It's a brilliant little machine, but it can't hit everything, and it doesn't do politics
By Bruce W. Nelan
(Time, October 19) -- Hitler called his cruise missiles Vergeltungswaffen--vengeance weapons--but the Londoners who were their targets scornfully dubbed them doodlebugs. In the summer of 1944, more than 2,400 of the V-1 buzz bombs fell on England as the Nazi dictator made a last, futile attempt to break Britain's will. A half-century and a technological revolution later, the cruise missile has evolved into a superbly accurate flying bomb that can hit almost any spot on earth. It has also become President Bill Clinton's weapon of choice to provide the explosive oomph to back up his foreign and security policy. It is small and expensive, but it has the immense advantage of purring off to its targets by itself, putting no Americans at risk. No more Mogadishus.
Cruise missiles were the silent partner in the high-stakes diplomacy going on last week to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his brutal siege of Kosovo and negotiate with the province's ethnic Albanians. The U.S. has already used its arsenal of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles to turn out Baghdad's lights during the Gulf War, retaliate against terrorists and assassins, and force the Serbs to the peace table in Dayton, Ohio. Now Serbia and Yugoslav President Milosevic are in the crosshairs again. If the massacres of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo do not stop, NATO warns, and Serb troops and special police are not pulled out, the missiles will fly. NATO has put together a plan of action that would begin with a strike by dozens of Tomahawks launched from U.S. warships and submarines that were in the Ionian Sea last week. If not headed off by diplomacy, the attack could begin this week.
NATO approached the use of force against Serbia without enthusiasm and only after horrifying pictures of atrocities and refugees finally pushed the member governments to act. They would still prefer to work something out with Milosevic. Says an alliance official: "We're not going to [bomb] if we can get away with not doing it." U.S. policymakers regularly speak of "the credible threat of force," as if they were convinced that words will make Milosevic give in. But the calculus of Clinton's carrot/stick diplomacy means that sometimes diplomats have to go to the stick.
Milosevic has admitted to Western officials in the past that he was surprised and disturbed by the missiles that hit around the Serbian city of Banja Luka in 1995. "It made quite an impression," says an official. "He realizes that we could take out part of a room or a corner of a building with a cruise missile." That nervousness shows in the current negotiations over Kosovo. At one point, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke pressed Milosevic to move his army trucks in Kosovo back into garrison. "Why?" Milosevic shot back. "So your missiles can bomb them?"
Perhaps. The Tomahawks' sophisticated systems make them ideal for such pinpoint attacks. Their onboard computers are programmed with highly detailed radar maps to the target, and they coordinate with satellites to make sure the missiles are in the right place. But they are not good at everything. They can knock out office buildings and other unhardened structures, but because their warhead contains just 1,000 lbs. of high explosive, they do not pack enough punch to take out bunkers, caves or fortified buildings.
When U.S. embassies in Africa were car-bombed last August, Clinton sent the Tomahawks after the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. Navy launched about 80 of them--at $750,000 each, that's some $60 million. What bang did Clinton get for his bucks? The missiles tore up some sheds and shacks at a training area in Afghanistan and demolished a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which might or might not have been producing nerve-gas ingredients. The Tomahawks did not severely disrupt the bin Laden operation. But they gave the Administration the appearance of taking action in its war against terrorism. Best of all, no Americans had to fly through Pakistani airspace or risk possible death or capture in Afghanistan.
In the current face-off with Milosevic, the missiles' biggest drawback is that they are effective only against targets that don't move. That means they cannot be used to drive out the troops and police who are brutalizing Kosovo's civilians. So the NATO plan is to use the cruise missiles as a first strike, to disarm Serbia's dangerous air-defense system and make the sky safe for follow-up attacks by allied planes.
There are problems with the plan. First, 60 of the Serbs' antiaircraft-missile systems are mobile. The best of them, the SA-6s, have recently been upgraded--outfitted with targeting sensors that make them more lethal. Since the SAMs move around on trucks, they are invisible to cruise missiles; fighter-bombers would have to go hunting for them. Second, after the Tomahawks take their shots at the air defenses and command and communications centers in Kosovo, there is to be a pause of a few days to let Milosevic rethink his defiance. If he stands firm, will NATO have the political will to launch the second-stage attack, with hundreds of planes blasting military targets all over Kosovo and Serbia?
If last week was any measure, maybe not. Despite relentless efforts by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in one of her busiest weeks ever, NATO still was unable to reach unanimity on the so-called activation order that would hand over the missiles and planes to the NATO commander, U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. Milosevic's repression in Kosovo, she insisted, "has passed the threshold of horrors... There has to be an activation order." She warned that "time for diplomacy is running out," then sent Holbrooke to Belgrade to try again.
Holbrooke was trying to squeeze Milosevic into agreeing to stop uprooting Kosovars from their homes, negotiate with them, restore the political autonomy they lost in 1989, and accept some kind of monitoring force from outside Yugoslavia. Albright told a meeting of foreign ministers in London that any agreement must be verified on the ground because Milosevic "is a congenital liar."
The Serb leader has shown that his highest priority is keeping control of Kosovo and pounding the Kosovars into submission. He refuses to negotiate with the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whom he considers terrorists. For its part, the KLA declares it will accept nothing but full independence. Cruise missiles--technical marvels to be sure--are still no match for centuries of hate and bile.
--Reported by Massimo Calabresi/Kosovo, Dean Fischer/ Washington, James L. Graff/Brussels and Douglas Waller, with Albright
Target Saddam Hussein
THE STRIKE: At the beginning of the Gulf War, cruise missiles attacked targets in and around Baghdad
THE EFFECT: They knocked out electricity, blasted a Scud missile plant and wrecked communications
TARGET Osama bin Laden
THE STRIKE: In August the U.S. fired 80 missiles at his terrorist camps in an Afghan valley and at a medical plant in Sudan
THE EFFECT: No serious damage to the bin Laden network. The plant was destroyed, but it isn't clear why
TARGET Slobodan Milosevic
THE STRIKE: On Sept. 10, 1995, the U.S. launched 13 cruise missiles at Serb positions
THE EFFECT: Milosevic quickly agreed to help lead peace negotiations. The scare factor of another attack may now get him out of Kosovo
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Cover Date: October 19, 1998
Down in history
Yet another shoe to drop?
Why the midterms matter
Next up, the touchy subjects
The right connection
Right turn for peace?
The deplorable down and dirty
Public eye: Indecent proposal
The scoop: Enviro-politics