MISSION ACCOMPLISHED The return of the last peacekeepers from the Balkans

Yugoslavia, powder keg of the Balkans


After the Second World War, partisan leader Josip Broz Tito reigned as an absolute ruler over Yugoslavia for 35 years. During all those years, he managed to suppress the national feelings of the various ethnic groups living in his country. After his death in 1980, however, nationalism started rising again and was intensified by the economic hardship of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first of a series of violent conflicts broke out in June 1991.


The United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) tried to restore and maintain peace in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia with diplomatic, economic and military means. A series of UN resolutions were issued, but only partially observed or implemented because of the reticence of many nations in sending troops. The Belgian Parliament decided to participate in the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) on 21 February 1992 and as early as April 1992 BELBAT 1 arrived in Croatia with a 500-strong battalion. On 25 August 1992, the Belgian Government provided a frigate to help complying with the UN weapons embargo issued against all former Yugoslav republics. Operation Deny Flight began enforcing the UN no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina on 12 April 1993. Although Belgian combat aircraft could not participate in this operation as they were not equipped with the proper electronic countermeasures against the anti-aircraft missile systems present on the battlefield, Belgian military helped monitoring the airspace over Bosnia and Herzegovina on board Boeing E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft.


After the installation of the Carapace threat warning system from 1995 onwards and the acquisition of AN/ALQ-131 counter measures pods in 1996, the first four Belgian Lockheed Martin F-16s left for Villafranca in Italy on 11 October 1996 to participate in the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) under Operation Decisive Endeavour, the successor of UNPROFOR’s Operation Deny Flight. Under the Belgian codename Operation Joint Falcon the four F-16s flew patrols over Bosnia and Herzegovina. By late 1996 IFOR became SFOR (NATO Stabilisation Force) and Decisive Endeavour was renamed Deliberate Guard. The NATO air assets moved from Villafranca to Amendola in January 1999. At the same time the Belgian participation was increased with six additional F-16s in an effort to counter the increasing tensions in Kosovo.


The air campaign


After several peace initiatives for Kosovo had fizzled out, air raids were ordered on 23 March 1999. Operation Allied Force went ahead during the night from 24 to 25 March with the military aim to weaken the security structure that President Slobodan Milošević of little Yugoslavia had used to dislodge and annihilate the Albanian minority in Kosovo. When the air attacks were suspended on 10 June 1999 after an air campaign of 77 days, Belgian aircraft had flown 679 combat sorties, dropping numerous ordinary Mk.82 and Mk.84 (dumb) bombs and about 10 laser guided GBU-12 and GBU-10 Paveway II (smart) bombs, as well as firing 24 infrared guided Maverick air-to-ground missiles. For Belgium and for NATO Operation Allied Force was the first air operation outside their territory. It was also NATO’s first operation outside the framework of collective defence as stated by Article 5 of its Treaty and the Alliance’s first non-Article 5 crisis response operation.


Two days after cessation of the air campaign the first elements of the NATO led peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered the troubled province and Serb troops started retreating. Four Belgian F-16s remained at Amendola in support of KFOR for more than two years before the last aircraft returned home on 11 April 2001. Belgian ground troops, however, would stay for more than a decade in Kosovo to assist in establishing and maintaining a secure environment, including public safety and order, under UN Security Council Resolution 1244.


Boots on the ground


A 1,250 strong Belgian mission started arriving in Kosovo in June 1999, consisting of a Battlegroup (875 personnel), a National Support Element (225 personnel), a Medical Detachment (50 personnel) and a Helicopter Detachment (100 personnel). It was tasked with providing security and assistance to the population and the public authorities, and with supporting the reconstruction of the devastated civil infrastructure.


The Belgian Battlegroup operated in close cooperation with French troops responsible for the eastern part of the area of operations of the Multinational Task Force North (MTF-N), formed by the economic hearth and the most multiethnic area of Kosovo. In the first months and years, the Battlegroup laid emphasis on establishing and maintaining a secure environment. It fielded a strong mechanised force to counter the external threat from Serbia via the northern approach and mainly operated in the open field, deploying patrols, manning mobile checkpoints and conducting border monitoring duties. Logistic ground support was provided by the National Support Element.


From June 1999 till June 2000 BELHELI supported KFOR with four plus one spare Agusta A109BA helicopters in Medevac, gunship or liaison configuration and operating from Farke in Albania, Petrovec in Macedonia and Pristina in Kosovo. They flew more than 1,000 missions, totalling 3,350 flying hours. A total of 266 personnel participated in BELHELI 1 to 3.


During the same time span BELMED provided Medevac support to KFOR. It was embedded in a British Medical Company in Pristina and operated 10 ambulances. 160 personnel in total manned BELMED 1 to 3.


Between June 1999 and December 2003 two mixed Belgian-Luxembourg Tactical CIMIC (Civil Military Cooperation) Teams provided liaison with and support to the local authorities and population. In cooperation with the local authorities they facilitated military operations and integrated the military presence in the daily live without disturbing the civil society too much. The teams had a budget of 37,500 euro per month to help reconstructing civil infrastructure like schools and fire stations, and to win the hearts and minds of the population in doing so.


