Now, the former Serbian commander of an anti-aircraft missile battery has spoken to Western media for the first time about the circumstances surrounding the unprecedented downing of a US stealth plane.
The 27 March 1999 hit on the radar-evading plane during the 78-day Nato campaign over Serbia, triggered doubts not only about the F-117s, but also about the entire concept of stealth technology on which the US Air Force has based its newest generation of warplanes.
Military analysts debated how the planes would fare in a war against a militarily sophisticated opponent if an obsolescent air defence such as Serbia‘s could manage to track and destroy them.
In an interview this week with the Associated Press, Dani said the F-117 was detected and shot down during a moonless night – just three days into the war – by a Soviet-made SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile (SAM).
“We used a little innovation to update our 1960s-vintage SAMs to detect the Nighthawk,” Dani said.
He declined to discuss specifics, saying the exact nature of the modification to the warhead’s SAM guidance system remains a military secret.
It involved “electromagnetic waves,” was all that Dani, who now owns a small bakery in this sleepy village just north of Belgrade, would divulge.
An F-16 too was brought down
The Pentagon has confirmed the stealth fighter was shot down by an SA-3 missile in the range of Dani’s SAMs. The US military believes a combination of clever tactics, quick learning and luck came together in bringing down the F-117 fighter.
But James O’Halloran, editor of Jane’s Land-Based Air Defense, said the Serbs were probably able to down the fighter precisely because of their radar system’s outmoded technology.
“We know he is telling the truth. The F-117 was designed to be stealthy against modern radars. Against old, long-pulse duration radars, its not stealthy,” said O’Halloran. “People in the West do not like to say that.”
The F-117 was developed in great secrecy in the 1970s. It entered service in 1983 but was not revealed officially until 1988. It saw its first combat in the 1989 invasion of Panama and was a star of the 1991 Gulf war.
“Long before the 1999 war, I took keen interest in the stealth fighter and on how it could be detected,” said Dani, who has been hailed in Serbia as a war hero. “And I concluded that there are no invisible aircraft, but only less visible.”
The F-117 was one of only two allied aircraft shot down in the war. The other was an F-16 fighter, which the US Air Force said was also hit by an SA-3. Both pilots bailed out and were rescued by Nato helicopters.
Dani said his anti-aircraft missile regiment, tasked with the anti-aircraft defence of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, downed the F-16.
Several other Nato warplanes were damaged by missile hits but managed to struggle back to bases in neighbouring Bosnia, Macedonia or Croatia. At least one is said to have ditched into the Adriatic Sea as it attempted to regain its base in Italy.
“The Americans entered the war a bit overconfident. They thought they could crush us without real resistance”
Colonel Zoltan Dani
Despite Nato’s near-total air supremacy, the alliance never succeeded in knocking out Dani’s batteries.
The Serb SAMs remained a potent threat throughout the conflict, forcing attacking warplanes to altitudes above 15,000ft, where they were safe from surface-to-air missiles but far less effective in a ground attack role.
Nato won the war in June 1999, after President Slobodan Milosevic decided to withdraw his largely intact army from Kosovo, following the destruction of numerous government buildings, bridges and other infrastructure targets throughout Serbia.
“The Americans entered the war a bit overconfident,” Dani said. “They thought they could crush us without real resistance.”
“At times, they acted like amateurs,” Dani said, listing some ways the Serbs managed to breach Nato communications security, including eavesdropping on pilots’ conversations with AWACS surveillance planes.
“I personally listened to their pilots’ conversations, learning about their routes and bombing plans,” Dani said.
Dani said that his unit has had annual reunions on every 27 March since 1999 when a cake in the shape of the F-117 is served.