Objective: Kosovo
How would a ground war work? Here's one scenario.

Robert Killebrew
The Washington Post
April 25, 1999

"You can ask me for anything you like, except time." --Napoleon

The United States' and NATO's miscalculation of Serb intransigence has led the alliance into a strange, one-sided war of attrition, in which Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stands to win by waiting out NATO's air attacks. NATO's options seem to be: continue bombing and hope that Milosevic capitulates; seek a negotiated settlement; or initiate a combined ground-air offensive in Kosovo to secure the province by force.

There are dangers inherent in all three, but unless Milosevic caves in, ground operations provide the only realistic chance NATO and the United States have of winning this war.

Pundits have decried the time it would take to deploy effective ground forces to the region and to do the job. Some estimates amount to "months." But the estimates are wrong.

Despite difficulties in establishing ground operations--notably distance, terrain and weather--my experience in more than 20 years of planning and executing rapid force deployment operations tells me that NATO could get the right forces there in weeks, not months, and that its combined air-ground campaign could defeat decisively the estimated 40,000 regular and irregular Yugoslav forces now in Kosovo as well as reinforcements from elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Sadly, American and other NATO casualties will be unavoidable as combat soldiers enter the risky world of face-to-face war.

NATO has no shortage of rapidly deployable, tough and lethal ground units. If NATO decides to use them, land operations should resemble the lightning U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 rather than the massive armored juggernaut of Desert Storm in 1991. In fact, a protracted Persian Gulf War-style buildup would be counterproductive, allowing time for the Yugoslav army to entrench further.

First, however, NATO forces need a clear mission. For starters, a NATO objective to establish a broad and comprehensive settlement across the Balkans, one that leads to security and peace for its inhabitants, would give military commanders the scope and authority they need to plan and conduct a winning campaign in and around Kosovo.

Second, once NATO enters a ground war, the combined air-ground campaign must employ overwhelming power to force a rapid and decisive conclusion. That has not been the case thus far in the air war for many reasons, but primarily because although air power can sometimes prompt negotiation, it is never decisive on its own.

The list of available Western forces already in the Balkans is impressive. Britain, France and Germany have around 12,000 troops in Macedonia. They have some very effective helicopter-borne units, and enough British Challenger, German Leopard and French AMX-30 tanks there to form a significant armored force on Kosovo's southern border, along one of the few feasible tank routes into the area. The United States has deployed an Apache antitank helicopter unit and rocket artillery to Albania, along with a contingent of infantry for local security. Military engineers from other NATO countries--soon to be deployed to support refugees--could also build and maintain ground supply routes and resupply points around Kosovo's periphery that would support combat forces.

The best-suited U.S. ground forces available for a Kosovo intervention come not from Europe, but from the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, which is frequently the "tip of the spear" of U.S. military power. Its four U.S.-based infantry divisions (roughly 14,000 to 18,000 troops in each) deploy quickly: It conducted the fast-moving Operation Just Cause in Panama, and it led the U.S. initial ground defense of Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf crisis.

The size and design of the corps' infantry divisions allow them to be moved rapidly in Air Force transport planes, particularly the new C-17, designed specifically for airdrops or landing on crude airstrips. Once in the battle area, the infantry of the 82nd and 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions would speed around the battle area in Humvees or low-flying Blackhawk helicopters. The corps' aviation and artillery, teamed with NATO aircraft flying close support, would provide crushing firepower, and its highly trained infantry are prepared for the grim business of killing or disarming paramilitaries. Its heavy punch is the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division, composed of M1A2 main battle tanks and mechanized infantry. This division, and its supporting cargo ships, maintain constant readiness to load combat-ready armored forces on short notice and steam at more than 25 knots from Savannah, Ga., to distant ports. They are days, not weeks, from the Balkans.

Campaign planning for Kosovo must take into account the area's relative isolation, as well as its rugged terrain, poor roads and rotten weather. If Greece permits, the use of its ports and roads from Greece through Macedonia would considerably ease the movement of supplies. Geography would restrict the rapid deployment of large armored formations into Kosovo. Fortunately, the Adriatic Sea is nearby, raising the possibility of ship-to-shore support to forward bases in Albania.

The Yugoslav army and paramilitaries are not impressive. This is an outdated, Soviet-style force whose only recent exercise has been shelling civilians. Knowledgeable former Yugoslav military men have low opinions of the fighting ability of the present crop of city-bred Serbian conscripts, and think NATO could prevail with fewer troops than the standard three-to-one ratio of attack to defense.

Last Thursday, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana authorized the alliance's military command to review plans for the possible use of ground troops in Kosovo. I have operated with some of these forces, I have seen them in action and studied the results of their campaigns. Their methods are well-known, and the scenario that follows reveals nothing that would compromise their mission or aid their enemy. Based on my experience and on publicly available information, here's one theory of how a combined air-ground NATO campaign might unfold:

The campaign would likely consist of three distinct phases. In the first 48 hours of an assault, NATO forces would attack hardened Yugoslav positions, armor and forces that could offer serious resistance.

