Rethinking the Mission for the Mig-29 Sortie into Bosnia

There have been numerous reports out of NATO headquarters in Brussels that at 0515GMT 26 Mar 99 three Serbian Mig-29s violated Bosnian airspace.  NATO sources stated that NATO fighters shot down two Mig-29s eight kilometers (five miles) inside Bosnia near the town of Bijeljina and that one Mig-29 fled back into Serbian airspace. NATO have said that the perceived mission of these fighters was to attack NATO Stabilization Forces (SFOR) in Bosnia.  Serbian sources deny NATO claims that it sent fighters into Bosnia.   NATO countered, initially claiming that it captured the pilots of both aircraft after they ejected, then later retracting that statement and saying that they were still searching for the pilots but that two parachutes were spotted.  Attacking SFOR troops in Bosnia is a plausible explanation as the Mig-29 can carry 250 and 500 pound bombs, as well as rocket pods, in its secondary ground attack role. However, it is important to keep in mind that the primary mission of the Mig-29 is in the air to air combat role. Additionally, recall that Yugoslavia has several other indigenously produced aircraft that are better suited to the ground attack role than the precious few Mig-29s that it possesses in its inventory.

This leads us to explore the alternative possibility that these Mig-29s had another mission over Bosnia. It has been well reported that the Serbian forces are making wide use of smoke pots and burning villages in Kosovo in order to defeat laser and infrared-guided weapons, as well as to mask the movements of Yugoslav army and police troops. To some extent, NATO has used weapon systems, such as satellite-guided tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs dropped from stealth aircraft, that are not affected by these tactics. However, a large portion of NATO's weapon systems do use laser-guided weapons that can be defeated by these concealment tactics. The only weak links in the Serbian strategy of camouflaging their positions and aircraft are the capabilities of the NATO AWACS and JSTARS planes.

The AWACS is an Airborne Early Warning aircraft (AWACs). The primary mission of the AWACS is to track hostile aircraft and then to act as an airborne control platform to direct friendly fighters to intercept those planes. The E-8 JSTARS or Joint Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar System aircraft is used to track vehicles and troop movements on the ground. JSTARS can operate up to 120 miles away from the area that they are monitoring. These are both very expensive aircraft and are vital to the current NATO mission of defeating Serbian air defenses, as well as the new NATO strategy of attacking Serbian troop concentrations in and around Kosovo. Therefore, these two aircraft would certainly prove to be more inviting targets for MIG-29s flying over Bosnia than the marginal mission of attacking SFOR troops.

It is also curious to note that, even though STRATFOR has no way to confirm that these types of NATO planes were in the area at the time, the effective range of the both the AWACs and the JSTARS would put these aircraft on station in the vicinity of where the Mig-29s were shot down. An interesting aside is that Bijeljina is in the Russian controlled sector of the NATO SFOR in Bosnia. We offer this as an alternative explanation for the Mig-29 sorties over Bosnia.