Project on Defense Alternatives

Defensive Restructuring in the Successor States of the former-Yugoslavia

Project on Defense Alternatives, Briefing Report #6
Carl Conetta, Charles Knight and Lutz Unterseher
March 1996

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The world has watched in dismay as thousands of civilians in the former-Yugoslavia have suffered and died. Many have noted the injustice of an arms embargo that left parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina nearly defenseless against forces with greater access to the very substantial national armaments of the former unified state of Yugoslavia. Over the past several years there have been numerous calls for the provision of arms to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to "balance the field." This concept gained such currency so as to inform aspects of the Dayton Agreement and is the strategic underpinning of United States military policy in the region.

As of the fall of 1996 some NATO troops have begun to withdraw from the new Bosnian Federation. However, all NATO troops will not be able to return home before establishing conditons of military stability between the the main parties of to the conflict (Serb, Croat, and Muslim.) The arms control and confidence-building provisions of the Dayton Agreement together with planned military assistance programs provide an opportunity to effect some meaningful defensive restructuring of armed forces in the area covered by the accord. Defensive restructuring would provide an alternative path for securing peace, a path in many ways more promising than pursuing elusive "balance."

This briefing report was prepared at the request of PDA Research Advisory Board member Jonathan Dean, Arms Control Advisor to the Union of Concerned Scientists and former U.S. Ambassador to the Mutual (Balanced) Force Reduction negotiations in Europe between 1978 and 1981. It complements a recent paper by Ambassador Dean entitled The Dayton Agreement and Disarmament in Yugoslavia.


The most stable outcome of arms control and military assistance regimes would be a condition of multilateral defensive superiority, whereby the defensive capabilities of each participant clearly overmatches the offensive capabilities of their neighbors. Such a condition, if achievable, would contribute more to crisis stability and to an improvement in political relations than could deterrence based principally on the threat of retaliation. Of course, the multilateral nature of the confrontation and the differences in potentials among the participants complicates any calculation of deterrence, whether based on denial or retaliation.

In this light a realistic goal is the creation of regional defense postures that are sufficiently robust and responsive to (i) substantially raise the cost of aggression in terms of both time and effort, and that (ii) incorporate some distinct structural limitations on the capabilities for cross-border attack. Of course, for the near- and mid-term, regional stability probably depends on the willingness of the European community to weigh-in against any future aggression. Nonetheless, by improving specifically the balance between offensive and defensive capabilities, a program of defensive restructuring can uniquely contribute to the reduction of regional asymmetries. This, in turn, would reduce substantially any future need for outside intervention.

1. General features of defensive restructuring

Existing models of "defensive defense" -- as reflected, for instance, in Austrian military planning during the 1980s -- can provide some guidance for the defensive restructuring of armed forces in the countries covered by the accord. These models generally divide a nation's defense force into two cooperating elements: the first, a relatively static area-control and/or support network co-extensive with the national territory; the second, a smaller but highly mobile counter-attack element. The two elements are interdependent and synergistic. The system relies on the deliberate preparation of defense zones and on other "home court" advantages to attain high levels of combat efficiency. At the same time, the relative dependency of the counter-attack units on the area-covering network limits their offensive potential outside of national territory.

Of course, the distinct demographic, geographic, and political conditions of the Balkan states demand a special application or adaptation of existing territorial defense models. Among the factors to take into consideration is the mountainous, forested terrain of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although the mountainous areas are not so rugged so as to impede infiltration, they limit significantly the options for large-scale mechanized operations. Moreover, the ground communication network of Bosnia-Herzegovina is relatively sparse: Compared to Austria, for instance, it has less than one-third as many kilometers of road and rail per square kilometer of territory. The strategic geography of the area implies that security depends on (i) control of land communication nodes, avenues of approach, and key terrain (high-ground), and (ii) a capacity to quickly detect, quarantine, and interdict infiltration through wooded and rugged terrain.

