Operation Deliberate Force: Introduction

Operation Deliberate Force: The UN and NATO campaign in Bosnia 1995

Tim Ripley’s Introduction

Lieutenant General Mike Ryan. the USAF commander of the NATO air campaign
Lieutenant General Mike Ryan. the USAF commander of the NATO air campaign


In the early hours of the morning of 8th September 1995, several hundred Bosnian Serb soldiers were shivering inside makeshift bunkers, which were posted to protect the ridge line of the Vitorog mountain range. They had arrived in the key section of the frontline from the Brcko “corridor” area during the previous day to relieve the hard-pressed soldiers who had been holding the position for a month. The Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) had been attempting to set up a new defensive line on the Vitorog after the successful Croatian attack on the Krajina region, at the beginning of August, had defeated Serb forces inside Croatia.

Lieutenant General Bernard Janvier, the French commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia
Lieutenant General Bernard Janvier, the French commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia

Many of the Bosnian Serb “soldiers” who made up the 9th Posavina Brigade were recalled reservists or press-ganged civilians. They were tired, hungry and disorientated. Few knew the layout of the defensive position that snaked around a heavily forested hillside and a series of winding mountain passes. NATO soldiers, who a few months later would set up a check point in the centre of the Serb position around the village of Mliniste, nicknamed it “Cold Hussar”. The name was apt because even in summer it was nearly always swathed in freezing mist. In September 1995 the Vitorog was the outer rampart of Greater Serbia. Few of the Bosnian Serb soldiers realised the importance of their mission.

Lieutenant General Rupert Smith. The British commander of UN forces inside Bosnia
Lieutenant General Rupert Smith. The British commander of UN forces inside Bosnia

At 3am the night sky was lit up by hundreds of rockets streaking upwards towards the Vitorog. Operation Maestral 2 (Mistral 2) had begun. The rocket barrage saturated the Posavina Brigade’s positions above Prebelja, killing and wounding as many as 50 soldiers. Three Croat Mil Mi-8/17 (HIP) transport helicopters then swooped over the position to drop off a team of special forces commandos on the main road off the Vitorog, behind the Serb lines.

In the valley below, a battalion from the Croatian Army’s (HV) 4th Guards Brigade had left the main metalled road leading up from Prebelja and headed into the woods. Reconnaissance patrols had been probing the Serb positions for a month, looking for routes through the BSA’s hastily laid minefields.

A handful of T-55 tanks led the way through the thick forest, with a column of infantry following behind. When they burst out of the forest the Posavina Brigade broke and ran. Its shell-shocked soldiers melted into the woods, leaving their personal equipment, artillery, mortars and dead behind.

At the same time an assault battalion from the HV’s 7th Guards Brigade, backed by elements of the Bosnian Croat (HVO) 3rd Guards Brigade, hit the Mliniste position with similarly devastating results. The Croatian victory was almost bloodless. They had created a key bridgehead into the BSA’s defensive lines. Over the next week the whole Serb position in western Bosnia would collapse.

A few hours later, high above the Vitorog battlefield some 30 American suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) aircraft were engaged in combat with Bosnian Serb surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries deployed to protect their army’s crumbling western front. The USAF and US Navy SEAD crews were hoping their incursion towards the Bosnian Serbs’ main city, Banja Luka, would force the BSA Air Defence Force to activate their SAM guidance radars, allowing them to be pin-pointed for attack.

NATO intelligence had detected seven mobile SAM batteries operating between Banja Luka, Sipovo and Donji Vakuf. In the darkness, the Serb missile crews played a “cat and mouse” game with the Americans. They would switch on their missile guidance radars hoping to get a good “lock” on a US jet to allow a SAM to be launched. Many miles to the south, the American pilots and electronic warfare specialists were struggling to plot the co-ordinates of the Serb radars to allow them to return fire with AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs). If the Serbs “locked on”, alarms in the cockpits of the US jets would start blaring. The pilots would shout “Magnum” into their radios to warn other aircraft that a HARM was being launched. The missile’s exhaust plume would light up the sky as it raced earthward.

The Bosnian Serb SAM crews knew their trade well. They were able to shut down their radars before the American missiles could “home” into their targets. For more than an hour the “hi-tech duel” was played out. The Americans fired 33 HARMs but none apparently found its mark. Within seconds of a HARM being launched the Serbs would switch off their radars, confounding the guidance systems of the American’s missiles. But the barrage of missiles prevented the Serbs from launching any of their SAMs against the raiders. The following night, more American jets would return to the skies over north western Bosnia. This time they would launch their most sophisticated air-launched guided weapons, GBU-15s and AGM-84 Stand-off  Land Attack Missiles (SLAMs) at two Serb microwave relay tele-communications sites to the north and west of Banja Luka. At a vital moment in their battle with the Croats on the Vitorog, the Americans were starting to take down the BSA’s main means of communication with their high command at Han Pijesak.

