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Bosnia: So Far, So Good
Remarks by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry , Nellis Air Force Base, Nev, Saturday, January 27, 1996

Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 5-- Bosnia: So Far, So Good Operation Joint Endeavor gives the warring parties a chance to end their tragic war in Bosnia. For the rest of us, it sets a long-term pattern for dealing with security problems in Europe.


Volume 11, Number 5

Bosnia: So Far, So Good

Remarks by Secretary of Defense William J. Perry at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 27, 1996.


I can't tell you how delighted I am to be here at Nellis ... and how grateful I am for the support that the Air Force gets here from the local leaders, political and civic leaders and from our congressional delegation. It takes a team like that to really produce the fantastic results that we're getting out of Nellis. ...

I'm going to talk to you tonight about Bosnia, because it's very much on my mind. One day after I was sworn in as secretary of defense ... about two years ago, the Serbs dropped an artillery shell in the marketplace in Sarajevo and killed more than 60 people. And I was immediately thrown into the problem of what could the United States do about that, what could the international community do about that.

I had a historic meeting with my minister counterparts -- the British, the French, the Italian, the Dutch -- in Aviano, which is one of our air bases in Italy. And at that meeting we agreed that we would support -- vigorously support -- a political decision that would cause the Serbs to move all of their heavy weapons out of the Sarajevo area. It was historic because that was the first really significant move in getting NATO -- in this case NATO air power -- involved to try to affect the outcome of that tragic war.

Most recently, just three weeks ago, I was in the Bosnia theater to see how our deployment was going. And so, from the first day I've been in the job until this present month, I have been deeply and personally involved. I want to give you my own personal appreciation of what has transpired there, what's likely to transpire in the future. I'll do it, first of all, by briefly describing the trip that I just made in Bosnia and trying to draw some lessons and conclusions from it.

I spent the first day at our air bases in Aviano and Vincenza, both of which are in Italy. And there I saw firsthand -- I've been to those bases many times before, but it's still gratifying to see firsthand again -- the results of the United States Air Force and the NATO air operations that are going on there.

For 2½ years out of Aviano, we have conducted an operation called Deny Flight, which has prevented any of the sides in that war from conducting aerial bombardments of cities. It has saved countless thousands of lives. You don't hear much about that operation precisely because it has been so successful.

Deny Flight was challenged once. Bosnian Serbs sent up four fighter-bombers to bomb a city in Bosnia. They were detected immediately by AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft]. We sent two F-16s in, which in about two minutes' time shot down three of them -- the fourth managed to get away. Since that time, nobody has bothered to challenge NATO's air, in terms of Deny Flight. As I said, the result of all that is thousands of lives have been saved that otherwise would have been lost in the indiscriminate bombing of cities which surely would have followed.

The second major activity going on from Aviano has been the strike force which is located there. It was first brought in to bear as a threat to the Bosnian Serbs if they did not remove their heavy weapons around Sarajevo, which they did, and so we did not have to fight immediately. That was done in February of '94.

Later in '94, the Bosnian Serbs decided to test how serious we were about that and conducted some -- basically, made some violations of this policy, and unfortunately, found out we were not very serious. That is, the U.N. forces which were on the ground there, which had to give the permission for the NATO forces to operate, withheld the permission. And so, the Serbs succeeded in getting away with a violation of these actions, and not surprisingly, then, they escalated from that point on into 1995.

This was a sorry page in history of the Bosnian operation and a sorry page in NATO's history -- although it was not NATO's fault. Nevertheless, we were in a position where we were basically impotent to deal with the problem.

The Bosnian Serbs were emboldened by this, and I told a group that I was talking with today that in poker terminology, they overplayed their hand, because in the spring of '95, they violated the so-called "safe area" of Srebrenica and not only took that city, but conducted unspeakable atrocities in the course of taking it. This action was so outrageous that even the nations who had been resisting strong NATO action to that point realized that they had to meet this provocation with a real show of military force.

Winston Churchill, I think, said it once -- and perhaps best. He said, "Powerful force is a powerful persuader." With that injunction in mind, we met in Winston Churchill's city, London, last July, and agreed that if there were any further violations by the Bosnian Serbs that NATO air would not only react, but in the proposal which I made in that meeting -- the phrase that I used was, we would unleash a massive "air campaign."

We thought that would be sufficient to deter the action. It was not, because just two weeks later, they began bombarding Sarajevo again.

