Seventeen years after a US B-2 stealth bomber hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, PLA is now capable of neutralizing their stealth fighters. But even as President Xi Jinping was placing a wreath to commemorate the martyrdom of the 3 Chinese journalists at a Belgrade ceremony on June 17, US Electronic Warfare planes, Growler 18As, were heading for Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines amid South Sea tensions. “Stealth” might be dead, but the battle is just beginning
On June 17, Chinese supremo Xi Jinping took time out during his visit to Belgrade to place a wreath to commemorate the death of three Chinese journalists (well, perhaps journalists, perhaps intelligence officers accredited as journalists) killed in the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy during the NATO Yugoslavia operation.
At the same time, the US sent four “Electronic Warfare” aircraft to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines “amid South Sea tensions” as the Diplomat inevitably headlined the event.
Are these two events related? The answer, as the Internet says, “Will Surprise You!”
The wreath laying ceremony attracted a certain uneasy interest on Twitter, with one pivoteer asking, “First time a Chinese leader has joined an event to honor those killed in 1999 Belgrade bombing? Sending message?”
Yup. And what message could that possibly be, pray tell?
The message, as pivoteers know well (or should, though historical amnesia is a pivoteer’s most powerful weapon), is that for the PRC the history of US-China contention does not begin with the US responding innocently and reactively to PRC aggression in the South China Sea in 2010; it starts with the US bombing the PRC embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and revealing to the CCP leadership the existential threat posed by US military and technological strength and its sense of impunity in the face of PLA weakness.
The idea that the US bombed the Belgrade embassy on purpose elicits strong negative reactions in the West but the case is pretty plausible, as I previously wrote at Asia Times. By CIA Director George Tenet’s own admission, the bombing mission was not a NATO operation; it was planned and executed by the United States using a stealth bomber flown out of Kansas. Indeed, it was the only CIA “package” executed during the entire war.
Supposedly, the CIA was anxious for a piece of the R2P (responsibility to protect ) action and pushed to direct a bombing run against a Yugoslavian logistics directorate, but looked at the wrong map, PRC embassy got plunked, soooooooooo sorry…
As to why the US might decide to bomb the Chinese embassy on purpose, there are a multitude of conspiracy theories, ranging from the unlikely (they thought Milosevic was in there and wanted to kill him in a decapitation strike!) to plausible (PRC had offered to shield a Serbian military radio transmitter in the embassy and paid the price) to very, very interesting.
Strike to destroy F-117A wreckage?
The very, very interesting theory was that the Serbian government had gifted the PRC with some interesting pieces of a US F-117A stealth fighter that had been shot down six weeks earlier, and President Bill Clinton ordered the embassy bombed to destroy the wreckage and prevent its shipment to China.
Indeed, a RAND study revealed that Clinton has been criticized by the milsec community for not bombing the crash site before it could be scavenged (and accepting the collateral damage of numerous dead civilians and journalists that would have resulted), so perhaps he thought bombing the PRC embassy was the next best thing.
This theory was reportedly dismissed at the time by a US officer who declared “China … doesn’t have the industrial capability to benefit from either the design or the systems”.
Well, fast forward to 2011. The PRC’s first stealth fighter, the J-20 conducts its inaugural test flight. And contemporary news reports acknowledge that Chinese intelligence agents had crisscrossed the area of the Yugoslavian crash in 1999 to buy up wreckage and that pieces “ended up in the hands of foreign military attachés” for purposes of study and reverse engineering. Maybe military attachés like the PRC’s Ren Bokai, who was in the intelligence directorate on the top floor of the Chinese embassy when it received a direct hit from a 900-pound JDAM, miraculously survived, and was airlifted back to China on a special plane.
The United States is keen to allege that the PRC lacks the intellectual wherewithal to cook up a stealth fighter itself and, on the occasion of the J-20 test flight, uncorked the sentencing of an Indian-American engineer for selling stealth secrets to the PRC— five years after his conviction. However, it still downplays the rather embarrassing possibility that the PRC extracted wreckage and useful secrets from the crash in Yugoslavia.
