World War II Armor in the Balkans Wars of the 1990s

sherman balkans

The eight-plus years of bloody conflict in the Balkans that began with the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991 and (more or less) ended with the Kumanovo Treaty of 1999 displayed for the world the lingering bitter ethnic and religious divides that made the fighting in both world wars so savage earlier in the century.  The 1980 death of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito uncapped the regional tensions which led to the successful  independence movements in Slovenia and Croatia, and wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Kosovo.

The grim history of these events is replete with the age-old themes of conflict in that area of the world.  Atrocities, massacres, rape, savagery.  To which was added the feckless and ineffectual UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR), arms embargoes, belated NATO participation, and a Europe once again largely unconcerned with a conflagration in the Balkans.

What is a curious aspect of these wars is the extent to which tanks and armored vehicles left over from World War II populated the battlefields of those wars.   In the post-World War II period and during the Cold War, Tito’s Yugoslavia was an officially “non-aligned” nation, and as a result was the recipient of both US and Soviet military aid.  This aid consisted of several hundred of the ubiquitous Soviet T-34 and US M4 Sherman tanks and M18 Hellcat tank destroyers, along with self-propelled guns, AFVs, and other implements.  Also, during the time when Yugoslavia seemed threatened by imminent Soviet invasion, nearly 30o 90mm-armed M36 Jackson tank destroyers were supplied by the United States.   The T-34 and M4 variants were late-war models, the T-34/85 and M4A3, respectively, the former carrying the 85mm D12 cannon, and the latter armed with the excellent long-barreled 76mm gun.

In the 1970s, Yugoslavia began to produce its own variant of the modern T-72 main battle tank, replacing the older T-54/55 in service.  It was thought that while some of the T-34/85s probably still existed in reserve, most of the American equipment was long since withdrawn from the inventory.  However, when the Balkan Wars began in 1991, and particularly after the so-called “Battle of the Barracks” that summer which led to the capture of large numbers of Yugoslavia National Army (JNA) tanks and heavy weapons by the Croatian independence forces, many of the old American and Soviet tanks and tank destroyers were employed by both sides.  This led to some very interesting images from the battlefields in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia.  And it was reported that at least one M36 was destroyed by a US F-16 strike before NATO air power forced dispersal and concealment of heavy weapons in the ample woodlands.

With a supply of replacement parts almost non-existent, many Shermans and Hellcats and Jacksons were cannibalized for spares, and some wildly improvisational local modifications were made.  This includes at least one M18 Hellcat with a Molotava truck engine replacing the US-made radial, and an M18 turret fitted to a T-55 hull.  (You can see both clearly in the images below.)  In addition, a considerable number of the M4s and M36s had their power packs swapped for Soviet T-54/55 engines, for which parts and fuel were relatively plentiful.

As ammunition grew scarce and keeping the ancient vehicles in operating order became nearly impossible, those veteran tanks of another age that were not destroyed (which was a considerable number) were retired from service.  The T-34s fared somewhat better.  By 2005, it was reported that virtually all of the American equipment was disposed of, and only a few T-34s remained in service.   With that, a number of M18 and M36 tank destroyers had been identified for purchase and restoration  by museums in the United States, and at least one has made it from the troubled region into American hands (featured in Season 1 of Tank Overhaul).

Here are some of the more interesting pictures from the battlefields of the Balkans, where, despite their age and obsolescence, many of the World War II-vintage tanks served their operators well, and were feared by opponents who did not have modern counter-mech weaponry.  (The photos that show tanks appearing to have an armored skirt are actually showing a hard rubber sheet, which was to protect against RPGs by prematurely detonating the warheads and dissipating the molten stream of metal.  This is reported to have actually worked to some extent, with some T-34/85s and Shermans surviving multiple strikes from RPG-7s.  I could find no corroboration of those reports.)















The "Backfire" and Project Slow Walker

TU-22M3s in flight.
TU-22M3s in flight.