2. Guidelines for the Dayton accord countries.

2.1 General scheme.

Stability-oriented military postures for the region would emphasize selective area control and defense based on infantry-artillery formations supplemented by a small quantity of counter-attack elements. Planners would identify "defense zones" -- those vital areas most vulnerable to attack -- in which the infantry-artillery elements would concentrate. A small number of high-readiness, independent units would be constituted on the national level for use as (i) a "first line" of defense at a threatened border, (ii) a "rapid reaction" element to contain and interdict infiltrations through remote areas, or (iii) as reinforcements for local defense zone forces.

2.2 Infantry.
Within defense zones, regular infantry (truck-borne) would focus on secure control of (i) key nodes in the land communication system, (ii) the approaches to centers of population, industry, and government, and (iii) any high ground overlooking these centers or key communication nodes. Infantry elements would seek to fully exploit the opportunity to prepare likely areas of engagement. Their training would emphasize the rapid emplacement of obstacles and field fortifications and the establishment of interlocking fields of observation and fire. Infantry units should be liberally supplied with anti-armor and fire support weapons: ATGWs, recoilless rifles, and mortars. Lacking armored transport, however, these infantry units would have a relatively low level of operational offensive capability against their neighbor's artillery-infantry areas. Moreover, without the support of significant numbers of tanks, these units would have only a limited capacity to directly assault well-prepared, well-supported field positions.

There is also a need for some elite, mountain infantry (constituted as "army-level" units). These would be key to the successful containment and interdiction of raiding parties or infiltration units that might try to circumvent defense zones or cross into national territory over rugged or heavily forested terrain.

2.3 Armored cavalry.
The optimal configuration for counter-attack elements would be as armored cavalry, combining armor and mechanized infantry subunits. This combination permits maximum flexibility -- a necessity given the relatively small quantity of these units. (Regular infantry units should outnumber these units by ratios in excess of 5:1).

2.4 Armor-Antiarmor balance.
The overall balance between armored platforms and anti-armor weapons should clearly favor the latter. As noted in section 2.2, infantry should be amply supplied with portable, crew-served anti-armor weapons. To insure a rapid and adequate response to sudden concentrated attacks, infantry units also should be able to call upon a local reserve of mobile anti-armor firepower. This could be provided by units comprising light armored, wheeled vehicles that mount anti-armor weapons. These vehicles should weigh less than six tons -- the Dayton agreement's threshold for armored combat vehicles. At this weight the vehicles could be quick and agile, and they could possess sufficient organic protection to operate effectively in a defensive mode. However, their capability against well-prepared defense positions would be limited. In addition to ATGWs and large-caliber recoilless rifles, both vehicle-mounted and portable, the defense array should include a substantial combat engineer/counter mobility component with the capability to rapidly create obstacles and lay self-disarming or remotely-controlled anti-tank mines.

2.5 Anti-armor mines.
Anti-armor mines should be laid by hand or vehicle, not artillery or helicopter. The strategic geography of the area and the character of regional armed forces makes the use of artillery or helicopter "projected mines" unnecessary for defensive operations. Moreover, the resort to such techniques greatly complicates the control and decommissioning of minefields. Reasons of control, efficiency, and discrimination also demand that all minefields should be covered by direct fire -- that is, used in conjunction with nearby ground forces.

2.6 Anti-personnel mines.
The temptation to use anti-personnel mines as a cheap means of area denial should be resisted. This prohibition applies even to remote areas that are difficult to control and subject to infiltration. In such areas, the best approach to containing infiltration is rapid emplacement of ground sensors (perhaps by aircraft) together with saturation patrolling by infantry units.

2.7 Artillery.
Artillery can play a vital role in territorial defense schemes especially when low force-to-space ratios prevail. However, in the context of the recent Balkan conflict, dependence on artillery poses a unique dilemma. Because the belligerents have used artillery not only in a combat support role, but also as a strategic weapon of terror, deep reductions in artillery holdings is a critical feature of stabilization efforts.

Several measures might resolve the artillery dilemma. First, artillery holdings could be sharply reduced, while the effective accuracy of what remains is improved through careful "intelligence preparation" of defensive zones. The establishment of defensive positions and alternative artillery sites (in support of these positions) should allow prior registration of guns and the laying of secure communication landlines. In this way planners can guarantee that the optimal use of scarce artillery resources would be defensive. Second, line and maneuver units could rely more than is common on mortars and direct fire weapons (recoilless rifles) for fire support. In general, the ratio of mortars to artillery should shift in the former's favor. The shorter range of mortars relative to howitzers makes them less useful as "strategic" terror weapons. Moreover, should mortars be used in an effort to penetrate the prepared defensive zones of an adversary, they would become vulnerable to the more accurate and longer-range counterbattery fire of the zones' artillery.

