Did China develop its deadly stealth fighter using parts from a downed U.S. bomber?
By Christian Jennings In Belgrade
Last updated at 1:22 AM on 13th March 2011
When a U.S. stealth bomber was shot down over Serbia, agents from around the world descended to scavenge parts like these - and in China's case, build their own stealth programme. Live reports on the most expensive leak in the history of military technology
(One of the more extraordinary claims was that China had gained invaluable information from parts of an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber that had been shot down over Serbia during the Kosovo War)
Shaky video footage shot from a perimeter fence shows a sleek, intimidating aircraft on the runway at a military airbase in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province.
Painted a menacing grey and with a red star on the tailfin, it taxis into position before blasting off into the sky to the delight of a cheering, patriotic crowd. The film was unexpectedly released by the secretive Chinese authorities in January and caused an immediate stir around the world.
The sight of the rising power’s hidden dragon, its new stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, on its first 15-minute test flight came as a surprise to the West. The timing of the flight was significant: it coincided with a visit to Beijing by U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao.
His mission was to try to improve strained relations between American and Chinese armed forces. This was at a time when the Chinese had already announced they were working on their first aircraft carrier and a new ballistic missile system. The launching of this new aircraft was a serious show of strength.
The new arrival made the Chinese only the third nation after the U.S. and Russia to develop and test-fly a full-sized stealth fighter aircraft. The world knew that the Chinese had a stealth-fighter programme, but it was Gates who had confidently stated they wouldn’t have the technology until 2020.
(A soldier beside wreckage of the F-117 stealth bomber - the only F-117 ever shot down)
Theories rapidly developed about espionage and how China had somehow managed to steal and copy other countries’ secret technologies. One of the more extraordinary claims was that it had gained invaluable information from parts of an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber that had been shot down over Serbia during the Kosovo War – the only F-117 ever shot down.
Having tracked down and spoken to those involved in what happened that night, and in the light of the shambolic way the plane was recovered from the muddy field where it crashed, it’s become increasingly clear to military experts and security analysts that this explanation is nowhere near as unlikely as it might sound.
On the night of March 27, Lieutenant Colonel Georgei Anicic, a unit commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defence Brigade of the Serbian military, was sent into the fields of western Serbia. His unit was to hunt Nato aircraft in the skies above using a Yugoslav version of the Soviet Isayev S-125 Neva ground-to-air missile system.
With the might of Nato’s combined air forces deployed against them, the unit could only switch on its radar systems for ten seconds at a time, for fear of attracting incoming heat-seeking anti-radar missiles onto its position.
For Anicic and his men, sitting in a field with a Sixties missile system, knowing that in the sky above them were the massed formations of the most powerful military alliance on the planet, was a dark, lonely and frightening experience. Anicic kept a diary throughout the bombing campaign.
(Soldiers and villagers at the site of the downed plane)
When I was writing this I didn’t know if I was going to survive the war,’ he says, flicking through the pages of the diary.
‘I was unit commander that night. At 8.30pm I entered the guidance unit truck and we switched on the radar, three attempts of ten seconds each. On the third sweep radar operator Dragan Martic said loudly, “Give it, give it, I have him.” Then we launched two rockets.’
Some 15,000ft above them, Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko from the U.S. Air Force’s 49th Fighter Wing, flying out of Aviano airbase in northern Italy, was completing his third combat sortie of the war. He’d just dropped two precision-guided bombs on targets near Belgrade and had turned his fighter aircraft onto a north-western heading to exit Serbian airspace.
His flightplan was interrupted by a blinding flash of flame on the left-hand side of his aircraft, followed by a mighty explosion.
His plane, call-sign Vega 31, had been ‘locked onto’ by the Serbian unit’s air defence radar, and two ground-to-air missiles had been launched at him. One theory is that leaving his bomb bay doors open gave off a radar signal, enabling radar lock-on.
