It was acclaimed as the most successful air campaign ever. "A turning point in the history of warfare," wrote the noted military historian John Keegan, proof positive that "a war can be won by airpower alone." At a press conference last June, after Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreed to pull his Army from Kosovo at the end of a 78-day aerial bombardment that had not cost the life of a single NATO soldier or airman, Defense Secretary William Cohen declared, "We severely crippled the [Serb] military forces in Kosovo by destroying more than 50 percent of the artillery and one third of the armored vehicles." Displaying colorful charts, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Henry Shelton claimed that NATO's air forces had killed "around 120 tanks," "about 220 armored personnel carriers" and "up to 450 artillery and mortar pieces."
An antiseptic war, fought by pilots flying safely three miles high. It seems almost too good to be true--and it was. In fact--as some critics suspected at the time--the air campaign against the Serb military in Kosovo was largely ineffective. NATO bombs plowed up some fields, blew up hundreds of cars, trucks and decoys, and barely dented Serb artillery and armor. According to a suppressed Air Force report obtained by NEWSWEEK, the number of targets verifiably destroyed was a tiny fraction of those claimed: 14 tanks, not 120; 18 armored personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450. Out of the 744 "confirmed" strikes by NATO pilots during the war, the Air Force investigators, who spent weeks combing Kosovo by helicopter and by foot, found evidence of just 58.
The damage report has been buried by top military officers and Pentagon officials, who in interviews with NEWSWEEK over the last three weeks were still glossing over or denying its significance. Why the evasions and dissembling, with the disturbing echoes of the inflated "body counts" of the Vietnam War? All during the Balkan war, Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander, was under pressure from Washington to produce positive bombing results from politicians who were desperate not to commit ground troops to combat. The Air Force protested that tanks are hard to hit from 15,000 feet, but Clark insisted. Now that the war is long over, neither the generals nor their civilian masters are eager to delve into what really happened. Asked how many Serb tanks and other vehicles were destroyed in Kosovo, General Clark will only answer, "Enough."
In one sense, history is simply repeating itself. Pilots have been exaggerating their "kills" at least since the Battle of Britain in 1940. But this latest distortion could badly mislead future policymakers. Air power was effective in the Kosovo war not against military targets but against civilian ones. Military planners do not like to talk frankly about terror-bombing civilians ("strategic targeting" is the preferred euphemism), but what got Milosevic's attention was turning out the lights in downtown Belgrade. Making the Serb populace suffer by striking power stations--not "plinking" tanks in the Kosovo countryside--threatened his hold on power. The Serb dictator was not so much defeated as pushed back into his lair--for a time. The surgical strike remains a mirage. Even with the best technology, pilots can destroy mobile targets on the ground only by flying low and slow, exposed to ground fire. But NATO didn't want to see pilots killed or captured.
Instead, the Pentagon essentially declared victory and hushed up any doubts about what the air war exactly had achieved. The story of the cover-up is revealing of the way military bureaucracies can twist the truth--not so much by outright lying, but by "reanalyzing" the problem and winking at inconvenient facts. Caught in the middle was General Clark, who last week relinquished his post in a controversial early retirement. Mistrusted by his masters in Washington, Clark will retire from the Army next month with none of the fanfare that greeted other conquering heroes like Dwight Eisenhower after World War II or Norman Schwarzkopf after Desert Storm. To his credit, Clark was dubious about Air Force claims and tried--at least at first--to gain an accurate picture of the bombing in Kosovo. At the end of the war the Serbs' ground commander, Gen. Nobojsa Pavkovic, claimed to have lost only 13 tanks. "Serb disinformation," scoffed Clark. But quietly, Clark's own staff told him the Serb general might be right. "We need to get to the bottom of this," Clark said. So at the end of June, Clark dispatched a team into Kosovo to do an on-the-ground survey. The 30 experts, some from NATO but most from the U.S. Air Force, were known as the Munitions Effectiveness Assessment Team, or MEAT. Later, a few of the officers would refer to themselves as "dead meat."
