From the outset of the war in Bosnia, the Serbs have had both a qualitative
and quantitative advantage over the Bosnians in heavy weapons -- tanks,
artillery, rockets, and large mortars. The current ratio of tanks is estimated
to be 400 Serb tanks versus 20 Bosnian tanks; 800 Serb artillery pieces 75mm or
larger versus 50 for the Bosnians. Not only have the Bosnians been at a
disadvantage in terms of numbers, they lack effective countermeasures for
defense. They have no anti-tank weapons other than rocket propelled grenades
and no counter-battery capabilities to neutralize heavy artillery. If the
Bosnian Serbs loose a tank, it is quickly replaced by the Yugoslav Peoples Army
(JNA) from stocks in neighboring Serbia.
The disproportion of equipment has produced inevitable results: the Serb
forces have had negligible casualties while inflicting very high losses on the
Bosnians. The Serbs have also used their heavy weapons on civilian populations
and routinely use artillery and rockets for terror attacks on besieged
In successive attempts to limit the Serbs' ability to inflict civilian
casualties, the Western allies, acting through the United Nations, have
imposed an arms embargo;
established a "No-fly Zone" over Bosnia; and
established "Safe Areas" and, more recently, heavy weapon exclusion zones
around them enforced by air power.
Unfortunately, none of these measures have been entirely effective. The
embargo, which was placed on all the warring factions, inherently favors the
Bosnian Serbs since they can be supplied by Serbia which has large stocks of
arms and ammunition and an active war industry. The Bosnians have not been
able to import significant amounts of weapons, no large or sophisticated
equipment nor can their small arms manufacturers match the production of
Serbia. The No-fly Zone has not made a significant difference: enforcement
came late, Serb fighters were not a significant factor in the ground war, and
helicopters are routinely permitted to fly without being shot down.
The Safe Area concept as it was implemented is seriously flawed for it permits
the Serbs to keep any weapons they can remove from the exclusion zones while
forcing the Bosnians to place their few guns under the control of the UN.
Thus, the BSA can leave the UN to guard the Bosnians while they move their
weapons on to the next target. As more areas come under UN "protection," the
Serbs can mass ever larger concentrations of weapons around their objectives.
For the Bosnians, it is a zero sum game.
This situation has led to a call for a selective lifting of the arms embargo
on the Bosnians. Proponents argue that the Bosnians should be allowed to
defend themselves (as they are permitted to do under the UN Charter). They
point out that they have many potential patrons who could provide the money or
arms. It is also pointed out that qualitative weapons, such as precision-
guided anti-tank weapons, could help the Bosnians achieve equality on the
OPPOSITION TO LIFTING THE EMBARGO
There is much resistance to lifting the embargo. The UN peacekeeping
commanders and humanitarian agencies are uniformly opposed. They have stated
that such a move would endanger their forces and compel the contributing
nations to withdraw them. They fear that even if the UN attempted to withdraw
its forces before the arms embargo was lifted, it would signal the intent to
the Serbs who could then hold UN personnel hostage.
Other opponents of lifting the embargo point out that it would lead to an
escalation of the fighting -- and more civilian casualties no matter which side
eventually prevailed. They argue forcibly that the level of violence needs to
be lowered, not increased.
Many military observers are concerned that even with an infusion of weapons
the outcome would not be certain. They point out that a massive infusion of
weapons didn't win the war for the South Vietnamese. There has to be a
fighting spirit and knowledge about how to deploy the equipment to its best
Others point out that it is difficult to control the use of the arms once they
have been supplied. It would be difficult to determine the types and numbers
of weapons that should be provided. Then there is the dilemma about what to do
if the Bosnians misuse the weapons (for example on civilians) or in a worst
case, go on the offensive and take the war to Serbia, notably in the Sandjak
From the U.S. administration's point of view, the biggest concern is the
impact such a move would have on international cooperation in enforcing other
arms embargoes, especially on Iraq. They also believe that if the West
provides weapons to Bosnia, Russia and other nations will start supplying the
Serbs (via Belgrade) with arms. This could touch off an arms race, not only
among the warring factions, but also spreading to other parts of the Balkans.
No one wants to see more weaponry introduced to this unstable region.
It has been hard to gain support for lifting the embargo. The UN and other
humanitarian agencies are philosophically opposed to the move on ethical
grounds and cannot be counted on to lobby for it. Some groups have proposed
attacking the embargo on legal grounds. However, even if it was declared
illegal in court, there is little will on the part of the administration to
actually supply weapons in the face of allied opposition.
All of the above suggests that getting the requisite support and lifting the
embargo will be a long process -- and time is running out for the Bosnians. An
alternate approach is needed.
AN ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL: PROHIBITING THE USE OF SELECTED HEAVY WEAPONS
Rather than providing new weapons, a viable alternative would be to reduce the
Serbs' qualitative advantage by prohibiting them from using certain heavy
weapons, namely tanks and self-propelled guns. (At a later date, the ban could
be extended to towed artillery above a certain calibre, if necessary.)
