Last week, I came across an announcement that Scott O’Grady had been nominated by President Trump to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. When I heard the news, I was transported back to my junior officer days in the mid-1990’s.
If you were alive and old enough at the time, you probably remember Scott O’Grady. He came to International attention in June 1995 when the F-16 he was piloting was shot down over Bosnia. Back in those days, Scott O’Grady was an Air Force junior officer enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of the American contingent supporting of NATO’s Operation DENY FLIGHT.
Bosnia: The Un-Civil War
1991 saw the break up of the former Soviet Union. The subsequent death of the dictator Josip Tito led swiftly to the fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). It broke up into six aspiring nation-states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. With the dissolution of the SFRY, the western powers backed Catholic Slovenia and Croatia. Conversely, in keeping with its Pan Slavic influence in the Orthodox regions of the Balkans, Russia sponsored Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Unlike its neighbors, Bosnia did not boast a predominantly homogeneous population. Instead, Bosnia’s population consisted of a majority of Bosniak Muslims with minority populations of Serbs and Croats. Because we typically associate Muslims with the Middle East, a Muslim population in Bosnia seems at odds with its geographic location in heart of Europe. The inconsistency is explained when one considers Bosnia’s 400-year long occupation by the Ottoman Empire. During the occupation, the Ottomans converted large numbers of Bosnia’s inhabitants to Islam. Today’s Bosniak Muslim population is the legacy of that bygone era.
By June 1992, faced with the unfortunate lack of super-power sponsorship or promises of outside military support, Bosnia found itself in a particularly vulnerable situation. It was defenseless and surrounded by the much larger and better armed aspiring nations of Serbia and Croatia, who both had designs on annexing Bosnia. Their goal was the same, expand their territory by absorbing Bosnia in order to expand their influence on the peninsula. Its abundance of mineral and industrial resources added to its attractiveness and vulnerability. This story provides a snapshot of the fight over a unprotected country and a long forgotten war during those tumultuous years. It also tells the of how a team of Cryptologists supported the search and rescue operation for Scott O’Grady.
In the early days of the dispute, Serbia attempted to achieve its goal of taking control of Bosnian territory with Serb majority populations by forcefully bombing Bosnia’s major cities. The air attacks soon gave way to an all-out assault on Bosnia from Serbia which included large contingents of Serb paramilitaries and a steady flow of military equipment to support the Bosnian Serb forces. As the war unfolded, allegations continued to spread of a calculated, strategic policy by Serb forces to ethnically cleanse the Bosniak population from areas under its control. Bosniaks – particularly Bosniak males – who were unable to flee the Serbs advance were captured and held in concentration camps the likes of which the world had not seen since World War II. The ultimate discovery of multiple mass graves across Bosnia following the end of hostilities, primarily in areas controlled by Serb forces, only confirmed the allegations of genocide perpetrated by the Serbs against the Bosniak Muslim population.
In April 1992, incessant allegations of rampant war crimes committed by Serb forces across Bosnia, forced the world to take notice. The United States, the European Economic Community (now known as the European Union) and the United Nations all officially recognized Bosnia’s sovereign independence as part of a symbolic diplomatic endorsement for Bosnian independence. Unfortunately, this recognition did not include a further commitment to provide additional military support to defend Bosnia against the territorial designs of Croatia and Serbia. The United Nations (UN) created the UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) commonly referred to the ‘blue hats.’ They were tasked with monitoring Serbian ground activity with the goal of preventing further war crimes against innocent civilians.
With this mostly implied threat of additional force, the UN hoped to nurture the emergence of an independent Bosnia, but internally they agreed that they would settle for Croatian annexation. Russia, on the other hand, wanted Bosnia to fall under complete Serbian control and did not support a compromise of an independent Bosnia. NATO established Operation DENY FLIGHT leveraging NATO aircraft to patrol the skies over Bosnia to enforce a no-fly zone to prevent further Serbian bombings of Bosnian cities and towns.