The bombing, they discovered, was highly accurate against fixed targets, like bunkers and bridges. "But we were spoofed a lot," said one team member. The Serbs protected one bridge from the high-flying NATO bombers by constructing, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge made of polyethylene sheeting stretched over the river. NATO "destroyed" the phony bridge many times. Artillery pieces were faked out of long black logs stuck on old truck wheels. A two-thirds scale SA-9 antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined paper used to make European milk cartons. "It would have looked perfect from three miles up," said a MEAT analyst.
The team found dozens of burnt-out cars, buses and trucks--but very few tanks. When General Clark heard this unwelcome news, he ordered the team out of their helicopters: "Goddammit, drive to each one of those places. Walk the terrain." The team grubbed about in bomb craters, where more than once they were showered with garbage the local villagers were throwing into these impromptu rubbish pits. At the beginning of August, MEAT returned to Air Force headquarters at Ramstein air base in Germany with 2,600 photographs. They briefed Gen. Walter Begert, the Air Force deputy commander in Europe. "What do you mean we didn't hit tanks?" Begert demanded. Clark had the same reaction. "This can't be," he said. "I don't believe it." Clark insisted that the Serbs had hidden their damaged equipment and that the team hadn't looked hard enough. Not so, he was told. A 50-ton tank can't be dragged away without leaving raw gouges in the earth, which the team had not seen.
The Air Force was ordered to prepare a new report. In a month, Brig. Gen. John Corley was able to turn around a survey that pleased Clark. It showed that NATO had successfully struck 93 tanks, close to the 120 claimed by General Shelton at the end of the war, and 153 armored personnel carriers, not far off the 220 touted by Shelton. Corley's team did not do any new field research. Rather, they looked for any support for the pilots' claims. "The methodology is rock solid," said Corley, who strongly denied any attempt to obfuscate. "Smoke and mirrors" is more like it, according to a senior officer at NATO headquarters who examined the data. For more than half of the hits declared by Corley to be "validated kills," there was only one piece of evidence--usually, a blurred cockpit video or a flash detected by a spy satellite. But satellites usually can't discern whether a bomb hits anything when it explodes.
The Corley report was greeted with quiet disbelief outside the Air Force. NATO sources say that Clark's deputy, British Gen. Sir Rupert Smith, and his chief of staff, German Gen. Dieter Stockmann, both privately cautioned Clark not to accept Corley's numbers. The U.S. intelligence community was also doubtful. The CIA puts far more credence in a November get-together of U.S. and British intelligence experts, which determined that the Yugoslav Army after the war was only marginally smaller than it had been before. "Nobody is very keen to talk about this topic," a CIA official told NEWSWEEK.
Lately, the Defense Department has tried to fudge. In January Defense Secretary Cohen and General Shelton put their names to a formal After-Action Report to Congress on the Kosovo war. The 194-page report was so devoid of hard data that Pentagon officials jokingly called it "fiber-free." The report did include Corley's chart showing that NATO killed 93 tanks. But the text included a caveat: "the assessment provides no data on what proportion of total mobile targets were hit or the level of damage inflicted." Translation, according to a senior Pentagon official: "Here's the Air Force chart. We don't think it means anything." In its most recent report extolling the triumph of the air war, even the Air Force stopped using data from the Corley report.
Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, General Clark refused to get into an on-the-record discussion of the numbers. A spokesman for General Shelton asserted that the media, not the military, are obsessed with "bean-counting." But there are a lot of beans at stake. After the November election, the Pentagon will go through one of its quadrennial reviews, assigning spending priorities. The Air Force will claim the lion's share. A slide shown by one of the lecturers at a recent symposium on air power organized by the Air Force Association, a potent Washington lobby, proclaimed: "It's no myth... the American Way of War."
The risk is that policymakers and politicians will become even more wedded to myths like "surgical strikes." The lesson of Kosovo is that civilian bombing works, though it raises moral qualms and may not suffice to oust tyrants like Milosevic. Against military targets, high-altitude bombing is overrated. Any commander in chief who does not face up to those hard realities will be fooling himself.