Air Operations over Bosnia

By Dr. Dean Simmons; Dr. Phillip Gould; Dr. Verena Vomastic; Colonel Philip Walsh

Navy and Marine Corps Role

U.S. and NATO air operations over Bosnia were conducted primarily to enforce the maritime embargo and no-fly zone imposed by the United Nations and to deliver humanitarian aid to the Bosnian population. NATO efforts to enforce the no-fly restrictions resulted in only one significant air-to-air engagement with fixed-wing aircraft flown by Serbian forces in Bosnia and Croatia. Although NATO aircraft were attacked numerous times by ground-based gun and missile defenses in Bosnia and Croatia, only four NATO aircraft were lost in combat between 1992 and late 1995; of these only one belonged to the United States.

NATO's principal combat operation-Deliberate Force-was initiated in August 1995, with the aim of compelling the Bosnian Serbs to stop their attacks on the safe areas. These air strikes, together with the highly successful ground campaigns conducted by the Croatian and Bosnian armies and the effects of the long-standing U.N. economic embargo against Serbia, led to a cease-fire in Bosnia and the eventual termination of the conflict through the Dayton peace negotiations.

Navy and Marine Corps forces were important contributors to U.S. and NATO operations. At least one Navy carrier battle group-headed variously by the America (CV-66), Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), George Washington (CVN-73), John F. Kennedy (CV-67), Saratoga (CV-60), and Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)-was stationed in the Adriatic Sea for much of the time that U.S. forces were involved. These ships played a key role in enforcing the maritime embargo, in providing a mobile base for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, and in effecting coordination among the U.S. and NATO aircraft operating over the Adriatic. In addition, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft flew from several air bases in Italy, including the principal base at Aviano. Marine Corps aircraft also operated from the amphibious ready group stationed in the Adriatic.

As for the air operations, Navy P-3s flying out of Sigonella provided 51% of the NATO maritime patrol sorties flown during Operation Sharp Guard; carrier- and land-based Navy aircraft provided 10% of the nearly 80,000 sorties flown during Operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force, and Marine Corps aircraft provided another 6%. From the outset, it was evident that the Navy and Marine Corps had made substantial improvements in ground-attack weapon systems and combined aviation command and control since the 1991 Gulf War. Navy and Marine Corps use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) increased significantly. PGMs made up less than 2% of the air-to-ground ordnance delivered by naval aircraft during the Gulf War; they comprised more than 90% of the ordnance these services dropped in Bosnia.

In addition, communications between the NATO Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) ashore and the carrier at sea were significantly better in the Bosnian operations than had been the case in the Gulf War, where a paper copy of the daily air tasking order had to be flown to the carrier. Integration of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft into combined air operations also was accomplished more smoothly.

The specific operations in which naval aircraft were involved were:

  • Provide Promise (February 1993-January 1996). On 15 May 1992, the U.N. Security Council called on all member states to assist in the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Bosnian population. On 1 July, the U.S. National Command Authorities ordered the U.S. European Command to undertake such operations, and relief flights began just two days later. By mid July, 16 nations had landed supplies in Bosnia. Commander-in-Chief U.S. European Command established Joint Task Force Provide Promise in February 1993 and assigned control to the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, in May 1993. Although the Air Force was the principal U.S. service involved, carrier-based Navy aircraft provided air cover for cargo planes bringing relief supplies until Operation Deny Flight was initiated in April 1993; 375 support sorties were flown by carrier-based F-14s, F/A-18s, A-6Es, EA-6Bs, E-2Cs, and S-3Bs. Navy SH-3Hs provided search-and-rescue capability.
  • Deny Flight (April 1993-December 1995). On 2 October 1992, U.N. Security Council Resolution 781 established "a ban on military flights in the airspace of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and requested member states to assist in monitoring the ban. On 16 October, under Operation Sky Monitor, NATO airborne early warning aircraft already involved in monitoring the maritime embargo began reporting violations of Bosnian air space. On 31 March 1993, the U.N. Security Council extended the ban "to cover flights by all fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft in the airspace of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina" and authorized member states to take all necessary measures to ensure compliance. NATO forces were directed on 7 April 1993 to carry out this mission, and Operation Deny Flight began on 12 April.

