The United Kingdom Contribution to the Kosovo Operation

by Timothy Garden



Political Context


The Labour Government came to power in the United Kingdom on 1 May 1997 and had immediately set to work on a review of what defence capabilities were needed to support its foreign policy requirements. The review was detailed and the process was unusually transparent. As a result by the time the outcome of the review (1) was published in July 1998, a remarkable national consensus had been achieved. The government's foreign policy priorities were explained by Robin Cook in two major presentations soon after the election (2). UK foreign policy would continue to be governed by a sense of international responsibility in the light of permanent membership of the UN security council, NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth. Analysts summed up the new policy as a continuation of Britain's desire "to punch above its weight", or to have more influence than its economic ranking might indicate. There was also a new emphasis on what has come to be known as ethical foreign policy. Human rights, poverty and international development were brought in as explicit factors is determining foreign policy interests.


The UK's term of presidency of the European Union from January to July 1998 came within the first year of the new Labour government, and much political capital was invested in it. However, events militated against the hoped for achievements. The presidency coincided with the introduction of the new structures to support European monetary union, from which the UK had excluded itself in the initial stages. A growing crisis over Iraq in February 1998 should have been an opportunity for the UK government to show leadership in one area where it had particular expertise. Yet it proved impossible to develop an EU consensus on the necessary action to be taken, and Britain was seen by its EU partners as being too ready to align itself with the United States.


The strategic defence review reinforced the importance of NATO and the transatlantic relationship, and had little to say about the development of a stronger European Security and Defence Identity. Nevertheless, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, looked for ways to improve relationships with Europe. France has been the natural, yet at times uneasy, partner for the UK in security matters. The two countries have a similar robust approach to intervention, and a view that their armed forces are able to cope with a wide variety of military tasks. The St Malo summit (3) in December 1998 demonstrated that the UK was prepared to take a positive approach to developing better European defence co-operation and capability. This was a significant change in British Foreign policy. However, later that same month, Operation Desert Fox in Iraq found Britain operating alone with the United States in a combat air operation.


The Kosovo crisis had been brewing through 1998, and was coming to a head in early 1999 just as the UK government had completed its plans for a restructuring of the armed forces to be available for rapid deployment intervention operations. Much work had been going on in the development of the new NATO strategic concept which was to be launched at the Washington Summit in April 1999. The discussions over whether a explicit UN authority was required for humanitarian intervention operations had been a major issue in the pre NATO summit work. There was also a growing sense that the repeated threats of punitive action against Milosevic over Kosovo were becoming self defeating. There had been little hope that the unarmed OSCE monitors would be able to achieve much once winter was over.


The British government thus approached the Kosovo crisis with a clear theoretical view of how it would undertake a humanitarian intervention operation, and a growing feeling that Europe needed to act more coherently on foreign and security policy issues. The ethical dimension to foreign policy articulated by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, was entirely in sympathy with the moralistic view that Tony Blair takes of international affairs. The unsatisfactory progress at Rambouillet, coupled with the worsening situation on the ground in Kosovo, made it clear to the UK government that the need for the use of military force was becoming more and more likely. The final attempt by Richard Holbrooke on 22 March to get Milosevic to agree to the Rambouillet terms was seen as the decision point for NATO.


Tony Blair made this clear in a statement to the British Parliament in 23 March:


I say this to the British people: there is a heavy responsibility on a Government, when putting their armed forces into battle, to justify such action. I warn that the potential consequences of military action are serious, both for NATO forces and for the people in the region. Their suffering cannot be ended overnight. But in my judgment, the consequences of not acting are more serious still for human life and for peace in the long term. We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women and children from humanitarian catastrophe--from death, barbarism and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship--and to save the stability of the Balkan region, where we know chaos can engulf the whole of the European Union. We have no alternative, therefore, but to act, and act we will, unless Milosevic even now chooses the path of peace. (4)



Parliament was, for the main part, very supportive of the Prime Minister's line, although there were worries about the capability of the British Forces to take on yet another task. There was also some discussion about the legitimacy of intervention. It was on this occasion that the Prime Minister first ruled out the use of ground forces to fight their way in to Kosovo:



Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): The vast majority of the House is in no doubt as to who the aggressor is in these circumstances. But I have been listening carefully to the Prime Minister during the past 15 minutes, and it is not yet clear to me whether he has ruled out the use of ground forces if air power fails. I can understand his being cautious, but is that something that he can do, or does he feel that he cannot do it under the circumstances?


