On April 22 (Earth Day!), the Los Angeles Times reported on the”secret retirement send-off” of the last of the F117A Stealth fighters, “those mysterious aircraft that revolutionized aerial warfare”.
The Times article is a competent piece of triumphalist milspeak including the inevitable handwringing over southern California’s shrinking aerospace industry.
But there’s a lot more to the story of the F117A.
The F117A was stealthy, but it wasn’t all that stealthy. A Serbian anti-aircraft battery shot one down, apparently using obsolete Russian radar.
And it wasn’t that secret.
Russia (which had originally developed the mathematics for stealth geometry) got pieces of the downed F117A to study.
The Chinese probably did too.
As a result, it’s been speculated the F117A’s stealth technology was sufficiently compromised that its deployment in South Korea was cancelled and it had to be retired prematurely in favor of the F22A Raptor.
And Chinese possession of Stealth wreckage is still the most likely explanation for one of the formative events in the creation of China’s current geopolitical and military mindset: the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
A more complete story of the F117A would probably go like this:
Every year on March 27 the 250th Anti-Aircraft 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.
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, 1999 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 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 Yugoslavs assert 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”.
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 did 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.
Turning to the matter of the downed plane, in 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.
As is now known, Yugoslavians did not turn the entire wreck over to the Russians.
Portions are on display in the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade 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.
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.
An 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).
China’s Ambassador to Yugoslavia at the time, Pan Zhanlin, has written a Chinese-language memoir entitled My Encounter with War .
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 Pan, who was there at the time, it didn’t explode.
Since B2s supposedly 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.
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.
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 depressingly familiar, and more difficult to disregard.
Pan’s account 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 raced 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 and the 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.
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 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 descended 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 in 1999 probably did it.
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 117A parts, a Tomahawk missile, a JDAM—that mitigated the blow and “saved China ten years” in its military development.
A Chinese poster writes:
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 projected a tough git’er done persona as Premier 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 Chinese 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!
Note to readers: In the spirit of Earth Day recycling—and to commemorate the retirement of the F117A—this post is a pastiche of two lengthy pieces I wrote last year on the F117 shootdown and the bombing of the Chinese embassy: The Belgrade Bombing, the F-117 Cake, and the Tears of Premier Zhu Rongji and Why China Hates Satellite-Guided Munitions, Part I: The Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 : Readers interested in more information on the Belgrade embassy controversy and the full links are invited to refer to these articles.