Yugoslavia files

Defensionem Aviation Yugoslavia files

Yugoslavia files. A compilation of articles we have written about Yugoslavia over the years

On the 24th of March 1999 started the Kosovo Air Campaign. NATO’s dilema had been to choose between boots on the ground or air power to prosecute its campaign in Kosovo. Said campaign had two aims: Force the Yugoslav leadership to withdraw its army and paramilitary units from the Kosovo province and to degrade the Yugoslav army’s ability to fight and operate. In the end, Western powers were unwilling to commit ground troops to a campaign that had the potential to be bloody. The alliance also wanted to avoid the campaign looking like an invasion or a war waged against Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav people. NATO bet on air power alone, hoping that overwhelming air power and technological superiority would be enough to force the Yugoslav army out of Kosovo.

Yugoslavia files
Shock & Awe, Yugoslavia edition.

The results of the campaign were mixed. The campaign did last 78 days, between the 24th March and the 10th of June. During that time, NATO air forces flew 38,000 sorties, of which 10,484 were strike mission. The Rules of Engagement were very strict: NATO did not want to alienate the local population and was wary of causing collateral damage that would be broadcast on live TV across the globe. The aim was to inflict just enough damage to the Yugoslav infrastructure to force its leadership to back off, without utterly ruining the country. However, all military installations and units in Kosovo were fair game. The major success of the air campaign was to fly that many sorties without losing a single airman. Only two planes were lost. The Yugoslav air defences were dense, but obsolete. The air campaign devastated the Yugoslav air force, destroying 121 planes on the ground and in the air. Finding and destroying ground targets proved much more difficult, though: While NATO records at press conferences at the time rolled out large numbers of “kills”, studies later on showed that only 9 MBT, 20 APC/IFV and 36 Artillery systems were ever destroyed, alongside 900 to 1200 men killed. The reasons were multiple: NATO planes stayed at medium to high altitude to avoid being targeted by SAM and MANPADS. But this made it difficult for the pilots to identify targets accurately. The weather was overcast for most of the campaign while the hilly topography favoured the defenders. Furthermore, the Yugoslav army was very good at spreading and disseminating its forces throughout the local population as well as being master at camouflage (a French pilot described looking for Yugoslav units hidden in Kosovo as hunting for Marmots). Finally, The Yugoslav army seemed pretty good at quickly building and erecting decoys. It seems many of those decoys were hit several times. It also seems that many of the kills reported by the pilots at the time were actually misses or damaged (and subsequently repaired).

Operation Allied Force/Noble Anvil failed to weaken the Yugoslav army. In fact, while at the beginning of the campaign, there were 20,000 Yugoslav troops in Kosovo, there were 55,000 of them present in the province in the last week of the campaign. When the Yugoslav leadership finally relented, the units of the Yugoslav 3rd Army that withdrew from Kosovo at the end of the campaign did so in front of observers, in good order, riding on well serviced vehicles and looking battle ready. But while the 20,000 precision guided weapons, 450 Tomahawk and 90 air-launched cruise missiles (79,000 tons of explosives, in total) did little to dent the Yugoslav army, they cost Yugoslavia’s economy a staggering $29.6 billions. That, in the end, was enough to open the door to a political solution. This campaign also showed division within NATO: Greece, a NATO member state, actively helped Yugoslavia. US aircraft flew 2/3 of the missions, while other NATO air forces struggled to keep up with the sustained high tempo of operations, maintenance needs, long supply chain and lack of spare parts and ammunition, making them run out of steam before the end of the operations.

On the 27th of March 1999, an American F-117 was downed over Novi Sad. To this day, that incident is used, over and over again, for some good old anti-American propaganda and also to “explain” how stealth technology is useless. First of all, “Stealth” does not mean invisible. It is not an invisibility cloak or a magic wand. Stealth aircraft are visible on certain types of radar. What the stealth does, is to make it more difficult to detect and identify said aircraft. This delay in detection and identification gives the pilot of the aircraft more time to get close to its target. It is also good to know that the types of radar that can detect stealth aircraft are not very good when used for tracking and targeting, as they are not accurate enough for such a job. Therefore, detecting a stealth aircraft does not guarantee it can be locked and targeted. As such, the F-117 was already known to be detectable by radar under certain conditions as far back as in 1991 during the Gulf War… French Shahine (Super Crotale) AA platforms based in Saudi Arabia managed to detect and track them a couple of times on their radar…The F-117 shot down over Yugoslavia was defeated by a whole range of factors…

