In 2004, Milan Vego penned an article for Proceedings describing the challenges of collecting and processing lessons learned from combat. “Study and evaluation of lessons learned in the Vietnam War did not mature until about 20 years after the end of the conflict,” he noted.1 Today, as the United States shifts from the post 9/11 conflicts to refocus on peer threats presented by China and Russia, lessons from the 1990s conflicts in the Balkans may be more relevant for operational planners than those from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the magnitude of the Balkans conflicts is minuscule compared to a potential peer conflict, this small war can inform the present. For example, as is likely with peer conflict, the Balkans conflicts were limited wars for limited objectives, and escalation was cautiously avoided. Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Wesley Clark explained, “Operation Allied Force was modern war—limited, carefully constrained in geography, scope, weaponry and effects. Every measure of escalation was excruciatingly weighed.”2 With these strategic conditions as a starting point, the most applicable lessons from the Balkans conflicts are plan for the unexpected, make the case for a just war to gain public support, and have strong alliances.
Plan for the Unexpected
In 1991, as Yugoslavia began to fragment, Serbian-controlled warships of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Navy shelled and blockaded the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. This naval action was the first to draw international attention and condemnation of Serbian actions. During 1999’s Operation Allied Force (OAF), however, the Serbs’ limited naval forces remained tied up pierside. A Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser provided a small-scale blockade of the southern Adriatic, and a 24/7 NATO armed patrol aircraft presence awaited any ship or submarine that dared to get underway.
The use of sea power in the Balkans crisis was one-sided, with U.S. and British warships employing Tomahawk missiles and air strikes from the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group against targets in Serbia. While OAF is an example of effectively containing a localized naval threat, it, like all post–World War II conflicts, offers little comparison for a high-intensity peer conflict. There is much more to be gleaned from the air war in the Balkans.
Along with the opening days of Operation Desert Storm, OAF was the densest electronic warfare environment allied forces had faced since the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was a major weapons manufacturer, specializing in air-defense weapons. The Serbian integrated air defense systems (IADS), although ostensibly outdated, were expertly maintained, and they remained lethal throughout the 78-day conflict. Radar-guided missiles, significant antiaircraft fire, and a seemingly endless supply of Strela (SA-7) shoulder-launched infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles greeted every NATO strike package. In many respects, the high-threat environment of any future peer conflict will resemble that over Serbia and Kosovo, but with better weapons and targeting technology.
It was the Serbian IADS that delivered the first surprise, when an F-117 stealth fighter was shot down on the third night of the war. The U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency noted that NATO Air Component Commander Lieutenant General Michael Short:
"expected some air losses, but this one was not expected, because the lost aircraft was a stealth fighter. . . . Enemy SAM fire had succeeded in spite of the Serbs very limited use of their radar, which rendered them vulnerable to Allied fighters equipped with HARM missiles."3
The fighter reportedly was shot down by a Soviet-era SA-3 missile system that the Serbs claimed to have modified to increase its success against low radar cross-section NATO aircraft.4 This same missile system claimed a U.S. Air Force F-16C/G on 2 May 1999 and reportedly severely damaged a second F-117.
What was different about Serbia compared to the war against robust IADS in Iraq? Retired Navy Captain Joseph Boogren, who participated in combat operations in Kosovo, offered this comparison:
"In Iraq, they lit everything off every time a sortie showed up on their continuously operating radar. It was easy to dial-in HARM shooters from manned ISR to eliminate five or six Iraqi SAM batteries in a single mission. By contrast, the Serbs operated a comparably inferior IADS capability in a highly sophisticated manner, with clear tactical and strategic operating behaviors focused on sustainability and selective precision use."5
“Do we think the Russians and the Chinese are any less clever?” he asked.
The vaunted F-117 was unveiled during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and used to penetrate Iraqi IADS to hit targets in Baghdad. Just eight years later, it was proven to be vulnerable. NATO leaders responded to the loss by adapting the way stealth aircraft were employed. For example, EA-6B Prowlers were assigned to suppress Serbian IADS for all future strike missions.
The high-threat environment over Serbia in 1999 provides a look at what aircrews will experience in a peer conflict—a persistent and unrelenting threat, even when employing the best technology available on earth. The salient lesson is to plan for the possibility that even your golden arrows may be knocked out of the sky.
