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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Time Is the Unbending Foe in Ground War Scenarios

Strategy: From carving a refugee enclave to taking Belgrade, NATO faces daunting preparation tasks.

April 15, 1999|PAUL RICHTER and TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As discussion intensifies about a ground invasion of Kosovo, policy-makers face three potential scenarios varying greatly in scale and likely casualties, but each entailing substantial preparation time and daunting logistics.

Current and former military officers and other experts say NATO could use ground forces to carve out protective enclaves for ethnic Albanians with initially as few as 10,000 to 20,000 troops, and two to four weeks of preparation.

An attack to wrest most or all of Kosovo from Yugoslav forces would probably require 60,000 to 100,000 troops and six to eight weeks' planning; an all-out assault to raise NATO's flag over the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade would probably require 200,000 allied troops and several months' preparation, they say.

So far, none of the scenarios have been approved. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has not authorized any ground forces, and President Clinton insists that the United States and its allies will instead carry on with their air campaign against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

But, if the alliance changes its mind, any of these efforts would be hobbled by the enormous challenge of transporting thousands of troops and a huge flow of supplies to a region with small airports, few wide roads, and almost no bridges strong enough to carry the weight of a 72-ton M-1A1 tank.

"None of these are easy, and none could be done without a lot of planning," said Gen. George Joulwan, who retired in 1997 as commander of NATO forces.

The extensive lead time suggests that Milosevic could finish most of his "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians before any plan is completed.

While the United States and NATO have never contended a ground campaign could unfold quickly enough to halt Kosovo's human tragedy, the desire to do so appears to underlie growing public and congressional support for a ground offensive.

In addition to refugees who have fled Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of displaced ethnic Albanians are still in the province, and are in danger. Political pressure may force NATO to order the invasion that it has so far resisted. Alliance ministers discussed the possibility of a ground offensive at an emergency session in Brussels this week, and the issue is likely to arise again at the organization's 50th anniversary summit next week in Washington.

So far, NATO officials have taken the position that a ground campaign would involve far too much risk, and would not have the support of all 19 member nations.

Creating enclaves could provide relatively quick relief for some refugees near Kosovo's southern border.

But Yugoslav forces could bombard and harass the enclaves, making it difficult to protect the refugees. The job would be huge, even with a big, high-tech intelligence-gathering effort to keep tabs on hostile forces outside the perimeter.

"They'll be very vulnerable," said retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerny, who commanded the U.S.' 3rd Air Force in England.

And this limited objective would do nothing for refugees still in Serb-held territory who can't reach the protected zone.

More Troops, Equipment Pledged

An effort to create refugee sanctuaries could be carried out by strengthening some of the NATO forces already in the region. Among these are NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which has 11,000 troops in Skopje, Macedonia. The British this week announced plans to send 1,800 more troops, plus additional tanks and equipment to Macedonia, and the French have said they will send an additional 700.

The U.S. has 2,200 Marines on ships in the Adriatic Sea, as well as 8,200 members of the 1st Cavalry Division on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia, and 1,200 members of a cavalry battalion in Italy.

The forces of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps would probably need more tanks and artillery, and would need to be retrained to shift from humanitarian relief to combat roles, analysts said.

Because of the poor roads into the region, its tough terrain, and the likelihood of Serbian resistance, NATO forces might decide to begin an attack with an assault by airborne troops or Marines. There are only 14 roads leading into Kosovo, and Yugoslav forces have been mining approach roads and bridges, setting up artillery, and preparing to resist any invasion.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, said such a effort could be launched with 15,000 to 20,000 troops, with the forces increased later to 30,000 to 50,000, to ensure better protection.

He speculated that creating such an enclave would probably result in "dozens" of casualties among NATO troops. A drive to liberate all of Kosovo, in contrast, could entail hundreds of allied casualties, he said.

Any such attempt to seize all of Kosovo would be a much larger job from the start. Joulwan, the retired NATO commander, said the job of moving 60,000 to 100,000 troops would take time, and the task of training relief forces for joint combat operations would probably require two to three months.

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