In any case, the Yugoslavian war, the F-117A crash, and the bombing of the embassy (executed by a B-2 stealth bomber) focused PRC attention on stealth, and inspired what was undoubtedly a very expensive, no-holds-barred effort to master it…and neutralize it.
Because, despite the promises made in the sales literature by Lockheed (proud creator of stealth, thanks to mathematical work of some Soviet scientist) about radar signatures as small as humming birds, and the billions of dollars spent on the program, it turns out that stealth…ain’t so stealthy.
Exhibit A, of course, is the original shoot-down of the F-117A stealth fighter. Apparently, the F-117A was optimized to evade high-frequency modern radars, and displayed an unexpected vulnerability to antiquated long-wavelength Soviet-era Czech radars employed by the Serb anti-aircraft batteries. Experienced radar operators could detect a stealth signature in the 20 seconds they had available (the radar had to be switched off before it could be targeted by US radar-seeking missiles) and the battery commander would fire a clutch of surface-to-air missiles “up there somewhere” with the occasional happy ending.
Rumor has it that this unexpected vulnerability precluded the deployment of the F-117A in South Korea, and accelerated its retirement and replacement by the F-22 Raptor.
I expect that current Russian and PRC technologies have been able to approach the skill level of anxious Serbian technicians staring at a CRT for twenty seconds in an underground bunker and, with the barrage of wavelengths, band hopping, and signal processing computational systems available to defense radars, pretty much any stealth scenario is crackable.
Now, rumor has it, the B-2 bomber, the elderly stealth aircraft that executed the Belgrade bombing, is itself considered to be excessively vulnerable to radar detection.
The Pentagon, therefore, finds itself with the tables turning. Instead of confidently sending the B-2 bomber (a slow, aerodynamically ungainly turkey bird) to drop bombs on a blind and terrified third-worldly foe with impunity, it has to be worried about the plane getting shot down somewhere out in nowheresville before it has completed its mission.
On the stealth side, of course, help — or at least another immensely expensive project — is on the way, both with the stealthified F-35 fighter (cue dispirited groaning) and the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) and, just to be sure, the LRSB will be launching stealthy, redirectable, and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Try stopping that!
Well, maybe that’s stoppable too, given the economics of installing more and better radars and more and better surface-to-air missiles that might not stop everything, but do enough to degrade the credibility of the US “deterrent.”
And that is why we’re sending Electronic Warfare planes to the Philippines, the “Growler 18A.”
The business of the Growler is discombobulation: the disruption of sophisticated air defense radar and fire control systems so that stealth-enhanced but not necessarily stealthy US fighters, bombers, and missiles can get through. Its designated adversary is the Russian S-400 SAM system.
As far as I can tell, it is almost impossible to classify the Growler as a “missile defense” system without engaging in verbal contortions that would tax the ability of the most committed security pundit. It’s an air defense suppression system that not only protects US assets but also opens up enemy territory to offensive air operations.
I would, therefore, characterize the Growlers as a significant escalation in militarization by the Pentagon on the PRC’s perimeter, not just deployment of military hardware, but of offensive capabilities, certainly more blatant than the THAAD South Korea missile defense radar boondoggle that still somehow seduces US journalists with its ostensibly defense ability to look 1,000 miles into PRC territory.
It means that the US is determined not to let stealth die without a fight, it is determined to crowd as many offensive capabilities as it can get away with into Asia, and challenge the PRC to a technological and military arms race with the objective of sustaining US military superiority and impunity.
In other words, even if the US can’t turn back the clock to Belgrade in 1999, it’s going to try to keep the PRC exposed and vulnerable to American attack.
As for the CCP, it understands this, and understands that the 17 years since the embassy bombing have simply been prologue to a security struggle that it expects to continue for another generation.
I expect that’s a “message” Xi Jinping might have been sending with the wreath-laying. “Stealth” might be dead, but the battle is just beginning.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.