Document created: 3 June 02
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Summer 2002

NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment by Benjamin S. Lambeth. RAND ( MR/MR1365), 1700 Main Street, P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, California 90407-2138, 2001, 276 pages, $20.00 (softcover).

NATO’s Air War for Kosovo is an important contribution to the study of air warfare. Ben Lambeth’s characteristically clear prose, thoroughness, and objectivity fill an important gap left by the failure of the US Air Force’s Air War over Serbia Study to produce an unclassified volume. Lambeth’s book, together with the unclassified volumes of the Gulf War Air Power Survey (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993) and the single-volume Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Air Campaigning (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 2000), provides general readers with official or at least semi-official examinations of three of the four major US air campaigns of the 1990s- Desert Storm (1991), Deliberate Force (1995), Allied Force (1999), and the ongoing air-control campaign against Iraq (1992-present).

The focus of NATO’s Air War for Kosovo is Allied Force, the air campaign conducted from 24 March through 9 June 1999 to halt and reverse the excesses of Slobodan Milosevic’s rule over Serbia’s southernmost province of Kosovo. In the first two chapters, Lambeth nicely outlines growing international frustration with the harshness of Serbian military actions in Kosovo during the late 1990s. This frustration centered on the Serbian military’s always cavalier and increasingly intentional killing of unarmed ethnic Albanian civilians as part of its operations against the nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army. When diplomacy failed to bring Milosevic to heel in the winter of 1998–99, NATO launched its air campaign. Lambeth lays out the ensuing operational details of Allied Force in three chapters, focusing predominantly on bombing operations and their related planning, targeting, and command and control (C2) activities. Reflecting the hesitancy and differences within the alliance, Allied Force began as a desultory campaign of about 400 sorties per day, aimed at a restricted target list of enemy air defenses and military forces. But by the end of May, the operational tempo had reached 900 sorties per day, and the target list had expanded to include infrastructure targets such as bridges and power plants, civil-government facilities, and economic and manufacturing installations. Many of the latter were "crony" targets- facilities chosen for attack in part because members of Milosevic’s inner circle of friends and supporters owned them. In total, NATO air forces launched 38,004 combat sorties, of which 10,484 were strikes against targets in Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, and 18,439 of which were aerial tanker and airlift sorties in support of combat and humanitarian-relief operations. The three remaining chapters of the book examine the strategic implications of the war from different perspectives—namely, the effect of the bombing on Milosevic’s decision making, lapses in strategic planning, and implications for air-warfare theory.

Lambeth’s focus on bombing operations and supporting activities is hardly surprising, given his background as one of only a handful of civilians who have flown a wide range of fighter-aircraft types (over 20), some during exercises and some during actual operations. A prolific writer, he has published dozens of articles and books on air warfare over the past two decades. He knows the world of air combat, its language, and its focus areas. Consequently, his discussion of the phases and salient features of Allied Force is energetic and broad, ranging from the combat debut of B-2 bombers and the large-scale use of unmanned ae-rial vehicles to examinations of more sensitive issues, such as the F-117 shootdown and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Lambeth does not pull punches. For example, he credits the F-117 shootdown to the Serbs’ tactical innovation in the presence of American tactical predictability and cites disjointed American intelligence procedures for the embassy debacle. He gives equally objective treatment to other issues, such as collateral damage, inadequate suppression of enemy air defenses, and initial errors in management and control procedures for allied airspace. Taken together, these chronological and topical discussions provide a concise reference for the flow and dynamics of the salient elements of the Allied Force combat experience.

Likewise, the strategic analysis in NATO’s Air War for Kosovo hits the most obvious high points of Allied Force. Lambeth’s assessment of the bombing campaign’s relative role in forcing Milosevic’s capitulation is comprehensive. The bombing, as he points out, was only one element in a broad front of diplomatic, economic, and military pressure brought to bear on Milosevic. But he declares unequivocally that the air campaign gave both credibility and force to the other elements: "Had it not been for Allied Force and its direct effects, the additional stimuli would never have materialized. As [Gen Wesley J. Clark, supreme allied commander, Europe,] later remarked, ‘The indispens-able condition for all other factors was the success of the air campaign itself’ " (p. 82).

In a complementary discussion, Lambeth considers the essential elements of the strategy debate, which focused on three issues- gradualism, the insertion of NATO ground forces, and targeting doctrine. NATO civilian leaders, as Lambeth relates, had strong reasons for insisting that operations be intensified and expanded slowly, mainly in the hope that the alliance would find Serbia’s breaking point at the rock-bottom levels of military commitment and political risk. Consequently, alliance leaders only reluctantly allowed NATO airmen to bring in reinforcements and expand the range of targets when the campaign seemed to bog down in the face of unexpected Serbian resilience. Reflecting the same conservatism, NATO political leaders, notably President Bill Clinton, also eschewed a "ground option" publicly and emphatically at the start of the campaign, relenting in principle only after it began to drag on. The confrontation over targeting doctrine found its focus in the relationship between General Clark and his principal air subordinate, Lt Gen Michael Short, USAF. At the onset of operations, Clark directed Short to focus on suppressing Serb air defenses and attacking Serb military units in the field. Short pressed for an expanded target list but got it only when the campaign stagnated. Still, Clark never relinquished detailed control of targeting to his air expert, a source of great friction between the two. Lambeth relates that General Clark’s "aggressive micromanagement was met by frustrated and increasingly transparent passive-aggressive rebellion against it [by Short]" (p. 190). This perception of open conflict (which, by many accounts, is accurate) does not speak well of the cohesion and professional discipline of NATO leadership, even within American ranks.

Of course, Lambeth’s study does have some limitations. Although it generally includes all facets of air operations, it focuses upon the strike aspects. Lambeth gives only minimal coverage to space support through brief discussions about systems and the use of space-gathered data to provide real-time, in-cockpit information to B-52s and B-1s in flight; enhance battle damage assessment; and improve search and rescue capabilities. Similarly, he does not fully examine air mobility, despite the fact that nearly twice as many mobility sorties were flown during the conflict than strike sorties. He does praise both the irreplaceable ability of C-17s to move the Army’s Task Force Hawk into Albania and the stress that Allied Force placed on the Air Force’s tanker fleet, supposedly designed to handle two major theater wars. But Lambeth also overlooks the Herculean work of US Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command, which delivered forces and materiel on time despite nonexistent or rapidly changing deployment plans, US European Command’s imprecise use of movement priorities, and the convoluted and incomplete C2 arrangements made for air mobility by General Short and other theater commanders.

Likewise, Lambeth does not address support issues, although force-beddown challenges, malpositioned munitions, airspace-access problems, uncertainties in obtaining diplomatic overflight clearances, and so forth rendered the success of Allied Force nearly as much the product of logistical and staff-support miracles as of bombs placed on target. In fairness, Lambeth states up front that he will focus on an operational- and strategic-level analysis of the planning, execution, and assessment of bombing operations. The point here is that the restricted focus of the treatment provides the opportunity and some initial help for further study, and it suggests that a better title for the book might have been The Conduct and Value of Bombing Operations during the War for Kosovo. All that said, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo is the logical first read for anyone interested in Allied Force in particular and its implications for the future of air and space warfare in general.

Col Robert C. Owen, USAF, Retired
Embry-Riddle Aerospace University
Daytona Beach, Florida


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Book Reviews | Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor