war in europe

general michael c. short

how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?

photo of general michael c. short
During the 78-day war in Kosovo, Lt. Gen. Short directed NATO's air operations against Serbia as NATO's Joint Air Force Component Commander. After the war, Short emerged as a sharp critic of two key aspects of NATO's conduct of the war: the political requirements which influenced targets selection and NATO's focus on attacking Serbian forces fielded in Kosovo. Referring to the latter dismissively as "tank plinking," Short instead argued for the need to "go after the head of the snake" and to attack major strategic targets in Serbia itself.
You flew a great number of missions in Vietnam. How much was that war in your mind during this conflict?

It was on my mind all the time, because of the lessons that my generation learned from Vietnam. The major lesson we learned is that if you take the country to war, if the country is going to risk its young men and women, send them into harm's way, then you get it done as quickly as you can. You want to risk your young people--and your old people, for that matter--to the minimum degree acceptable to get the job done. Presumably, we went through all the diplomatic possibilities. We use force as a last resort, in the NATO alliance and in my country, so when the decision is made to use force, then we need to go in with overwhelming force, quite frankly, extraordinary violence that the speed of it, the lethality of it lethality of it . . . the weight of it has to make an incredible impression on the adversary, to such a degree that he is stunned and shocked and his people are immediately asking, "Why in the world are we doing this? If this is just the first night, then what in the world is the rest of it going to be like? How long can we endure it, and more importantly, why are we having to endure it? Let's ask our leaders why this is happening."

You remember in southeast Asia, for years we bombed a little bit, and then we backed off, and . . . had pauses, and so on. Then finally we sent the B52s north around January of 1973, and lo and behold, we brought them to the table. Now that is certainly a simplified version from a now-old fighter pilot. But in a then-young fighter pilot's mind, my generation learned that you take the fight to the enemy. You go after the head of the snake, put a dagger in the heart of the adversary, and you bring to bear all the force that you have at your command.

Did that happen this time?

No, in my judgement it did not. We fought this conflict incrementally for all sorts of reasons. . . . Many of our leaders went into this conflict believing that Milosevic only needed, quote, "a couple of nights of bombing," unquote, and then he would accept NATO terms. I personally doubt that all of our leaders had come to grips with the possibility of a prolonged air campaign. . . . They thought that as soon as Milosevic saw our resolve, he would roll over, and all would be well.

And this matters?

It did to us, because we started out in a way we would not have chosen to start out as professional soldiers. We weren't able to go for the head of the snake that first night.

My generation learned that you take the fight to the enemy.  You go after the head of the snake, put a dagger in  the adversary's heart.  And you bring to bear all the force that you have at your command. Then, as the conflict progressed, it was very clear this wasn't going to be a three- night war. Milosevic was digging in. He didn't believe NATO had the resolve for the long term. At my level, it appeared that we struggled politically to decide what to do next. So we were continuing to bomb, but again, not with the target set I would like to have had. Then a decision was made to take the fight to downtown Belgrade. But we only went after parts of the entire target set, and then we would respond to an incident either in Belgrade or in Kosovo, back off, then start again, and then again. There were 19 nations--all with an equal vote--and some target sets were withheld.

There was a reluctance to really grab him by the throat and shake him. There was much discussion of the land option, and how that was going to play. . . . One of my peers called it "random bombing of military targets." That's where we were, through much of the air effort. I choose not to call it an air campaign, because it is not a campaign in the sense that men in my profession would have carried it out.

Was it deeply frustrating for you?

Yes, frustrating for me and frustrating for the men and women around me, although it did not impact their performance. These young folks . . . knew their jobs. They studied their profession. The NATO airmen understand their business very, very well. They've been practicing to do their business for generations now--a 50-year alliance--and we have practiced air warfare for almost the entire time that alliance has existed.

If we lost air crews on a regular basis, the alliance would have to rethink the guidance that we were getting, and their decision-making process. We could not have afforded to lose men and women, and continue to lose them, in what was clearly an incremental effort

Let's talk about June of 1998, when the politicians said, "Let's look at the options." What were the options that you planned then?

Before I came to this job, I was a director of operations in the United States Air Forces in Europe. Around February, General Clark went to my boss, clearly in a US-only chain, and asked him what we could do in Kosovo. I tasked my smart young people, and in a few days, we came back with what was essentially one of the limited options in Kosovo, which was to bomb a target set south of the 44-degree line, then to establish a no-fly zone south of the 44-degree line.

. . . This was something we could do on relatively short notice, probably using US Forces currently stationed in Europe, and forces from the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy. We could certainly hope for participation from the NATO allies. But we could only put this together on fairly short notice--strike the airfield at Pristina, take down the surface-to-air missile threats south of 44, and establish a no-fly zone.

Certainly the Third Army [Serbian forces] would still be operating. But we could have taken some action on short notice. In June, when the NATO alliance was planning, we gave . . . to the admiral, and to General Clark, our options for an air campaign. We had begun to develop the classic air campaign . . . to go on that first night at what we felt to be the strategic target set in Belgrade.

After 34 years in service, it's clear to me that you have to establish air superiority as rapidly as you can to operate in the air. You have to control the air so your striking aircraft can go to the target and back without being under great threat from the enemy's air-to-air capability. You need to exert control over the surface-to-air threat from the ground, and you do that as rapidly as you can--otherwise you simply cannot operate.

The first step in any air campaign is knocking down what we call the Integrated Air Defense System, the IADS. After that, we recommended that we go after what we believed to be the strategic target set in Belgrade--the power grid, lines of communication, as they effected Belgrade, the river bridges, the traffic patterns into and out of Belgrade, . . . and at least six to eight military command centers in Belgrade.

All on night one?

Absolutely. Get as much as we could get on night one, and then return on night two to get the rest. . . .

You were suggesting this classic campaign. What happened?

. . . Back in June in 1998. . . . Admiral Ellis, General Clark and I went over what my people had put together--to go for the head of the snake, and take it out. Use shock, lethality, and as much power as we could bring to bear as rapidly as possible.

Then we briefed General Clark in his office with the senior leadership there. General Clark said, "Mike, this is a great effort, and I appreciate all that you and your people have done. I am concerned that, if we continue to plan in NATO channels, we will have problems with operation security, and the essence of our planning will end up in the Paris or Belgrade papers. So I am going to take this planning effort and put it into US channels only." He gave the task to the US Air Force commander in Europe. . . . The rest of the allies were now no longer part of the planning effort. Two American officers . . . took on the total planning effort at that point. This became a 24 hour-a-day, seven-days-a week effort.

Now those kids at Ramstein, and I say kids 'cause they're all younger than I am, but they worked non-stop until sometime in the late July timeframe when they brought the briefing back to General Clark. I stayed connected with them, my US people at the CAOC [Combined Air Operations Center] at Vicenza, and my US people here at Naples also stayed plugged in, so we were aware on the US side of everything that was going on. The planning officers brought General Clark a fleshed-out version of the air campaign. This version analyzed each individual target as to what sequence we would go in, weaponry to be applied, forces required, etc. . . .

But that option didn't go forward?

It went to General Clark. At the same time, NATO was continuing to plan a phased approach. With the alliance, we finally decided upon a phased air campaign, which went on the shelf. There were five phases. . . . If Milosevic didn't respond after one phase was executed, we'd give . . . the ultimatum: "If you don't stop what you're doing, we're coming after you." . . . And then we'd execute the next phase. In this entire timeframe, Belgrade is a sanctuary, except for the air defenses around Belgrade. . . .

So five phases were planned. But in that approved plan, except for the integrated air defenses in and around Belgrade, the airfield, the SA3 sites, etc., the fight was not taken north of 44 until Phase Three.

And what were you saying about this? . . .

This was not the way we wanted to do business. . . . But this was the SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]-approved plan. So it went on the shelf.

Was this war planning? I spoke to General Naumann, and he said the problem was that everyone thought they were just planning for diplomatic threat.

There was certainly some mindset that this was planning for diplomatic posturing--going through the motions, to some degree. I'll be very frank with you, that I thought to myself, number one, we're probably never going to drop a bomb. Number two, if we do, cooler heads will prevail. We will have the plan on the shelf that we had developed of how to run the air campaign, and we'll pull it out at the last minute--the classic incrementalism: step up, tighten it slowly, and let's go for the throat. We'd now be really going to go to war, as opposed to talking about going to war, and soothing everyone's feelings. . . . Now we're really going to put young men and women in harm's way. Let's get rid of this incremental thing, and do it the way it ought to be done. Certainly a lot of us felt that way. . . .

In late September. Mr. Holbrooke and Christopher Hill were in the midst of shuttle diplomacy, and you went along. Tell me about that.

This was an incredible thing for me as we walked our way through it. In early October, we were beginning to gather our forces, both US and NATO. I was at a social event at Admiral Lopez's villa. . . . A group of us spent most of the evening upstairs on the secure phone, talking to General Clark. There was concern back in the United States that the US contribution to the gathering force was out of all proportion to what it should be, that our contribution was much too large. They were concerned about the numbers. . . . So General Clark told me to work the numbers.

I jumped on an airplane next morning, flew to the CAOC, met with my staff for a number of hours, moving numbers around, and finally did some "creative accounting" with the Carrier Battle Group, in that we decided that the Air Wing was indeed doing their job--it always did, protecting itself and being prepared to participate--so we wouldn't count those numbers. Had a video teleconference with General Clark at about five o'clock on Sunday evening. Numbers were acceptable and I was about to leave the CAOC [when] General Clark called me direct and said: "You've got an hour to give me a plan to do reconnaissance over Kosovo that we will use to confirm that Milosevic is or is not ethnic cleansing." Gathered Randy Gelwix, Gary Trexler, our one- and two-star generals, great, great young general officers, [and] three of my four colonels up there, and in an hour we put together a plan that would use the reconnaissance version of the F-16 and Tornado escorted by F-15s and F-16s, the Predator UAV, the U-2, other national systems to do reconnaissance over Kosovo. I called Joe Lopez, my commander in my chain, said: "Boss, what do you think?" He said: "I think that's about right, and you were only given an hour." Called General Jumper on my US chain: "Boss, what do you think?" "Yeah, that looks good." And put together a two pager and sent it to General Clark, quite frankly thinking I would not hear much more about that.

Around October 5 or 6, Mr. Holbrooke was in the midst of his mission, and we were all watching it very closely. The force was postured. General Clark called me in my quarters at Aviano, and said, "Mike, other than me, who would you want to send to Belgrade to represent airmen of the alliance, and to negotiate with Milosevic's generals on how to establish reconnaissance in Kosovo?" I said, "It probably ought to be me, but I would hate to leave my force and my headquarters at that point." . . .

The next morning, the phone rang and it was General Clark's people saying, "Be in London at 1830 local time, to marry up with Mr. Holbrooke. Get any instructions that Madeleine Albright might have, and then you're going into Belgrade to negotiate this reconnaissance regime. . . . So, in quite a rush, I flew into London, and met Mr. Holbrooke. As we flew into Belgrade, we discussed our thought processes. I had some concern, as I certainly had not been trained as a negotiator, although I'd served in command billets throughout my career and worked on what I thought were difficult issues. . . .

But the things I worked on as a wing commander paled into comparison to the fact that I was now going to sit down with, at some point in time, Mr. Milosevic, his generals, the commander of his air force, and the chief of his defense. If I was successful, perhaps we could prevent a conflict. If we were not successful, perhaps we were going to go to war.

What happened? What did you say to them?

Mr. Holbrooke has been very gracious to me in the press. He asked me, "Okay, General, what's your plan?" I said, "I intend to propose to the Serb generals a regime of reconnaissance over Kosovo that will be unobtrusive. It really should be transparent to the people on the ground, although certainly the Serb leadership will know it's there. . . . But it'll be high enough and quiet enough that they should not be concerned that their country's been taken over. We will take pictures throughout the day, whenever weather allows, to see what's going on. But I have a threat with me. Essentially what I'm going to say to the Serb generals is, 'I've got a U2 in one hand, and a B52 in the other, and it's up to you gentlemen to choose.'" Holbrooke said, "Oh, that's great, that's great. Use that tomorrow." Dick Holbrooke is a powerful personality, so for me, an old fighter pilot, this was rarefied air.

The plan was that we'd meet with Milosevic, and Holbrooke and Hill would do the talking. After some interval, I would go and meet with the generals someplace else. So we convoy off to the palace. . . . We all sat down. I'm beginning to relax, because I'm absolutely certain that there will be about an hour of banter--maybe serious discussions between Holbrooke and Milosevic--but certainly Lieutenant General Short's not going to have any play. But then Milosevic leans forward and says, "So, you are the man who is going to bomb me."

I was stunned. I didn't expect that. . . . I said, "Well, I hope that won't be the case. I have a plan to propose to your generals that will prevent your country from being bombed, but in essence, you're right. I have U2s in one hand and B52s in the other, and the choice is up to you." That broke the tension, and the discussions went on from there.

What did Milosevic say to you?

He just sort of nodded. Then he and Holbrooke talked for ten or 15 minutes and then Mr. Holbrooke said, "Mr. President, as General Short said, he has a plan for doing reconnaissance in Kosovo. It will allow the international community to confirm that you are doing as you say you're doing--that you're not conducting ethnic cleansing. . . . that you're not burning villages, or driving the people out of their homes." So, for ten minutes, and in some detail, I went into our plan. I talked about my son being an A10 pilot already deployed to Aviano, and that I hope that the Serbian people and the NATO alliance could come to an agreement that would keep my son from having to go to war. I said I had dedicated most of my life to trying to ensure that my son did not have to go to war, and I hope we could reach agreement there.

What did you tell the generals?

We spent close to three hours explaining the plan in great detail. We showed them a map of the area where we intended to do reconnaissance, and the buffer zone we felt we needed. We discussed them having to move their MIGS and their SA3s and SA6s out so, our forces weren't threatened. . . .

The general in charge of the Serb air force was very gracious. I had met him before. He said, "Thank you very much for your presentation. Clearly we were not prepared for this. I need to get my experts together."

The next day, the general said, "Thank you again for your presentation. What you've proposed violates everything I've stood for throughout my career as a Serb officer. NATO forces would be violating sacred Serb air space. I would break my promise with the Serb people if I allowed NATO to come into our country. The Serb people would be terribly disappointed if I allowed that to happen, so I cannot possibly accept your proposal."

I was clearly terribly disappointed and, quite frankly, shocked at his logic. This is an old fighter pilot, like myself. I said, "General, I think, first of all, the Serb people will be disappointed in your interpretation of your responsibility . . .

If you force me to go to war against you, and they find out that that war could have been prevented if you accepted our very reasonable terms for an unobtrusive reconnaissance regime over your country--and that you, instead, almost independently chose to have them bombed, as opposed to me taking pictures in Kosovo--I think the Serb people will be very, very disappointed in you. I think you're making a very bad decision. However, if indeed that is your decision, let me say that I know you've studied how NATO makes war, and how America in particular makes war. You've studied the Gulf war and the 1995 campaign in Bosnia. I know you believe you understand how I'm going to do my business. But you're not even close. No matter what you've done, you can't imagine what it's going to be like. The speed and the violence and the lethality and the destruction that is going to occur is beyond anything that you can imagine. If, indeed, you're not going to accept my terms, we need to break this meeting right now. I suggest you go outside, get in your car and ride around the city of Belgrade. Remember it the way it is today. If you force me to go to war against you, Belgrade will never look that way again--never in your lifetime, or your children's lifetime. Belgrade and your country will be destroyed if you force me to go to war."

Did you really mean this?

I did. Absolutely. This is past the point of bluffing, and professional soldiers don't bluff.

But you didn't have authority for such a . . .

Certainly I did. I was the air commander, and if we went to war, there was no doubt in my mind that eventually that's what it would get to. Blood drained from his face, and he said, "General Short, I've known you now for a couple of years. . . . I no longer respect you, because you have threatened me, and I've lost my respect for you." I thought to myself, boy, have I messed this up.

I said to him: "I'm disappointed that you no longer respect me, because I still respect you as a professional. I think you've made a bad judgement, but I respect you. But if you no longer respect me, then that's a very serious thing, because then you and I can no longer negotiate. I will leave the room now and call General Clark. I'll tell him to withdraw me as his military negotiator, because you and I no longer have the rapport that's necessary for us to negotiate. We don't have to like each other, but we have to respect each other as professionals. So I need to withdraw from these negotiations, and be replaced by someone that you can respect." . . .

The interpreter passed my comments on to the general. He came back and essentially said, "Maybe I've gone too far. I still do respect you. I can't accept your terms, but I understand you're a professional as I am, and I still respect you. We can continue to discuss." I wasn't bluffing.

I thought maybe I'd gone too far, and that I wouldn't be of any further use to the mission. It turns out that was not the case. This was probably a pretty good thing to do, throw cold water in this guy's face, and let's get back on the table. And then we went back into negotiations.

Those negotiations worked out--you managed to postpone war. When did you begin to think that conflict was inevitable, and that you were going to drop bombs?

. . . I did not believe we were going to drop bombs until 24 hours before the first bomb fell. I had personally seen Milosevic back off from the brink in October. I felt I'd seen a master at brinksmanship.

Now because we're into a period where things are ratcheting up. . . . You had this plan to do a classic intensive air campaign. What did you with that plan, in this period between the end of the Holbrooke deal, and the conflict actually breaking out?

We reworked it in US-only air force channels again, several times. We verified between 250 and 300 valid, solid military targets. On three separate occasions between the January 1 and the time the first bomb fell, we brought that proposal back to General Clark.

For political reasons, the plan not an acceptable alternative. So we postured from that point on to strike about 90 targets in the first three nights. I kept getting instructed, "Mike, you're only going to be allowed to bomb two, maybe three nights. That's all Washington can stand, and that's all some members of the alliance can stand. That's why you've only got 90 targets. This will be over in three nights." I thought a deal had been struck. Rambouillet had failed. The Kosovo Albanians had accepted the terms at Rambouillet, but Milosevic had not.

I generally believed that Milosevic had conveyed to NATO alliance, "If I want to keep my job, I can't accept your terms, unless you inflict some degree of damage on me. So I need you to bomb for two or three nights. Then I will go to my people and say that I want to retain control of Kosovo as much as any of you do, but as your leader, I can't stand the pain and agony that is being inflicted upon you by the NATO air effort. So I'm going to accept the NATO terms."

What's your most vivid memory of the first night, or the beginning of the air war?

The most vivid memory was after conducted the strikes, and we'd shot down the three MIGS, and the call came out. There's an old American beer commercial that says, "After the work day is over, it's Miller time." That was the code word--the young men liked it. So when everybody was out, the strike commander made the call that it was Miller time. So all of a sudden, all of us . . . hey, we had survived the first night. We flew our combat air patrols, shot down three MIGS and no one had been shot down.

Were you amazed?

Yes. The Serbs had formidable ground-to-air capabilities. We hadn't expected much trouble from their air forces. . . .

How many were you expecting to possibly lose?

I hoped to lose none. But I would not have been shocked if we had lost one or two airplanes that first night. In exchange for that, we expected to defeat their surface-to-air missile threat. . . . I expected to come out of the first couple of nights, having lost a couple of airplanes, but having essentially destroyed the Serbian surface-to-air missile system.

But that was not the case. The truth of the matter is that there were not a lot of Serb missile operators who were willing to die for Slobo, trying to shoot down a NATO airplane. Their effort throughout the war was to survive, to move, to hide, to get missiles in the air, but made little or no attempt to guide those missiles. Almost all their shots were ballistic shots, which means they weren't guided.

So I was thinking, what are they doing, what have they learned, what have we learned, and what are we going to do the second night. We were once again ready for an absolute wall-to-wall, surface-to-air missile effort, and it just never materialized. It began to dawn on us that they were going to try to survive, as opposed to being willing to die to shoot down an airplane.

When did you realize that Milosevic wasn't going to back down?

. . . After the first strikes on Belgrade. We hit some bridges across the Danube and some of the downtown headquarters, and parts of Belgrade were in flames, and Milosevic wasn't even talking to us. Then it seemed to me that he was in for the long haul, that he had made a judgement that NATO was not going to hold on, that we didn't have the resolve. . . .

The expulsions started. One of the expressed aims of the air war was to stop and hinder ethnic cleansing. When you saw these refugees coming out, what did you think needed to be done?

. . . In the past, we'd discussed whether we should attack the Serb Third Army. I saw attacking the Third Army in Kosovo as having a high level of effort, high risk, and low payoff option. . . . They could control the space, and it would be very difficult with the refugees all around. Then I was asked, "Mike, what are you going to do if Milosevic begins killing Kosovo Albanians?" And I said, "I'm going to go after the leadership in Belgrade." I remember General Clark nodding, and there was general acceptance that that was the right answer. . . . We just didn't have the ability to strike the Third Army successfully and with enough force to stop ethnic cleansing, given the set of circumstances we thought we were going to face.

What happened in March? The ethnic cleansing started. . . .

Villages were burning before we ever dropped the first bomb. And then the pace just heightened. We continued to make our case. I believe we saw that we needed to go to Belgrade--to get after Milosevic, the leadership, the cronies around him--those things that were valid military targets. . . .

We had a plan to go after tanks, armored vehicles, and troops in the field. But the battle area in Kosovo was enemy territory. You could cause collateral damage, and we feared that we'd kill refugees. . . . . I didn't think it would help us to make Milosevic modify his activity and stop ethnic cleansing. . . .

We figured that we'd affect Milosevic by sending sorties to Belgrade, and striking the Rock and Roll Bridge, or the VJ [Yugoslav army] headquarters. If we sent the same sorties into Kosovo, we might find a tank . . . or we might blow up empty buildings. The impact on ethnic cleansing would be zero, whereas bombing the Rock and Roll Bridge or blowing up the VJ Headquarters would have enormous impact.

So, what was your advice at the time?

My advice was to go after the head of the snake, go after the center of gravity. There was enormous pressure from the 19 nations that you're not doing anything in Kosovo, you're not attacking the Third Army.

So after some discussions with Admiral Ellis, I said, "Okay, we can do that. We just want to do it in parallel operations." . . . I could use some assets in Kosovo that I couldn't, in good conscience, use in Belgrade. That's initially how we started out. Then as we began to expand it, the guidance I got was to divert my effort from north of 44, and send it all into Kosovo. We believed this to be a mistake. We had sufficient forces to continue going after the Third Army, and we continued to attack what we believed to be the center of gravity in the Belgrade area. Then our forces were diverted, so that everything conventional was sent into Kosovo. . . . We were wasting the effort. It could have been spent better someplace else, and in my mind, that's the key. We gave Milosevic a respite. We had begun to go after him. We had dropped some key bridges across the Danube, and we struck some military headquarters. We were beginning to bring pressure to bear, and all of a sudden I withdrew all that conventional force and sent it into Kosovo. I believe there was a great sigh of relief in Belgrade. . . . Now we were operating around the clock in Kosovo, but not in Belgrade. It took about three weeks to convince the leadership that we could do both--that we could continue to attack the Third Army in Kosovo, and continue to do our best to stop ethnic cleansing.

The bombing of the refugee column on April 14 was clearly a tragic mistake. Was that inevitable, once you were tasked to start bombing in the field?

. . .We had agreed that, as much as was possible, this would be a precision guidance war. We would not drop dumb bombs. We would drop bombs guided by laser, or GPS, to be as precise and as accurate as we could possibly be. . . And we had all agreed that 15,000 feet was going to be the floor, because that kept us up out of the small arms environment. It kept us out of the shoulder- held Stinger SA7 environment. We were clearly still vulnerable to the SA6 and the SA3, but you can't go high enough to get out of that environment, so we're going to accept that risk. . . . We started out with 15,000 feet precision guidance only.

But there was enormous pressure to do something about the Third Army. . . .

I met with officers of the 81st Squadron and their commander. My son is in that squadron. . . . I asked them how we could go after Third Army if 15,000 feet probably isn't going to be good enough. . . . They said they could go down to 12,000 feet to identify targets and use the Maverick gun. I said they could make excursions down to 10,000 feet as forward air controllers, but we'll keep the strikers above 15,000 feet. That's how we started our business.

. . .

They identified as military vehicles what turned out to be tractors pulling trailers. They saw these vehicles moving from house to house, setting houses on fire, and they struck what they thought were trucks. When I first looked at the film, it looked like a truck. . . . Then, after looking more, I could see it was a tractor pulling a wagon. Under the limitations I had placed on the crew to stay above 15,000 feet and to let the forward air controllers go down to 10,000 feet for excursions, it was inevitable that we were going to drop a bad bomb. Despite their very best efforts, because of the limitations I had placed on them, we were going to throw a bad bomb. And that's what happened on that day. We struck the two tractors in two different instances. As soon as that occurred again, I said, "Okay, we can't do this again. I've been too restrictive. What do we need to do? . . . How do I need to change the rules?" . . .

It came back from the squadron that we needed to let the forward air controllers go down to 5,000 feet, and to let the strikers go down as low as 8,000 feet in a diving delivery, to ensure that they verify their target and then right back up again to 15,000 feet. We acknowledged that that increases the risks significantly, but none of us want to hit a tractor full of refugees again. We can't stand that.

So from that point on, the rules were: "Try to operate at 15,000 feet, but if you're a forward air controller, like my son is, in the daytime with your binoculars and you see something on the ground and you can't identify it from 15,000 feet, then you're clear down as low as 5,000 feet to make that identification." . . .

And there were risks. Tell me about what happened to your son.

My son called, and said immediately, "Don't tell Mom." My response was, "Don't tell Mom what?" And he said, "I got hit tonight." My question was, "Where were you?" I expected him to say he was down at 3,000 feet, that there was a tank he just had to get. Then when he said, "I was at 18,000 feet," I breathed a great sigh of relief, one, because he was okay, and two, because he was following the rules. It was just a freak thing.

To what extent in this first period of the war did the political restraints affect what you were able to hit, as opposed to sucking away resources to bomb in Kosovo?

The political constraints existed throughout the conflict. There were targets that individual nations would not let us hit, or wouldn't let us hit with airplanes launched from their soil. There were targets that individual nations would not hit themselves, but it was okay for somebody else to hit. Apparently, and clearly, it was relayed to me that every nation had a vote. An individual nation could say: you can't hit that target. A nation hosting US airplanes could say that US airplanes taking off from their soil cannot strike this target. An individual nation would say, "Our Parliament won't let us hit that target, but of course they're not going to say you can't hit it."

That sounds reasonable enough.

The last part I think is reasonable. Within a coalition, I can understand and work around an individual nation . . . saying its forces can't strike a particular target, but the rest of us could go ahead. And with enough notice, I can understand them refusing to let airplanes based on their soil to hit a target. I can work around that as an air commander. . . .

And we were faced with those instances. What I believe is unacceptable is for one nation to veto a target set that other nations believe to be important, and then to say that no one can strike it. That is unacceptable. It allows the interests of one nation to outweigh the interests of the alliance. The interests of the other 18 nations placed the air crews at unacceptable risk, and, I believe, prolonged the war by keeping key target sets off the table. . . .

What were you advising at the time? What did you want to happen?

I wanted the United States to exercise the leverage that I believed we had. We bring to the table in the air war environment those things that are absolutely necessary for NATO to fight. I am not a ground soldier. But my valuation is that NATO can conduct war on the ground without US participation. We all like to be part of the effort. But there are NATO nations, in addition to my country, with marvelous ground armies, great leaderships, great staffs and ground forces as well equipped and as well trained and in clearly sufficient numbers to fight a ground war. That is not the case in the air. The NATO air forces are extraordinarily well led, with great courage, and great people, but in small numbers, and not all are technologically capable of fighting the way you'd like them to fight. They can't all fight at night. They cannot all drop precision munitions, and they are not all able to identify an enemy aircraft beyond visual range--they have to come in and make a visual ID, which is very dangerous.

I'm going to sound a bit arrogant, but it's my evaluation that NATO cannot go to war in the air against a competent enemy without the United States of America. If that's the case, and we're going to provide 70% of the effort, and we're going to provide the leadership, the command and control, and the enabling force, then we need to have more than one of 19 votes.

