In her blog at Foreign Policy, The Cable, Laura Rozen reports on the “spooky” murder of a retired Army officer, William Bennett, in Loudoun, Virginia.
Bennett and his wife were battered by unknown assailants while they were on their early-morning walk.
Ms. Rozen tells us:
In 1999, sources bring to our attention, Bennett was a retired Army lieutenant colonel working at the CIA on contract as a targeter during the 78-day NATO air war on Kosovo. He was one of the people, according to a former U.S. intelligence source, found responsible by the Agency for feeding the target into the system that resulted in the May 7, 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
The U.S. government declared that the bombing of the Chinese embassy was unintentional and the result of a targeting flub.
Ms. Rozen’s source inform her that Mr. Bennett was the hitherto unnamed “CIA employee” who was fired in 2000 for putting “the X on the map in the wrong place”.
Therefore, one of the theories floating around the Internet is that Bennett was murdered by the Chinese in retaliation for the 1999 bombing.
Not likely, in my opinion.
If the bombing was unintentional, as the United States insists, it would be rather petty and inexplicable for the Chinese to murder Bennett ten years later for his mistake.
If the bombing was intentional, as many Chinese believe, one would think they would find more senior and suitable targets for their revenge.
As Ms. Rozen points out, the mission that bombed the Chinese embassy was the only bombing package initiated by the CIA during the entire Kosovo war. Indeed, the entire mission was reportedly flown by the U.S. Air Force outside NATO channels.
The idea that the CIA a) used their only targeting opportunity to take out Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement and b) relied on an outdated map to fix the coordinates of this apparently insignificant bureaucratic outpost and c) mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy that happened to be sitting on those coordinates strains credulity.
The most interesting theory is that the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed intentionally because the U.S. government suspected it was harboring components of an F-117 Stealth fighter that Yugoslavian air defense had been able to bring down the two weeks before.
The theory, in addition to being interesting, is not outlandish. In fact, it’s rather plausible.
For the delectation of China Matters readers, here are the two posts I wrote on the subject:
Friday, January 26, 2007
Why China Hates Satellite Guided Munitions, Part 1: The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999
China’s first direct experience with satellite-guided munitions occurred on the night of May 7, 1999, when at least five GPS-guided JDAM bombs slammed into the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese nationals and wounding 20.
Now, with the furor over China’s anti-satellite test, which places US GPS and spy satellites at risk, is a good time to recap the Belgrade bombing incident and contribute some new information contained in the memoirs of the Chinese ambassador to Yugoslavia during the bombing, Pan Zhanlin.
The JDAM used in the attack is a very successful and relatively inexpensive concept in ordnance by which dumb bombs are, as it were, sent to college, and equipped with a GPS-corrected guidance system that generates corrective adjustments to movable vanes after the bomb is dropped from a plane, enabling reported accuracies of within 13 meters.
The conventional, though implausible, narrative at the time of the embassy bombing was The Bomb was Smart… But We Goofed!
In testimony before Congress in July 1999, George Tenet explained how they meant to bomb some logistics office of the Yugoslavian army, they used an outdated map, somebody did catch the error but the message didn’t get through, the system broke down, sooooooo sorry.
On October 17, 1999, the Sunday Observer, in cooperation with a Danish paper, Politiken, came out with what would seem to be a blockbuster report: that the United States had deliberately targeted the embassy in order to remove a key rebroadcast station directing the military activities of Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in their struggle to resist NATO forces.
I am embarrassed to admit that my Googling skills haven’t turned up a direct link to the article, but the Observer’s sister publication, the Guardian, ran a story summarizing the article’s conclusions.
As to why the Chinese government dared to take the provocative step of hosting a Yugoslavian military radio facility, the article speculates that Beijing cooperated with Belgrade in order to acquire data on U.S. military capabilities:
Why the Chinese were prepared to help Milosevic is a more murky question. One possible explanation is that the Chinese lack Stealth technology, and the Yugoslavs, having shot down a Stealth fighter in the early days of the air campaign, were in a good position to trade. The Chinese may have calculated that Nato would not dare strike its embassy, but the five-storey building was emptied every night of personnel. Only three people died in the attack, two of whom were, reportedly, not journalists – the official Chinese version – but intelligence officers.
The Chinese military attache, Ven Bo Koy, who was seriously wounded in the attack and is now in hospital in China, told Dusan Janjic, the respected president of Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade, only hours before the attack, that the embassy was monitoring incoming cruise missiles in order to develop counter-measures.
Interesting that, according to this report, the Chinese were geared up to monitor cruise missiles sailing over the horizon, and the U.S. surprised them all of a sudden by dropping a JDAM in their laps on a thirty second trajectory from straight overhead.
Wonder if the choice of ordnance was meant to achieve an objective—or to send a message?
According to the Observer, the behind the scenes U.S. attitude to the embassy bombing was: Mission Accomplished.
British, Canadian and French air targeteers rounded on an American colonel on the morning of May 8. Angrily they denounced the “cock-up”. The US colonel was relaxed. “Bullshit,” he replied to the complaints. “That was great targeting … we put three JDAMs down into the (military] attache’s office and took out the exact room we wanted …
This story died the death in the U.S. media (I only saw references to it in the English papers at the time) and, to its everlasting credit, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) took the matter up.