Serb forces were keenly aware of the no-fly zone borders and NATO patrol aircraft capabilities, so they purposefully carried out their ethnic cleansing operations just beyond the no-fly zone borders and out of sight of NATO aircraft. To ensure they were not detected, the Serbs repeatedly threatened to shoot down any NATO aircraft operating outside the agreed upon no-fly zone tracks. Their weapon of choice was former Soviet military hardware, particularly SA-6 surface to air missiles and SA-7 shoulder launched missiles. The matter was further complicated by the emergence of a series of belligerent warlords who promoted their nationalist ideas, fed the flames of racism and religious hatred, and competed to lead their respective countries at the expense of the others’ aspiring nations.
By the summer of 1995, Serbia forces were becoming more aggressive. They launched an armored offensive in eastern Bosnia against three UN guaranteed safe areas for Muslims. Two of those pockets were quickly overrun when the UN forces stationed there surrendered or declined to offer any resistance. This resulted in the “Massacre if Sbrenica,” and changed the international dynamic around the Bosnian conflict.
Like Scott O’Grady, back in 1995 I was a young Navy Lieutenant flying airborne reconnaissance missions with VQ-2 in the Navy’s EP-3E aircraft. We supported U.S. EUROPEAN COMMAND and SIXTH FLEET operational intelligence requirements, including monitoring the no-fly zones over Bosnia. These missions were deemed to be combat reconnaissance missions as the intelligence requirements often required us to fly overland Bosnia and into the combat zone. The team that I supervised was based out of Rota, Spain, but we were deployed for months at a time to the forward NATO operating base in Souda Bay, Crete. We shared our unique mission and the 24×7 operational schedule with our Air Force airborne reconnaissance counterparts. They flew in the RC-135 “Rivet Joint” and were based out of Mildenhall, England.
As the war had dragged on, we found ourselves heavily tasked and flying missions around the clock. By the time Scott was shot down we were already stretched rather thin. Our missions were routinely 10-12 hours long. Add to that a two-hour pre-flight brief and the two-hour post-flight report writing task and it made for an exceptionally long day. The operational schedule began to take a toll on everyone’s health. Me and my team of linguists, special signals analysts and tactical communicators routinely exceeded the maximum allowable flight hours in a one-month period. Busting maximum flight hours required a trip to the flight surgeon, who would perform a cursory physical on the crew member. If the flyer was found to be of sound physical condition (they always were), the doc issued an “up chit” that permitted the crewman to continue flying beyond the maximum allowable limit. This process became so routine that we all made regular trips to see the flight surgeon.
By the Spring of 1995, the combination of limited NATO airstrikes against Serb targets in eastern Bosnia and the increasing deployments of well- organized Croatian air and ground forces attacking Serb positions in western Bosnia put the Serb forces on the defensive. In response to the increased air activity the Serbs began deploying SA-6 units along Bosnia’s western border, with the specific purpose of trying to down NATO, especially US aircraft.
These deployments were conducted under the cover of darkness and under strict radio silence which created a largely unseen threat network for NATO aircraft flying overhead. As the NATO air presence drug into its third year of no-fly zone enforcement the Serb SAM units became keenly aware of the predictability of these now routine flights; patrol missions which followed nearly identical tracks at the same speeds and altitudes. At the time, we were supporting “exciter” missions designed to flush out these hidden SAM batteries particularly in the Krajina region along the Croatia-Bosnia border. Exciter missions involved NATO aircraft overflying disputed terrain for the express purpose of enticing the hidden SAM batteries to turn on their surface to air target acquisition radar and, by doing so, give away their positions.
The danger became stark reality on June 2, 1995 when Captain O’Grady, flying a well-treaded path over northwest Bosnia, was shot down by a Serb SA-6 missile. On that fateful day, Scott and his wingman were assigned the call signs of BASHER 52 and 51, respectively. Their mission called for them to fly through a disputed valley where the presence of SA-6’s was suspected. 51 entered the valley on a low pass. When he was halfway through, Scott (BASHER 52) began his run. Within seconds, 51’s anti-aircraft sensors screamed to life. All NATO aircraft overland in the combat zone were ordered to maximum power and ‘feet wet’. In other words, they were ordered to evacuate the no-fly zone and head out over the Adriatic Sea as fast as possible. Scott’s sensor pod was malfunctioning. While he was aware something was happening because of the radio calls, he was unaware that he was the target of the SAM acquisition. By then, it was already too late. The missile had already left the rails. Despite his attempts to use chaff, flares and evasive action, Scott’s F-16 was hit and destroyed.
