By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“When others can’t and don’t dare, there is only
one 72nd, which always can and dares!”
— Motto of the Serbian 72nd Brigade for Special Operations.
From late November 2000 through mid-March 2001, I was the Ground Assessments Officer and Special Projects Officer for the NATO Balkans Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Vicenza, Italy, tasked with monitoring Serbian aggression, threats to NATO aircraft, and peacekeeping efforts only a year and a half after the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, Operation Allied Force. In those days, the world’s greatest flashpoint was the Preševo Valley, along the Serbian-Kosovo border, with a raging insurgency by armed ethnic-Albanian groups (EAAGs) of the Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa, and Bujanovac, or UÇPMB, and a demilitarized, three-mile-wide, Ground Safety Zone (GSZ) extending across the contentious border.
The conventional armed forces of Serbia were relatively easy to track through aerial reconnaissance efforts. I once caught a Serbian BOV-3 antiaircraft system with three 20mm cannon about a mile inside the GSZ on the Serbian side. This was in direct violation of the Kumanovo Agreement of 1999, which established ceasefire conditions at the end of the NATO war. We filed an official protest, and the BOV-3 was gone the next day. But the real wild card, impossible to track via most reconnaissance methods, was the Jedinica za Specijalne Operacije (“Special Operations Unit”), or JSO, also known as the Red Berets – an elite, police special forces unit of the former-Yugoslavian State Security Service (RDB.)
The Serbian JSO special operations force was created in 1996 by merging paramilitary units under the command of the infamous Željko Ražnatović (“Arkan,” later assassinated in 2000) with another militia unit. The renegade JSO was constantly waging unconventional warfare in the Preševo Valley, including skirmishes, sabotage, bombings, and other terrorist-style activities. In October 2000, they were involved in the overthrow of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević by failing to support him during mass demonstrations in Belgrade. Ultimately, the JSO was disbanded on March 25, 2003, after being implicated in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić just 13 days prior. Đinđić was shot through the heart by a paramilitary commander wielding an H&K G3 battle rifle.
Currently, the Republic of Serbia’s special forces consist of three military units: The 72nd Brigade for Special Operations, the 63rd Parachute Brigade, and the Military Police (MP) Special Operations Detachment “Cobra.” In addition, there are two special units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MUP): The Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ) and the Gendarmery.
The 72nd Brigade for Special Operations, based at Pančevo, seven miles east of Belgrade, and commanded by Brigadier General Miroslav Talijan (with a doctor of science degree), was originally formed in 1992. It is tasked with counterterrorism, special reconnaissance, commando operations, hostage situations, demolition, sabotage, operations behind enemy lines, VIP protection, forward observer duties, and peacekeeping roles. The brigade is divided into the Battalion Grifoni (“Griffins”), a reconnaissance-commando unit, and Battalion Sokolovi (“Hawks”), specializing in counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and special operations.
Next is the 63rd Parachute Brigade, based at Niš, in southern Serbia, the main, parachute training center, and commanded by Brigadier General Nenad Zonić. It was originally formed in 1953, and is now tasked with airborne operations, close-quarters combat, direct action, special reconnaissance, special operations, and diversionary tactics deep behind enemy lines.
The Military Police Special Operations Detachment “Cobra,” based in Belgrade and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Ušljebrka, was formed in 1978. It is currently tasked with counterterrorism, VIP protection, close-quarters combat, hostage rescue, and special operations. It consists of about 200 soldiers, including several women since 2013, and is the oldest counterterrorist unit in the Serbian Army.
The three military units all fought in the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999, so those combat lessons have been passed along to newer recruits since then. Until 2019, they were all part of the Special Brigade, which has since been disbanded, leaving these elite units as separate entities. Their training is long and arduous, with a selection process lasting from nine to 13 weeks and including physical training, tactical training, shooting, land navigation and orienteering, and parachute training.
Once accepted for one of these units, there is basic training for special forces, lasting one year, and including all of the selection-training courses in greater detail, plus tactical fire support training, and telecommunications training. After this initial year is completed, they begin advanced training for special forces, lasting for the next two years, which includes advanced parachute training, parachute instructor training, survival training, mountaineering, demolitions, reconnaissance-commando training, English-language training, officer and non-commissioned officer courses, scuba diving, improvised explosive devices, and sniper training.
Since 2012, most Serbian military forces, including these special units, wear the M-MDU-10 (also called M-10) woodland, digital camouflage uniform with M97 helmets. There is also a desert variation of the same, basic pattern, but in light tan, with brown and pinkish-tan pixelization. The 72nd Brigade for Special Operations and the 63rd Parachute Brigade both wear maroon berets, the international symbol of paratroopers, and the “Cobra” MP unit wears a black beret.
