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Bosnia: Using Airplanes To Counteract Serb Media

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 27 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. senator says America should use a specially-equipped airplane to broadcast alternative television and radio programs to weaken Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic's grip on broadcast media in the Republika Srpska.

Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan) made the statement recently in a commentary he wrote for the Washington Post.

Levin called upon the U.S. military to utilize the plane which is essentially an airborne television and radio station, equipped with transmitters and video. The plane has unique capabilities that permit it to broadcast on nearly all channels and wave lengths around the world.

Levin said he supported using the plane to help counteract "inflammatory reports" and the "encouragement of violent action" against American and allied forces in Bosnia by Karadzic and the ruling Serb Democratic Party.

Levin's commentary created a stir in Washington where patience is wearing thin with the increasingly hostile broadcasts against NATO forces coming largely out of the city of Pale -- a Karadzic stronghold.

Last week, State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters that the U.S. was very concerned about the "vile poison" being broadcast by television stations in Pale.

Rubin added that the U.S. government was "working hard" to ensure that the people of Bosnia will be able to "hear something resembling the truth" by the end of this year, but did not offer any specifics.

Those who support the use of the plane say it has a history of successful missions in the past. The aircraft was used in Grenada during the U.S. invasion there in 1983; in the Persian Gulf War to urge Iraqi soldiers to surrender; and during the U.S. intervention in Haiti in 1995.

The airplanes are located in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania and maintained by the state's Air National Guard, a reserve component of the U.S. Air Force.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cleaver, a public affairs officer with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, told RFE/RL that the plane, known as Commando Solo, has unique capabilities.

"The 193rd Special Operations Group, the unit that operates the airplane, is the only unit in the world that flies the aircraft," Cleaver says. "No one out there from any military, anywhere in the world, has the same type of capabilities found in our airplane."

Cleaver says the airplane has special equipment that permits it to serve a radio and television broadcast platform anywhere in the world. It also has some capabilities that remain classified, he says.

Cleaver declined to comment on possible deployment of the plane to Bosnia but said he thought the aircraft could be a powerful tool.

But some experts say deployment of the Commando Solo to Bosnia would not be so easy.

Part of the problem is that the 193rd Special Operations Group that flies the airplane is not authorized to produce any of the materials that are broadcast. This would have to be handled by another U.S. Army unit, the 4th Psychological Operations Group (POG).

Military experts say at this time the POG simply does not have the funds, capabilities or linguistic support to produce 24 hours worth of news or radio programs.

Experts also say the plane is a large and vulnerable target, especially to surface-to-air missiles. The Commando Solo needs to fly at a relatively low altitude in order to broadcast effectively and does not have remarkable maneuvering capabilities. It also needs to be refueled every four to five hours.

Some observers say the plane could be used effectively in Bosnia, but with limitations.

Chuck de Caro, a consultant to the Air Force in evaluating the use of the television on board the Commando Solo, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, published Tuesday, that the best way to use the airplane would be to let it serve as a platform for all factions of Bosnian journalists. It would then be the responsibility of the Bosnian journalists, says de Caro, to produce the programs, which the Commando Solo would broadcast.

Cleaver says what is really important about the airplane is that it gives people a chance to see and hear alternative pieces of information.

"The truth really serves as a light," he adds. "The U.S. can provide this light by using the Commando Solo anywhere in the world. It is a powerful tool which does not require inflicting any kind of physical pain. You don't have to attack people to get the message across and you can provide information in a non-threatening, non-combat environment. That is the beauty of the airplane."