NEWSWEEK: The Kosovo Cover-Up
The Kosovo Cover-Up
Kosovo Commander: General Wesley Clark, NATO's outgoing Supreme Allied
Commander (Michael J.N. Bowles)
On Air NATO said it won a great victory, but the war did very little
damage to Serb forces. By not conceding this, the Pentagon may mislead
future presidents about the limits of U.S. power. A NEWSWEEK
By John Barry And Evan Thomas
Newsweek, May 15, 2000
It was acclaimed as the most successful air campaign ever. "A turning
point in the history of warfare," wrote the noted military historian
John Keegan, proof positive that "a war can be won by airpower alone."
At a press conference last June, after Serbian strongman Slobodan
Milosevic agreed to pull his Army from Kosovo at the end of a 78-day
aerial bombardment that had not cost the life of a single NATO soldier
or airman, Defense Secretary William Cohen declared, "We severely
crippled the [Serb] military forces in Kosovo by destroying more than
50 percent of the artillery and one third of the armored vehicles."
Displaying colorful charts, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Henry
Shelton claimed that NATO's air forces had killed "around 120 tanks,"
"about 220 armored personnel carriers" and "up to 450 artillery and
An antiseptic war, fought by pilots flying safely three miles high. It
seems almost too good to be trueand it was. In factas some critics
suspected at the timethe air campaign against the Serb military in
Kosovo was largely ineffective. NATO bombs plowed up some fields, blew
up hundreds of cars, trucks and decoys, and barely dented Serb
artillery and armor. According to a suppressed Air Force report
obtained by NEWSWEEK, the number of targets verifiably destroyed was a
tiny fraction of those claimed: 14 tanks, not 120; 18 armored
personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450. Out of the
744 "confirmed" strikes by NATO pilots during the war, the Air Force
investigators, who spent weeks combing Kosovo by helicopter and by
foot, found evidence of just 58.
The damage report has been buried by top military officers and
Pentagon officials, who in interviews with NEWSWEEK over the last
three weeks were still glossing over or denying its significance. Why
the evasions and dissembling, with the disturbing echoes of the
inflated "body counts" of the Vietnam War? All during the Balkan war,
Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander, was under pressure from
Washington to produce positive bombing results from politicians who
were desperate not to commit ground troops to combat. The Air Force
protested that tanks are hard to hit from 15,000 feet, but Clark
insisted. Now that the war is long over, neither the generals nor
their civilian masters are eager to delve into what really happened.
Asked how many Serb tanks and other vehicles were destroyed in Kosovo,
General Clark will only answer, "Enough."
In one sense, history is simply repeating itself. Pilots have been
exaggerating their "kills" at least since the Battle of Britain in
1940. But this latest distortion could badly mislead future
policymakers. Air power was effective in the Kosovo war not against
military targets but against civilian ones. Military planners do not
like to talk frankly about terror-bombing civilians ("strategic
targeting" is the preferred euphemism), but what got Milosevic's
attention was turning out the lights in downtown Belgrade. Making the
Serb populace suffer by striking power stationsnot "plinking" tanks in
the Kosovo countrysidethreatened his hold on power. The Serb dictator
was not so much defeated as pushed back into his lairfor a time. The
surgical strike remains a mirage. Even with the best technology,
pilots can destroy mobile targets on the ground only by flying low and
slow, exposed to ground fire. But NATO didn't want to see pilots
killed or captured.
Instead, the Pentagon essentially declared victory and hushed up any
doubts about what the air war exactly had achieved. The story of the
cover-up is revealing of the way military bureaucracies can twist the
truthnot so much by outright lying, but by "reanalyzing" the problem
and winking at inconvenient facts. Caught in the middle was General
Clark, who last week relinquished his post in a controversial early
retirement. Mistrusted by his masters in Washington, Clark will retire
from the Army next month with none of the fanfare that greeted other
conquering heroes like Dwight Eisenhower after World War II or Norman
Schwarzkopf after Desert Storm. To his credit, Clark was dubious about
Air Force claims and triedat least at firstto gain an accurate picture
of the bombing in Kosovo. At the end of the war the Serbs' ground
commander, Gen. Nobojsa Pavkovic, claimed to have lost only 13 tanks.
"Serb disinformation," scoffed Clark. But quietly, Clark's own staff
told him the Serb general might be right. "We need to get to the
bottom of this," Clark said. So at the end of June, Clark dispatched a
team into Kosovo to do an on-the-ground survey. The 30 experts, some
from NATO but most from the U.S. Air Force, were known as the
Munitions Effectiveness Assessment Team, or MEAT. Later, a few of the
officers would refer to themselves as "dead meat."