The Tupelov TU-22M (NATO ASCC reporting name “Backfire”), was considered a large threat to the US Navy’s Carrier Battle Groups. The Backfire would travel in regiment size formations (approximately 20-24 aircraft) and launch its Kh-22 cruise missiles (NATO ASCC reporting name “Kitchen”) at CVBGs. The Backfire first appeared in 1976 and was specifically designed to attack targets in Europe and CVBGs. The Backfire did cause some controversy and there was a debate amongst various US intelligence agencies. By 1975, the SALT 2 talks were underway between the US and the USSR. The question was whether or not the Backfire was a tactical or strategic weapon. The Soviets contended that the Backfire was built to attack so-called “peripheral attack” missions, meaning attacks on targets in continental targets in Europe and Asia. The various intelligence agencies opined that the Backfire was a strategic weapon and designed to attack not only CVBGs and “peripheral” targets but also targets in the continental US. As such the various intelligence agencies disagreed on what the actual range of the Backfire was:

The first Backfire was spotted at a Soviet airfield by an American satellite in July 1970, nearly a year after it had first flown. It represented something of an enigma toAmerican intelligence analysts, for it was too big to be a tactical attack aircraft, but too small to be a heavy bomber. Over the next several years, as the aircraft entered production, American intelligence analysts collected information on the Backfire in every way possible, closely studying its planform and trying to determine its operating characteristics such as its top speed, fuel consumption, and range. The last variable was particularly important, for Air Force analysts estimated that the bomber had the range to reach the United States carrying a nuclear bomb.

In May 1975 the Air Force’s Foreign Technology Division produced an assessment of the “Backfire B” version which had replaced the rather limited A model. According to the Air Force, the Backfire B could carry two large missiles under each wing, but probably not a single missile because it would block the probable internal bomb bay. The Air Force also increased its calculation of the bomber’s supersonic drag and revised downwards its calculation of the bomber’s range, to a little over 4000 nautical miles. The analysts also concluded that when using afterburners, the aircraft’s two big Kuznetsov turbofan engines guzzled a lot of fuel. They predicted that although the aircraft could probably reach low supersonic speeds with external missiles attached, they could not carry the missiles for long at high speeds or launch them at supersonic speeds. In a National Intelligence Estimate in summer 1975, the CIA had calculated that the Backfire possessed intercontinental range and could strike targets within the United States. This was a significant finding, because the United States and Soviet Union were at the time considering negotiating limits on their strategic weapons, and if the Backfire could strike targets within the U.S., then it was an intercontinental strategic weapon.
But by fall 1976, the CIA’s Office of Weapons Intelligence revised some estimates of the Backfire’s performance. A Backfire B had been photographed over the Baltic Sea carrying an AS-4 missile on its centerline, confirming the CIA’s earlier suspicion that contrary to the Air Force’s assessment, it could mount a single ship-killing missile instead of the two hung under the wings seen on earlier aircraft. Naturally, the Backfire could fly farther with only one missile than with two. By the end of November the CIA made a more significant announcement—the agency determined that the Backfire lacked sufficient range to reach the continental United States. It could strike Alaska, but the CIA concluded that the Soviet Air Force primarily intended to use the Backfire to strike targets in Europe and the Middle East. In fact, the CIA eventually calculated the bomber’s range at approximately half of that calculated by the Air Force. This became an ongoing dispute between the Air Force and the CIA—another one of the perpetual arguments between the two organizations over the capabilities of various Soviet weapons systems. But as the CIA noted in its November 1976 report, the Soviet Union was deploying the bomber to bases in the western USSR, strongly implying that its targets were in Europe and the Middle East, not the United States.
Over the next several years the dispute raged within the U.S. government. The U.S. Air Force was unwilling to concede that the Backfire was not an intercontinental bomber. If it possessed a refueling capability (which appeared on later models), or was used on one-way suicide missions, it could still reach the United States. This soon became a major point of contention in Strategic Arms Limitation Talks started in 1977, and it was not really resolved until later. The Backfire was on many minds at the Pentagon at this time.

