#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

By Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.

It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.

A Combat First

To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.

In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

A F/A-18C Hornet strike-fighter VMFA-232 of the US Marine Corps taxies on the runway before a mission in support of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Transformed Airpower in Action

We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’

Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.

And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’

An aerial view of four hardened aircraft shelters at Kuwait International Airport that were attacked by coalition air forces seeking to destroy Iraq aircraft during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

What Made it Possible?

To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.

But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.

To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.

By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:

For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.

Later Airpower Successes

With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.

To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.

A US Air Force F-15 Eagle from the 494th Fighter Squadron taxis for take-off for an airstrike against a Bosnian Serb target during Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Airpower’s Triumphant Years

In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.

A New Insurgent Challenge

Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.

Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.

Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS

Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.

I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.

But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.

Two US Navy E/A-18G Growlers and two US Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation over the US Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, 25 September 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?

In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.

But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.

True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.

What Made Desert Storm Unique

With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.

This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.

What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us

In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.

Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.

Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

By Dr Søren Nørby

The 30th of May 1999 is an important date in the history of the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF). On this day, Danish General Dynamics F-16s dropped bombs against a hostile target for the first time in its history. The target was in Serbia; a country located more than 1,500 kilometres from Denmark, and with which Denmark was not legally at war. Instead, what the RDAF participated in was a ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was supposed to stop a potential Serbian genocide in the province of Kosovo.

RDAF participation in the intervention against Serbia in 1999 was the end of a period fundamental transformations of the Air Force after the end of the Cold War. In this period, almost every aspect of the RDAF began to change – its doctrine, technology, and central mission. This article explores those changes by looking at the role of the RDAF during the post-Cold War conflicts in Yugoslavia between 1992-1995 and Serbia in 1999.[1]

In 1989, the RDAF was small but versatile. It consisted of more than 100 aircraft, a force of ground-based air defence centred around eight mobile missile batteries (I-HAWKs), seven large airbases, and a well-developed command-and-control-system that maintained a constant aerial picture of Denmark and the surrounding area. Its peacetime force was approximately 8,200 personnel, which could be increased to 17,500 in wartime. The RDAF was well integrated into NATO, and its main task was the defence of the western part of the Baltic Sea in case of an attack from the Warsaw Pact.[2] This was a role the RDAF undertook in conjunction with other NATO partners.

From ‘Peace-dividends’ to the Civil War in Yugoslavia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Danish defence policy. It prompted a shift away from the low-profile approach that had been the cornerstone of Danish policy since the end of the Second World War. In September 1990 the Danish government deployed the corvette, Olfert Fischer, as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD, the United Nations (UN) sanctioned military operation against Iraq, following the occupation of Kuwait. This deployment illustrated to Danish politicians that there was political capital to be gained from participating in such operations, far from Danish shores. At the same time, the Danish Defence Command, which coordinated and controlled the Danish military, realised that operations far from Denmark were a way to stay relevant and to avoid the hard cuts to the defence budget that some Danish politicians wanted, now that the enemy – the Warsaw Pact – had disappeared.

In 1992, the UN set up a peacekeeping force for the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The Danish government decided to participate with approximately 940 soldiers – a large contingent by Danish standards. Initial problems with recruiting the needed number of soldiers resulted in a change in Danish military law that now stipulated that members of the Danish military were required to accept participating in missions outside Denmark’s borders. Approximately five per cent of the men and women employed by the Royal Danish Army, the Royal Danish Navy and RDAF chose not to accept this and left the military.[3]

In 1993, the Danish government strengthened the Danish contribution to the UN operation in Yugoslavia by deploying ten main battle tanks. Denmark thus became the first country to deploy such heavy weapons in a UN operation. When Danish politicians voiced concern that the deployment of the Danish tanks would be perceived as a dramatic escalation of UN involvement in the civil war in Yugoslavia, the Danish Armed Forces decided that the tanks should be painted white, giving them the nickname ‘The Snow Leopards.’

