For four decades the multinational forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) stared down the Iron Curtain drawn across the middle of Europe at their adversaries in the Warsaw Pact led by the Soviet Union. As an entity in itself, NATO throughout the Cold War was one of the most sophisticated and diverse military organizations in history and yet its primary purpose was to prevent war rather than fight one by providing a credible counter to Soviet aggression.
When the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union it wasn’t unreasonable for many to think that NATO had served its purpose and like the Warsaw Pact would soon break up and become a thing of the past. However, this would prove far from the case as a need for multinational military action in Europe, something NATO had avoided for so long, actually arose in the aftermath of the fall of communism.
The story of ethnic conflict in the Balkans could fill an encyclopaedia but the situation in the 1990s can be traced back to the end of World War II when Yugoslavia was created out of the federal amalgamation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Additionally, there were two autonomous states that were part of Yugoslavia namely Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia flourished within the communist world existing with a degree of autonomy regarding Moscow not enjoyed by other states in Europe which were forced to bow to their Soviet masters. Tito held power from January 1953 until his death on May 4th 1980 during which time he ruled sternly enough to keep ethnic and religious factions in line. His death left a major void that the political rivals in Yugoslavia rushed to try to fill and many of whom had nationalist ambitions for their respective states. Yugoslavia’s cohesion in the 1980s was rocked by separatist movements that gained momentum amid a new sense of nationalism which was especially worrying for those whose heritage could be traced back to outside their present state such as the Bosnian-Serbs.
By 1991 the push for independence had gathered so much momentum that it had become unstoppable and Yugoslavia began to break up but the question over Serbian ethnic minorities in the new countries remained unresolved. Many of them felt vilified by the nationalist rhetoric of the new republics and so took up arms to protect themselves. At the same time the Yugolsav People’s Army fought for a restoration of Yugoslavia but as their ties with Serbia grew its ranks diminished as non-Serbians left and the force became a Serb army fighting to protect ethnic Serbs outside of the homeland with the goal of eventually building a Greater Serbia encompassing Serbian-occupied territory in neighbouring states.
The decade of conflict that followed was extraordinarily brutal with atrocities being carried out the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Europe since World War II. With the bloodbath taking place on their very doorstep, western Europe’s leaders were forced to act. Efforts by the European Community (European Union) failed to resolve the deteriorating situation but paved the way for the United Nations to launch a peacekeeping mission. UN safe zones were established to protect civilian populations from the fighting but their security was tentative at best despite the deployment of a UN protection force (UNPROFOR) and it was clear that direct NATO support was needed to carry out the mission in Yugoslavia. This was especially true when it came to getting humanitarian aid in to the broken country and enforcing a no-fly zone (Operation Deny Flight) to protect civilian populations from air attack.
From 1992, British forces fresh from the war in the Gulf became involved in supporting the UN’s operations. In order to get food and medical supplies to besieged towns and cities in Bosnia such as the capital of Sarajevo, an ongoing airlift was organized the British contingent of which was carried out under the banner of Operation Cheshire. Flying from Italy the RAF’s fleet of Hercules cargo aircraft would eventually carry out 1,977 sorties to bring in food and aid between 1992 and 1996. Despite promises not to attack the aircraft, Bosnian-Serb forces did fire on the transports either with or without authorisation from their commanders (see video below) viewing them as aiding their enemy. Additionally, the aircraft were constantly in danger of getting caught up in exchanges of mortar and artillery fire between opposing sides as they made their approach to Sarajevo.
One such UN safe zone was the town of Bihać in north-western Bosnia which was “protected” under the banner of the UN from May 6th 1993. Bihać had been under siege from Bosnian-Serbs since 1992 after the proclamation of two breakaway ethnic Serb republics, the Republic of Serbian Krajina to the west in modern day Croatia and the Republika Srpska in the east, left them surrounded. The people of the town soon found themselves caught between two ethnic Serb armies working together to destroy the town’s defenders and effectively “cleanse” it of its people.