Two days after that, we unleashed a massive air campaign. That was done out of Aviano, plus carriers in the Adriatic. It was one of the most effective campaigns of the sort that has ever been launched. Every target that was specified by the NATO air commander, every target was destroyed, and most amazingly, there was absolutely no collateral damage. We took very special pains to avoid collateral damage. We used only precision guided munitions, and we did not drop any munitions whenever the weather prevented positive identification of the targets.

We know now, having talked in some detail with a number of the Bosnian Serbs, including both the civilian and military leaders, that this was an absolutely stunning development to them. It totally demoralized them and drove them effectively to the peace table.

These are two of the important components of the air operation that was being run out of Aviano. On this trip, I also went to Vincenza, which is another one of the NATO air bases in northern Italy. Vincenza had been -- is the location of the CAOC, which is our Combined Air Operations Center. It basically, provides all sorts of intelligence to our air operations in Bosnia. It is a splendid operation. Most of you will never have the opportunity to see it, but I want to tell you if you want to have pride in something that your military is doing, and doing well, and doing something that really has not ever been done before just like that -- if you ever have an opportunity to tour that facility, it is really impressive.

In addition to that, Vincenza manages the airlift operation. For more than two years, NATO has been providing airlift into Bosnia as part of the humanitarian mission and again, how many thousands of lives have been saved by that it's really impossible to tell. But it's been the longest sustained airlift, airdrop operation in history, longer even than the Berlin airlift.

In the last month, it's been doing something quite different. It has been providing the airlift to make the deployment into Bosnia of the NATO forces. And I believe, it is the best managed airlift operation that I've ever seen. I'll share a little bit more about that airlift operation later.

From Vincenza, I went to Taszar, Hungary. What does Hungary have to do with this? We have decided and gotten the Hungarian government to agree with our decision that we would put a sustainment base, logistics base, in Hungary, just across the border from Croatia and Bosnia, and that all of our forces flowing in there from Germany by train or by air would go to Taszar. They would be consolidated and regrouped there, and then from Taszar they would go in tactical units, with their guns loaded, into Bosnia.

We did this for a number of reasons. First of all, it worked out well logistically, but secondly, we did not know what we were going to run into [in] Bosnia. We thought there was a possibility we would run into organized, armed opposition. We didn't think it likely, but we could not rule it out, and therefore we wanted to be prepared for it.

We have 7,000 people in Taszar running this logistics operation. It's a major accomplishment and very successful accomplishment, and we're getting tremendous support from the Hungarian government in that regard.

From Taszar, I flew on into Bosnia first into Sarajevo. We landed at the Sarajevo airport and then drove down to their president's residence. I was meeting with President [??] Izetbegovic and his cabinet. I was heartsick on the trip into Sarajevo. This at one time was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

For the last four years, Serbs have had their artillery and mortars on the hills outside of Sarajevo and just been pounding the city. In fact, before we began this exclusion zone I described to you, there were as many as a thousand shells a day landing in Sarajevo. You could imagine what the city looked like. I had imagined it, but it wasn't the same thing as seeing it. There wasn't a building that I saw that had not received some damage from the shelling. Most of the buildings were in rubble.

That was the sad news, the bad news. The good news is we drove into the town with no danger. We drove the 10 blocks down what used to be called "sniper's alley," where you would have risked your life to have gone down that street just a month earlier. I went to the president's palace, met with him and his cabinet for about an hour and a half. All of this had been done under a certain amount of security, so we were kind of whisked into the office and met with him and whisked out again.

But the security wasn't as good as we thought, because when we walked out of the president's office, there was a huge crowd of Bosnians on the other side of the street. Word had gotten out that the American secretary of defense was in town. It must have been 300 or 400 of them there.

As I walked out the door surrounded by my security people, they started cheering and saying, "U-S-A, U-S-A." And then, I did something which drove my security people absolutely bonkers. I broke out of my group and crossed the street and went over and mixed with and started talking with the Bosnians there.

I cannot convey to you the warmth and the gratitude from these people, who have been living in this town and subjected to this pounding for the last four years, who now believed there was a prospect of peace, real peace. And they believed that the United States was responsible for that, and they just wanted to show their gratitude.

I went from Sarajevo into Tuzla, which is the headquarters of the American multinational division: I met with [Army Maj.] Gen. [William L.] Nash, his commanders; the American forces there; the commanders of the other nations who were part of our division there. We have a Nordic brigade. The Nordic brigade has Norwegian, Finns, Swedes, Danes, soldiers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland all in that brigade. They have a Turkish brigade. And when I was there, the Russian brigades were just starting to arrive -- the advanced party from the Russian brigade was there. I met with them.