2.8 Support systems.
Key to limiting the offensive potential of the region's armed forces is the creation of relatively static logistical and medical systems, based on local depots and hospitals. As an additional stabilizing measure part-time military reservists and civilians could fill many of the personnel slots in these systems.

2.9 Air defense systems and combat aircraft.
Air defense systems and combat aircraft pose special problems for defensive restructuring. The least stabilizing combination (i.e. the one that would contribute the most to a cross-border attack capability) is self-propelled air defense systems under armor and high-performance Fighter/Ground Attack aircraft. By contrast, a combination optimized for defense would emphasize relatively-static ground based systems (operating from alternative, prepared sites) and air superiority aircraft. The cross-border offensive capability of ground units can be further controlled by separating high- and medium-altitude air defenses from the ground forces and constituting them as part of a national air defense organization.

The fact that combat air power can play a positive role in achieving stability-oriented defense, does not mean that stability requires the introduction or preservation of fixed-wing assets in cases where few exist or where there is an opportunity to remove them altogether. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the option of two, small air forces, each operating over approximately 25,000 square kilometers, is neither cost-effective nor stabilizing. The utter lack of defensive depth and the small size of the proposed forces would seem to invite preemptive strikes in the case of a confrontation. A more cost-effective and stabilizing approach for these state entities might be to forsake fixed-wing aircraft and increase their investment in ground based air defense. If plans go forward, nonetheless, to preserve or build air forces within Bosnia-Herzegovina, these air forces should each comprise air superiority fighters, and not aircraft configured for ground attack.

2.10 Helicopters.
Small numbers of armed scout helicopters (12 per state entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina) could contribute to stability by providing early warning of incursions, by facilitating force allocation, and by assisting in the protection of convoys and the interdiction of raiding parties. Likewise, a limited quantity of transport helicopters could play a useful role in evacuating casualties, quickly resupplying troops in remote areas, and ferrying small numbers of "immediate reinforcement" troops. Generally speaking, however, the distances involved make the development of air mobile units a distinct waste of scarce resources. Investing in attack helicopters is likewise wasteful and probably destabilizing.

Attack helicopters are remarkably expensive to procure, maintain, and operate. They are arguably efficient only in situations where a defender faces a severe force allocation problem; that is, where the combination of a low force-to-space ratio and a large national territory make it extremely difficult for a defender to engage an attacker in a timely fashion with ground units. For an aggressor, however, these assets, used as flying artillery, could provide an effective means of suddenly concentrating overwhelming firepower against prepared infantry positions and against artillery and air defense sites. In other words, they could help compensate aggressors for their disadvantage in having to slowly bring up artillery against a defender's prepared positions and artillery network. Finally, as the example of the Gulf War shows, attack helicopters can provide a stealthy and effective means for conducting hit-and-run raids. Thus, for reasons of both stability and cost-effectiveness, efforts should be made to exclude attack helicopters from the inventories of the armed forces of the region.

2.11 Personnel.
While reliance on well-armed local militia might in other circumstances offer a means to attain prompt and inexpensive area control, persistent problems of command and control exclude this option. Put simply: in the context of the region's severe ethnic polarization and weak state structures, militia would probably prove too unreliable and ill disciplined. This argues for reliance on a full-time permanent force -- either professional or conscript -- perhaps supplemented by a smaller reserve component.

2.12 Reserve personnel.
Part-time reservists, who are to be mobilized in times of crisis, should be used predominantly in defensive "area control" units, and not counter-attack units. This helps insure that their mobilization does not appear to neighboring nations as a sudden spike in offensive capability. Reservists should be prior full-time soldiers completing their service obligation through the reserves. Moreover, reserve units should be fully integrated with the full-time force -- and not constitute parallel local armies. Command and other key positions in reserve units should fall to members of the full-time force. Finally, the armament of any reserve units should be held in depots.

