November 17, 2005

Secrets of 1999 F-117 Shootdown Revealed

by Zord Gabor Laszlo
Nov. 9, 2005

With his early retirement last year from the former Yugoslav (now Serbia and Montenegro) military, one of the most successful surface-to-air-missile (SAM) battery comanders of recent times can finally tell his story on how he and his men shot down two US Air Force (USAF) tactical aircraft – an F-117 and an F-16 – during Operation Allied Force in 1999. Minor modifications to existing obsolete air-defense missile systems, survivability through mobility, and radio-frequency (RF) discipline led to those kills, he said.

The 3rd battery of the Yugoslav 250th Missile Brigade was responsible for the air defense of the Beograd area, together with other batteries of the same brigade. The 3rd battery employed the S-125 (SA-3) SAM system to shoot down a US Air Force F-117 and F-16.

Photo by Zord Gabor Laszlo

Although the name of Col. Dani Zoltan emerged earlier in some interviews with local media since 1999, it wasn't until October of this year that he was revealed to be the commander of the unit responsible for both manned aircraft kills by the former Yugoslav air-defense force during the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. The Serbian alias Gvozden Djukic had been used, instead, to describe the ethnic Hungarian commander in some propaganda articles, apparently in an effort to hide his ethnicity. With his retirement, however, he chose to reveal his true identity and the role he played in 1999 to the public.

His unit, the 3rd battery of the 250th Missile Brigade, was responsible for the air defense of the Beograd area, together with other batteries of the same brigade. Equipped with the S-125M Neva (NATO: SA-3 Goa) command-guided SAM system (for more information on the Neva and other Soviet-made SAM systems, see "Castles in the Sky"), Dani's battery, however, had some key advantages over its sister units. According to Dani, this advantage was based on their previous research into the field of the detection, acquisition, and destruction of targets with low radar cross-sections (RCSs) or those employing low-observable technologies. He said he and his subordinate officers followed articles written about the F-117 since its emergence from secrecy, calculating at the same time how systems in service with the Yugoslav air-defense forces could possibly cope with such a threat. Finally, during the NATO power demonstrations in 1998 (held to ward off Serbia from its actions in Kosovo), he proposed minor, in-field technical modifications to the SAM system: one to the UNV antenna unit and the UNK-M control cabin responsible for missile control (NATO: Low Blow), with another modification to the P-18 (NATO: Dry Rack or Spoon Rest D) radar that provides target acquisition for each battery. His superiors declied to approved the modifications, though, saying instead that "this system simply cannot handle the stealth."

Tough challenges to the Yugoslavian integrated air-defense system were on the horizon, but individiual initiatives were still not encouraged, even though they promised a chance to improve inferior systems. Just a few weeks before the air war started, Dani tried once more, but to no avail. At this time, however, he finally went ahead and implemented his proposed modifications within his own unit without higher approval, taking full responsibility. Altough he still declines to discuss particulars, it seems the alterations required little materiel, and the maintenance and servicing capabilities attached to his battery were up to the task of the "quick fix." The only specific Col. Dani would provide was that the modifications did not involve the use of the auxilliary Karat TV target-tracking system.

In addition to technical modifications to increase the probability of successful engagement of low-RCS targets, Col. Dani also trained his unit to fight against the NATO air armada. Engagements using the shortest possible radiation of the fire-control radar were practiced over and over, and Col. Dani indicated that they focused on engaging targets well within the possible launch zone to reduce the time of flight of the missiles and, therefore, the reaction time available to the target aircraft. Dani's unit also received reservists who boosted his unit's manpower to approximately 200 personnel – in accordance with the standard wartime employment plan of a Neva battery. They also received two extra quad (4) missile launchers beyond the original four, and their stocks of V-601P missiles were boosted as well, in anticipation of a low kill probability and high missile consumption.