Let me shoot very straight with you. I believe that before the first bomb was dropped, the door should have been closed, with all those inside who wished to go to war. The United States should have said very clearly, "It appears that NATO wants to go to war in the air, and in the air only. If that is the case, the sentiment of the nations here, we will lead you to war. We, the United States, will provide the leadership, the enabling force, the majority of the striking power, and the technology required. We will take the alliance to war, and we will win this thing for you. But the price to be paid is we call the tune. We are not just one of nineteen nations. We will pick the targets. Certainly we'll ask for your approval, but we will design the grand strategy to get this done. Those of you who do not approve of what we've designed, pull your forces from the effort on that night or for a series of nights. We understand that. But you don't get to stop the effort. You don't have the ability to change the thrust. We're going to send our young men and women to war. We're going to fly in the teeth of the threat, and we'll bear the brunt of the cost and the risk. In exchange for that, we are going to call the tune. And what that means, ladies and gentlemen from the other 18 nations, is that we are going to conduct a classic air campaign from the very first night. The lights are going out, the bridges are coming down, and the military headquarters are going to be blown up. And we're going to go after that target set until it's destroyed. We think that'll bring Milosevic to the table, but if it doesn't, that's the best we can do. We believe that's the best we can do. That's the problem with conducting strictly an air war. You're not going to invade from the ground, so you can't occupy the adversary country."

If the leadership of that country is willing to see their infrastructure, their economy and their military reduced to rubble, and still continue, then they have that option. Colin Powell articulated very clearly early in the war that the problem with air power is that you could blow everything up, but if the adversary were so stubborn and so immune to the agony and the pain of their people that they just gritted their teeth and hunkered down in their bunkers, then you didn't have any other options. But we felt there was a target set we should have gone after, and we felt it would bring him to the table.

Was it a difficult time for you?

Yes, it was. If we had been losing kids, going about this thing what I felt to be the wrong way, perhaps would have had to do something different. But the saving grace in this entire thing was the professionalism and the commitment and the courage of the young men and women flying the airplanes. Night after night in marginal weather, they flew into the teeth of a significant threat. The threat was there every night.

Every night and day that you flew into Kosovo or into Serbia, you had to accept that you were in the lethal range of a surface-to-air missile, because they were moving all the time. We could not identify their locations all the time, so the kids just accepted that. And because they are bright, understanding people, they knew that they were not always being sent against targets that had great military utility. But they did that, and they trusted me. I felt their the was a genuine two-way street between me and my staff, and the people we were asking to execute the war. I felt the best contribution I could make was to keep doing my job as best I could, to continue to try advocate for what I thought was the right way to do business, to take care of the kids as best I could. If at some point, all of that came into conflict to a point where I couldn't stand it, I would have had to decide what to do.

On May 24, you hit the electricity for the first time, but using "soft bombs," as they call them. Tell me about that. Was it a big achievement to finally be able to hit the electricity?

Yes, it was. We realized that this didn't bring him to the table, and that we were going to have to go in and do it again. We killed them twice with a soft kill before we finally did it with a hard kill. . . . I understand all the political concerns that we may turn the power out for the winter and people will freeze, and that's a terrible thing for us to contemplate. But we have chosen to go to war, and it's hard to make war effectively using half measures. A soft kill is nothing more than a signal, because you recover from it in X number of days, and all we have done is send a signal that boy, we're really serious here--at least that's what the politicians seem to believe, that we were sending a signal.

I don't want to go to some young man's wife and explain that her husband died sending a signal. If I'm going to make that trip, if I'm going to write that letter, I want to look her in the eye and say, "Young lady, your husband was packing the Sunday punch. He was part of the best we had. We were going for the jugular, and he was lost doing that. He was lost doing something he believed deeply in. He knew that we were doing the right thing, and there were no holds barred." I've used all the clichés and trite phrases I can come up with. But if you're going to lose young people, you want to lose them having executed your best plan. And a soft kill--a demonstration of resolve--is not the best way to spend young people's lives.

Tell me about the night of the Chinese embassy. What was that night meant to achieve, and what political effect did that incident have?

. . . What we thought was the logistics headquarters downtown turned out to be the Chinese embassy. . . . General Clark thought that the Third Army in Kosovo was "the jewel in the crown." I said, "Boss, you and I have known for months that we have different jewelers." And he said, "Yeah, but my jeweler is senior to yours." After 45 days, we were going after the right target set downtown. We had it lined up for two or three or four nights of really striking the heart of the target, so we were feeling good.

And then, of course, as it turned out that what we thought was logistics headquarters was really the Chinese embassy, and that really turned turtle on our philosophy of going downtown.

When did you discover it was the Chinese embassy?

