Risky Mission Means Dangerous Training

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America lost its first combatants in the Kosovo war Wednesday, but they weren't killed in combat. Two Army airmen died in the early hours when their Apache helicopter crashed during a training exercise in Albania -- the second training crash since the Apaches arrived (the other resulted in minor injuries). Both crashes are likely the result of nighttime training. "If the Apaches are used in Kosovo, they're going to fly only at night to minimize the risk from ground fire," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "Training at night is a lot more dangerous, because even with night-vision goggles, the pilot loses depth perception and some peripheral vision."

Although the Apaches have been in Albania for two weeks, there's no sign yet that NATO plans to send them into action against Serb forces in Kosovo. The reason? Scores of shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles waiting just across the border for a shot at the slow-moving attack helicopters. "NATO doesn't want to send the Apaches over hostile territory where they'll be blown out of the sky," says Thompson. "They're supposed to be used in conjunction with ground troops who flush out the enemy's ground forces from their hiding places. Without ground troops in support, they're of dubious utility against a dug-in army." Which means alliance commanders are still reluctant to order them into battle. "NATO says the time isn't ripe," says Thompson. "But the time is unlikely ever to be ripe, because without sending in ground troops we'll never significantly reduce the number of SA-7's lying in wait."

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