircraft. But it was made clear to us in informal discussions that the commanders did not feel, at all stages of the operation, that they had the right number and mix of aircraft to sustain the appropriate tempo of operations.

86 Of the 38,000 sorties, around 14,000 were strike and air defence. Six enemy aircraft were destroyed in air combat, 'roughly 100' on the ground.[191] Two allied aircraft were lost to enemy action (neither from the UK).[192]

Key Elements of Platform Availability: Operation Allied Force
24 March
10 June
Other Support
Cruise Missile Platforms

87 Fourteen of the nineteen NATO nations contributed aircraft to the operations.[193] The UK, with (depending on how they are counted) 48[194] or 39[195] fixed-wing aircraft, was the fourth largest contributor behind the US (which provided the overwhelming majority), France and Italy. We analyse the UK's contribution in more detail below.[196]


Target Selection

88 The MoD's own report on the Lessons from the Crisis reminds us that—

It maintains the line that attacks on both types of target—

    ... were essential in pursuing NATO's military objective, to degrade the capabilities of Yugoslav/Serbian security forces and to limit their ability to continue their activities in Kosovo.[198]

The Chief of Joint Operations maintained the same line but acknowledged the coercive purpose more explicitly—

    The aims and objectives were to degrade Milosevic's capability and disrupt his oppression of the Kosovo [Albanians] in Kosovo and at the same time the overarching aim was to persuade him to desist and to stop his ethnic cleansing.[199]

89 We discuss below the evidence of the fairly limited success in the aim to degrade fielded Serbian forces in Kosovo. It is not evident to us that the other axis of attack—'attacks against strategic targets of high military value'—were likely greatly to inhibit the campaign of ethnic cleansing, which does not require heavy armour or sophisticated command and control. These attacks were surely more concerned with the other campaign objective—to coerce the Milosevic government to accede to NATO's political demands. The MoD's report acknowledges that it has been—

    ... criticised for pursuing tactical as well as strategic targets, as this demanded the commitment of significant resources. Planning had always assumed that we would attack targets on both axes, but the level of attention we gave to fielded forces was increased in response to the shocking scale on which Milosevic's forces pursued their policy of ethnic cleansing.

Again, it is far from clear to us that these two lines of attack were always mutually reinforcing. The Alliance, we believe, was at times hamstrung in pursuing an effective campaign against targets of strategic value while it continued to maintain publicly that it was attacking only forces or facilities involved either directly or indirectly in ethnic cleansing. Politicians demanded that this was to be presented as a campaign of denial, not a war against Serbia. By doing so, they may have confused Belgrade as well as NATO commanders.

90 For example, the Serbian troops massed on the border of Kosovo were not attacked at the outset of the campaign, because there was no political authority to do so. Consequently, they were able to enter the province and disperse, thereby making it much harder to find and destroy them. Furthermore, it is not anyway clear that NATO's apparent priorities for attack reflected Milosevic's areas of greatest vulnerability. General Naumann, for one, appeared unconvinced. He told us—

    I think there are three categories which hurt a man like Milosevic. The first is the police, who maintain the control in the country. The second is the media, a difficult target for us since, on the other hand, we are saying we defend the freedom of media. The third are those industrial barons who provide the money so that he can stay in power. What bothers him presumably least is the armed forces. For a man with his thinking, they are expendable.[200]

91 Overall, we conclude that much of the time the strategies of coercion and the tactics of denial did not sit easily together, sending some confusing signals both to the Serbian leadership and to NATO's own publics, as well as dividing the military efforts of the Alliance in a less than efficient way. The government has insisted that since the campaign was ultimately successful, these objections may be regarded as technicalities or else judgements benefitting unduly from hindsight.[201] Nevertheless, in evaluating these strategies, particularly with an eye to any future operations, it is important to understand on what basis they were adopted and how clearly the political-to-military purposes were understood. The stated objective of the air campaign was 'to avert a humanitarian catastrophe'[202] but it is evident that in its effects the campaign was, at best, an indirect approach to achieving this objective, and indeed failed, in the short term, to achieve it.

Political Control

92 There has been much discussion of the extent to which the targetting policy of the NATO commanders was politically controlled. This debate needs unpacking a little. There can be no argument that there should be political control of targetting decisions. The real question is whether the right decisions were taken, at the right time and at the right level.

93 The Chief of Joint Operations described the graduated tempo of the campaign thus—

The Chief of Defence Intelligence explained—

    ... the first package that NATO put together, whilst there was an enabling part to it, in other words to ensure our aircraft were not shot down so hitting IADs [integrated air defences] and all these sorts of things, part of it was very much "let us not do anything too unpleasant straight away because we do not want to fight, we do not want lots of people being killed, let us give him the chance of backing out".[204]

Air Commodore Morris, who ran the UK's contribution, confirmed—

    We were operating under very clear political guidance, initially, as to what we could and could not expect to do ...[205]

And General Naumann also made clear that NATO forces—

    ... were not allowed initially to use overwhelming force. It was a very modest attack which was authorised for the first phase of the campaign. During this first phase of the campaign, the political objective without any doubt was to bring him back to the negotiation table to find a peaceful solution. That we did not achieve and for that reason we had to escalate. We did it quickly, as you know.[206]

94 This approach did not meet with wholehearted approval. Most notoriously, Lieutenant General Michael Short, who commanded the USAF and NATO's air operations has expressed his impatience with these political constraints. Lord Gilbert quoted him approvingly in his evidence to us—