The Navy and Marine Corps supported Deny Flight by providing aircraft for combat air patrol, close air support, air defense suppression, and strike-although NATO's strike missions were limited in number during this operation. The Navy also provided E-2Cs for airborne early warning, F-14s equipped with TARPS for tactical reconnaissance, and EP-3s for intelligence collection. Naval air defense suppression capabilities proved particularly important; the two services provided more than 70% of NATO's air defense suppression sorties during Deny Flight and nearly 60% during Deliberate Force. Navy tactical reconnaissance proved critical as well; the Navy provided the only manned reconnaissance aircraft available to U.S. forces. Overall, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft flew more than 13,500 sorties during this operation.

  • Sharp Guard (June 1993-June 1996). In September 1991, the U.N. Security Council directed "a general and complete embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia." In May 1992, the Security Council imposed economic sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. Operations to monitor these embargoes were initiated by NATO and the Western European Union in July 1992, and in June 1993 their operations were combined into Sharp Guard.

Naval aircraft participating in Sharp Guard activities were both land and carrier based. Navy P-3s based at Sigonella, Sicily, flew maritime patrol sorties under NATO's operational control, while Navy EP-3s conducted reconnaissance activities under control of U.S. Joint Task Force Provide Promise. Carrier-based antisubmarine warfare aircraft (S-3), fighters (F/A-18 and F-14), and airborne early warning aircraft (E-2C) also supported embargo operations. Commander Sixth Fleet retained operational control of these aircraft.

  • Deliberate Force (August 1995-September 1995). In July 1995, the Bosnian-Serb Army overran Srebrenica and Zepa, two cities designated as safe zones by the United Nations to protect Bosnian Muslims living in or near Serb dominated territory. Following these attacks, NATO and U.N. officials agreed that NATO would initiate "graduated air operations" should the Bosnian Serbs continue their aggression. When Bosnian-Serb artillery fired into a crowded marketplace in Sarajevo in late August, NATO responded with air strikes throughout the Serb-controlled portion of Bosnia. Strike operations were halted on 1 September so that the U.N. Protection Force could issue an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs; when the Serbs failed to comply, NATO resumed its attacks. Strikes continued through 14 September, at which time the Bosnian Serbs finally agreed to meet the conditions established by the United Nations.

During the operation, NATO forces flew more than 3,500 sorties and delivered approximately 1,150 weapons against 350 separate aim points in Bosnia. The Navy and Marine Corps provided aircraft for strike, air defense suppression, combat air patrol, close air support, and search and rescue. The Navy also provided aircraft for tactical reconnaissance, intelligence collection, and airborne early warning. As part of the air-defense suppression campaign carried out in conjunction with Deliberate Force, the Navy launched 13 Tomahawk cruise missiles against several well-defended targets near Bihac in northwestern Bosnia.

Lessons and Implications

Before considering the lessons and implications of air operations over Bosnia, it is important to understand the diverse political and environmental factors that shaped and complicated those operations. Among the most important were the differing views held by the various U.N. and NATO participants regarding the future of Bosnia and its neighbor states; as a consequence, it often was difficult to reach agreement on the scope and timing of military action. In addition, several NATO allies had committed ground forces to Bosnia as part of the U.N. Protection Force; avoiding losses to these forces, to the NATO forces themselves, and to the Bosnian population in general was an overriding concern throughout the campaign. The differing military capabilities provided by the NATO participants added yet another set of complications, as did Bosnia's mountainous terrain and frequent adverse weather.