The deployment of Danish Leopard 1 tanks to the Former Yugoslavia in 1992 marked an important turning point in Denmark’s defence policy. (Source: Author)

Pressure from International Organisations

The RDAF was initially not deployed on the international stage, other than a single Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which in 1992 flew ten trips as part of the emergency assistance provided to the Yugoslav city of Sarajevo.[4] The pressure to change the RDAF contribution came from NATO, which had begun its transformation towards a smaller, but more flexible organisation, capable of faster response times. This process had already begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it gained further momentum in the 1990s.

In 1991, NATO created two new forces: the Immediate Reaction Forces (IRF), capable of deploying within a few days, and the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) with a deployment time of a few weeks. Here the Danish government decided that that the RDAF’s Squadron 730 should be Denmark’s contribution to the IRF.[5]

The contribution of Squadron 730 to NATO’s IRF marked a shift in focus for the RDAF. During the Cold War era, NATO-planning envisaged that British and American squadrons would reinforce the RDAF.[6] NATO had planned to reinforce the RDAF with one Royal Air Force squadron of Hawker Harriers and two squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguars. United States Air Force (USAF) reinforcements were to consist of one squadron of McDonnel-Douglas F-15s, three F-16 squadrons, and one squadron of Republic A-10 Thunderbolts.

The 1990s, however, saw the RDAF shift to an expeditionary role whereby it contributed to the safety of others outside of Denmark’s borders. As such, the importance of making Squadron 730 available for NATO’s IRF cannot be overstated. Squadron 730 became the ‘flagship’ unit of the RDAF.

NATO’s involvement in the Civil War in Yugoslavia

In parallel with the above developments, during the first years of the 1990s, NATO became increasingly involved in the civil war in Yugoslavia. A UN ordered No Fly Zone had to be enforced by NATO, and in February 1994, this led to aircraft from the Alliance coming into action for the first time when US aircraft downed four Bosnian-Serbian fighter jets over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A Royal Danish Air Force F-35 Drakken aircraft taxis into takeoff position during Exercise OKSBOEL ’86. (Source: Wikimedia)

On several occasions, the Danish government considered contributing Danish aircraft to NATO operations over Yugoslavia. Such a move was, however, hampered by Danish politicians, who in 1991 had decided to scrap all of the RDAF’s Saab Draken aircraft. This meant that the Air Force’s ability to perform close air support had been downgraded to the degree that meant that Danish aircraft was unfit to perform their intended tasks over Yugoslavia. Therefore, despite pressure from NATO, the Danish government had to decline NATO’s request to deploy Danish aircraft over Yugoslavia. This was embarrassing for the Danish government and meant an increased focus on the close air support task. This meant procuring new equipment, such as the Low Altitude Navigation Targeting Infrared for Night laser targeting pods (LANTIRN) that would eventually enable the RDAF’s F-16s to use precision-guided munitions (PGM). However, the acquisition and introduction of such equipment was a long process, and the LANTIRNs were not operational until 2001.

In the Line of Fire – Yugoslavia

On 29 April 1994, while the debate over a possible deployment of RDAF F-16s was ongoing, a Danish tank force became involved in combat operations against Serbian forces near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Danish tanks were ambushed, resulting in a firefight lasting approximately 45 minutes. The episode was the first time since 1943 that troops under the Danish flag had fought in battle. While the Danes did not suffer any losses, the Bosnian Serbs subsequently acknowledged that they had nine killed and 15 wounded. The battle, known under the name Operation Bøllebank (Operation Hooligan Bashing), became just as important to the Danish military as the deployment of the Olfert Fischer four years earlier. It showed that Danish soldiers were ready to put military power behind international engagement and were able to fight.

