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Kosovo Ground War? Not Any Time Soon

By Amb. Patrick Theros1
Special to the Western Policy Center2

Washington, D.C.
Monday, April 19, 1999

President Clinton is extremely reluctant to consider introducing American ground troops into the conflict in Yugoslavia. Even hinting at the possibility would trigger media sensationalizing on the dangers, needs, costs, and benefits of the increasingly discussed ground war option. Now Congress is injecting itself into the larger debate, which has misinformed and misled the American public about the external constraints on a ground war option.

The fact is that the practical restraints on an effective introduction of ground troops and the costs involved are so enormous that they are nearly prohibitive.

Before the U.S. military, in conjunction with NATO, can begin planning for a ground war, it must be given a mission. Will it be ordered to liberate Kosovo, or to defeat Serb forces and occupy the bulk of Yugoslavia? The missions may be inseparable.

Liberating Kosovo, according to Gen. Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may require a combat force of about 200,000 troops, or roughly eight divisions. This would in turn require an additional 100,000 troops to provide rear area support for about three corps. How would this combined force, slightly smaller than the deployment for Desert Storm, be brought into the region?

The roads, ports, and airfields of Albania could not support the deployment of a single U.S. division. Plans for transporting 24 Apache helicopters into the Tirana airport almost shut down a major relief effort. The terrain between Albania and Kosovo is so severe that it precludes the use of armored forces without first committing infantry to clear the mountain passes.

The only practical invasion route directly into Kosovo is from the south, beginning at the Greek port of Thessaloniki and running through the Former Yugoslav Republic (F.Y.R.) of Macedonia. The geographic terrain is less mountainous than in Albania, and there are fewer choke points along the Vardar Valley.

But an invasion force would severely strain Thessaloniki's commercial port, rail and road networks linking Greece and F.Y.R. Macedonia. One example of the problems NATO would face involves the mind-boggling amounts of fuel needed to support eight divisions, which could not be reliably delivered to front lines in the Kosovo theater.

NATO, or more likely, the U.S. Army, would have to expand the rail and road networks, requiring up to three months of engineering and construction work that would push the beginning of an eight-division deployment north from Thessaloniki to mid-July, at the earliest. The port would have to stop commercial operations, and the northern Greek economy would become totally dependent on the military operation.

The attendant economic dislocation, in both Greece and F.Y.R. Macedonia, which relies on Thessaloniki as its trade lifeline, would create serious political problems on top of the logistic difficulties of such a massive undertaking.

Alternatively, NATO could elect to invade Yugoslavia from the north, from the territory of its newest member Hungary. Logistically, this would be an easier route than the network through F.Y.R. Macedonia, given the German, Italian, and Austrian road networks. American equipment stockpiled in Western and Central Europe could move easily by road into the area. The northern Yugoslavia terrain consists primarily of plains, allowing NATO mechanized units to move forward effectively until they cross the Danube, where they would reach heavily forested mountains.

However, eight divisions contemplated for an invasion into Kosovo is far too small a force to invade and secure the whole of Yugoslavia. By comparison, Nazi Germany sent more than 30 divisions into Yugoslavia. Militarily, this operation would be a nightmare. According to NATO reports, the allied bombing campaign has now destroyed the bridges needed to move into Kosovo from the north. The entire length of Yugoslavia must be secured, requiring yet another 50,000 combat troops, on top of the invading 200,000, just to protect the 100,000 logistics troops needed for deployment across Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav Army is well-prepared for this kind of operation. Its battle plan against the Warsaw Pact was to use the regular army for delaying tactics while about 300,000 trained guerrillas took to the hills, where choke points are situated every few miles. Like guerrillas everywhere, they would avoid combat with main force units and attack the rear area forces.

Deploying a force of eight divisions in Yugoslavia would require a colossal logistical effort on the part of the United States and its NATO allies. The combat force deployed in Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm was not much larger. The distances to the Persian Gulf were greater, but the U.S. had access to a superb port, road, and airport network whose capacity was perhaps ten to twenty times greater than the port of Thessaloniki and the road network through F.Y.R. Macedonia.

In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. did not have the problem of coping with hundreds of thousands of refugees who would compete for the resources needed for a military campaign. Finally, a NATO ground war in Kosovo would entail fighting in a heavily populated area, dislocating hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

The logistics of a ground war in Kosovo also require a major mobilization of reserve and National Guard units. After President Johnson's refusal to call up reservists in Vietnam, the U.S. Army has been structured so that it cannot conduct a major deployment without calling up reservists. The overwhelming majority of effective support units are in the reserves. Without calling up the reserve units, we would limit the army to two active divisions in F.Y.R. Macedonia.

Desert Storm and the subsequent deployments in Somalia and elsewhere have severely degraded the air transport fleet. The C-141 fleet is broken. We have less than half the sustained airlift capacity available to us during Desert Storm without calling up the civilian reserve fleet, which would require mobilizing America's civil aviation system.

Overall, the cost of deploying troops in Yugoslavia would not be less than it was in Desert Storm. In Desert Storm, the Arab Gulf states picked up the tab. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait provided almost $100 billion. Other countries made substantial contributions. There is no one to pick up the tab this time, and the cost could well dislocate the U.S. budget surplus.

Finally, the long-term engagement of U.S. forces under the NATO umbrella in Yugoslavia might lead an adversary elsewhere to create yet another crisis to which we would be unable to respond. If Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait again, would the U.S. be in position to move needed forces there?

A ground war in Yugoslavia requires a mammoth logistical undertaking that, political and fiscal obstacles aside, renders the debate underway unrealistic. In the very best case, NATO would be ready for a ground invasion no earlier than mid-summer.

Few observers would bet on the U.S. and the West bombing Yugoslavia for the next three months, especially as our political and military objectives remain undefined. And Slobodan Milosevic knows this.

1 [Amb. Theros, a Western Policy Center contributing scholar, was Political Advisor to U.S. Central Command (Middle East), Director of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs, and, most recently, U.S. Ambassador to Qatar.]

2 [The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]