Apache Helicopters 'Will
Never Fly On Combat
Missions In Kosovo'
By Tim Butcher
Defence Correspondent
The US Apache attack helicopter, promoted as the most potent weapon in America's airborne arsenal, will never fly on combat missions in Kosovo because it cannot cope with the region's mountains, defence sources said yesterday.
The aircraft, deployed to Albania by the Pentagon with great fanfare as the "silver bullet" to end to the Kosovo crisis, is militarily redundant because of the 10,000ft mountains. Only by fitting additional fuel pods could it negotiate such obstacles, and that would reduce its weapons payload and its capability to defend itself.
Defence sources said the problem meant that the Apache will never be ordered into Kosovo on offensive operations against Serb positions, contradicting the PR campaign that promoted the machines as a decisive weapon for the Balkan crisis. It confirms what many experts have suspected for a long time; the deployment of the Apache was intended only as a coercive gesture to threaten attacks on Serb positions but never actually carry them out.
Meanwhile Nato admitted further errors in its air assault with the Indian, Swiss, Israeli, Pakistani and Hungarian embassies in Belgrade all suffering slight damage from errant bombs. While there was no repeat of the huge blunder two weeks ago when Nato mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy, Washington was forced to issue a round of official apologies starting with one directed to the Swiss government.
In Kosovo the Serb-controlled media reported that a bomb hit a prison, killing 19 people including the deputy governor and some inmates. Other prisoners were able to escape when the perimeter wall was breached. Most of the inmates were described as "terrorists", the Serbs description of members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Nato admitted it bombed the prison, but said it was a military target.
Problems with the Apache were confirmed after new fuel pods were seen being fitted to the stubby wing pylons normally used to carry the helicopter's 16 Hellfire missiles. By fitting the fuel pods at least half of the missiles have to be sacrificed.
American army technicians at the Rinas airfield, 15 miles west of Tirana, where the Apaches are based, were trying to get around the problem caused by the mountains that form the Kosovo-Albanian border. The range of the Apache is normally about 400 miles but this drops to about 100 miles if the helicopter has to climb to substantial heights.
The border is so mountainous along its entire length that there is no alternative other than to use more fuel to allow the Apaches to cross, even if they were based near the frontier. The fuel restriction is the latest problem to befall the Apaches, which were ordered to the Balkans amid a wave of publicity in March. Some military planners regarded them as the "silver bullet" that would compensate for the inadequacies of Nato's air campaign which was unable to engage effectively the Serb army in Kosovo.
The Apache has a record from the 1991 Gulf war of being deadly against tanks, armoured troop carriers and bunker positions in open country although the topography of the Balkans with its wooded valleys exposes it to ground fire.
Gen Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, emphasised the long range of the Apache at a Ministry of Defence briefing when their deployment was first announced. It took weeks for the 24 Apaches to deploy to Albania, and when they finally arrived they found a muddy muddle at Rinas airfield, which was cluttered with US troops, aid workers and Albanian personnel.
Two Apaches crashed on exercise, killing two crew members. Then the Pentagon announced it was not prepared to hand over the command of the Apaches to Nato.
Elsewhere, Nato sources said bad weather hampered Operation Allied Force over Yugoslavia although some fixed-wing aircraft were able to carry out their missions.