Advertisement

GIs Drill in Germany for Bosnia Duty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sgt. 1st Class John M. Baggett scans the vast, flat, snow-streaked field that serves as Target Range 112 at this sprawling U.S. Army training base and watches a black silhouette--shaped like an enemy tank--pop into view.

Within a few seconds, an M-1A1 tank from Baggett’s unit fires its 120-millimeter main gun--with a loud blast and uncanny precision.

With tracer bullets marking the spot, the tank crew scores a hit.

“Went right through the target,” an officer standing nearby remarks approvingly.

Advertisement

On the surface, at least, the sequence does not seem very remarkable. Like many other tank units in today’s Army, Baggett’s crew has done all this before--in countless training sessions, both here and at a string of military installations back in the United States.

But this time the exercise has an edge to it. If negotiations among the three warring Balkan factions produce a genuine peace accord, Baggett and about 23,000 U.S. soldiers like him will be deployed deep into Bosnia-Herzegovina to serve as part of an international peacekeeping unit.

“What we’re doing here is a dress rehearsal for the real thing,” Baggett says, ignoring the intensifying cold on this gray, late autumn day. “Everybody is being especially attentive here this time around. You know that every little bit of training might save your life or save somebody else’s life.”

The operation would be enormous. The U.S. contingent would join a NATO-led ground force of more than 60,000 troops--including troops from Western Europe, Russia, the old Warsaw Pact countries and a handful of Third World contingents.

Advertisement

The first wave would hit the ground just four days after a peace accord was signed, and the rest would arrive within a couple of weeks. Accompanying them would be an air armada from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization even larger than the one that carried out bombing raids against the Bosnian Serbs last summer.

But the risks would be formidable. Besides the considerable dangers that normally accompany any military operation, the peacekeepers would probably face snipers--disaffected paramilitary troops who would be unhappy with any accord that emerged from peace talks now going on in Dayton, Ohio.

The fierce Balkan winter would make it difficult to move vehicles and equipment and to locate--and dispose of--the estimated 6 million active land mines that have been left by the warring factions. Intelligence-gathering from spy satellites and aircraft also would become substantially harder.

U.S. and other NATO troops would have to surmount major cultural differences with non-Western armies--not just in language (NATO operates entirely in English; the others do not) but in areas such as communications, logistics, national customs and compatibility of procedures and equipment.

Advertisement

The job would be complicated further by the fact that all the bridges between the projected U.S. entry points in northern Bosnia and the city of Tuzla, where the U.S. contingent would be headquartered, have been destroyed--and would have to be rebuilt in the midst of the Balkan snows.

“In many ways, the mission in Bosnia will be significantly different from the one the Army has had to perform in previous military operations,” says Don M. Snider, a former Pentagon planner who is now a defense analyst at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “It won’t be an easy job.”

U.S. troops began training for a Bosnia peace enforcement mission--or, alternatively, for the job of extracting U.N. peacekeeping units if efforts to end the war had fallen through--almost 18 months ago. The pace was stepped up early last summer, when rebel Serbs overran the U.N.-declared Bosnian “safe area” of Srebrenica.

Essentially, the NATO troops would have two major missions: first, to separate the hostile forces of the warring factions, and second, to patrol the perimeters to ensure that they did not begin fighting again. The demilitarized zone that the United States would patrol has a 220-mile front.

Advertisement

They also would have to protect--and support--hundreds of civilian officials who would be converging on Bosnia to help it recover from the war: representatives of private humanitarian aid organizations, U.N. personnel and international police and judicial experts, to name a few.

The troops that would make up the bulk of the American force--members of the 1st Armored Division based in Europe--have been holding training exercises both here and at the U.S. Army Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels, 57 miles to the south.

Last month, more than 10,000 troops from the 1st Armored Division and the Army’s 5th Corps conducted a monthlong gunnery and tactical training exercise at a special center here in the north Bavarian woods.

And on Thursday, U.S. forces at Hohenfels completed a course that is not usually taught at conventional combat training schools--how to serve as peacekeepers, man checkpoints, escort humanitarian aid convoys and settle disputes among rival ethnic groups.

Advertisement

Much like one at a similar training center in Ft. Polk, La., this course involves realistic encounters with villagers--played by local actors--in a series of mock towns designed to look like Bosnian hamlets. The locals take the parts of village elders, humanitarian aid workers and insurgent paramilitary forces.

