BELGRADE, Yugoslavia – As the Bush administration considers going to war with Iraq, concerns are emerging that Baghdad has been studying the low-tech countermeasures that Yugoslavia used to foil U.S. airstrikes against its military in 1999.
"That's a matter of serious and legitimate concern," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who as NATO commander led the 78-day bombing campaign aimed at expelling Yugoslav forces from the mainly ethnic Albanian region of Kosovo, where they were engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
NATO prevailed by destroying infrastructure and government buildings in Yugoslavia — but it did little real damage to the Yugoslav military in Kosovo.
Before he was ousted in October 2000, President Slobodan Milosevic cooperated closely with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Yugoslav advisers helped revamp Baghdad's air defense system, and officers of Iraq's Air Defense Command toured Yugoslav bases to study the Kosovo war.
"The war (in Kosovo) proved that a competent opponent can improvise ways to overcome superior weaponry because every technology has weaknesses that can be identified and exploited," said Cedomir Janjic, an air force historian.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade confirmed that a group of American military experts was in Yugoslavia to determine what benefits Saddam's military had derived from its cooperation with Milosevic's regime.
Clark identified several ways in which Yugoslav experience could prove valuable to the Iraqis.
The most significant, he said, was the ability of Yugoslavia's air defenses to foil NATO electronics by using different radar frequencies and profiles, and by using "passive tracking" systems that do not give off radiation.
Despite NATO's air supremacy, it never succeeded in knocking out the air defenses. They remained a potent threat throughout the conflict, forcing attacking warplanes to altitudes above 15,000 feet, where they were safe from surface-to-air missiles but far less effective in a ground attack role.
"We were always aware we were being tracked and monitored by them," Clark said.
NATO won the war in June 1999, following Milosevic's decision to withdraw his largely intact army from Kosovo, and after the extensive destruction of bridges, government buildings and other infrastructure targets throughout Yugoslavia.
In contrast, the effects of heavy bombing on the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo were minimal. British ordnance experts who inspected the battlefields after the war determined that only 14 tanks and a handful of armored vehicles were destroyed in nearly three months of bombing.
The Yugoslavs had dispersed their heavily camouflaged units, thus conserving their assets for the expected alliance ground assault, and used decoys and other mock targets to deceive the attackers.
Iraq was quick to pursue insight from that conflict.
Teams of Iraqi intelligence officers rushed to Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the war to visit command centers and air defense sites. Many toured Belgrade's Aviation Museum, inspecting destroyed drones, cruise missiles and the remnants of U.S. F-16 Falcon and F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters.
"Although they wore civilian suits, it was obvious they were Iraqi military," said curator Drasko Kostic.
Meanwhile, Yugoslav technicians were reportedly upgrading Iraq's fiber-optics communications network, allowing commanders real-time control of all units. They modified launchers of SA-6 surface-to-air missiles with optical tracking equipment to allow them to hit targets without using ground guidance radars, and added fuel cells to SA-3 missiles to extend their range to reach high-flying U-2 spy planes.
Over Iraq, U.S. and British pilots enforcing no-fly zones soon noticed a new aggressiveness in the air defenses, which began challenging them on a daily basis. Although numerous command bunkers and missile batteries were hit in retaliatory strikes, the Iraqis also managed some successes by downing reconnaissance drones and damaging a U-2.
Clark said that Yugoslav advisers had enabled the Iraqis to reduce the "effects of weaponry" and passed on "what works and what doesn't in the art of camouflage."
He noted that the Yugoslavs had demonstrated great skill at hiding their armor, guns and infantry in towns and villages.
"That will certainly be of great interest to the Iraqis," Clark said. "We shouldn't be surprised to find Iraqi forces in mosques, schools and homes."
The White House is said to have settled on a war plan calling for massive air strikes on air defenses and key military facilities. But this could quickly unravel if Saddam's commanders — like Milosevic's — shield their forces from the strikes and engage the invaders in a long and bloody ground war in cities.
Analysts say the parallels with Kosovo are far more relevant to a possible conflict than the much-touted victory against the Taliban, arguably the most primitive army in the world.
"We realize that a conflict with Iraq will not be like ... Afghanistan," said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
"Our tactics should be driven by what we learned in Kosovo," he said.