Strategic surprises in the war included the Serb’s unwillingness to submit to NATO’s demands. “In this mouse-versus-elephant conflict, Serbia proved to be a surprisingly resilient enemy. Part of this resilience can be attributed to the fact that throughout the Cold War Yugoslavia planned and prepared to fight NATO.”6 Again, while scope and scale will differ, two parallels exist between the Serbs in 1999 and U.S. peer competitors today: a singular threat focus and a force tailored to fight the United States and its allies. In addition, the Balkans conflicts proved far more costly and protracted than allied leaders had imagined possible. Finally, tactical mistakes, such as the errant bombing of the Chinese embassy and accidental bombing of Kosovar civilians fleeing advancing Serbian forces, had cascading international strategic consequences. The blowback from these incidents placed strain on Western leaders’ efforts to sustain fragile public support for the conflict.
Gain Public Support
To convince the American public and NATO allies that force was needed to stop Serbian crimes against humanity, a compelling case for just war had to made. In the months leading up to OAF, NATO leaders were fraught with political indecision, diplomatic disagreements, and a notable lack of military strategic consensus. General Clark noted, “There simply was no detailed planning. . . . Detailed NATO planning would have required political authorizations that just weren’t possible.”7
On the U.S. political front, decision-making took place on the heels of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, which had damaged the President’s standing with Congress. In addition, members of Congress and many Americans—still fixated on the failure of operations in Somalia in 1993 that left 18 Americans dead—were reluctant to authorize further military action.8 Conversely, in his December 1992 “Christmas Warning” letter to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, President George Bush had stated, “The United States will be prepared to employ military force against the Serbians in the event they start a conflict in Kosovo.” Thus, many policy makers still considered the United States responsible for Kosovo’s security.9
On the diplomatic front, despite the success of its Implementation Force in Bosnia in 1996, NATO continued to push for a Kosovo policy built around political constraints. The United States had learned the hard way that acquiescing to such constraints instead of molding the alliance in support of a U.S. policy was a bad approach.10 Ultimately, there was no U.N. Security Council resolution in place prior to OAF. However, on 10 June 1999 (the day OAF ended), UNSCR 1244 authorized international civil and military presence in the FRY and established the U.N. Interim Administration in Kosovo.11
A similar stop and start occurred with congressional authorization. A bipartisan resolution to “authorize all necessary force” was defeated on 4 May 1999. Of note, this authorization was presented on day 42 of the 78-day conflict and represented Congress’s growing frustration with the protraction of the Kosovo operation. A formal congressional authorization to use force was never obtained before, or during the conflict.
Given the roller coaster of political, diplomatic, and military events during the months leading up to and during OAF, it is a wonder the United States and NATO managed to pull off what was by-and-large a successful operation. The primary facilitator of U.S. and ultimately NATO Kosovo policy was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. After witnessing the folly of indecision and half-measures in Bosnia, she was determined not to allow another slow-motion disaster to unfold in Kosovo. At a NATO conference in March 1998, she declared, “We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia.’’12
In the months prior to OAF, Albright took every opportunity to remind the world of the more than 7,000 Bosniak Muslim men who were slaughtered in Srebrenica while the international community stood by.13 The public vilification of Serbs and Serbia in the months leading up to OAF and throughout the operation swayed public opinion.14 The final element bringing agreement among the allies was Milosevic’s ill-fated policy decision in April 1999 to violently expel more than 2 million Kosovars from their homes. This cemented NATO’s resolve.
The case for just war needed a voice to lay the moral foundation for action.15 While the allies lacked a U.N. resolution or an authorization to use force from Congress, the case was made by prominent diplomats such as Albright. That was sufficient in 1999 to sustain support for OAF.
The lesson for today is found by comparing the difficulty in gaining support for the limited application of force in 1999, when the horror of ethnic cleansing was playing out on global news, with the potential challenges in gaining support from a far more war-weary America at present. A bellwether may be the lack of reaction to recent events such as the Russian occupation of Georgia and annexation of Crimea and China’s horrific treatment of Uighur minorities. These morally egregious actions barely registered in the American public conscious. The lessons from the Balkans suggest the case for a just war will have to be extraordinarily compelling for Americans to rally and make the sacrifices to fight a peer enemy that will present a much higher cost and risk.