Recent Russian accounts indicate that the combat range of the TU-22M1 was 3,106 miles unrefuelled with a 3-ton payload and that the TU-22M2 was 3,169 miles and that combat radius was only 1,367 miles unrefuelled when carrying a single Kh-22. The range question for the Backfire is a complicated issue that dependent on many variables, including attack profile, weather, fuel/weapon payload combinations and many other factors. It turned out that the CIA’s estimate was pretty close at 3000 miles.

A Kh-22 cruise missile aboard a TU-22M2.
A Kh-22 cruise missile aboard a TU-22M2.

The primary role of the Backfire was to attack CVBGs with the Kh-22. Once CVBGs was found in the vast ocean, the Backfires would launch and try to overwhelm the battle groups defences by sheer numbers of Kh-22 (reminiscent of massed Japanese kamikaze attacks of the Pacific War). The solution for the US Navy was to detect the Backfires as early as possible and put F-14 Tomcats in position to attack those Backfires before they could launch their missiles.

How early could you detect Backfires launching? The DSP. First deployed in 1960, the Defence Support Program was designed to detect Soviet ICBM launches and large explosions from satellites. By the time DSP was being used it began to detect unusual infrared events in some areas on the Soviet Union:

DSP Satellite
A DSP Satellite

But soon after it entered service Aerospace Corporation scientists began detecting other heat targets, including surface to air missiles and ground explosions. The company’s scientists and engineers also began unusual infrared events. These infrared returns occurred over Soviet territory at regular intervals and traveled in relatively straight lines. They were clearly not ballistic missiles. The engineers analyzing the heat sources soon determined that they were originating at Soviet bomber bases, notably those that fielded Backfire bombers. For the next several years Aerospace Corporation scientists tried to interest the Air Force in studying this data
more closely and possibly using it as a source of intelligence. But the Air Force space
leadership was not interested.
By 1982 the company that made the DSP’s sensor, Aerojet-General, had also been trying for eight years to interest the Air Force in using DSP to warn U.S. naval forces that Backfire bombers were heading toward them. But the Air Force was uninterested, a fact that one independent observer theorized had more to do with a desire to preserve the DSP’s primary mission of strategic warning than reluctance to help the Navy. Aerojet then went to the U.S. Navy, which was more interested in tracking Backfires than the Air Force, and in 1983 a group of naval officers spent time at the DSP ground station in Australia to determine if the satellites could detect the Backfires during takeoff, or the launch of their AS-4 ship-killing cruise missiles. Aircraft targets looked different than ballistic missiles. They tended to travel at regular speeds in relatively straight lines
for several minutes, unlike ballistic missiles that accelerated as they climbed, curved in their flight paths, and then suddenly burned out. The aircraft tended to appear as “walking dots” on DSP sensor displays.
In spring 1983 the Air Force approved a Navy project to take advantage of the DSP capability to detect these “walking dots.” It was code-named SLOW WALKER. Starting in 1985 the Navy deployed a regular contingent to Australia to extract the data from the DSP satellite transmissions and then manually disseminate the information to the fleet. This was called the SLOW WALKER Reporting System, or SLWRS. By the late 1980s the Navy improved its SLOW WALKER capability to the point where the information was disseminated nearly instantaneously.

The US Navy had used the USAF’s DSP to detect Backfires at launch. A very interesting project that I never knew and an “outside the box” way to detect incoming Backfires. You can learn more about the Slow Walker, and some of the associated programs here.

Additional sources:

World Airpower Journal Volume 33

A Dangerous Business

Msgt. Anthony asked in the comments if I might cover the loss of reconnaissance assets during the Cold War. I once started research on it, but timing and the overwhelming nature of it meant it never came to fruition.

But it was certainly an occupation fraught with hazard. For a look at US Navy air reconnaissance losses during the Cold War, let’s turn to a brief brochure published by the NSA.

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