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In Memoriam: Admiral Leighton W. Smith Jr., USN

Dec. 1, 2023 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Admiral Leighton Warren “Snuffy” Smith Jr. on 28 November 2023 at age 84. Admiral Smith entered the U.S. Naval Academy in June 1958 and served as a naval aviator until his retirement in October 1996 as Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Commander in Chief, NATO Allied Forces Southern Europe. His commands included Attack Squadron EIGHT SIX (VA-86), Carrier Air Wing FIFTEEN (CVW-15), Light Attack Wing ONE, Kalamazoo (AOR-6), America (CV-66), and Carrier Group SIX/Forrestal (CV-59) Battle Group. He flew 282 combat missions in 3 deployments during the Vietnam War, earning 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 29 Air Medals, with the distinction of finally knocking down the Thanh Hoa (“Dragon’s Jaw”) Bridge in North Vietnam. In 1995, he led the first major combat operation in NATO’s history, Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia.  

Snuffy Smith entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 30 June 1958 by way of a year at the University of Alabama, where his English professor told him he would not make it through the academy because he “couldn’t write.” Academics were not Midshipman Smith’s strongest suit, but he persevered; the Lucky Bag yearbook described him as hardworking with the capacity for “always keeping his sunny side up.” He was also described as a “gentleman in every sense of the word.” He graduated on 6 June 1962 with a bachelor of science in naval science and was commissioned an ensign.

Ensign Smith served briefly on the landing craft repair ship Krishna (ARL-38) at Naval Base Little Creek while awaiting an aviation training quota. He reported to Naval Aviation Basic Training Command at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, in August 1962 for basic flight training. In August 1963, he reported to NAS Kingsville, Texas, for jet training. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1963 and designated a naval aviator on 31 January 1964.

In February 1964, Lieutenant (j.g.) Smith was assigned to the Naval Air Technical Training Center, NAS Glynco, Georgia, as an instructor for air intercept control. At NAS Glynco, he also flew the FJ-4 Fury jet fighter (the Navy version of an F-86 Sabre). In January 1965, Smith reported to VA-44 “Hornets” as a fleet replacement pilot, flying the A-4E Skyhawk light attack jet at NAS Cecil Field, Florida. In August 1965, he was then assigned to VA-81 “Sunliners” at NAS Cecil Field, flying the A-4E and serving as first lieutenant and personnel officer just as VA-81 deployed to the Mediterranean embarked on attack carrier Forrestal (CVA-59). He was promoted to lieutenant in December 1965.

Due to the demands of the Vietnam War, as soon as Lieutenant Smith returned from deployment in April 1966, he was reassigned to VA-22 “Fighting Redcocks,” flying the A-4C and serving as personnel officer and aircraft division officer. VA-22 deployed to Vietnam embarked on attack carrier Coral Sea (CVA-43) from July 1966 to February 1967. Upon return from deployment, VA-22 quickly turned and redeployed to Vietnam aboard attack carrier Ranger (CVA-61) from September 1967 to May 1968, which included the first deployment of the new A-7 Corsair II (in VA-147). During these two deployments, VA-22 flew numerous missions against a wide range of targets in the face of increasingly effective North Vietnamese air defenses. Smith was awarded at least six Air Medals and two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat “V” for in-flight heroism.  

In July 1968, Lieutenant Smith reported to Naval Plant Representative Office, Dallas, Texas, serving as director of flight testing and production test pilot for newer versions of the Corsair II (A-7C/D/E). He was promoted to lieutenant commander in December 1969. In August 1970, Smith reported to VA-174 “Hellrazors” as a fleet replacement pilot, flying the A-7E at NAS Cecil Field.

In December 1970, Lieutenant Commander Smith was assigned to VA-82 “Marauders,” serving as maintenance officer and operations officer. Just before deployment, unexpected engine problems with the A-7E forced the squadron to reequip with the A-7C. On board attack carrier America (CVA-66), VA-82 commenced a 10-month deployment in June 1972, including numerous intense combat missions during Operation Linebacker in July–October and again during Operation Linebacker II in December 1972–January 1973, until the cease-fire went into effect in February.