In an October 22, 1999 article, FAIR wrote:
So far, the reaction in the mainstream U.S. media has been a deafening silence. To date, none of America’s three major network evening news programs has mentioned the Observer’s findings. Neither has the New York Times or USA Today, even though the story was covered by AP, Reuters and other major wires. The Washington Post relegated the story to a 90-word news brief in its “World Briefing” (10/18/99), under the headline “NATO Denies Story on Embassy Bombing.”By contrast, the story appeared in England not only in the Observer and its sister paper, the Guardian (10/17/99), but also in their leading rival, the Times of London, which ran a follow-up article on the official reaction the next day (10/18/99). The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most prestigious paper, ran the full Reuters account prominently in its international section (10/18/99). So did the Times of India, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Irish Times (all 10/18/99). The prominent Danish daily Politiken, which collaborated with the Observer on the investigation, was on strike, but ran the story on its website.
FAIR and its supporters rattled a few media cages, and got dismissive replies from the New York Times and USA Today.
The Times’ Andrew Rosenthal characterized the Observer article as “not terribly well sourced”.
In its rebuttal, FAIR stated:
FAIR contacted journalists at both the Observer and Politiken. According to the Observer’s U.S. correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, its foreign editor, Peter Beaumont, and Politiken reporter Jens Holsoe, their sources included the following:
–A European NATO military officer serving in an operational capacity at the four-star level – a source at the highest possible level within NATO–confirmed three things: (1) That NATO targeted the Chinese embassy deliberately; (2) That the embassy was emitting Yugoslav military radio signals; and (3) That the target was not approved through the normal NATO channels but through a second, “American-only” track.
–A European NATO staff officer at the two-star level in the Defense Intelligence office confirmed the same story.–
Two U.S. sources: A very high-ranking former senior American intelligence official connected to the Balkans – “about as high as you can get,” according to one reporter — confirmed that the embassy was deliberately targeted. A mid-ranking current U.S. military official, also connected to the Balkans, confirmed elements of the story and pointedly refused to deny that the embassy had been bombed deliberately.
–A NATO flight controller based in Naples and a NATO intelligence officer monitoring Yugoslav radio broadcasts from Macedonia each confirmed that NATO’s signals intelligence located Yugoslav military radio signals coming from the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. When they informed their superiors, they were told that the matter would be handled further up in the chain of command. Two weeks later, the embassy was bombed.
–An official at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency told the reporters that NATO’s official explanation, which involves a faulty map of Belgrade, is a “damned lie.”
Finally, the Times, still coasting on its Pentagon Papers reputation in those halcyon, pre-Judy Miller days, replied to one correspondent:
“There is nothing in the distinguished history of the Times — where reporters have risked their lives, been threatened with jail and indeed gone to jail to protect the public’s right to know things the government does not want to get out — to suggest that we would withhold such a story.”
A 1999 report by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom discusses how the U.K. media spun the war, notes in passing:
Equally, when the Chinese embassy was hit, resulting in several deaths, the true consequences the action were hidden. Television pictures illustrating the structural damage to the building were shown, the bodies of two passing Serbian school children were not. The media played along.
Certainly, the media was willing to give NATO forces the benefit of the doubt and provide them not only with enthusiastic cheerleading but active image management during the Kosovo intervention.
The fact the New York Times was unwilling to pick up the Observer story cannot be attributed solely to the Gray Lady’s irreproachably high standards in journalism.
When weighing the credibility of the Observer report, it is also worth recalling that, by CIA Director Tenet’s own admission, of the 900 targets struck during the Kosovo war, the CIA was responsible for only one targeting package—the bombing that was ostensibly meant to take out an insignificant Yugoslavian paper-shuffling operation and ended up destroying the Chinese embassy’s intelligence directorate instead.
Another investigative report confirmed that, not only was the target selected by the CIA, the entire mission was flown by the United States outside of standard NATO channels (NATO, of course, was the vehicle for European and American intervention in the Kosovo conflict; it was not a U.S.-directed war).
This is not my day for coming up with direct links to original reporting, but I found a posting on Venik’s Aviation of what looks like an accurate transcription of a May 2000 article from Air Forces Monthly, a European publication, detailing the mission.
It delivers the goods on what actually struck the Chinese embassy (not “guided missiles” or “laser guided munitions” as other outlets reported):
In the early hours of May 7, 1999, a USAF B-2 Spirit bomber, escorted by EA-6B defence suppression aircraft and F-15C fighters, dropped three GPS-guided Joint Defence Air Munition (JDAM) bombs on the Chinese Embassy in the Novi Beograd district of Belgrade.
As to how the targeting “error” slipped by NATO:
It should be noted that, in an interview with the author, NATO spokesman Lee McClenny confirmed that the targeting information did not go through JTF NOBLE ANVIL, or any other NATO structure, in contrast to Tennet’s [sic] official public statements. Instead, the co-ordinates were passed directly from the CIA to Whiteman Air Force Base, the home of the 509th Bomb Wing, where it was programmed into the JDAMs. Mr McClenny asserted that the entire process had remained ‘Stateside’, hence the failure of NATO staff to ‘scrub’ the target to check its accuracy, authenticity and location.
When asked, the CIA again asserted that the story given by Tennet [sic] to the House Committee was true, but claimed that the targeting information went from the CIA to the Pentagon to be processed. The Pentagon was only prepared to say that “some of the F-117 and B-2 missions were used as ‘national assets’ and therefore did not pass through NATO command structures”, despite the requirement under the NATO charter to clear all missions carried out under NATO auspices with the NATO general council…
As to whether the United States would take the radical step of bombing a Chinese embassy simply to disrupt Milosevic’s peripatetic radio network, the article speculates that not only was the embassy’s spook contingent acquiring Elint (not Internet-ready lint, but electronic intelligence) on U.S. cruise missile launches, as had been reported in the Guardian article cited above; it was also field testing a passive sensing device that could detect Stealth aircraft.
