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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

NATO Getting Back to Basics in Air War

Technology: As Yugoslav defenses pose less threat, gravity bombs see action.

May 27, 1999|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The air war over Yugoslavia, heralded since its outset for an unprecedented use of precision munitions, is suddenly turning back to old-fashioned "dumb" bombs in hopes of finishing off Serbian forces.

With Yugoslav air defenses posing less and less of a threat, NATO has been dispatching B-52s, B-1s and other bombers to shower Yugoslavia with unguided gravity bombs much like those used during the Vietnam War. Also in greater use are the unguided cluster bombs that spray shrapnel over a wide area to wipe out troops and vehicles.

Through the beginning of this month, some Pentagon officials boasted that nearly 100% of the ordnance used in the campaign against Yugoslavia were sophisticated guided munitions capable of striking targets while sparing nearby structures.

Now, officials say alliance forces have dropped more than 4,000 unguided bombs, or about 30% of the more than 14,000 that have been unloaded on Yugoslavia since the air war began March 24. The surge in the overall share of gravity bombs suggests that in recent days their use has been high.

"As the [Yugoslav] integrated air defense has been taken down to where we had local air superiority, and could fly with less danger . . . we've switched," Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, a senior planner with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday.

Most incidents of "collateral damage"--the military term for unintended civilian casualties and property losses--that have occurred in the air war have been connected to the use of guided munitions, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials insist they use the unguided variety only where targets are large and distant from civilian sites.

Yet the use of more unguided ordnance has not pleased critics of cluster bombs. They contend that such airstrikes leave behind duds that later kill and maim civilians. About 5% of such so-called "bomblets"--the small projectiles within each cluster bomb--are unexploded, they say.

"We've noticed this trend," said Joost Hiltermann, executive director of the arms control unit of Human Rights Watch, which opposes the use of cluster bombs.

NATO officials say they have used two kinds of unguided bombs, the Mark 82 500-pound gravity bombs and the CBU-87 cluster bomb. Carrying them have been the 18 U.S. B-52s and five B-1 bombers based in Fairford, England, as well as French AMX aircraft and F-16s.

The bombs' optimal use is on targets that cover a lot of area, officials said. NATO officials have acknowledged using the 500-pounders on ammunition storage areas, fuel depots, barracks and airfields; they have said cluster bombs have been used on airfields, ammunition dumps, supply centers and areas where military vehicles have been concentrated.

U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Meilinger, an air-power expert at the Naval War College, said that while some observers might conclude that use of unguided bombs suggests NATO is "taking off the gloves and getting nasty," the use of these weapons in such circumstances is customary.

At Pentagon briefings in recent weeks, officials have shown footage from warplanes depicting airfields covered with craters after B-52 bombing runs. On Wednesday, Wald presented video of a complex of buildings called the Sremska Mitrovica ammunition storage depot showing gaping holes after two B-52s flew over and dropped 88 gravity bombs.

"That area has been basically wiped out," he said.

One advantage of the unguided bombs is cost: Each Mark 82 costs about $1,100, while the smart bombs can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each and cruise missiles cost about $1 million apiece.

And, at a time when NATO is hoping to frighten Yugoslav officials to the bargaining table, there is the psychological impact of thunderous B-52s. They typically fly in groups of three, and drop loads of as many as 51 of the 500-pound bombs each.

If not designed as a terror weapon, "it definitely had that effect on the Iraqi troops a decade ago," said John Pike, a defense analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based think tank.

NATO officials say B-52s, with their improved satellite-guidance systems, are significantly more accurate in dropping unguided bombs than they were during the Vietnam War, when they were less sure of their location.

"They've been a lot more accurate than anyone expected," Wald said.

The B-52s can hit a target within an area about 1,000 feet long and hundreds of feet wide. By comparison, pilots assume that with the more sophisticated laser-guided munitions, they can drop their bombs within a few yards of intended targets.

If NATO continues dropping unguided bombs at the current rate, the campaign will still be far more reliant on precision ordnance than was the Persian Gulf War, in which only 9% of the bombs were precision guided. And it will be about the same as the 1995 NATO campaign against the Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As in this war, about 70% of the ordnance in that effort had precision guidance, analyst Pike said.

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