The BSA would simply be given a demarche to move all tracked weapons to
designated parking areas and to leave them unattended except for small guard
details. The sites would be on open, flat terrain easily observed from the
air. No UN or international observers would be sent; all monitoring would be
done from above using aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) or satellites.
After the deadline for parking the weapons expired, any gun found outside the
parking areas would be subject to attack without warning.
Why tracked vehicles and not other types of heavy weapons? First, they are
the heart of the Serbs' formations and the key to the BSA's mobility. Take
them away and the Bosnians numerical advantage in infantry comes into play.
The Serbs would still retain their advantage in artillery and large mortars,
but it would be less important (and virtually unimportant in the existing
Second, tracked vehicles are the easiest to monitor. They are large, hot,
noisy machines. They leave tracks when they move and need fuel and a variety
of attendant vehicles -- all of which help give away their position. They are
harder to conceal than artillery and normally their engines must be running in
order to shoot. They are easier to spot from the air than other types of heavy
weapons and when they are moving, they often outrun their anti-aircraft
For these reasons, prohibiting the use of tracked vehicles is a good place to
start; if necessary, other types of weapons systems could be added once the
monitoring system has been worked out
Many factors favor this approach. First, it's do-able. It is within the
technological capabilities of NATO to enforce and is a powerful
political-military statement. Furthermore, prohibiting such weapons in this
conflict would be militarily significant and go a long way in meeting the
objective of "leveling the playing field."
The results would be instantaneous. No time would be lost waiting for arms to
arrive. There would be no delivery hassles such as arranging transit or
landing rights, and no diversions to other parties (i.e., the Croats).
Furthermore, the outcome would be apparent immediately. At the same time,
there would be an overall reduction in the level of violence on the battlefield
and in corresponding civilian casualties.
By decreasing the number and size of weapons it would be easier to attract
support for the approach. Few would be willing to argue against arms
reduction. UN, human rights organizations, and arms control groups are likely
to give wide support and it should be favored by relief agencies. The UN would
not feel compelled to withdraw their forces or humanitarian workers --
previously, they remained after the No-fly Zone was implemented.
If the weapons were initially frozen for a specific, limited but renewable time
frame, e.g., for four months, it would put pressure on both sides to come to
the conference table immediately and would send a subtle warning to the
Bosnians not to try to take unlimited advantage of the change of
The approach implicitly works against intervention by Serbia. Supplying more
tanks would only increase the potential material losses and costs to Serbia.
The JNA would probably not increase the delivery of other large weapons knowing
that the allies could simply add them to the list of prohibited weapons.
From a long-term view, the approach offers some significant advantages. It
limits arms and discourages an arms race in the region. It helps promote
compliance with the existing arms embargo (and doesn't undercut embargo
enforcement in other areas). Perhaps most importantly, it establishes a
precedent for controlling conflicts in other post-Cold War conflicts -- it
stresses control without confrontation among major powers.
All enforcement of the ban would be through air power. In the Safe Areas, the
existing NATO and UN rules of engagement regarding protection of populations
and UNPROFOR troops under threat would remain in force. Outside designated safe
areas, pilots would be able to select and recommend targets of opportunity to a
dedicated UN coordinator who would clear action with UNPROFOR's B-H Commander.
Enforcement would not have to be direct -- equipment and supplies linked to
tracked vehicles, such as fuel depots, could also be threatened.
(Discretionary, not mandatory, attacks would be in accordance with existing UN
policy but would still be a powerful threat.)
LINKING COMPLIANCE TO LIFTING THE EMBARGO
A complementary, or even alternative, means of encouraging Serb compliance
with the demarche would be for the U.S. Congress to propose supplying the
Bosnians with anti-tank weapons if the Serbs continued to use tanks. For the
first time, a selective lifting of the embargo would be directly linked to
their behavior. This is a message they would understand.
This approach is both cost-effective and low risk compared to other
alternatives. Monitoring can be done by air. (UNPROFOR could be provided with
earlier generation surveillance equipment such as small RPVs to handle a
portion of the weapons site monitoring.) No ground troops are required and the
"targets of opportunity" approach reduces the likelihood of Serb anti-aircraft
ambushes such as the one in Gorazde. If attacks were necessary, the targets
are ideal for precision-guided weapons that can be fired from relatively safe
Limiting the use of arms in this way is compatible with existing UN
resolutions ordering the Serbs to place their heavy weapons under UN control in
the safe areas and agreements reached in 1992 whereby the Serbs agreed to place
their artillery under UN control. (Those agreements were never honored nor
enforced.) It's also in accordance with the UN Secretary General's June 26,
1992 instructions to the Serbs to place their heavy weapons under UN control.
But most important, limiting the use of these weapons could have a major,
quick impact on balancing power among the opposing forces. If it doesn't bring
the Serbs to the peace table, it could at least equalize the fight while
reducing the levels of violence. And unlike supplying weapons, if the Bosnians
pressed their attacks beyond a permissible point or refused to come to the
peace table, it would be easy to put direct pressure on them.
For these reasons, this approach should receive the highest consideration.
4 May 1994
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