A Trip Across the Sava

A number of events between 1995 and 1998 were so influential on FRES that it is worth stepping out of the chronology for a moment to cover them.

In addition to the Pristina dash described in the previous section, the US Army deployment to the Balkans would have a profound impact on US military thinking.

This thinking would evolve and be shared by the UK, thus informing and influencing the future of both MRAV and TRACER and, subsequently, the creation of FRES.

Towards the end of UNPROFOR operations the differences between the common public perception of events, and the reality on the ground, was marked. Despite evidence to the contrary, there was a near-universal perception that the Serbs were bad guys and the Bosnian Muslims were victims. This had predictable political and policy-making consequences. Meanwhile, the UN peacekeepers themselves were often placed in impossible situations because of the operational restrictions placed upon them, arguably undermining their ability to deliver results.

The mortar attacks on the Markale market in Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica, the taking of UNPROFOR hostages and the general political environment would prove to be decisive factors in the move to the next stage of peacekeeping efforts, IFOR, the ominously named Implementation Force.

Operation Joint Endeavor, Task Force Eagle and the Sava River

Initial planning for a US deployment to the Balkans had started as early as 1993. OPLAN 40103 envisaged a deployment to the area of elements of the NATO Allied Command Europe (ACE) Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). This plan was never implemented but it did evolve into another scenario: the plan for ARRC to provide an extraction force for UNPROFOR, should UNPROFOR come under threat. In summer 1995 another round of planning activity commenced which would ultimately result in the formation of IFOR. This plan was put into action when a ceasefire was agreed between the warring factions on the 5th of October, and the Dayton Peace Accords were signed on 14th December 1995.

Following the Dayton Accords it was NATO, not the UN, that would be responsible for implementation of the agreement and so IFOR was constituted as a NATO force.

IFOR had a fixed one-year term running from 20th December 1995 to 20th December 1996.

The land component of IFOR was the ARRC, a standing NATO corps headquarters commanded by United Kingdom (UK) Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker. The IFOR subordinate formations were three ad hoc multinational divisions (MNDs). The United States, United Kingdom, and France provided the main forces and divisional headquarters of the MNDs. Units from both NATO and non-NATO nations were assigned to these MNDs for tactical control. A U.S. major general commanded MND (North); a French major general, MND (Southeast); and a British major general, MND (Southwest).

The land command was divided into three regions.

IFOR Boundary Map

The US led area, Multi National Division (North), consisted of two US brigades and a brigade each from Russia, Turkey and a joint Polish/Nordic brigade. This division was commanded by United States Army, Europe (USAREUR), located in Taszar, Hungary. Given the operating area, and the fact that the Adriatic ports were all being heavily used by other IFOR units, it was planned to stage out of Germany and through multiple countries before reaching an Intermediate Staging Base (ISB) that was also located at Taszar. Elements of MND (North) would then move out to locations in Bosnia as required.

As a result of this plan, the line of communication was in excess of 900 miles long, snaking through Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia.

The final leg would require crossing the Sava River.

It was planned that the initial deployment would use 373 trains, 7,187 flat bed rail trucks and 1,408 aircraft sorties. These were joined by 441 commercial buses and over 200 trucks in convoys. In general, it took between four and five days for the bulk of the force to deploy to the Intermediate Staging Base (although not all force elements would transit through the ISB). Once they got to the Sava River there was another 30 miles to cover before reaching the main area of operations.

There have been many studies on the deployment of US Forces into Bosnia that focus on planning deficiencies, diplomatic complexities, strikes on the French railway, delays on the post-unification rail system in Germany caused by anti-nuclear protests, public holidays and wholly unrealistic expectations. Despite all of this, the main cause of delay was the Sava River.

In December 1995 the 300m wide Sava River was at high water. By any measure it was a difficult gap to cross. The crossing point at Zupanja was selected because of its proximity to a railhead and good roads, although the permanent bridge had been destroyed. The US Army Engineers of the 16th Engineer Battalion was tasked with replacing it. The battalion comprised SEAL divers, 535th Engineer Company, 38th Engineers Company and 502nd Engineer Company. The battalion planned to use the Ribbon Bridge system, moved into place by small bridging launches.

Preparation work commenced on the 17th of December with reconnaissance, the creation of stores parks and general site preparation.

Three days later, the engineers started to build the bridge using a combination of Ribbon Bridges and some Assault Bridges for access.

There was not enough bridging equipment within the 16th Engineer Battalion and so war reserve stocks had to be flown in from Italy by C17 and moved forward by Chinook.

On the 28th December, as the bridge was nearing completion, the river burst its banks for the first time in 70 years. The resulting flood, caused by melting snow, washed away the engineers camp and much of the bridge in the early hours of the morning.

One can imagine it was a somewhat emotional morning!


Sava River Bridging Operations

Repairs and lengthening commenced soon after, including direct emplacement of bridging sections by Chinook.

Sava River Bridging Operations 1

Two hours after completion on the 31st, the bridge was trafficked by lead elements of the 1st Squadron 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armoured Division.