Yugoslavia files
  • 1) Most of the NATO aircraft taking part in Operation Allied Force were operating from Italian bases. Russian and Yugoslav plane spotters in Italy would warn Belgrade each time coalition planes would take off from those bases. Russia even dispatched a spy ship that sailed for several weeks off the coast of Italy. As such, Yugoslav AA units were warned in advance of incoming raids as well as plane types taking part in said raids.
  • 2) Coalition planes sometimes engaged the same targets several days in a row, often following the same flight path. This mistake was spotted and taken advantage off by Yugoslav AA units. They roughly knew what targets would be engaged in advance and what flight path NATO planes would follow. As they had also prior warning of NATO jets taking off, they had a fair idea of the precise time from which to start looking for targets.
  • 3) Coalition planes had attacked Yugoslav military radar stations but had neglected to engage civilian ones. As such, Yugoslavia still had a fair amount of detection means and early warning systems still in place throughout the campaign. A Yugoslav delegation flew to Baghdad early on, to consult Iraqi air defence operators and be briefed on US and NATO tactics. They quickly adapted their own tactics to counter those. Yugoslav AA platform would often move from one day to another. They would also operate their radars for very brief moments (20 seconds maximum at any one time) to avoid being detected and suppressed by American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions. This led Yugoslavia to be able to retain and operate a fair amount of AA platforms throughout the campaign.
  • 4) Back then, the coalition used a lot of laser guided missiles. It was accurate and enabled the pilots to fly well above the range of most Yugoslav AA platforms. Those work well in clear skies but not so much when you have cloud cover. You have to be below cloud cover to launch and target with such a system. If you are below cloud cover chances are you are flying lower than you would want to, within range of some AA platforms, for example…

In any case, on that night of the 27th of March 1999, a US F-117 flew to its target along a flight path that was to take it over a S-125 AA battery. The S-125 operators were switching their radar on and off for periods of less than 20 seconds at a time. The F-117 was detected at close range (less than 30km) when it opened its bomb bay. The battery fired two missiles. One missed and one hit. The pilot ejected and was retrieved by an American SAR (Search & Rescue) mission within hours of being shot down. The incident was quickly blown out of proportion, with the Yugoslavs printing posters that said “Sorry, we did not know it was invisible”. Parts of the F-117 wreckage are still, to this day, displayed in a Belgrade museum… Other parts were sent to Russia almost immediately after the incident…

Yugoslavia files

Now, let’s look at some figures, here… Operation Allied Force started on the 24th of March 1999 and ended on the 11th of June 1999. During that time, two US planes were shot down: One F-117 and one F-16. Throughout the operation, over 1,000 aircraft were involved and they collectively flew 38,000 sorties ! Only 2 losses out of 38,000 sorties, is a pretty good record, indeed. One might say negligible…

For comparison sake, in 1991, during the Gulf War, the US led coalition operated close to 2250 aircraft, flew 100,000 sorties and lost 39 planes in combat. 37 to Iraqi AA and 2 in air to air engagements. That said, the Iraqi army was almost bombed out of existence. So here you are… Yes, the Yugoslav forces were able to avoid mass casualties and were able to withdraw from Kosovo with their army and fighting capabilities almost intact. The losses NATO estimated to have inflicted on the Yugoslavs during the operation were later revised at a much lower level. At the same time, the Yugoslavs were not able to inflict any significant losses on NATO either. And shooting one type of aircraft once does not mean that suddenly, said type is suddenly obsolete !

7th of May 1999: The day US warplanes bombed a Chinese embassy. The year is 1999, it is Spring and NATO forces are bombing Yugoslavia. On the night of the 7th of May, a B-2 belonging to the USAF’s 509th Bomb Wing dropped 5 JDAMs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing 3 and wounding 20. China was enraged and called the incident “a barbarian act”. The CIA director said the bombs hit the wrong building and were instead aimed at the nearby Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement building. As for President Bill Clinton, he apologised


This strike mission was the only one organised and directed by the CIA during the whole campaign. It operated outside of the usual NATO channels and the US NATO allies were not aware of this mission up until it actually happened… A subsequent investigation by Danish and British newspapers found the embassy might actually have been targeted on purpose: They said the Chinese embassy was relaying Yugoslav army communications, providing the Yugoslav leadership with intelligence and studying the Tomahawk strikes with the aim of working on future countermeasures against such attacks. The whole thing was dismissed as a conspiracy theory. A CIA employee involved with the mission was reprimanded for providing the wrong coordinates for the strike. The US government paid $32 millions in compensation to China and the families of the victims. Case closed. What do you think ? Accident of purposeful strike ?

Yugoslavia files
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade

Renaud Mayers
Currently working on behalf of the Belgian Ministry of Defence, thanks to my knowledge in WWII and other areas. Working in two WWII era fortresses still belonging to the Army.

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