In the second phase, NATO forces would secure the avenues of approach to Kosovo from the rest of Yugoslavia. NATO infantry would seek out and destroy or disarm paramilitaries and police. This phase would last considerably longer, perhaps several weeks.

The third phase would bring a gradual return of law and order to the province, the return of refugees and begin the process of reconstruction. NATO forces would secure the border, suppress terrorism and conduct peace operations. This phase would continue indefinitely.

The Scenario Begins

A campaign designed to destroy the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo quickly actually begins weeks before the fighting starts. Troops and their antitank and transport helicopters are airlifted into Albania or elsewhere in the region. These deployments will be unavoidably public, since movements of this size cannot be completely hidden. But once in field locations, operational and tactical secrecy is possible, given the rugged and isolated terrain in the Balkans. Yugoslav forces in the field would be unaware of the extent of the NATO force buildup in Albania, particularly if their communications and intelligence systems are destroyed by NATO action.

The Airborne Corps' 3rd Mechanized Division's equipment puts to sea. At the same time, NATO special forces infiltrate Kosovo to pick up intelligence on enemy troops, and NATO troop commanders scrutinize intelligence on their positions and prepare to attack.

Day One

Intensified air attacks crash down on enemy forces along the Albania-Kosovo and Macedonia-Kosovo borders on the first day of the NATO strike. Yugoslav forces near the borders are driven underground or destroyed. Other strikes hit Yugoslav forces anywhere in Yugoslavia that could reinforce their forward forces or react against a NATO incursion. Under cover of darkness, special units secure the summits of key peaks overlooking Kosovo's long valleys.

Simultaneously, brigade-size task forces of 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers and their equipment launch into Kosovo in darkened Blackhawk helicopters. Wearing night-vision goggles, the pilots fly fast and low across the jagged terrain, bypassing Yugoslav positions and striking deeply into rear areas. British, German and French armor, supported by air power, attack north from Macedonia toward Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Since Kosovo is relatively small, much of NATO's logistic support remains in Albania or Macedonia, to be called forward as required.

Within 24 hours of the ground attack, tank-killing Apaches, Marine Cobras from ships off Albania and infantry teams fan out across the province by day and by night, searching for Serb units, positions and headquarters already located by satellite and aerial reconnaissance. Apache and Cobra attack helicopters, supported by NATO firepower from the sky and from ground-based artillery, seek out surviving Yugoslav army armored forces as a first priority and strike them from outside the tanks' effective gun range. Infantry troops, either moving in assault helicopters or across country in Kevlar-hardened Humvees with machine guns or rapid-fire 40mm grenade launchers, clear villages of Yugoslav forces, while covered by armed helicopters in the distance.

Week One and Beyond

As the days pass, large urban areas are cut off and bypassed by combat forces. Psychological warfare units and military police concentrate on coaxing out civilians and remaining enemy troops. House-to-house fighting is a last resort.

American casualties are minimized as the troops operate mainly at night, capitalizing on their superior night-fighting techniques and training. As forces flow into the area behind the infantry, civil affairs units and support personnel arrive to begin opening the way for humanitarian organizations and medical personnel to address the remaining traumatized population of Kosovo. NATO fighter and bomber aircraft with their precision weaponry and sophisticated communications are always overhead. Other early arriving armored forces unload in Greece and drive north to Macedonia.

Within a week or two, fighting between large units begins to wind down. Most Yugoslav forces have been taken or destroyed. The campaign, however, moves toward its truly critical stage--scattered infantry fights that continue for weeks and months against snipers, drive-by assassins and paramilitary thugs, all of whom are aided by the difficult terrain. The scale of the war diminishes from large-scale combat to scattered small-unit actions and then to terrorism. NATO forces face the complex challenge of restoring the rule of law, rebuilding a civil society and beginning to return the refugees to their homes, many of which would be rubble. And as the seasons change, NATO also faces the threat of worsening weather. This final phase will be long, dangerous and difficult, but we should not be put off by the difficulty. Kosovo is not Vietnam, and the paramilitary thugs are not the Viet Cong.


We should make no mistake that there will be casualties. If this becomes a ground war, U.S. infantrymen will be facing it the old-fashioned way, across rifle sights, amid the snap and crack of incoming small-arms fire. American and NATO infantry are the best there is, though, and recent experience in Panama, Iraq and Mogadishu clearly shows that they can beat any opposition, and with the fewest possible losses.

For NATO's military, even the best "end state" of a Kosovo operation will be wearying and difficult. Long-term NATO peacekeeping garrisons will be established in the Balkans. Since we are now relearning--for the third time this century--that the peace and stability of Europe is necessary for our own security, garrisoning the Balkans will be a small price to pay for having drifted so close to anarchy and the threat of a wider war. But even under the most favorable conditions, we're there for the long haul.

Bob Killebrew retired from the U.S. Army as an infantry colonel in 1997. He writes and speaks on defense issues. Sizing up the enemy: Some former Yugoslav military men think the outdated Serb forces and their conscripts would be no match for NATO forces in a decisive ground war.