  • Operations other than War. Military operations other than war differ significantly from other military operations, especially large-scale combat operations such as Desert Storm. A number of these differences were apparent in the air operations over Bosnia.
  • Coalition Considerations. Twenty-one nations participated in the air operations over Bosnia. Such coalitions are likely-although not essential-in most military operations other than war. Coalition operations provide political advantages and indicate broader international concern, which can influence the participants in the conflict, as well as help convince the populations of the coalition nations that a task merits their nations' attention and resources. From a military perspective, coalition operations are advantageous because they reduce the burden imposed on individual participants. At the same time, it is important to recognize that coalition operations are necessarily more complex than single-nation operations. Partners invariably come with different military capabilities, proclivities, and expectations. Consequently, commanders need to find ways to balance these to enable effective albeit not necessarily equal-participation of all those involved.
  • Command Arrangements. Because many of the nations involved in the air operations also had committed ground forces, command arrangements for the air operations were fairly complex. To help ensure the safety of these forces, the United Nations insisted that NATO coordinate its activities with the appropriate-U.N. authorities. In fact, a "dual key" arrangement existed in that both the United Nations and NATO had to consent before military force could be applied. The principal lesson from this experience is that the diplomatic and political requirements associated with operations other than war may impose command arrangements that complicate the military's ability to attain unity of command. To accommodate this complexity and obtain unity of effort, commanders need to effect liaison and coordination at each echelon of the command chain, as well as among the various aviation units and command centers involved in the operation.
  • Rules of Engagement and Other Operational Constraints. During the air operations over Bosnia, a wide range of operational constraints were imposed on NATO air forces. These constraints devolved from concerns regarding the political implications of military action in Bosnia and from a keen desire to avoid both casualties within NATO or U.N. forces and unnecessary loss of life or damage to property within Bosnia itself.

The exceptional implementation and effectiveness of the rules of engagement, special instructions, and standard operating procedures are apparent in the limited losses incurred by NATO and U.N. forces, in the overall lack of any significant collateral damage in Bosnia, and in the limited loss of life inflicted by NATO on the belligerents themselves. On the negative side, such constraints greatly complicated NATO's ability to deliver ordnance against ground targets, even when these posed an immediate and serious threat to NATO forces, to U.N. peacekeeping forces, or to Bosnian civilians. Consequently, it is important that operational constraints are not so restrictive as to limit force effectiveness unduly or to place forces at risk unnecessarily.

  • Role of U.S. Military Leaders. U.S. military leaders are likely to play a critical role in devising the complex and politically sensitive terms of reference associated with the use of military force in operations other than war. Mission statements, command arrangements, rules of engagement, and target selection are among the areas requiring special attention. Because most of these operations are likely to involve a wide variety of aircraft types from various nations and services, officers also must be adept at integrating complex air operations.

Air Operations

U.S. and NATO air forces conducted a wide range of air operations over Bosnia. The principal lessons drawn from the operations in which the Navy and Marine Corps played key roles are summarized here:

  • Enforcing No-Fly Restrictions. NATO surveillance aircraft and fighters on combat air patrol were used effectively to suppress fixed wing military flights over Bosnia. Prior to Deny Flight, military flights averaged more than 20 per month; after the operation began, the average fell to 3 per month. This success required a substantial investment, however; more than 25,000 combat air patrol sorties were flown over the course of the operation.

NATO's ability to suppress helicopter flights, on the other hand, proved markedly less effective, owing to political factors as well as to aircraft-survivability considerations. The political costs of mistakenly shooting down a helicopter carrying civilians or a U.N. aircraft would have been enormous. In addition, NATO fixed-wing aircraft attempting to intercept low-flying helicopters would have had to operate at altitudes within the range of antiaircraft artillery and short-range air-defense missiles. NATO commanders were unwilling to incur these risks to suppress helicopter flights deemed to have little military significance. Reducing the military burden associated with enforcing no-fly restrictions would appear to be a desirable goal. DoD should assess alternative ways to accomplish this mission, with particular attention paid to suppressing hostile helicopters.

  • Suppressing Air Defenses. NATO's strong desire to avoid losses to its own forces made the ability to suppress air defenses in Bosnia essential. Most of the available capability was provided by U.S. forces, and much of that by Navy and Marine Corps aircraft. Using EA-6B jammers, F/A-18s equipped with HARM antiradiation missiles, and F-14s carrying air-launched decoys, the Navy and Marine Corps provided just more than 70% of the suppression sorties flown during Deny Flight and nearly 60% of those flown in Deliberate Force. Together with the Air Force, they provided almost 90% of all air defense-suppression sorties flown by NATO. As each of these services determines how best to achieve aircraft survivability in future operations, it will need to take full account of all available capabilities. Along with standoff weapons, self-protection systems (e.g., electronic-warfare systems, chaff, or decoys), and stealth, suppression capability clearly merits consideration.
  • Precision-Guided Munitions. Precision-guided munitions proved particularly effective, given NATO's strong desire to avoid collateral damage when conducting air strikes. Such munitions comprised nearly 70% of the roughly 1,150 air-delivered munitions dropped by NATO aircraft; the vast majority (about 88%) were delivered by U.S. aircraft. In fact, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force aircraft delivered little ordnance that was not precision guided; fewer than 10% of the weapons employed by each service fell into this category. Most of these weapons-and the target-acquisition systems that supported them-worked well, but the need to enhance their effectiveness in adverse weather and in foliage-covered terrain was apparent. In some cases, improvements are needed in existing systems; in other cases, entirely new systems will be required. DoD should give high priority to remedying the shortcomings in existing weapons and target-acquisition systems and to developing improved weapon and acquisition systems.