The article posits that the system may have worked, it may have been provided targeting information to Yugoslavian air defenses, and may have been responsible for the shoot-down of an F-117 Stealth fighter two weeks before the bombing.
The new Passive Coherent Location System (PCLS) …is capable of acquiring stealth platforms and is also un-jamable, due to the lack of any emissions from the monitoring system. As a result, the PCLS is also immune to Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARMs) and conventional Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). ..
In the light of this, it would seem to be relevant to consider that the F-117 lost over Serbia was lost two weeks prior to the strikes on the Chinese Embassy. On the same night that the F-117 was lost, another returned to base with extensive damage. If the PCLS was to be on the verge of deployment, then the Kosovo campaign would have presented the Chinese military establishment with an unprecedented and un-missable opportunity to validate the system in the field. It should also be noted that Belgrade and Beijing have close military ties and it is probable that, were the system in operation, the targeting locks provided by the PCLS would be relayed to Serbian air defences.
The author poses the interesting possibility that the Chinese had compromised US Stealth technology, and that’s why the Stealth bomber that struck the embassy was accompanied by conventional, radar visible escorts:
Furthermore, if the stealth assets were as ‘low-observable’ as is claimed, the US would have seen no necessity in escorting these assets with non stealth defensive aircraft such as EA-6Bs and F-15Cs as they would not only have been redundant, but would have provided conventional air defence radars with a track on the overall package.
In July 1999, a Hong Kong magazine, Kai Fang, described Chinese intelligence operations in Belgrade in circumstantial detail, with particular attention to the military attache Ren Baokai (whose name was rendered in the Observer article as Ven Bo Koy), who headed a 12-person PLA team in Belgrade. Apparently, Ren’s contributions to Chinese knowledge of U.S. military secrets was so great his fate attracted the personal attention of China’s highest leadership:
…on 23 June, Guangming Ribao carried a report entitled “Chinese Military Attaches amidst the Flames of War.” According to the practice in mainland China, this report was apparently a routine “report of positive propaganda.” However, it also gave up, unintentionally, a very important secret: After the CPC embassy was destroyed in a missile attack on 8 May, what concerned the CPC top leadership the most was the fate of Ren Baokai, a Chinese military attache in its embassy in Yugoslavia.
As a matter of fact, when the news of the bombing of the Chinese embassy first came out, except for two persons who were already confirmed dead, a dozen of people were reported missing. However, according to this report, the CPC’s “relevant departments” had already been informed of the missing of Ren Baokai by that time, “the leading comrades of the party Central Committee, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission showed great concern over the matter,” and the PLA Headquarters of General Staff and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly issued a secret order that “Ren Baokai has to be sought out at whatever cost.” It was not until over 8 o’clock local time that Ren Baokai was found injured from under the ruins. After he was rushed to the hospital, the CPC made an unusual request that Yugoslavia do all it could to save Ren Baokai; meanwhile, the CPC also asked the Yugoslav Military Medical University to provide medical support for Ren Baokai’s treatment. Four days later, Ren Baokai was taken back to China by a special plane, and was received by Jiang Zemin and other leaders.
The Kai Fang article also proposes that the key role of Ren’s team in the Yugoslav shootdown of the F117 drove the United States to the momentous step of attacking China’s embassy in Belgrade.
Therefore, the only conclusion that one can draw to explain why the Chinese embassy was attacked by the United States with missiles is that the CPC’s military espionage operation carried out inside the embassy had already constituted a realistic threat to the NATO.
The author of the Kai Fang piece described the US attack as a complete success:
It has been disclosed that before the bombing incident, the CPC had already obtained a host of electronic information on the NATO’s air strikes, and had stored a considerably rich amount of combat reference data. However, all the information and data it had gathered was destroyed by US-made missiles, and the important equipment used for further monitoring the NATO’s military operational methods was no longer in existence. This apparently made the CPC burning with a frenzy of rage…
Certainly, if the United States believed that intelligence assets within the Chinese embassy had contributed materially to the downing of any U.S. aircraft, whether Stealth or conventional, a savage strike on the embassy, both to disable the operation and put the Chinese on notice, is certainly not out of the question.
But I, for one, wonder if China actually possessed the wherewithal in 1999 to crack the Stealth puzzle, or if they would take the near suicidal risk of passing targeting information to the Yugoslavs if they had it.
We can now bring some more recent, first-hand information to the mix.
China’s Ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time, Pan Zhanlin, has written a Chinese-language memoir entitled My Encounter with War .
Perhaps since it is largely a rather turgid and uninformative recounting of the chronology of the Kosovo crisis and offers no tell-all details about what China was really up to in the Balkans, it’s available free on-line.
Nevertheless, his account does offer some interesting and perhaps important details.
Living in Belgrade during the NATO bombing campaign, Ambassador Pan became something of an expert on precision-bombing tactics, and he reports on the effect of the five bombs in detail:
The first bomb entered the side of the building at an angle near the roof and tore through to the first floor and detonated at a bottom corner at the dormitory, tearing a pit several meters deep. One of the fatalities and many of the injuries occurred here. The second bomb hit the middle of the roof and went through to the first floor auditorium, causing no fatalities but giving Ambassador Zhan food for thought by incinerating his office and melting the frame of his day bed. The third bomb hit the northwest corner and blasted through several floor, killing two people. The fourth bomb came in a window of the half basement, exploded, destroyed the embassy clubhouse and shattered the building’s structural members. The fifth bomb crashed through the roof of the ambassador’s villa. Fortunately for Ambassador Zhan, who was there at the time, it didn’t explode. Since B2s drop their bombs in even numbers to keep the plane balanced, there was speculation that perhaps a sixth bomb had also entered the basement; but it was never found.