Serbian special forces weapons are numerous and varied, acquired from both local production and overseas suppliers:
Assault Rifles: These include the Zastava M70AB2 and ABX in 7.62x39mm, Zastava M90 in 5.56mm, Zastava M21A standard service rifle and M21S carbine in 5.56mm, new Zastava M19 in 5.56mm, FN Mk. 16 SCAR-L (Belgian) in 5.56mm, Vektor R4 (South African) in 5.56mm, Steyr AUG (Austrian, used by Battalion Grifoni) in 5.56mm, Zastava M85 carbine in 5.56mm, Zastava M92ABX carbine in 7.62x39mm, Colt M4 carbine (used by Battalion Sokolovi) in 5.56mm, HK416 (German, used by Battalion Grifoni) in 5.56mm, and H&K G36 (G36C Compact used by Battalion Sokolovi, and G-36KV used by 63rd Parachute Battalion) in 5.56mm. Some Kalashnikov AK-101 rifles in 5.56mm have also been used, and the SIG SG552/553 Commando carbine in 5.56mm is preferred for urban warfare.
Submachine guns: These include the H&K MP5A3 and SD3, and H&K UMP9, both chambered for the 9x19mm round. The Cobras also use the Israeli-made Uzi in 9mm. In addition, the tiny, M84 Škorpion submachine gun/machine pistol in 7.65x17mm (.32 ACP) is used by Serbian special forces, usually with a suppressor attached.
Pistols: These include the CZ99 (or CZ999 Scorpion) standard service pistol, the H&K USP9 (German), and the Jericho 941 (Israeli), all chambered for the 9x19mm round. Some Glock-17 Gen. 3 models are also in service.
Sniper rifles: Precision weapons include the Zastava M76 in 7.92x57mm, Zastava M91 (replacing the M76) in 7.62x54mmR, Sako TRG-21, 22, and 42 series (Finnish) in 7.62mm NATO and .338 Lapua Magnum, and the SIG Sauer SSG 3000 (German) in 7.62mm NATO. Dual-purpose, sniper/anti-matériel weapons include the Zastava M93 Black Arrow, Barrett M82A1, and Barrett M95, all in .50-caliber. The older H&K G3 battle rifle in 7.62mm NATO is still used as a designated-marksman weapon.
Machine guns: The Zastava M72 in 7.62x39mm and FN Minimi light machine guns in 5.56mm are employed, as well as the Zastava M84 medium machine gun in 7.62x54mmR and the Zastava M87 and Browning M2HB heavy machine guns in .50-caliber.
Shotguns: They use the Mossberg 590 pump-action shotgun and the Benelli M4 and Franchi SPAS-15 semiautomatic weapons.
Tactical vehicles: These include the Mercedes G-class, Land Rover Defender, and Pinzgauer off-road vehicles, and the BOV VP and BOV M16 Miloš armored personnel carriers with 12.7mm machine guns.
Unmanned ground vehicle: The new, Little Miloš-tracked, robotic vehicle is employed by the 72nd Brigade for Special Operations and may be armed with a Zastava M86 medium machine gun in 7.62mmx54mmR, an RBG 40/6 40mm grenade launcher, an M80 64mm rocket launcher, or RBR 120mm rocket launcher. Little Miloš is a 1,500-pound vehicle, powered by an electric engine with a lithium-ion battery, with a top speed of 7.8 miles per hour and an average, operational range time of about 4.5 hours. It employs a thermal camera with a range of 500 yards and a laser rangefinder with a range of 2,200 yards (1.25 miles.) At least six to 12 were produced by 2020, with 100 more on order in 2021 for the Serbian armed forces.
Next, the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SAJ, or “CAJ” in Cyrillic script) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MUP) is a police tactical (militia) unit based at Batajnica and founded in 1978. It is tasked with counterterrorism, hostage rescue, and special operations, and is currently commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Spasoje Vulević, the first Serbian policeman to graduate from the U.S. FBI Academy. His unit consists of 264 members, divided into four primary teams. Teams A and B are the principal, assault teams, while Team C provides specialized support in the form of snipers, scuba divers, canine crews, and explosives experts. Team D provides logistical and fire support, as well as VIP protection and guarding of key facilities. Sixteen SAJ members were killed in action during the Kosovo War.
SAJ police commandos typically wear either black, assault uniforms, Maskirna Dragon Tactical i Digitalna Urbana camouflaged uniforms in four-color, woodland patterns, or sometimes older, woodland-tigerstripe patterns with black berets.
Their weapons include the Colt M4 Commando (Model 933) carbine in 5.56mm, the SIG SG552/553 Commando carbine in 5.56mm, and the Zastava M21S carbine in 5.56mm. They use H&K MP5A3and SD3 submachine guns in 9mm, CZ99 and Glock-17 Gen. 3 pistols in 9mm, Benelli M4 shotguns, and Sako TRG-21, 22, and 42 series (Finnish) sniper rifles in 7.62mm NATO and .338 Lapua Magnum. The SAJ also uses Miloš 4×4 armored personal carriers, BOV M86 armored personal carriers, or Mercedes G-class jeeps as tactical vehicles.