In contrast, NATO allies dropped primarily unguided ordnance. Most of these countries do not have precision guided munitions or suitable target-acquisition and target designation equipment. To ensure appropriate sharing of responsibilities and risks in future contingencies, the United States should encourage our allies to acquire precision guided munitions and the necessary adjunct capabilities.

  • Close Air Support. Although the United Nation's cumbersome approval process proved to be a significant impediment to NATO's ability to provide close air support, additional improvements also will be needed if these operations are to be successful. In particular, enhancements in the communications and target-designation capabilities of non-NATO ground-based air controllers and training in close-air support tactics and procedures are essential. To help ensure that appropriate capabilities are available in future peacekeeping operations, the United States should consider providing technical and training support to non-NATO forces assigned as ground-based air controllers. In addition, because it is uncertain which nations would be involved in future operations, developing a responsive program that could be implemented early in a crisis would be preferable to a broadly focused peacetime training effort.
  • Cruise Missiles. On 10 September 1995, the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) launched 13 Tomahawk land-attack missiles against Bosnian-Serb air defense installations in northwestern Bosnia. The decision to employ these missiles required approval from the highest levels of the U.S. government. Because the timing of this decision and the desired launch window left little time to collect the detailed terrain data typically used to guide Tomahawk missiles to their targets, the Navy elected to use missiles fitted with a guidance mode that relies almost totally on data provided by the Global Positioning System. Nearly all of the missiles hit their intended targets, demonstrating both the system's accuracy and the flexibility that this mode provides. At a higher level, DoD may want to reexamine cruise missile command-and-control and employment concepts to ensure that these weapons are employed most effectively in future military operations In particular, DoD should assess the extent to which such missiles should be included in coalition operations, and the desirability of delegating missile-employment authority to the theater commander or an appropriate subordinate.
  • Search and Rescue. The combat search-and-rescue forces available to support NATO air operations included a Navy Sea-Air-Land (SEAL) team on board the aircraft carrier in the Adriatic; a Marine Corps Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) team on board one of the Navy's amphibious ships in the Adriatic; and a Joint Special Operations Task Force based at Brindisi, Italy. The Marine TRAP team effected the recovery of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady after his F-16 was shot down by Bosnian Serbs. Navy SEALs participated in several search-and-rescue missions, including the unsuccessful effort to rescue the crew of a French Mirage downed during Deliberate Force. All of the U.S. search-and-rescue forces proved well trained and proficient, resulting in consistently excellent mission execution. The principal complications apparent in such operations were the need to ensure that these operations are effectively coordinated with other air activities while maintaining operational security, and the need for experienced search-and-rescue planners in the combined rescue coordination center.

Lessons Related to C4ISR

Modern air operations are inherently dependent on command, control, communications, computer, and intelligence systems. In addition, surveillance and reconnaissance systems play an indispensable role in supporting all aspects of threat warning, operations and mission planning, targeting, and combat assessment. These systems are collectively referred to as C4ISR systems. C4ISR capabilities include the technical capabilities of the systems themselves, as well as the operational procedures and the skills associated with their employment.

  • Command and Control. Command and control of U.S. and NATO air operations was complicated by the wide variety of aircraft types involved and the need to use bases throughout Italy, France, and Germany to accommodate all the air forces deployed to the theater. As a result, a number of command, control, and coordination centers were involved in planning and executing air operations. The NATO Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Vicenza, Italy, was the principal center and prepared the daily air tasking order for Provide Promise and the air tasking message for Deny Flight, Sharp Guard, and Deliberate Force/Dead Eye. The CAOC also assigned air routes and working airspace by means of the airspace control order and the communications plan.

