As NATO once again deploys additional combat and tanker aircraft forward to bases in Italy in the shadow of the looming Kosovo crisis, alliance leaders depend on intelligence from the Balkan hot spot to plan their way ahead. With the help of airborne intelligence systems, NATO has built a detailed picture of the conflict over the past few months.
"The situation is changing by the minute," say officers assigned to NATO's Kosovo Verification Co-ordination Centre (KVCC) in Macedonia. They should know. The 150 staff from 14 nations have monitored the results of an unprecedented surveillance effort involving satellites, manned reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) since a last-minute, US-brokered, ceasefire agreement in October averted NATO air strikes against Serb positions in the contested province.
KVCC's chief, British Army Brigadier David Montgomery, says: "I am confident we have the best assets available anywhere in the world."
Among the array of assets available to the mission are USN Lockheed P-3C Orions, US Air Force Lockheed U-2R Dragon Ladies, French navy Atlantiques and UK Royal Air Force English Electric Canberras. Another familiar eye in the Balkan skies - the USAF's General Atomics Predator - is missing from today's line-up. The centre's intelligence chief, US Navy Cdr Chris Bott, told Flight International:Ê"It does not operate well in the extreme Balkan weather. We may see it back in the spring."
The only UAVs now supporting Operation Eagle Eye, as NATO calls the verification mission, are German army Dornier CL-289 drones. The UAVs operate from a forward base in Macedonia, only 15km (9 miles) from the Kosovo border. Commercial satellite imagery is also available.
The KVCC's nerve centre is in a rundown former Yugoslav army barracks at Kumanovo, less than 20km from the border with Kosovo. The Joint Operation Centre (JOC) is full of networked computer terminals that allow operators to access and manipulate NATO intelligence databases and imagery. Satellite communications links allow real-time video feeds from airborne platforms such as the U-2, P-3 - and the Predator, when it is present - to be piped straight in to the JOC.
The JOC also has a hotline to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) verifier on the ground in Kosovo. "We are a first phase, quick analysis, set-up," Bott says. "We do not have the experience or bodies to be a full-blown intelligence centre like the US European Command's Joint Analysis Centre at RAF Molesworth [in the UK]. The real in-depth analysis is done elsewhere."
The KVCC exists to support the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission to promote peace and stability in the Balkans, but not to judge compliance with agreements negotiated by US envoy Richard Holbrooke. The centre co-ordinates information received from NATO aircraft and the OSCE, which is then passed to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
"The concept is to have a NATO component headquarters in Macedonia, which is a sort of link between the air verification and the OSCE mission on the ground," Bott says. "NATO is close to, but not in, Kosovo."
The KVCC's daily effort is directed at collecting information on the activities of all the various warring groups inside Kosovo. Much of its work involves methodically processing large amounts of information and presenting it to senior NATO commanders and political leaders in an easy to understand form.
It also collates requests for photographic imagery and other intelligence products before asking NATO's Combined Air Operations Centre at Dal Molin air base in Vicenza, Italy, to task air assets to look at areas of interest.
JOINT STARS UNSUITED
Kosovo is suffering from one of its worst winters. Heavy snowfalls, low clouds and thick freezing mist all test the performance of the NATO sensor platforms. "Weather greatly affects our mission - it would be a lot easier in the summer," Bott says."We get good support from NATO reconnaissance platforms, but each one has distinctive characteristics - both sensors and airframes. Certain targets lead themselves to collection."
To date, the US Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint STARS ground surveillance radar aircraft has not been deployed, KVCC insiders say, because it is not suited to the mission. For example, there are no clear battle lines on the ground and Joint STARS cannot differentiate between uniforms that are worn by opposing sides.
A major determining factor in the choice of reconnaissance tool is the political agreement with Belgrade, which only allows overflights by unarmed platforms. This has ruled out the use of the armed tactical reconnaissance jets that most NATO air forces use, forcing reliance on some platforms not usually found on overland surveillance missions such as the P-3 and Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft.
Few KVCC analysts expect their mission to be over soon. As events of recent weeks underline, fighting in the contested province can and does break out sporadically. NATO aircraft are poised to return to forward positions, should renewed tensions require their presence.
NATO is funding the centre at least until late this year. Major renovation and upgrades are under way to improve the KVCC, increase the JOC's size, improve its communication links and to bring in additional staff.