Venik’s website has a photograph of a fragment of a JDAM recovered from the Chinese embassy which is on display at the Museum of Yugoslav Aviation near the Belgrade airport. He identifies it as a 2000 pound MK 84 bomb, the biggest bang in the JDAM arsenal.
As to the damage the embassy sustained, news photos and reports show that the facade was blown off one side of the building from roof to ground, and extensive damage and injuries resulted (rescue teams did not find and extract Ren Baokai until more than 8 hours after the attack) but the building did not pancake.
The Chinese were forced to abandon the embassy because of the unexploded and as yet unlocated bomb. Nobody dared redevelop the site and the derelict embassy became an eyesore. Finally the Serbian government raised the funds for the expensive and complex job of removing the bomb.
On July 3, 2004, People’s Daily carried a brief item:
Defense Minister of Serbia and Montenegro Prvoslav Davinic said on July 1 that an unexploded missile has been dug out from the ruins of the Chinese Embassy. At midnight May 7, 1999, the NATO led by the United States launched a missile attack on the Chinese Embassy, with five missiles hitting the embassy, leaving three Chinese reporters dead, more than 20 diplomats wounded and the embassy building devastated. One of the missiles did not exploded [sic].
The article includes a picture of the unexploded bomb in situ, and an exterior shot of the place where the bomb was found.
I leave it to structural engineers and ordnance enthusiasts to assess whether this damage is consistent with an assault of five JDAMs meant to destroy the entire embassy; a surgical strike to take out the military attache’s office; or the aftermath of a dud-studded fiasco.
Concerning the importance of Ren Baokai, Ambassador Pan states that Ren’s fate was indeed the subject of urgent queries from Beijing in the eight hours before he was found.
Taken together with the Guangming Ribao report cited above by Kai Fang magazine, we can safely make the inference that, yes, China’s military attache on the spot monitoring America’s latest high-tech war with China’s most secret and sensitive military technology was probably a pretty important guy.
Was the high-level attention to Ren’s fate was prompted by the institutional concern that the CCP reserves for its most capable and productive operatives, or was Chinese intelligence desperate to get Ren back alive in order to obtain some crucial information that Ren had somehow forgotten to write down and transmit to Beijing while he was sitting in an embassy full of secure communications equipment?
I lean toward the former explanation, but I suppose we could ask Ren himself. The last I was able to find, he was back in Belgrade serving as military attache to China’s embassy to Serbia-Montenegro.
Ambassador Pan is anxious to characterize the American attack as intentional and motivated by pure cussedness: to break the back of the Milosevic regime by demonstrating to its allies that diplomatic support was not only useless but positively dangerous.
He carefully if awkwardly debunks the scenarios that the embassy was bombed because Milosevic was sheltering or visiting there, or that it was rebroadcastingYugoslav military communications.
No reference is made to any electronic intelligence activities by China that might have provoked the strike.
Concerning the shootdown of the F117, Pan reports that the scuttlebutt in diplomatic circles was that the plane was located using the Czech Tamara anti-stealth system. His informants told him it couldn’t detect the Stealth aircraft, but that the passage of the plane through sensor coverage left a distinctive “hole” in the CRT display. The Yugoslavs noticed this anomaly and used it to unleash a barrage of 30 SAM missiles at the place where they guessed that the fighter would be, bringing it down.
Pan might be peddling disinformation but, given the fact that not only China but the United States have been interested in acquiring Tamara systems, I would take issue with the conclusion of the AFM and Kai Fang articles that China was field testing a major breakthrough in anti-Stealth detection in Yugoslavia and using it to shoot down American planes.
It seems more likely that Yugoslavia was using the Tamara equipment rather than deploying some Chinese beta version. The Czech system would have been a vital piece of technology that the Yugoslavs owned and were sharing with the deeply interested Chinese, instead of the other way around.
Also, from my layman’s point of view, the Tamara system (or anything like it for that matter), requiring multiple sensing locations linked to a central processor by microwave, does not look like something that could be installed in somebody’s office in the embassy.
If this is correct, the idea that the United States would destroy the Chinese embassy because its military attache was kibitzing with the Yugoslavian army over an Eastern European anti-Stealth system installed somewhere else in Belgrade—or because we wanted to decapitate China’s military intelligence network in Yugoslavia to make sure that data on successful Stealth countermeasures did not make it back to China–seems to be rather implausible.
There is a third possibility, in addition to the rebroadcast and Elint scenarios: the F-117 wreckage story.
And it has a radically different outcome.
The Chinese Internet is rife with urban legends concerning the Belgrade strike. Nobody regards it as accidental, and many Chinese seem willing to ascribe all sorts of shenanigans to the Chinese embassy that provoked the attack.
The most interesting scenario is one that the poster attributes to “a private encounter with a Chinese naval officer who was slightly tipsy”.
According to this informant, the Yugoslavian government had recovered the wreckage of the shot-down F-117 and sold key pieces of it to China. The navigation system, fuselage fragments with the Stealth coating, and high temperature nozzle components of the engine were spirited into the basement of the Chinese embassy. Unfortunately, there was a locator beacon inside the INU powered by a battery and, before the Chinese could discover and disable it, the U.S. military was alerted to the location of the F-117 fragments.
