David H. Hackworth
April 19, 1994


Since the day after the Wright brothers got their flying machine up in the sky, both military men and policymakers have hung weapons on airplanes with the hope that air power would become the magic solution to make war easy. They bought into the pipe dream that airplanes could bomb the bastards to smithereens and take out of war the grunt nastiness of inching forward through the mud and hell a few bloody yards at a time.

The fantasy became that airplanes could zoom in with surgical precision and put a laser bomb right up the left nostril of someone like Saddam Hussein. Presto, with the punch of a button and the roar of an engine, victory would be swiftly and efficiently achieved.

World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Somalia all show that air power. although critical to military operations, has not lived up to its backers' dreams.

Just last week, its seductiveness struck again in two trouble spots where technocrats said, "No sweat. Leave it to air power."

In the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, two Air Force F-15C fighters, under the command of a U.S. AWACS aircraft destroyed a pair of American Army Black Hawk helicopters. They were misidentified as Iraqi Hind choppers.

Mistakes occur in war, perhaps most dramatically in fast-flying aircraft where the life or death decision to fire or not to fire frequently has to be made in a split second over targets often blurred at 700 mph.

Defense Secretary William Perry's investigation will find out what caused the accident. which killed 26 people. Meanwhile, the TV generals and lap- top commandos are, as usual, sounding off as if they know what they're talking about. Their guess, though delivered with, pundit's polished poise, is about as valid as my teenage son's stock market predictions. Rushing to judgment without all the facts is flat-out dumb.

There's no question that Perry's assessment will conclude mistakes were made by the U.S. air crews. But I wouldn't be surprised if Saddam's fingerprints were found on some of the evidence. According to a Pentagon source, in 1987 the Reagan people provided Saddam's thugs with U.S. encrypted radios, along with the skinny on U.S. combat air-coordination procedures.

The Pentagon source said that with this gear Saddam could have broken our identification codes (IFF) and also sent radio traffic indicating Iraqi choppers were about to penetrate the zone. These dirty tricks could have caused enough confusion and tension to set up the deadly tragedy. Another expert said the system is fail-safe, and the odds of doing this are one in a million.

Meanwhile, the Serbs called Bill Clinton's bluff over Bosnia and for the first time in the history of NATO, its warplanes struck at real targets when they attacked Serbian forces in Gorazde. The result not only didn't impress the Serbs, it further fanned their fanatical hate-driven fire. From my almost five-decade-long experience with Serbs and war, I doubt if any combat weapon, short of an atomic bomb on Belgrade, would cause them to stop fighting.

Two Air Force F-16s destroyed two armored personnel carriers and some tents, and a pair of Marine F-18s, trying to get below the clouds, dropped their bombs at such a low altitude that two didn't arm and were duds. Another was hung up in the bomb rack, while the fourth broke a few windows. Later, a French plane, riddled with holes, limped back to its carrier, followed by a British jet being blown out of the sky by a missile.

NATO aircraft won't bomb the Serbs to the peace table. When massive air power was used against the North Koreans and Red Chinese during the Korean War, and against the Vietnamese and more recently the Afghan guerrillas, it failed. Air attacks -- wall-to-wall or Clinton nibblers -- will only harden the Serbian will to drive on.

Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week air power wouldn't work to save Gorazde. But as with Vietnam, the State Department warriors prevailed.

Clinton should give up on the quick-fix temptation of air power. It worked over Baghdad, but won't in the Balkans. He should listen to his military advisers, call for a time-out and search for a diplomatic way out of the mess.