These attacks, combined with British and French air strikes on key communication sites near Tuzla and US Navy Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a radar site near Banja Luka, broke the defiance of the Bosnian Serb Army’s leadership to UN and NATO demands to lift the siege of Sarajevo.

These attacks were the culmination of a series of military disasters, which forced the Bosnian Serb leadership to bow to international demands to sign a peace treaty ending the three year old Bosnian war. This book tells that story.

It is an account of the final months of the Bosnian war, written from the perspective of the western soldiers, sailors and airman serving with the United Nations and NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia. This is not a history of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which started in 1991, it is a snap shot of a defining moment in these wars.

Balkan Conspiracies?

Since that time, I have been piecing together the events of that summer and autumn, interviewing many “key players” in the UN and NATO high commands, visiting the battlefields again and also talking to Croat, Bosnian and Serb military commanders. Many of them are speaking for the first time. The story they tell is messy and in some cases not very pretty. They dispel many of the myths that have grown up since 1995. Even though the Bosnian war was one of the most intensively reported wars of recent years, many of the major events of the 1995 have been largely unexplained. At the time many of the participants were keen to portray their policies and actions in as good a light as possible. The “sound bite” culture of the 1990s created instant impressions that are often difficult to cut through.

This book provides many of the answers to what happened in Bosnia in 1995. It explains how western policy seemed to be set on a disaster course in the spring of that year; how covert US links with the Bosnians tragically backfired, encouraging the Muslims to launch a series of futile and costly offensives; key participants in the May bombing of Pale describe the build-up to the turning point in the conflict; the commander of British troops in Gorazde describes how his men fought to stop Serb troops taking the enclave; senior western officers describe the fall of Srebrenica; key participants in the London Conference describe how the international community tried to come up with a response to the massacres in Srebrenica; how the French forced the British to deploy the UN Rapid Reaction Force to Mount Igman; the real background to US involvement in the Croat’s Operation Storm offensive is revealed for the first time; senior western military planners describe the development of their plans to protect the ‘safe areas’ with airpower; for the first time the secret meetings to secure the withdrawal of the UN garrison from Gorazde are detailed; the real source of the deadly mortar attack on Sarajevo that triggered NATO’s bombing is explained; the dramatic escape of the British  Gorazde garrison in the tense hours before the bombing started is recounted; the roller coaster of bombing and diplomacy during Operation Deliberate Force is described, culminating in the US cruise missile strike and Dick Holbrooke’s famous visit to Belgrade; the accuracy, or other wise, of various “smart” munitions is detailed; US involvement in the Muslim and Croat offensives in western Bosnia are explained; finally, a “butchers bill” details the human cost of the war in 1995.

This book, however, does not contain all the answers to the events of 1995.  For very obvious reasons, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, General Ratko Mladic, has kept a very low profile since indictments for war crimes were issued against him in July and November 1995. His motivation, strategy and actions during this key period of the war are still cloaked in mystery. Throughout this period western journalists, diplomats and military men held their own views on what the Serb general was doing. It is clear that no western intelligence agency was able to penetrate his inner circle and provide advanced warning of his actions. This leaves a major hole in any analysis of this period. I have based any assessments of his actions on the views of the few westerners who met the infamous Serb General during the summer of 1995.

The conspiracy theory could have been invented in the Balkans. The place thrives on allegations of secret plots, treachery and double-dealing. Some of the most common conspiracy theories involve American plots to arm the Croats and Muslims; UN and US complicity with the Serbs to ensure the fall of the eastern enclaves; a deal between Belgrade and Zagreb to ensure the fall of the Krajina; the list is endless.

There were some major trends to the war in Bosnia in 1995. The growing American links to the Bosnians and Croats; the increasing realisation among the western military of the bankruptcy of the UN peacekeeping mission; the blatant military agendas of the Croat, Bosnian and Serb leaderships; the massive Croat re-armament effort; a dramatic shift in French policy after the election of President Jacques Chirac; the gradual collapse of the UN peacekeeping effort; movement in the major western capitals, crucially Washington, toward diplomatic engagement backed by force.