In this version of the story, at least, there is a happy ending for the Chinese. The U.S. attacked the embassy with a laser-guided bomb meant to penetrate to the basement and destroy the embassy and the F-117 prize, but it didn’t explode!
The wreckage made it to China (in the special plane Beijing dispatched to carry home the survivors and the bodies of the victims of the attack, according to other accounts).
In the reported words of the officer (“who spoke with tears in his eyes”):
“Although some of our people sacrificed their lives, we gained no less than ten years in the development of our Stealth materials. We purchased this progress with our blood and international mortification.”
This is an interesting story.
In certain respects—the laser-guided part and the basement stash—it conflicts with more creditable reports.
The embassy’s sub-basement, which served as an all purpose cafeteria, recreation center, and bomb shelter—an unlikely hidey hole for F-117 parts–was hit once, possibly twice, and it seems unlikely that anything could have been recovered from there.
But conspiracy theorists can draw solace from Ambassador Pan’s description of the four cases of “important state materials” that two brave embassy workers ran up to the fifth floor of the burning embassy to extract. Pan stated:
“They knew these materials were more important than life.”
Standard-issue cypher equipment and secret files?
Special Elint monitoring equipment?
Or the crown jewels of America’s Stealth program?
I lean toward the third explanation, because glomming onto some secret airplane parts and then sneaking them out of a burning building is the kind of low tech triumph that fits in with my sense of China’s capabilities and interests inside Yugoslavia at the time.
The United States may have felt that by purchasing the wreckage, China had crossed the line from diplomatic support for Milosevic and conventional military-attache espionage to a more overt intelligence alliance with Yugoslavia in a deeply sensitive areas of U.S. military technology, and needed to be taught a lesson.
I also wish to explore a pyschological element, which perhaps affects China’s outlook to this day.
You can see hints of it in the F 117 in the basement story. It has a touching, almost child-like wish-fulfillment element: the evil empire destroyed our embassy but we escaped with the plans to the Death Star!
The embassy bombing was quite traumatic to China.
However, when the attack occured, triggering official and popular anger within China, the West was disbelieving, dismissive—and defensive.
It was considered rather churlish of the Chinese to intrude their crude and manufactured nationalistic outrage into our “good war” narrative of the Kosovo conflict by trying to make political capital out of our honest mistake.
And even if we were willing to entertain the possibility that the bombing was intentional, the “precision bombing” meme offered the comforting idea that we had simply given a misbehaving office in the embassy an admonitory plink.
In this context, it is interesting to point out an inaccuracy in both the Observer and Air Forces Monthly accounts.
From the Observer: “The Chinese may have calculated that Nato would not dare strike its embassy, but the five-storey building was emptied every night of personnel.”
From AFM via Venik: Despite the fact that the embassy building was evacuated of all nonessential personnel during the hours of darkness to avoid any potential casualties, three Chinese were killed and more than 20 injured.
As both the casualty reports and Pan’s account makes clear, the embassy was filled with people at night, including members of the staff who were afraid to go home because their residences were too close to NATO bombing targets in Belgrade.
The strikingly similar nature of these inaccuracies indicate that they came not from on the scene reporting but from the correspondents’ military sources.
It could have been a situation in which bad intel ( “Mr. President, we‘ll bomb the place at night, nobody’ll be there but those damn spooks!”) morphed into behind the scenes spin (“Yeah, we did it but there was nobody in there but them spooks!”) and finally mutated into a public excuse for an operation that might otherwise be viewed as excessively reckless (“In a piece of high-tech derring-do, the U.S. staged a daring but successful assault targeting Chinese intelligence assets inside the otherwise empty building”.)
I, for one, find it more likely we went in at night simply because we wanted to make sure that Ren Bokai’s meddling team was in the embassy, in its vulnerable fifth-floor office, and huddled over its equipment monitoring our bombing raids when we unleashed the attack.
In any case, both investigative reports erred on the side of credulity in minimizing the human cost of the attack—and the impact it might have on Chinese perceptions and policy.
Today, with further information on the attack and the benefit of perspective, it is difficult to dismiss the shock the Belgrade bombing inflicted on the Chinese.
Post 9/11, Ambassador Pan’s description of the attack is depressing familiar, and more difficult to disregard.
Pan’s plodding prose reawakens dark memories of our own as he conveys the shock and fear as the embassy explodes into flames, “the loudest sound I ever heard”. Survivors found the stairwells blocked by rubble and fire and desperately improvised escapes down the exterior of the building using knotted drapes. Pan saw his friends and colleagues stagger from the ruins of the embassy dazed and bloody, crying out for help.
Amid the chaos everybody ducked in fear of a follow-up attack as NATO bombers thundered overhead (May 7 was one of the busiest nights for aerial bombing). Then came the frantic ad hoc attempts to rally the survivors, account for the living, and search for the missing.
First responders were at first unable to enter the compound because the electric gate was disabled when the bombing cut the power; ambulances race up to the shattered structure with sirens howling to rush away the injured willy-nilly; embassy staffers mounted a frantic search through the local hospitals for the injured.
Finally, there was the extraction of the dead, consoling of the wounded;the grieving; and the defiant patriotic oration.
Again viewed through a post-9/11 lens, Pan’s account also paints a picture of a privileged elite that has been stripped of the illusion that it is immune to attack, and realizing with anger, shame, and disgust that at that moment it is helpless, vulnerable, and unable to retaliate.