The declaration of the safe zone within the town was intended to protect the 170,000 Bosnians it contained many of which were refugees who had already fled their homes in the new breakaway republics. However, the reality was that the UN had little effect on the situation through 1993 and in to 1994 other than to make Bihać a magnet for even more refugees to flood in. This worried Bosnian leaders who feared that the UN had unintentionally set the scene for a massacre. As the siege went on the town began to lack even the most basic of supplies and hunger begin to kill as many people as the shelling did. Communication with the town was at times impossible due to Bosnian-Serb interference and even the deployment of UN troops failed to get food and medical help in to the town.
While the UN and NATO bickered about just how to address the situation at large, the Bosnian government launched an initially successful offensive in to north-western Bosnia in 1994 looking to relieve Bihać but they were slowly beaten back through the summer by the Bosnian-Serb forces from the Republika Srpska. Operation Deny Flight in the meantime was meeting with mixed success. While it had largely stopped fast jet operations over Bosnia by aircraft of the Republika Srpska, its own operational limitations had prevented the same from being achieved regarding aircraft of the Republic of Serbian Krajina whose main base was the former Yugoslavian air base at Udbina located in what was recognised as Croatian territory. Deny Flight was restricted by the UN to Bosnian airspace only and given Udbina’s proximity to Bihać its aircraft could make raids across the lines in support of the Bosnian-Serbs and retreat back across in to Croatia before NATO could respond. It was an infuriating position for NATO who pushed for a greater scope in their operations but were repeatedly rebuffed by a muddling UN.
In Italy and the Adriatic, British forces continued to be built up to support NATO and the UN in the clearly deteriorating situation. Between 1993 and 1995 the British Invincible-class aircraft carriers, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Invincible, rotated duties in the Adriatic flying combat patrols with their Sea Harrier FRS.1s (and eventually F/A.2s) fighter-bombers and supporting humanitarian missions with their helicopters. The Sea Harrier pilots were especially at risk and this was dramatically highlighted on April 16th 1994. A Sea Harrier from Ark Royal was directed to destroy a Bosnian-Serb tank but found itself locked up by a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile and was shot down. The pilot ejected and was rescued shortly after but it was a major victory for Bosnian-Serb forces as NATO restricted their air operations further as a result.
At Gioia del Colle air base in south-east Italy the Royal Air Force presence was continuing to increase. As well as the aforementioned Hercules transports of Operation Cheshire, when Deny Flight began six Panavia Tornado F.3s were deployed to the base for air patrol taskings. To give NATO forces more of a punch if the need arose, the RAF had deployed twelve SEPECAT Jaguar GR.1 strike/attack aircraft in July 1993. These aircraft and their crews had not long finished a deployment to Turkey as part of Operation Provide Comfort over Iraq and as such were still configured for operations over the Persian Gulf region which included overwing AIM-9L Sidewinders for self-defence. Despite being something of a Cinderella type during the 1980s the British Jaguars had excelled themselves during the 1991 Gulf War and were highly regarded for their accuracy in delivering unguided munitions. Over a year later on September 22nd 1994, Squadron Leader Steve Shutt of No.41 Squadron flying a Jaguar GR.1 became the first RAF pilot to drop a bomb in anger on mainland Europe since 1945 when he was vectored in to attack a T-55 tank approximately 10km from Sarajevo.
Joining the Tornado F.3s, Jaguars, Hercules and Royal Navy Sea Harriers were a number of supporting aircraft. From the Italian base at Aviano, at least one RAF Boeing Sentry AEW.1 provided airborne warning and control duties for NATO aircraft. These were joined by Nimrod MR.2s that provided maritime patrol duties over the Adriatic while the venerable Canberra PR.9s of No.39 Squadron carried out photographic reconnaissance missions over the former Yugoslavia. The entire contingent relied heavily on the RAF’s tanker force and at least two of these important aircraft were based in Italy at any one time refuelling RAF and NATO aircraft.
