There is little doubt that the 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbia in March-June 1999, dubbed Operation Allied Force, will remain highly controversial for a long time. NATO launched a limited war against Serbia in order to stop the vicious on-going ethnic cleansing campaign in the province of Kosovo and although ultimately Serb President Milosevic "blinked," it was an inelegant victory. Yet the victory was hardly inevitable and until the final weeks the air campaign appeared to be ineffective in bending Milosevic to meet NATO's demands. In NATO's Air War for Kosovo, RAND analyst Benjamin S. Lambeth has written an incisive strategic assessment of the air campaign as part of a US Air Force research project on the operation. Rather than a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the air war, Lambeth offers detailed analysis on the major achievements and problems in Allied Force. While other more detailed books will surely follow on the Kosovo War, Lambeth's volume will certainly be a good place to start in understanding this complex operation.
NATO's Air War for Kosovo consists of eight chapters, beginning with two brief chapters that outline events leading up to the air campaign. The air campaign itself is covered a chapter 3, a 50-page summary that covers the main events of NATO air operations but does not provide a day-by-day account. The fourth chapter addresses the possible reasons for the Serb capitulation and stresses that it was not just the air campaign in isolation that prompted this outcome. The fifth chapter covers the three main unique accomplishments of the war: combat debut of the B-2, UAV employment and increased contributions from space-based resources to combat operations. However the heart of this book lies in chapters 6-7, which address friction and operational problems and lapses in strategy and implementation. It is in these 118 pages - 47% of the book - that Lambeth lays out his most significant assessments of the war. Readers will note in the bibliography that Lambeth's source-material derives from two primary venues: contemporary newspaper accounts and post-war interviews with participants.
While Operation Allied Force was deemed a victory, it was a disappointing campaign from the military perspective. As Lambeth notes, "notwithstanding its ultimate success, what began as a hopeful gambit for producing Milosevic's quick compliance soon developed, for a time at least, into a seemingly ineffectual bombing experiment with no clear end in sight..." and, "NATO's air war for Kosovo [was] a step backward in efficiency when compared to the Desert Storm campaign." Lambeth lays out the military frustrations of Allied Force in clinical detail, beginning with the inability of the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) operations to completely shutdown the resilient Serb mobile SAM batteries. The problems with "flex targeting" also prevented the air campaign from seriously hurting the Serb army in Kosovo or even interfering with the ongoing ethnic cleansing. So many other problems surfaced, including the Chinese Embassy bombing, airspace management congestion, interoperability problems with NATO, collateral damage and the Task Force Hawk fiasco that it almost seems amazing that NATO actually won. In terms of strategic lapses, Lambeth particularly hammers on President Clinton's decision to remove the ground option a priori as reducing NATO's threats to a single dimension. This threat was then further diminished by the assumption that Milosevic would fold after a token 3-4 days of bombing and the adoption of a small-scale escalation model for the bombing campaign. When the token bombing didn't work, NATO was forced to rethink its strategy and opted for ad hoc targeting, which was hindered by overly complicated NATO planning procedures and bad weather. Instead of taking down entire systems in Serbia - like air defense and electrical power - as the airpower enthusiasts advocated, the air campaign instead developed as a muddled, escalatory series of poorly-coordinated raids. In the end, Lambeth concludes that it was the inability of the Serb air defenses to shoot-down a significant number of NATO aircraft and the gradual destruction of Serbia's economic-industrial infrastructure that were probably the air campaign's greatest contribution to Milosevic's decision to agree to NATO demands. However, Lambeth is quick to note that the Russian abandonment of Milosevic, diplomatic isolation and the threat of eventual NATO ground operations also had a major impact on the Serb leader's decision. Milosevic's decision to escalate the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo was also a major strategic blunder that partly counter-acted NATO mistakes; Serb atrocities only served to harden NATO resolve for victory.
There are a few areas where Lambeth treads too lightly. In terms of accomplishments, American Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) capabilities were impressively displayed in Operation Allied Force. Including Scott O'Grady's F-16 shot down earlier, American CSAR capabilities are 3 for 3 in the Balkans, which improves the morale of US pilots and hurts the morale of the enemy. Lambeth also fails to provide any real overall assessment of the damage done to Serbia by airpower in Allied Force, nor even a summary of the major infrastructure targets that were affected. Finally, while Lambeth mentions the strikes on the Belgrade TV station on 21 April 1999, he fails to put this raid in moral context. Inadvertent collateral damage is a painful but unavoidable fact or warfare - as Lambeth notes - but deliberate targeting of a civilian facility is another matter. The Laws of Warfare, which the United States adheres to explicitly prohibit attacks directed against civilians and/or attacks that serve no military purpose. While the TV station was a conduit for Milosevic's propaganda, this did not make it a legitimate military target. Therefore, the order to attack the TV station was both immoral and illegal and the US military leaders who carried it out could someday be liable before an international tribunal. Given the large numbers of targets that were "scrubbed" during the campaign for weather or collateral damage reasons, it is amazing that this attack was carried out in downtown Belgrade.