Regardless of U.S. motives for bombing the Belgrade embassy or what treasures of military intelligence the Chinese were able to save from the wreckage, if anything was needed to focus Chinese attention on the dangers of the US GPS satellite network—and perhaps to alert the Chinese leadership to the shattering effectiveness of a sudden, unexpected strike–getting its embassy, intelligence directorate, and military attache blown up in Belgrade 6 years ago probably did it.
Perhaps the Belgrade bombing contributed in some way to the direction and intensity of Chinese response to America’s burgeoning satellite-based security infrastructure—and to the abrupt and seemingly reckless and cavalier character of China’s most recent riposte: the ASAT test of January 11th
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
The Belgrade Bombing, the F-117 Cake, and the Tears of Premier Zhu Rongji
In a previous post I explored the possibility that the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 was intentional, with at least the partial objective of destroying wreckage of an F-117A Night Hawk Stealth fighter that Yugoslavia had shot down a few weeks previously.
I am indebted to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis for forwarding some news reports in which the fate of the wreck is discussed.
In 2001 (Fulghum & Wall, Russia Admits Testing F-117 Lost in Yugoslavia, Aviation Week & Space Technology, October 8, 2001), the Russian government acknowledged they had obtained access to F 117A wreckage and stated they used it primarily to improve the anti-Stealth performance of their anti-aircraft missiles.
In the hearsay department, an article in the September 27, 1999 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology (ed. Bruce D. Nordwall, Earthly Remains) reported, “a Russian official said that some parts had made their way to Moscow, but that the bulk of the airframe was shipped to China.”, a claim that “Pentagon analysts” dismissed “because “China…doesn’t have the industrial capability to benefit from either the design or the systems.”
Contra the Pentagon analysts, simply because China’s Stealth programs were in their infancy at the time doesn’t mean that in 1999 China would not yearn for such a cool and potentially useful trophy as fragments of an American Stealth fighter.
As is now known, Yugoslavians did not turn the entire wreck over to the Russians.
Portions are on display in the Yugoslav Museum of Aviation today and I came across an unconfirmed traveler’s tale that tourists can even purchase souvenir fragments at the museum.
As to what could have been divied up with the Chinese, the advanced targeting, sensor, and communications systems that the Russians were purportedly interested in neatly dovetail with the reported Chinese take of INU, engine nozzle, and fuselage chunks.
It certainly is plausible that the Yugoslavian government would seek to extract as much propaganda, financial, military, and geopolitical advantage as possible from the F-117A carcass, selling the biggest piece to the Soviet Union but also sharing a few juicy scraps with the PRC, the junior partner in the de facto anti-NATO alliance.
As to whether or not the United States would deem it necessary or desirable to bomb the Chinese embassy to flinders in order to destroy the F-117A wreckage, the Clinton administration suffered a certain amount of criticism for not bombing the wreckage in the wheat field where the plane had fallen order to deny it to other unfriendly parties.
Analyzing the experiences of the Kosovo conflict, RAND opined:
Heated arguments arose in Washington and elsewhere in the immediate aftermath of the shootdown over whether USEUCOM had erred in not aggressively having sought to destroy the wreckage of the downed F 117 in order to keep its valuable stealth technology out of unfriendly hands and eliminate its propaganda value…Said a former commander of Tactical Air Command…”I’m surprised we didn’t bomb it because the standard operating procedure has always been that when you lose something of real or perceived value—in this case, real technology, stealth—you destroy it.”…Reports indicated that military officials had at first considered destroying the wreckage but opted in the end not to follow through with the attempt because they could not have located it quickly enough to attack it before it was surrounded by civilians and the media.
It’s also interesting to note that the stated reason for not ordering an attack on the crash site was that it was overrun not only with Yugoslavian military types but also local rubberneckers and international journalists.
Instead of obliterating a white, Western audience the Clinton administration might have turned to a measure it had employed in the past, after the USS Cole bombing, when it faced criticism for being insufficiently martial and excessively dilatory: knocking down a Third World asset, in this case the Chinese embassy instead of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant.
Maybe the U.S. honestly believed that there was some top secret stuff in the Chinese embassy, or maybe the Clinton administration was eager to forestall G.O.P. criticism of its handling of the F-117A shootdown and decided to respond with a showy if meaningless foray against an adversary that was proving somewhat nettlesome, but was chosen because it was vulnerable and unlikely to retaliate.
As an object lesson in the perils of military and geopolitical weakness, the Chinese probably paid some attention to the fact that somehow it was their embassy, and not that of Serbian ally Numero Uno and Most Plausible and Afterwards Officially Certified F-117 Wreckage Holder, a.k.a. the U.S.S.R., that got bombed.
For whatever reason—scientific countermeasures, espionage, or design flaws–it transpired that the F-117 was not as stealthy as the United States had consistently professed. In the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, the Yugoslavians contended that its radar signature was only reduced by 50%. Chinese scuttlebutt claimed that the United States withdrew F-117s from South Korea because it was believed they could not effectively evade Chinese detection measures.
In any case, the Air Force is doing its best to consign the F-117 to the boneyard before the service life it originally promised to the U.S. Congress for this aircraft has expired, and replace it with the F22A Raptor.
My intention is not to evangelize the idea that there was F-117 wreckage in the basement of the Chinese embassy. Somebody in China knows what was really in the embassy, and I suppose one of these days they’ll go public and we’ll find out.
