Yugoslav Military Is Formidable Foe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 1999; Page A9
Military analysts describe Yugoslavia's military and security forces as a competent, heavily armed and well-trained adversary that would not be likely to fold in the face of a large NATO invasion the way Iraq's troops did during the Persian Gulf War.
In an effort to put down a rebellion and bring the overwhelmingly Albanian population to heel in the Serbian province of Kosovo, President Slobodan Milosevic has blanketed the area with special security forces and infantry, artillery and armored brigades of the 3rd Army that have trained for decades to engage an invading force with defensive tactics designed to turn difficult terrain to their advantage.
"If you had to fight your way into Kosovo, it could be really messy," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former defense official who co-directs Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A ground option with overwhelming force . . . could cause very serious problems."
But Cordesman and retired Army Col. Kenneth Allard, NATO's senior adviser to the U.S. 1st Armored Division in Bosnia in 1996, said they do not believe Yugoslav forces could come close to withstanding a massive NATO force, particularly after weeks of bombing, if President Clinton and the allies should reverse their position and order in ground troops.
"I give them their due," said Allard. "They are a formidable force. They tied down German troops during [World War II]. But that was then and this is now."
Early in the Cold War, nonaligned Yugoslavia built its own military-industrial complex and created a military force far larger than might otherwise have been expected for a country its size. The idea was to assert its independence from the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact. In that light, Yugoslavia has long manufactured its own munitions, tanks, even aircraft, all with an eye to engaging any Soviet invasion.
Such is the historic predicate for a modern army that had 90,000 troops, 630 tanks, 634 armored personnel carriers and 861 howitzers at the beginning of 1998, according to an order of battle prepared by Stratfor Inc., a private analytical firm in Austin.
As president of the Yugoslav federation and political leader of Serbia – its main republic – Milosevic also controls another 100,000 internal police and paramilitary troops affiliated with the Interior Ministry (MUP) and its intelligence arm, the State Security Service (RDB).
In Kosovo over the past two months, according to British defense officials, Milosevic amassed a force of up to 40,000 army, police and paramilitary troops, backed by 300 tanks, although that force has increased dramatically in recent days. "There are reports of 55,000 to 60,000 – it's anybody's guess what it really is," said Cordesman.
Yugoslavia's 3rd Army has been assigned to Kosovo operations, although Jane's Information Group reports that two reinforced brigades, one from the 1st Army focused on Croatia in the north, and one from the 2nd Army oriented toward Albania in the south, were thought to be preparing to reinforce Kosovo.
Although precise deployments are difficult to pin down, allied defense officials in Brussels and Washington said the 3rd Army's 549th motorized brigade has deployed near Dakovica, in southwest Kosovo, along with its 243rd mechanized brigade, which has been shelling rebels and their civilian backers who have become refugees in the Pagarusa Valley south of Pristina.
Security forces from the Interior Ministry could well represent an even more formidable adversary, given their superior training, dedication to the Serbian cause and demonstrated ruthlessness, at least when it comes to burning villages and terrorizing civilians, Cordesman and other analysts say. The Red Berets, commanded by State Security Officer Franko Simatovic, are a paramilitary force of 4,000 to 5,000 drawn almost exclusively from army special forces.
"They operate in groups of between 15 and 25," said Julian Moir, a British defense official. "They have a penchant for modern armored 4x4s and by any standard, this group is well-trained, well-motivated and very, very dangerous."
The Red Berets are complemented by plainclothes police from the State Security Service, commanded by a Milosevic loyalist and former Belgrade police chief named Radomir Markovic, and at least 5,000 Interior Ministry assault troops equipped with mortars, heavy machine guns and armored personnel carriers.
Although the MUP's headquarters in Pristina was repeatedly struck this week by bombs and largely destroyed, Moir said MUP assault troops remain the backbone of Milosevic's machine in Kosovo and have been responsible for "many of the atrocities" in Kosovo.
He added that they work "hand-in-glove" with members of an even more elite counter-terrorist unit whose recruits are "young, fit, undergo psychometric testing and are invariably between 19 and 24 years old."
Finally, there are the shadowy paramilitary forces such as the Serb Volunteer Guard "Tigers" commanded by Zeljko Raznatovic, a longtime Milosevic disciple best-known by his nom de guerre, Arkan. Raznatovic, whose indictment by an international tribunal for war crimes in Bosnia was unsealed this week, denied any involvement in Kosovo. But in an interview this week he promised that he and his men would fight any NATO invaders to the death.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company