How China's Stealth Aircraft Rose From Ashes of Balkan War

How China's Stealth Aircraft Rose From Ashes of Balkan War

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Yoichi Shimatsu reported on the anti-stealth air-defense program and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade for Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly, Ming Pao Group, Hong Kong) during the NATO Kosovo War of 1999.

HONG KONG—Current flight tests of the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter at a Chengdu aircraft factory are ringing alarm bells inside the Pentagon. Invisible to radar, the high-tech aircraft is upping the ante against the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the Pacific theater.

The takeoff of a Chinese-built stealth aircraft should come as no surprise. It traces its inception to a distant Southern European battlefield more than a decade ago, when the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army fought the world's first electronic war.

As NATO forces based in Albania launched their invasion to "liberate" Kosovo in May 1999, the U.S. Air Force unleashed over the Yugoslav capital its most sophisticated aircraft—the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber and F-117 Nighthawk fighter. On the second night of the Belgrade bombing campaign, however, things went horribly wrong when a Nighthawk was hit with stunning accuracy.

The downing of the U.S. plane realized the worst fears of the electronic-warfare team at the National Security Agency (NSA), whose deputy director at the time was Gen. Michael Hayden. The most expensive U.S. weapons program in history had an Achilles heel—one that made it vulnerable to, of all things, the lowly TV.

The stealth fighter’s electronic cloaking system and low-reflection profile are invisible to one-way radar signals, but television signals wrap around objects—for example, the corners of buildings. By computer-imaging the patterns of reflected waves with a detection system known as passive coherent localization (PCL), Chinese air-defense experts could easily detect the "bright cherry-red profile" of an incoming stealth plane. The Yugoslav federal army zeroed in on the target with Russian-built Kup missile batteries and a MiG interceptor, as described by the former head of Jane's Defense Weekly.

To prevent further losses of stealth aircraft, the U.S. Air Force bombed a television station in Nis and Radio Television Serbia (RTS) headquarters in Belgrade. Cruise missiles exploded strands of carbon fiber over electric power lines to prevent their use as TV signal receivers. (At the time, I referred to the anti-stealth air-defense strategy as "McLuhan's War," after the media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who had decades earlier suggested that television news feeds were undermining public support for the Vietnam conflict and creating a global village.)

The Yugoslav military retrieved television transmitters from the bombed-out RTS tower and delivered them to the Chinese Embassy, which immediately began broadcasting late-night Chinese movies. The foreign diplomats had a good alibi, since some 6,000 illegal migrants from China heading for Western Europe were stranded in Yugoslavia and had no other entertainment.

The pilot of the F-117 parachuted, took evasive action and was retrieved by a NATO helicopter, but the aircraft was disassembled by local farmers and the critical parts auctioned. The Russians took the external radar-absorbing coating material, while the Chinese military attaché obtained the internal electronic cloaking system. Air Force One contains similar technology, a hot-wired cocoon of copper filament spun inside its skin, which renders it invisible to radar-guided missiles. Also included in the package were some angular exhaust vents that suppress the jet's heat signature. A commercial cargo plane from Hong Kong was spotted by satellite picking up large crates at Belgrade Airport.

Americans may be tempted to conclude that the Chinese stole or pirated the stealth ware, but the fact is that the technology was captured from invaders as a fair prize of war.

Just days after the F-117 downing, Pentagon officials gave a stern warning to China's Foreign Ministry to return the stealth parts or face dire consequences within two weeks, according to European military officers interviewed by Jens Holsoe, Kosovo correspondent for the Danish newspaper Politiken. The Chinese diplomats were speechless and clueless, since electronic warfare was run by the People's Liberation Army and classified top secret.

Around midnight of May 7-8, 1999, the Pentagon threat came due. A joint special forces team of British and Kosovar commandos pointed laser beams at the rear wall of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Five smart bombs, delivered by a high-flying B-2 bomber, struck the PLA defense attache's basement office with pinpoint precision. The commandos entered the compound pointing flashlights and a video camera "as if searching for something,” according to neighbors interviewed by Japanese intelligence agents posted in Belgrade. Earlier that week, the Yugoslav capital was swirling with rumors that President Slobodan Milosevic was residing as guest inside the Chinese Embassy. Instead, two young journalists from Guangming Daily, moonlighting as translators of Serbian, were killed in the blasts. After several minutes, the raiders ran from the site just before flames erupted out of the basement.

Within minutes, an American officer posted at the NATO signals-intelligence base in Vincenza, Italy, startled his European colleagues by shouting, "We got the bastards!" From his joyous outburst and their maps, the Europeans knew immediately that the embassy attack was premeditated. But just before the daily 10 a.m. press conference in Brussels, a correspondent for an American newsmagazine overheard a junior officer suggesting to the NATO press spokesman that the bombing was an "accident due to an out-of-date map."

Following up on this claim from Hong Kong, where I was then a reporter, I phoned the CIA-Pentagon mapmaking agency, whose staffer explained that the map aboard the B-2 was correct to within minutes of the raid and that the highly professional cartographers were unjustly forced to take the blame by "more powerful agencies." By then, thousands of enraged Chinese civilians were hurling stones at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, while indoors, by a fireplace, the U.S. ambassador hurriedly burned documents on American spy activities in China.

In the words of a National Intelligence Council veteran, a "civil war" was breaking out between the White House and State Department on one hand, and the Pentagon and the CIA on the other. Prior to authorizing the bombing, President Bill Clinton had been led to believe that the target was the base of a Serbian militia unit that was conducting ethnic cleansing and not a diplomatic compound. Despite the high-level deception and blatant violation of international law, Hayden, the U.S Air Force general in charge of electronic warfare operations went on to become the director of the NSA and the CIA.

While the corporate media repeated the false mantra of an "accidental bombing,” the myth of the invincibility of American military technology was shattered.

Thus the true story of a downed American Nighthawk was incinerated in the flames of a Chinese embassy in Southern Europe. Yet now, like a phoenix rising from its ashes, the mysterious bird is reborn in China, spreading its dark wings to soar over the moonlit Pacific.