Seconds later, we were notified that an armed, fast-moving American fighter aircraft with the callsign Basher-52, had been shot down by a Serbian SA-6. We were already on high alert, but his shoot down brought home the reality of how easy it would be to take down our aircraft. Our EP-3 by comparison to Scott’s F-16 was an unarmed, lumbering, slow-mover.
We were constrained to dangerously low altitudes because of the maximum altitude limit the aircraft could achieve, potentially inside the envelope of almost undetectable hand held SA-7’s. Even though his aircraft had been destroyed, initial reports from the incident were that the pilot had managed to eject. BASHER 51 reported seeing a good chute. All indications were that Scott was on the ground evading capture and awaiting rescue. He carried a 9 mm pistol, a radio, and the minimal gear to survive for a couple of days in the field if he managed to avoid capture. This usually included a light summer-weight jacket, few ounces of water and a candy bar. From that moment on, our primary mission became a search and rescue operation to find Scott O’Grady. A 24-hour coverage schedule was established.
The Navy was assigned to cover the night, while the Air Force was given the day. Before each flight we received extensive intelligence briefings, providing updated information on the location of the shoot down, possible on-going military threats, and background information on the pilot’s situation.
Elsewhere U.S. Navy Cryptologists in the national intelligence community were just as tactically involved. In the National Security Operations Center, two other Navy LT’s, Vince Scott and Tim were manning desks focused on the conflict, and coordinating the national intelligence community response. Both were deeply involved in harnessing the national technical means to support all efforts to protect reconnaissance aircraft, find the downed pilot, and support the tip of the spear for a rescue aboard USS KEARSARGE.
Each day, after our pre-flight briefing, we launched and headed for the area where Scott was lost. From the minute we arrived on station, we monitored all Search And Rescue (SAR) frequencies and looked for any visual signs or intelligence-derived reflections that he was alive. We remained vigilant in our search. All 24 of our crew members focused on the singular goal of finding the lost airman and bringing him home safely. We flew, ate, sleep and drank with nothing else on our minds, but finding Scott O’Grady. Missions blurred one into another. Hours passed into days as we continued our efforts. After several endless days, we received word that Scott had used his radio and contacted our Air Force counterparts on Rivet Joint. He kept his transmissions to mere seconds to minimize his chances of capture. With assistance from national capabilities, as soon as his location was established, a rescue operation was set into motion. EUROPEAN COMMAND gave the mission to SIXTH FLEET, who decided that the Marine Reconnaissance contingent aboard the USS KEARSARGE would lead the operation.
While we searched from the sky, LT Frank Shaul led a team of two dozen or so Cryptologists aboard the USS KEARSARGE stationed in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia. Frank was the Ship’s Signal Exploitation Space (SSES) Division Officer. Like my airborne team, his team was also working very hard to help find Scott. They used a system called Combat Direction Finding, Combat DF or CDF to search for Scott’s emergency radio signal. Scott was not transmitting out of fear of capture. When he turned on his radio to try to establish contact, his signal was disrupted by the Serbian Army who were jamming all Search and Rescue frequencies. He did manage to transmit a few times. These transmissions were picked up by Frank’s team in SSES, who then used CDF to provide a line of bearing (LOB) for the direction the signal was emanating from. Theoretically, if the signals were strong enough and accurate enough to provide a good LOB Scott’s position could be localized and tracked. Unfortunately, this was proving to be quite challenging due to the spotiness of his transmissions and the Serbian Army jamming.