Create Strong Alliances
Allies will play an essential role in operational and strategic success in a peer conflict. The Balkans operations were the first major combat test for NATO, and the process did not go smoothly, but the strength and resolve of the alliance proved sufficient to achieve success. In contrast, U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe have been weakened by reduced joint training and reductions in U.S. forces deployed in forward locations—for example, the suspension of large-scale joint training exercises with Republic of Korea forces (2018-20) and the reduced footprint of U.S. forces in Europe during the same period.
NATO did not launch OAF with any real consensus about the scope or duration of the operation or its strategic goals. In fact, the belief among all NATO allies (led by the United States) was that OAF would not last more than a few days before Milosevic capitulated to demands and Serbian forces left Kosovo. In addition, alliance members understood that while they would not lose a conflict militarily, they could lose the battle for public opinion.16 The legacy of the Vietnam War was never far from their thoughts.
Milosevic also believed OAF would be a short operation, because he was convinced his pan-Slav ally, Russia, would quickly intervene—it did not. As so often happens, both sides miscalculated the cost and duration of the conflict.17
The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were not something for which NATO trained. NATO planners scrambled to adapt when the initial demonstration of force failed to achieve their objective. Fortunately, the asymmetry of NATO versus a small Bosnian Serb Army in 1994 and somewhat larger Serbian forces in 1999 allowed room for poor preparation. The numbers were clearly on NATO’s side, and the cause was just.
A peer conflict will require a far more disciplined, prepared, and integrated allied force on day one. As Winston Churchill quipped in 1945, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” His words reflect the inherent weak points in planning and unanimity in alliances, especially when fighting against a single power that does not have to reach consensus among 19 member states for every major decision. For any potential peer conflict, the United States and its allies will likely see the enemy choose the time and place for commencing an operation that may spark the conflict. For example, Russia may make a move against one of the Baltic states, or China may seize a disputed territory, forcing the allies to respond. The vulnerabilities in alliances highlighted during OAF need to be given the proper attention now by strategic planners.
Small wars such as those in the Balkans during the 1990s offer relevant lessons for the United States and its allies in a potential war against an enemy with modern weapons, clever tactics, and a stubborn resistance to bend to allied demands. All these factors will be orders of magnitude greater in a conflict with a peer competitor. The Balkans conflicts provide clear evidence of the requirement for decisive, committed U.S. and allied leadership in any future conflict with a peer competitor.
1. Milan Vego, “Gathering Combat Lessons Is Complex and Time-Consuming,” U.S Naval Institute Proceedings 130, no. 7 (July 2004): 70.
2. Wesley K. Clark, Waging Modern War (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group, 2001), xxiv.
3. Daniel Haulman, “Manned Aircraft Losses Over the Former Yugoslavia 1994-1999,” Air Force Historical Research Agency report (5 October 2009).
4. Haulman, “Manned Aircraft Losses.”
5 Joseph Boogren, personal communications with D. Dolan, February 2021.
6. CDR Daniel Dolan, USN, and Ron Oard, “Bomb Iran?” U.S Naval Institute Proceedings 139, no 5 (May 2013): .39.
7, Clark, Waging Modern War, 440.
8. Ivo Daalder and Michael O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Washington DC, Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 2.
9. “Crisis in the Balkans; Statements of United States’ Policy on Kosovo,” The New York Times, 18 April 1999.
10. Daalder and O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly, 20.
11. United Nations, “Security Council Demands Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Comply Fully with NATO and OSCE Verification Missions in Kosovo,” press release, 24 October 1998.
12. Mark Smith, Kosovo Conflict: U.S. Public Diplomacy and Western Public Opinion (Los Angles: Figueroa Press 2009).
13. In early 1996, Master Chief Murphy served as translator for forces that located and guarded the Pilica Farms mass grave containing 1,000-plus Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica.
14. Pew Research Center, “Continued Public Support for Kosovo, But Worries Grow,” 21 April 1999.
15. Daalder and O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly, 18
16. Smith, Kosovo Conflict.
17. Benjamin S. Lambeth, Operation Allied Force: Lessons for the Future (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001).