Bøllebank also showed the soldiers, airmen and sailors in the Danish military that post-Cold War UN-operations were fundamentally different from the peaceful UN-missions that Denmark had participated in before 1989. It became clear to the Danish military that personnel deployed on such a mission could be called on to undertake combat operations. Finally, Bøllebank also illustrated a high degree of political and popular support for the Danish participation in the UN-operations, which subsequently helped to expand the Armed Forces’ maneuvering room in connection with these operations.[7]

RDAF Pressure for Change

During the 1990s the RDAF tried on numerous occasions to convince Danish politicians to deploy Danish planes to the civil war in Yugoslavia. This was driven by a fear that the RDAF’s lack of an international profile would make it difficult to secure funding for new equipment. The various professional heads of the RDAF in this period all wanted to make the entire Air Force deployable, including such elements as the Hawk missile system and radars. Following recommendations from the Danish Defence Command, Danish politicians decided to invest much money in new and more mobile equipment, and the RDAF’s Hercules and Gulfstream transport aircraft were equipped with, among other things, missile warning equipment to enable them to operate in dangerous areas.[8]

The RDAF also devoted resources to developing a Danish doctrine for the operational use of air power. The RDAF was inspired by USAF Colonel John Warden’s theories regarding the strategic use of air power, especially his 5-ring model of the enemy as a system. These ideas were used to set the direction for the development of the RDAF and to provide inspiration for how Danish aircraft could be used in the event of a conflict.[9]


Following Operation DELIBERATE FORCE, the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and Herzegovina between 30 August and 20 September 1995, the civil war in Bosnia was stopped with the so-called Dayton Agreement. This peace deal ended a civil war that had cost more than 100,000 lives and driven more than four million people from their homes. Thanks to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 personnel, Bosnia and Croatia have since been mostly peaceful.[10]

In the shadow of the civil war, however, another conflict lurked. Within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which after 1995 consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, a significant minority of ethnic Albanians constituted much of the population of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. The conflict between the ethnic Serbs minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo dated back hundreds of years but escalated in 1989 when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic deprived Kosovo of the expanded autonomy enjoyed by the region since 1974.

During the 1990s, the political environment in Kosovo gradually grew worse, and by 1998 large parts of the province were no longer under Serbian control. The Serbian military and police, therefore, initiated a particularly hard-fought effort in Kosovo to restore control of the province – preferably by cleansing the province of ethnic Albanians.[11]

Among other things, because of the experience of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the world community could not let the Serbs pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Albania. An American-led attempt to find a peaceful solution was therefore made, and the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke was given the task of trying to negotiate a solution.


To put pressure on the Serbian president, on 14 June 1998, NATO gathered a force of approximately 80 fighter jets from 12 countries. In Operation DETERMINED FALCON, these aircraft flew along the Serbian border and illustrated to the Serbian President that NATO was ready to use military power if the Serbs did not halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

For this operation, Denmark provided three F-16 aircraft (two plus one in reserve) at just two days’ notice. At 17:30 on 15 June 1998, Danish F-16s, together with a C-130 Hercules carrying support personnel and ammunition, flew to the Italian airbase at Villafranca. The next morning two Danish F-16s took part in the operation along the southern Serbian border to Macedonia and Albania. After a successful operation, the Danish aircraft returned to Denmark.[12]

During the summer of 1998, Richard Holbrooke managed to reach an agreement including the withdrawal of some Serbian forces from Kosovo. Whether DETERMINED FALCON played a role in that agreement or not is unclear.[13] However, the agreement did not last, and in September 1998, up to 300,000 Kosovo Albanians were once again on the run in Kosovo. These refugees threatened to destabilise the entire region and create a flow of refugees in Europe, such as those the world had witnessed during the 1997 collapse of Albania. The European authorities were very aware of this, and the European Union put much effort into stopping the Serbian cleansing of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Towards Operation ALLIED FORCE

Concurrent with this process, NATO began planning a military operation. On the 8 October 1998, the Danish government made available six F-16s (four operational plus two reserve aircraft) and support personnel, totalling 120 men, for a NATO operation named OPLAN 10601 ALLIED FORCE. This operation was designed to compel the Serbs to return to the negotiating table and ensure that the Serbian forces left Kosovo by the 16 October.

