WASHINGTON -- Unless the Bosnian Serbs quiet their guns -- which at one point yesterday were raining eight shells a minute on Gorazde -- they could face escalating allied attack.
"It would be a very big miscalculation for the Serbs to believe this was a force that was limited to an occasional close air support mission," Defense Secretary William J. Perry said last night.
He noted that North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders overseeing operations in the former Yugoslavia control a formidable force of more than 100 warplanes.
He said the shelling of Gorazde had stopped after two U.S. air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions, but it was not clear whether it was an overnight lull or a permanent end.
"I want to reserve judgment on what the Serb reaction to this really is until I see what happens tomorrow and the next day," Mr. Perry said.
Bosnian Serb defiance would leave the United Nations and NATO with two options: more attacks against Bosnian Serb armor and artillery units firing into Gorazde, or a wider scope of raids to drive the Serbs out of the area.
One of 'safe areas'
The United Nations Security Council cleared the way this year for allied protection of Gorazde when it declared the town one of six "safe areas" in Bosnia. The U.N. mandate would permit allied enforcement of the sort of exclusion zone around Gorazde that quelled the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo in February.
But the North Atlantic Council, the political arm of NATO, limited allied military action outside of Sarajevo to providing air support for U.N. forces in the other "safe areas." The council would have to agree to any widening of allied military action.
"We might consider extensions of [current limits on allied action] if the military conditions deteriorate," Mr. Perry said on the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour" television program.
The defense secretary said he and President Clinton were told of the two U.S. air strikes "after the fact." The United States had ceded command authority to order the strikes to the U.N. and NATO commanders in Europe.
Thirteen U.N. observers are in Gorazde; technically, it was to protect them that the two raids were launched. The observers and peacekeepers were under what a Pentagon official called "directed and precise fire", which brought shells within 50 yards of them.
Asked if the air strikes would have been undertaken to protect the citizens of Gorazde had U.N. forces not been threatened, Mr. Perry said:
"If you have a safe area, which Gorazde is, and if you have U.N. troops, then it's very difficult to draw a distinction between when you are protecting the safe area and when you are protecting the troops."
The plan for making Gorazde a "safe area" calls for a battalion of Ukrainian peacekeepers to be stationed there. But the first company is held up at Zepa, 16 miles away, waiting for a lull in the fighting before deploying.
It was "purely coincidence," according to Marine Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, director of operations for the joint staff at the Pentagon, that U.S. planes delivered both attacks.
The United States is one of four nations -- along with Britain, France and the Netherlands -- that fly regular NATO patrols to enforce a "no-fly" zone over Bosnia.
The patrolling U.S. F-16 Falcons and FA-18 Hornets used the past two days were in the right place at the right time with the right weapons, when Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. commander in Bosnian, and Adm. Leighton Smith Jr., commander of NATO's Southern Command, decided to order the strikes.
"This is not a U.S. show," said General Sheehan. "This is the U.S., as a member of NATO, enforcing a U.N. resolution."
Asked whether the Serbs could overrun Gorazde, Adm. Mike Cramer, director of intelligence for the joint staff, replied, "In absolute terms, over time, left to their own devices, without external forces being added to the problem, that is a reasonable military assessment."
The Bosnian Serbs, he noted, have superior armor and artillery, but their 4,500-strong infantry is outnumbered by the 6,500-strong Bosnian government force.
Before yesterday's air strike, there was nothing to suggest that the Bosnian Serbs were prepared to drop their 2-year-old struggle against Bosnia's Muslim-led government and make the former Yugoslavia republic part of a Greater Serbia in the Balkans.
The Bosnian Serbs responded to Sunday's NATO attack with heavy artillery shelling of Gorazde yesterday. Their further action will dictate how the crisis develops.
NATO's first ground attack
Military operations, once engaged, can escalate quickly. NATO first threatened the use of force to end the siege at Sarajevo in February. U.S. fighters then shot down four Bosnian Serb bombers that violated the no-fly zone.
This week, they delivered the first ground attack by NATO forces in the alliance's 44-year history.
"It's like any other sort of trap," said Loren B. Thompson, deputy director of the Georgetown University National Security Studies Program. "It's easier to get into than out of."
Referring to the NATO air strikes, he added: "This is what strategists have traditionally referred to as the ladder of escalation. It's one further step up in terms of the intensity of Western involvement in the conflict."
If the Bosnian Serbs back down, end the shelling of Gorazde and return to the negotiating table, then the U.N. goal will have been achieved at little cost. If they continue to fight, the allied attacks are likely to intensify with the risk of increased U.S. involvement.
The most immediate danger is that U.S. or allied planes could be shot down by the Bosnian Serbs, who have anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, or U.N. peacekeepers could be targeted and killed, inviting direct retaliation.
Rescue missions allowed
The rules of engagement allow for rescue missions to be launched for any missing pilots. In September 1992, U.S. Marines came under fire near the Croatian border as they sought to rescue the four-man crew of an Italian transport plane that had been shot down.
The rules also allow other action to be taken in response to the downing of any allied planes. But officials at NATO's Southern Command in Naples, Italy, which controls air action over the former Yugoslavia, declined to specify what that response might be.
Overshadowing Western military strategy is the memory that the Yugoslavs were able to carry on a resistance fight throughout the Nazi occupation of their country during World War II.
But complicating any military assessment is the constant political maneuvering by all three sides in Bosnia -- the Croats, the Muslims and the Serbs.