Croatian Air Force in the Operation Storm ’95

In the Homeland War, the role and importance of the Croatian Air Force grew steadily. Air Force was especially important in the Operation Storm, the final operation for liberation of occupied areas of Croatia.

Development of the Air Force

Beginning of the Croatian Air Force began with the air groups formed at the Command of the Croatian National Guard, commands and individual units of the Operational zones, which were working on the formation of first air force units as well as collecting the necessary hardware to form the future Air Force and Air Defense. Already in the early October and by the late 1991. the first air units are created in the form of air sections, platoons and squadrons, first unit for the air control and direction, and the first unit of air defense. Old, written-off munitions, sport and agricultural aircraft were sent to the sky to protect Croatian sky and land.

First combat actions of Croatian aircraft were short and limited in effect, but crucial for morale. News how an aircraft had brought humanitarian help to encircled Vukovar quickly spread not just within the city but throughout Croatia as a whole, significantly improving morale and confidence into the Croatian Army as well as morale of the troops themselves.

Antonov An-2 – first “combat” aircraft of Croatian Air Force, used in rudimentary close air support missions early in the war

Capture of the first helicopter of the Yugoslav Army (JA) and defection of Rudolf Perešin with JA aircraft in the late October 1991. were signs of the breakup of the Yugoslav Air Force (JRZ) and the formation of the Croatian Air Force (HRZ) which became a separate service in early 1992.

Formation of the Command of HRZ and PZO (Anti-Air Defense) created conditions for establishment of larger units, such as air bases, battalions, Air Surveillance and Control Brigade (ZMIN), Air Defense Brigades, as well as their equipping, training and integration into the defense system of Republic of Croatia.

The concept and organization of the Croatian Air Force had been confirmed in the operation Maslenica, and also in later actions and operations of the Croatian Army – Južni potez (Southern stroke), Maestral, Ljeto 95 (Summer 95), Bljesak (Flash) and Oluja (Storm). Pilots of HRZ had shown high competence, bravery and patriotism. Many of them had died in operations: Marko Živković, Mirko Vukušić, Ante Plazibat, Rade Griva, Ante Radoš, Miroslav Peris and Rudolf Perešin. Pilots’ efforts were made possible by the dedicated support staff, which had kept the antiquated equipment operational despite difficult conditions.

Strength and combat capability of Croatian Air Force was increased significantly through acquisition of the Mi-8 MTV helicopters, MiG-21bis fighter aircraft, Mi-24 attack helicopters, Pilatus PC-9 trainer aircraft as well as improved education in Zadar and Zagreb.

First MiG-21s arrived to Croatia in 1992

Operation Storm was based on the combined action of all elements of Croatian military and lawkeeping forces, which had executed an operation based on totality of fire, maneuver and impact, which allowed very quick victory with minimal losses.

Osijek assembly area and a smaller portion of the Croatian Air Force had tasks of defensive character, with goal of preventing possible attacks by Serb paramilitary and military forces in that area.

Croatian Air Force in the Operation Storm 95

Operation Storm 95 was the first (and last) time Croatian Air Force had participated in an operation with all of its assets. All air bases had been activated, but despite that operation had few losses. With its indirect and direct actions, HRZ had significantly contributed to the successful start of the operation, carrying out unexpected strikes against the centres of military and political leadership of the rebel Serbs, as well as neutralizing most important military objects and formations of the Army of the Krajina. In the following days of the operation, HRZ destroyed major objects in the tactical and operational depth of the enemy.

This was a major contribution to quick victory. Victory in the operation was achieved through quick maneuver, aimed not at neutralization of enemy units but rather at penetration of the battlefield at over thirty directions and following liberation of important areas and neutralization of enemy support elements. This approach caused the complete collapse of Serb military organization.

Role and Tasks of Forces of HRZ and PZO

HRZ and PZO had, during the Operation Storm, carried out nearly all the tasks that they were structured to do:

  1. air defense of the territory of Republic of Croatia
  2. air cover of the groups of the Armed Forces of Republic of Croatia
  3. air support of the operations of the Armed Forces of RH

Air defense tasks included defense and air cover of tactical groups of Croatian Army, as well as defense of objects within the territory of Republic of Croatia that were in the zone of possible reconnaissance and attack by enemy air force. Air cover was also provided to ground attack (BAI, CAS) missions, and ground establishment provided radar tracking of enemy aircraft. Interception of enemy air units was carried out by MiG-21bis fighter aircraft, ground units of air defense, and surveillance units.

