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Special Study: Operation ALLIED FORCE

  • Published
  • By Dr. William Head and James Tindle
  • AFMC History & Museums Program

One of the most successful campaigns in the history of air power was Operation Allied Force (OAF).  In its immediate aftermath, on 6 June 1999, the preeminent military historian, John Keegan, in an editorial in the Daily Telegraph, wrote:

There are certain dates in the history of warfare that mark real turning points.  November 20, 1917 is one, when at Cambrai the tank showed that the traditional dominance of infantry, cavalry and artillery on the battlefield had been overthrown.  November 11, 1940 is another, when the sinking of the Italian fleet at Toranto demonstrated that the aircraft carrier and its aircraft had abolished the age-old supremacy of the battleship.  Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar:  June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that war can be won by air power alone.[1]

How much truth is in such a claim?  Was the allied victory in the dissident former Yugoslav Republic province of Kosovo a victory for air power alone?  Was it a victory at all?  To be sure, the only NATO/United Nations (UN) forces brought to bear over the nearly four months of OAF were military aircraft.  Not until after Serbian armed ground forces had withdrawn were NATO ground forces introduced as garrison peace keeping troops.  On the surface, anyway, it was and is hard to disagree with Keegan.

            In many ways it seems that OAF was the culmination of the aerospace technological revolution (ATR) which began during the Persian Gulf War, and which was interrupted by a brief and, some have argued, unnecessary ground conflict.  The possibility of such a victory had been strongly suggested in Bosnia when NATO air power had forced a peace settlement among the warring parties, but it had been such a small display few felt it significant.  Of course, the air campaign was also complemented by a Croatian ground offensive which was not all together tied to OAF.[2]

            It was only 82 years prior that British Air Marshall Hugh Trenchard formed the first independent air force and, as Keegan reminds us, this was done, “. . . on the expectations that aircraft had ceased to be mere auxiliaries to armies and navies and could achieve, henceforth, decisive results on their own.” Certainly, Giuilio Douhet and Billy Mitchell also advocated such notions.  According to Keegan, “That became the creed of the new Royal Air Force [in 1918], as it was to become that of the eventually much more powerful United States Army Air Forces.”  To this end, says Keegan, “The idea of ‘victory through air power’ was to be held by both as an article of faith, a true doctrine in that believers clung to it in the face of all contrary material evidence.”[3]

            Even though the post-World War II U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) cast doubt on the decisive role of air power in Europe and ultimately the Pacific, those who helped form the new U.S. Air Force held to the theories of their founding fathers, albeit with modifications and often in moderation.  The frustrations of Korea and Vietnam only made air power proponents work harder to upgrade their weapon systems and reform their forces and policies.  The Gulf victory gave them reason to believe they were on the right track.  For many, Kosovo had meant a realization of the dream.  Perhaps the goal was not victory alone, for that is not really what most of the air power proponents meant, but rather that someday air power “alone” would form the tip of the spear.  However, it is a case that requires some explanation–the outcome of a combination of political and military factors.

Read the full text of this special report here:  /Portals/13/HQ%20AFMC%20HO%20Special%20Study%2019-02_Operation%20Allied%20Force.pdf


[1] John Keegan, “Please Mr. Blair never take such a risk again,” The Daily Telegraph (London), [hereafter “Please Mr. Blair”].

[2] For more on the MTR during the Gulf War, see Richard P. Hallion, Storm Over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1992).

[3] Keegan, “Please Mr. Blair.”