Chapter 19. Damage to the Yugoslav Army

    By Sergei Alschen

    Shortly after NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia began, Allied Commander Wesley Clark stated that one of the Alliance’s goals was to "degrade and destroy" the Yugoslav Army. It seemed quite clear this was most certainly a goal that the NATO air campaign would achieve. Surely, the eighteen-member alliance had the formidable fire power and technology to fulfill their stated task.

    During the 78-day war, NATO crews flew 33,000 combat missions over Yugoslavia, dropped more than 20,000 laser or satellite-guided weapons and concluded that 99.6% found their targets.1 Of the more than one thousand planes used in the operation, 725 were American. Four hundred and fifty precision Tomahawk and 90 air-launched Cruise missiles were used.2 All told, 79,000 tons of explosives were dropped, including 152 containers with 35,450 cluster bombs, thermo-visual and graphite bombs.3 Despite this tremendous firepower used against a country the size of Ohio and a military that heavily relied on 1960-70’s Soviet technology, more and more reports are surfacing that the Yugoslav Army emerged from this war virtually unscathed.


        2. At the very outset of the bombing campaign that began on March 24, members of the United States military had shown concern about the strength of the Yugoslav Armed Forces, the sixth largest in Europe, numbering 115,000 troops.4 The focus of that concern was the number of Yugoslav Army troops in the Serbian province of Kosovo. According to initial U.S. intelligence reports, approximately 20,000 Yugoslav troops were in Kosovo and another 20,000 were on the border of the province when the bombing began.5 By the last week of the war, the CIA believed the number was as high as 55,000.6

          The first detailed admissions that NATO’s extensive bombing campaign had a negligible damaging effect on the Yugoslav Army came in late April, five weeks into the war. According to senior military and intelligence officials in Washington, the Yugoslav Army was able to escape serious damage for a number of reasons. First, while NATO’s initial stage of the bombing campaign focused almost exclusively on air defenses, the Serbs were able to clear out barracks, headquarters, and staging areas, thus leaving major military targets empty. Second, many Yugoslav troops dug into defensive positions along the Kosovo border with Albania and Macedonia.7 As long as the KLA remained too weak to mount substantial raids within Kosovo as well as from Albania, and as long as there was no serious threat of a NATO land invasion, the Serbs could remain in their positions and wait. Also, most Serb troops dispersed into small mobile units that were very difficult for NATO pilots to pinpoint from 20,000 feet in the air.

          Another important factor in the war was terrain. Unlike Iraq where American, British, and French forces were dealing with an extremely flat and open terrain, Kosovo is very mountainous. This condition is extremely conducive to a defensive war where the enemy is trying to destroy you from the air. In addition, after the Yugoslav-Soviet split in 1947, Yugoslav President Josip Broz (Tito) seriously built up the defense capability of Yugoslavia. The whole country is fortified with a web of underground bunkers and shelters. A former soldier in the Yugoslav Army who served in Kosovo told this reporter that the mountains in Kosovo were heavily fortified with airplane hangars that were impenetrable.

          Instead of demoralizing the Yugoslav Army, the NATO bombing campaign had the opposite effect on the morale of the troops through the first half of the war. An American military official was quoted in the New York Times as saying "Indications are that the young men are responding to the draft now and in significantly higher numbers than in the past." The bombing had "rallied the Yugoslav Army to the defense of their country, sharply increased the willingness of recruits to serve in the military and given senior army officers a mission they finally feel is legitimate."8 The bombings also "enraged" Serb soldiers when they found out their cities or villages were hit.9

          The morale of the Yugoslav Army seemed to have wavered around the eighth week of the war. Reports started surfacing about antiwar demonstrations in Krusevac, Alexandrovac, Raska and Cacak. They began when the coffins of seven soldiers killed in Kosovo were brought to Krusevac. There, demonstrations lasted from May 19 until the 21st. The demonstrators demanded the cessation of further military conscription and deployment of the demonstrators’ family members. Another reason for the people to take to the streets was the building resentment of the draft evasion by the children of officials or wealthy businessmen in the underground economy.10