Its duties in support and protection of ground troops HRZ and PZO was carrying out through indirect and direct fire support of ground troops by aircraft, aerial reconnaissance, electronic warfare, aerial transport of troops and equipment, and medevac. To carry out these tasks, Croatian Air Force had available MiG-21bis fighters configured for strike missions, transport aircraft An-2, as well as Mi-8 and Mi-24 transport helicopters which were used for evacuating the wounded soldiers from the depth of the enemy territory.

Mi-24 multirole helicopter, 1994

Main task of the Croatian Air Force was fire support with the aim of reinforcing the firepower of ground units, neutralization of enemy forces and thus creating conditions for fulfillment of all the assigned tasks with minimal own losses.

Despite being a short-range interceptor by design, MiG-21bis was, as in earlier operations, used as an attack aircraft as well. This was a difficult task which required high degree of readiness and pilot preparedness.

Planning and preparation of combat actions

Planning of participation of the Croatian Air Force in the Operation Storm 95 began with the Order for Education of Command and Units of HRZ and PZO in 1995., and ended with writing of a row of documents on usage of HRZ and PZO for air support of offensive operations of the Croatian Army. Preparation itself was conducted by the high officials of the HRZ and PZO, both from Command and the units; General HQ of Croatian Army and Ministry of Defense.

General preparation for the operation had begun with creation of HRZ and PZO, as a special aspect of the Armed Forces, with focus on setup and organization of the Croatian Air Force, as well as perfecting the functions of leading and command, education, as well as equipping the units with hardware and weapons. While doing this, care had to be taken to coordinate with other services of the Croatian Armed Forces, with special eye towards limitations imposed by an arms embargo leveled against participants in the war.

First aerial operations were short and limited in size and scope, but important for gaining experience and extremely important psychologically and for morale. Later acquisition of MiG-21 fighter aircraft and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters, education of the personnel and integration with other units, all served to create conditions for full utilization of HRZ in its role and duties. This also included development of theoretical basis for usage of air forces in combat.

There were two basic assumptions that dictated employment of air forces. First, air power will have significant impact on the force relation on the ground. Thus, ability to control the airspace is absolutely crucial. Second, decisive action is being carried out by ground troops. All other combat arms serve the purpose of supporting the ground offensive rather than acting for themselves. From these key concepts then came two basic tasks of the air forces. First task was air defense of the territory of Croatia as well as of the ground forces participating in the operation. Second task was support to ground troops as well as the Navy. This included close air support, transport, reconnaissance and other tasks.

In previous combat operations, forces of the Croatian Air Force were not tasked with missions that could be carried out by other elements of the armed forces, thus increasing efficiency of the armed forces. Particular attention was paid to integration of various elements of the armed forces.

It was known from the start that that the entire occipied area will have to be stuck by the Croatian military nearly simultaneously, so as to end the operation as quickly as possible with minimal losses. Croatian Air Force was extremely important for this goal as it was able to strike important strategic objects, especially the objects and tools of communication and command.

Immediate preparation of HRZ and PZO for the operation had begun some ten days before, with focus on tasks and coordination. Important element was was preparation of a group of pilots tasked with coordinating air force with ground operations. Decisions on force application onto specific targets were made during the operation itself. Command of HRZ and PZO had published preparational orders which contained information of the enemy, basic overview of the tasks, areas of operation and similar. Croatian Air Force could would thus act according to plan and according to request.

Targets were determined according to objectives of combat operations. HRZ had aerial reconnaissance photos of all objects, which allowed extensive preparation. Pilots were trained to operate in all conditions, including very low altitude, maneuvering to avoid enemy air defenses, quick and safe identification of target, and choosing optimum maneuver of the attack. Because of this, pilots were able to attack enemy armoured columns, artillery positions, assembly areas etc. based on requests by ground forces.

Croatia used homemade UAVs in the Operation Storm

Enemy Forces

Preparation of the operation also required a detailed look at enemy forces – especially air force and the air defense – and based on this information, decision was made on selection of targets. Planning of air strikes against ground targets was based around enemy forces, terrain and set goals of the operation. Major part of planning was taken up by the question of neutralization of the enemy air defences.