The Prime Minister: No, I have made it clear that we support the use of ground troops in supporting the agreement. We do not plan to use ground troops in order to fight our way into Kosovo, for the very reason that I gave earlier. I do not know whether that is what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but it would take a huge commitment--possibly more than 100,000 ground troops--and that is why we have said that that is not our plan. (5)


He reinforced this statement by going on to say in answer to another question, and dismissed the concept of a UN protectorate for Kosovo:


I do not accept that land troops are necessary to curb repression in Kosovo. Air strikes properly targeted--directed against the military capability of the oppressor--can achieve the objective that we set ourselves. Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the concept of a United Nations protectorate. There is no notion of establishing a UN protectorate in the strict legal sense, but obviously the purpose of putting in ground troops was to back up an agreement--a constitutional settlement--in Kosovo, and that, of course, is what we still want to do if it is possible. A precondition, however, is that an agreement is in place to which not merely the Kosovar Albanians but the Serbs themselves will agree. I believe that the action that we have proposed will be successful. (6)


The final breakdown of the Holbrooke diplomatic talks led to NATO launching the air campaign on the evening of 24 March 1999.



The Military Context


While the political context could hardly have been better for a wholehearted UK participation in the humanitarian intervention operation, the state of the British military was less good. The recently completed strategic defence review was designed around just such a scenario but full implementation was still some time ahead. In any event, the British Forces had undergone a series of minor and major restructurings since the end of the Cold War. These had left them significantly fewer in number and also heavily committed to a number of different operations. It had been hoped that the large task in Northern Ireland would be reducing as the peace process there continued, but the signs of a long term settlement were becoming less certain. The air force and navy remained committed to Iraq operations. British aircraft with the United States were continuing the patrolling the North and South Iraq air exclusion zones, as they had been since the early 90s. Since Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, these sorties were routinely fired upon by Iraqi air defences, and UK aircraft were involved in regular defence suppression attacks. In Bosnia, the UK continued to provide a significant ground force component, supported by military air transport. An army of around 100,000 trained men, an air force of half that number, and an even smaller navy was finding itself over committed, and deployed away from its home bases very frequently. This was compounding the problem of retaining trained manpower.


In terms of equipment for the Kosovo operation, the British forces were reasonably well structured. The move towards more deployable capability was just what was needed for Kosovo. However, some of the smart weapons were in limited supply, and the submarine-launched cruise missiles were only just coming into service. The UK, waiting for Eurofighter, lacked an agile air defence fighter apart from the small number of carrier borne Sea Harriers. In the event, there were more than enough of these provided by other nations.


Air Campaign


NATO planners had ensured that all 13 participating air forces were involved on the first night of operations. For the UK, this was the first operational use of the newly acquired Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the submarine HMS Splendid which was submerged in the Aegean. The number of missiles fired has not been released, but is likely to be a very small number given the limited overall stocks and the carrying capacity of a single submarine. The target was a radar facility near Pristina airfield in Kosovo. The UK manned aircraft contribution to the first night was 6 Harrier GR7 aircraft of which four aircraft each carried a pair of Paveway 2 laser designated 1000lb bombs. The other two Harriers were used as escort aircraft. This Harrier force attacked an ammunition storage site, which was used to support the Ministry of Interior Police near Pristina. However, the first pair of Harriers missed the target because their bombs lost lock in the smoke conditions, and the second pair aborted the attack because they thought their bombs would also lose the laser guidance.(8) It was thus a somewhat limited contribution in the purely military sense which the UK made on the first night of the air campaign.


For the opening stages of the air campaign the UK forces allocated were 8 Harrier GR7 aircraft based at Gioia del Colle in Italy, one cruise missile capable submarine in the Aegean, two Tristar air to air refuelling aircraft and three E3D Sentry early warning aircraft. There were some 4500 UK troops in Macedonia. Weather problems dogged the Harriers in the opening days of the campaign and they were unable to carry out their missions. On 28 March, the UK announced the deployment of a further 4 Harriers and another Tristar tanker aircraft. They also announced that 8 Tornado GR1 bomber aircraft would be prepared for deployment. (9). At the press briefing that day, General Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of Defence Staff, was asked to confirm that only two bombs had been successfully dropped so far by UK aircraft. He confirmed this.


As the flood of refugees from Kosovo built up in early April, the UK used military Hercules to fly out supplies and tenting for the large numbers of displaced people. The troops, including the contingent of 4500 from the UK army, were used to assist in the housing of these refugees. The first use of UK Tornado bombers was on 4 April 1999 when 6 aircraft launched attacks from their base in North Western Germany. They needed the air to air refuelling support of three VC10 tanker aircraft to complete their 7 hour round trips. (10) As the days of the air campaign extended into weeks, the UK military effort remained largely the same. The Tornados were redeployed to Corsica which allowed them to operate without such a long transit time. HMS Splendid, the only UK cruise missile equipped submarine was restocked and repositioned, but remained only an occasional contributor. There was however one interesting further military contribution for a limited period during the air campaign: the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.