We drove. The first thing we did was get in the helicopter and flew out to the Sava River. The bridge across the river had just been opened the day before, and I wanted to see it, eat with the soldiers -- the combat engineers -- who had put it up. ... It's a pretty wide river. It's about as wide as the Rhine. But nevertheless we had put pontoon bridges over the Rhine many times in practice. We figured this was going to take us about a week, but this was 2½ weeks after we started and it had just been finished.

What had happened ... -- it's a pontoon bridge and it floats in the water, but you have to have it anchored down on two sides, and our two anchor positions went underwater about the second day. They had the greatest flood in the Sava River that they've had this century. Water flowed out of the banks, and we ended up having to build a bridge twice as wide as we had anticipated. Indeed, we ended up building the longest pontoon bridge that's ever been built in history. But we got it built.

And I got there -- landed the helicopter in Croatia and then got on the bridge and walked into Bosnia. And halfway across the bridge, there was a contingent of about 20 or 30 combat engineers who built that bridge. They were exhausted, but very proud. We stopped and talked with them and thanked them. One of them turned, had just finished and wanted to be re-enlisted. So [Army] Gen. [George] Joulwan and Gen. [John] Shalikashvili and I signed him up; re-enlisted him; swore him in for one more term.

As I left the bridge and thought about that event, I told the media ... walking with me that the American soldiers had demonstrated "true grit." They had prevailed over enormous forces of nature. They refused to give up, and after they had finished the bridge, one decided to re-enlist. I thought that was a great story.

I then went back to the base camp at Tuzla and went around and met with perhaps a dozen of the different units -- ones who were on patrol, ... some of them were in offices doing planning; some were in offices doing intelligence. The ones on patrol were standing out in the snow and the mud and the ice looking pretty uncomfortable. There was an Air Force unit there called "Red Horse."

One of the "Red Horse" groups is right here at Nellis. This was a different one. This is one that I think that is at Hurlburt [Field, Fla.]. We have three "Red Horse" units. These are the teams that go out and build bases. The best in the world.

Army doesn't usually get very excited about the arrival of Air Force troops, but in this case, they were cheering them. And as the Army units would come in from patrol, the first thing they'd do is walk over to their area that the "Red Horse" team was working to see if any -- how many more tents have been put up since they've gone out. They were building them at the rate of 20 tents a day -- ten-person tents with floors, walls, heaters. Quite comfortable, actually -- particularly compared with what they had up until now.

I spent a lot of time talking with the intelligence people on their assessment of the mine situation. One of the real problems, we knew from the beginning. We think there's several million mines in that country. That's the bad news. There's some good news -- all three of the warring parties are trying to cooperate with us to get rid of the mines. They had given us their maps, their charts of where they thought the mines were. They didn't really know all of them, but they had quite a few of them marked. And they were busy removing and dismantling the mines.

So we're getting a lot of cooperation and a lot of support on that. We've been there a little over a month now, and to this point we've had one mine accident, fortunately, not a fatal mine accident. [Editor's note: The first American casualty in Bosnia, Army Sgt. 1st Class Donald A. Dugan, died in an explosives-related accident on Feb. 3, a week after this speech.] I talked to a number of congressmen about that who asked me whether the vaunted American technology was what made the difference, because some of our NATO allies have had many more mine accidents than that.

Technology is only a minor contributor to dealing with mines. It's mostly a matter of discipline and procedure and just being very damned careful -- paying attention to detail. And before all of our units went down there, ... each battalion spent a couple of months specifically training for that ... ground operation. And a very key part of that was mine awareness, mine location, mine removal and, most importantly, mine avoidance. Since you can't remove them all, the key is avoiding them.

We still have 11 months to go in Bosnia, and we're going to run into more mines before we're done. But so far, so good. And the reason it's been good has been, first of all, cooperation from the warring parties and, secondly, very good discipline and very good professionalism on the part of the American soldiers.

I'm going to come to a few conclusions about this, generalizing from some of the specifics that I've given you here. ... I testified to the Congress about seven or eight times, about going into Bosnia. I got about every possible question I could get. And I contemplated every bad scenario that could possibly happen and tried to deal with it in my testimony.

The three bad scenarios -- there are really three scenarios that are bad -- that we worried about from the beginning: The first is that there would be major resistance and armed resistance by one or more of the warring parties as our soldiers went in. The second is that there would be a major problem with mines, and the third is there would be a major problem, not with organized resistance, but with terrorists -- basically dissident groups.

