Planning an exit strategy (II): Lessons learned in Kosovo

General Gaviard With President Jacques Chirac After the Air Operations in Kosovo in 1999

This is the second of a series of four articles on the subject of conflict management written by General Jean-Patrick Gaviard. General Gaviard was Commander of Air Defense and of Air Operations (CDAOA) in Taverny from 2003 to 2005 and advisor to the French Defense Minister in 2005 and 2006. He currently works with the Paris-based French Air Force’s Center for Aerospace Strategic Studies CESA (Centre d’études stratégiques aérospatiales) and the Joint Defense Institute CID (Collège interarmées de defense); he is also an advisor to NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, USA.

At a time when foreign military contingencies are becoming increasingly multinational and are most often held in conjunction and end with stabilization missions, General Gaviard ponders whether we should anticipate an exit strategy as soon as a crisis starts. The advantage of such planning is to find a potential solution to a conflict that could prevent military operations to turn into quagmires. Based on different types of conflicts (stabilization missions; urban guerillas; etc) and crisis situations (Afghanistan; Conflict between Israel and Hezbollah; Kosovo; etc), General Gaviard tries to see to which extent such an anticipation is concretely possible and offers various tools to get there.

This second article, which we reproduce below with General Gaviard’s authorization, was published a few months ago in the French magazine DSI. It is about the importance of Allied planning at the beginning of a multilateral intervention and on the need to define a common long-term vision regarding the future of the country, or region, in which a conflict is taking place. Otherwise, as explained by General Gaviard, there is a high risk to end up in a situation similar to the one that occasionally took place during the Kosovo war, which is to say a disagreement between allied forces regarding the best targeting strategy to put in place. This disagreement can only benefit the enemy’s (in this case Slobodan Milosevic) goal of dividing the allied forces. Such an anticipation must also be used when defining the means to put in place and the skills to be developed by the forces: the former manager of Air operations thus highlights the need to maintain the French C2 capacities (command and control) at a good level in order to preserve France’s influence in the decision making at the operational level.


Lessons learned in Kosovo: the need for a long-term global vision coordinated among the Allies

Q: General Gaviard, you were the Commander of the French air forces engaged in the air operation “Allied Force” which took place in Kosovo during the first half of 1999. You were also responsible to the Allied command for the national control of those forces. Therefore, you must certainly have some interesting experiences to share with our readers.

Mirage 2000D (credit:

General Gaviard: First of all, I would like to tell you about the very sensitive problems inherent to target designation as we experienced it in situ. Air operations have always been monitored closely politically. The choice of targets or objectives targeting has been, since the Vietnam War, the preferred means of political leaders to exercise this control. In Kosovo, during the operation “Allied Force”, we have seen many political constraints with regard to the planned targeting. In this regard, I have two concrete examples to discuss: the first one concerns attacks on the bridges over the Danube in central Belgrade; the second one has to do with the targets on the ground of Podgorica in Montenegro, which were attributed by planners of the Operations Center to Mirage 2000D during the first mission of March 24, 1999. These two examples will allow me to give a concrete illustration of the functioning of the national chain of control, from the operational level in the theater of operations, in this case: Vicenza in Italy where I found myself in the center of command and control, to the strategic level represented by the Chief of Defence Staff and of course the French President in Paris.

  • Regarding the Danube bridges in Belgrade, the sequence takes place near the end of the campaign that is to say in the month of May 1999 (the air campaign will end June 11). Operations Commander General Mike Short had proposed to attack the bridges over the Danube in the city center, that is to say in Belgrade itself, for as he said then “cut the head of the snake”. This proposal was very unpopular, especially with French President J. Chirac who knew that after the crisis and Milosevic’s departure, we would have to resume dialogue with the Serbs. Indeed, destroying the bridges over the Danube in Belgrade meant demolishing a political, cultural and economic symbol. The Danube is, in fact, as everyone here knows an umbilical cord linking many countries in Central Europe. Since unanimity rules within the Alliance and the French President had vetoed the proposal, the bridges in Belgrade were spared. Of course, President Chirac had to explain his decision to President Clinton, General Kelche had to explain it to General W. Clark then Saceur, and myself had to explain it to General M. Short. This wasn’t easy as we can imagine. It thoroughly illustrates that within a coalition, there are usually different strategic visions and therefore we should address this problem upstream at the risk of blowing that coalition. I. will come back to this point shortly.
  • The other less known example is of the attack on the ground in Podgorica in Montenegro. We are at the beginning of the campaign at the end of Mars and the diplomatic discussions of Rambouillet did not yield any results. Indeed, Milosevic refuses to withdraw his troops from Kosovo despite the ultimatum given by the West. The attack is preparing. Lieutenant-colonel Girier, who commands the operation of the Mirages 2000D, finalizes the attack on the ground of Podgorica, target given by the planners of the Operations Center of Vicenza. As soon as this objective is known in Paris, we receive a red light from the Élysée. The reason why is simple: President Djukanovic then President of Montenegro had clearly separated himself from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s “pro-war” positions. Therefore, President Djukanovic represented for the West, including France, a foothold in the region that had to be spared at all costs. An attack on the grounds of Podgorica, capital of Montenegro, hence represented at the political level, a strategic error. Consequently, President J. Chirac refused the attack of this target by the Mirages 2000D. Since my role was to monitor the use of French assets in accordance with national decisions, I rushed to General Short’s office to explain to him that “my country” wanted to switch targets. He replied bluntly: “No way! We will attack this target with or without you for one simple reason: if all the nations’ representatives constantly want to change objectives, this campaign will turn into a real rat race”. Another important point militarily is that Podgorica is only a few minutes away by flight from Almendola in Italy on the other side of the Adriatic and thus represented a strong threat looming over the platforms and combat aircrafts from the Alliance stationed in Italy. As everyone knows, an air campaign always starts with the acquisition of air superiority and in particular by the destruction of enemy aircrafts and the neutralization of platforms. In order to convince Paris of the military accuracy of this vision, I had to give a number of phone calls to the capital. During that time, Lieutenant-colonel Girier continued to prepare his mission on Podgorica. Our arguments finally convinced General Kelche, who himself managed to convince the President that we needed to attack Montenegro and the grounds of Podgorica because neutralizing this objective was absolutely necessary operationally for the safety of our own forces and the continuation of the operation.

