Bosnian landscape worries U.S. military experts Much of the country could be 'tank hell'

November 03, 1995|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- First there is the violent crosswind, known as the Bora. Then there's the hellish terrain. And the 30 different kinds of land mines. And the treacherous roads, the wrecked bridges and the mountain rock slides.

The NATO force that would guarantee a Bosnian peace would be the "meanest dog in town," the Clinton administration has promised -- loaded with armor, firepower and brawn.

But outside observers, and some Pentagon insiders, are worried that the big dog might wind up chained, not by the Balkan partisans, but by the landscape.

The United States has promised to contribute an estimated 20,000 soldiers to NATO's proposed 60,000-strong IFOR, or implementation force, that could be sent to Bosnia if a peace agreement is reached.

The troops would be expected to administer a long, twisting demilitarized zone that would be set up to separate the territories of three warring parties.

The Pentagon has said the Americans would go into Bosnia "heavy." The force likely would be bolstered with fast 67-ton M1A1 tanks and 30-ton Bradley armored fighting vehicles, among other equipment.

The idea is to impress the locals, and to avoid another Somalia, where outnumbered U.S. soldiers, fighting without tanks, got caught in a bloody 1993 gunbattle that killed 18 GIs.

But as several military experts said recently: Unlike user-friendly Iraq, much of Bosnia could be tank hell.

Except for an east-west strip in the north, it is ribbed from northwest to southeast by successive lines of mountains that one Pentagon analyst said look like "crumpled foil" from above. Such terrain is "no go" or "slow go" for armor.

Further, said one Pentagon expert, roads and damaged or downed bridges could hamper tank operations: "Ninety percent

of the bridges aren't capable of taking a 70-ton tank, if not 95 percent of them." Eastern bloc tanks such as those used in Bosnia are about 30 tons lighter than the biggest U.S. tanks.

But even light armor could have problems. It was a relatively lightweight armored car that collapsed a rain-soaked mountain road in August. The vehicle tumbled down the mountain, killing three U.S. envoys inside.

"The terrain and the roads and the channelization really isn't conducive to the heavy armored forces," the expert said. "It's more conducive, with the brush and the trees and the mountains, to your light infantry."

Most tanks operated by the factions in Bosnia have been used as artillery, dug in or placed on hilltops, he said.

Armor, though, will have substantial psychological impact, one high-ranking U.S. officer said.

"As long as people aren't fighting, it's a good tool," he said. "You've got that image of huge firepower, shock effect. But if you have to fight, and it all degenerates and becomes a firefight, that's perfect country to kill tanks."

"Most of the casualties are going to come from snipers, mortars, mines and accidents," said John Hillen, who helped lead an armored cavalry regiment in the Persian Gulf war and is now a defense analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

There will probably be no large-scale resistance, he said, and the environment could be the most formidable opponent, confounding operations no matter the meanness of the force.

Frigid Balkan winters can begin early and run into April, and snow may hamper detection of the 30 different kinds of land mines that are said to be strewn across Bosnia.

Cold, too, has always been a problem. In January 1942, for example, two well-equipped Nazi divisions suffered 300 cases of frostbite -- against 25 killed in action -- in a drive against guerrillas in the mountains south of Tuzla.

"We were the meanest dog in town in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia," Mr. Hillen said. "Everywhere we go, we're always the meanest dog in town.

"But it doesn't matter if you're a bulldog or a terrier. If you're kept chained, it doesn't make any difference."

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