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Crisis in Yugoslavia | NEWS ANALYSIS

Battle for Kosovo Shows Europe Still Needs U.S.

Military: Air campaign demonstrates NATO's heavy reliance on American firepower and high-tech prowess.

April 20, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — As the Balkans began their descent into war eight years ago, Luxembourg's veteran foreign minister proclaimed, "This is the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans"--meaning that Europeans could solve their own problems.

The calamities that ensued--wars in the independence-minded Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the last of which cost more than 200,000 lives--showed the rashness of the forecast by Jacques Poos, the foreign minister.

And what's been happening for the past month in the skies over Yugoslavia shows just how junior a military partner Western Europe remains, paradoxically at the time when the Europeans have been clamoring for more decision-making power and a "defense identity" of their own.

"If anything, what we're doing in Kosovo proves that Europe can't handle war without the Americans," said a European official at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "Peacekeeping operations the Europeans can do, but not war-fighting."

As NATO's 19 members prepare for the alliance's 50th anniversary summit in Washington beginning Friday, what was supposed to be a celebratory birthday party is shaping up as a soul-searching session.

"Kosovo is clearly going to be a main theme--perhaps the main theme," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea has said.

For Europeans in particular, some of the lessons now coming out of the Balkans have been jarring. The air campaign against Yugoslavia "has underlined the range of capabilities where Europe is too dependent on U.S. help," British Defense Minister George Robertson said in a speech Friday at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"If Europe is serious about shouldering more of the burden in future conflicts like this, it must improve its capabilities," Robertson said.

Few expect a quick fix.

The label "NATO campaign" that has been affixed to Operation Allied Force, in fact, masks its great asymmetry. Of the roughly 1,000 aircraft committed to or requisitioned for the campaign of airstrikes against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's army and police, about 700 are American, NATO sources say.

The operation is under the command of a four-star U.S. Army general, Wesley K. Clark. And U.S. armed forces, military analysts say, have contributed assets no others can match: B-1 strategic bombers, F-117A Stealth fighters, and two types of tank-hunting attack aircraft, the fixed-wing A-10 "Warthog" and the AH-64 Apache helicopter.

A British Royal Navy submarine in the Adriatic, the HMS Splendid, has fired a grand total of five cruise missiles since Operation Allied Force began March 24, a NATO source said over the weekend. U.S. warships have launched Tomahawks by the hundreds.

"The fact is, without the Americans, without their airplanes and ships and command-and-control structures and all the other things they bring to the order of battle, we can't win this," said the European NATO official, speaking on condition he not be identified.

To some on this side of the Atlantic, such U.S. preeminence is humiliating in a year that has seen creation of a common European currency, and one in which the 15-nation European Union is supposed to name its first common representative on diplomatic and security affairs. Many hope that the European trade bloc will turn out to be the skeleton of a future Pan-European government.

"It's one thing to intellectually know that Europeans are dependent on Americans; it's another to see it. Here, now, we're seeing it," Franklin Dehousse, a professor and specialist in European affairs at Belgium's University of Liege, said in a newspaper interview.

Jane Sharp, defense analyst at the Institute of Public Policy Research at King's College in London, predicted that the imbalance in capabilities bared by the Kosovo conflict will galvanize Europe's NATO members to do more in the future.

In particular, she said she believes that it will energize a pioneering effort undertaken by Western Europe's two nuclear powers, France and Britain, to sketch out a military role for the EU.

In June 1996, NATO foreign and defense ministers agreed to build a separate "European Security and Defense Identity" inside NATO--jargon for allowing the Europeans to use alliance assets for missions that the United States doesn't object to but where it found no compelling reason to get involved itself.

Planning, however, evidently has run away from hard reality.

Since the end of the Cold War, estimated one German official at NATO, military capabilities of the European allies have been drawn down by a total of 30%. During Operation Desert Storm, in what must have been a humbling moment, a detachment of the French army, once Europe's largest, had to be supplied by a U.S. logistics unit to stay in the line of battle.

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