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


In late 1993, a reinforced Swedish-Danish-Norwegian mechanized battalion (Nordbat 2) deployed to Bosnia as part of an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force).[1] The battalion was under Swedish command, and with the exception of a Danish tank company and a Norwegian helicopter detachment, was comprised of Swedish former conscripts, led by active-duty officers. The former conscripts had volunteered to return from civilian life to serve in a professional capacity. These Swedish troops, coming from a nation that had not experienced war for almost 200 years, faced a rigid UN bureaucracy, an unclear mandate, and the UN-imposed rules of engagement bordered on the absurd.[2] However, the Swedes had one thing the others didn't: a culture of mission command that had grown and developed for decades.

BA01 was the first of a total of 14 Swedish Bosnia battalions in the 1990s and a part of Nordbat 2. (Mikael Persson/Försvarsmakten)

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.

In "The Language of Mission Command and the Necessity of an Historical Approach," Jörg Muth argues that the U.S. Army needs to understand the culture of mission command in order to implement it.[3] This article provides a brief case study of the tactical and strategic impact of one such culture. While the events described here occurred over twenty years ago, they are as relevant as ever to further our understanding of the strategic role of leadership culture in mission command.

Mission Command in Sweden

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. Thus, in order to even out the odds, maximizing tactical efficiency was an absolute necessity. Later, during the Cold War, Swedish policy makers found themselves situated in a geopolitically sensitive location. Soviet strike aircraft headed for Norway or the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap needed to pass directly over Swedish airspace to reach their targets. Additionally, in the event of a conflict, the Soviets feared that NATO would use Swedish air bases to launch attacks against the Soviet mainland. Consequently, neutralizing Sweden's military capacity and securing at least parts of its territory was an obvious strategic objective for the Soviet Union in the event of a large-scale conflict with NATO.

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 Swedish Armed Forces were consequently trained to respond to a massive Soviet invasion force, which was expected to attack over land (via Finland), across the Baltic sea, and by deploying airborne units. 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. This was even printed in all phone books, which also contained instructions for the civilian population in case of war.

Orders could be disobeyed, rules could be broken—as long as the mission was successful.

Considering that all Swedish Army units were expected to be able to operate autonomously, the culture of mission command completely permeated the entire organization. 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.

The battalion commanders who deployed to Bosnia to take charge of Nordbat 2 had spent their entire professional lives in this culture, and their men had known it since the earliest days of their own military training. To them, it was as natural as breathing.

Before the Deployment

Colonel Ulf Henricsson was head of the UN UN Battalion BA01 in the Bosnian Civil War.(Aftonbladet)

The first battalion commander, Colonel Ulf Henricsson, came from the armor branch. When he was asked to take charge of a battalion that was intended to be sent to Bosnia, he immediately set out to shape the unit in accordance with his own preferences. Consequently, he wanted a well-armed, well-protected, mechanized force. 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. In addition, Henricsson wanted a Danish tank company equipped with recently modernized Leopard main battle tanks. Nordbat 2 also managed to borrow Finnish Sisu wheeled armored personnel carriers. Henricsson even decided to bring the latest portable Swedish anti-tank guided missiles.

This caused some consternation among the political elites in the country at the time, who insisted that the deployment would be a peacekeeping mission with no more than a minimum risk. They most certainly did not expect any significant confrontations between Nordbat 2 and the parties to the conflict. 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. When asked by the media, 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.

Into the Fire

Shortly after it had been deployed to Bosnia in December 1993, Nordbat 2 found itself in its first serious hostile encounter. A Swedish platoon was sent to relieve a Canadian company which was providing security for a mostly abandoned hospital compound in a remote area. As soon as the Canadians left, a Croatian battalion-sized unit showed up and promptly mined the only road leading to the compound, ensuring that the Swedes would be unable to receive reinforcements.

Then they issued an ultimatum: hand over the three Muslim nurses, and we will leave you alone. The Swedish platoon leader, Captain Stewe Simson, radioed battalion command, and was told that it was his call to make, since he was the one in charge at the location. Captain Simson refused to hand over the nurses and instead ordered his men to prepare for combat.

Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, Captain Simson realized that it was unrealistic to expect that his unit would survive a full-out assault. Nevertheless, he was determined not to give in. The Croats started to fire mortar rounds, but the Swedes held their positions. After a few hours, the Croats issued a new ultimatum: the nurses could stay if the Croats were granted free passage to the compound. Again, Captain Simson refused. The situation remained tense throughout the night, with the Swedes maintaining full combat readiness. In the morning, the Croats negotiated with the Swedes and eventually left, quietly dropping their ultimatums. Nordbat 2 had shown resolve even in the face of hopeless odds, achieving a strategically important victory as a result of a decision made by a platoon commander.[4]

Other incidents followed. 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.