In early October, the air wing was tasked to attack the key Thanh Hoa (“Dragon’s Jaw”) Bridge, which during the course of the war absorbed hundreds of bombs from more than 850 sorties at a cost of 11 aircraft, only to be quickly repaired each time. Lieutenant Commander Smith analyzed the bridge and planned the mission, which involved a large diversionary strike on a nearby rail yard, flak suppression strikes, and four strike aircraft. It was scheduled for 6 October 1972. Smith and his wingman each carried a new 2,000-pound Walleye II “Fat Albert” TV-guided bomb with extended-range data link and a 1,000-pound bomb for weight compensation on launch (this would be dropped on anti-aircraft batteries on egress from the target). The second pair of A-7Cs, led by VA-82 skipper Commander Don Sumner, each carried Mk-84 2,000-pound bombs. The pairs split and attacked from different directions with a planned simultaneous weapons time-on-target on key aimpoints. When the smoke cleared, a photo-reconnaissance flight by an RA-5C Vigilante confirmed the bridge was down for the duration of the war (the North Vietnamese rebuilt it in 1973, and it still stands). All four pilots were recommended for Silver Stars, which were downgraded to Distinguished Flying Crosses, Smith’s second for this deployment.

In June 1973, Lieutenant Commander Smith went to the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama to “decompress.” He graduated in June 1974 and concurrently earned a master of science in psychology from Troy State University. Smith returned to the cockpit in July 1974 as a fleet replacement pilot in VA-174. He was promoted to commander on 1 July 1974.
In February 1975, Commander Smith assumed duty as executive officer of VA-86 “Sidewinders,” flying the A-7E Corsair II and embarked for the initial deployments of the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz (CVN-68), first to the North Atlantic in July–September 1975 and then to the Mediterranean in July 1976–February 1977. Commander Smith assumed command of VA-82 in April 1976.

In June 1977, Smith commenced a prospective carrier air wing commander training pipeline. He assumed command of CVW-15 in November 1977. Although not deploying, CVW-15 conducted flight operations on Coral Sea (CV-43) and Kitty Hawk (CV-63). In November 1978, Commander Smith was assigned to the Navy Military Personnel Command (NMPC) in Washington, DC, as assistant head, Aviation Commander Assignment Branch. In February 1980, he assumed command of Light Attack Wing ONE at NAS Cecil Field; this attack wing was responsible for East Coast A-7 squadrons. He was promoted to captain on 1 August 1980.

In April 1981, Captain Smith commenced a training pipeline for command of a surface ship via NMPC; Surface Warfare Officer School Command in Newport, Rhode Island; and Service Squadron FOUR. In January 1982, he assumed command of replenishment ship Kalamazoo (AOR-6) while the ship was on deployment to the Mediterranean and West Africa. It returned from deployment in April 1982 and subsequently deployed again to the Mediterranean in November 1982–April 1983. In July 1983, Smith was assigned to the staff of Commander Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, as assistant chief of staff for training and readiness.

In January 1984, Captain Smith assumed command of carrier America, deploying to the Caribbean and then the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal from April to November 1984. In July 1985, he was handpicked to serve as a senior fellow on the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group in Newport. In May 1986, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as director, Tactical Readiness Division (OP953). He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 September 1987.

In December 1987, Rear Admiral Smith assumed command of Carrier Group SIX, homeported in Mayport, Florida, and in command of the Forrestal Battle Group, which deployed to the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and North Arabian Sea from April to October 1988. He was designated a rear admiral (two-star) for duty in a billet commensurate with the rank on 20 April 1989. In August 1989, he reported to Headquarters, U.S. European Command, in Stuttgart, West Germany, as director of operations (J-3) during a particularly momentous time that included the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, operations in the Mediterranean and northern Iraq as part of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and subsequent relief operations for Kurds in northern Iraq displaced by Saddam Hussein’s attacks (Operation Provide Comfort).

