By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood,
Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
When the provinces and states within the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to seek independence in 1991 from the culturally-diverse soup of the region known as the Balkans, it was like having the peas and carrots fighting the celery and potatoes.
The United Nations got involved to keep the fighting from boiling up into the airspace that encompassed an area roughly the size of New England plus the eastern half of New York. But their efforts to police the airspace mostly failed, with the UN reporting as many as two violations a day.
The UN Security Council authorized its members to use force to protect the no-fly zone, so it was 22 years ago today, on April 12, 1993, Operation Deny Flight began. Who better to handle “speak softly but carry a big stick” diplomacy than USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
Just a month earlier, while visiting the Roosevelt cruising off the Virginia Capes, President Bill Clinton said: “When word of a crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident that the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is ‘Where’s the nearest carrier?’”
So where was the nearest carrier?
On April 12, it was conveniently out in the Adriatic, off the coast of the rapidly dissolving Yugoslavia, the Roosevelt and its Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 8—sailed, ready to answer the call if needed. And they were needed.
From Sky Monitor to Deny Flight
In 1992, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted to break away from the disintegrating federation. However, the Bosnian Serb population within Bosnia and Herzegovina rejected this, set up their own republic, and appealed to Serbia for assistance in securing territory in their new state.
As the fighting escalated into full scale war and threatened international peace and security, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 781 in October 1992. The resolution attempted to limit the war as much as possible to the ground by banning all military flights over Bosnian airspace. NATO’s Operation Sky Monitor started, and a no-fly zone was created.
The no-fly zone, however, was also frequently ignored. By April 1993, NATO estimated the resolution had been blatantly violated more than 500 times—or roughly at least twice a day. In response, the UN issued Resolution 816. The UN Security Council now authorized its members to take all necessary measures “in the event of further violations, to ensure compliance with the ban on flights.”
It was into this quagmire the “Big Stick” brought her arsenal of Tomcats, Hornets and Prowlers.
NATO commanders were forced to assign escorts to protect reconnaissance aircraft from Bosnian antiaircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). As ODF got underway, pilots encountered fierce resistance as the Serbs fired at TR’s Tomcat and Hornet aircraft.
Complicating matters was the difficulty in determining friend from foe: Croatians flew helicopters painted white, which was similar in color to UN helicopters, while Bosnian Serbs flew Gazelles with red crosses on the side, similar to the universally-accepted International Red Cross. The deception was even carried out by Serbian Gen. Ratko Mladic, whose helicopter had a red cross painted on it, according to author Michael Beale in Bombs over Bosnia: The Role of Airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Knowing NATO forces wouldn’t fire on non-aggressive violators of the no-fly zone, they would often land as ordered, wait for the enforcers to leave, and then continue on their missions.
Despite these obstacles, TR continued to meet the demands of the mission. In the beginning, though, each side was still discovering and trying to counter the others’ tactics. The aircraft carrier’s EA-6B Prowlers from Electronic Attack Squadron 130 often provided the only means to counter enemy air defenses with AGM-88 High Speed Antiradiation Missiles (HARMs).
The Big Stick’s efforts continued until she was ordered to the Persian Gulf to support Operation Southern Watch – protecting the no-fly zone over Iraq — two months later on June 30, 1993.
Between November 1992 and July 1995, NATO monitors counted 5,711 helo violations of the Bosnian airspace, but the raids prevented the warring factions from effectively using their air power. Allied aircraft, whether taking off from nearby air fields or catapulted from the decks of aircraft carriers, flew a total of 100,420 sorties during the 983 days of Deny Flight.