The bombing, they discovered, was highly accurate against fixed
targets, like bunkers and bridges. "But we were spoofed a lot," said
one team member. The Serbs protected one bridge from the high-flying
NATO bombers by constructing, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge made
of polyethylene sheeting stretched over the river. NATO "destroyed"
the phony bridge many times. Artillery pieces were faked out of long
black logs stuck on old truck wheels. A two-thirds scale SA-9
antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined
paper used to make European milk cartons. "It would have looked
perfect from three miles up," said a MEAT analyst.
The team found dozens of burnt-out cars, buses and trucksbut very few
tanks. When General Clark heard this unwelcome news, he ordered the
team out of their helicopters: "Goddammit, drive to each one of those
places. Walk the terrain." The team grubbed about in bomb craters,
where more than once they were showered with garbage the local
villagers were throwing into these impromptu rubbish pits. At the
beginning of August, MEAT returned to Air Force headquarters at
Ramstein air base in Germany with 2,600 photographs. They briefed Gen.
Walter Begert, the Air Force deputy commander in Europe. "What do you
mean we didn't hit tanks?" Begert demanded. Clark had the same
reaction. "This can't be," he said. "I don't believe it." Clark
insisted that the Serbs had hidden their damaged equipment and that
the team hadn't looked hard enough. Not so, he was told. A 50-ton tank
can't be dragged away without leaving raw gouges in the earth, which
the team had not seen.
The Air Force was ordered to prepare a new report. In a month, Brig.
Gen. John Corley was able to turn around a survey that pleased Clark.
It showed that NATO had successfully struck 93 tanks, close to the 120
claimed by General Shelton at the end of the war, and 153 armored
personnel carriers, not far off the 220 touted by Shelton. Corley's
team did not do any new field research. Rather, they looked for any
support for the pilots' claims. "The methodology is rock solid," said
Corley, who strongly denied any attempt to obfuscate. "Smoke and
mirrors" is more like it, according to a senior officer at NATO
headquarters who examined the data. For more than half of the hits
declared by Corley to be "validated kills," there was only one piece
of evidenceusually, a blurred cockpit video or a flash detected by a
spy satellite. But satellites usually can't discern whether a bomb
hits anything when it explodes.
The Corley report was greeted with quiet disbelief outside the Air
Force. NATO sources say that Clark's deputy, British Gen. Sir Rupert
Smith, and his chief of staff, German Gen. Dieter Stockmann, both
privately cautioned Clark not to accept Corley's numbers. The U.S.
intelligence community was also doubtful. The CIA puts far more
credence in a November get-together of U.S. and British intelligence
experts, which determined that the Yugoslav Army after the war was
only marginally smaller than it had been before. "Nobody is very keen
to talk about this topic," a CIA official told NEWSWEEK.
Lately, the Defense Department has tried to fudge. In January Defense
Secretary Cohen and General Shelton put their names to a formal
After-Action Report to Congress on the Kosovo war. The 194-page report
was so devoid of hard data that Pentagon officials jokingly called it
"fiber-free." The report did include Corley's chart showing that NATO
killed 93 tanks. But the text included a caveat: "the assessment
provides no data on what proportion of total mobile targets were hit
or the level of damage inflicted." Translation, according to a senior
Pentagon official: "Here's the Air Force chart. We don't think it
means anything." In its most recent report extolling the triumph of
the air war, even the Air Force stopped using data from the Corley
Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, General Clark refused to get into an
on-the-record discussion of the numbers. A spokesman for General
Shelton asserted that the media, not the military, are obsessed with
"bean-counting." But there are a lot of beans at stake. After the
November election, the Pentagon will go through one of its quadrennial
reviews, assigning spending priorities. The Air Force will claim the
lion's share. A slide shown by one of the lecturers at a recent
symposium on air power organized by the Air Force Association, a
potent Washington lobby, proclaimed: "It's no myth... the American Way
The risk is that policymakers and politicians will become even more
wedded to myths like "surgical strikes." The lesson of Kosovo is that
civilian bombing works, though it raises moral qualms and may not
suffice to oust tyrants like Milosevic. Against military targets,
high-altitude bombing is overrated. Any commander in chief who does
not face up to those hard realities will be fooling himself.
© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.