Col. Dani Zoltan suggested that his battery used primarily its own resources – mostly the P-18 radar (like the one seen here) and visual observation – to build a faint picture of situational awareness and to understand NATO operations for later use.

Photo by Zord Gabor Laszlo

On the first night of Operation Allied Force, March 24, 1999, the task of stopping the attackers fell to Yugoslav interceptors, and SAM activity was held back. Later on, however, when the clear beyond-visual-range (BVR) superiority of the NATO fighters became evident, the Yugoslav SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) units took on sole responsibility for air defense. With a low kill probability projected, due to their admittedly inferior technology, the realistic aim of the Yugoslav SAM and AAA units was to stay alive as long as possible to distract the NATO strike packages from their objective. Forcing the NATO aircraft into evasive maneuvers that required them to jettison stores and tanks seemed more likely than actually shooting down aircraft. However, on day four, the 3rd battery of the 250th brigade succeeded in downing an F-117 – an act that clearly helped the Serbs in escalating the propaganda war to win public support, while at the same time, dealing a blow to the West. Dani said his unit shot two missiles with the target flying head-on at the battery at an altitude of 8 km at a range of 13 km. The whole engagement took only 18 seconds. Following standard operating procedure, he was sitting in the UNK-M cabin in front of the remote display of the P-18 radar, supervising his crew's combat work.

Although Dani acknowledged that they received information updates from the central command and control (always through landlines – no radio and no cellular communications), he said they wandered almost randomly around the sector they were assigned to protect. While on the move, Col. Dani's unit had to avoid detection by NATO forces and the attacks that would be sure to follow, then find places from which they had the highest probability of disrupting enemy air operations. Most of the time the actual firing unit, held closely together by Dani, included only those elements required for a short engagement: the missile-guidance radar, two (instead of four) quad launchers, acquisition radar, and generators. Setting up in just 60 minutes from transport configuration to firing position (preferably near vegetation offering natural concealment), this "core" of the battery usually stayed in one place no longer than a few hours. According to Dani, his battery covered approximately 100,000 km during the 78 days of the war, mostly at night in blackout conditions and without a single road accident.

Beyond frequent relocation, RF discipline contributed to the 3rd battery's eventual survival, and the unit suffered no human or materiel losses at all. Radiation time of the fire-control radar was kept to a minimum, although with the P-18 they could be more liberal, as this VHF radar – according to their experiences – could not be targeted by NATO's High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs). Even with this precaution, though, they were forced to cease radiation and/or missile control 23 times when it became evident from the target-return fluctuations or other indications that a HARM had been launched at them. False transmitters in the vicinity of the battery's location were also used to spoof the anti-radiation missiles. Dani added that the survivability of the VHF P-18 is the single biggest reason for the command-guided Neva system's success compared to the semi-active Kub (SA-6) system. The Kub's radar complex, the SURN (NATO: Straight Flush), which operates on a different wavelength from the P-18, was more vulnerable to NATO HARMs. While the Neva battery was not vulnerable to HARMs during the detection/acquisition phase of the engagement, the Kub exposed itself from the beginning of its search for targets. (For more on the SAM threat faced by NATO during Operation Allied Force, see "The Evolving SAM Threat: Kosovo and Beyond.")

The retired colonel also suggested that his battery used primarily its own resources (mostly the P-18 radar and visual observation) to build a faint picture of situational awareness and to understand NATO operations for later use. However, this is not entirely true, as it is now known that the US didn't vary the flight paths of its F-117s, so their locations could be predicted to a certain extent. Serb forces also often received phone calls from just outside Aviano Air Base in Italy, alerting them when a NATO aircraft had taken off. Combining these two pieces of intelligence, it would not be too difficult to determine where an F-117 was at any given time (see "Shrewd Tactics May Have Downed Stealth Fighter").

Dani declined to say how many missiles they launched during the war beyond the four fired at the F-117 and the F-16, although he did confirm that "several" missiles fired by his unit missed their targets.


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