As the F-117 and its secrets fade into oblivion, what is worthy of further mulling over is the role that the Belgrade bombing seems to play as the creation myth of the birth of the 21st Chinese strategic military doctrine, founded on the assumption that the U.S. will unscrupulously use its military, diplomatic, and propaganda advantages not only to contain China but even to attack it when need, desire, and circumstances permit.
In this context, the Belgrade embassy is holy ground, and there are as many versions of the Truth as there are books in the Bible.
The recollections of China’s ambassador Pan Zhanlin, imbue a certain incident after the bombing with a heroic and close to mythic character.
The two comrades in charge of the embassy’s important assets were Little Wang and Little Zheng. One slept in the duty office on the fifth floor, one slept in the dormitory on the fourth floor. Little Wang pierced through the dust and smoke and by the light of the flames dsecended from the fifth floor to the fourth floor. At this time, Little Zheng emerged from the bedroom. Little Wang grabbed hold of Little Zheng and ran back upstairs. Little Zheng had already been injured and his face was flecked with blood. People who ran into them urgently asked: “Why are you going back up?” Little Wang replied: “There is something that needs doing. This is our job.” They picked up four cases of national important assets and battled through smoke and pierced through flames to get downstairs. The stairwell was cut off, they stumbled down to the third floor. Ahead of time, the embassy had made various preparations for an emergency, so these four cases of important things had already been prepared. If any untoward event had occurred, they could be picked up and moved immediately. They knew, these things were more important than life.
负责使馆重要资财的两位同志，小王和小郑，一个睡在五层的值班室，一个睡在四层的宿舍。小王透过烟尘，借 助火光，从五楼下到四楼。这时，小郑正从寝室出来。小王一把拉住小郑往楼上跑。小郑已经受伤，脸上淌着血。有人这时遇到他们，急忙问：“你们为什么还往上 跑？”小王回答说：“有事，咱们是干这一行的。”他们从五层拿起四箱国家重要资财，冒烟突火往下走。楼梯被阻断，他们跌跌撞撞地来到三楼。使馆事先做了各 种应急准备，这四箱重要的东西事先已准备好。一旦发生意外情况，可以拿起来立即转移。他们知道，这东西比生命更重要。
Rather off-puttingly, having set the stage, Pan makes no effort to tell us what was in these boxes, and instead jumps off to the next item in his story, leaving the reader with a bad case of narrativus interruptus.
However, Pan’s obvious intention is to inform the reader that they were super special “national important assets” that were not embassy intelligence or other equipment in normal everyday use—they were packed and ready to move at a moment’s notice.
And, of course, they were more important than life itself.
The active imagination of the reader is left to fill in the blanks.
On the Chinese Internet, there has been considerable speculation as to the nature of the intelligence coup that could have provoked the U.S. bombing.
In addition to F-117A parts, there are assertions that the Chinese embassy also had a Tomahawk cruise missile in the basement.
Some posters claim that the only piece of U.S. hardware that China was able to extract and ship back to Beijing was a dud JDAM dropped during the attack—a scenario that Pan contemptuously dismisses, and which seems completely unlikely given the wartime chaos surrounding the attack.
There was a dud JDAM, but it took a lengthy, delicate, and expensive excavation process in 2004 to extract it from where it had buried itself deep beneath the Chinese embassy.
There are darker versions, which imply the only harvest China reaped from the Yugoslavian war was a planeful of corpses.
The story is that at the onset of the Kosovo conflict, a thirty or so Chinese radar and materials specialists boarded an unmarked 737 plane to assist the Yugoslavian government in using multi-location radar to detect Stealth aircraft. After the F-117A was shot down, the U.S. government learned that China was supposed to receive F-117A wreckage for study and ordered the attack. After the embassy bombing a similar, unmarked plane returned to China and discharged its cargo of coffins. Depending on the poster, the airport at which this melancholy scene was acted out was either at Lanzhou or at Beijing’s Nanyuan military airport.
According to these versions, the number of fatalities in the embassy bombing far exceeded the three officially acknowledged and reported in the media.
One poster claims to have been sent to Shenyang Aircraft Co. for training and received a security briefing from the Ministry of State Security using declassified documents that revealed the secrets of the embassy bombing.
I can’t quite wrap my mind around how the Ministry of State Security feels plant security is enhanced by briefings using declassified documents that trainees feel free to discuss on the Internet.
In any case, the poster declares that of the 30 so-called journalists at the embassy, at least 12 were special agents, China was extremely interested in getting its hands on F-117A wreckage, the CIA noticed Chinese “journalists” at the crash site, assumed they were spies, and the embassy bombing was ordered as a result “to destroy the physical evidence”.
I do find it suggestive that all the posts on this story seem to dance around the question of whether or not China had actually acquired F-117A wreckage.
I already noted Ambassador Pan’s mysterioso yarn-spinning above.
In the Shenyang Aircraft Co. post, the writer jumps from China’s interest in the wreckage to declaring that the U.S. deciding it wanted to destroy “physical evidence” without confirming that the embassy actually contained bits of the F-117A.
So I’m leaning towards the conclusion that the Chinese government wants to spread a certain story about the Belgrade bombing in which there was F-117A wreckage in the embassy, but is withholding this detail as “still classified”.
Maybe the Chinese defense industry studied the wreckage and profited greatly from it; or got the fragments, threw millions of dollars at the problem, and was unable to do anything useful with it, which is probably not an uncommon fate in Chinese reverse-engineering boondoggles; or the spooks on the ground did get the stuff from the Yugoslavs but were unable to extract it from the burning embassy; or they never got it in the first place but, for reasons of national pride, want people to think that they did.