The forces were all out, and we'd gotten that call. We were feeling good that we'd gotten the kids out, and they were all reporting success on their targets.

Then General Clark called me direct and said: "Mike, you've hit the Chinese embassy." And I said, "Impossible. I can't imagine how we could have hit the Chinese embassy unless we just threw a bomb incredibly long or short. Let me do my homework, and I'll get back to you." So I called the Intel guys in, and said: "General Clark just says we hit the Chinese embassy. Get me a map and show where we targeted on Belgrade, and then where the Chinese embassy is." It wasn't anywhere near our targets. I called General Clark back and I said, "Boss, I guess it could have happened, but I don't know how. I don't think we did. I think it's bad reporting. I've looked at where the embassy is and where we targeted, and I just don't see how we could have thrown a bomb there. It may be a missile went up and came back down." . . . But then CNN confirmed that we hit the Chinese embassy. We clearly were stunned. This was not targeting that we had done--this was a target that was passed down to us as good solid target. . . .

To what extent had the race to develop targets contribute to that? How about the fact that no one had thought this war would go on so long?

I don't think it did. I give great credit to the intelligence community of NATO, and to the effort in particular of Brigadier General Neil Robinson. . . . We always had the same goal in mind. His job was to produce targets for me that were good targets, and that we thought would bring the war to a close, and that they'd done their homework on.

This target had been proposed by another agency, and I was issued that target. But I don't see it as a function of a rush to get targets approved. We had a very controlled, lengthy target approval process to try to avoid just what you're talking about.

What happened after the embassy was hit?

We had a circle drawn around downtown Belgrade, within which we couldn't hit anymore. . . . It took the Rock and Roll Bridge off the table, and many of the headquarters off the table. It essentially cleared the sanctuary.

What targets would you have like to have bombed that you weren't allowed to bomb? The politicians say to me, "Oh, he was able to bomb them all, in the end. "

There were still military and political targets in Belgrade I'd like to have gone after. Clearly, I'd like to have dropped the Rock and Roll Bridge. . . . There were other bridges across the Danube that we would like to have dropped. There were economic targets, factories, plant capabilities that had dual capacity for producing military goods and civilian goods. You understand the law of war as well as I do. You don't attack civilians or purely civilian targets, but you can attack economic entities that contribute to the military machine, and we did very little of that. There was still part of the power grid that we hadn't hit. . . . Even if we went after everything we wanted, it was incremental, slowly ratcheting up. Air war, as I understand it, and as we wanted to practice it, is designed to go after that target set, as rapidly and as violently and with as much lethality as possible. Just stun the enemy. And we never stunned them, from my perspective.

When you heard that you'd won, what was the emotion in your mind? Clearly, it goes without saying that the people who'd flown did a great job and so on. But personally, did you think, "Great, wonderful?" Or did you think, "We got away with it? . . .

Relief, I think, and enormous pride in the kids of the tactical level. I will insert a personal concern. I've certainly reflected on how we could have done this faster and how we could have done it better. . . . [We had] a small get-together, when we knew it was over. All the nations contributed something. The Spanish flew in a large tray of paella, and we had beers from different countries, and just kind of let off some steam. It was just a bunch of airmen walking around saying, "Hey, we got it done. Nobody died. We didn't lose any kids." And that was the overwhelming emotion--we got it done--air power did what it was asked to do. . . . No one hit these targets but us. We brought him to the table. A Washington Post reporter asked me how many tanks we destroyed, and I haven't got a clue. General John Jumper gives the best answer: "Enough." We destroyed enough tanks, and enough APCs, and enough infrastructure to bring him to the table.

What is the moment in this conflict that you remember most vividly--that you'll remember in ten or twenty years, when you look back?

The moment that will stay with me forever was not a moment. It was the six hours of trying to get the 117 pilot off the ground in Serbia. We were only four nights into the campaign. We hadn't lost anybody, and we probably had a little mental letdown, that this is easier than we thought it was going to be. We're in for a long haul, and all of a sudden we've lost an airplane. In the contract we have that keeps young men going after target sets, we're going to come and get you, no matter what. No matter where you are, we're going to come and get you. We will marshal all the forces that I have in my command and to try to bring you back. It took us six hours to get that done. . . . All the force that we could muster was pulled together by a young captain . . . . We listened as those young people pulled it off.

Could you hear the pilot?

We had communications relayed through airborne command and control and, of course, the pilot asked for decisions couple of times--decisions that only I could make. "Hey boss, the weather's going down, and the Serbs are closing in. Can we go in and get him?" "You bet. Go in and get him." And it wasn't pretty. It took us too long, and we had some fits and starts, because we hadn't gone after anybody in a combat rescue for a long time.

Do you remember the moment he was rescued?

Yes, I do. I believe the call was "eagle on board." That meant that the kid was in the helicopter. That's a moment I'll never forget.

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