Trigger-Happy, Autonomous, and Disobedient: Nordbat 2 and Mission Command in Bosnia

To the surprise of many, even in Sweden, Nordbat 2 quickly established a reputation as one of the most trigger-happy UN units in Bosnia. The troops and officers from some of the least belligerent nations in the world turned out to be quite adept at both using force and playing the odds in a high-stakes political game. This article outlines how a well-entrenched culture of mission command enabled Nordbat 2 to take on completely new and unexpected situations with remarkable results. While this culture of mission command turned out to be a potent force multiplier and an exceptionally effective strategic asset, it also had another side: Nordbat 2 on multiple occasions utterly disregarded orders from its highest political authorities, to the frustration of the Swedish government.

The culture of mission command in Sweden dates back to 1943, when senior Swedish army officers were taking note of the tactical superiority of German troops fighting Soviets on the Eastern Front. Sweden, being a small nation with several large and frequently hostile neighbors, had to prepare to fight an enemy which possessed overwhelming numerical superiority.

.. The Swedish Army estimated that a breakdown of command and control was a likely scenario as the Soviets would inevitably disrupt communications, destroy command centers, and seize territory, thereby isolating segments  of the Swedish Army. In order to cope with this contingency, all units were trained to engage in what was known as “the free war,” (i.e. autonomous operations against local targets, without centralized command). The free war was intended as a last resort, which would only end when the invader had finally retreated. The official doctrine stated that all Swedish citizens were to, without exception, consider any order to surrender to be false, regardless of its origin

..  The officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), all the way down to the lowest-ranking enlisted men, were taught that the only truly mortal sin was to hesitate. To seize the initiative and act was the primary imperative. There was no priority higher than that of achieving the mission objectives at hand. Orders could be disobeyed, rules could be broken—as long as the mission was successful.

.. While several other countries preferred to send lightly armed vehicles to avoid provoking the parties to the conflict, Henricsson wanted the main infantry fighting vehicle of the Swedish Army at the time. This vehicle, known as the Pbv 302, featured a 20mm automatic cannon and fairly respectable armor for a vehicle of its type.

.. Henricsson even decided to bring the latest portable Swedish anti-tank guided missiles.

..  Henricsson, however, had his own set of expectations. He let the media know he would personally ensure Nordbat 2 brought body bags and that everyone who served under him would be ordered to write their wills before departing.

.. Henricsson made it clear that his interpretation of the mission objectives (which he had developed himself on the basis of the original UN mandate, rather than taking clues from his political superiors) was that protection of the civilian population was the highest priority. In order to achieve this, Henricsson expected that force might be used, and that losses were a real possibility.

.. When fired at, Nordbat 2 often shot back, frequently disregarding the UN rules of engagement. Colonel Henricsson made it clear that he would not respect rules and regulations that threatened to prevent him from achieving his mission objectives.

.. When his own government tried to rein him in, he simply told his radio operator to pretend that the link was down until he had a fait accompli to present to Stockholm.

.. Nevertheless, Nordbat 2 had once again refused to let the parties to the conflict dictate the terms of its deployment. In several other incidents, Nordbat 2 personnel intervened to protect refugees and took action to prevent the cover-up of ethnic cleansing operations.

.. On several occasions this took the form of forcing passage through roadblocks. During one such event, the battalion commander himself forced a sentry to remove the anti-tank mines used to block passage by threatening to blow the sentry’s head off with a heavy machine gun.

.. Instead of taking on regular troops in mechanized combat, Nordbat 2 found itself in a conflict characterized by ethnic cleansing, massacres, smuggling and random violence. Nevertheless, it was able to operate with a surprising degree of effectiveness.

.. The Dutch peacekeepers, representing a professional elite airborne unit, were more or less helpless for more than a year inside the Srebrenica enclave because they were unwilling to initiate any confrontations with the parties to the conflict, and because they were willing to be micromanaged by their home government. Nordbat 2, on the other hand, was something of a loose cannon, and earned a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. It even became known as “Shootbat” for its tendency to return fire, regardless of the formal rules of engagement.

.. Nordbat 2’s willingness to bend or even break the rules, and disregard direct orders from both UN command and its own government, enabled it to achieve its mission objectives as defined by the first battalion commander: protect the civilians at all cost.

.. on several occasions Nordbat 2 did not accept the control of its civilian leadership. Accustomed to mission command, Nordbat 2 acted as it had been taught: rules can be broken as long as it is done to achieve the mission objectives.

.. As long as political leaders can trust the local commander to make the right choices, mission command can be an incredibly powerful force multiplier

.. Even though Nordbat 2’s first battalion commanders were very unpopular with the Swedish government for their refusal to take orders from home, they were nevertheless greeted as heroes upon their return and remain viewed so to this day.

.. This meant the Swedish government did not have to deal with the political fallout of the otherwise failed UN mission. The Dutch government, for example, was hard-pressed by public opinion after the massacre at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.

.. the basic rule of mission command remains relevant: it is better to make a mistake than to do nothing at all.