Promoted to vice admiral on 26 June 1991, he reported to the Office of the CNO as director of plans, policy, and operations (N3/5) where he led the formulation of post–Cold War U.S. Navy strategy, From the Sea, which stressed the need to transition from traditional blue water counter-Soviet operations toward increased support of inland operations.

In April 1994, Vice Admiral Smith assumed duty as Commander in Chief, Naval Forces Europe, and Commander in Chief (NATO), Allied Forces Southern Europe, headquartered in London and Naples, Italy. He was promoted to admiral (four-star) on 1 May 1994. He inherited NATO’s response to the intractable mess in the Balkans that had resulted from the breakup of the former Communist (though not Warsaw Pact) Yugoslavia. At the time, ethnic Serbs were fighting against Croats in Croatia while ethnic Serbs were fighting against Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, both aided by Serbs in what was left of Yugoslavia (Serbia, including Kosovo; Montenegro; and Macedonia). NATO had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia in April 1993 (Operation Deny Flight), resulting in the first combat engagement in NATO history in February 1994, when U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-16s shot down four of six Serbian jets bombing a Muslim target in Bosnia (the fifth crashed while performing avoidance maneuvers). The Serbs responded by increasing air defenses in Serbian-held areas of Bosnia.

In the month that Admiral Smith assumed command of Operation Deny Flight, the Serbs shot down a French Navy Etendard IV and a Royal Navy Sea Harrier conducting reconnaissance missions. NATO planes retaliated by bombing Serb targets in Bosnia, and the Serbs retaliated by taking a number of United Nations (UN) peacekeepers hostage. A standoff ensued. In response to repeated Serbian no-fly zone violations, 39 NATO aircraft struck Udbina airfield in Serbian-held Croatia, the largest NATO combat operation to that date. The Bosnian Serbs responded by taking 250 UN Protection Force troops hostage. A four-month truce was negotiated by former president Jimmy Carter.  

When the cease-fire expired, fighting on the ground and no-fly zone violations resumed, resulting in an air strike by USAF and Spanish aircraft on 25–26 May, to which the Serbs responded by taking more hostages and using them as human shields. On 2 June 1995, a Serbian SA-6 surface-to-air missile launcher in Bosnia shot down a USAF F-16 flown by Captain Scott O’Grady, who successfully evaded capture until rescued by U.S. Marine helicopters off Kearsarge (LHD-3) on 8 June. Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb forces captured the Bosnian Muslim city of Srebrenica, and while NATO diplomats debated whether and how much air support should be given to the Dutch UN peacekeepers at Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serbs proceeded to massacre more than 8,000 Muslim civilian men and boys in the worst case of ethnic cleansing in Europe since World War II.

During this period, Admiral Smith repeatedly clashed with the President’s Special Representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke over how much and how frequently to execute strikes. Ambassador Holbrooke pushed for more aggressive, yet still politically constrained use of military force, while Smith, mindful of the futility of politically constrained strikes in Vietnam, resisted tit-for-tat strikes, which were only resulting in more UN hostages that the Serbs threatened to kill. On 28 August 1995, a Serbian mortar strike in Sarajevo, Bosnia, killed 37 Muslim civilians. As a result, Admiral Smith was able to obtain NATO approval to execute a much larger air response, one previously planned under Smith’s direction.

NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force commenced on 30 August 1995 under the command of Admiral Smith. Lasting until 20 September (with a typically ineffective “bombing pause” from 1–5 September), the operation included 3,515 sorties by 400 aircraft and participation by 15 nations, striking and mostly destroying 338 different targets with 1,026 bombs (708 of which were precision guided). Aircraft from Aviano airfield in Italy, from U.S. aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) and America, as well as French carriers Foch and Clemenceau conducted strikes, while the U.S. guided-missile cruiser Normandy (CG-60) fired 14 Tomahawk missiles (the first to use GPS guidance). The operation included the first combat missions by the German Luftwaffe since World War II. One French Mirage 2000 and one U.S. MQ-1 Predator were shot down. The operation, in conjunction with an effective Croatian ground offensive, achieved the objective of forcing the Serbs back to serious negotiations and resulted in the Dayton Peace Accords, which were signed 21 November 1995. As a result, NATO dispatched a 60,000-man peacekeeping force to Bosnia, under the command of Admiral Smith, designated the Implementation Force, which later became the NATO Stabilization Force.