3. A defensively-oriented military posture for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Under a unified national command authority, there would exist two regional commands (which could, if necessary, be divided between the Croatian and Muslim communities). Each of these regional commands would oversee three "area control brigades." In addition, a pool of units could be maintained at the army-level under national command. These could be employed at the national level or allocated as needed to the regional commands.

3.1 Area Control Brigades
Each brigade would have the following assets at its disposal:

  • 1 HQ company
  • 3 infantry battalions (motorized)
  • 1 mobile antitank/light strike battalion (light armored reconnaissance)
  • 1 combat engineer company
  • 1 artillery battalion (18 tubes)
  • 1 support battalion
  • 1 "brigade set" of communications, intelligence, and military police units

The brigades would achieve secure area control through the cooperation of their constituent infantry, artillery, and anti-armor battalions. The infantry element of each brigade might comprise three battalions of truck-borne (i.e. regular) infantry (three companies of three or four platoons each). Each battalion could incorporate a mortar company (10 tubes, 120-mm), a reconnaissance platoon (4 light, unarmored reconnaissance "buggies" mounting heavy machine-guns), an air defense platoon (9 portable SAMs), and a liberal allotment of portable antiarmor weapons (36 systems), recoilless rifles, and medium machine guns. The infantry would seek to secure key defense zones covering important land communication nodes, approaches to centers of industry, government, and population, and key terrain features. In these zones, infantry, covered by their organic mortars, would fight from behind prepared or semi-prepared positions, having previously mapped good, interlocking fields of observation and fire. Some infantry units might be tasked with point defense of important assets.

Each area control brigade might also incorporate one each of combat engineer and artillery battalions and a mobile antiarmor/light strike battalion. The combat engineer battalion would incorporate a platoon of infantry fighting vehicles. The antiarmor/light strike battalion would incorporate 54 light armored reconnaissance vehicles, weighing under six tons and mounting anti-armor weapons (recoilless rifles and/or ATGWs.) These units would serve to support or reinforce the local infantry units or they could operate in the areas between the infantry defense zones in a blocking or light strike (flank attack) role. The assets of the mobile antiarmor/light strike units would also be available for patrol, checkpoint, and convoy duties.

The batteries of the artillery battalion (18 tubes) would operate from alternate, prepared (and protected) positions, using well-planned fires and forward observers to supplement the coverage provided by the mortars of the other units over an area of 5000 square kilometers.

The logistic and medical system for the area control brigades should be semi-static, based on local depots and hospitals. Complementing the brigades would be a civilian intelligence network: households linked to an area information processing center. This network would provide early warning of an incursion.

3.2 Army-level units
Complimenting the area control brigades would be a pool of Army-level units. This pool would include:

  • 2 task force headquarters, company-size
  • 2 armored cavalry battalions
  • 2 motor infantry battalions
  • 2 artillery battalions (24 tubes each)
  • 4 mountain infantry companies
  • 2 anti-sniper companies
  • 4 air defense batteries (4 gun and 4 missile systems each)
  • 2 combat engineer companies
  • 2 support battalions
  • 2 sets of communications, intelligence, and military police units
  • 2 flights of armed scout helicopter (6 each)
  • 2 flights of transport helicopters (6 each)

Army level units could constitute an "immediate reaction" force to cover area control brigades while they mobilize, or they could serve to reinforce area control brigades that come under threat. Alternately, one or two ad hoc task forces could be assembled from the army-level pool to cover areas that are outside the scope of the area control brigades or to cordon-off remote areas penetrated by infiltrators. The contribution of the army-level armored cavalry battalions would be especially important in the eventual defeat and ejection of an intruder. These battalions would incorporate equal numbers of tanks (27) and armored fighting vehicles (27) as well as a mortar company (10 tubes, 120-mm).

3.3 Air defense organization.
To limit the potential for military operations outside the national territory, all medium- and high-altitude air defense assets would belong to a national air defense organization separate from the ground forces. However, air defense units would be tasked to cover the key defense zones as well as other important national assets. The field army would command only four air defense batteries (at the army-level); these would each incorporate four gun and four missile systems to provide field units with short-range coverage. Ground units would also possess some low-level, portable air defense weapons. Additional low-level, portable air defense weapons would be allocated to the national air defense organization for use in the point defense of important national assets.

