Driving Bill and Madeleine Bananas

By Franklin C. Spinney

Whatever his strategy, he appears to be playing for keeps. The Serbs dug in when backed into a corner by the conditions of the Rambouillet Agreement, and escalated rapidly after NATO elected to test their resolve with a bombing campaign. In the opening days of the campaign, Serbian grand strategy aimed at creating quickly an irreversible situation on the ground in Kosovo by executing a Cheng-Ch'i (dazzle and stroke) military strategy inspired by a Balkanized version of Sun Tzu while NATO relied on Clausewitz—who wanted to break an adversary's will by raising the price of his actions. (Sound familiar?)

The Cheng was the Serbian air defense distracting effort. The Serbs used their air defense system as a quasi-guerrilla force to capture the attention and distract the focus of NATO air power by conducting hit-and-run attacks while relying on dispersal, concealment, movement, unpredictable electronic emissions, and random slashing attacks to protect themselves from systematic assaults. They were not trying to weaken NATO's air force as much as to neutralize its effects. By reminding NATO constantly that it had not taken out the Serb air defense threat, the Cheng exploited the obsessive fear of losing pilots and aircraft and kept NATO's planners focused on air defenses even when they are planning other missions.

The Cheng had two closely related strategic effects: buying time and protecting the freedom of action of the small, mobile Serbian units that were ethnically cleansing Kosovo. The more important of the two was to buy time for Serbia by exploiting our doctrinal addiction to a predictable systematic multiphased air campaign in which Phase I is always the air-defense suppression operation.

This obsession with methodical battle makes NATO predictable and therefore vulnerable to countermeasures. Because we advertise how we do business, it should not be surprising that the Serbs would make an effort to come up with a cunning Cheng that attacked our mindset as well as our plans, particularly given the Serbian heritage of partisan warfare.

As for the second effect, preserving air defenses drove NATO's airplanes to higher altitudes, increased dependency on cruise missiles, and made the debilitating effects of clouds and bad weather more oppressive, all of which combined to induce NATO to focus its attacks on fixed, high-contrast targets, at known locations, deep in the rear area, as opposed to the small, fleeting mobile forces driving Kosovars into neighboring countries, which is Serbia's main effort.

Evidence is growing that bombing fixed targets in Serbia—bridges and empty headquarters buildings in Belgrade—is increasing the determination of the Serb people to resist. Even courageous prodemocracy dissidents opposed to Slobodan Milosevic have been driven in this direction. This is hardly surprising, since the same psychological phenomenon emerged in the English, German, and Vietnamese populations after being bombed.

The air defense diversion set up the Serbian main effort, or as Sun Tzu would say, the Ch'i —the extraordinary or decisive stroke: an ethnic cleansing blitzkrieg, to depopulate quickly all or part of Kosovo, disperse Serbian forces, hide and dig into strong defensive positions, and set up the conditions for an irreversible grand strategic status quo on the ground by destabilizing Macedonia, Albania, and perhaps Montenegro.

The grand strategic aim of this Cheng and Ch'i strategy was to paralyze NATO's military options by enmeshing NATO and world opinion in a kaleidoscope of reactive efforts to cope with and overcome an expanding torrent of human misery outside Kosovo. This bought the time Serbia needed to consolidate its control of Kosovo and prepare for its defense, should NATO choose to attack on the ground. At the same time, the efforts of coping with the welter of escalating humanitarian crises in Macedonia and Albania helped weaken the political resolve needed to mobilize and transfer the 100,000 to 200,000 troops NATO says it needs to mount a ground offensive to retake and occupy Kosovo, which is now a necessary precondition, if one intends to return the refugees to their homes.

The late Colonel John Boyd, U.S. Air Force (Retired), developed an influential theory of conflict, arguing that any conflict could be viewed as a duel wherein each adversary observes (O) his opponent's actions, orients (O) himself to the unfolding situation, decides (D) on the most appropriate response or counter-move, then acts (A). The competitor who moves through this OODA-loop cycle the fastest gains an inestimable advantage by disrupting his enemy's ability to respond effectively.

Boyd's thinking was an updated and elaborated, albeit unintended, reinterpretation of Sun Tzu's classic The Art of War , written around 450 B.C. All of Boyd's work is consistent with an effort to use Sun Tzu's ideas to overcome what he considered to be the central flaw in the Clausewitzian paradigm: an overemphasis on achieving decisive battle by overcoming friction—those factors in war that impede vigorous activity, such as bad weather, broken equipment, uncertainty, etc.—and an underemphasis on strategic maneuver.

Summarizing the difference between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, Boyd concluded that Sun Tzu aimed to pump up his adversary's friction, while Clausewitz aimed to reduce his own friction or, as Boyd said (tongue in cheek): "Sun Tzu wanted to drive his enemy's OODA loops bananas, while Clausewitz wanted to be keep his own OODA loops from going bananas."

In the opening stages of this latest ". . . damn thing in the Balkans," as Winston Churchill likely would have described it, Slobodan Milosevic opted to exploit NATO's predictability to drive President Bill Clinton's and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's loops bananas—and succeeded in the first round.

Mr. Spinney, a former Air Force officer, has worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense since 1977. He wrote "Genghis John," a tribute to John Boyd, published in Proceedings July 1997, pp. 42-47.


Mr. Spinney, a former Air Force officer, has worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense since 1977. He wrote "Genghis John," a tribute to John Boyd, published in Proceedings July 1997, pp. 42-47.

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