Captain Mark Baroni was flying as commander of call-sign Frank 36, a U.S. Air Force KC-135 airborne tanker, and was looking towards Belgrade as the first missile detonated.
‘All of a sudden I saw a series of airborne explosions and then one really big one,’ he said afterwards.
The Chengdu J-20 on a test flight
The Chengdu J-20 on a test flight
Lt Col Zelko hadn’t received any warning of the incoming missile, as his jet was reportedly not carrying radar. In any case, there would have been little he could have done to manoeuvre his aircraft out of the way. When the missile detonated in the air to his left, his aircraft bucked as though it was hit by a train; it started to fall apart in the sky, and then began to invert.
For Zelko, a combat veteran of missions in the first Gulf War, it was time to do what every fighter pilot is trained to do but hopes he or she never has to. At 15,000ft over enemy territory, at night, it was time for him to ‘bang out’: eject.
He reached both hands down to the sides of his ACES II ejection seat, grasped two yellow metal handles and pulled both up hard. His cockpit assembly was blown clear of the rest of the aircraft, the seat fell away, and seconds later he found himself suspended under the white and orange panels of his parachute over Serbia. Grasping his khaki green emergency radio, he sent out a distress call, ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday, Vega 31 out of his aircraft,’ broadcasting on the emergency ‘Guard’ frequency.
Zelko knew that the propaganda value for the Serbian regime of capturing an enemy pilot would be immense, and he also knew that the aircraft he was flying, no ordinary F-16 or F-15 attack jet, was going to fall into their hands.
For that night Zelko was flying one of the most advanced planes in the world, the allegedly invisible F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first operational stealth aircraft. It was the ultimate prize.
That same night on the ground in Belgrade, Gara, a black alsatian dog, started barking furiously. Cedomir Janic knew immediately that something was seriously wrong. The director of Belgrade’s Aviation Museum rushed out of the glass dome-shaped building that sits next to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport and looked up at the sky.
From the darkness, the 65-year-old Serbian curator could hear the droning, rumbling roar of wartime activity. Red pulsing darts of tracer bullets from anti-aircraft fire hammered into the air over the city behind him. Nato’s Operation Allied Force, the bombing of then President Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, was entering its fourth night.
‘Gara had an animal feeling something was wrong. We saw the launching of a rocket about eight kilometres away in the direction of Ruma. After several seconds the sky became completely red and a minute later there was an enormous boom,’ recalls Janic, smiling wistfully as he sips green tea in a café in New Belgrade, a large district of the Serbian capital that sits across the Danube from the city centre.
‘It was only later that we were told exactly what it was we’d shot down.’
Janic and his colleagues from the Aviation Museum had to wait for dawn before they could investigate the wreckage of the unknown downed aircraft, as it was far too dangerous to drive at night for fear of being mistaken by Nato attack aircraft for a military target.
So the following day, as the sun came up, they jumped in an old Lada and sped towards the town of Ruma, 18 miles west of Belgrade, in the middle of the pancake-flat, black-earth fields of western Serbia.
When they arrived at 5.30am, the mayor was waiting for them with three lorries and a crane. Two hours later they arrived at the crash site outside the small hamlet of Budjanovci. In the middle of a ploughed field in front of them was a vast pile of smouldering aircraft wreckage. But they were not alone. The site was swarming with people, and Janic and his team had been beaten to the wreckage by a Roma gypsy scrap-metal collector who was trying to hammer out bits of the wing. The fall from grace of America’s most hi-tech aircraft had been swift.
‘There was still anti-aircraft fire over Belgrade, behind us,’ remembers Janic.
‘We took the metal off the gypsy and put it into the car, and dragged the wing to the nearest road. It had already been damaged by women who had climbed onto it in high heels, and peasants and souvenir hunters were taking pieces of it. Parts of the aircraft were soon being sold in the market in the nearby town of Sabac.’
It threatened to become a fiasco and a free-for-all – it’s not hard to see how pieces could have been obtained by foreign agents. And there were plenty more opportunities to come.
