Team sport, combat search and rescue over Serbia, 1999.

Author:Whitcomb, Darrel D.

In the 1990s, United States military forces, as part of the great NATO Alliance, were involved in the Balkans region of Europe, primarily against the forces of Serbia. The last part of that conflict involved direct action against Serbia itself as NATO attempted to staunch their atrocities directed at the southern region of Kosovo. The Serbians had long-considered Kosovo as part of their nation. In 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo Polje, according to Serbian culture, Serbia saved Europe from the Ottomans by "sacrificing itself to halt the Turks in Kosovo." Serbia's gaining of independence in 1878 rekindled its desire for control of Kosovo. As a U.S. Air Force study noted, to Serbian nationalists, "Kosovo was an intrinsic part of Serbia." Under Marshal Josip Broz Tito's rule following World War II, Kosovo enjoyed a degree of autonomy while under Serbia's control. But in the post-Tito 1980s, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo--comprising 90 percent of the population--appeared to threaten Serbian aspirations for control of the province. Playing upon Serbian nationalism and fears, Slobodan Milosevic rose to the presidency in Serbia in part upon his promises of retaining control of "ancestral" Kosovo. In 1989, Milosevic withdrew Kosovar autonomy and permitted the removal of Kosovar Albanians from government jobs including the police. By 1991-92 as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, Kosovar Albanians formed a shadow government. Still, the province remained relatively peaceful. (1)

In the spring of 1998, however, Kosovo began to unravel. In March, Yugoslavian--essentially, Serbian--security forces initiated attacks against insurgents of the independence-minded Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The violence increased, including the forced evacuation of Kosovar villages and the murders of ethnic Albanians. Nevertheless, by summer the KLA controlled about one-third of Kosovo. Serbia responded with a major offensive. Meanwhile, fearful of what appeared to be the start of another round of ethnic cleansing--as occurred in Bosnia several years earlier--NATO defense ministers considered military options against Serbia. In mid-October 1998, the NATO Council authorized air strikes against Serbia which, for the time being, persuaded Milosevic to comply with a UN-directed cease-fire and the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. (2)

Although Milosevic did, in fact, withdraw a sizeable number of his security forces from Kosovo, the cease-fire was short-lived due to violations on both sides. By early 1999, Serbian forces returned to Kosovo. Reports of human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians increased, including evidence of a massacre, in January, of Kosovar civilians at Racak, Kosovo. Meanwhile, thousands of Kosovar refugees, driven from their homes and villages in what appeared to be a systematic campaign by the Serbians, began crossing the borders into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. In February and March 1999, last-ditch diplomatic efforts at Rambouillet and Paris, respectively, failed to secure a return to the October 1998 agreement or an end to Serbian operations in Kosovo. On March 20, Serbian forces renewed an offensive against the KLA and continued ridding Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. Three days later, the Secretary General of NATO, Dr. Javier Solana, directed the start of air operations against Serbia. The NATO operational name was ALLIED FORCE (OAF); the U.S. component, NOBLE ANVIL (NA). (3)

Air operations planners calculated on a very short campaign. In fact, U.S./NATO leaders anticipated that only two or three nights of limited air strikes would convince Milosevic to change his rogue-like behavior. As the campaign began, the forces of U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), had only fifty-one fixed targets approved. He forbade any form of ground attack, instead directing USAF Lt. Gen. Michael C. Short, the commander of Allied Forces Southern Europe, to conduct an air campaign utilizing the almost 550 U.S. and 650 allied combat and support aircraft assigned to strike the designated targets. (4)

The air planners were also concerned about the possibility of allied aircraft being shot down. They recalled how several NATO aircraft had been shot down in earlier Balkans operations. On April 16, 1994, a British Sea Harrier aircraft was downed by an SA-7 missile near Gorazde, Bosnia. (5) A year later, on June 2, 1995, a Serbian SA-6 brought down a USAF F-16 pilot, Scott O'Grady, over western Bosnia. (6) Both the British and American pilots were rescued. On August 30, 1995, near the town of Pale, Bosnian Serbs employing a surface-to-air missile scored against a French Mirage 2000K, call sign "Ebro-33." U.S. aircraft flew ninety-two dedicated sorties in support of recovery efforts for Ebro-33 until officials confirmed that the Serbians had captured the two-man crew. The crews' release later served as a stepping stone toward the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995. (7)

All U.S. forces in OAF were organized as Joint Task Force (JTF)-NA. As expected, SOCEUR would provide supporting special forces. Its commander, U.S. Army Brigadier General Eldon Bargewell, activated JSOTF-NOBLE ANVIL to do so. Under it, the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF)-2 headquarters element at Brindisi was assigned to specifically provide combat search and rescue (CSAR) capability. The Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) reinforced its element there to four MH-53Js and crews. The 20th SOS at Hurlburt Field, FL, was directed to deploy augmenting forces. Capt. Jim Cardoso was serving as the B Flight commander and deployed his flight with five MH-53Js, crews, and support personnel for the operations, as requested by the 21st SOS so that it could have a standardized fleet and intermix crews. However, as the Airmen and aircraft were en route, AFSOC ordered them to return the aircraft to Hurlburt for replacement with five MH-53Ms, which had just been modified with upgraded navigational and threat alert systems. They were joined by four MH60s and crews from the 55th SOS as part of the larger Task Force Helo, commanded by the 21st SOS commander, Lt. Col. Paul Harmon. (8)

AFSOC assets at the base also included MC-130P Combat Shadow (tanker), and AC-130H (gunship) aircraft as well as Special Tactics (ST) combat controllers and pararescuemen (PJs) --highly-trained members of the small Air Force special operations community that expected to perform their jobs on the ground, often in denied or hostile areas. (9)

AFSOC also increased the ST elements. Under the leadership of Maj. Terry "Eugene" Willett and his successor, Maj. William "Bill" Sherman, the 321 Special Tactics Squadron (STS), based at RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, was "spun-up" no less than three times in anticipation of contingency operations in response to Serbian actions in Kosovo. The third time, however, in March 1999, was the real deal. Later, Lt. Col. Bradley Thompson--a captain in 1999--recalled he was tasked initially with forming three CSAR teams, totaling about ten personnel. By the time the air campaign against Serbia began, however, he was the mission commander for some seventy personnel, including operators who deployed to the JSOTF2 from Special Tactics and Air Rescue units at Hurlburt Field and Patrick AFB, FL...

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