One of the six RDAF F-16s deployed as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999. (Source: Author)

The Danish F-16s and most of the personnel initially came from Squadron 730. At the time, however, the RDAF had only 36 pilots with current operational experience on the F-16 aircraft. This figure included pilots serving at the RDAF headquarters as staff officers. The Danish contribution to ALLIED FORCE required six pilots in Italy, six on standby in Denmark and six for other operations, including those on leave at home in Denmark. The deployment thus required half of the RDAF’s available F-16 pilots. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that all the deployed pilots had to be certified for the weapons systems that were expected to be used during the operation.

ALLIED FORCE, therefore, put much pressure on the entire fighter structure and operations of the RDAF. This pressure meant that all tasks that did not directly relate to air policing the skies over Denmark or ALLIED FORCE were discontinued. For example, among other things, Squadron 727 suspended the training of new pilots, while most of its pilots were deployed to Italy. In the long run, this would ultimately have an impact on the RDAF’s ability to meet its readiness level.[14]

Thanks to political and military pressure, in February 1999, it proved possible to persuade both representatives of the Kosovar rebel movement Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian government to initiate negotiations about the future of Kosovo. These took place at the French president’s summer residence at Chateau de Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. On the 18 March, however, it became clear that the negotiations would not lead to a deal, and with the negotiation options exhausted, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana had no other options than on the 23 March to initiate Operation Allied Force. At 19:00 the following night, NATO began launching airstrikes against Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia.

The Danish Experience

RDAF F-16s participated in ALLIED FORCE from day one; however, the operation came at an unfortunate time. In addition to the aforementioned pilot issue, the RDAF was in the middle of a midlife update of its F-16s, and the number of operational aircraft was significantly reduced. Initially, the RDAF only had 14 F-16s capable of participating in the air campaign. This meant that the aircraft deployed during the air campaign worked up so many flight hours that had they operated in peacetime they would have had to be sent home to Denmark for inspection. To alleviate this issue, the RDAF’s Tactical Command issued exemptions from the rules to keep the aircraft flying.

For most of the air campaign, Danish F-16s operated in the defensive role. This was a necessary part of ALLIED FORCE. The Air Force of Yugoslavia – even though most of its fighter jets were of an older design – posed a potential threat to NATO had they chosen to resist the Alliance’s attack. However, after having lost four jets during the first days, the Air Force of Yugoslavia chose to keep most of its aircraft on the ground. Nevertheless, political demands from NATO-member states meant that approximately 33 per cent of Alliance aircraft were devoted to the air defence role against potential attacks by the Air Force of Yugoslavia.[15]

On these combat air patrols, Danish F-16s operated in pairs. Initially, their patrol zones were located over the Adriatic Sea, where the essential air tankers operated. As NATO became more confident that Serbian forces would not try to counter NATO operations, the patrol zones moved to the area over Albania and Macedonia and later also Hungary. This allowed the American jets, which had until then patrolled these areas, to be transferred to offensive operations.

Since Danish F-16 pilots were not equipped with night-vision-goggles, they were used in daylight operations. During one patrol over Kosovo, a Danish F-16 was fired at by a Serbian ground-to-air missile, which did not, however, successfully hit its intended target.[16]

Danish Offensive Air Power

While Danish F-16s primarily focused on the air defence role, in the final days of the air campaign, the RDAF aircraft became involved in offensive operations against Serbian targets.

The first Danish bombs were dropped on the 30 May. The details of the attack are still classified, but what is known is that the target was a radio mast in northern Kosovo and that the two F-16s each dropped six MK-82 bombs. From an altitude of 11,000 feet, the pilots visually observed the bombs hitting the target area. For the attack, the Danish planes used ‘dumb’ bombs. The primary reason for this was that it was not necessary to use a more expensive laser-guided bomb (LGB) on the target. Secondly, an attack with an LGB would have required ‘buddy’ lasing. This technique involved one aircraft illuminating the target with a laser and guiding the LGB, dropped from a second aircraft, towards the target. As well as the above, there was also uncertainty about which pilot was responsible for the bomb if it caused collateral damage. The RDAF, therefore, chose to use dumb bombs where there was no doubt that the Danish F-16s were fully responsible for weapons released.