          Ironically, it was not the relentless NATO bombing that inspired anywhere from 500 to 2,000 mostly conscripts and reservists to desert their positions. The soldiers feared for their relatives’ safety when they heard rumors that police were mistreating people involved in the demonstrations.11 The demonstrations were said to have thrown the government of President Slobodan Milosevic into "near panic." With the benefit of hindsight we may now conclude that although the potential spread of the desertions and simultaneous antiwar demonstrations throughout the country threatened the Yugoslav Government’s war effort, the fact that a large number of deserters were conscripts and not professional soldiers (80% from a brigade based in Istok, western Kosovo headed for Krusevac in the first days of the protests were conscripts)12 made this threat less of a factor. We only got a real sense of the condition and morale of the Yugoslav Army once the peace agreement was signed and the pullout from Kosovo began.

          When it came time to withdraw the troops after the end of the bombing, NATO estimated that nearly 50,000 Yugoslav troops left - 10,000 more than were thought to be there in the first place and seriously putting into question the NATO claims that between 5,000 to 10,000 troops were killed.13 The Yugoslav Government, on the other hand, claimed that only 462 soldiers and 114 police officers were killed during the war.14

          NATO commanders and western journalists were very surprised at the high morale exhibited by the retreating Yugoslav troops. ITAR-TASS, the Russian news agency, reported that according to sources from London, NATO military officials that witnessed the withdrawal concluded that the Yugoslav Army had left Kosovo "fully combat ready and with a high moral spirit." Further, they were "close to shock" when they saw the multi-kilometer columns of tanks and military technology brought out of the province.15 Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times wrote on June 28th:

          "The Yugoslav Army that completed its withdrawal from Kosovo a week ago—tired and battered, to be sure, but defiant, orderly, and clearly not as weak as NATO officials believed."16

, a private intelligence company that provides news on the internet, wrote that the Yugoslav soldiers appeared to observers "in good shape and in high spirits."17 Peter Goodspeed of the National Post characterized the Yugoslav retreat as "robust" and the Serb soldiers "defiant."18 The Times ran an AFP (Agency France Presse) story on June 16th that stated:

          "The soldiers seemed calm and their vehicles and equipment well maintained, with no signs that they had suffered from air attacks which NATO claimed had severely reduced the army’s effectiveness."19

          In the same edition, interviews with Yugoslav soldiers did not convey the impression of a defeated army. In fact, the feeling was that they were prepared to continue fighting against NATO/KLA aggression. One soldier said "I did my job honourably but the politicians spoiled everything. No one likes war, but we had no choice." Another soldier, a junior officer added that the retreat "was not a good thing." When asked about the damage to the Yugoslav Army, another junior officer replied, "I’m not sure but I don’t think we lost very much material."20 Even at the antiwar demonstrations in Krusevac, soldiers reportedly told Commander of the Yugoslav Third Army General Nebojsa Pavkovic that they would go to the border to fight against any invader, but they would not be killed like birds, from the skies." This defiant attitude came from soldiers who had deserted their positions. NATO commanders must have known that the more hardened professional soldiers were even more willing to fight a land war that would have resulted in untold casualties. It is precisely this reason that NATO avoided launching a ground invasion of Kosovo and instead used the KLA, which it had denied doing all along, to launch operations on the ground with NATO providing the air cover. In effect NATO became what it denied it would become all along, the air force of the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army.

        3. THE EQUIPMENT

As the 78-day bombing campaign progressed, we were informed at the daily NATO briefings by smug generals and the ever-exuberant Jamie Shea that the precision bombing was taking a substantial toll on the Yugoslav Army. As in the Gulf War, we were treated to a video game verification of the destruction of our "enemy’s" war machine. Only four weeks into the air war, the Pentagon estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the 300 tanks that the Yugoslav Army had in Kosovo had been destroyed.21 When KFOR troops were finally deployed in Kosovo, NATO officials were able to make a preliminary assessment of the overall success of their bombing campaign. What they found was startling.

