The Night The Bombs Didn't Drop
Bad Weather, Caution Foil Carrier's Mission
By William Booth
But within an hour or so, the jets had returned to the carrier cruising in the Ionian Sea, still fully loaded with their laser-guided bombs and missiles, denied their targets not by Yugoslav air-defense forces but by heavy cloud cover. Not a single bomb was dropped by jets launched from the Roosevelt Thursday, as the second mission of the night, scheduled for midnight, was scrubbed before the planes even took off.
According to reports from the NATO air base in Aviano, Italy, the other major launch site for the ongoing air campaign against Yugoslavia, many jets also returned there still heavy with unused bombs.
While the United States and its NATO allies have promised to relentlessly harass and destroy Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's ability to wage war, low-lying clouds and night fog repeatedly foiled attempts to bomb targets in Yugoslavia during the first 16 days of NATO's air offensive.
The jets can fly in all kinds of weather, but to deploy their laser-guided bombs with the greatest accuracy requires relatively clear conditions.
But weather alone may not be the reason why so many NATO warplanes are returning without dropping their bombs.
Several senior officers aboard the Roosevelt and at other NATO commands have said that NATO and U.S. forces may be taking excessive caution to avoid causing civilian casualties. Many planes are pulling up short and returning to base out of fear of dropping their bombs under less than optimal conditions, missing their military targets and hitting a nearby school, factory or apartment building instead.
Senior officers said each strike must be exact, as their commanders are fearful that any injuries to civilians would appear within hours, first on Serbian television and then on CNN.
Military sources said they were trying to avoid any possible damage to civilian targets that can be used for Serbian propaganda. Several officers recalled how during the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used bombings of alleged nonmilitary targets to garner support against the allied war effort.
"You don't want to give them the opportunity of saying we hit some factory making baby formula," said one NATO source. "Even if it's not true. You want to hit the exact target, with no collateral damage, even to the building across the street."
The Roosevelt, having come full speed at more than 30 mph since it left Norfolk, Va., two weeks ago, began its airstrikes on Yugoslavia on Monday. With clear weather, the commanding officer of the ship, Capt. David Bryant said, "our first strikes went like we'd been here for months."
On Wednesday night, the carrier launched two strikes against Yugoslavia. But journalists watching the planes return counted many bombs and missiles still cradled to the jets' bellies. But with little or no information coming from NATO or the carrier about its missions and targets, it is impossible to know how successful the strikes were.
Asked about the jets returning with bombs and missiles, Carrier Air Group Commander Dale E. Lyle said it was not unusual for the planes to come home with their weapons, as "we always take slightly more ordnance than the mission requires."
Lyle said the weather was favorable upon the carrier's arrival in the Ionian Sea, south of the boot heel of Italy. "We felt good about the first night," he said.
But by Thursday, things had changed.
A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier preparing for a strike is an awesome thing. A few minutes after 4 p.m., a search-and-rescue helicopter lifted off the flight deck and hovered close by. Soon after, up went the E-2C Hawkeye, the "eye in the sky" that follows the attack group with a big radar, keeping watch, searching the skies for friends and foes.
Then went the tankers, the S-3B Vikings, loaded with extra fuel to supply the fighters if they run low. And right behind them, the EA-6Bs, the Prowlers, used to scramble enemy communications signals.
Finally, one after another, every 30 seconds, the F-14 Tomcats took off, along with the newer, smaller F/A-18 Hornets, a dozen in all.
Each of the jets carried a bristling quiver of weapons. There were Sidewinders, for air-to-air fighting, if necessary, then the bigger HARM missiles, used to knock out radar installations on the ground, and finally the business end of the mission: large 500- and 1,000-pound bombs, affixed with fins and laser-guided nose cones that would take them to the targets selected by NATO but found by the pilots.
Within a half-hour, more than 20 aircraft were launched, one after the other in rapid succession, afterburners flaming, the noise loud enough to pierce an eardrum.
But sooner than expected, the tankers and then the jets returned, still laden with bombs. The unofficial explanation: bad weather.
Jerry Doolittle, the chief meteorologist aboard the USS Roosevelt, had spent the day fine-tuning his forecasts. The weather the last few days had been good. But the weather in the Balkans in April is notoriously fickle -- it can be sunny and balmy one day, raining and cloudy the next.
"This is probably the toughest month to do a forecast here," Doolittle said. "Everything is transitional. You get a few days of great weather, then lousy."
As for the targets in Yugoslavia, Doolittle's job is to estimate how long and where the fog and low-lying clouds will gather and when they will burn off over the early evening hours through until dawn. He compared the challenge to predicting when fog in the hollows and valleys of West Virginia will open and shut on any given day in the spring, and said for aircraft, "this is some of the most dynamic weather on Earth."
Doolittle said that the carrier and its planes had great weather to operate in earlier in the week, but by Thursday, it was deteriorating rapidly.
The forecast for the next few days isn't much better. "The new system coming through is going to be extremely difficult," Doolittle said.
USS Theodore Roosevelt
A Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier
Commissioned: Oct. 25, '86
Flight deck: 1,092 feet long; area 4.5 acres
Height: Keel to mast top 244 feet, equal to a 24-story building
Aircraft: 80, including 10
F-14 Tomcats, 36 F/A-18 Hornets
Personnel: More than 5,500
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