Select Committee on Defence Fourteenth Report



Target Selection

119 Phase 3 (or Phase 2A) of the campaign was not separate from Phase 2, but was conducted in parallel to it. The first air strikes against Belgrade took place on 3 April, and the first involving RAF aircraft on 7 April. In this phase, targets that represented Serbia's war infrastructure were attacked, such as bridges, arms production centres and military bases. These attacks could be seen as forming an element in the strategy of denial by cutting off routes for entry to Kosovo from Serbia and constraining fuel supplies and the ability to command and control forces. But their purpose was also to convince the Serbian leadership that its military forces would be destroyed piece-by-piece if it did not comply. Finally, the basis of the Serbian leadership itself was attacked, in the targetting of power stations, public facilities, and media offices. The MoD's Lessons from the Crisis, which does not distinguish strategic and tactical targets, reports that—

120 The US DoD's After Action Report to Congress gives rather more detail on the different processes involved in assessing damage to fixed as opposed to mobile targets. Damage to fixed targets is inherently more easily verifiable but additionally, after KFOR's deployment into Kosovo, an assessment team was able to visit a representative sample of fixed targets such as tunnels, bunkers, petroleum facilities and other facilities. Generally the post-strike inspections confirmed the in-campaign assessments. Although the destruction of around 100 aircraft on the ground is classified under attacks on fixed targets, it is presumably possible to conceal the evidence of such attacks in the same ways as for damaged mobile targets. This number is interesting, as it compares with only 6 Serbian fighters destroyed by the Allies in air combat.[250] These relative levels of apparent effectiveness against aircraft in the air and on the ground may at least give some pause for thought as to the balance between ground attack and air defence capabilities in the UK's inventory of aircraft. These need to be considered carefully if Operation Allied Force is to be seen as representing any kind of template for future air operations in which the UK and NATO are likely to become engaged. In neither the Gulf War nor in Kosovo did the enemy get any significant air forces off the ground. If this is a pattern likely to hold true in the future, the Alliance and its constituent nations may need to reconsider their long-term procurement policies relating to aircraft. We invite the MoD to respond to this argument, which we advance only tentatively at this point, in its response to this report.

121 The choice of targets during this phase was controversial, and the risks of collateral damage were high. Civilian casualties were another of the weak spots of the Alliance targetted by Milosevic's counter-coercive tactics, and the Serbian propaganda machine exploited them to maximum effect. The considerable efforts made by the RAF, together with other NATO air forces, to keep collateral damage to a minimum were largely successful. The Chief of Joint Operations told us that UK attacks, so far as we know, did not result in any collateral damage.[251] However, there was some collateral damage. On 7 May, the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US JDAM missiles.[252] The Secretary of State told us—

    Let me make it quite clear that the bombing of the Chinese Embassy was a targetting mistake. No-one has ever said anything else.[253]

On the same day cluster bombs fell on a market in the town of Nis. On 10 and 11 May attacks turned towards road, rail and telecommunication links. On 19 May cluster bombs hit a Belgrade hospital, and the following day a prison was hit. On 30 May, a train crossing the Varvarin bridge was accidentally struck, causing civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch drew particular attention to this incident, commenting—

    ... NATO again provided excuses for the incident but then changed the rules of engagement for attacks on bridges ... according to Lt Gen Michael Short, the air war commander, pilots were directed not to attack bridges during daylight hours, on weekends, on market days, or on holidays. There is no evidence that the daylight timing of the attack at Varvarin ... was critical to the destruction of the target—the attack was not directed specifically against military traffic. Around-the-clock bombing in these and other cases rather seems to have been part of the psychological warfare strategy of harassment undertaken without regard to the greater risk to the civilian population.[254]

122 Quite apart from the bombing errors that were made and which might be expected in such an operation, the bombing of "leadership nodes" raised the problem that such targets were not unambiguously military. The attack on 23 April on the Belgrade TV station was very controversial. The tower was regarded both as a legitimate leadership target in such a coercive campaign and also, as an element of Serbian communications, a legitimate military target. But that cannot disguise the fact that it was also a civilian facility. Again, Human Rights Watch were highly critical of this attack—

    ... one of the worst incidents of civilian deaths ... was the bombing of state Serb Radio and Television headquarters in Belgrade on April 23 ... There was considerable disagreement between the United States and French governments regarding the legality and legitimacy of the target, and there was a lively public debate regarding selection of Yugoslav civilian radio and television as a target group. There is no evidence that the radio and television headquarters meet the legal test of military necessity in target selection, as it made no direct contribution to the military effort in Kosovo. In this case, the purpose of the attack again seems to have been more psychological harassment of the civilian population than to obtain direct military effect. The risks involved to the civilian population in undertaking this urban attack grossly outweigh any perceived military benefit.[255]

Such targetting certainly raised extremely delicate legal and presentational issues for the NATO Allies and continues to be a major factor in the public debate surrounding the whole operation.

