David H. Hackworth
January 18, 1994


To bomb or not to bomb in the former Yugoslavia is the question driving NATO leaders nuts. Their hope is that NATO air power will stop the Serbs from shelling Sarajevo and other Balkan killing fields.

Last May, when President Clinton was champing at the bit to get the United States into that bad war, his Air Force chief of staff, Merrill McPeak. was equally enthusiastic. McPeak said, "Give us time and we will order (strikes) on every one of those (Serbian) artillery positions and put (them) out of business." This, he assured, could be done at "virtually no risk" to his aircraft. McPeak must have been smoking something not sold at the 7-Eleven.

In another bad war back in the 1960s, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay said his flyers would bomb the North Vietnamese "into the Stone Age." For 10 years, aircraft bombed. They dropped three times the tonnage used in all of World War II on a chunk of dirt about the size of California. The Vietnamese hunkered down, fought back mainly with primitive weapons and, in the end, prevailed over a sky full of the world's best fighters and bombers.

Generals frequently are forced to eat their light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel bravado. If air power is used as the final solution in the Balkans, McPeak and the America people will share a bitter supper.

Air power has failed in every modern war we've fought. From World War II to the Persian Gulf, only the grunts down on the ground, where it gets nasty and costly, have produced final victory.

Contrary to the Air Force's post-Desert Storm hype, air power was not the main event even in the desert, where the Iraqis had no place to hide. Though 88.500 tons of munitions rained down on the Iraqi army for more than six weeks, only 15 to 20 percent of its armor and artillery was knocked out, and no more than 10,000 of Saddam Hussein's soldiers were killed. Victory came not because of decisive air power, but because of hard-hitting armor attacks against an Iraqi army with no will to fight. Despite all this pummeling, the Iraqi army remains the most potent military force in the Middle East.

Moreover, the cost was high: A cruise missile's sticker price is $2 million and its payload is only 1,000 pounds of TNT; an F/A18 fighter costs $24 million and is extremely vulnerable to ground fire. The 45-day Gulf War's price tag was almost half what the 25-year Vietnam War finally tallied.

Like Vietnam, most of Bosnia is made up of tree-covered mountains with low cloud ceilings, and the valley floors are covered with fog. The Serbian soldier, like the Viet Cong, is basically a guerrilla fighter. Once air power is used, he will go to ground and revert to hit-and-run tactics against the U.N. peacekeeping force, U.S. target spotter teams and NATO aircraft. He'll fire mortars from the back of pickup trucks, moving them frequently, and place his artillery underground or smack in the center of urban areas and other safe places like hospitals.

In Vietnam, the United States lost 2,257 aircraft and more than 10,000 helicopters to mostly guerrilla ground fire. The Soviet Union had a similar disaster in Afghanistan. Both superpowers were defeated by a determined and unsophisticated foe who didn't have one aircraft over the field.

As in Vietnam, U.S. troops will be committed after air power fails. At least 500,000 ground troops would be necessary to stabilize the former Yugoslavia, and they wouldn't stop the killing -- they'd merely become part of it.

With nine wars under my belt, I predict that air power would fail in the Balkans. Rather than it being the magic solution to the holocaust, it would only enlarge the war, harden the aggressors and be the first step in sucking the United States into another bottomless swamp.