Serb Air War: Lots Of Misses

Three pilots who flew into the teeth of Serb air defenses were decorated Wednesday in a ceremony which unintentionally underscored one of the biggest failures of the 78-day air war, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reports.

Despite flying 38,000 combat missions, and hitting every radar dish and communications site it could find, NATO never succeeded in knocking out the Serb air defenses, according to a report done by admiral James Ellis, one of NATO's top commanders.

As a result, NATO planes delayed going after Serb forces in the field -- the ones doing the killing in Kosovo. When they finally did go after Serb forces, NATO planes stayed above 15,000 feet, for fear of being shot down. At that altitude pilots had a hard time seeing targets through the clouds, and strikes against fielded forces were at first "nearly ineffective," according to one senior commander.

The Carrier Roosevelt had to fly 14 combat sorties from its decks to hit one target. The pilots improved their tactics, and by the end of the war only needed two sorties for each target hit.

According to Admiral Ellis, NATO was "absolutely wrong" in thinking a few days of bombing would convince Slobodan Milosevic to pull his troops out of Kosovo. As a result, the air campaign was so poorly planned that it took nearly two months to hit targets that could have been attacked within the first 24 hours of the war.

Of course the air war did, in the end, succeed: Milosevic withdrew his troops and NATO not lose a single pilot to enemy fire. But Admiral Ellis says, "We were lucky," and you can't count on luck to win wars.

Among the three Air Force pilots were awarded the prestigious Silver Star on Wednesday was the helicopter pilot who commanded a daring nighttime rescue of a shot-down fighter pilot.

Capt. James L. Cardoso led a team of three Air Force search-and-rescue deep into Serb territory on the moonless night of March 27 just three days into the war and retrieved the F-117A pilot, even as Serbian soldiers who had intercepted the downed pilot's radio messages closed in on him.

In a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, Silver Stars also were awarded to two F-16 pilots, Capt. Sonny P. Blinkinsop and Capt. Adam B. Kavlick, for their role in the war.

The F-117A incident was one of the most sensational of the 78-day NATO air campaign. Serb TV pictures of the downed fighter gave Belgrade a momentary propoganda victory, but it turned out to be the first of only two downings of NATO aircraft; no allied crews were lost during the air campaign.