Aircraft flying over Bosnia operated under the control of either U.K. or French variants of the U.S. E-3 AWACS or NATO airborne early warning aircraft. When these aircraft were not available, Navy E-2Cs provided the necessary coordination and control. Aircraft assigned close air support missions received detailed instructions from an orbiting airborne battlefield command-and-control center aircraft. Aerial refueling operations were controlled by radar equipped NATO control and reporting elements located in Italy. Overwater air operations and maritime patrol activities related to Sharp Guard were coordinated by a U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser patrolling in the Adriatic Sea. In developing the daily air operations schedule, the CAOC coordinated with all of these centers, as well as with U.N. Protection Forces on the ground in Bosnia (through the Air Operations Control Center located in Kiseljak near Sarajevo); with the U.N. Joint Airlift Operations Center in Ancona, Italy; and with the U.S. and NATO Maritime Patrol Tactical Support Centers.

The key lesson from this experience is that air operations conducted as part of a military operation other than war may entail a wide variety of different missions and tasks and consequently a diverse set of aircraft types. Effective scheduling, planning, and coordination of these complex, multifaceted air operations requires good communications between key coordination centers, interoperable systems and compatible force-employment concepts, use of common tools for airspace scheduling and air-campaign planning, C3 systems that can be tailored to the specific circumstances, and cooperation and coordination at all levels.

  • Joint or Combined Air Operations Center. An adequately equipped and staffed joint forces air operations center is essential for exercising command and control of joint or combined air operations, including those conducted in support of military operations other than war. The NATO CAOC did not exist at the start of air operations over Bosnia and was set up from scratch in an existing NATO command facility. Capabilities within the CAOC were expanded to provide needed support as additional missions were added to the operations. Although it was able to prepare the daily air tasking message and provide overall management for the operations, the CAOC was hindered by the lack of key personnel and equipment, inadequate integration of operations and intelligence staffs, and a very high staff turnover rate (25% per month).

To ensure effective coordination and employment of the wide variety of participating aircraft, each aviation squadron was asked to send a liaison officer to the CAOC. In the case of the U.S. Navy, a liaison cell was established in the CAOC when that facility first began operation in April 1993, to provide planners with the knowledge they needed to best employ naval aircraft. The senior officer in this cell also served as assistant deputy CAOC director and as assistant deputy Joint Force Air Component Commander for Provide Promise. In recognition of the importance of effective liaison and coordination, the operational plan for Deny Flight was revised in early 1995 to direct that aircraft carriers on station in the Adriatic assign a liaison officer to the CAOC.

Because of the essential capabilities that a combined air operations center provides and the requirement to have both the facility and the staff available when needed, DoD should develop deployable air operations centers that are suitable for use in joint service, as well as in alliance or coalition operations.

  • Intelligence Processing and Dissemination. The intelligence apparatus supporting air operations over Bosnia was a complex collection of sensors, intelligence processing and dissemination systems, and intelligence analysis and reporting facilities and organizations. Because the resulting architecture was so complex, many challenges arose. Interoperability between systems and organizations proved less than ideal because many of the processing systems had been developed independently, without regard to the capabilities needed to interface with other intelligence systems. Information and data typically were exchanged manually, resulting in late and sometimes inaccurate reporting. The timely dissemination of intelligence products was further hampered by the release restrictions imposed on the material.

Improved coordination and integration of intelligence capabilities among coalition partners is needed. The United States should work to facilitate intelligence sharing among potential coalition partners, particularly at operational and tactical levels, without compromising sensitive information or capabilities.

  • Tactical Reconnaissance. Given the need for target-area photographs to support aim-point selection and attack route planning, tactical reconnaissance proved essential to air operations. Because the shadowing effects of Bosnia's mountainous terrain limited the effectiveness of satellite reconnaissance, NATO relied heavily on aircraft systems to accomplish this mission. U.S. tactical-reconnaissance capability was limited to that provided by Navy F-14s equipped with the Tactical Aircraft Reconnaissance Pod System and by several different unmanned aerial vehicles-which proved insufficient to satisfy all requirements. With so few manned tactical reconnaissance aircraft available within the U.S. forces deployed to the theater, NATO had to rely on the capabilities provided by other nations. DoD should explore options for maintaining sufficient manned tactical reconnaissance capabilities, at least until alternative solutions are proven and available in the operating forces.

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