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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Critics See Idle Gunships as Sign of U.S. Hesitation

Military: Apache helicopters, effective against ground forces, might not join Balkan conflict for another month.

April 10, 1999|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — They're the perfect weapon for NATO's ground-attack operations, and they're based just hundreds of miles away from embattled Kosovo. Yet the Army's 24 AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships might not be fully deployed as part of the allied air campaign for another month, Pentagon officials now acknowledge.

NATO says complex logistics and differences among its 19 members have slowed the move.

But to critics, the idle gunships are the most painful example yet of how the Clinton administration's political ambivalence, or a simple lack of planning, have kept NATO from doing all it can to attack Yugoslavia's troops on the ground and halt their offensive against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Critics can't understand why the Pentagon, which can send 4,000 troops and helicopters of the 101st Airborne Division anywhere in the world within 24 hours, requires weeks to deliver helicopters that are based in nearby Germany and capable of landing in all kinds of rough terrain.

Even more confounding, in their view, is why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization didn't begin planning for deployment much earlier, since it has appeared likely almost from the beginning of an air campaign now in its third week that the alliance would need to mount air-to-ground attacks on troops and tanks.

"They don't have a convincing answer," said Sen. Charles Hagel, (R-Neb.), who returned from a visit with a congressional delegation to Europe to meet NATO officials and allied troops. "We pressed them hard on this, and they just don't have a good answer."

Some critics, noting that Apaches have often been used in ground campaigns, contend that the delays reflect White House fears of anything that might be seen as moving the U.S. toward that politically sensitive commitment.

"To them, this looks like ground troops, it smells like ground troops--and they don't want anything to do with it," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council aide who is now at the Brookings Institution.

He predicted an even longer delay than officials now acknowledge in putting the Apaches in the air.

NATO officials and outside experts have both agreed for some time that the Apache is potentially of great value in the Kosovo conflict.

With a big 30-millimeter cannon in its nose that fires armor-piercing rounds, and the capacity to carry 70-millimeter rockets and as many as 16 Hellfire missiles, the gunship can find and destroy tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery, surface-to-air missiles and other targets.

Yugoslav missiles have been a special worry for NATO, forcing it to restrict air operations to reduce the risk of casualties.

Traveling at up to 150 mph with a two-member crew, the Apaches fly only feet above the contours of the landscape, below enemy radar.

NATO plans to deploy them along with batteries of ground-to-ground mobile rocket systems capable of striking targets from a distance of 100 miles. Missile batteries would fire at enemy forces just ahead of the Apaches' arrival to force troops to duck and prevent them from firing at the helicopters. The Apaches' missiles can strike targets as far as five miles away.

Though use of the Apaches involves greater risk than with higher-flying aircraft, they are not held back by darkness or the kind of bad weather that has hampered the air campaign so far.

Since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces began driving ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province, advocates of more forceful action have looked on the Apaches, in conjunction with A-10 "Warthog" ground-attack planes, as a way for NATO to sharply increase the pressure on Yugoslav troops.

Some contend that having Apaches in the theater, even before they are used, would send a signal that NATO was prepared to intensify its campaign.

No one has suggested that the Apaches are in poor condition or that the military command is unable to move them out of Germany more quickly. But U.S. officials take the view that there was no need to fly in the Apaches early in the air campaign. And they say that the political sensitivities of some members--such as Italy and Greece--have made them move slowly in deploying weaponry that suggested an intensification of warfare.

Officials also cite the complexities of moving the aircraft, and associated troops and equipment, to Albania. The whole package will include 24 Apaches, 18 mobile rocket launchers, about 2,500 troops, 14 armored personnel carriers and other material.

The airport in Tirana, Albania, can take only one aircraft at a time, officials note, and the air routes are now choked with relief flights. In addition, they say, it will take time to prepare the staging area and arrange security for the troops.

While acknowledging that some of these steps may take time, the critics don't buy the claims.

Former White House aide Daalder says that although U.S. officials say that NATO has been the holdup, NATO approved the Apaches' move after deliberating for a day. U.S. officials took a week before that, he said.

A senior Senate aide said he had been briefed twice on the issue and still found the delay "completely mystifying." And he said it pointed to a more perplexing question of why the Defense Department continues to insist that it is not doing any central planning for possible use of ground troops.

Defense officials were either not telling the truth, he said, "or they're being delinquent with their responsibilities."

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