A lot of time could and should be spent examining this campaign. It was example of trying to change of countries’ policy by an extended air campaign. It is such an odd case that I left it out of my original article (see blog post “Defeating an Insurgency by Air”, which is also posted to the History News Network). I simply did not want to address it. I probably should have.

As with the U.S. in Afghanistan in 2001, this was a case where U.S. and NATO airpower was supporting the insurgency. The mostly Muslim Kosovars were revolting against the established Yugoslavian government. In this case through, there was not much of an insurgency and the actions on the ground consisted mostly of Yugoslavia attempting to firm up their control over the area, in part by driving the local Kosovars out of the area. At one point, hundreds of thousands of people were dislodged or migrating from the homes.

The United States and NATO were really not providing air support for the insurgents, so much as attempting a punishing bombing campaign against the Yugoslavian Army without taking any risk of losing aircraft. This was an odd aerial bombardment that continued for 78 days at a loss of five aircraft (two due to combat). Finally, on 3 June 1999, the Yugoslavian government agreed to cease their operations in Kosovo and withdraw their forces. Their losses according to some sources were 14 tanks, 18 APCs, 20 artillery pieces and 121 airplanes and helicopters (see Wikipedia: NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia). This was surprisingly low ground losses for a 78 day air campaign that included 38,004 sorties and involved over a thousand aircraft. This included 10,484 “strike sorties; that released 23,614 “air munitions” over Kosovo (these figures are from NATO covering the period from 24 March to 9 June 1999). This was 6,303 tons of munitions and 35% of the bombs and missiles used were precision guided.

Many commentators, including the NATO commander General Wesley Clark, consider that the primarily reason they withdrew is because the Yugoslavian leader, Milosevic, believed that the U.S. was about to insert ground forces in the campaign.

So it was a successful air campaign, but the reason it was successful was that the Yugoslavian leader thought that it was about to turn into a ground campaign. While this is one of the few cases of a pure air campaign actually achieving its stated political goal, it is not a case of an insurgency being defeated primarily by air, especially as the air campaign was done in support of the insurgency.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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