Whatever the real outcome, the “F-117 wreckage in the embassy” story has a lot of legs inside China.
On the other hand, the legend that China supplied significant assistance to the Yugoslavian air force in shooting down the F 117A doesn’t seem to have a lot of traction.
Global Views, a Chinese magazine, posted an interesting article (Global Views website hopeless; article posted on a Chinese bulletin board; written in 2006 according to internal evidence) containing interviews with several of the Yugoslavian officers involved in the shootdown, which confirms and amplifies the story that NATO Commander Wesley Clark was told.
1960s tube amplifier enthusiasts will be thrilled to learn that the Yugoslavian air force attributes the shootdown of the F117A to P-12 type vacuum tube-technology Russian radars so old the U.S. considered them obsolete.
According to their account, the F117A Stealth fighter was detectable by antique radar operating at wavelengths of 2 meters—a detail that had supposedly escaped the Stealth designers, who operated on the assumption that the plane would only have to be invisible to modern centimeter and millimeter wavelength radars.
On the evening of March 27, Yugoslavia’s anti-aircraft defenses detected an aircraft entering Yugoslavian airspace at a distance of 80 km. The radar was immediately shut off, since U.S. planes were armed with radar seeking missiles that would fire automatically within 20 seconds and track the signal to its source and destroy it. The Yugoslavian anti-aircraft crews had been rigorously trained to either acquire and fire on a target or turn off their radar within this 20-second window. The radar was switched on when the target was about 15 km away and a barrage of SA-2 SAM missiles were fired manually. The F117A fell to earth. Witnesses said, “It looked like a sparrow shot from the sky.”
The shootdown raised an important tactical and strategic issue for NATO. Bad weather had limited helicopter operations and the U.S. was relying on high-altitude bombing to advance its war objectives. Therefore, a great deal of attention was paid to identifying and disabling Yugoslavia’s anti-aircraft facilities.
The Global Vision article reports that the headquarters of the 126 Mid-Air Detection and Anti-Aircraft Battalion—which had detected the plane—was attacked 11 times, each time with 5 JDAM bombs. The 250th Battalion—which fired the offending SAMs–was attacked 22 times.
The Yugoslav asserts that the 3rd Brigade of the 250th Battalion, whose missiles actually brought down the plane, suffered no fatalities or casualties during the war, leading them to brag: “We’re the real Stealth”.
The F-117A shootdown provided a psychological boost to the Yugoslavs which lives on to this day.
Every year on March 27 the 250th Battalion, now part of the Serbian Air Force, holds a raucous party. The main event occurs when a large cake bedecked with candles is rolled out. On the top is a rendering of an F-117A Nighthawk in chocolate. At precisely 8:42 pm, the exact time of the shootdown, the first slice is cut—through the port wing, which is the one severed by the SAM barrage.
No word as to whether the cake is inscribed with the taunt “Neener Neener” or the Serbian equivalent.
On the other hand, the U.S. was dismayed by the loss of its aircraft.
The RAND report states:
[The downing] meant not merely the loss of a key U.S. combat aircraft but the dimming of the F-117’s former aura of invincibility, which for years had been of incalculable psychological value to the United States.
For psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists as well as political scientists, I think a fruitful field would be the study of compensatory psychological mechanisms of weaker countries that have endured American military attack.
As I’ve noted above, we don’t know if the Chinese were able to extract any intelligence treasures from the embassy, or even if the embassy was actually attacked on purpose, for that matter.
What we do know is that the embassy attack excited fears of anger and impotence within the Chinese elite, because they could not prevent or deter the attack, defend against the attack, or retaliate after the attack.
On the psychological level, the Chinese coped with the bombing both by venting their outrage and by fixating on theories that China was able to claim a victory by extracting something of enormous value—F 117-A parts, a Tomahawk missile, a JDAM—that mitigated the blow and “saved China ten years” in its military development.
The Shenyang poster writes:
Upon learning the this genuine picture, I believe that the U.S. attack on our embassy came from the fact that China’s accurate reporting of the Yugoslavia war provoked America to anger and retribution. At the very least we can say that China’s strength really was incapable of hindering America’s risky move. Now we know, and it causes us to appreciate even more profoundly that a nation, when it is poor and weak, is without recourse and pitiful (How helpless and evoking bitterness in people’s hearts were the tears of Premier Zhu Rongji as he wept at the airfield when the remains of the martyrs were transported back to China).
在知道这个真相之前我只是认为美国轰炸我们使馆是处于中国对南战的真 实报道激怒了美国而招致其报复，那至少说明了我们中国实力真的没到可以阻击美国冒险的地步，现在知道了，然而使我更深刻的领会到一个国家在批贫弱时的命运 是多么的无奈与悲哀(株容基总理在烈士遗体运回国内的机场上的眼泪是多么的无奈与令人心酸)！
I might add that Zhu Rongji, while not a hard-case sociopath like some members of the CCP leadership, is no cupcake. As Premier he projected a tough git’er done persona that would make an emotional expression like crying at the airport a memorable and significant image.
On a more practical level…well, I’ll let the Shenyang poster describe the consequences for military planners—and military contractors—both in China and the United States.
Detailing a litany of high-tech armaments from fighters to cruisers to nuclear submarines funded with a RMB 50 billion allocation, he concludes:
Afterwards we learned that after the bombing China engaged in deep reflection and understood reality more clearly…all of these [developments] transmit this single message to the world—China yearns to be strong and great!