WASHINGTON -- Military staffs at the Pentagon are preparing an extensive air campaign against Serbian artillery and troop units in Bosnia in the expectation that President Clinton may soon order action under his promised tougher Balkans policy.
A full panoply of sophisticated intelligence apparatus and advanced weapons would be brought into play to locate targets and bring them under swift air attack, if the president chooses that course.
By late yesterday afternoon, military planners and operators had settled in for what they said would be a long weekend of getting ready for presidential orders. A customary, telltale sign of crisis planning in the Pentagon was the stepped-up delivery of pizzas and other carryout food.
Officers were unwilling to be quoted by name concerning the operations that may or may not be ordered. They conceded privately that an air campaign against essentially guerrilla units operating in mountain strongholds and populated areas would be tough.
Earlier this week, Adm. David E. Jeremiah, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated military warnings about the difficulties and uncertain consequences of using air power in Bosnia. He warned it was "not simple or easy" to strike at Bosnian Serb guerrillas from the air.
But with devices such as infrared heat sensors to locate artillery, listening devices to tune in on troop units and follow them when they move, precision weapons and anti-personnel cluster bombs, military planners said yesterday that they could curtail the Bosnian Serbs' offensive operations.
The officers did not minimize the outlook for "collateral" damage to civilian areas where the Serbian forces would try to hide themselves and their artillery.
Nor did they say there would be no risk to aircraft crews. But they noted the great advances in defense against anti-aircraft missiles, including the shoulder-fired SA-7 Russian types that Serbian forces are presumed to have.
The officers said that a Bosnian operation would be tough but that guns and troops could be located and attacked with good results.
In the air, AWACS radar planes would process information, likely including some from ground sources, and direct fighter aircraft rapidly to the targets. A similar plane that detects slow-moving ground targets at great distances could be employed -- the JSTARS. It worked well in its first trial in the Persian Gulf war.
Retired Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, who directs national security studies at Harvard's Kennedy School, said in an interview that a hard-hitting air campaign would curtail Bosnian Serbs' offensives but probably would not stop them.
A former officer on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said he assumes that the Pentagon has a target list, or the means of quickly putting one together, and would strike the targets hard and simultaneously if ordered into action.
But a military operation would not be an end in itself, and the administration must reckon whether an air campaign would help to drive the Serbs to the negotiating table or would result in a wider war, General Trainor noted.
Joshua M. Epstein, a Brookings Institution analyst, said a key question about an air campaign is "What if it doesn't work?"
He said an air operation would have very low risk to pilots and could curtail the slaughter caused by the Serbs' artillery. Like General Trainor, he said an air bombing operation might make the Serbs negotiate more seriously.
But, he said, voicing a common concern, "There is no guarantee."