123 It was hoped, though not necessarily expected, that a short campaign—even the preparations for one—might convince Milosevic of the political will within NATO to use force and remain united.[256] When it became evident that a short campaign of bombing would not achieve this, as the Chief of Joint Operations made clear to us, the purpose of the lengthening bombing campaign was to create graduated pressure on the Serbian leader.[257] Generals Jackson and Smith were both convinced that the bombing campaign in Serbia was more key to the achievement of NATO's objectives than that conducted against the VJ and MUP in Kosovo itself.[258] Lord Gilbert believed that—

    ... neither [General] Clark nor [General] Short wanted to attack those targets [fielded forces in Kosovo] ... they were forced to do that ...[259]

The Chief of Joint Operations pointed out that the campaign had to be measured by its effects and in practice, its discernible effects on Milosevic himself.[260] But it is apparent from the evidence we have taken that, on the UK side at least, little detailed analysis was conducted of how Milosevic and his élite would be likely to react as the target of a coercive campaign. Indeed, our witnesses retreated to the position that a proper understanding of such an individual is essentially impossible.[261] We believe there was insufficient understanding within the Alliance of the character and mentality of the dictator.

124 An examination of the choice of strategic targets during this phase of the campaign does not readily reveal a clear pattern of a graduated strategy of coercion or evidence of increasing coercive effectiveness. Some of the targets appear difficult to justify. No clear explanation of the decision to bomb the Danube bridges at Novi Sad yet appears to have been given. As Novi Sad was one of the principal centres of opposition to Milosevic, with an articulate opposition mayor, this seems a particularly odd decision. The attack on the TV station—though undoubtedly of some military worth—appears to have been only marginal in its effects on Serbian command and control capabilities. It seems impossible to disentangle the relative effects of these attacks in fomenting opposition to the Belgrade régime and in hardening nationalist sentiment, or assess the final balance of advantage to the Alliance between these effects. Perhaps the most important lesson, from a political rather than a military perspective, is the uncertainty that attaches to devising such a strategy, an uncertainty which is greatly increased if the coercer is bound about by many political inhibitions on their choice of targets and by an overwhelming need to avoid handing the adversary the propaganda advantage of major civilian casualties. Moreover, the essentially psychological basis of such a strategy, combined with the difficulty of assessing its effects in a timely fashion, means it is extremely difficult initially to calibrate and subsequently fine-tune targetting policy in such circumstances. The final lesson must be that any decision to use airpower in pursuit of a coercive strategy must be approached with a combination of caution and determination. The Alliance, underprovided with intelligence, and uncertain about whether it was pursuing a strategy of coercion or denial, contained both approaches within it—but did not reach a consensus about where the right balance between the two lay.

Sea Embargo

125 During the 'strategic' phase of the bombing, air strikes concentrated in part on attacking POL (Petroleum, Oil and Lubricant) facilities. This raises the question of why the Alliance failed to mount an effective sea embargo to stop oil entering Serbia by sea (via Montenegro for example). In a speech to the Brookings Institute on 9 June 2000, General Wesley Clark commented—

Lord Gilbert, referring to "the incredible shambles we found ourselves in over the oil embargo", elucidated some of these legal problems as he saw them—

    Under international law, as I understand it, you need the consent of the state of which a particular ship is flagged in order to detain that ship. That is enough legal basis if you get the consent of that particular state. The United Kingdom can apply that regime to the ships of flagged states and, with the consent of the regime, hold them up. Naval vessels of consenting states can apply their regimes to United Kingdom ships. It is when you get to United Kingdom ships being detained by Royal Navy ships, surprisingly enough, that you get legal problems. There are some limited powers under domestic law to apply the regime to our ships.[263]

The MoD reported that at the Washington Summit in April 1999, Defence Ministers were instructed to determine ways that NATO could contribute to halting the delivery of war material, including by launching maritime operations. (The EU had agreed an oil embargo on Serbia on 23 April which came into effect on 1 May.[264]) Work at NATO focussed on the examination of the scope for a possible naval 'board and search' operation, taking into account the legal basis for the implementation. This examination continued until the end of the air campaign.[265] Vice-Admiral Haddacks told us—

    With hindsight, there were two areas where we had trouble in finding some consensus in the Military Committee. One was on what became the vexed issue of "board and search", the regime to enforce an oil embargo. Through difficulties of legal base among various nations, we could not find a consensus for a mechanism to do that satisfactorily. That was right in the end game.[266]

The MoD nevertheless believe that few petroleum products reached Serbia via ports in Montenegro after 1 May.[267] The dilatory approach by NATO nonetheless seems disturbing. It is to be hoped that the lessons of the failure to agree on how to enforce an oil embargo will be learned so that they may be applied in future circumstances.


126 In assessing the overall effectiveness of the air campaign, we are therefore hampered by two particular uncertainties. The first, on a practical level, is the revealed shortcomings of NATO's battle damage assessment, and the inability to assess fully the damage done to strategic targets while Milosevic remained in control of Serbia. The second, on a more political level, is the difficulty of disentangling the coercive impact of the attacks on Serbia.

