Skip Brandon can remember the fighters coming in so low over the jungle treetops in Vietnam they caught the branches in their gear.
"They were really hands-on, seat-of-the-pants missions, and I don't think, from a ground perspective, that the pilots had anything other than their eyes and hands to guide them," recalled Brandon, who was a young U.S. Navy swift boat commander in the murky Mekong Delta 30 years ago. When he and his mates were ambushed by communist guerrillas, they'd call for air support. Often the first to arrive were prop-driven A4D Skyraiders who flew so low and slow "it sometimes seemed like a plane coming in to save our ass filled the sky."
"I loved those guys," said Brandon, who retired as a senior FBI counterintelligence official in 1995. "Unfortunately," he added, "sometimes the fog of war caused bad drops" -- bombs falling near or even on their own troops.
Today's high-tech, computer-driven aircraft have largely eliminated the "bad drops." But in the Balkan air campaign known as Operation Allied Force, such high-tech warplanes designed for all-weather, low-level attacks have been largely missing in action -- sometimes even returning to base with their ordnance still strapped under their wings, while heavier bombers have been relegated mostly to the north. After a four-day cloud clearing this week, rain and fog rolled in again Thursday night, forcing several fighter-bomber missions to turn back to base. Pentagon officials said the forecast called for bad weather over the weekend, which will again allow Serbian forces in beleaguered Kosovo to fire, bomb, shell and plunder at will.
Whatever happened to America's vaunted "all-weather" digitized aircraft, the fearsome birds touted in glossy newspaper and magazine ads? According to NATO spokesmen, bad weather has crippled an "all-weather" Air Force.
Apparently the generals are betting the public will forget a decade's worth of full-page ads in leading papers touting the all-weather capability of such warplanes as McDonnell-Douglas-Boeing's F/A-18 Hornet, "the first tactical aircraft designed to perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions ... around the clock and in any weather." Similar capabilities were advertised for the F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers and the tank-killing A-10 "warthog."
Yet for the first two weeks of the Balkan campaign, none were assigned to attack the Serbs conducting "ethnic cleansing" missions in Kosovo -- the original raison d'être for the offensive.
So what's the truth? Are NATO's high-tech, all-weather aircraft less fearsome than advertised? Or is there some other reason for the air war's failure to stop the Serbs?
Increasingly, military men blame the stalemate in Kosovo on politicians, not equipment or bad weather.
"When you fly less than 50 bombing sorties per day for seven days, you're not serious about what you're doing," retired Air Force Gen. Buster Glosson, one of the key planners of the Persian Gulf War air campaign, said Friday. "At best it's sporadic bombing."
The troubling truth has emerged that the expedited "ethnic cleansing" of tens of thousands of Albanians in Kosovo wasn't worth the life of a single NATO pilot. So the high-tech aircraft were largely kept out of action in Kosovo, where they might be hit by Serbian anti-aircraft fire or shoulder-fired missiles.
"This is the first yuppie war, brought to you by those who have not served, but who know better than those in uniform," groused Ralph Peters, a former Army colonel who is the military expert of the moment. Peters' blistering prescription for military reform, "Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph?" (Stackpole Books) was coincidentally published on the eve of the Balkans bombing, propelling him onto the talk-show circuit.
"As for the aircraft that hide from the rain, we're playing it very, very safe, with little daytime flying," Peters said. "It certainly makes sense from a purely force-protection standpoint, but it's a bit hard on the Kosovar Albanians."
Peters says the Air Force itself is to blame, too, selling the efficiency of bombing depite its notorious failure to meet political goals both in Vietnam and in Iraq, which has been advising the Serbs on air defense.
"Over the past two years, Air Force generals were briefing [people] on the Hill and around town that we don't need the Army or Marines, just air power and the National Guard to mobilize and clean up the debris left by the blue-suiters," Peters e-mailed from his home in Virginia. "It was really revolting, dishonest and almost treasonous."
Air Force generals, who often go to work for defense contractors when they retire, were motivated by "greed," Peters charged, and found willing ears all over Washington: "The air-power-can-do-it-all arguments were extremely seductive to the wonk generation that didn't serve. Both sides of the aisle, Gingrich and Clinton, fell for the high-tech-bloodless-war scenario. And here we are."
For its part, the Air Force, reeling from the Kosovo disaster, retorted this week that it never oversold what its fighters and bombers could do.
"With respect to stopping the ethnic cleansing, we never supposed or reported that we had a silver bullet that would bring that to a halt," Vice Adm. Scott Fry, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Associated Press.
An Air Force colonel who earned a Ph.D. studying counterinsurgency warfare said sourly, "We should have learned that using air power as a message failed in Vietnam and it won't work in the Balkans."
The colonel pointed to the numbers: "The opening days of this 'campaign' amounted to only 50 sorties per day, and this sortie generation rate has not gone up significantly since that time. This is plinking cans with a BB gun."
Compare that with Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the colonel says. On Aug. 30, 1990, the first official day of Desert Shield, more than 260 sorties were flown, and the number increased exponentially into Desert Storm, he added. "What we're doing in the Balkans is doodley squat. In Desert Storm, we flew over 24,000 interdiction sorties, over 1,400 close air support missions, etc., for a grand total of just under 70,000 sorties. That's an air campaign," the colonel declared.
But pilot casualties would likely be high if that kind of air campaign were mounted in Kosovo, said most military officers, because of the Serbs' air defense capabilities. Most military experts agree that only a combination of ground troops, tanks, artillery and air power can best Milosvic, but they fear the American public and, by extension, its political leaders, have no stomach for casualties when the war's not close to home.
"A few dead Americans and we are out of there -- like Somalia and Beirut," says a Marine colonel at one of the leading war colleges, who requested anonymity for fear of ruining his career. "So we do these operations as 'risk avoidance missions.' We don't dare call them that, but avoiding risk is the reason we use super expensive stand-off weapons instead of 'level of effort' platforms like all weather attack aircraft."
Even the relatively small risk of losing such men and machines in close-order missions is too high for Washington today, he said.
"If the risk is even 99 percent safe -- every 100 flights will produce one downed pilot -- that's not good PR for the folks back home. So we keep shooting $750,000 cruise missiles at targets that cost a fraction of that amount."
But now NATO forces are running low on cruise missiles, according to reports. Even if the cupboard were full, questions were bound to arise, as the battle shifts to Kosovo, regarding how effective such missiles can be against Serbian forces and equipment hiding in the forests or dug into caves, beyond the reach of NATO lasers and other high-tech gizmos.
Likewise, two dozen state-of-the-art, tank-busting Apache attack helicopters, scheduled for deployment to Macedonia next week, are lethally vulnerable, like their Russian counterparts in Afghanistan a decade ago, to Serbian shoulder-fired missiles.
The Serbian ground forces are highly mobile, which has surfaced another technical glitch, according to the authoritative Jane's Defence Weekly.
"Despite lessons learned from the 1990-91 Gulf War, NATO forces participating in Yugoslavia ... have not fielded a real-time targeting capability, the ability to pass images of enemy installations and troop formations directly from spacecraft or airborne surveillance aircraft into the cockpit of fighter aircraft or other weapons systems," Jane's reported this week.
Meanwhile, morale throughout the armed services is plunging with every day's new embarrassment in the Balkans spectacle. Ironically, the bombing to date has been so limited that in Belgrade, ordinary Yugoslavs have taken to painting bull's-eyes on their T-shirts.
"Just when historians were begining to think that Vietnam was the nadir of American foreign and national security policy," an Air Force colonel said, "along comes Kosovo."