Serbian forces had concentrated exceptionally heavy air defense forces in the occupied areas. These included light air defense systems (Strela-2M, Strela-1, Igla, as well as self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems BOV-3 20/3, Praga 30/2, ZSU 57/2) as well as a very dense network of medium- and long- -range SAM systems Kub-M (SA-6) and Dvina (SA-2). All important immobile objects were additionally defended by light mobile SAM systems Strela-M and Igla, as well as 20 mm and 40 mm AAA (anti-aircraft artillery). Total strength of medium-range SAM systems included one SA-6 regiment and three SA-3 battalions. Air base on Udbina was secured by a battery of 40 mm Bofors L-7 cannons coupled with Giraffe radar for tracking and engaging low-flying targets.

9K32M Strela-2M

Radar coverage and control of the occupied territory was based around the static radar stations on Plješivica, Kozara and Kninska Plješivica. From these positions, the enemy was able to maintain continuous surveillance of the occupied territory. In order to prevent delivery of humanitarian and military aid to Bihać as well as to defend against potential NATO attacks (NATO had attacked Udbina runway previously), Serb AA forces were significantly reinforced by personnel from Bosnia and Serbia.

Enemy air forces were organized into a mixed air brigade located in Udbina. Some twenty aircraft were located there, but they were not a threat to Croatian aircraft. Aircraft at Udbina were jet aircraft Orao, Super Galeb, Galeb and Jastreb, light piston aircraft Utva-66, Utva-75 and Kraguj, and a dozen helicopters of Mi-8 and Gazelle types.

But for Croatian Air Force units in direct conflict with Serb rebels, main threat was not from Serb aircraft but from their ground-based air defences. These were set up in three lines parallel to the frontline, with point defences of important objects. Majority of Serb anti-air systems were generation or two ahead of the Croatian Air Force aircraft. Because of this, significant attention was given to tactical actions of avoiding enemy air defences, during ingress, egress, and attack itself alike.

Progress of the Operation and Consequences of Croatian Air Force’s Participation

Operation Storm had begun on the 4th of August 1995. in 5 in the morning, and ended on 7th of August at 18 hours. Thus, in only 84 hours all the occupied territory in the former UN sectors North and South had been liberated. During the operation, forces of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defense had carried out all the tasks set out for them, with focus on indirect and direct support of the ground troops.

Indirect support had been provided from the very first day, through protection of territory, installations and army tactical groups from air attacks, defensive operations of the ground-based air defences, and activities of fighter aircraft in the anti-air function. Manner of readiness of the fighter aircraft was determined based on estimation of potential threat of air attacks. It was also assumed that enemy aircraft may take off from air base Mahovljani near Banja Luka, which happened later. As such, combat aircraft of the Croatian Air Force at first acted in two directions (Banja Luka and Udbina), screening in that way ground troops against air attacks.

Forces of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defense were deployed primarily around the areas of combat operations, and all air bases were prepared to accept all aircraft that HRZ had. Ability of the any air base to service any type of aircraft operated by the Croatian Air Force allowed quick maneuver by the air forces, changes of focal point / point of gravity during the operation, as well as preventing neutralization of greater part of the Croatian Air Force in the case of attack on any single air base. For this purpose, plans for shifting air forces between air bases were prepared in advance. Focus of consolidation of air forces was at Pleso air field, as air forces from there could act in multiple directions – especially towards the Eastern Slavonia in case Serbia attacked.

Pleso today

Direct support was carried out through fire from attack aircraft from early in the action. For this purpose, Croatian Air Force relied exclusively on the unguided munitions, which were all it had at the time. However, high levels of training, morale and dedication of Croatian pilots meant that unguided weapons were as effective as guided munitions. Second type of support was helicopter-based airlift of troops and equipment to areas of operation, providing very high tactical mobility to Croatian Army. Evacuation of the wounded from the battlefield and their transport into hospitals was extremely important psychologically and morally, and in this the helicopters had a key role.

Acting according to the plan, already on the first day multiple enemy communications centers had been put out of action. This action was strategically significant as it had completely disoriented Serb military, securing the tactical and operational dominance of the Croatian forces and the initiative which the Croatian Army had kept until the end. In the future flow of the operation, Croatian forces had a full-time support of the air forces which were carrying out on-demand fire support against key points of resistance, which had to be neutralized immediately. Air force also offered support in antitank combat, scouting and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare with the goal of protecting the ground forces.