Despite the increasing NATO presence in the region the political establishment within the west were sending mixed signals to all sides regarding how to tackle the situation. There were deep divisions between the US and Europe with even the UK opposing an initiative Washington put forward in early 1994. This seemed to instil confidence in the ethnic Serb position which in turn caused the Muslim-Croat Federation to launch an offensive against the forces of the Republic of Serbian Krajina in and around the Bihac area in November 1994 with the goal of returning the territory to Croatian control.
To complement their defence, the Krajina-Serbs used their handful of aircraft based at Udbina. The most potent strike aircraft available to the Krajina-Serbs was the SOKO J-22 Orao, a light attack aircraft which resembled the RAF’s Jaguar that was developed by Yugoslavia before the country broke up. The Krajina Serbs initially claimed that they had no Oraos but NATO intelligence efforts and later video evidence of them in use proved that the potent aircraft was flying from Udbina. Other combat aircraft included SOKO G-2 Galeb and G-4 Super Galeb armed jet trainers that were broadly equivalent to the Italian Aermacchi MB-326 and British Aerospace Hawk respectively. The airfield was also being used by helicopters and was a major command and control facility for repelling the Croatians.
At the same time as the Croat offensive, Bosnian government forces were still pushing back towards Bihać forcing Oraos from Udbina to be directed over the lines in to Bosnian territory. On November 18th 1994, two Oraos from Udbina flew in to Bosnia and bombed the Bosnian Army’s 5th Corp headquarters violating the UN safe zone around Bihać in the process which at this point was only “safe” on paper; in fact, at this point the Krajina-Serbs controlled about a third of the zone. The next day, on November 19th another strike was carried out in to Bosnia this time directed at an ammunition factory in Cazin some ten miles north of Bihać. Flying at very low altitude, one of the two Oraos involved in the attack clipped a chimney and went barrelling in to an apartment block killing its pilot who hailed from Serbia itself.
Faced with this dramatic surge in violence the UN finally agreed to expand NATO’s area of operations to include recognised Croatian airspace thus denying the Krajina-Serbs’ aircraft the protection they had once been afforded under the Deny Flight rules of engagement. On the same day that the Serbian pilot crashed his Orao in Cazin, the UN voted unanimously in favour of Security Council Resolution 959 which condemned ethnic Serb atrocities and demanded all sides comply with UN peacekeeping forces as well as reaffirm diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. The Krajina-Serbs were not listening and this in turn finally forced NATO’s hand.
Having been at the centre of a coordinated intelligence campaign, NATO elected to launch an air strike on Udbina with the goal of denying the Krajina-Serbs the use of their air power. It was to be a truly multinational affair with participating aircraft belonging to the air forces of Britain, France, Holland and the United States flying from Italy or carriers in the Adriatic. There were 39 combat aircraft committed to the operation which would be supported by NATO E-3 Sentry AWACS and a variety of tankers. The British contribution included four Jaguar GR.1s with crews coming from No.54 Squadron under the command of Wing Commander Tim Kerrs. Two of the Jaguars would provide post-attack reconnaissance duties for the strike using LOROP reconnaissance pods while the other two aircraft would both be armed with 1,000lb general purpose bombs and attack the runway. The British also supplied a TriStar K.1 tanker to refuel the NATO aircraft while Sea Harriers from HMS Invincible provided air defence duties should the Krajina-Serbs make a frankly bold attempt to retaliate in the air.
There was no doubt that NATO had the firepower and the technological edge but they once again found themselves being reeled back in by the UN. NATO planners had wanted to essentially remove Udbina’s aircraft from the equation altogether by first knocking out the runway thus preventing them from taking off and then destroying them on the ground using precision guided munitions dropped from the protection of medium altitude in much the same way that the far more powerful Iraqi air force had been annihilated over three years earlier. At the same time, in order to protect the strike aircraft a number of electronic warfare planes would jam the air defence radars while AGM-88 HARM-equipped US F/A-18s would destroy them. The missiles and anti-aircraft artillery emplacements themselves would then be targeted with precision guided weapons.
