Tuesday, November 22, 2005

How to Shoot Down an F-117

Jim Dunnigan at Strategy Page has an interesting item on the Serb air defense commander who shot down a U.S. F-117 during Operation Allied Force. As he notes, the initiative of an individual commander, coupled with the right tactics, came sometimes overcome an opponent's technological superiority.

Fortunately, we uncovered many of the Serb tactics in the military's post-mortem on Allied Force, and we've developed counter-measures to deal with them. In hindsight, Serb air defense commanders enjoyed tactical success by simply taking advantage of U.S./NATO arrogance and predictability. Many of our strike packages bound for Serbia took off at the same time each night and followed similar routes into the target areas. That made it easy for the Serbs to establish non-traditional warning networks (such as spotters with cell phones), who monitored traffic from our bases in Italy, and relayed that information back to Belgrade.

Armed with that information, surface-to-air missile (SAM) commanders (including Colonel Zoltan) could determine when NATO aircraft would arrive overhead, and even predict their navigational headings. That allowed Serb air defense crews to set up effective ambush points along expected NATO flight routes, while minimizing their exposure to coalition air defense suppression efforts, including anti-radiation missiles that targeted SAM radars.

From an airpower perspective, a lot of this is old news, but it does offer a reminder. In the hands of a determined commander, even older SAM systems like the SA-3 pose a potential threat to U.S. air operations. Luckily for us, most SAM operators aren't as dedicated (or tactically proficient) as Colonel Zoltan.


Wanderlust said...

I've always believed that technical superiority of weaponry always takes a distant back seat to the technical superiority of the warfighter. And as you've intimated, arrogance that trusts in weapons leaves the warfighter terribly exposed to harm.

My favorite scene in "Black Hawk Down" was the one where the helos had just dusted off the base, headed into Mogadishu. On a hill overlooking the landing field, a kid holds a cell phone over his head, providing very effective DEW capabilities to the enemy.

I also remember how badly the USAF and DoD took the news that their most expensive toy, the B-2, could be tracked in real-time via disruptions to wireless communication nets. When the B-2 was officially rolled out in 1989, I recall USAF talking heads bragging how its radar cross section was no larger than a hen's egg. At the time, I thought to myself, all someone has to do is look for an egg traveling in a straight line at 600mph. In Serbia of the late 1990's, political ineptitude and top brass arrogance (and lack of OPSEC) allowed the enemy to essentially do just that.

Finally, recall that in the early days of WWII, the Japanese had air superiority via a good combination of training and equipment (the Zero was incredibly maneuverable for its day). But over time, the sheer determination of USAAF and USN fighter pilots, willingness to fight, and desire to learn and master the enemy's weaknesses overcame any superiority based solely on technology.

I think we would do well to remember these things. Our rivals (Islamofascists, Chinese, etc.) certainly do.

TinkersDam said...

Let me know when someone actually deploys one of those mythical cellphone-radars, will you?