Despite the success of Deliberate Force and the Implementation Force, Admiral Smith and Ambassador Holbrooke repeatedly disagreed on the size and scope of the use of military force in Bosnia, as well as the authority of Implementation Force to arrest Bosnian Serb (or any other) war criminals. Holbrooke was highly critical of Smith’s “caution” (however, it was Smith’s “caution” in protecting the lives of British peacekeepers that led to him later being knighted by Queen Elizabeth). The atmosphere between Admiral Smith and Ambassador Holbrooke, and by extension the Clinton administration, became so toxic that Smith retired on 1 October 1996, a year earlier than planned.

Admiral Smith’s awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (two awards); Distinguished Service Medal; Legion of Merit (four awards); Distinguished Flying Cross (two awards); Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Air Medal (29, 4 individual and 25 strike/flight); Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” (three awards); Navy Achievement Medal with Combat “V”; Joint Meritorious Unit Award; Navy Unit Commendation; Meritorious Unit Commendation (two awards); Navy Expeditionary Medal; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (five campaign stars); Sea Service Ribbon (six awards); Overseas Service Ribbon; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Gold Star; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; NATO Medal (former Yugoslavia); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; and Navy Pistol Marksman Ribbon.

Admiral Smith was personally knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. His other foreign awards include the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary (Military—Grand Cross), and the French Order of National Merit, Grand Officer.

In his career, Admiral Smith amassed 4,225 total flight hours (3,800 jet, 350 propeller, and 50 rotary-wing hours), 1,035 carrier traps, and 25 rotary landings.

Following retirement, Admiral Smith served as a distinguished fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis. He was president of Leighton Smith Associates and vice president of Global Perspectives Inc., both international consulting firms. He served on the boards of several major corporations. He was chairman of both the U.S. Naval Academy Association Board of Trustees and the Board of Trustees of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. He was on the National Advisory Council to the Navy League. In 2004, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Naval Academy Board of Visitors. He was named “Tailhooker of the Year” in 1997 and a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 2007.

Although Ambassador Holbrooke would bask in the success of the 1995 Dayton Accords that finally brought an uneasy peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the success of NATO combat Operation Deliberate Force and subsequent deployment of the NATO Implementation Force (both planned and led by Admiral Smith) had a lot to do with it. These actions put a stop to the worst ethnic cleansing in Europe since the end of World War II, and the basic “truce” structure has remained intact ever since (Kosovo/Operation Allied Force in 1999 was related, but separate), making Smith’s tenure as a four-star one of the most consequential of the post–Cold War period. As commander in chief of Allied Forces Southern Europe, he commanded the NATO-enacted no-fly zone (Operation Deny Flight) over Bosnia against Serbia and directed NATO air strikes in support of UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia (which, at the time, were not keeping much peace). This then led to NATO’s first major combat operation, Deliberate Force, involving two U.S. and two French carriers, which compelled the Serbs to the negotiating table. He then planned and led NATO’s first-ever out-of-area ground operations as commander of Implementation Force in Bosnia from December 1995 to August 1996. Smith’s arduous path to destiny included three combat deployments to Vietnam. Although there was no way to know for certain which Walleye II or Mk-84 2,000-pound bomb finally dropped the seemingly impervious Dragon’s Jaw bridge for the remainder of the war, Snuffy did in fact plan and fly the mission, making the most of the latest technology. Throughout his career, he managed to spend a lot of time in the cockpit, with a consequent lot of time deployed far from home, at great sacrifice to his family. His impact on the post–Cold War U.S. Navy strategy, From the Sea, was also particularly noteworthy, and fortuitous as he had to try to implement it in the Balkans. It was to drive much of the U.S. Navy’s capability and operations during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For someone who supposedly “couldn’t write,” he had a profound positive impact on the Navy, and the world, because he certainly could lead.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Smith.