Two weeks after the war commenced, NATO’s Supreme Commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark said that the alliance had destroyed 110 of the approximately 300 tanks that the Yugoslav Army had deployed in Kosovo. That number was down from the 150 that NATO believed it had destroyed in the last days of the war, according to a senior NATO official.22 A higher figure of 122 destroyed tanks and 220 troop transporters was rejected by a military expert in Paris. "I do not believe these figures at all. I think that in strictly military terms, the effects of the strikes were limited. Very disappointing."23 Overall, NATO claimed that it damaged or destroyed 40% of the Yugoslav Army’s main battle tanks and 60% of its artillery and mortars. As of June 24, KFOR troops found only three damaged and outdated T-55 tanks left behind in Kosovo. The Yugoslav Army acknowledged an additional ten damaged tanks.24 With dozens of western monitors observing, the Yugoslav forces evacuated at least 220 tanks and more than 300 armored vehicles as reported by a major French press agency.25 If these numbers are correct then the Serbs lost around 80 tanks, not the 110 figure that NATO believes. In any event, according to the observations of David Rudd, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, "There were a lot of tanks that looked as though they were in very good condition."26

Even in Junik and the villages around Mount Pastrik, the damage to military equipment was negligible. These areas were the targets of some of the most intense NATO bombing campaigns at the tail end of the war. While NATO used massive 500-pound Mark-82 gravity bombs as well as cluster bombs, only a few signs of scorched carcasses of tanks or other military equipment could be found. "We found positions, we found bomb damage in those positions, but we didn’t find any vehicles or tanks," said Lieut. Col. Dietmar Jeserick, a spokesman for the German peacekeeping troops based in Prizren.27

Is it possible that the Yugoslav Army was able to effectively conceal the true extent of the damage done to its military equipment by hiding or taking destroyed material back with them into central Serbia before KFOR moved in to Kosovo? According to a French military expert, no.

"If we had smashed as many tanks as NATO said, we would see them. They did not have the time or the means to evacuate them. Transporting a damaged armored vehicle is a logistical nightmare, which takes time and effort."28


So why the discrepancy in the initial NATO assessments of damage inflicted on the Yugoslav Army and the post-war preliminary findings? The technologically superior NATO used a web of satellites, high-speed computers, precision-guided bombs, stealth radar evading aircraft and ground-hugging cruise missiles. The United States alone spent $4 billion, the size of the entire Russian annual military budget, to put Yugoslavia on its knees. Despite all of these factors, the Yugoslav military improvised, outsmarted, and used a series of tricks to deceive NATO into believing they were hitting real military targets.

By analyzing unexploded cruise missiles, Yugoslav specialists were able to determine that in the final stage of flight, these missiles use thermal sensors instead of computer-guided maps to hit their target as was thought earlier. As a result, soldiers would light automobiles on fire in the vicinity of large targets. The cruise missiles would then hit the burning auto.29 The soldiers also painted bridges and railroad tracks different colors to confuse the missiles because every color has a different heat intensity. As a result, the missiles frequently missed their targets.30

NATO commanders and KFOR troops also learned that the Serbs used "dozens, maybe hundreds of decoys, some of which were simple wooden frames with plastic sheeting designed to look like tanks."31 Other artillery batteries were made of cardboard. In Pristina, one decoy resembled a tank crossing a bridge near the airport. In reality the road was a collection of black plastic sheets leading to a fake bridge. Some fake bridges were made out of logs.32 The tank was made of wood and pipes covered with tarpaulin.33 It’s also highly likely that the Serbs used inflatable decoys for tanks and missile sights that deflated upon impact.34 Old and unused vehicles were left on roads that from 20,000 feet in the air looked like functioning military equipment worthy of targeting. The effective use of decoys by the Serbs to fool the smart bombs and the pilots launching them led to Wesley Clark’s admission that they "did skillfully deploy lots of decoys."35

