Target: Belgrade
Why a ground war would be a rout

Andrew J. Bacevich
National Review
May 3, 1999

The manifest failure of NATO's bombing-for-peace campaign testifies less to Yugoslav military strength than to defects in the strategy devised by Washington and Brussels. Redressing that failure will in all likelihood require an allied air-ground offensive into Serbia. The United States and its NATO allies possess ample military power to mount such a campaign and to defeat Yugoslavia. Of course, no large-scale military operation is without risk. But in this case, the danger stems less from Slobodan Milosevic's legions than from the Clinton administration's own penchant for political miscalculation and shaky resolve. In the weeks to come, the White House is likely to remain its own worst enemy.

By almost any measure apart from cunning and ruthlessness, Yugoslavia makes for a trifling adversary. Its backward economy has stagnated under years of sanctions. Its entire gross domestic product is barely one-sixteenth of what the United States spends only on defense. In terms of wealth, population, technology, and industrial capacity, Yugoslav inferiority to NATO's 19 members is judged in orders of magnitude. However much patriotic Serbs may cherish certain founding myths, they bear little affection for the corrupt and self-serving dictatorship they have endured for the past decade.


In size and quality, Yugoslavia's defense establishment reflects these shortcomings. The Yugoslav military is a small, conscript-based force with an active-duty component of perhaps 115,000. Its army relies on relics of the Soviet era. The centerpiece of its tank fleet is the 1950s-vintage T-55. The NATO air campaign has already rendered its puny air force ineffective. Similarly, allied air action is depleting stocks-such as petroleum-essential to the conduct of sustained operations. The likelihood that any great-power patron will compensate for these deficiencies is negligible. In its weakened state, Russia can offer Yugoslavia expressions of solidarity, but little more.

Granted, Milosevic's army, with its associated security forces, has in recent weeks enjoyed considerable success in pacifying troublesome ethnic Albanians. But to dignify the rape of Kosovo by Serb goon squads by calling it "combat" is to misuse the term. Indeed, to attribute to the Yugoslav armed forces more than a minimal ability to wage conventional war against modern, professional forces is to give them far more credit than they deserve. These are hooligans and gangsters, not trained and disciplined soldiers.

Even in their reduced post-Cold War configuration, NATO forces possess adequate combat power to make mincemeat of the Yugoslav army. In Germany, the two divisions of the U. S. Army's V Corps alone muster more combat power than the entire Yugoslav army. (Even so, each V Corps division is short one brigade. Bringing them up to full strength would require the Pentagon to deploy soldiers to draw tanks, artillery, and other heavy equipment warehoused in Europe for this purpose.) Between the Franco-German "Eurocorps," the remnants of the old British Army on the Rhine, and other odds and ends, our chief NATO allies have the capability of cobbling together a formation of equivalent strength.

The difficulties-diplomatic and logistic-involved in assembling a force capable of invading Yugoslavia are hardly trivial. Yet they pale in comparison with those that the United States surmounted in assembling coalition forces to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991. The issue on which NATO and the Clinton administration are more likely to stumble concerns the proper employment of such a force. Media preoccupation with the plight of ethnic Albanian refugees has fostered expectations that any intervention on the ground will center on Kosovo itself.

Yet replaying Desert Storm on a lesser scale-with success narrowly defined as the liberation of Kosovo-would fall well short of satisfying U.S. strategic objectives. The overriding purpose of any air-ground campaign-indeed, the only adequate justification for expanding the Balkan War-must be to salvage the credibility of NATO and to preserve American claims to leadership in Europe. Only victory that culminates in the removal from power of Milosevic and his cronies can guarantee that result.

This objective has important implications for campaign planning. Geographically, it shifts the focus from Pristina to Belgrade. Operationally, it means that eliminating the security forces propping up the Milosevic regime becomes the top priority, rather than protecting Kosovar Albanians from further injury and death. Stated another way, the campaign would unfold through four phases: a swift and powerful thrust by NATO into the heart of Serbia; the destruction of Milosevic's army as a cohesive fighting force; the elimination of the existing regime; and the installation of a new government adhering to acceptable norms of behavior.

In crucial respects, this more comprehensive objective would actually ease the military problem faced by NATO planners. Orienting the campaign on Belgrade instead of Pristina obviates the need to position heavy forces and a large logistic base in Albania, with its primitive infrastructure, or in Macedonia, with its unsympathetic government. Instead, it permits NATO to use Hungary as its principal base of operations. A new member of the alliance keen to demonstrate its usefulness, Hungary offers an ideal base for assembling and sustaining NATO forces. Moreover, using Hungary as a springboard from which to attack permits NATO's mechanized forces to exploit the relatively open terrain found in northern Yugoslavia, optimum conditions for maneuver and the employment of NATO's advanced weaponry. Given the inadequacies of the Yugoslav military, such an offensive, executed with determination, can have only one outcome: defeat for Milosevic.

Yet mounting an operation out of Hungary would take weeks to prepare. However much Milosevic may give the appearance of someone hard pressed to hold his own in a decent bowling league, much less in a real war, he has thus far out-generaled the West's well-coifed and smooth-talking brass. He is a wily opponent who in the war's opening round has forced Washington and Brussels to dance to his tune.

Unlike the passive and obliging Saddam Hussein in 1990, therefore, Milosevic is unlikely to stand by while NATO prepares its attack. What's more, as a realist, he knows that a conventional defense is doomed to fail. In an otherwise weak hand, he retains two reasonably strong cards. The first is the remnant of ethnic Albanians still in Kosovo, an asset that Milosevic can exploit to confuse, manipulate, or divide his adversaries. And the second is the possibility of confronting NATO not with a short fight that pits army against army but with an ugly and protracted "people's war."


Denying Milosevic the first card would oblige NATO to open a southern front, using the 12,000-member NATO garrison already located in Macedonia (although currently diverted to assisting refugees). Highly mobile units flown in from the United States-elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, for example-would stiffen this force. The mission of the southern front would be a distinctly subsidiary one: to create an enclave that protects ethnic Albanians while the main attack develops from the north.

To mobilize the Serb people themselves to fight, the government in Belgrade would portray the threat posed by NATO in nationalist hues. Denying Milosevic the nationalist card would demand political finesse rather than brute force. For that reason-given the Clinton administration's overall record of diplomatic malfeasance-it may pose NATO's greatest point of vulnerability.

Serbs may well fight to defend the honor and integrity of Serbia. But if they perceive the cause as nothing more than guaranteeing the survival of Milosevic and his lieutenants, they may be less inclined to grab an assault rifle and head into the hills to fight. Thus, throughout the period of the NATO buildup in Hungary, it would be incumbent upon the alliance to assure Serbs that NATO's quarrel is with Milosevic, not with Serbia. That assurance should include an explicit statement of war aims precluding any change in the status of Kosovo.

A war against Milosevic rather than a war for Kosovo is a conflict that the United States and its allies can win handily. Having plunged recklessly into an ill-conceived war, the Clinton administration will proclaim that a great victory has been won. But success will not come without cost, in blood as well as treasure. Once achieved, it will impose new burdens that few Americans will welcome: The U.S. will inevitably bear the chief responsibility for rebuilding and rehabilitating a post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Clinton, Albright, Berger, et al., will retire to write their memoirs. The rest of us will end up taking care of the broken crockery.

Mr. Bacevich is professor of international relations at Boston University.