“Most of our regular training is just force-on-force--mock battles with other tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles,” says Pvt. 1st Class Brian Ortiz, a tank driver in Baggett’s unit, climbing into his cramped forward hatch. “But here, we’re learning to put it together with peacekeeping.”

Col. Dean W. Cash, commander of the operations group that is conducting the course at Hohenfels, says the idea is to take hardened soldiers already trained for combat and “teach them to throttle back” so they can be effective at peacekeeping as well.

At the same time, with the U.S. debacle in Somalia in 1993 in mind, Cash wants to be sure that the troops could muster the necessary firepower to deal instantly with any threat that might arise. Defense Secretary William J. Perry has pledged that U.S. forces in Bosnia would be “the meanest dog in town.”

Advertisement

Officials say the U.S. strategy would be to go in with as much force as necessary to intimidate the three warring factions into abiding by the new peace accord--and to deal swiftly with any infractions, to keep their own casualties down.

At the same time, Washington wants the potential peacekeepers to have the ability to be sensitive to villagers’ concerns and to do whatever is necessary to win their respect. That would mean resolving complex problems on the spot, often through negotiation and cajoling.

The training exercises in Germany reflect both those objectives: Apache gunships strafe the “attack” area to provide cover for ground troops. Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles accompany mock convoys. And low-silhouette Black Hawk helicopters speed troops to reported trouble spots.

Soldiers learn to work with special sensors that could help them listen for the first signs of trouble in any of the demilitarized zones. There are special classes in how to identify and deal with mines and snipers. Tank crews learn how to spot ground explosives early and clear them away.

Advertisement

But the most unusual part of the exercise is the peacekeeping training in Hohenfels, where Cash has set up the mock villages--complete with shells of houses and civic structures that faintly resemble those in Bosnia--to provide soldiers with a taste of what they could expect.

In one such make-believe village--this one “inhabited” by U.S. and foreign instructors portraying Bosnian Serbs--a U.S. unit encounters a band of terrorists bent on upsetting the peacekeeping operation. The challenge is how to discover who they are and to bring them into custody.

In another, the United Nations is the problem: The local U.N. envoy has not yet received word that he is to move his refugee-care operation to a neighboring village, and he is being “extremely uncooperative.” The peacekeepers’ mission: persuading him to comply without using force.

A special point in the curriculum is what U.S. soldiers should do if they see someone committing “an atrocity"--murder, rape or torture.

Advertisement

Although peacekeepers ordinarily are not supposed to take sides, the rule on atrocities is to stop them immediately if possible--or call in whatever forces can do the job.

“We do not allow our soldiers to be passive,” Cash asserts.

Cash’s first rule of peacekeeping is for everyone from the commander down to the lowest private to be on his guard.

“There are two themes that we teach here,” he says. “First, that nothing is what it seems to be, and second, question everything--never trust anyone.”

Advertisement

Other problems the soldiers learn to deal with: what to do if the water supply in a village is controlled by a warlord from a hostile faction (answer: negotiate) and how to make sure interpreters translate word for word, instead of embellishing what they hear.

How well U.S. troops would be able to handle such situations is unclear. Cash concedes that current plans inevitably mean that “we’ve got very young soldiers making very big decisions.” But he insists he is confident they would be able to do the job.

To West Point’s Snider and other analysts, the biggest danger the allied forces would face is the perception that peacekeepers had abandoned their impartiality and were actively siding with one of the warring factions.

“The minute that psychological barrier is broken, the Americans will become targets rather than peacekeepers,” Snider warns. “Unfortunately, some of that already exists because the [Clinton] Administration already has talked about strengthening the Bosnian Muslims.

Advertisement

“We’ll have to see whether the U.S. troops can shake that image.”

Meanwhile, U.S. troops in Europe are continuing to prepare for the worst--just as a precaution. Amid the clatter of tank fire and helicopter rotors, Cash says he has only one regret--"that we don’t have 12 inches of snow” at the peacekeeping school to make the course more realistic.

Sgt. 1st Class Baggett is more cautious.

“We don’t know yet exactly how people in Bosnia are going to react,” he says.

Advertisement

Pine was recently on assignment in Germany.


Advertisement
Advertisement