Battle Damage Assessment

127 There is a general consensus that all was not well with NATO and UK BDA. As far as UK is concerned this has been recognised. The MoD's Lessons from the Crisis reports that—

The Chief of Joint Operations explained to us—

    ... the need to improve our surveillance and target acquisition capabilities and [to] identify those targets, particularly those in the field, which are very difficult to identify. This would give us an increased ... capability to see what we have achieved.[269]

The MoD has also confirmed that it will include all the recommendations on the BDA process in future standing operating procedures.[270] In the US, further study is underway within the Department of Defense to integrate the findings of all available data and to develop insights 'on a variety of important topics'. These topics include understanding attack effectiveness, what systems proved most accurate and timely in helping the assessment of attack effectiveness, and how should the inevitable uncertainty over this information be handled.[271] Work to improve battle damage assessment capability is overdue.

Coercive Effect

128 The MoD's short answer to the question 'How much damage was done?' was 'Enough'.[272] Although there is no doubt that the air operations had a substantial effect, a number of questions remain unanswered. General Wesley Clark analysed the campaign constraints with some precision in an address to the Brookings Institute on 8 June 2000—

    In order to run the campaign and look at the trade-offs involved, we set up something new, which we called measures of merit. These weren't exactly objectives. They were the trade-offs that were designed to give us the right balance of effort and risk and so forth ... The first requirement was to avoid losses, principally losses of aircraft. The reason was, this had to be an air campaign of indefinite duration. We knew at the outset that you can't start an air campaign if you go into it losing four, five, six aircraft a day, with the ... headlines screaming that "NATO loses 12th aircraft," "NATO loses 30th aircraft," "because then the clock's ticking. And in order for this campaign to work, we knew the air campaign had to continue indefinitely. The key to that was to minimize, avoid if possible, the losses of aircraft ... Early on, we also knew that we were going to have a risk to our forces in Bosnia and in Macedonia, and so we put a lot of emphasis on that. We knew we could strike fixed targets, but could we impact Serb forces in Kosovo? I put that in there as a second measure of merit, and I worked it every day during the operation. We had to minimize collateral damage, and we had to maintain Alliance cohesion ... the reason this was useful at the strategic level is because trade-offs were involved. If you want to go and take greater risks with your aircraft, you may suffer losses; you may be able to do more against the Serb forces in Kosovo, or you may be able to further reduce collateral damage. If you are not going after the Serb forces in Kosovo, perhaps that has an impact on Alliance cohesion. If you don't bring the full Alliance on board, with the strategy and the targetting, in some way that meets their needs, then you lose alliance cohesion ...We knew we had to succeed in all four measures of merit to make the air campaign work, and that's what we did.[273]

These political realities will continue to be a feature of future NATO operations. But questions remain. Could a more intense operation earlier have produced a result earlier? Could concentration on different target sets have produced earlier results? Could a different choice of weapons have produced earlier results? Would less intense operations have delayed Milosevic's concession? These questions cannot all be answered with certainty—that does not mean that some attempt should not be made to do so. We do not have access to the information needed to try to answer them. But for the MoD to say that "enough" damage was done is not good enough. The MoD, and the Alliance more generally, cannot simply rely on the response that because Milosevic conceded, the campaign was a success. They need to demonstrate that they have seriously addressed these questions before they are faced with another situation in which recourse to military force for coercive diplomacy is chosen.

129 There are also some practical lessons to be tackled which arise out of the experience of the air campaign. NATO needs to have an improved and standardised target approval methodology in future. The level of national scrutiny should be limited to only the most sensitive targets. NATO must ensure that combat assessment teams are staffed by those who would not have restrictions on their access to information because of its classification. Sufficient analysis needs to have been carried out before hostilities begin to enable targets to be matched with specific mission objectives.

249  Cm 4724, para 7.16 Back

250  DoD, p 69 Back

251  Q 141 Back

252  QQ 925-930. On 28 November 1999, Mr John Sweeney, writing in The Observer, alleged that the targetting of the Chinese Embassy was deliberate (by the USA). We wrote to him inviting him to substantiate his claims on 20 July 2000, but have received no response. Back

253  Q 1227 Back

254  Human Rights Watch, op cit, p 7 Back

255  ibid Back

256  Cm 4724, para 3.1 Back

257  QQ 1, 2 and 47 Back

258  Q 727, Q 731, Q 974 Back

259  Q 1074 Back

260  Q 7 Back

261  QQ 7, 318 Back

262 Back

263  Q 1091 Back

264  Ev p 266, para 99 Back

265  Ev p 245, para 26 Back

266  Q 852 Back

267  Ev p 266, para 99 Back

268  Cm 4724 para 7.21 Back

269  Q 231 Back

270  Cm4724 para 7.22 Back

271  DoD, p 81 Back

272  Cm4724, para 7.15 Back

273 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 24 October 2000