Clever strategy helped the Serbian forces minimize their losses. According to Col. David Hackworth (ret.), Serb commanders figured out that NATO did most of their reconnaissance during the day. When night came, they moved to new positions and began the mock-up game. Hackworth quotes a Serb commanding officer as saying, "From the 300 projectiles which NATO has fired, only five have hit something of substance."36 Another Serb commanding officer told Hackworth that his unit would fire at attacking NATO planes and then quickly move his firing batteries, replacing them with dummies. The Serb goes on to say:

"The time it took NATO’s photo-reconnaissance people to identify the point of fire… and return to bomb the mock-up was a minimum of twelve hours. So we knew we had to move our equipment every twelve hours."37



1 Peter Goodspeed, "NATO Air War Far Less Successful Than Alliance Claims, Experts Say," National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

2 Boris Grushin, "U.S. Spent Four Billion Dollars on the War Against Yugoslavia," ITAR-TASS, June 24, 1999.

3 "Provisional Assessment of Civilian Casualties and Destruction in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 24 March to 08 June, 1999," online, America Online, July 17, 1999.

4 "Army of Yugoslavia (VJ)," FAS Intelligence Resource Program,, America Online, July 18, 1999.

5 Richard Parker, Yugoslav Force’s Capacity a Concern for the Pentagon," Detroit Free Press, Online Edition, March 23, 1999.

6 Tammy Kupperman and Bob Windren, Division Over Yugoslav Force Levels," Online Edition, America Online, July 17, 1999.

7 Blaine Harden and Steven Lee Myers, "Bombing Unites Serb Army As It Debilitates Economy," New York Times, April 30, 1999, p. A1+A13.

8 New York Times, April 30, 1999, p. A1+A3.

9 William Booth, "Serbian Vets Haunted By Kosovo Syndrome," Washington Post, Online Edition, July 8, 1999, p. A01.

10 Julian Manyon, "Serbs Defiant in the Face of Adversity," ITN Online.

11 Julian Manyon, "Army Deserters Go Home," ITN Online; Martin Walker, Hundreds of Soldiers Desert Post in Kosovo," The Sydney Morning Herald, Online edition, May 21, 1999.

12 The Sydney Morning Herald, May 21, 1999.

13 Steven Lee Meyers, "Damage to Serb Military Less Than Expected," New York Times, June 28, 1999, A1+A8; National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

14 National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

15 Vitaly Makarchev, "The Yugoslav Army Withdrew From Kosovo With It’s Full Combat Readiness and High Morale Acknowledges the NATO Command," ITAR-TASS, June 23, 1999.

16 New York Times, June 28, 1999, p. A8.

17 "BDA Refutes Claim That NATO Bombed Serbs Into Submission,", June 24, 1999.

18 National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

19 "Serb Military and Civilians Flee Kosovo," The Times (London), Online Edition, June 16, 1999.

20 The Times (London), June 16, 1999.

21 New York Times, April 30, 1999, p.A13.

22 New York Times, June 28, 1999, p.A8.

23 "NATO Strike Rate in Yugoslavia Contested by Experts," Agence France-Presse, news, July 2, 1999.

24, June 24, 1999.

25 Agence France-Presse, July 2, 1999.

26 National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

27 New York Times, June 28, 1999, p. A1.

28 Agence France-Presse, July 2, 1999.

29 ITAR-TASS, June 23, 1999.

30 Ibid.

31 Agence France-Presse, July 2, 1999.

32 David Hackworth, "How the Serbs Outfoxed NATO," WorldNetDaily, Online Edition, July 9, 1999.

33 Agence France-Presse, July 2, 1999.

34 National Post Online, June 24, 1999.

35 Agence France-Presse, July 2, 1999..

36 WorldNetDaily, July 9, 1999.

37 Ibid.




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Table of Contents: Selected Research Findings