Tech Central Station September 19, 2003
Wes Clark's Military
By Noah Shachtman
Turn on Fox News, and you'd think America's technology-driven military sprung from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's head, fully formed.
But many of the high-tech hallmarks of the American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq -- Predator drones and satellite-guided bombs, to name two -- first saw major combat in Kosovo, under former NATO commander, and new presidential candidate, General Wesley Clark.
The 78-day air war in Kosovo had more than its share of controversies, of course. The decision not to use ground forces to oust the Serbs seemed cowardly, to some. The drip-drap approach to bombing in the war's early days couldn't have been further from "shock and awe." Air Force officials at the time called it a "disgrace." Matters only got worse when a mis-targeted American smart bomb flattened the Chinese embassy in Sarajevo, touching off an international incident.
But, in the end, 1999's "Operation Allied Force" forced Serb troops out of Kosovo -- without a single combat casualty. And in that fight, the Pentagon began implementing a number of advances that have become central to its more recent military triumphs.
"A number of the novel new weapons used in Afghanistan and Iraq were used first in Kosovo," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.
Satellite-directed munitions are one example. While the public got its first taste of "smart bombs" in Gulf War I, those weapons were all laser-guided. These bombs can strike a target ultra-accurately -- but only if a soldier or an airman can shine a laser pointer at that target. Rain, snow, clouds, and other bad weather makes this just about impossible. And during the Kosovo campaign, there was bad weather in spades. Thousands of sorties were cancelled as a result.
"The big, huge message to come out of Kosovo was the need for all-weather munitions," said Clark Murdock, a former Air Force deputy director for strategic planning, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bombs guided by the Global Positioning System's (GPS) constellation of satellites, instead of by beams of light, could satisfy that all-seasons need. The then-brand-spanking-new Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) kit could turn a regular "dumb" bomb into a GPS-guided "smart" bomb.
JDAMs were used for the first time in Kosovo -- 652 in all. By Gulf War II, many military analysts were calling the bombs the most valuable weapon, dollar-for-dollar, in America's arsenal. In the Iraq invasion, coalition forces dropped more than 11,000 of the bombs.
The plane that delivered these new bombs was itself flying its first combat missions in Kosovo.
The boomerang-shaped B-2 stealth bomber had been in the works since the early 80's. But despite billions and billions spent on the radar-evading planes, they never seemed ready to fly. Even on the eve of the Kosovo conflict, Air Force planners were skeptical that the planes, designed for Cold War mission against fixed targets, could handle the rapidly-changing conditions of the Balkans.
But they did.
"To the surprise of many, the B-2 turned out to be the most consistently effective performer of the entire air war," Rand military analyst Benjamin Lambeth writes in his book, NATO's Air War for Kosovo.
The B-2s -- and JDAM bombs -- were so effective, all of the services began making sure their planes could deliver the satellite-guided weapons, Murdock said.
General Clark, who directed the Kosovo campaign, had long been a military technology advocate, said retired Colonel Mike Mehaffey, who served under Clark in several capacities. Mehaffey now works at WaveCrest Laboratories, the electric motor company chaired by Clark.
When Clark worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he helped produce "Joint Vision 2010," the Pentagon's template for information age warfare. At the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, Clark helped set up a series of "battle labs" to test out new technologies, Mehaffey said.
One of the best-known military innovations making its "major combat debut" in Kosovo, according to GlobalSecurity.org's Pike, was the Predator drone. While the snub-nosed unmanned aerial vehicle (or "UAV") flew a couple of missions over Bosnia in the mid-90's -- and earlier-model drones were used experimentally in the first Gulf War -- Kosovo marked "the first time in American combat experience" that UAVs like the Predator gave American commanders a real-time view of battles as they were going on, according to Lambeth.
This was no small shift. Before, if a commander wanted to see a battle unfolding, he'd have to risk a pilot's life to do it. Needless to say, it didn't happen all that often.
A UAV, on the other hand, allowed top brass to take a look at a combat zone, seemingly without consequence. And, in Operation Allied Force, generals started to take advantage of this new capability. Predator drones flew about 600 missions, using its cloud-piercing synthetic aperture radar to track Serb armor and troops.
This wasn't always a good thing. Clark was accused of circumventing his subordinates' orders, repositioning the drones to examine areas that were of interest to him.
And the UAVs were vulnerable. At least 25 were shot down by the Serbs or crashed because of mechanical failures.
But "ideas and energy came out of Kosovo," said Murdock. One thought was to add a Hellfire missile to the unmanned plane. Three years later, a Predator so armed would take out a half-dozen Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
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