Sergeant Magnus Ernström of Nordbat 2 at the end of October 1993, at the time of the massacre of Stupni Do in Bosnia. (Unknown Group Member in 2nd Guard, Escort Group BA01/Försvarsmakten)

In one particularly infamous incident, the Bosnian Serb Army set up an ambush for the battalion's Danish tank company. By launching a feint attack against a remote outpost, the Bosnian Serb Army lured a detachment from the tank company to drive straight into a trap. Anti-tank missiles and heavy guns opened up from concealed positions. Once the Danes started to take fire, their response was furious. The detachment commander simply told his crews to neutralize the anti-tank positions. The Leopard tanks directed accurate and deadly fire against the Bosnian Serb Army positions, using up no less than 72 main gun rounds. One by one, the anti-tank missile batteries and gun positions fell silent. During the fight, a Bosnian Serb Army ammunition supply was hit, resulting in a large explosion. After the engagement, Nordbat 2 estimated that as many as 150 troops may have been killed, although the Bosnian Serb Army denied this.

The incident greatly upset the UN regional command, which threatened to relieve Nordbat 2's battalion commander and have him sent back to Sweden. 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.

During two consecutive rotations, Nordbat 2 upheld its freedom of movement and initiative in an area of operations where many other UN outfits felt obliged to abide by the rules laid down by the parties to the conflict. The third rotation was the last to make use of force and the threat of force in a significant manner. When the fourth rotation deployed, a more cautious battalion commander in combination with an intensification of the conflict marked a shift to a less confrontational stance. The fifth rotation was the last to serve under UN command. During the final phases of its deployment, the so-called Implementation Force (IFOR) replaced the UN-led peacekeeping force, which was under NATO command. This heralded a new era during which NATO enforced the new peace treaty in a manner unthinkable during the UN years.

The Legacy of Nordbat 2

The remarkable history of Nordbat 2 illustrates both the virtues and perils of having a well-entrenched culture of mission command in a unit employed in a complex operational environment. On one hand, it bred commanders who felt compelled to always act, and to always put the mission objectives first. This enabled Nordbat 2 to cope with completely new and unexpected situations in a hostile and unfamiliar environment without becoming passive like so many other UN units. Personnel trained to fight on their home soil against a Soviet invader suddenly had to navigate the complex political terrain of the war in Bosnia. The battalion had to cope with an indecisive and passive chain of command, and a multitude of different armed parties to the conflict ranging from semi-national armies to drug-fueled paramilitary criminal outfits led by warlords.

Nordbat 2's willingness to bend or even break the rules, and disregard direct orders...enabled it to achieve its mission objectives...protect the civilians at all cost. However, this also poses a challenge to the traditional civil-military dilemma...

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.

This can be contrasted with the Dutch peacekeepers who were deployed in Srebrenica. The Dutch unit and Nordbat 2 operated under the same regional command, in the same general area. 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. However, this also poses a challenge to the traditional civil-military dilemma: 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.

In research on public administration, it has been argued for decades that political objectives can frequently be impossible in the sense that they are contradictory or simply do not provide the necessary tools to allow lower-level officials to achieve the policy objectives at hand. In response, these officials tend to take initiatives of their own and act outside the boundaries in order to get the job done.[5] This is exactly what Nordbat 2 did, and what mission command was originally created to do in a military context.

The most essential component of mission command is trust. 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. In 2002, the entire Dutch government was forced to resign over Srebrenica, after a detailed report blaming the government for the failure was released to the public.

Cadets view the sign on the Nordbat 2 school in Vareš and testify of the city's appreciation of the Swedish UN Federation's efforts in autumn 1993. (Johan Nordén/Försvarsmakten)

While unrestrained mission command can be an effective tool, it also requires that political leadership relinquishes a significant degree of control. Thus, to be effectively harnessed in complex operational environments, the culture of mission command is one that has to be understood and to some extent shared by the civilian leadership as well as the military. This approach is clearly not without risk, but in a life-and-death scenario the basic rule of mission command remains relevant: it is better to make a mistake than to do nothing at all.

Tony Ingesson is currently an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lund University. His research is primarily focused on the political impact of tactical-decision-making and organizational cultures. He has previously served in the Swedish Army, Air Force and Navy.

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Header Image: A patrol outside Ribnica north of Vares. Between October and February, the UN Swedes were consistently exposed to shelling on this winding mountain road. (Jonas Lindqvist/Scanpix)


[1] The events described in this chapter are outlined in more detail, with complete references to the source material used, in: Tony Ingesson (2016) The Politics of Combat: the Political and Strategic Impact of Tactical-Level Subcultures. Lund: the Faculty of Social Science and Department of Political Science, pp. 231-282.

[2] Outlining the details of these rules of engagement requires a fairly lengthy discussion, but suffice it to say that they made it very difficult to use any sort of force, even in self-defense.

[3] Muth, Jörg. "The Language of Mission Command and the Necessity of an Historical Approach", The Bridge, June 4th 2016.

[4] I argue that this was a strategic victory for two reasons: first, giving in would have caused a political scandal in Sweden, which would have undermined the legitimacy of the whole mission. Second, by standing up to the Croats, Nordbat 2 started to establish a reputation as a force to be reckoned with, which arguably shaped their future interaction in a manner that facilitated the accomplishment of the overall mission objectives.

[5] See for example Lipsky, Michael (2010). Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services.  30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.