On the night of March 24, the Mirages 2000D successfully accomplished their mission, but during the whole campaign each planned attack on the Montenegro received special attention from the Chief of staff.

What can we learn from those two examples?

  • First of all, regarding planned operations, targeting will always be a permanent concern for the political powers that have a hard time controlling the tempo of an air campaign. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson designated all the targets on Vietnam without much success. It was what we nowadays call “micro management” which is mostly sterile. Things are changing, but they will still evolve under strong political constraints, especially concerning the employment of air forces and we must know how take that into consideration. Under those conditions, the national chain of command must above all be based on a strong trust among its various officials. Control of the employment of air forces differs substantially for real-time operations. Naturally, responsibilities must be delegated to the level most able to make decisions. In 2002, during operation “enduring freedom”, General Ricour was present as a national official in the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) in Saudi Arabia to ensure control of our air forces acting over Afghanistan. The Chief of staff, General Kelche instantly agreed to delegate to him the responsibility for approval of fire, in real-time, of our planes if the pilots needed a green light going beyond their specific rules of engagement. Indeed, as opposed to General Kelche in Paris, General Ricour was located in the CAOC and enjoyed a pertinent situation awareness allowing him to authorize a firing if necessary knowingly and in full compliance with the issued instructions.
  • The second important point to consider in targeting regards the need within a coalition to have a “global approach” and most importantly shared by all in terms of final vision of the crisis. In the case of Allied Force, the operational plan admittedly defined a final effect in the short term regarding the evacuation of Serbian forces from Kosovo but no desired final effect or medium-term vision on the future of Kosovo. It is the absence of this long-term vision that produced strong tensions between the European visions – or at least French – and American visions, leading to misunderstandings in targeting. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to determine upstream a joint interdepartmental global approach in order to get a clear long-term overview and medium-term expected outcomes that are consistent and shared by all members of a coalition. This approach is certainly difficult to obtain in general, but is nevertheless essential. If this preliminary work is not done, the forces will inevitably find themselves in the uncomfortable position in which we found ourselves at times in Kosovo and the exacerbation of misunderstandings can lead to the explosion of the Alliance. Milosevic understood this weakness and had made then every effort to weaken and divide the coalition. It’s an important point that we must keep in mind.

Q: What did you learn about capabilities at the end of this conflict?

General Gaviard: Regarding lessons in capability, some of which may have been forgotten today, even overshadowed by ongoing operations, we must return to the two major obstacles we had to face at that time. The first one has to do with the threat of aggressive and highly mobile surface to air Serbian missiles, which created significant problems throughout the campaign. The second one is bad weather.

  • The aggressive air defense artillery forced General Short to impose to his planners the integration of devices dedicated to offensive jamming in each planned raid offensive (EA6 Prowler) in order to neutralize the Serbian air defense sites and thus allow bomber raids to penetrate safely over Kosovo, and later in Serbia. Secondly, the anti-radar Harm missiles were not efficient. They were fired preventively but without tangible operational results due to the mobility of the enemy devices. This lack of European capabilities for neutralizing enemy air defenses called Sead /Dead (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense / Destruction of Enemy Air Defense) was nevertheless taken into account at the end of this conflict in the context of European work (Ecap). Since then, nothing! The Americans, for their part, do not seem to have forgotten to take into consideration this threat since they have developed stealth aircrafts such as the F22, F35, and remotely piloted vehicles such as the latest Predator “C” Avenger equipped with anti-radar capabilities as well as appropriate tactical data links. The American response to this threat is clear: stealth technology. I think it would be urgent for Europe – especially since we do not have “stealth” combat aircrafts – to put the Sead/Dead issue back on the table in face of air defense missiles that have greatly improved during that time. Some countries have incidentally chosen to be equipped with efficient air defense devices rather than more expensive superior aircrafts. The S300, for instance, is a formidable weapon in terms of ground-air defense, with a zone of defense exceeding 100 km. If one day, our forces were to face such weapons, we would be facing serious difficulties. Therefore, it seems important to me that we quickly address this issue at the European level for example.
The advent of UASs also began at that time.
The UAS actually helped us by their persistence,in particular,
to detect targets that were beyond the fleetingness of fast aircrafts.”

