Zoltan believed he could still turn his ancient missiles into lethal weapons

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

The Serbian battery commander whose missiles downed an American F-16 and F-117 in 1999 retired as a colonel a few years later and revealed how he did it:

Zoltan had about 200 troops under his command. He got to know them well, trained hard and made sure everyone could do what was expected of them. This level of quality leadership was essential, for Zoltan’s achievements were a group effort.

Zoltan used a lot of effective techniques that American air defense experts expected, but did not expect to encounter because of poor leadership by the enemy. For example, Zoltan knew that his major foe was HARM (anti-radar) missiles and electronic detection systems used by the Americans, as well as smart bombs from aircraft who had spotted him. To get around this, he used landlines for all his communications (no cell phones or radio). This was more of a hassle, often requiring him to use messengers on foot or in cars. But it meant the American intel people overhead were never sure where he was.

His radars and missile launchers were moved frequently, meaning that some of his people were always busy looking for new sites to set up in, or setting up or taking down the equipment. His battery traveled over 100,000 kilometers during the 78 day NATO bombing campaign, just to avoid getting hit. They did, and his troops knew all that effort was worth the effort.

The Serbs had spies outside the Italian airbase most of the bombers operated from. When the bombers took off, the information on what aircraft they, and how many, quickly made it to Zoltan and the other battery commanders.

Zoltan studied all the information he could get on American stealth technology, and the F-117. There was a lot of unclassified data, and speculation, out there. He developed some ideas on how to beat stealth, based on the fact that the technology didn’t make the F-117 invisible to radar, just very to get, and keep, a good idea of exactly where the aircraft was. Zoltan figured out how to tweak his radars to get a better lock on stealth type targets. This has not been discussed openly.

The Serbs also set up a system of human observers, who would report on sightings of bombers entering Serbia, and track their progress.

The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time. This made it difficult for the American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) to use their HARM missiles (that homed in on radar transmissions.) Zoltan never lost a radar to a HARM missile.

Zoltan used the human spotters and brief use of radar, with short range shots at American bombers. The SA-3 was guided from the ground, so you had to use surprise to get an accurate shot in before the target used jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away.

Zoltan got some help from his enemies. The NATO commanders often sent their bombers in along the same routes, and didn’t make a big effort to find out if hotshots like Zoltan were down there, and do something about it. Never underestimate your enemy.

(Hat tip to Alrenous, who mentioned this recently. Frankly, I thought I’d posted about it long ago…)


  1. Alrenous says:

    Today I post a source in the comments on all my links. Unfortunately it seems this bookmark is from the time before that habit. I too would have guessed I got it from you.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    It’s now 20 years on. Both the Russian and Chinese have stealth aircraft of their own to test against radars, and they’ve had 20 to develop new techniques. They’ve also had ample time to hack into Lockheed’s and the Pentagon’s files. Stealth may still have real value, but the aircraft are more vulnerable than they were in Zoltan’s day.

    The USAAF sacrificed the B-17′s payload and range for armor and added crew and weapons in the belief they could fight through Germany’s defenses. We suffered horrendous losses until tactics changed and the long range P-51 became available. There will be unpleasant surprises for our stealth aircraft if war comes.

  3. Kirk says:

    The whole issue is a function of military professionalism on the one side, and lightweight fake professionals who’re really bureaucrats with guns, on the other.

    Friend of mine was the Air Force LNO to I Corps about the time this happened. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not in that article which isn’t mentioned, like the Italian air traffic control people who were refusing the NATO requests to allow for different approaches and vectors on those targets, a few of which are predicated on departure from those Italian air bases. There’s a bunch of inside-baseball stuff like that, which an Air Force officer familiar with it all could probably break out for us, but the reality was that not only were there spies from Serbia in Italy, the Italians themselves were playing games, as were the French and the Germans. The NATO headquarters leaked like a sieve, and all the political BS that was going on in the background meant that the poor bastards flying the planes were programmed for failure by the environment.

    It also did not help that the people doing the air mission planning were not all that bright, entirely too arrogant, and dismissive of the “primitive Serbian” ADA efforts. The possibility that anyone could figure out countermeasures to their planning wasn’t something that they saw coming, just in the rear-view mirror.

    Another part of the issue was trying to fight a teapot war with a military designed and predicated for total war, in an environment of small-time local politics going on in between putative allies. The assumption was that the Italians were on board with NATO over this whole thing, and that simply was not true. They had their preferred outcomes in the former Yugoslavia, and those weren’t the ones we were looking for, so… Yeah. There were probably spies in the Italian air traffic control authorities, and probably their military, and those spies were not even Serbian, but Italians doing their own thing.

    It’s not a question of the stealth technology working or not, but the surrounding mess of politics and petty rivalry. Frankly, my take on it is that the whole thing was an egregious error. There’s no real solution to the problem that was Yugoslavia, and it was always going to end in tears and blood. Best not to get any splattered all over you–Intervention in Yugoslavia was like doing a domestic violence complaint as a cop, and there’s a reason no police officer likes those sorts of calls.

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