Sava River Bridging Operations 2

If one looks at a Google Map of the bridging site the access roads and other construction remnants can still be seen, click here

Despite it being an epic bridge build, despite flying armoured bridging units (for the first time) by C17, despite the use of Chinooks for bridge emplacement and the extensive use of air logistics, much of Task Force Eagle was still held up for nearly two weeks.

If the simple message that air = fast and road/rail = slow needed any reinforcement, it certainly got it then.

Task Force Hawk

Some years after Task Force Eagle it was time for the US to enjoy another dose of rapid deployment shock and awe in the same region.

Operation Allied Force/Noble Anvil was the NATO led operation against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) between April and June 1999 in response to the conflict in Kosovo.

Task Force Hawk was to be a deployment of US Army AH64 Apache gunships tasked to destroy FRY armoured forces in Kosovo. It was thought Apache would be much more effective and efficient at destroying small armoured units than fast air. Supporting them by performing the SEAD role (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) would be AtacMS long range rockets.

Task Force Hawk - Apache Attack Helicopter
Task Force Hawk – Apache Attack Helicopter

Initial plans called for a deployment to Macedonia that would take less than two weeks, and commencement of cross border operations shortly after.

The force size was less than 2,000 personnel and 24 helicopters, but this quickly increased to over 5,000 as the logistics and force protection needs started to grow. Instead of a light force of attack helicopters with ‘just enough support’ it now had tanks, armoured engineers and anti aircraft units.

To deploy everything (except the Apaches that self-deployed from Italy) took 500 C17 sorties over 44 days.

On May 18th President Clinton, after being petitioned by several senior military figures, ordered Task Force Hawk to stand down. It never saw any combat.

It was widely seen, perhaps rather unfairly, as an embarrassing fiasco for the US Army.

In March 1999 the NATO Operation Allied Force was launched.

The UK 5th Airborne Brigade would conduct a swift operation that was in effect, a relief in place. Serbian forces would be replaced with British troops operating as part of KFOR (Kosovo Force). 1 Para and elements of 3 Para and 1 Royal Ghurkha Rifles would hop forward by helicopter and secure the Kacanik defile on route HAWK, which was the road between Pristina and Skopje.

This rapid deployment and strategic agility was in stark contrast to Task Force Hawk. The only similarity between the two was the name!

There are a couple of key quotes from important US Army personnel from the period that reflected on Task Force Hawk. I am going to simply repeat them here:

Lt Col Ralph Peters

Task Force Hawk has certainly been bisected and dissected endlessly. But the basic lesson is the army could not get even helicopters to the conflict zone in time. There were some factors that usually aren’t discussed. The Italians didn’t want us coming through Italian territory and basing out of there. There were problems on the ground with the French in Pristina, in Albania. But all that said, we found that the army’s attack helicopters, the premiere weapons system, couldn’t get there, couldn’t be sustained, and couldn’t protect itself and, oh, by the way, the aviators weren’t properly trained for that kind of fight. It was a sad day for the army

Major General James Dubik

If you look at the variety of operations that we conducted since the end of the Cold War–Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo–each one has some very similar characteristics. One, they’re underdeveloped infrastructures. Two, there was a variety of threats. Three, those threats are both conventional combat and asymmetrical. And four, they’re very hard to get to due to the long logistics line. So what we want to do, as an army, is look at those as examples of future conflicts. We don’t want to prepare better for the last war. We want to be ready for the next kind of war. And what the next war needs is a force that can go into anywhere very quickly, doesn’t need a big logistics tail, doesn’t need a main airport. They can plunk themselves down and be combat ready upon arrival. That’s what this brigade does, and that’s what the future objective force will do as well.

This is the most interesting statement.

What does this have to do with FRES?

Despite the Gulf War and UNPROFOR showing the continued relevance of traditional heavyweight armoured forces the US experience, first with IFOR and the Sava River and second, Task Force Hawk, made then look flat footed, flabby and lacking in any kind of strategic or logistical agility.

This only added fuel to the USAF v. US Army debate that had been simmering since the Gulf War.

The US Army knew it had to do something or face a rout in the post Cold War era peace dividend.

‘Transformation’ was in the wind.

Experience in the Balkans was not THE single driver for US Army transformation but it was certainly important.

The conclusions drawn were if you want to have effect, you have to be there.

Waiting on a river bank, or building up a force of 5,000 personnel for 24 helicopters was not compatible with being there.

Meanwhile, MRAV and TRACER were in progress but they were doomed. The FRES juggernaut was building up steam and it would soon drive straight through the perfectly sensible FFLAV inspired TRACER and MRAV.

[box type=”info” fontsize=”22″ radius=”0″]The crossing of the Sava River and Task Force Hawk had both exposed critical flaws in US Army capability. It was now perceived as slow, lumbering and completely lacking in any kind of strategic agility. Meanwhile, the USAF and USN were getting into their ‘precision effects’ stride, and the US Army knew it had to do better or get left behind in the battle for relevance. And with that relevance, funding.[/su_note]

Table of Contents


The Sixties and Seventies

The Eighties

The Nineties

A Trip Across the Sava River

FCS and the Birth of FRES

2000 to 2005

2006 to 2010

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

2011 to 2014

Generic Vehicle Architecture

2015 to Today




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