The first of those we can now, I believe, safely dismiss. If any of those warring parties had wanted to resist us and wanted to try to block us, they should have done it two weeks ago or three weeks ago or four weeks ago when we were coming in and when we were most vulnerable. Basically, it's too late to do that now. We have a powerful force in the country -- 20,000 U.S. forces directly in-country, very heavily armed, with M-1 tanks, Bradleys, artillery, very well trained, very well disciplined soldiers -- 60,000 NATO troops.

There is not a force in the country or any combination of forces that could stand up to this force. We were criticized -- some in Congress and some in the media -- for sending such a large and powerful force in. And in retrospect that criticism, perhaps, was right.

We did not run into armed resistance, but I am unrepentant on the decision to send in that powerful force. If I had to err, I wanted to err on the side of too large and too strong a force rather than the other way around. And we'll never know whether we might have gotten the armed resistance if we had gone in with a smaller or a weaker, force. In any event, I believe that danger is behind us now.

The second danger is mines -- I've already discussed that. So far, so good. We'll see more mines. We'll have more mine accidents before we leave there. At this stage, though, the biggest problem -- the problem I worry most about -- is simply becoming complacent, because this attention to detail and the discipline is motivated by being concerned. So our leaders, our commanders, will have to continually alert the troops to the dangers of this, to keep their attention so they do pay attention to detail.

And the third worry we still have, and that is the worry that there would be some dissident individuals or gangs who will attack our forces, not on any theory that they're going to be able to defeat them, but to make a point, to harass them. And that's still a very real probability, and that's still the greatest concern, the greatest worry we have about our troops over there.

We are well trained, well armed, well disciplined and very much alert to that possibility, but there are no certainties and no way we can conduct ourselves which can preclude that possibility. Even in Oklahoma City, we have been subject to terrorist attacks.

So one general conclusion that I make on this, I would sum up by the phrase I've already used, "so far, so good." The second general conclusion -- we still have 11 tough months ahead of us, and we have to keep our eye on the ball, pay attention to detail. When I talked with our soldiers over there and our commanders, I had two messages for them: one is, keep your focus, keep paying attention to detail; and the other was, take care of each other.

Another generalization I would draw from this is that this whole operation in Bosnia is going to cast a long shadow on European security, certainly for the rest of this decade, first of all because it has brought together NATO -- and not just NATO but about 16 or 17 other countries who volunteered to participate with NATO in this.

So the single biggest security problem in Europe since the ending of the Cold War, all of Europe is pulling together finally to deal with under the United States' leadership and with NATO being the institution that is actually conducting the operation. And countries that are participating -- fully participating -- like the Czech Republic and Slovakia and Hungary and Poland and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- all of these countries see the opportunity not only to help out in Bosnia, but to be a part of this larger European security.

The last generalization I would like to make has to do with the role of Russia in this operation. I personally devoted a large amount of time to trying to work that arrangement and met for three months before we finally went in there.

I met four different times with the minister of defense of Russia, [Pavel] Grachev, to try to come to an arrangement whereby the Russian troops could participate with this NATO force in Bosnia. They wanted to participate. We wanted them to participate. They didn't want to be under NATO.

In Russia, NATO is a four letter word. For decades, it has been the face of the enemy for them. They could not quite bring themselves to do that.

The agreement we finally reached was a strange agreement in some ways. It was intended to be face-saving for them. They are there. They are under NATO. But they describe this as working for an American general, instead of working for a NATO general. Actually, two American generals: One is Gen. Joulwan, from whom they take their operational commands; and the other is Gen. Nash, who is the head of the American division there, from whom they get their tactical control.

It's remarkable and surprising to me that they were able to accept direction from an American general, where they could not quite swallow the idea of direction from the NATO general. Now, of course, Gen. Joulwan is the supreme commander of NATO also, but he is an American general.

So as I said, I believe this operation in Bosnia is going to cast a very long shadow on European security, certainly for the rest of this decade. Besides giving a prospect of finally ending this tragic war in Bosnia, a war in which millions of people remain homeless and several hundred thousand were killed, it finally gives them a chance to end that war. But perhaps over the long-term, even more importantly, it sets a pattern for European nations cooperating and dealing with important security problems in Europe, in cooperating under the leadership of the United States.

Finally, it demonstrated once more the capability, effectiveness of the U.S. military forces. And I hope all the American people can feel as proud of the American military as I do for what they are doing in Bosnia today.

I should also say another very clear lesson of Bosnia was the importance of training, in particular the importance of the kind of combat training that you do here and that the U.S. Army did at Grafenwoehr [Germany] before they went in there. This is what distinguishes the U.S. military, which gives us the competitive advantage over any other military force in the world, and you are at the tip of the spear in demonstrating that.

Thank you.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at