The UK aircraft carrier is one of 3 procured during the Cold War for anti-submarine warfare operations. Their small size means that they can operate only helicopters and Harrier short take off and landing type fixed wing aircraft. The 7 Sea Harriers aboard HMS Invincible were FA-2 air defence fighters provided primarily for protection of the carrier itself. In addition a destroyer, HMS Newscastle, and a support ship accompanied the aircraft carrier. The role of this force package was never adequately explained. In announcing it, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said:


Sending in the aircraft carrier is a major statement, it is a visible demonstration of our commitment to completing the job and forcing President Milosevic to reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. (11)


However, NATO was not short of air defence capability, and by this time was proudly announcing that Milosevic was left with little in the way of manned air defence fighters. It appears therefore that the opportunity to divert HMS Illustrious to the Aegean, as it returned from operations in the Gulf, was taken more for political reasons than military need. Certainly it provided a publicly visible contribution at little extra cost, balanced the presence of the French carrier Foch, and allowed the Royal Navy to demonstrate the importance of carriers in future equipment requirements. The subsequent departure of HMS Illustrious from operations on 21 May was done with little explanation as to why it was no longer needed.


At the end of April, the UK forces were again increased by a further 4 Harrier GR7, 4 Tornado GR1 and another Tristar tanker. The peak contribution, until the departure of HMS Illustrious, was some 35 combat aircraft and 12 support aircraft. The detailed statistics of bombing achievements have not been published yet. However Air Marshal Sir John Day, the Deputy Chief of the UK Defence Staff (Commitments) said at the end of the campaign:


NATO has so far in this campaign flown over 36,000 sorties, of which over 10,000 were bombing sorties. The British contribution so far has been over 100 air defence sorties by the Sea Harrier FA2s of the Royal Navy, over 1,000 bombing sorties by the Harrier GR7s and the Tornado GR1s of the Royal Air Force, and over 500 sorties in support by the Royal Air Force's VC10 and Tristar tankers and the E3D airborne early warning and control aircraft, not to mention the hundreds of Hercules C130, VC10 and Tristar sorties operating in the strategic air transport role with the mobility of land forces being greatly assisted by Chinook and Puma support helicopters. (12)


These figures are not very useful in terms of comparative contribution and success. The 47 UK military aircraft represented just over 4% of the NATO force at its peak. Their 1600 sorties are also just over 4% of the total NATO sorties. However, in the key area of bombing missions, the UK appears to have been involved in 10% of NATO's attacks. This figure is almost certainly misleading. We know from the daily UK Ministry of Defence briefings that many Harrier and Tornado sorties were unsuccessful because of weather problems. Given the large contribution to offensive sorties made by the United States, with their wider range of attack systems and greater weapon loads, it is likely that the UK proportion of successful bombs will be significantly smaller. We shall have to await the bombing survey report to discover the true figures.


Diplomatic and Political Activity


If the UK military contribution was modest, and may appear even more modest once the bombing survey results are published, the UK diplomatic and political effort was heralded as of great significance. From the start the UK Government saw itself in a leading role in Europe, in NATO and in the UN. The day after the Holbrooke negotiations finally broke down, the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, explained to Parliament how the UK was at the front in trying to find a peaceful settlement:



No nation has done more to seek a peaceful settlement for Kosovo than Britain. It was Britain that convened and chaired the Heathrow meeting of the Contact Group which sent Dick Holbrooke last October with a mandate to negotiate a cease-fire. It was Britain which then made a leading contribution to the verification mission to police the supposed cease-fire. It was Britain and France that jointly chaired the peace talks at Rambouillet and in Paris. (7)


Once the air campaign started, the British (rightly or wrongly) saw themselves as setting the pace among NATO allies. It was at an early UK Ministry of Defence daily briefing (25 March) that the first suggestions of indictments for War Crimes for the Serbian leadership was publicly made. The identification of potential leaders to be indicted again happened in London before Brussels. As the realisation dawned in Capitals that the air campaign was not going to bring Milosevic back to the negotiating table in a matter of days, the British expended much political and diplomatic effort on keeping the Alliance together. There were also early signs of contingency planning for an opposed ground operation if it should become necessary. Tony Blair had come to realise that his early discounting of a ground option had been a mistake. He went to the United States ahead of the Washington summit to celebrate NATO's 50th birthday. He knew that there was great reluctance in the Clinton Administration to even discuss the possibility of a ground war in Kosovo. To the surprise of many, and the irritation of some, he decided to try to appeal to the American people over the heads of both the Administration and Congress. Speaking in Chicago, he made an impassioned case for the cause of internationalism in general and the justice of the war in Kosovo in particular.