Janic and the Serbian military correctly assumed that if they surrounded the wreckage with enough civilians, Nato would refrain from bombing it in an attempt to destroy any remaining evidence. The following day, groups of journalists were brought to the site, and joined in an assembled mix of gypsies, local farmers, diplomats, police and soldiers inspecting the remains of the stealth bomber.
What was left of Vega 31 completed its final trip down the highway to Belgrade by tractor and truck. The key parts were put on display, and the main body of the world’s most secret aeroplane simply left outside by the Aviation Museum’s car park.
‘It was a very special thing for the people here when the F-117 was shot down, a joyful moment, and a lot of people wanted a part of the aircraft,’ says Mirjana Novakovic, standing in the museum where she is now one of the curators.
Behind her is part of a wing from the stealth bomber, its 14ft length covered in several layers of specialised rubber and hi-tech paint. Shrapnel holes from the missile strike pepper the surface. While not completely invisible to radar, its shape and radar-absorbent coating made detection extremely difficult. At the point of the break, the cross section of the wing shows a plasticised, honeycomb-like structure, an essential element of the bomber’s anti-radar shield.
‘We sold parts of the aircraft here at the museum, and the money was invested in the display. People wanted to have a part of it,’ says Novakovic.
Chinese, Japanese and Russian diplomats were among those who visited the museum and bought debris: a Japanese man bought 30 parts alone.
The display that includes the parts of the Stealth bomber is called ‘Exhibits that fell from the sky’ and it opened in December 1999. Between then and the end of 2002, over 2,000 foreign visitors came to see the exhibition, of which hundreds, if not more, bought small parts of the aircraft for $10 each.
In return for this they got a numbered square the size of a postage stamp cut from the radar-absorbing skin of the wing.
Souvenirs are one thing; but wholesale defence espionage is another. The legend of the now-notorious Vega 31 grew with the unveiling of China’s Chengdu J-20 – a story that ricocheted from the Balkans to the Pentagon and to China.
‘At first glance this fighter has the potential to be a competitor to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor (widely considered the most advanced stealth fighter jet ever built) and to be an efficient F-35 Lightning II killer,’ said Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of China’s Military Modernization.
Subsequent to the flight of the J-20, Croatia’s Chief of Defence staff during the Kosovo war, Admiral Davor Domazet Loso, rocked the boat of international diplomacy and arms limitation when he claimed out of the blue that the Chinese had based some of the plane’s technology on parts of the F-117 that Chinese agents had bought in 1999 from souvenir hunters in Serbia.
‘We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies,’ he said.
So what did happen to all the remains of Vega 31? Did some of them really end up in China? Did parts of Zelko’s aircraft help the design of the J-20?
‘The Chinese military industrial complex had well-established links to the Yugoslav military and it would be no surprise that they’d been given access to the remains of the F-117 by the Belgrade regime,’ says Tim Ripley, a leading British defence analyst and writer for Jane’s Defence Weekly.
‘The Kosovo War offered the Chinese a great opportunity to collect raw data on the performance of the best and most advanced U.S. weapons.’
‘The Serbs and the Chinese would have been sharing intelligence,’ says Alexander Neill, head of the Asia security programme at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think tank.
‘It’s very likely that they shared the technology they recovered from the F-117, and it’s very plausible that parts of the F-117 got to China.’
Relations between the U.S. and China were at an all-time low in 1999. Serbian President Milosevic had thrown his hand in with the Chinese, rewarding them for backing him in his fight against Nato and the West, after the Russians had shied away from supporting him.
A postcard from the Aviation Museum, Belgrade
A postcard from the Aviation Museum, Belgrade
The Chinese were to pay a price in May that year when Nato aircraft bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three civilians. Hours before the attack, the Chinese military attache Ven Bo Koy, who was seriously wounded in the bombing, told Dusan Janjic, the president of the Forum for Ethnic Relations in Belgrade, that the embassy was monitoring incoming cruise missiles in order to develop counter-measures.
