By Macer HallWar against Milosevic beset by military failures
Sunday 19 March 2000
When Nato went to war a year ago this week, the words "everything ran on rails" became a mantra at the daily briefings of the military and political elite.
That enigmatic phrase, repeated at the Ministry of Defence, in Brussels and at the allies' air bases, was supposed to sum up the smooth running of the most technically advanced and efficient war machine ever. A year later, the reality of a campaign littered with errors of judgment, equipment failures and lack of direction is still emerging.
The onslaught of the Yugoslav army and police against the Kosovar Albanians halted, but after more than two months of nightly bombing rather than the matter of days envisaged by Tony Blair and the other leaders of the 19-nation alliance. Even early on, the "smart" weaponry appeared to have met its match in rain and cloud.
Bad weather became a nightly frustration for aircrews, particularly RAF Harrier pilots whose laser targeting systems were severely hampered by cloud cover. During the 78 days of bombing, only 23 at most were absolutely clear. It slowly emerged that a mission that had "run on rails" was likely to have returned without having dropped a single bomb.
Other pilots dumped up to half of their bombs on waste ground because they had used up their fuel looking for targets without success. As the campaign turned from days to weeks, it became clear that Slobodan Milosevic's forces were not being "degraded" in the way Nato leadership claimed.
The alliance was rightly proud of not losing a single one of its pilots or troops, but the high-level bombings and computer-guided missiles were hitting few genuine targets. Meanwhile, collateral damage and civilian losses began to mount.
Power stations, housing estates, small bridges, a tobacco factory and even the Chinese embassy in Belgrade were hit. Trains, buses, factories and a refugee convoy were among mistaken targets destroyed. One report has estimated that 500 civilians were killed in "accidents".
Yet the bombing campaign seemed only to intensify the ethnic cleansing. The Yugoslav army and Serbian police cleared almost a million people from their homes, burning and looting as they went. And a humanitarian crisis loomed as a tide of refugees poured into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia.
Nato ambiguity about commitment to a ground invasion has been acknowledged to have aggravated the conflict, encouraging Yugoslav forces to intensify the ethnic cleansing. But the alliance was reluctant to escalate the threat of a ground invasion for fear of shattering its unity.
The extent of Serb infiltration of allied intelligence is debatable. The Yugoslav forces' uncanny knack of slipping out of the line of fire, particularly during the early days of the campaign, has led to suspicions that security of the "air-tasking orders" was woefully inadequate.
Army reports have highlighted equipment problems that dogged British troops. Soldiers were issued with unreliable weapons, faulty radios and inadequate night vision equipment, while communication problems meant units often could not talk to each other.
At the end, the long-term achievements looked dubious: Nato commanders conceded after 78 days of bombing that the Yugoslav army was "85 per cent intact". Some military chiefs have admitted that Russia's switching sides to Nato was more decisive than the air campaign in bringing about Milosevic's surrender. And, in what many would see as the ultimate failing of the Kosovo campaign, Milosevic remains in power a year on.