As Campaign Intensifies, U.S. Feels Strain
With the imminent deployment of hundreds of additional U.S. warplanes, a Yugoslav mission that NATO officials had once hoped to keep tightly contained is entering a more intense phase--and quickly becoming entangled in a new set of political and strategic difficulties.
Almost overnight, Washington is facing the prospect of a call-up of military reserves, possibly numbering in the thousands, that is sure to heighten the anxiety of the American public and its elected leaders.
The escalation, which is expected to increase the number of U.S. planes in the Balkans to 800 from the current 500, threatens to strain other military deployments around the globe, especially in danger zones such as the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula.
And coming at a point when the Pentagon already estimates that the campaign in Yugoslavia could cost $4 billion through September, the size of the deployment suggests a military engagement of unforeseen length and scale, according to defense analysts outside the government.
If pictures of refugees fleeing Kosovo first riveted the public’s attention to the fighting in the southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, another potent image could soon affect prevailing perceptions: U.S. reservists leaving jobs and families to join an air war in the Balkans on 270-day stints.
After three weeks of the air campaign, Pentagon officials now say they are quickly reaching the limits of their ability to coax reservists to volunteer for duty in Operation Allied Force and will have to ask President Clinton to order their participation.
“We’ve gotten to the limits of volunteerism,” one Pentagon official said.
The call-up order is likely to involve many Air Force reservists--including pilots and crews of air-refueling planes, such as KC-135s and KC-10s--as well as Army civil affairs officers, who help military organizations deal with local populations.
Such call-ups have become a more routine part of military life than they were in the past, with reserve and National Guard units becoming more closely integrated with the active-duty military. Yet, with bombs falling, the move is likely to intensify the debate over the risks and value of the mission in the Balkans.
“This moves the issue into an area of real political sensitivities,” said Andrew Krepinevitch, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
While there’s no definitive word at this point, the call-up could involve reservists from the 163rd Air Refueling Wing from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, Pentagon officials say.
The request for fresh reinforcements--the fourth in the mission’s three-week history--is likely to increase concern about the strains that Kosovo is placing on the U.S. military.
While Pentagon officials insisted Tuesday that the expanded deployment is manageable and will not divert planes needed elsewhere, their hesitation to approve all of NATO’s requests is tacit acknowledgment that the supply of certain “high-demand” aircraft is not endless.
Many members of Congress and outside experts have been saying that the armed forces have already stretched thin their supply of key aircraft in the danger zones of Northeast Asia and the Mideast.
With 800 U.S. warplanes soon to be involved in the Kosovo crisis, the campaign will tie up nearly seven combat air wings out of a total of 20, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The Pentagon’s declared mission is to be able to fight two “major regional conflicts,” such as wars in the Korean peninsula and the Persian Gulf, in quick succession. The Kosovo conflict now accounts for about two-thirds of the number of planes needed for one such fight, he said.
“This is stretching resources,” O’Hanlon said.
Analysts say that, in particular, Operation Allied Force has tied up some of the most important U.S. aircraft, including F-16 fighters fitted with missiles to knock out air defenses, U-2 spy planes and EA-6B electronic-jamming aircraft.
The Pentagon already has had to scale back its monitoring of the Western-imposed “no-fly” zones in northern and southern Iraq because of the shift of planes to Europe.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, members of the U.S. Senate also questioned senior defense officials about whether the Kosovo operation is diverting too much of the military’s cargo-carrying capacity.
Similarly, the United States has no aircraft carriers in Northeast Asia because of the diversion of resources to the Balkans.
The Pentagon already has acknowledged that it has had to cut back on the use of aircraft-launched cruise missiles because of a shortfall in supply that won’t be relieved until September 2000. U.S. officials say they have only 90 remaining air-launched missiles in their arsenal.
NATO’s request for additional planes was motivated in part by the Clinton administration’s desire to show its determination in continuing with the campaign--and perhaps to frighten Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into an early cease-fire, analysts say.
Yet if Milosevic doesn’t relent, NATO appears to be heading into an even riskier phase, involving round-the-clock, low-altitude attacks on Serbian forces and heavy equipment. The new deployment will bring in three categories of planes suited to this purpose: ground-attack fighters, electronic jammers and refueling planes.
David Ochmanek, an air power specialist at Rand Corp., said the new phase will involve a “substantially higher probability” of casualties and downed planes, despite NATO’s risk aversion. He said he believes that NATO will end up blasting Serbian field forces until it is possible to escort the expelled ethnic Albanian refugees back into Kosovo with minimal risk.
This will probably take “months,” he predicted.
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Carrier Force Growing
President Clinton said he is taking the NATO campaign “to the next level” with more aircraft in the region, many of the planes based on the aircraft carriers in the Adriatic and Mediterranean. The Theodore Roosevelt, a U.S. carrier that holds more than 80 aircraft, and a French carrier are already in the area. A British carrier will soon join them. A look at how the Roosevelt works:
Pilots rely on a system of lights and lenses to help guide planes onto flight deck, though landing safety officers are also used, particularly at night and in rough seas. As planes approach, they lower a titanium tailhook to snag an arresting wire on the deck. Four of these wires--1.4 inches in diameter--are used on the ship, and each can stop an aircraft going 150 mph within 315 feet in two seconds.
A catapult system allows takeoffs using only 309 feet of runway. Planes are tethered to a track on the flight deck by a launch bar on the front wheel that attaches to the catapult. A holdback bar restrains the aircraft as it throttles to maximum power. After crewmen verify that the plane is ready, a spring-loaded clip on the holdback bar snaps open when the catapult is fired, and the plane is thrust down the runway. This system allows a 70,000-pound air-craft to reach 150 mph in two seconds.
Each crew member on deck wears a different-colored shirt according to function. Yellows control the deck. Greens operate the catapult. Browns inspect and service the planes while blues chain them down and purples fuel them. Reds are firemen.
Four elevators, each 4,000 sq. ft., bring aircraft from hangar bays below decks. Among the aircraft are: F-14 Tomcats; F/A-18 Hornets; EA-6B Prowlers; S-3 Vikings; E-2C Hawkeyes.
Facts & figures
Type of vessel: Nimitz-class, nuclear aircraft carrier
Builder: Newport News Shipbuilding, Newport News, Va.
Christened: Oct. 27, 1984
Length of deck: 1,092 feet
Height (keel to mast top): 244 feet
Area of flight deck: 4.5 acres
Number of anchors: 2
Weight of anchors: 30 tons each
Weight of each anchor chain: 360 pounds per link
Total crew (with air wing): Over 5,550
No. of telephones: 2,500
Propulsion: 2 nuclear reactors
Speed: 34.5+ mph
No. of propellers: 4; 5 blades each No. of aircraft: 80
Aviation fuel storage capacity: 3.3 million gallons
Sources: U.S. Navy; “Carrier Warfare”; “Supercarrier”; Jane’s Warship Recognition Guide