‘Vega 31’ Nighthawk shootdown — 20 years on

Photo: Lockheed Martin


The end of the Cold War triggered the collapse of European communism and subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia, Paul Crickmore wrote in our June 2018 issue. In 1991, a series of bloody wars in the region ensued as states sought independence from Belgrade. Despite several UN resolutions and a UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), sent to provide humanitarian assistance, the Serbs continued to gain ground. This eventually forced UNPROFOR to withdraw and NATO to launch Operation ‘Deliberate Force’ on August 30, 1995. A series of precision air strikes over 20 days against selected targets in Serb-held areas led to the so-called Dayton Accord, which was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995.

Alas, in 1998, hostilities erupted in Kosovo and on January 30, 1999, NATO stated it would take whatever steps were necessary, including air strikes, to compel Serbian compliance with UN Security Resolution 1199. As NATO air forces were built up in the area, the 8th FS deployed 12 F-117s to Aviano, Italy. When peace talks failed, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Gen Wesley Clark, was ordered to initiate air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, signaling the beginning of Operations ‘Allied Force’ and ‘Noble Anvil’.

These strikes began on March 24, 1999. However, significant political interference in the way the air campaign was fought, coupled with a series of electronic countermeasures shortfalls brought about by defense cuts, would have dire consequences for the F-117.

Lt Col Zoltan Dani was commander of the 3rd Battalion, 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade, equipped with S-125 Neva-M (SA-3 ‘Goa’) SAMs. The re-deployable system consisted of a P-18 ‘Spoon Rest-D’ early warning radar, utilizing frequencies in the VHF A-band range of around 150MHz. This radar was used to initially locate a target in azimuth and range only. Once acquired, the target was handed over to operators of the ‘Low Blow’ missile guidance radar system utilizing I-band frequency range. ‘Low Blow’ then began its own target acquisition, resolving azimuth, range, elevation and velocity based upon details supplied by ‘Spoon Rest’. Once acquired, ‘Low Blow’ was set to tracking mode, and at this point the system was ready to launch a missile. Once fired, the missiles utilized guidance commands transmitted via radio datalink.

Aware of the looming conflict, Lt Col Dani knew his unit would be targeted by allied SEAD F-16s and Tornados. He therefore trained his unit rigorously, achieving a 90-minute total equipment breakdown in readiness to move off to another location — mobility would be his key to survival. For additional insurance against High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM) attacks, he insisted that his unit restrict operation of their high-frequency ‘Low Blow’ radar for a maximum 20-second burst, before shutting down.

On March 24, 1999, Lt Col Dani received orders to move his battalion from Jakovo, and deploy to an area near Simanovci, west of Belgrade, and await further instructions. Three days later, on March 27, his unit was ordered to go to alert status and was allocated four frequencies for the P-18 radar (this was to prevent interference with other P-18 sites).

Meanwhile, Lt Col Dale Zelko of the 8th FS got airborne from Aviano in F-117 serial 82-0806, callsign ‘Vega 31’. Part of an eight-ship first-strike package, he was targeted to hit a well-defended air defense node in the southern suburbs of Belgrade. The weather was reported as being ‘challenging’, forcing the cancellation of other support/strike aircraft which critically included HARM-toting F-16s and Tornados. It’s also understood that EA-6B Prowlers, scheduled to provide an electronic countermeasures cloak, were repositioned to cover a later B-2 Spirit strike.

Taxying out at Aviano Air Base, Italy. USAF/SrA Jeffrey Allen

Seated in front of the radar display of the P-18, Dani received notification that aircraft were in the air, and he ordered the P-18 to be activated. He instructed his technicians to use the lowest of the four allocated VHF frequencies. Almost immediately the battery acquired four targets between 25-30km away, and it was clear from the return characteristics that they were stealth aircraft. Soon one of the targets entered the engagement zone of the missile system and Dani ordered its acquisition with ‘Low Blow’. Manually tracking, the operators initially caught sporadic glimpses of the return, before finally gaining a steady lock on the target. During this time Dani decided to transgress his self-imposed 20-second shutdown rule, since there were no non-stealthy returns in the area — thereby ruling out the possibility of a HARM attack. At 20.40hrs local time, ‘Vega 31’ had its bomb bay doors open (creating a large corner radar reflector) and was on its target run. An all-stations warning transmission from an E-3 AWACS advising ‘Firefly-three, Firefly-three’ — activation of an SA-3 site in Zelko’s vicinity — was made (the Nighthawk fleet was not equipped with radar warning and homing [RWAH] equipment). Now, seconds away from release, Zelko concentrated on tracking the target through the Downward-Looking Infra-Red (DLIR). Once his GBU-27 had hit its target, he snapped 806’s bomb bay doors shut and went into a hard, pre-planned left turn.

In the turn, the F-117’s angular speed dramatically increased from Dani’s perspective, adding further complexity to the intercept solution. But with the ‘Low Blow’ tracking radar engaged, Dani gave the order to fire a salvo of two V-601P missiles in a three-to-five-second interval.

Zelko recalls visually tracking two missiles as they blasted through the thin veil of cloud beneath. The first missile (the second to be fired, failed to lock on to the ‘Low Blow’ datalink and went into a ballistic trajectory), passing over the aircraft so close that its shockwave buffeted the Nighthawk. Re-acquiring the second missile (which was guiding), Zelko could see it was going to hit. Sure enough, the impact blew most of the left wing off and slammed the aircraft into a left roll and a -7g tuck. Zelko managed to eject and just 1.8 seconds later, he was hanging beneath a fully deployed parachute. Landing in a field near the village of Budjanovci, close to a busy road, Zelko’s luck held and after some four hours on the ground he was plucked to safety by a USAF rescue team consisting of two MH-53s and one MH-60. The popular press carped that the Nighthawk was no longer ‘invisible’; but neither the ‘Skunk Works’ nor the USAF ever claimed that it was. The F-117 was a highly effective, first-generation VLO platform.

On April 3, 1999, 13 F-117s from the 9th FS also became involved in ‘Noble Anvil’ and deployed to Spangdahlem AB, Germany. It has recently come to light that an F-117 (possibly 82-0818), was damaged in another attack either by an SA-3 or AAA, sometime between April 4-9. The damage was such that it’s believed to have required the pilot to divert. However, the incident remains classified.

‘Noble Anvil’ was brought to a successful conclusion and hostilities ended on June 10, 1999. During the 80 days of combat, F-117s completed 760 operational sorties. Yugoslav forces agreed to withdraw from Kosovo to make way for an international peace presence.

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