According to one of the pilots involved in the 30 May attack, the target area had visible bomb damage before the Danish attack. The Danish bombs hit close to the target, but due to the uncertainty about the target’s condition before the attack, the military value of the attack was uncertain. For the RDAF, however, the attack was a significant event as it was the first time Danish aircraft had dropped bombs on an adversary.[17]

For the RDAF, its participation in ALLIED FORCE was a test of whether the Air Force had achieved the transformation that the leaders of the Air Force had wanted. The RDAF’s goal in the 1990s had been to create an air force capable of participating in an air campaign alongside its NATO-allies as well as executing the same type of missions as the USAF or the RAF. The RDAF’s conclusion following ALLIED FORCE was that this goal had not been met.

While participation in ALLIED FORCE was historic, with Danish aircraft bombing hostile targets for the first time in its history, the air campaign showed that the RDAF had fallen behind technologically when compared with Denmark’s NATO allies and especially the United States. The RDAF therefore, subsequently initiated a process to catch up with these technological deficiencies. Thus, ALLIED FORCE accelerated the RDAF’s transformation into an ‘expeditionary air force’ tailored for international operations.

A critical element of this transformation was a focus on precision-guided munitions to avoid collateral damage. The effect of participation in ALLIED FORCE was the acceleration in the acquisition of new equipment, such as LANTIRN, and ammunition for the Danish F-16s. When the RDAF deployed in support of US forces in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on the 11 September 2001, the Air Force’s technology level had been significantly improved.

Conclusion – From Defense of the Baltic to Global Reach

The transformation described in this article meant that the RDAF in 2000, compared with 1989, had been reduced by the following: a 50 per cent reduction in air stations; a 50 per cent reduction in fighter pilots; the number of Hawk squadrons had been reduced by 25 per cent; and the number of fighter aircraft in the RDAF inventory had reduced by 35 per cent. Similarly, the peacetime force had been reduced by 17 per cent to approximately 7,900, while the wartime force had been reduced by 26 per cent to 14,800. These cuts had not only hit the RDAF, but the overall number of personnel in the Danish armed forces had been reduced from 39,000 to 33,200, while the wartime force had fallen from 103,000 to 81,200.

The RDAF had, however, at the same time managed to survive the loss of the Warsaw Pact as its enemy, and had shown Danish politicians that improvements in the RDAF’s capabilities allowed it to participate in international operations far from Denmark. The lack of success in the skies above Kosovo in 1999 was therefore not seen as a failure for the RDAF but as evidence that the Danish politicians needed to spend more money on the Air Force in order to reap the benefits of participating in international operations. This policy eventually showed its merit during the air war over Libya in 2011-2012, where Danish F-16s dropped 923 bombs on Gadhafi’s military forces and showed that they were able to work closely together with the USAF and other allies – a prerequisite today for being on the front line during international missions.

Dr Søren Nørby is a researcher and lecturer at the Royal Danish Defense College in Copenhagen. He earned his PhD from Syddansk Universitet in 2018. He specialises in naval history and is the author of 25 books and more than 50 articles. For more information see www.noerby.net.

Header Image: Based on the experience of the operations over the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the RDAF underwent a number of critical transformations. One of these transformations was the introduction of new technologies to improve capabilities, such as the LANTIRN pod for use of on the F-16 that came into service in 2001. (Source: Author)

[1] This article is based on the author’s book Når Fjenden Forsvinder. Det danske flyvevåbens udvikling 1989 – 1999 (When the enemy disappears. The transformation of the Danish Air Force 1989-1999) (Odense, 2019).

[2] ’Fakta om Forsvaret 1990,’ København, 1990.