"We have always made clear this campaign will take time. We will not have succeeded until an international force has entered Kosovo and allowed the refugees to return to their homes. Milosevic will have no veto on the entry of this international force. Just as I believe there was no alternative to military action, now it has started I am convinced there is no alternative to continuing until we succeed." (13)



This speech, coupled with the pre-Summit discussions, caused one US newspaper to use the headline "Blair Grabs Role as Alliance Hawk" (14). The article pointed out that despite contributing fewer planes to the air campaign than the French, he was taking the political leadership in the Alliance, and "pushed for NATO to consider sending ground troops into Kosovo sooner rather than later." While he made little progress at the NATO summit on gathering support for a ground option, the British government continued throughout the campaign to keep the pressure on for developing such an option. In the event, it was not needed.


Ground Operation


The eventual agreement by the Serb military and police forces to withdraw came as something of a surprise within the UK. While, the daily government press briefings had always talked about the Serb forces being near breaking point, this had been repeated week after week. There seemed little conviction within official circles that the results of the air campaign had caused Milosevic to cave in. The UK view appears to be that Russian withdrawal of support for Milosevic was a key factor. The growing talk of mounting a NATO ground offensive, the destruction of factories coupled with economic sanctions, and the indictment of war criminals were all seen as additional important pressures to the air campaign.


Once the NATO bombing was officially suspended on 10 June 1999, the focus moved rapidly to the NATO ground force negotiations and entry into Kosovo. For this part of the operation the UK was able to contribute strongly in terms of both political and military action. The NATO force had been forming up under the auspices of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) HQ which is a British led NATO formation. The UK had provided the largest numbers of troops for KFOR and was able to have 5000 in Kosovo by 13 June. The Commander of the ARRC was a British 3 star officer, General Sir Michael Jackson, who was seen as the key negotiator with the Serbs for the transition process. Reports of differences between General Jackson and SACEUR, General Wesley Clark, over the response to the Russian move to Pristina airport, reinforced a UK public perception that the British were in control.


Yet the realities of the small size of UK defence forces soon became evident. On 6 July, the UK Defence Secretary, George Robertson, announced that a drawdown of British forces would start. This was well before KFOR had built up to its full establishment .



Media & Public Opinion


Throughout the air campaign, the British public remained supportive of the NATO action and of the UK involvement. Although NATO bombing mistakes received considerable coverage, they had little effect on public opinion. The media coverage was very extensive. The news television channels (Sky News, CNN, BBC News 24 and BBC World) covered the air campaign continuously. All four channels brought daily live coverage and analysis of the UK MOD press briefing, the NATO press briefing and the Washington briefing. All other major channels carried comprehensive news and commentary throughout the campaign.


Considerable effort was focused by the UK government on maintaining interest in their daily media briefing. Rather than use professional briefers, a Minister from either the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office gave the major address each day. The Minister was supported by a senior military commander (often the Chief of Defence Staff). To maintain interest, the content was varied by such events as live hook ups to Macedonia and to a joint session with the French press briefing. The World Wide Web was also used to make all the briefing transcripts and policy statements available with translation for Serbian surfers. (15). It was also claimed that the Prime Minister's press officer provided helpful advice to NATO on how to handle its media briefings.




In an EU speech (16) in Brussels after the crisis, Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, drew a number of lessons from Kosovo. He believed that Europe needed to give greater priority to a Balkans policy, that it needed to think more creatively about diplomacy, that it needed a capacity for rapid response to crises and that something must be done about the overall European defence capability. Certainly, Kosovo has strongly reinforced the view in the UK that there is a great need for Europe to do better in defence. However, there has as yet been little of substance to add to the declaration made at St Malo in December 1998.


As the UK Defence Secretary, George Robertson, departs to become the new Secretary General of NATO, British commentators wait to see what the effect of Kosovo will be on UK Defence policy. After ten years of cutting defence budgets and the numbers of the armed forces, the limitations imposed on the British contribution in Kosovo was very evident to the Prime Minister. It remains to be seen whether this will result in more resources for Britain's overstretched military.





All official governments texts are available from the FCO web site at or from the MOD web site at


1. The Strategic Defence Review Cm 3999, London:The Stationery Office July 1998.

2. Robin Cook FCO Mission Statement 12 May 1997, and Robin Cook Human Rights policy speech of 17 July 1997

3. St Malo summit declaration of 4 December 1998

4.Hansard 23 March 1999 column 161/162

5 Hansard 23 March 1999 column 169/170

6.Hansard 23 March 1999 column 173

7. Hansard 25 March 1999 column 537

8. UK MOD briefing 25 March 1999

9. UK MOD briefing 28 March 1999

10. UK MOD briefing 5 April 1999

11. UK MOD briefing 11 April 1999

12.UK MOD briefing 11 June 1999

13.Speech by Tony Blair to the Economic Club of Chicago, 22 April 1999.

14. International Herald Tribune 24/25 April 1999 page 1.

15. Briefings and ministerial statements are available on



Sir Timothy Garden is a former 3 star British air force officer who was Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House until 1998. He writes on foreign policy and security issues, and is currently undertaking work on ways to improve European defence capabilities.

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