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Better estimates of the ground force needed in Kosovo sought of NATO - R. Burns - AP

Last summer, when NATO saw a chance it might send ground troops into Kosovo, allied military authorities estimated it would take up to 200,000 soldiers to defeat the Yugoslav army. Now, after a month of allied bombing and the depopulation of Kosovo, no one knows if that estimate is still valid.

NATO civilian chief, Secretary-General Javier Solana, has asked the military what it would take to win a war in Kosvo. even as NATO and the Clinton administration insist they have no intention of giving up the air campaign. At the three-day NATO summit that ended Sunday, the administration's opposition to committing combat troops remained firm.

Harry Summers, a retired Army colonel who writes about military affairs, said NATO's high-end estimate of 200,000 troops is likely to become its low-end once it takes into account the threshold for pain the Yugoslavs have shown during the air war. NATO thought Slobodan Milosevic "would fold at the first push" he said.

James Anderson, a national security analysis at the Heritage Foundation, says it may take 500,000 NATO ground troops to conquer Kosovo if the mission requires seizing Belgrade and fighting throughout the country. To seize Belgrade but not occupy the entire country would take up to 200,000 troops, he says.

It would take many weeks to build up to that level. NATO has fewer than 20,000 troops in the region right now.

Solana also wants a fresh assessment of how many troops might be required if their mission were to keep a negotiated peace in Kosovo rather than impose a peace by engaging in a ground war. The estimate last summer was 25,000 to 30,000 troops for a peace keeping mission.

As Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said last week, current conditions are a long way from the "permissive environment" that NATO wants before committing peace keeping ground troops. The official NATO position is that it won't do that until after Milosevic bows to NATO's demands, which include pulling out of Kosovo and accepting a NATO-led peace force.

"As much as I wish he would stop the fighting, the killing, and take all his troops out tomorrow, we don't have any evidence that's about to happen," Bacon said.

It remains possible, however, that NATO leaders will change their minds and decide to launch a ground war or use troops to resettle Kosovar Albanians without a peace agreement. It is that possibility, remote as it seems now, that motivated Solana to order a reassessment of what it would take to enter Kosovo.

Pentagon officials said they were not sure whether Solana also asked for an estimate of NATO casualties.

The new NATO assessment will not be a war plan. Nor will it commit NATO to use it's ground troops. The idea is to review all ground options in light of new circumstances in Kosovo, so that if NATO leaders were to decide that the strategy of limiting the war to air strikes was not enough, they could weigh the other alternatives.

Unless Solana decides otherwise, the new assessment will not include such details as what proportion of any ground forces would be American or whether they would enter Serbia from Hungary, Albania or Macedonia.

Much has changed since NATO military authorities made their first assessment of ground operations:

Four weeks of allied bombing has largely isolated the Yugoslav army and special police forces in Kosovo by destroying ammunition, fuel and other war resources and knocking out many of the bridges, roads, airfields and rail lines needed to resupply the troops inside Kosovo. NATO claims also to have hit several dozen Serb tanks and other armored vehicles and severed many communication links.

The cumulative effect of NATO bombing on the Serb army would seem to suggest a smaller ground troop requirement than before the air war started March 24. On the other hand, some Pentagon officials believe the Serb resilience and will to resist in the face of relentless bombing suggest just the opposite.

The Serb military forces in Kosovo have driven from the province hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, and left hundred of thousands of others homeless in their own land. Bacon said the Serbs' "depopulation campaign" in Kosovo would be taken into account in the NATO assessment.

The number of Serb forces in and around Kosovo has grown since last year, to roughly 40,000 by the Pentagon's estimate. And in recent weeks they have been digging defensive positions in apparent preparation for a NATO land invasion, Bacon said. They have also placed more artillery along those border areas and mined land routes.

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