When tensions dropped, NATO started reducing its massive presence in Kosovo. Belgium diminished its troops with two thirds from August 2003 onwards. The Belgian Battlegroup’s mission too changed. The lessened external threat from Serbia was gradually replaced by internal, interethnic tensions. Patrols and checkpoints in rural Kosovo made place for crowd and riot control in urban areas. Heavily armed mechanised vehicles were replaced by lighter and more mobile troop carrying vehicles.


Following the unexpected outbreak of interethnic violence in March 2004, Belgium detached a number of Liaison and Monitoring Teams (LMT) to Kosovo to feel the pulse of the local population and to identify its needs and concerns. With information gathered by the LMTs new interethnic tensions could be identified timely and more clashes prevented.


The declaration of independence of Kosovo on 17 February 2008 led to violent and angry reactions in Kosovo as well as in Serbia. Today Kosovo is recognised as an independent state by around 60 countries and relative peace reigns in the newborn nation. In June 2009 NATO decided to transform KFOR into a less sizeable deterrent presence and to reduce its presence with one third from 13,500 to 10,000. As a similar reduction of the Belgian troops would lead to a subcritical number to still perform efficient and effective military operations, the Belgian government decided to end the mission of BELKOS 32 on 31 January 2010. Most Belgian military returned home on 2 February, followed by the remainder later in February and early March. Seventy containers of equipment, 18 armoured and 65 soft skin vehicles returned by road, passing through the same northern approach they were securing more than a decade ago against the Serbian threat. When the 14 members of the final LMT will have returned from Macedonia on 31 March 2010, the Belgian presence in the Balkans will have come to an end.

 End KFOR 02 February 2010

The major part of the personnel of BELKOS 32 returned home on 2 February 2010.

 New missions and flexible, state-of-the-art armed forces


The events in the Balkans show that present-day conflicts are pursued simultaneously at the political (diplomacy) and economic (sanctions, blockades) levels as well as at the military level (air, sea and ground campaigns) when the former two do not yield the desired results. They also illustrate the new missions and operating procedures NATO adopted since the end of the Cold War. In addition to the traditional tasks of deterrence and collective defence, peacekeeping and crisis response missions became more important.


Resolving the conflict in the Balkans was a multinational effort. All NATO allies with armed forces provided troops to IFOR and SFOR. Eighteen non-NATO nations participated in IFOR and four more in SFOR. In 1999 KFOR was composed of troops from all NATO member states, 16 NATO Partnership for Peace nations and four additional coalition partners. Belgian troops excelled in this multinational environment. The Air Force closely cooperated with the Koninklijke Luchtmacht from Italian airbases and the Army formed detachments with Luxembourgers, Mongolians, Romanians and Ukrainians or was embedded in French or British units. Interoperability proved to work out just fine.


Present-day conflicts require well equipped and highly mobile armed forces. Combat aircraft of the Belgian Air Force could only participate in the air campaign after they had been upgraded with state-of-the-art sensors and jammers for self-protection, and with software and armament for effective high-precision ground attacks minimising unwanted collateral damage to the civil population and its infrastructure.

BELKOS 1-2 910 Belgians August 1999 – March 2000 14 Leopard
BELUKOS 3-7 884 Belgians
26 Luxembourgers
March 2000 – December 2001 14 Leopard
30 AIFV/Pandur
BELUROKOS 8-10 784 Belgian
26 Luxembourgers
90 Romanians
December 2001 – December 2002 20 AIFV/Pandur
15 CVRT/Pandur
08 BTR 80
BELUKROKO 11-12 536 Belgians
26 Luxembourgers
148 Ukrainians
90 Romanians
December 2002 – August 2003 26 Pandur
08 BTR 80
BELUKOS 13 284 Belgians
23 Luxembourgers
August 2003 – December 2003 23 CVRT
BELUKOS 14-19 187 Belgians
23 Luxembourgers
December 2003 – November 2005 12 AIFV
BELUMOKOS 20 151 Belgians
23 Luxembourgers
36 Mongolians
November 2005 – March 2006 12 AIFV
BELUKOS 21 177 Belgians
23 Luxembourgers
March 2006 – July 2006 12 AIFV
BELKOS 22 175 Belgians July 2006 – December 2006 12 AIFV
BELMOKOS 23 184 Belgians
36 Mongolians
December 2006 – March 2007 12 AIFV
BELKOS 24-32 180 Belgians March 2007 – January 2010 12 AIFV

 The composition of the successive BELKOS detachments illustrates that the Belgian Army was able to adapt its equipment to the changing threats and changing missions during its presence in Kosovo. Heavily armed mechanised vehicles to counter a massive external threat from Serbia were gradually replaced by more mobile and flexible light troop transporting fighting vehicles for crowd and riot control in urban areas. Deployability and flexibility too proved to work out just fine.

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 © Jos Schoofs (February 2010)


Last updated 24/02/10 12:49   Daniel Brackx