On a wintery March evening, 20 years ago, six giant US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers could be heard starting their engines on the parking aprons at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. The ‘BUFFs’ taxied out and took off, heading south towards the English Channel. Their target was Serbia. Operation Allied Force was under way.
Within weeks, approximately 1,000 NATO aircraft were involved in an air campaign to push Serbian troops and security forces out of Kosovo to allow more than 800,000 Albanian refugees to return to their homes. NATO air forces eventually flew around 38,000 sorties and in excess of 10,000 strike missions. It took nearly three months to make Serbia’s President Slobodan Milošević back down.
In the forthcoming, May issue of AFM, Tim Ripley looks back at the lessons from the 78-day air campaign. While US, British and other allied airmen still dispute how the Kosovo war was won, in the end NATO prevailed.
One of the major lessons of the air war was the limited accuracy of existing US air-dropped weapons in the poor weather experienced over Kosovo. Many of the original claims about the effect of the bombing campaign – including that a whole Yugoslav tank regiment was wiped out in a B-52 strike – were not supported by any evidence. A US munitions effects assessment team concluded in 2000 that the NATO air campaign had destroyed just 14 Serbian tanks, 18 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and 20 artillery pieces. After the conflict the Pentagon had claimed the destruction of 140 tanks, 220 APCs, and 450 artillery pieces in Kosovo.
The RAF also learnt many lessons from the conflict and these mirrored the US experience. British Ministry of Defence scientists toured Kosovo after the war and revealed that of 1,011 bombs dropped by the RAF, about 400 were confirmed as hitting their intended target; 300 were “confirmed misses” and 300 were “unaccounted for”. Just four out of 230 unguided bombs hit their targets, said the scientists, and 60% of the 531 BL755 cluster bombs missed their intended target or remain “unaccounted for”.