WASHINGTON -- If and when U.S. pilots are ordered to deliver the threatened "substantial and decisive response" against the Bosnian Serbs, they will be targeted by hostile missile and anti-aircraft batteries but will have effective countermeasures, according to analysts inside and outside the Pentagon.
The first target of any U.S. airstrike will be the 45 surface-to-air missile launchers the Bosnian Serbs have deployed, says Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
These can launch SA-2 and SA-6 missiles, capable of hitting planes flying at altitudes of up to 36,000 feet over a range of 15 miles.
At lower altitudes, pilots would face the Bosnian Serbs' hand-held SA-7s and SA-14s, which can be effective at altitudes up to 4,500 feet and have a range of up to 3.5 miles.
Since April 1993, when NATO planes began patrolling the skies of Bosnia under "Operation Deny Flight" to keep the Serbian airplanes grounded, five allied planes have been hit by hostile fire -- four over Bosnia, one over Croatia.
The latest victim was U.S. Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady, whose F-16C was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired by the Bosnian Serbs while he was on patrol June 2.
Captain O'Grady was rescued by U.S. Marines, who also came under hostile fire, six days later.
After Captain O'Grady was shot down, Marine pilots at the NATO air base in Aviano, Italy, were given permission to install a jamming system, made by Linthicum-based Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group, that had previously failed Pentagon flight tests but that they believe will offer them more protection.
None of the allied planes so far hit was delivering an airstrike.
Four were on routine reconnaissance flight or patrol, and one was flying a close air-support mission.
This is significant, because when full-scale airstrikes are delivered, the attack jets are accompanied by electronic jamming planes to supplement their own missile-evasion systems.
In the six airstrikes flown against Serbian military targets by NATO planes over Bosnia in the past three years, not a single allied plane has been lost.
Among the protective systems U.S. pilots have in operations over Bosnia are:
* AWACS, the airborne control systems that monitor enemy movements and signals and can warn pilots of possible dangers.
* EF-IIIA Raven and EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes that can jam enemy radar signals and emit decoy signals to divert enemy missiles from their intended targets.
* Unmanned surveillance drones, which can operate for 24 hours at a time 500 miles from their controllers, relaying real-time intelligence on the whereabouts of Bosnian Serb military positions.
Offensively, the U.S. pilots will be armed with missiles that can lock on to the Serbian targeting signals and follow them right back to their launchers, and "smart" bombs that can be guided to targets by laser beam.
"In any aspect of this conflict where technology is a factor, we would prevail quickly," said Loren B. Thompson, military analyst with the Alexis De Tocqueville Institution, a Virginia think tank.
Once the missile sites are destroyed, the next targets for the allied planes would be Serbian artillery emplacements, armor, ammunition dumps, communications centers and barracks. The Bosnian Serbs have no combat aircraft of their own.
No one suggests that airstrikes would end the fighting in Bosnia.
At best, they might take the edge off Serbian aggression and thus provide more time to find a negotiated settlement.
But even this is not a certainty.
"These individuals don't necessarily operate on the same rationale we do," said Bill Johnsen, a Bosnian expert with the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army National War College.
"These are people who thrive on the idea of being victims, them against the world, David and Goliath."
If the Serbs persist in their aggression, the withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeepers would appear to be almost inevitable.
The United States has pledged to send as many as 25,000 troops to help evacuate the U.N. forces.