Key Strikes' Timing Raises Questions
- By Dana Priest
- May. 05 1999 00:00
WASHINGTON -- The Yugoslav electrical grid that NATO warplanes knocked out over the weekend was damaged by a new, highly classified bomb that spins an electricity-conducting carbon spider web into the air, causing the power grid to short out.
The weapon, known as BLU-114/B and carried by the F-117A stealth fighter, throws out clusters of bomblets whose chemically treated filaments act like lightning when they touch an electrical structure. The weapon was used for the first time Sunday. Although it is similar to a weapon used in the first days of the Gulf War, much about how it is designed and how it works remains secret.
But the system was just one mystery in the air Sunday night. The other, perhaps more important mystery, is why NATO waited until the 40th day of the air campaign to disrupt one of the central sources of energy for Yugoslavia's air defense and command structures when its stated goal from the start has been to take down these militarily important assets.
Military analysts say it is just the latest example of how unconventional, and potentially ineffective, Operation Allied Force has been in its attempt to force the Yugoslav and Serbian leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, to agree to NATO's demands. Having waited so long to strike the electrical system, say analysts, NATO commanders are taking at least a risky gamble that inconveniencing the population now will encourage people to turn against the leadership in Belgrade.
If the Gulf War taught the U.S. Air Force anything, it is how difficult it is to demoralize a citizenry and change long-held patterns of behavior with selective airstrikes. Yugoslavia, a relatively open society, is different from Iraq, where the government security apparatus enforces a severe national discipline. But aside from grousing, the analysts say, it is difficult to see what people in Yugoslavia can do to change Milosevic's mind as long as his military and security forces remain loyal.
"We don't know how to use air power to affect the will of the enemy," said retired General Charles Horner, who ran the air war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Electric systems are often critical to the ability of decentralized military command and control and air defense systems to operate throughout the country. The delay in targeting the power system does not make much military sense, analysts say.
"I just don't understand this," said Charles Link, a retired Air Force major general and air power. "I don't understand the pace or the timing. ? Without a doubt, depriving [Milosevic] of electricity harms his air defense and his ability to defend himself."
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said that in addition to knocking out Belgrade's power, which was restored within seven hours, NATO warplanes also hit five electrical and power transformer yards. "The basic approach," he said, "is not to destroy the producing infrastructure for electricity" but "to disrupt in a substantial way" the electricity that runs military computers and other military assets.
The electric system was not the only seemingly obvious military target that NATO waited a while to strike. Although officials stated repeatedly that the goal was to disable the military infrastructure, NATO warplanes did not hit the Defense Ministry in downtown Belgrade until last week.
Asked to explain the delays, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon pointed to NATO's decision making, saying the electric grid was discussed as a target "from the beginning," but approved only recently by leaders of the 19-member NATO alliance.
Major General Charles Wald, vice director of planning for the U.S. Joint Staff, said in an interview that the process is "cumbersome and takes a lot longer to get where you want to go," but defended it as the way coalitions work. "This is a game with as many innings as we want, and I think [Milosevic] is running out of baseballs."
The electric system has been one of the most controversial targets within NATO because damaging it can directly disadvantage the civilian population and can turn into a humanitarian nightmare. Studies by William Arkin, a leading expert on the Gulf War, show that strikes against Iraq caused power losses at hospitals, breakdown of the water purification system and collapse of the sewage system.
"If this is a one-time shot, it's both stupid and has no effect," Arkin said. "If this is the beginning of a methodical campaign to destroy the Yugoslav electrical system, we are flirting with a humanitarian disaster."
Bacon said it is not clear how Serbs will react, but the message to them should be clear: "It should have the impact of alerting them to the fact that inconveniences like this will continue as we intensify the air campaign, and that there's one easy way to stop them, and that is to meet NATO's demands for a settlement."