After a decade of counterinsurgency operations, the 1999 Kosovo air war is a distant memory. Unlike the grueling, ground force–centric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation Allied Force was a case study in coercion conducted at a safe distance to achieve limited ends using limited means. Despite flawed assumptions and the friction of a coalition operation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) achieved its objectives at a reasonable cost and without combat fatalities. The NATO intervention reversed ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and helped set conditions for bringing democracy to Serbia.
Operation Allied Force has already been analyzed in depth.1 Yet revisiting it is relevant as the United States prepares for future wars in an era of austerity. For such operations, when vital interests are not at stake, it is likely that coalition operations will be the norm, ends and ways will be limited, “small footprints” will be desirable, and the center of gravity will be the adversary’s will rather than its forces. These were all characteristics of the Kosovo air war. This article analyzes the strategic logic of Operation Allied Force and draws lessons for future small footprint operations for limited ends using limited means.