When NATO presented the plan to the UN they were appalled citing that it would result in a huge loss of life and incur retaliations against UNPROFOR troops. This was not an unreasonable assessment since a close air support mission around Gorazde earlier in the year by NATO aircraft saw a number of UNPROFOR troops taken hostage and only released after a lengthy negotiation process. Instead, the UN demanded that NATO only bomb the runway and jam the defensive radars. This was intolerable for NATO who felt that their hands were being tied and not destroying the anti-aircraft defences was unnecessarily endangering their pilots. The UN eventually conceded and relaxed their restrictions for the operation, permitting NATO to attack the surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery sites in order to protect the strike aircraft but sternly refused to allow NATO to attack the aircraft on the ground for fear of killing pilots and ground crew. The UN and NATO it seemed had reluctantly met in the middle regarding the debate and the operation was given the go-ahead for November 20th but poor weather saw this delayed by 24 hours.
On November 21st at 1030hrs GMT, the strike group set off from their bases in Italy. The mission was under the overall command of the Dutch contingent who along with the British were primarily tasked with attacking the runway. Curiously, despite the intensity of NATO operations in the following decade it would not be until 2014 that a Dutch commander would lead a strike again. The strike force was well protected by US and French fighters while USAF EF-111A Ravens provided electronic jamming of the Krajina Serb radars. Having formed up over the Adriatic the force was then directed to their operational areas under the guidance of a Sentry AWAC. United States Marine Corps F/A-18s fired AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles at the radar dishes, shutting them down permanently and allowing USAF F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16C Falcons to bomb the actual surface-to-air missile batteries and gun emplacements using laser guided bombs.
The British Jaguars and the Dutch F-16s then made their attacks on the runway using unguided conventional bombs. The British adopted an attack profile not too dissimilar to those used against the Iraqis three years earlier with the aircraft diving in on to the target effectively hurling their bombs at the target. Wing Commander Kerrs led the pair of Jaguars attacking the runway, the two of them each putting a 1,000lb bomb in to the tarmac. Flight Lieutenant Chris Carder then led the pair of LOROP Jaguars photographing the results of the attack which were to be compared with pre-attack photographs of the airfield taken by reconnaissance aircraft in the days leading up to the attack in order to assess the raid’s effectiveness. The LOROP Jaguars flew at 15,000ft and were able to photograph the airfield from around five miles away.
After nearly two hours, the raid on Udbina was over and all the aircraft involved had either already returned to Italy or were enroute over the Adriatic. Despite UN hopes, two Krajina-Serbs were killed in the raid and around half a dozen more injured prompting a promise of retaliation by Krajina- and Bosnian-Serb leaders.
As promised, the Serbs retaliated swiftly. The very next day, two Sea Harriers from HMS Invincible were fired upon by a surface-to-air missile just 15 miles from Bihać. Fortunately, the missile was successfully decoyed away. Just as the UN feared, the attack on Udbina and a number of additional air strikes against anti-aircraft sites in north-western Bosnia in the weeks afterward to further protect NATO aircraft saw UN hostages taken including two Czech Army officers who were kidnapped in Sarajevo. Most significantly however, in May 1995 over 400 UNPROFOR soldiers were taken hostage and used as human shields. This and the failure of previous efforts finally saw a sustained NATO bombing campaign against the Bosnian-Serbs under Operation Deliberate Force.
In judging the success of the Udbina raid it could be argued that within the narrow confines of its own parameters agreed to by the UN and NATO the strike was a success. The runway was rendered unusable with a minimum of casualties on the ground and without any NATO losses. However, in the wider scope of events the raid achieved very little. With the aircraft left intact the Krajina-Serbs began an effort to fill in the craters left by the bombs and within two weeks they were flying from there again despite NATO air activity now over Croatia as well as Bosnia. Udbina remained a major part of the military operations carried out by the Krajina-Serbs in Croatia and Bihać for the remainder of the conflict.
In hindsight, the raid did little to directly affect the fighting in and around Bihać but it did prove that NATO was capable of mounting a large scale and complex air operation. The raid on Udbina effectively provided the blueprint for the more sustained campaign of Deliberate Force in which the RAF’s Jaguars were joined by Harrier GR.7s.