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How Strongly Do We Want to Fight Serbia? : Bosnia: U.S. air strikes would lead to a long ground war; and if we ‘won,’ what would be left?

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Retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr. is deputy director for the Center for Defense Information in Washington.

President Clinton may have the shortest Oval Office honeymoon on record. Wanting to give priority to domestic problems, he must instead make fateful decisions about U.S. military actions in Somalia, Iraq and Serbia. None will be easy, but the Serbian challenge is the most complex--and the most dangerous.

Because the United States possesses the most powerful military force in the world, there is growing frustration that we have not found a way to use that power to halt the Serbian aggression against Bosnia. Now, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, is calling for use of U.S. air power to enforce the U.N. declaration of a no-fly zone over Bosnia. He also suggests that a punitive air strike against Serbia might deter further aggression. The idea of a “surgical” air intervention, which the State Department supports, will be pressed on the President as a low-risk means of exerting U.S. military power without getting bogged down in a ground war.

Unfortunately, the proposition that U.S. air power is surgical or that it can improve the situation in Bosnia by grounding Serbian aircraft is unrealistic. There have been only 10 or 12 Serbian flights per day, almost all of which appear to be administrative, logistic or medical missions. Even if U.S. aircraft could intercept every one of those flights (an impossibility) there would be no weakening of the Serbian ground forces.

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To intercept even occasional Serbian air missions would require an aerial armada of early warning planes, fighters, electronic countermeasure and flak-suppression aircraft, bombers and tankers. Operating all of these from an aircraft carrier and Italian air bases 180 to 300 miles from Bosnia would cost far more than any possible military benefits would justify.

Once the futility of the effort became obvious, the frustration factor would create growing pressure to expand the air campaign to attack airfields. Whether this was done by aircraft or cruise missiles would make little difference; we would be sliding into war, adding to death and destruction and provoking Serbian violence against U.N. humanitarian aid personnel in Bosnia. We can make war on Serbia or support U.N. relief efforts--we cannot do both.

Once it became clear that air action alone was only expanding and intensifying the tragedy in Bosnia, there would be almost inevitable demands for full-scale intervention to end Serbian aggression.

The magnitude of such a commitment was described to the Senate Armed Services Committee last August by Lt. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. He stated that it would take an entire field army (around 400,000 troops) about one year “to drop the level of violence” throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. He saw the combination of mountainous terrain and forests hiding trained, well-equipped Serbian guerrilla forces as presenting a tougher combat situation than U.S. forces faced in Vietnam.

Although cost was not addressed during the Senate hearing, it is worth noting that the operation that McCaffrey described would cost at least as much as Desert Storm, probably more. Actual combat operations against Iraq lasted only 38 days and the operation was fought on top of the world’s largest, cheapest source of petroleum. A whole year of combat operations in much more difficult conditions against formidable opposition, far removed from fuel supplies, might well exceed the $50-billion cost of Desert Storm. Because air power and tanks, the primary Desert Storm weapons, would be much less effective against well-concealed and dispersed guerrilla units, combat losses over 12 months would far exceed those against Iraq. Civilian losses and destruction in cities would be immense.

Even if all of the risks and costs of U.S. military action against Serbia are accepted, many questions remain that must be answered before committing U.S. forces against Serbia. How will military intervention resolve the fundamental political, ethnic, religious and historic issues that have produced the current violence? What will still be standing and who will be left alive when we “win” the war? How will the survivors live together when we leave?

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As difficult and protracted as the U.N.- sponsored negotiations in Geneva may be, they are at least looking for solutions that answer the questions military intervention can never answer. President Clinton’s decision must be to reject the first easy “surgical” step into war against Serbia. It will help if he is aware that there is nothing surgical about modern air war except what goes on in hospitals once the bombs start falling. We cannot end the tragedy in Bosnia with bombs--only add to it.

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