Finally, there is the Gendarmery, a special police unit of the MUP, with about 2,800 members. They are based in Belgrade but have additional detachments in Niš, Novi Sad, and Kraljevo. The Gendarmery has existed in various forms since 1860, but was created as a police paramilitary unit in 2001 with duties including patrolling the GSZ along the Kosovo border, and providing disaster-rescue teams.
They also perform VIP protection duties, scuba diving as required, and quick response for emergency situations with the additional tasks of counterterrorism, countering violent groups and organized crime, repressing prison riots, and restoring peace and stability in areas of major disturbance. Their special detachments include counterterrorist teams, canine teams, sniper teams, and explosive-ordnance disposal experts. Gendarmery troops are trained in marksmanship, martial arts, special operations, parachuting, scuba diving, swimming, mountain climbing, and rescue services.
The Gendarmery wears olive-green, assault uniforms, and since 2010, they have also been wearing Tru-Spec UCP digital-camouflage uniforms, resembling the U.S. Army’s former ACU (army combat uniform) in multiple gray tones. When in garrison, they wear a blue beret. Gendarmery weapons are as follows:
Assault Rifles: These include the Zastava M70AB2 and ABX in 7.62x39mm, Zastava M21A standard service rifle and M21S carbine in 5.56mm, Vektor R4 (South African) in 5.56mm, HK33 in 7.62mm, MPi-KM (an East German AK-47 variant) in 7.62x39mm, Steyr AUG in 5.56mm, Zastava M92ABX carbine in 7.62x39mm, Colt M4 Commando carbine in 5.56mm, and HK416 in 5.56mm.
Submachine guns: These include the H&K MP5A2, A3, SD3, and K models in 9mm, and the Zastava M84 Škorpion in .32 ACP.
Pistols: These include the CZ99, the SIG P220, and the Glock-17 Gen. 3, all in 9x19mm.
Sniper rifles: Precision weapons include the Zastava M91 in 7.62x54mmR, Steyr Tactical Elite in 7.62mm, SIG 716 designated-marksman rifle, Sako TRG-22 and 42 series (Finnish) in 7.62mm NATO and .338 Lapua Magnum. Dual-purpose, sniper/anti-matériel weapons include the Zastava M93 Black Arrow, Barrett M82A1, and Barrett M95, all in .50-caliber. The older H&K G3 battle rifle in 7.62mm NATO is still used as a designated-marksman weapon.
Machine guns: The Zastava M84 medium machine gun in 7.62x54mmR is used, and the Browning M2HB heavy machine gun in .50-caliber is employed as a vehicle-mounted weapon.
Tactical vehicles: These include the Land Rover Defender, the BOV M16 Miloš armored personnel carriers with 12.7mm machine guns, the American-made Humvee, and the Yamaha Kodiak 700 ATV.
Serbian Special Forces are frequently supported by the 119th (at Niš), 714th (at Kraljevo), and 890th (at Batajnica) Helicopter Squadrons of the Serbian Air Force, and the Police Air Support Unit at Belgrade, which are collectively equipped with 13 Mi-8T/17V-5 Hip-C/H transport helicopters, four Mi-35M Hind-E gunships (with three more on order), 29 SA341L1/342L Gazelle scouts and anti-tank helicopters, and nine brand-new, Airbus H145M (called the H-50B in Serbia, and recently photographed in direct support of the 72nd Brigade) tactical assault helicopters from Germany, of which four are equipped with the Airbus HForce weapon system and 80mm unguided rockets.
As recently as 1999, the United States and NATO were at war against Serbia during the latter phases of the bloody, Yugoslav Wars of 1991 to 2001, particularly during the 1999 Kosovo War and the 1999 to 2001 Insurgency in the Preševo Valley. Serbia has always been a loyal ally of the Soviet Union, and later, the Russian Federation, utilizing a great deal of Russian, military equipment, including 14 MiG-29 Fulcrum-A/C jet fighters. But this enduring, solitary alliance has hindered the small nation, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they have found themselves politically and militarily isolated among otherwise-thriving neighbors in NATO and the European Union.
Consequently, the Republic of Serbia has recently reached out to the United States and Western Europe for improved relations. Serbian officers have been permitted to attend the FBI Academy, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College, and other training institutions, while Serbian troops have recently participated in joint, military exercises with NATO nations such as Greece. U.S. soldiers have also participated in exercises and other training events within Serbia itself.
The goal is to improve combat readiness and interoperability of forces, particularly for the Serbian Special Forces, while sharing tactics and techniques for counterterrorism, combat procedures, parachuting, and special operations. Serbia has learned the hard way that it cannot continue to operate in a vacuum, and it must establish key partnerships with the United States and other European nations. Their recent purchase of nine H145M military helicopters from Airbus (of Germany) is a clear example of that new sense of cooperation with Western nations, although they continue to maintain very close relations with the Russian Federation in a complex world.
* * *
Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings as well as four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.