Risk-free warfare: is it still just a pipe dream?

Future crises: Why smart bombs may not be enough

Richard Norton-Taylor

Thursday March 16, 2000

Nato's high-altitude bombing campaign devastated Serbia's infrastructure. It also unleashed a debate about the prospect of "risk-free" military intervention, with the world's most powerful alliance policing the globe to avert humanitarian disasters and control "rogue" states.

This scenario was encouraged by politicians at the height of the Kosovo conflict, not least by Tony Blair. In a speech last April, he said: "Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter ... When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as 'threats to international peace and security'."

He added a warning, posing a fundamental question which remains unanswered. "If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world," he said, "then we would do little else than intervene in the affairs of other countries."

It is now clear that it is one thing to strike targets in limited air operations against "rogue" states, quite another to sustain Nato unity and military commitments in longer-term operations nearer home or humanitarian missions further afield.

And the lesson of Kosovo is that in any future conflict the military will be under strict political control, to keep casualties on both sides to an absolute minimum, and to preserve allied cohesion.

Asked yesterday why Nato did not threaten the Serbs with a ground invasion of Kosovo, General Sir Charles Guthrie, chief of the defence staff, replied: "The alliance was coming from different places ... We obviously had to go with what the market could bear."

He told the Commons defence committee that had Nato launched a massive attack on Serbia, including Belgrade, "we would have had a disaster on day one".

Kevin Tebbit, the top civil servant at the ministry of defence, told MPs that, had Nato faced opposition during a ground invasion of Kosovo, the casualties would have been enormous.

One answer to Nato's political and military restraints is to fill what Gen Guthrie called "capability gaps". During the Kosovo conflict, there was a shortage of "smart" bombs, guided by satellite, which do not depend on good weather.

Kosovo also showed up the European allies' almost total reliance on the US for large transport aircraft, a key requirement of Britain's new emphasis on expeditionary forces.

"Too many [EU] armed forces remain structured to deal with the threat from the Soviet Union," Geoffrey Hoon, the defence secretary, said yesterday. "Europe is in danger of being ready for the last war rather than the next."

The European allies have promised to assemble a corps of up to 60,000 troops trained to reach crisis spots quickly, and prepared to stay on for a year.Meanwhile, senior US commanders say the Kosovo experience shows that a deployable EU police force is also urgently needed.

The Europeans are beginning to realise that "smart" bombs are all very well, but that future crises will involve more commitment of both troops and equipment, and that next time they may not have the US to bail them out.

Original article