Mi-24s had a significant role in fire support missions

Result of this combined action was that within the two days, Croatian forces had completely destroyed Serb 7th and 15th Corps, and liberated or cut almost all important roads in the occupied territory. By 18 o’clock on Saturday, Croatian forces had fulfilled 80% of planned tasks. They liberated Kijevo, Drniš, Benkovac, Gračac, Vrlika, Plaški, and other places. Croatian forces connected with the 5th Corps of the Army of BiH and HVO, cutting apart the strategic line of Bihać – Knin. Liberation of Knin also meant further disorganization of the remaining Serb forces.

Particularities of the Combat Operations

In first two days of the operation, forces of the Croatian Air Force and Air Defense had neutralized (either destroyed or disabled) four enemy communication hubs, four command posts, and a number of enemy positions, defense points, objects and lines of communications. Particularly significant among the neutralized objects were communications hub on Zrinska gora (Zrinsky Hill), enemy positions at Petrinja and Turanj near Karlovac, and enemy armored forces along the lines of communication (especially near Mošćenica, Slunj and Cetingrad). For the air force itself, attack on the Udbina air field was of particular importance as it resulted in the air field being disabled, which later enabled the capture of a dozen aircraft and large supply of munitions.

Operating by call by the command of the corps areas or units during the operation Storm, the air force had destroyed or neutralized three enemy warehouses and 16 objects and resistance points. It also destroyed four tanks near village of Biovčino, and neutralized enemy forces near Stara straža (Old Watch) ammunition depot near Knin. This and already mentioned actions allowed the capure of large quantities of war materials by preventing Serbs from taking them away.

Taking the disabled radio-relay objects (Ćelavac, Lička Plješevica, Promina, Petrova Gora, Zrinska Gora) disabled the entire enemy communications system at operational and levels above. This meant that high-level command became impossible, with lower level commands being left to their own devices and ceasing to be a part of the larger system. This destruction of cohesion was one of key reasons for the rebels deciding to abandon positions and run away.

Aside for the flight units and units of ZMIN, significant role in the operation Storm 95 was played by the specialist elements of the Croatian Air Force, especially the reconnaissance component. Aerial reconnaissance is one of primary ways of quickly assessing the current state of the enemy, his positions and movements, and the effect of one’s activities on the enemy. Reconnaissance was carried out by aircraft, helicopters as well as unmanned systems. Data gained by aerial reconnaissance was combined with data from other sources, and formed the basis of the regular situation assessment. This allowed successful decision making by commanders of the individual units, corps areas as well as entire services (Army and Air Force commands, Chiefs of Staffs). Timely data by aerial reconnaissance was key in disorganizing and disorienting the enemy.

Air transport of troops was done by Mi-8 helicopters as well as An-2 aircraft, as a way of securing the aerial maneuver of ground troops. This secured the quick maneuver and thus effectiveness of special forces on the terrain. Mi-24 helicopter, due to its resillience and ability to withstand punishment, was extensively utilized in evacuating the wounded from behind the enemy lines or from the first lines.

Croatian soldiers deploying from Mi-8 helicopter during Operation Storm

Third key element of the air forces, and crucial for operation of other two, was the technical support personnel. This was split between the air units and the Aviation-Technical Institute in Velika Gorica. Every day and night they spent the effort to keep the aircraft in flyable state, repairing malfunctions and combat damage despite the lack of equipment which forced extensive improvisation. Likewise, the logistical service fully met its duties, delivering fuel and food, equipment and other necessities.

Leading the air operations was a complex affair, especially the attack and air superiority missions. Significant impact was made by the tempo of the operations and changes in ground situation. These elements in the Operation Storm were particularly high, and so decision on whether to request air support depended on the available information, as well as the time which was required for the preparation and deployment.

Decisions and actions by the Croatian Air Force during the operation were all made in a timely manner. This was a result of extensive preparations by the Command and the air units, which had complete data about the terrain and enemy forces, and prepared detailed plans of potential actions which were updated as new information became available. All the elements together allowed the timely judgment of every requested action. Aircraft always arrived on time, and hit precisely the targets requested of them.

Most difficult were mobile targets, such as tank columns or artillery pieces which could displace in the time between the support request and the aircraft’s arrival. But aerial photos meant that usually the pilots knew the target and successfully eliminated it. Small distance between Croatian and enemy forces meant that precision had to be very high. Aircraft also had to fly at low altitudes in order to avoid enemy air defences, and the fact that targets were being attacked with unguided munitions. All of this required highly skilled and motivated pilots, especially since low altitude meant that aircraft could easily be destroyed by explosions of their own ordnance.

In the end, during the Operation Storm, Croatian Air Force had shown very high levels of preparedness and capability.

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