[3] Forsvarskommandoen, Ved Forenede Kræfter (Vedbæk, 2000), p. 210; H. Hækkerup, På Skansen. Dansk forsvarspolitik fra Murens fald til Kosovo (København 2002), p.. 103.

[4] ’Rapport fra Udvalget vedrørende forsvarets materiel’, København 1998, p. 164.

[5] Ringsmose, Danmarks NATO-omdømme. Fra Prügelknabe til duks (Dansk Institut for Militære Studier 2007), p. 19; ‘Årlig Redegørelse 2004’, København 2005, pp. 34-5.

[6] Ved Forenede Kræfter, p. 171.

[7] L. Møller, Det danske Pearl Harbor. Forsvaret på randen af sammenbrud (København, 2008), p. 57; R. Petersen, ’Den bedste ambassadør – civil-militære relationer og demokratisk kontrol i Danmark 1991-2011’ (Phd Thesis, Roskilde Universitet, 2012), p. 207ff; R. Petersen, ’Danske sneleoparder i Bosnien,’ Militært Tidsskrift, 2010; P.V. Jakobsen, Fra ferie til flagskib. Forsvaret og de internationale operationer (København, 2009), p. 9; P.V. Jakobsen, ’The Danish Libya campaign: Out in front in pursuit of pride, praise and position,’ Upubliceret artikel, 2016, p. 195; K.S. Kristensen, Danmark i krig: Demokrati, politik og strategi i den militære aktivisme (København, 2013), p. 38; L. From, ’Da et kampvognsslag ændrede danskernes syn på krig,’ Jyllands-Posten, 3 May 2015; ’Balkan har reddet det danske forsvar,’ FOV Nyhedsbrev 7/2002.

[8] S. Hartov and J.E. Larsen, Forsvarets fly efter 1945 (Flyvevåbnets Specialskole, 1995),  p. 36ff.

[9] John Warden III, The Air Campaign. Planning for Combat (Washington 1988).

[10] M.O. Beale, ‘Bombs over Bosnia. The role of airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (Thesis, USAF School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1997), pp. 33-4; Christian Anrig, The quest for relevant air power: continental European Responses to the air power challenges of the post-cold war era (Maxwell, AL, 2011), p.. 32, 179; M. Juul and S.W. Nielsen, 12 år på Balkan (København 2004), p. 46; John Olsen (ed.), Air Commanders (Dulles, VA, 2013), p. 356ff; C. Axboe, Vi troede ikke, det kunne ske her – Jugoslaviens sammenbrud 1991-1999 (København, 2018), p. 227-53.

[11] Axboe (2018), p. 275.

[12] I. Daalder and M. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly. NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), pp. 32-3; G. Schaub, Learning from the F-16 (København, 2015), p. 19ff.; M. Vilhelmsen, ’Operation Allied Force (AOF): Da Flyvevåbnet med voksent,’ Upubliceret. Vojens, 2010, p.. 2; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 november 1999, B2-B3; Årlig Redegørelse 1998, pp.. 33-6.

[13] Nørby (2019), p. 131-7.

[14] Hammerkasterne: Historien om Eskadrille 727 gennem 50 Ar (Skrydstrup, 2005), p. 162-3; ’Flugten er stoppet – men stadig mangel på F-16 piloter,’ Berlingske Tidende, 7 May 1999; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 November 1999, p.. B-11 og D-10. TTJ og ’F-16 planlægningsmøde vedr. evt. overgang til anvendelse af F-16 MLU i f.m. Flyvevåbnets deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 8 March 1999.

[15] Olsen (2010), p. 233.

[16] Forsvarskommandoens Presse- og Informationssektion 2001, pp. 12-5.

[17] Schaub (2015), p. 10: Vilhelmsen (2010), pp.. 3-4; ’Danske jagere bomber Milosevic,’ Ekstra Bladet, 28. May 1999; T. Kristensen, Kysser Himlen (København, 2017), pp. 179-180.