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Yugoslavia: Serbia's Air Defenses Pose Challenge To NATO

Prague, 19 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Now that the latest peace talks on Kosovo have ended in failure, attention is turning to the possible use of NATO force against Serb targets.

Western officials have not said that air strikes are imminent. Indeed Russia, one of six nations in the international Contact Group on the Former Yugoslavia that is attempting to mediate the conflict, emphatically opposes the use of NATO force. But Western officials had said air strikes would follow if, as is now the case, the Serbs alone objected to an international peace plan for Kosovo.

Kosovar Albanian representatives at the talks in Paris signed on yesterday. But the head of the delegation from Belgrade, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, made clear his side would not:

"This document is a fake.... [It's] an Albanian document. They signed the document which they, with their American friends, made even before [the first round of talks in] Rambouillet."

It remains to be seen whether Western officials will attempt again to use diplomacy to get Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to agree to the deal. Belgrade's principle objection continues to be the plans call for deployment of an international peace-keeping force in Kosovo. And even as peace talks proceeded this week, there were reports of a large Serbian build-up of troops in and near Kosovo.

U.S. defense officials say 14,000 to 18,000 well-equipped Yugoslav army troops and Serb interior ministry police already have been deployed in Kosovo. Another 16,000 to 21,000 are believed stationed nearby in Serbia, just across the border with Kosovo.

The Pentagon also says the Serb troops are equipped with Russian-built tanks, heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers and sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses. In testimony yesterday before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Ryan said Yugoslav air defenses are strong and could pose a challenge to NATO if air strikes are ordered.

Clifford Beale, an editor of the London-based defense industry journal Jane's Weekly, made the same point in a telephone interview with RFE/RL today:

"The Federal Yugoslav Army has a very capable air defense system comprised of mainly Russian surface-to-air missiles. They have a huge number of low altitude shoulder-fired missiles that can engage low-flying aircraft. But more importantly, and more of a threat to any attacking NATO aircraft, would be the very capable Russian SA-6 medium altitude missiles that they possess. They also have the radar systems to allow them to look at quite a distance to see attacking aircraft. They're also networked so they are able to pass information from one missile station to another."

Beale and other military analysts agree that the first priority for any NATO attack would be to destroy the Yugoslav air-defense network. That was the strategy when NATO launched air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces four years ago, and in U.S. and British airstrikes against Iraqi forces in December.

Beale also said that the first wave of strikes against Yugoslav air defenses would likely be comprised of a large number of cruise missiles together with radar-invisible Stealth bombers. NATO officials have said that U.S. planes would be among the first to attack. In his testimony to the U.S. Congress yesterday, General Ryan acknowledged that some Western planes probably will be shot down if NATO launches the airstrikes. Analyst Beale agrees:

"Certainly they [the Serbs] can N-O-T repel a NATO air attack. But if there is an attack, there is a chance that NATO aircraft will be lost... [Especially] in a large attack on Serbia."

Western officials say the build up of Serb troops in Kosovo has also raised concerns about the evacuation of some 1,400 OSCE monitors from Kosovo. In the past month, Yugoslav forces have cut a main transport corridor that NATO had been expected to use to move ground forces from Macedonia to Kosovo --either to enforce an accord or to extract the OSCE monitors.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said yesterday that Belgrade has stationed tanks and erected concrete barriers near an airfield in an apparent attempt to block the evacuation of the OSCE's multi-national Kosovo Verification Mission ahead of any NATO strikes. Officials in Washington say they would like to evacuate the monitors this weekend. But the final decision on such a pullout is up to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).

More than 10,000 NATO ground troops, led by a French general, are now stationed in Macedonia just across the border from Kosovo.