Targeting Errors

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  5/26/1999

WASHINGTON - NATO warplanes strafe a Kosovo Liberation Army base. A laser-guided missile slams into a hospital in downtown Belgrade. Western reporters at a bombed-out prison run for cover when NATO planes zoom in for another run.

These cases of so-called collateral damage were reported in the past week, all after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which jeopardized relations with Beijing and prompted worldwide condemnation.

Despite pledges by top military leaders to review the causes of such incidents as they mount in the 63-day air campaign, NATO has not altered its targeting or attacking procedures, alliance and Pentagon officials said.

"No, nothing has changed," said Canadian Major Ric Jones, a NATO spokesman in Brussels. "I am not aware of any new guidelines."

He said the alliance says its record has been very good and errors such as the Chinese Embassy bombing rare. Jones noted the distinction between a bomb that hits the wrong target because the targeting information is wrong and one that malfunctions.

NATO can do little to prevent a missile from missing its target or damaging surrounding buildings when it hits the target. However, the onus falls on the alliance when its mission planners give pilots faulty information, as with the attack on the Chinese Embassy and the rebel base, Jones said.

In both cases, NATO said its failure was in giving pilots out-of-date information. Databases did not register the Chinese Embassy's new address, and news that the rebels had seized a Yugoslav Army garrison six weeks before NATO's attack never reached Brussels.

"The problem is poor intelligence, planes are not flying low enough, and we're waging a war by committee," said retired US Army Colonel William Taylor, director of political-military studies at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is a really dumb way to fight. . . . No one is accountable without a single chain of command. And you can't expect not to lose planes. It doesn't work."

Taylor and other analysts doubted the alliance would change the way it chooses or attacks targets. A senior congressional military analyst fumed when commenting on an internal e-mail that asked State Department employees to alert the Pentagon, after the Chinese Embassy bombing, to any other foreign missions that had recently moved their quarters. "You mean the intelligence community has to ask?" he said. "They don't already have this information?"

NATO bases its targeting decisions on sources ranging from agents on the ground to satellites keeping a watch from orbit.

Many fixed targets such as fuel refineries, arms depots, and army barracks are well known, and their locations are stored in classified databases. Fresh targets, such as arise when a military convoy moves on an open road or an enemy unit establishes new headquarters, often require nearly instantaneous information, and rely on a pilot's ability to identify the target.

"Our information is usually very accurate," said a Pentagon official who is reviewing US military strategy. "The problem is not identifying a truck moving on a road, but what's inside the truck."

The Pentagon's chief agency coordinating satellite intelligence over Kosovo is the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. It's the agency blamed for drawing up the outdated map that resulted in the Chinese Embassy bombing and for errors predating the Kosovo conflict, including questionable maps used by the crew of a Marine Corps jet that struck a ski-lift cable in February 1998 near Aviano, Italy, killing 20 people.

The three-year-old agency, which combined departments of the Pentagon and the CIA, was created after the Gulf War to speed battlefield intelligence to commanders in the field. Since then, it has been responsible for pinpointing potential military targets throughout the world. And, despite its much-publicized failures, the agency is fulfilling its mission in Yugoslavia, officials say.

Colonel Richard Bridges, a senior Pentagon spokesman, said errant bombs and faulty targeting account for less than 1 percent of the more than 15,000 strikes launched since NATO started its air war against Yugoslavia March 24. He said the alliance had no reason to change the way it identifies and attacks targets.

"There has never been a war fought with this level of exactitude," Bridges said. "But we can't guarantee a risk-free war. The bombs we drop are designed to kill people."

Copyright, The Boston Globe