This is where LCDR Bill Cunningham and his SIGINT team come in. At the time, Bill was the SIGINT Chief at SRJOIC (Southern Region Joint Operations Intelligence Center), AFSOUTH, Agnano NATO base in Naples, Italy. Like me and my team, Bill was deployed from Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Rota, Spain. Bill’s team was engaged in fusing the collected information from multiple NATO air, surface and ground teams to help locate Scott O’Grady. Several days passed with no luck. They were no closer to finding Scott O’Grady than the day he crashed and tensions were flaring among the senior leadership. Pressure was on to find him. Then, in the fifth day, Bill had an idea. He would load all LOBs and every bit of all-source multi-national intelligence into a software analytics program to see what it came up with. This was out-of-the-box forward thinking. It just had not been done this way in the past. This the equivalent what we are only recently trying to achieve with modern day artificial intelligence. Intelligence Officer, LCDR Sarah Kovel monitored the progress while the computer churned and churned. After what seemed like hours the program spit out a solution. Bill was dismayed when he looked at the results. It could not be right. The solution indicated that Scott had not left the immediate crash area. It was illogical and went against the grain of Scott’s Escape and Evasion training of what a downed pilot should do if being pursued. So, Bill reloaded all of the information back into the computer and re-ran the analytics program to double check the solution. Sure enough. It arrived at the same result. Like a bolt of lightning it hit Bill. It all just all made sense. Scott had not moved since he crashed and was hiding in the local terrain. This was the break through Bill had been looking for. With this new insight, he immediately briefed the Supreme NATO Commander, Admiral Leighton “Snuffy” Smith. After listening to the brief, Admiral Smith turned to Bill and asked, “Bill do you believe the solution?” When a four star Admiral asks you a direct question, you know you are putting your credibility on the line. Bill knew this. He believed it to his core. Without hesitation, he responded, “I believe this solution is accurate and that Scott O’Grady is hunkered down within yards of where he crashed.” That was enough to convince Snuffy. He took it from there. Calls were made, probably to EUCOM and SIXTH FLEET providing authorization, guidance and direction on the rescue mission. A few hours later, the phone rang in the SRJOIC. Intelligence Specialist Chief Mitch Jepersen was on watch. The caller…none other than Snuffy Smith. It would be unheard of for the NATO Supreme Commander to call directly to the watch floor and give orders and direction to the operator who picked up, but that is exactly what happened. Admiral Smith said, “Get a pen and copy my message word for word”. The Chief complied. For the next few minutes, a four star admiral gave the order for the rescue mission over the secure line to a Navy Chief who was standing the mid-watch. He then told the Chief to call KEARSARGE over the top secret channel and relay his message exactly word for word. That message was “go” order. “You got that, Chief?” Snuffy asked. “Yes, Sir!” replied the Chief, then he hung up. The Chief was left dumbfounded His heart was beating half out of his chest as he picked up the mic and made the radio call to KEARSARGE that put the rescue mission in motion.
A few short hours later dawn broke on the morning of June 8, 1995. It was Scott O’Grady’s lucky day. That was the day that a Marine CH-53 carrying a Marine Recon team, who had been up all night preparing for their mission, headed for their helo. Gary Coleman accompanied them as they lifted off from the USS KEARSARGE on a dangerous TRAP (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) mission bound for the mountains south of Banja Luka.
As they flew toward the rendezvous point, accompanied by two AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships and two AV-8 Harriers, the team prepared themselves for the engagement with hostile Serbian forces they knew would be waiting for them. The Serb forces knew that Scott was still at large and had been scouring the surrounding hillsides for days looking for him. Scott was instructed by his Air Force handlers to listen for the rescue helicopter, but to hold off activating his smoke bomb until the CH-53 helo was on top of him to avoid capture. The helo flew low and fast over the treetops to avoid radar detection and enemy gunfire. Scott strained his ears listening for the distant sound of freedom that was heading his way. Out of nowhere the deafening sound of the bird’s giant blades slicing through the air shattered the silence as the helo came into sight overhead. Scott popped his smoke flare and the helo dropped down into the clearing near the trees where Scott was hiding. Time slowed down as the Marine Recon team leapt out of the chopper. Two Marine gunners prepared to lay down cover fire while two other Marines sprinted toward Scott. They grabbed him, and dragged him back to the helicopter. Once Scott and the rest of the team were back onboard, the helo lifted off through a barrage of small arms fire. As the helo rose above the clearing, MANPADs with missiles on the rail came into view. An SA-7 (shoulder launched missile) streaked past the windshield narrowly missing the helo as the bird headed for the safety of tree cover, bobbing and dodging as it went. They continued to receive small arms fire until they were out of sight and out of range.
The entire operation took mere minutes, but it felt like hours. When they were sure they were safe, the rescue team high-fived each other and slapped a shaken, but happy Scott on the back. Thirty minutes later the giant helicopter touched back down on the deck of the USS KEARSARGE. The Marines daring rescue had been a success. No one was injured during the extraction and Scott O’Grady was safely back among friends again. In the week that he had endured in the field, he had lost twenty-five pounds and suffered severe hypothermia and PTSD.