All these things were going on at the same time, leading some people to connect unrelated events and create massive conspiracies. The reality was a messy, confused and jumbled series of events. Many of the sources contacted by the author for this study  paraphrased the 1950s British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, commenting “It was events, events”. A recurring comment from participants is that the period was just a “muddle”. One senior UN officer, for example, commented “It is ironic that the UN peacekeepers did the peace enforcing and the NATO war fighters did the peacekeeping – that’s how muddled the whole thing was”. Throughout the summer of 1995 the Bosnian crisis was spiralling out of control. Events were simply moving too fast for many conspiracy theories to hold water. The western powers were often making knee jerk reactions to crises, and the Muslims, Croats, and Serbs were making opportunistic lunges at any open door or escape hatch. By the autumn this “torrent of chaos” was still flowing on. It was brought to a halt in very confused circumstances.

No one could have predicted how events would unfold. The participants in these events displayed cowardice, bravery, humanity, barbarity, skill, incompetence, daring and caution. Some individuals influenced events, others were just swept along by them.

The events of August, September and October 1995 were the “defining” moment in the Bosnian war. The military action by NATO and the United Nations against the Bosnian Serbs came together with the Croat and Bosnian offensives in north west Bosnia and the dynamic American diplomatic initiative, led by the US Presidential envoy, Holbrooke, to bring an end to the three and a half year old conflict. Holbrooke’s endeavours at the Dayton peace talks in November are well known to wider audiences, thanks to the charismatic US diplomat’s regular appearances on CNN and his new book, To End a War (Random House, 1998). However, the military operations that preceded the diplomatic efforts are still largely shrouded in mystery. This book aims to redress the balance and provide an insight into the pivotal events of the autumn of 1995 from a military perspective.

On a visit to Bosnia in late 1997, while attending a book signing in Sarajevo of my previous title, Air War Bosnia (Airlife Publishing, 1996), I was amazed to find that Bosnians – Muslims, Croats and Serbs – themselves are avid readers of western books and magazine articles about the war. Why should the biggest battles on the European continent since World War Two receive such scant attention?

By 1995 the international mission in the former Yugoslavia had grown to such a huge size, some 44,000 UN troops, that few individuals had full knowledge of the whole operation.

The UNPROFOR commander, Lieutenant General Rupert Smith, perhaps could also be accused of failing to “blow his own trumpet”. A genuinely modest and reserved individual, he has a reputation for hating media praise of his actions. He turned down point blank a suggestion from his loyal media minders, Alex Ivanko and Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, to do his own “Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf” style end of tour press conferences and television interviews.

Before the ink was dry on the November 1995 Dayton Peace Accords some 64,000 NATO peacekeepers were beginning to deploy to Bosnia. For domestic political reasons, the NATO operation was being heavily hyped in many western capitals, particularly in America, as the saviour of Bosnia. That UNPROFOR, supported by NATO air power, had finally got its act together and successfully used force against the Bosnian Serbs was one of those inconvenient facts that was quickly passed over in the rush to celebrate the NATO Implementation Force’s (IFOR) “successful implementation” of the Dayton accords.

Great mystery also surrounds the military offensives conducted by the Croats and Muslims during this period. These were the largest military operations in Europe since World War Two, involving more than 200,000 men, supported by thousands of artillery pieces and hundreds of armoured vehicles. The story of these battles is crucial to understanding how the war ended. This was not a “phoney war”, designed simply to be a cover for the adjustment of the frontline to match  Holbrooke’s 51%:49% map, as some diplomats and journalists based in Sarajevo and Zagreb claimed at the time.

The warring factions blocked UN troops, international diplomats and journalists from entering key areas of the battle zone. After the war the Muslims, Croat and Serb leaderships all had political agendas to serve by not publishing detailed accounts of the battles of late 1995. Free analysis and interpretation of political and military affairs also ran against the widely prevalent Yugoslav tradition of “history” being what the government of the day says it is.

With this background, it is easy to understand why so much myth has grown up around the events of 1995. I hope this book goes some way to generating a wider understanding of the Croatian and Bosnian wars and the problems faced by the international community in bringing peace to the former Yugoslavia. The muddled response of the international community during 1995 highlighted some universal lessons that new generations of soldiers and diplomats will undoubtedly require as they try to bring peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the Balkans in the years to come. The international system with its alphabet soup of organisations is prone to paralysis without  leadership from the major powers; the established “First World” states no longer have a monopoly of military power; western intelligence agencies are very fallible and do not have an answer to every question;  “smart” weapons must be directed by “smart” generals if they are to have any impact; wars, as opposed to “political” air strikes, must be left to the generals; there is no substitute for a coherent and co-ordinated political-military strategy.

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