- In the spring of 1999, NATO launched an air campaign against Serbian forces to end human rights violations in Kosovo.
- During the bombing, Serbian forces shot down two of the most advanced jets in the United States: an F-117 and an F-16.
- The two US pilots returned home, in large part thanks to a unique team of US Air Force special operators.
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In March 1999, NATO planes took to the skies to stop a genocide in the Balkans.
Operation Allied Force was a NATO bombing campaign designed to stop the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and its forces and force them to withdraw from Kosovo.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the countries that emerged faced each other in a series of brutal wars in which war crimes, including ethnic cleansing, were common. The Srebrenica massacre, in which Serbian forces executed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995, is notable for its cruelty, but all sides committed atrocities.
As Delta Force, SEAL Team 6 and the Coalition’s Special Mission Units hunted down war criminals on the ground, American planes led the way in the air, but their mission was not easy.
They shot down two American planes – an F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft and an F-16 fighter jet.
When the unthinkable happens
On March 27, 1999, four days after the start of the operation, Lieutenant-Colonel Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko was piloting “Vega 31”, an F-117 and one of the most advanced aircraft in the American inventory, against a difficult target in Belgrade. , the Serbian capital.
Usually, the EA-6 Prowlers and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets escorted US bombers to provide electronic jamming and air-to-ground support, respectively, when hitting difficult targets.
On that fateful night in March, the weather was so bad that the escorts couldn’t fly, so the F-117s entered alone.
As Vega 31 approached its target, the Serbs launched two surface-to-air missiles, hitting the F-117 once and forcing Zelko to eject from the burning plane.
Eight anxious hours followed for Zelko, facing the cold and rugged terrain while avoiding Serbian patrols and their dogs, before he was picked up by an Air Force special operations combat search and rescue team. .
The world was surprised by the seemingly unthinkable downing of an American stealth bomber by the Serbs, who carried out a major propaganda stunt. But a few weeks later, the Serbian air defenses struck again.
‘Start finding me, boys’
On May 2, 1999, Lieutenant-Colonel David Goldfein was piloting his F-16 Viper fighter with the call sign “Hammer 34” on a night combat sortie over Serbia in search of batteries. enemy anti-aircraft missiles.
The aim was to establish complete air superiority before targeting Serbian forces en masse.
Goldfein’s unit, the 555th Fighter Squadron, had found a way to target enemy ground-to-air systems by using the F-16’s infrared targeting pod to locate heat signals from the batteries, then using the anti- High-speed radiation AGM-88 Missile to destroy them.
Suddenly, a surface-to-air missile struck Goldfein’s F-16, causing extensive damage. At first, the plane was still flyable, so Goldfein began to return to base.
“Start finding me, boys,” Goldfein said on the radio as he struggled to keep his throw in the air. Then the engine died, forcing Goldfein to hover before finally ejecting over Serbian anti-aircraft positions.
Once on the ground, Goldfein began to escape and evade the Serbian forces pursuing him. Meanwhile, an Air Force special operations combat search and rescue team had launched into helicopters and came to her rescue.
On their way, rescuers took heavy anti-aircraft fire while trying to determine Goldfein’s exact position. It was a race against time to see who would get to the American driver first.
In the end, it was the American commandos who took Goldfein away as the Serbs reached the area and started shooting at them.
Goldfein pursued a long career, reaching the rank of four-star general and becoming the Air Force Chief of Staff, the service’s senior uniformed officer.
“Thanks to this combat rescue team, I was able to return to my family 20 years ago today,” Goldfein said. mentionned on the anniversary of his rescue in 2019. “We will always be grateful for their sacrifice and courage. The night I was shot down, airmen and soldiers flew over enemy airspace, risking their life to save mine. “
Interestingly, the same anti-aircraft battery, commanded by Zoltan Dani, a Serbian officer, shot down both US planes, and the same US Air Force officer Lt. Col. Stephan Laushine, commander of the 55th Special Operations Squadron. , led the two rescues. missions.
The agency behind the scenes
The updated procedures put in place after the Gulf War in 1990-1991 were instrumental in the early recovery of both pilots.
Many agencies, including the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), established in 1999, have campaigned to update and improve personnel recovery and combat search and rescue doctrine and procedures.
“The changes we made after the Gulf War had a direct impact on combat search and rescue operations in the Balkans. Take for example Vega 31 and Hammer 34. The CSAR was quick and efficient. We managed to get them out without serious problem. But to get there, we had to make a lot of changes and work, ”a retired JPRA officer told Insider.
JPRA is the agency responsible for returning US troops and government employees trapped in non-permissive or semi-permissive locations. Its main clients are Air Force pilots, special operations troops and the intelligence community.
“When planning, we make sure that everyone can go out. It takes extra work, but every minute is worth it, ”said the retired JPRA officer.
There is always a combat search and rescue and personnel recovery window for every air sortie or special operations mission, especially in a semi-permissive or non-permissive area of operations.
While this requirement may be restrictive and seen as risk averse, it provides peace of mind for pilots and commandos knowing that someone will come and get them if the worst happens.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Special Operations Defense Journalist, Hellenic Army Veteran (national service with the 575th Navy Battalion and Army HQ) and graduate of Johns Hopkins University.