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Crisis in Yugoslavia

As Campaign Intensifies, U.S. Feels Strain

April 14, 1999|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the imminent deployment of hundreds of additional U.S. warplanes, a Yugoslav mission that NATO officials had once hoped to keep tightly contained is entering a more intense phase--and quickly becoming entangled in a new set of political and strategic difficulties.

Almost overnight, Washington is facing the prospect of a call-up of military reserves, possibly numbering in the thousands, that is sure to heighten the anxiety of the American public and its elected leaders.

The escalation, which is expected to increase the number of U.S. planes in the Balkans to 800 from the current 500, threatens to strain other military deployments around the globe, especially in danger zones such as the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula.

And coming at a point when the Pentagon already estimates that the campaign in Yugoslavia could cost $4 billion through September, the size of the deployment suggests a military engagement of unforeseen length and scale, according to defense analysts outside the government.

If pictures of refugees fleeing Kosovo first riveted the public's attention to the fighting in the southern province of Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, another potent image could soon affect prevailing perceptions: U.S. reservists leaving jobs and families to join an air war in the Balkans on 270-day stints.

After three weeks of the air campaign, Pentagon officials now say they are quickly reaching the limits of their ability to coax reservists to volunteer for duty in Operation Allied Force and will have to ask President Clinton to order their participation.

"We've gotten to the limits of volunteerism," one Pentagon official said.

The call-up order is likely to involve many Air Force reservists--including pilots and crews of air-refueling planes, such as KC-135s and KC-10s--as well as Army civil affairs officers, who help military organizations deal with local populations.

Such call-ups have become a more routine part of military life than they were in the past, with reserve and National Guard units becoming more closely integrated with the active-duty military. Yet, with bombs falling, the move is likely to intensify the debate over the risks and value of the mission in the Balkans.

"This moves the issue into an area of real political sensitivities," said Andrew Krepinevitch, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

While there's no definitive word at this point, the call-up could involve reservists from the 163rd Air Refueling Wing from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside and the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, Pentagon officials say.

The request for fresh reinforcements--the fourth in the mission's three-week history--is likely to increase concern about the strains that Kosovo is placing on the U.S. military.

While Pentagon officials insisted Tuesday that the expanded deployment is manageable and will not divert planes needed elsewhere, their hesitation to approve all of NATO's requests is tacit acknowledgment that the supply of certain "high-demand" aircraft is not endless.

Many members of Congress and outside experts have been saying that the armed forces have already stretched thin their supply of key aircraft in the danger zones of Northeast Asia and the Mideast.

With 800 U.S. warplanes soon to be involved in the Kosovo crisis, the campaign will tie up nearly seven combat air wings out of a total of 20, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Pentagon's declared mission is to be able to fight two "major regional conflicts," such as wars in the Korean peninsula and the Persian Gulf, in quick succession. The Kosovo conflict now accounts for about two-thirds of the number of planes needed for one such fight, he said.

"This is stretching resources," O'Hanlon said.

Analysts say that, in particular, Operation Allied Force has tied up some of the most important U.S. aircraft, including F-16 fighters fitted with missiles to knock out air defenses, U-2 spy planes and EA-6B electronic-jamming aircraft.

The Pentagon already has had to scale back its monitoring of the Western-imposed "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq because of the shift of planes to Europe.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, members of the U.S. Senate also questioned senior defense officials about whether the Kosovo operation is diverting too much of the military's cargo-carrying capacity.

Similarly, the United States has no aircraft carriers in Northeast Asia because of the diversion of resources to the Balkans.

The Pentagon already has acknowledged that it has had to cut back on the use of aircraft-launched cruise missiles because of a shortfall in supply that won't be relieved until September 2000. U.S. officials say they have only 90 remaining air-launched missiles in their arsenal.

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