The official Nato line expressed by President Bill Clinton and CIA director George Tenet, was that the attack was a mistake.
But the plot thickened last month when Qiansao, a Hong Kong Chinese-language magazine, published a series of essays written in retirement by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
In the magazine the 85-year-old former premier, who stepped down in 2004, says that the Chinese Embassy was sheltering Serbian intelligence personnel when it was bombed and that the Americans had been able to monitor Serbian military electronic communications coming out of the building.
But just as importantly, Jiang Zemin also added that Milosevic had instructed agents to hand over to the Chinese navigation gear, part of the tail engine exhaust and thermal panels from Vega 31. The Chinese media reported that the pieces of the aircraft were picked up by cargo aircraft and flown to Beijing.
Military consultant Zoran Kusovac concurs, saying that Milosevic’s regime routinely shared captured Western equipment with both the Chinese and the Russians.
‘The destroyed F-117 topped that wishlist for both the Russians and Chinese,’ he said.
‘The F-117’s radar deflecting shape may be very different from the highly curved J-20,’ says Tim Ripley.
‘However, the USAF stealth fighter was coated in radar-reflecting material and the Chinese would have been keen to get a sample of this to apply to their aircraft and to improve the performance of their missile-guidance and ground-based radar systems.’
Developed by the Americans in the Seventies and Eighties as a ‘black’ project – a classified military or defence project – the F117 was top secret from the start. Some of its budget was hidden in the spare-parts costs of mainstream fighters like the F-15 Strike Eagle.
In 1978 the go-ahead was given to produce the plane. On the back of that, scientists at Lockheed Advanced Development Projects in Burbank, California, designed a computer programme called Echo that made it possible to design an aircraft with flat panels that were arranged so as to scatter more than 99 per cent of a radar’s signal energy.
Ironically, the stealth technology had been lifted by the Americans themselves from a seminal paper written in the Sixties by Russian scientist Pyotr Ufimtsev, who argued that the strength of a radar beam ‘return’ is related to the edge configuration of an object not its size.
(Serbians at the site of the downed stealth bomber)
However, the price for being almost invisible to radar was that the F-117 had to have a low engine heat signature, resulting in no afterburner on its General Electric F404 turbofan engines. This in turn confined the plane to subsonic speeds.
As a result, technology a generation behind it, like the SA-3 missile, could shoot it down if the bomber was detected on radar by a well-trained air-defence unit. This was the plane’s Achilles’ heel...
In the Aviation Museum curator Mirjana Novakovic points out a display case in which sits the stealth fighter’s cockpit, its thick glass shattered and scarred by the missile blast; on the cockpit was painted the name Capt Ken ‘Wiz’ Dwelle but the pilot was later identified as Zelko.
Next to it is Zelko’s helmet, ejector seat, a mud-spattered map and parts of his survival kit. The pilot was rescued several hours after he’d been shot down in a textbook operation involving a dozen helicopters and aircraft and the assistance of U.S. Army and Air Force Special Forces.
Parts of the stealth bomber have acquired a mystique all of their own, and spawned a rash of collectors’ T-shirts, postcards and stickers. One postcard shows a picture of the bomber with a logo saying ‘Greetings from Serbia – sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible’.
Plans are now under way for a film in which Zelko will finally get to meet members of the Serbian air defence unit, including Colonel Zoltan Dani, the unit’s senior commander who now runs a bakery outside Novi Sad, in the northwest of the country. Each March 27 he hosts a reunion party featuring a cake baked in the shape of a stealth bomber.
Relations between China and Serbia remain close, especially between their defence industries.
So it was no surprise when a Chinese defence industry delegation visiting Belgrade late last year had a special request for a place they wanted to visit and something they wanted to see: the Yugoslav Aviation Museum, and the parts of Call Sign Vega 31.
Did China develop its deadly stealth fighter using parts from a downed U.S. bomber? | Mail Online