(General Gaviard)
Recovery of an UAS CL 289 during the operation “Essential Harvest” in Kosovo
and in FYROM (
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in 2001
(Photo credit: Thierry Anne, ECPAD, Macedonia-Kosovo, July 2001)

Given the high mobility of air defense systems it was decided to establish, within the control centers, adequate structures called, at the time of Kosovo, “Flexcell”. That is to say, a cell that allowed us to collect real-time information from many sensors and directing fighter-bombers on these newly discovered targets. The advent of UASs also began at that time. The UAS actually helped us by their persistence, in particular, to detect targets that were beyond the fleetingness of fast aircrafts, and I think that from this point of view, we had started the debate well. Should we, from now on, build concepts of operations through a collaborative work between manned platforms and UAS/UCAV by means of exchange networks of images and data? This vision could come true sooner than we think.

  • Second point: the bad weather. We were particularly hampered in carrying out our bombing missions during the whole month of April. Laser is a good weapon to designate targets in good weather conditions, but when the weather is bad, we need weapons that, after passing through the cloud layers arrive with a hyper-precision on the targets previously identified and localized following correct coordinates. In that context, I think AASM (“Armement Air Sol Modulaire”:“Air to ground modular weapon”) represents a viable option especially since this weapon could also, if we were able to integrate it to the network linking the sensors to the fighters / UAVs via the C2s, benefit from a possible shift in flight against moving targets. This necessary networking needed to reach a mobile air-ground site would also provide an interesting answer to the SEAD problem. Thanks to its propelled system, AASM indeed has another crucial capability to counter this threat today, namely an important “stand off”.

Q: From a politico-military point of view, what lessons did you learn at that time?

General Gaviard: Once again, I would like to raise two major points:

  • The first one strictly concerns the air plans of this campaign. The strategy developed at the time and announced everywhere was too predictive and made the conflict last more than two and a half months. It is now clear that if we had acted in tandem with special forces engaged on the ground or with KLA forces (which we actually did towards the end of the operation or at least partially) to facilitate target designation, we would have gained a lot of time. Today, we are talking about desired effects. Achieving an effect requires a combination of capabilities taken within each component as part of a complete joint work. If during Allied Force the engagement of special forces had been deliberately excluded, during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, air forces were absent from the land planning. Indeed, our friends from the U.S. Army decided that they could attack alone without air support. Unfortunately, they suffered important losses for having forgotten that important principle.
  • Last point: how do we gain influence within a coalition? There is in my opinion only one way: to have the capacities of a “lead nation”. I haven’t read anything in the French White Paper that sufficiently clarifies this concept. Now for a country like France which has a permanent seat on the UN and is a deterrent force, it seems important to refer to this concept, also adopted by the European Union (EU) in July. Concept implemented during the operation “Artemis” in the northeast of Congo, which is the heart of the philosophical basis of the rapid reaction forces of NATO (NRF) or the BG 1500 (Battlegroup) of the EU. But what are the criteria for determining whether a country can claim the ability to be lead-nation in a coalition? I believe that there are three criteria:
  1. First of all, of course, to have forces whose volume is about 20% of the total allied forces, as long as those forces are of first rank.
  2. The second one concerns projection capabilities because nowadays it is essential to project forces autonomously. In this context, the need to urgently see the A400M program lead to something becomes obvious.
  3. The third capability, which is usually kept silent and that is paramount to me, relates to the centers of command and control (C2). If we want to weigh in a coalition, it is necessary to have highly trained officers who can with their expertise have influence in all structures of a C2, whether they are of intelligence, planning or control. In Kosovo, Colonel Stoesslé, for example, was the battle staff director, meaning that he was the control chief of the CAOC. We had, moreover, great officers trained at the Caspoa (“Air C2 school”) in Taverny who were inserted in all cells of the Caoc of Vicenza. This rare and recognized expertise gave us a real credibility with our friends and allies and a definite influence in support of other capabilities that we could provide to the coalition: comprehensive capabilities of the Air Force, but also of the Naval Aviation commissioned by Admiral Coldefy from the aircraft carrier Foch.

I will leave the last word to General M. Short, not always kind vis-à-vis the French political constraints, but who acknowledged the quality of our air force and who had at the end of the conflict this rare and admiring phrase for him: “You have a capable air force”.

That is what seems interesting to me to note as a witness and actor of air operations in Kosovo, only ten years ago!


***Posted on May 21st, 2010