    I would like, if I may, to quote from General Short: "As an airman I would have done this differently. It would not be an incremental air campaign or slow build-up but we would go downtown from the first night so that on the first morning the influential citizens of Belgrade gathered around Milosevic would have awakened to significant destruction and a clear signal from NATO that we were taking the gloves off. If you wake up in the morning and you have no power to your house and no gas to your stove and the bridge you take to work is down and will be lying in the Danube for the next 20 years I think you begin to ask 'hey, Slobo, what's all this about?'" Those are General Short's sentiments and, Chairman, they are mine too. I argued forcibly within the Ministry of Defence for a different menu of targets right from the beginning.[207]

General Sir Charles Guthrie took a rather different view—

    You have probably heard what the United States General, General Short, has been saying about how we ought to have taken out great chunks of Serbia and bombed Belgrade on day one. Firstly, that was not what we were trying to do and, secondly, again that was a step too far for quite a lot of the Alliance. We have to think of Alliance solidarity. Rather than having a triumph of NATO solidarity, which actually saw this thing through, it would have had a disaster on day one.[208]

General Naumann was equally unconvinced—

    Quite frankly, I am not so sure as, for instance, General Short has been when he testified in the United States Senate that a short, sharp and overwhelming strike on Yugoslavia, more or less indiscriminate, would have been the solution to the problem ... Personally, I am full of doubts that this would have been a wise approach. I believe ... nothing would have changed the first week of our air campaign. Our military objective, our military recommendation, has always been to neutralise as much as possible of the air defence system and of the command and control system, so that we then had at least air superiority and, with that, more flexibility to act.[209]

It is clear to us that to have launched an all-out air attack against Serbia on 24 March would have destroyed the cohesion of the Alliance. On the other hand, the Alliance's graduated approach to the air campaign evidently failed to convince Milosevic that the subsequent escalation of the campaign would happen.

95 A further issue about political control which has been much discussed is whether the bombing campaign was 'micro-managed' by the Alliance's civilian and political bosses. The Chief of the Defence Staff said—

    I do not think that we were affected by political oversight. We discussed our targets with our Secretary of State for Defence and the law officers took a very close interest and the Prime Minister got involved in targeting too, but very seldom.[210]

The Chief of Joint Operations, Vice-Admiral Sir Ian Garnett, strongly denied that the campaign was micro-managed by politicians. He told us he had been constrained only by his targetting directive which—

    ... described to me the sort of targets that United Kingdom forces were allowed to attack, the ones that we were not allowed to attack, the degree of collateral damage that we should seek to avoid, the risks to civilians and many other factors like that, which constrained, in essence, what targets, generated by NATO, United Kingdom forces could accept.[211]

Air Commodore Morris confirmed that it was a national responsibility to clear the target for the attacks that we prosecuted and also the target weapon that was going to be used.[212] Sir John Goulden also strenuously denied that the NAC had tried to control the details of target selection—

    Micro-management did not occur at any stage. We cleared targets generically. We said, "This phase is now authorised", "That phase is now authorised". We never sat in judgment on an individual target.[213]

General Naumann emphasised that he insisted on the same restraint being exercised by NATO's Military Committee—

    I was not involved in the military assessment which led to the selection of targets. That is not the task of the Military Committee. I refused also to do that for good reasons. On one occasion, I had a little bit of an exchange with one nation which had insisted that the targets should be discussed in the Military Committee in detail before SACEUR was authorised to strike a target. I refused to do that.[214]

96 However, for the coercive strategy to be sustained the military required a sufficient pool of targets, agreed and approved in advance, which could be drawn from as necessary, to provide a range of operational possibilities. From our discussions with those who were working at an operational command level, there did not to them appear to have been a sufficiently large pool of targets available to draw from on 24 March. We heard, furthermore, about a perception of a lack of timely and clear strategic guidance and an experience of an approval process which felt, to those at the sharp end, tortuous. Targetting at times seemed to them to lack an overall direction. Some of these problems may have arisen from the political view that providing the military with too much freedom, even within the overall strategic direction that would always be set at a political level, could allow the mission to get out of control. Some may have arisen from an instinctive dislike amongst the military for bureaucratic procedures. Additionally, the emphasis on avoiding collateral damage, particularly civilian casualties, had been a prime determinant of the selection of targets, especially at the outset of the campaign. While direct political intervention was not evident in Operation Allied Force, at least in the UK, political priorities still impinged very directly on decision making at the operational level. That political and legal concern with targetting decisions is a fact of life with which the military are going to have to learn to live in operations of this kind. That does not mean that both the military and civilian side of the process do not need to work hard to minimise the negative effects of such close political scrutiny on the conduct of essentially political operations.

188  Cm 4724, p 70 Back

189  DoD, p 68 Back

190  DoD, pp 31-32 Back

191  ibid, p 69 Back

192  A third (a UK Hercules) crashed on takeoff and others (US Apache helicopters) were lost during in-theatre training Back

193   The exceptions were the Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg and Poland Back

194  Ev p 240, para 1 Back

195  DoD p 80 Back

196  DoD, p 78 Back

197  Cm 4724, paras 7.5 Back

198  ibid Back

199  Q 118 Back

200  Q 1010 Back

201  Q 1116, Q 1124 Back

202  Ev p 245, para 25 Back

203  Q 119 Back

204  Q 360 Back

205  Q 189 Back

206  Q 996 Back

207  Q 1046 Back

208  Q 50 Back

209  Q 1002 Back

210  Q 92 Back

211  Q 259 Back

212  Q 260 Back

213  Q 856 Back

214  Q 997 Back

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