Prague, 24 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO warships and bombers are poised today to launch a barrage of cruise missiles against Yugoslav air defenses as soon as they get a start signal from NATO's top commander in Europe.
The top commander, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, was given formal authority by NATO yesterday to launch strikes against Yugoslav forces. NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said in Brussels that there was no alternative but military action after a last-minute diplomatic drive to convince Belgrade to sign a peace agreement over Kosovo ended in failure.
Analysts say that it is now entirely up to Clark to choose when to give the start order and that NATO forces face no constraints from weather or logistics.
Ian Kemp, news editor of the London-based defense industry journal Jane's Weekly, told RFE/RL that NATO forces have been planning and preparing for an air strike since last October, when the alliance first threatened strikes in an effort to end a crackdown by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo. Kemp spoke by telephone today from London:
"There are about 350 to 400 aircraft in place, for the most part they are deployed in Italy. The American heavy B-52 bombers will be flying out of RAF [Royal Air Force] bases in the United Kingdom and there is a small number of sea-borne aircraft ... and there is a considerable force of warships and they will be playing a very prominent role in the initial stages of the campaign."
Analysts say once the start order is given, NATO will fire an opening volley of cruise missiles from four U.S. Navy ships and three U.S. and British submarines in the Adriatic. U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers, each carrying up to 20 cruise missiles and flying from England, will also participate. The British Defense Ministry announced around noon Prague time that all eight B-52s stationed at an airbase in western England had taken off.
Radar-invisible Stealth fighters based in Italy may also take part in early strikes on Serbia.
NATO will initially target Serbia's air defense system, which experts estimate include some 600 Russian-made missiles, among them highly effective SA-2 and SA-6 surface-to-air systems.
Kemp says that NATO's strategy will be to destroy those defense systems protecting corridors leading to specific targets for aircraft to bomb later. Defense experts say such targets could include command and control communications facilities, tank storage depots, air bases and possibly barracks.
The defense analyst says that weather is not a factor in limiting any initial missile or bombing strikes against fixed major targets, such as air bases and command and control centers. But it could be a factor in limiting later aircraft action against smaller and more mobile targets such as tanks in the field.
"If you were to then deploy aircraft against individual tank formations, tanks deployed out in the field, it then becomes somewhat more difficult, but certainly...a sizeable number of the allied aircraft deployed do have a night and a bad-weather capability and that will primarily be through the use of thermal imagers which pick up the heat given off by a vehicle or... personnel or aircraft."
Kemp predicts that most action over Yugoslavia by NATO aircraft would be at night, because that limits the risk from Serbian anti-aircraft guns which for the most part are visually sighted. He says it is impossible to predict how long the NATO strikes would last, because that decision will rest with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and how much damage to Yugoslav forces he is willing to sustain before seeking a peaceful solution.
In anticipation of the air strikes, Britain, Germany and the United States have closed their embassies in Belgrade and ordered their diplomats to leave the country. Itar-Tass reports that part of the Russian embassy in Belgrade is expected to be evacuated today. Meanwhile, European airlines Lufthansa, Air France and Swissair have suspended their services to the Yugoslav capital.
In Belgrade, the situation is reported calm today but tensions are high. The Serbian parliament gave an overwhelming vote of support yesterday to Milosevic's refusal of the key Western condition for a peace accord in Kosovo: the deployment of NATO troops in the province. Milosevic's refusal has frustrated months of diplomatic efforts to broker a peace agreement between Belgrade and Kosovo-Albanian separatists as Yugoslav forces have continued a crackdown in the province.
Yugoslav officials declared a state of emergency last night, mobilizing troops and putting the army on a high state of alert.
But Montenegro -- Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav Federation -- said it would not impose the state of emergency on its territory. The German Press Agency DPA reports that Montenegro's government made the announcement in the capital Podgorica after a special meeting of its parliament late last night.
The Montenegrin government also said it will take measures to ensure its territory will not be used to combat NATO attacks and that civilian facilities will not be made available to Yugoslav troops.
Montenegro's parliament is to meet again today for more discussion on the emergency declaration. Correspondents say that the reform-orientated Montenegro government fears Milosevic could use the NATO attacks to overthrow President Milo Djukanovic, who declared in February that his republic wants no conflict with NATO.
Several countries in the region are also bracing for apparently imminent NATO air strikes. Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic which so far has emerged unscathed from the breakup of the country, said yesterday that it will take n-o part in attacks against Belgrade.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said that he is sure that NATO, which has more than 10,000 troops in Macedonia, accepts Skopje's position. The troops were dispatched to Macedonia to guarantee the safety of an unarmed international observer force in Kosovo which has now been withdrawn.
Belgrade has massed an estimated 20,000 troops along its border with Macedonia, raising fears both of retaliatory attacks by Serbs and of waves of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Skopje worries that an influx of refugees could destabilize its own sizeable ethnic Albanian minority.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban assured Hungarians today that he does not fear a threat from Belgrade against his country, which was accepted as a NATO member earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Russia today again warned that NATO air strikes against Yugoslav forces could destabilize the region. Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who cancelled a trip to Washington yesterday, said in Moscow that air strikes will destabilize the Balkans and harm Russia's relations with the U.S. and NATO.