Warplanes: September 7, 2001

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After going back and forth several times in the Pentagon, there is finally agreement on how effective the 1999 air campaign against the Serb army in Kosovo was. Survey teams confirmed that only 52 armored vehicles and artillery were destroyed. Some of this had to do with weather. Of 6,766 sorties planned, 56 percent were aborted because of bad weather. Of those sorties that were carried out, a third were not as effective as they could have been because of weather. Because of this, less than half the targets selected to be hit from the air were attacked. Still, as the 78 day campaign went on, the air force thought they were hurting the Serbs. Initial assessments, at the end of the bombing, estimated that 880 Serb armored vehicles and artillery were destroyed. That's some 80 percent of what we thought the Serbs had in Kosovo. In September, after journalists began to notice how few destroyed Serb vehicles were to be seen in Kosovo, NATO lowered the estimate to 635. The following year, after Kosovo had been thoroughly searched, it was realized that only 14 tanks, 18 APCs and 20 artillery pieces had been destroyed. During the 1991 Gulf War, some A-10 pilots commented that operating in the desert was a lot easier than other places they had served in. Especially South Korea and Germany. Finding anything in the hills and forests of those areas was a lot more difficult. This seemed to prove that point. But the Gulf War was also embarrassing for the "death from above" crowd. During the 44 day Gulf War air campaign, 1,028 Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery were destroyed. Before the ground war began, the air force insisted they had destroyed several times that. But after the four day air war, a survey of the wrecked Iraqi vehicles showed that, in four days, ground troops had destroyed 3,117 Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery. Unlike the Serbs, the Iraqis didn't have hills and forests to hide in. But, as ground troops have shown again and again over the last sixty years, they quickly become very good at hiding from air attacks. The coalition air forces sent 46,000 sorties against Iraqi ground forces. That's 45 sorties for every Iraqi vehicles destroyed. That's only 23 Iraqi vehicles destroyed a day. It wasn't a wasted effort, for the constant air attacks demoralized the Iraqis and made the job of the coalition ground forces easier. But in decades past, the same result could have been achieved, at less cost, by heavy artillery. But that would not have worked as well in Kosovo, for the hills and forests provide ample opportunities to avoid getting hurt. Areas with forests also tend to have more overcast weather. In Kosovo, 56 percent of the 6,766 sorties planned were aborted because of bad weather. And a third of those sorties that did go forward ran into clouds or fog that interfered with finding and hitting their targets. So in Kosovo, we have one Serb vehicle hot for every 72 sorties. And with the nasty weather, you can't just pile on more sorties like you can in the more hospitable desert. The air force would like to take some comfort in the improved accuracy of their weapons, but they are handicapped by the current policy of not losing an aircraft at any cost. Ground targets had to be attacked from three miles up. During World War II, you could expect to nail an enemy combat vehicle for every few sorties. But back then, warplanes went in low and exposed themselves to enemy fire. Many aircraft were lost, but the enemy ground forces were hurt, and their vehicle movements often shut down (at least during the day.) Better weapons don't always work out if you are forced to use inferior tactics.

 


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