Operation Deliberate Force Review: The Gunner


Reviewed by Alan Brigadier Dick Applegate, in The Gunner (The journal of the Royal Artillery)

Nik Gowing, Diplomatic Editor of Channel 4 News between 1989 and 1996, comments in the Foreword to this paperback that “Tim Ripley has assembled – through a remarkably extensive set of candid interviews … a deeply depressing catalogue of the new limits to diplomacy and military strategy. “This judgement is both fair and timely in the light of recent action in Kosovo.

Ripley’s book explores the tangled course of events in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia in 1995 which culminated in the joint UN/NATO Operation Deliberate Force. His research has been meticulous and wide-ranging. As a result, many of the myths, much of the spin and most of the early simplistic explanations of the causes and effects are dispelled.

The book is written in a racy and journalistic style which both reflects the mood of the period and the pace of events in Bosnia during that year. Most importantly, it provides compelling evidence that the Dayton Peace Accords were not the result of some carefully throughout strategic plan, but more a matter of opportunistic action and good fortune. It also clearly demonstrates that the Bosnian Serbs were not brought to heel simply by bombing, but rather through a much more complex set of events which included the highly successful Croat and Muslim offensives in the west of Bosnia, the actions of the UN Multinational Brigade and its artillery group in and around Sarajevo, and Milosevic’s desire to see the lifting of the trade sanctions on his country.

This book can be read at many levels. At the highest level it reflects more accurately than earlier accounts the difficulty in constructing a multinational campaign plan with clearly defined and agreed ends, ways and means. It also makes clear that in the absence of any such clear direction soldiers must expect uncertainty and be sufficiently agile in thought and deed to exploit fleeting opportunity to best effect. The actions of the French/British/Dutch Multinational Brigade are also illuminating in the light of recent initiative to develop a European reaction force – it has been done before!

At the operational level, the book lifts the veil on the military offensives conducted by the Croats and Muslims during the period, Operations Storm and Mistral. These offensives “Were the largest military operations in Europe since World War 2, involving more than 200,000 men supported by thousands of artillery pieces and hundreds of armoured vehicles.” These operations, successfully manipulated by Richard Holbrooke, were of critical importance in convincing the Bosnian Serbs that they had to reach a peace agreement. It also shines a penetrating light on the strengths and limitations of air power.

At the tactical level there are also numerous lessons and insights, particularly for The Gunner reader. Despite the classification as an Operation Other Than War, success in Bosnia relied on the utilisation of the most modern equipment over many months, often in the most appalling conditions. Tactical success was based on a few units well trained and prepared to conduct war fighting, an important lesson which we would do well to remember. Also the Royal Artillery contribution to the operation is particularly well covered, most notably in the action by the Royal Artillery’s 19th Regiment led BRITARTBAT. The commentary provides ample and compelling evidence of the utility of the artillery system in the “new security environment”, a point reinforced more recently in Kosovo.

In summary, this book which I recommend should be read by all those who have been involved in the Balkans over the last eight years: it will repay careful analysis. Many of the themes brought out in this book were seen again more recently in Kosovo. The maps are barely adequate and some of the editing poor in places, but these weaknesses do not detract unduly from what is a highly illuminating and pacy narrative of a very complex operation.