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.
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 radio 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).
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!