The shoot down and rescue of Captain O’Grady was later memorialized by the popular movie, Behind Enemy Lines, starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson. While there are clear similarities, the movie took extensive liberties with the story line and was only loosely based on the actual incident.
household name. He was dubbed an American hero. The theatrical release of the movie only further added to his mystique and stature as a national hero. He never returned to flying duty and left the Air Force not long after. Over the years his name has periodically appeared in the news usually accompanied by his characterization as an American war hero. That said, little public recognition was ever given to the teams of American Navy, Air Force and Marine heroes who put their lives on the line to bring him back safely. Some received the coveted Air Medal for their action, others did not. Either way, they were all winners in my book. I dedicate this article to all the men and women who kept the vigil and refused to relent until Scott O’Grady was found and rescued. More specifically, I want to recognize the crack team of Cryptologists who were widely deployed across the theater in support of this dangerous mission. Most of them remain anonymous to Scott and the rest of a grateful nation, but they know who they are. They will never forget the time they helped find and rescue a fallen comrade, Behind Enemy Lines.
What Became of Bosnia?
In the months following Scott O’Grady’s shoot down, the western powers, launched a fierce NATO bombing campaign code named Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. This brought a rather swift end to the brutal Bosnian civil war, but it left the warring factions in limbo. The three-year war had claimed over 97,000 lives, wounded over 350,000 civilians and displaced over 2 million Bosnians. The United States stepped in to help broker a lasting peace by hosting cease-fire talks in Dayton Ohio. The negotiations were led by then U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher with Richard Holbrooke serving as the lead negotiator. These talks ultimately resulted in the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA). In December 1995, 60,000 NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) soldiers deployed to Bosnia to help keep the peace during the transition, including the entire US 1st Armored Division. LT White, later Vice Admiral, and LT Scott both lead National Intelligence Support Teams (NIST’s) into Bosnia in support of these efforts, harnessing the national intelligence community support, and coordinating the tactical signals intelligence efforts by US and NATO forces as a part of IFOR. There teams included numerous Sailors, including over 20 native Serbo-croatian translators and linguists drawn from across the US Navy.
Despite the painful memories of that terrible war, a tenuous peace has held these last 25 years.
Scott O’Grady Today –
After leaving active duty, Scott O’Grady went on to earn a master’s degree in theology from the Dallas Theological Seminary before launching a controversial speaking and writing career. Scott currently serves as co-chair of the Veterans for Trump advisory board. Last week he was nominated by the President to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. This is a very senior political appointment and a key position overseeing operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Since being named, he has been making the news because of his controversial public statements. He called former Secretary of Defense James Mattis a traitor. He declared his belief that President Trump won the election in a landslide. He has said that he believes President-elect Biden is staging a coup after winning the election. As recently as this week, he has called for the implementation of martial law on American soil.
Author: Bryan S. Lopez, CAPT, USN (Ret.)
Co-Author: Mitchell Murphy, CTICM, USN (Ret.)
Contributors: CDR William Cunningham, USN (Ret.)
CDR Vincent Scott, USN (Ret.)
LCDR Gary Coleman, LCDR, USN (Ret.)
LCDR Jason Tracey, LCDR, USN (Ret.)
10 December 2020 at 13:38
Great article Bryan! Puts together many forgotten details from those days.
10 December 2020 at 16:48
I believe Mitch Jepersen was actually a CTRC.
10 December 2020 at 18:25
Thanks for posting!
11 December 2020 at 12:52
Outstanding. You brought all of the key points together that the cryptologic crew supported. If you ever feel the need to do similar with the cryptologic story of either the takedown of the Achille Lauro hijackers, or the Operations IVO Libya/Eldorado Canyon I would like to be a contributor. Cryptology provided vital contributions to both of those events whose story has never been told. R, Kenny Kirkland CDR, USN (ret.)
P.S. I was in boot camp, DLI and Rota with Gary Coleman, LCDR, USN (ret) and was glad to see he was a contributor to your story. I was fascinated by his recollections of his part in the rescue. I’m glad that finally some of this important history in the service of our great nation is seeing a little light.
18 December 2020 at 12:54
It’s too bad that as an old guy he didn’t get any smarter.