3.4 Equipment holdings and personnel
Assuming a national structure of six area control brigades and the army- and national-level units specified in sections 3.1-3.3, the equipment holdings of the illustrative national force would be:

Tanks 65
IFV's 95
Light armored recce vehicles 360
Artillery 180
Mortars 240
Air Defense artillery (guns and missiles) 70-80
Portable SAM's 320
Portable ATGW 900
Armed Scout helicopters 12
Transport helicopters 12

This calculation of holdings includes a ten to fifteen percent increment to unit requirements in order to cover replacement needs.

Most of the personnel for the army-level units would be full-time soldiers, although a portion of the supporting logistic and medical personnel would comprise part-time reservists or civilians. By contrast, a substantial portion of the area control brigade personnel could be part-time reservists -- for instance, most of the line infantry and logistical support personnel.

Personnel for the field army would total 32,000 officers and enlisted personnel. Another 7,000 personnel slots are allocated for national command, administration, central logistics, schools, and training programs. Thus, the Federation's armed forces would comprise 39,000 personnel, when fully mobilized. Of these, approximately 9,000 personnel would be "mobilized reservists." Another 11,000 reservists would be "on call" to serve as casualty replacements. Thus, the full-time component would comprise 30,000 personnel; the total reserve component: 20,000.

3.5 Reconciliation of the model with the Dayton agreement
Using the Dayton agreement's arms control categories, the following table compares the model national holdings with the holdings permitted the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina under the agreement.

Model Permitted by
Tanks 65 128 50%
Armored Combat Vehicles 95 134 29%
Artillery: Guns, Mortars and Air Defense 490-500 1412 65%
Combat aircraft 0 56 100%
Attack helicopters 0 22 100%

4. Application of the Model to the other State Parties: A Cautionary Note

The model we have presented is adapted specifically to the strategic circumstances of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Application to the other parties to the Dayton agreement is not simply a matter of multiplying or dividing the structures suggested for the Federation. Each national application is unique. For instance, different circumstance might require a different ratio between army-level units and area-control brigades. Moreover, the composition of the army-level pool and the area-control brigades might need to be adjusted. Among the factors affecting the application of the guidelines presented in Section 2 are terrain, national topology, length of "confrontation borders," defensive depth, force size and density, and likely strategic alignments in the eventuality of war.

In a larger territory with a simpler topography than that of the Federation, for instance, area control units might be constituted optimally as division-size formations (although fewer in number), with their own organic counterattack element. In such cases, the army-level pool could be smaller relatively. Indeed, with reference to the armed forces of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which are substantially larger than those of the other parties, regional stability would be best served by keeping the size of any army-level counterattack element to "less than proportional" size. Although the model proposed for the Federation concentrates most its high-readiness counterattack (shock) power at the army-level, this design choice reflects (I) the small absolute quantity of such power (based on armored cavalry units) available to the Federation, (ii) the immediacy of the potential threat that the Federation faces, and (iii) its notable lack of both strategic depth and flank protection. In the case of (rump) Yugoslavia, which will emerge from the Dayton agreement with more weapons than all the other parties combined, it might be possible to configure the army-level pool along purely defensive lines. This might involve limiting the pool's combat component to infantry and combat engineer elements whose mission would be to "thicken" (in a counter mobility mode) any area control formations that came under attack. In this alternate application, all or most of the available counterattack power might be made organic to the area control formations, rather than concentrating it at the army level.

Given the likelihood that strategic instability will continue to characterize the region for some time, efforts at force restructuring should take into account the implications of possible realignments. The illustrative model presented in Section 3, for instance, allows for bifurcation into two, fairly coherent, defensively-oriented segments. Application of the model to the region as a whole should consider the implications of a possible realignment pitting Croatian entities against Serb against Muslim.

Citation: Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Lutz Unterseher, Defensive Restructuring in The Successor States of the former-Yugoslavia, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #6. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, March 1996.

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