April 12, 1999. It’s 12:30 in the afternoon and Brigadier General Dan Leaf, flying in the cockpit of an F-16, is trying to stop a massacre unfolding thousands of feet below.
He’s the Commander of the 315th Air Expeditionary Wing, operating from Aviano Air Base in Italy during Operation Allied Force. The military campaign against Yugoslavia began on March 24, 1999, with British and U.S. using airstrikes attempting to curb an ethnic cleansing campaign by the Yugoslavian government.
The fight will be short, just 78 day, but the use of airpower to influence conditions on the ground will be revolutionary. The U.S. Air Force embraced emerging technologies, like unmanned aircraft, and adopted new tactics for existing ones, like the F-16 and B-2 bomber, that will be so crucial in future conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But right now, Leaf and his wingman are following a convoy with a fuel truck at its center.
“We could see the town they’d just burned, parts of the town, and we only had so much time,” he recalls. “They were racing to get to the sanctuary of the town because they knew we wouldn’t strike them when they were there. We would protect the town that they were going to burn.”
The pair of F-16s is flying without any ground support, relying on their onboard cameras to identify targets and lasers that guide their weapons. One airplane designates the target for their wingman, who launches the weapons.
“My wingman shot rockets and then I dropped two 500-pound jobs and he finished the job with one,” says Leaf, who’s now retired. “I get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Fighting With Precision
Nearly a decade earlier, the world got its first glimpse of modern precision weaponry during the Gulf War. Press conferences in the Pentagon showed images of bombs entering chimneys and windows, dramatic presentations of the value of laser-guided weapons.
But the reality is that less than 10 percent of the munitions dropped during Desert Storm were precision-guided. During Operation Allied Force, that number tripled to 29 percent, according to RAND.
The F-16s were often hunting mobile targets, missions that would become familiar a decade later. They also received valuable experience in coordinating powerful strikes against fixed targets. “We got to where four aircraft could drop eight bombs and have near simultaneous impacts from different airplanes at different pieces of the sky,” Leaf says. “There’s an art of war there.”
The big bombers shouldered a great deal of the weight. Operation Allied Force was the first to use all three of USAF’s heavy bombers in combat. Just 10 B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s delivered nearly half of the 23,000 air-to-ground munitions dropped during the campaign.
Bombers had finally fully graduated from being indiscriminate death dealers and nuclear-bomb carrying horses of the Apocalypse to front-line combat players. The key enabler is the use of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), a conversion kit that turns dumb bombs into GPS-guided smart weapons.
It was the B-2’s combat debut, one that proved to combatant commanders that the stealth aircraft was suited for conventional “night one” missions in airspace defended by radar and anti-aircraft weapons. The B-2s also used its synthetic aperture radar to take images of their targets as they approached, using those coordinated to make their JDAMs even more accurate. Working with jamming aircraft from the Navy was another trailblazing moment for the one-fight one-team ethos that would be so vital during coming, extended wars of the new millennium.
“We had mass. We had precision. But through the first application of B-1 and B-2s with JDAMs in Allied Force was a fundamental shift,” Leaf says. “I think that the Taliban certainly recognized it as a fundamental shift…I think mass precision, at the risk of turning to cliché, was a game changer.”
Enter the Drones
The air war over Kosovo was also a key moment for unmanned aircraft. The RQ-1A Predator could stay in the air for 24-hours, peer through clouds using a synthetic-aperture radar and monitor even low-power signals from Serbian handheld radios and cell phones. But the real attraction proved to be the use of real-time video could be supplied without risking a pilot’s life in the process.
“It was one of the first times ever that there’s an MTS (multispectral targeting) ball, the full motion video ball on a Predator, being used in no kidding combat operations,” says Lt. Col Abizer “Beezer” Tyabji, the current deputy director of the multi-role ISR division. “That’s obviously a really big deal that you have this full motion video, real time, being delivered.”
Today, crews fly drones across the globe from command centers in the U.S., but back then the crews had to deploy. Kosovo missions were flown by crews in Taszar, Hungary. From there they gathered intelligence on Serb atrocities and troop movements. But they also got good at providing targeting information, tightening the “kill chain” on fleeting targets.
RAND’s analysis includes descriptions of new methods born out of the necessity of war:
One new procedure demonstrated operationally for the first time inKosovo entailed a clever fusion of UAV sensor and specialized command and control procedures, in which two Predators orbiting at 5,000 ft would provide electro-optical and infrared identification of mobile targets and a third Predator would then use its laser designator and mapping software to provide geolocation, after which orbiting A-10s or F-16s could be called in on the detected target. Several confirmed hits on tanks were made possible by this technique.
Some of the biggest drone lessons learned in Kosovo actually have more to do with the humans that operate them. Everything from air space deconfliction, emergency procedures, and tasking orders had to be invented on the fly. And the operators and pilots plucked from crewed aircraft found the design lacking.
“It wasn’t built for a pilot. It was built for an engineer,” Tyabji says. “It was built as a custom work. You know, it didn’t have a lot of what I would call pilot-friendly features.”
The combat missions of the Predator—which was unarmed—blazed the way for follow-on programs. The establishment of UAV operations centers inside the U.S., better controls, and the funding of a whole family drones followed.
A Vision of What’s To Come
The lessons of Kosovo have been overshadowed by subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For current drone operators like Tyabji, veterans of Kosovo are hard find.
“It’s an uncommon thing to interact with someone who had flown that far back,” he says. “It was a small, super small community right back when it was in Kosovo. And this community is exponentially grown since then.”
The air war over Kosovo influenced the Pentagon deeply, but it’s not often discussed. Perversely, if the war dragged on or the U.S. suffered more casualties, it may not be as disregarded.
But for airmen in modern conflicts, the practical lessons still resonate in their procedures and equipment—even if they don’t know it.