Last Friday, Colin Clark of Defense One had another interesting article in the Super Hornet versus Joint Strike Fighter debate—"Gen. Mike Hostage On The F-35: No Growlers Needed When War Starts”. Specifically, he reports, the head of Air Combat Command labels as “old think” the idea that the downing of an F-117 during the 1999 Kosovo War should be taken as evidence that stealth aircraft should be baked up by high-powered electronic-magnetic warfare:
We have one F-117 shot down in 78 days of flying over that country, thousands of sorties. They shot down one airplane. And they shot down one airplane because we flew across the same spot on the ground for weeks at a time. It took them multiple weeks to figure out how to shoot the thing. Then they had to get four or five systems to do it. It took them weeks to take it out. I can accept that kind of attrition rate. I obviously don’t want to lose anyone, but good Lord, one airplane over the course of 78 days, that’s pretty impressive.
Let’s review the facts. The bombing campaign opened on 24 March 1999. The first F-117 knocked out of action—serial #82-0806, piloted by Lt. Col. Dale Zelko—went down on 27 March. That is, the Yugoslav Air Defense Force (PVO) didn’t need “weeks" to figure out how to shoot it down. However bad the American tactics, the Yugoslavs needed three days, an old P-18 meter-band search radar, an old S-125 Pechora surface-to-air missile, and some clever modifications to both by the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Zoltan Dani. It helped that his radars weren’t being jammed at the time.
On 30 April, the USAF lost another F-117 as a battle-damage write-off. On 2 May, an F-16 Falcon—serial number 88-0490, piloted by Lt. Col. David Goldfein—was bagged as another victory by Dani’s battalion, the 3rd of the 250th Missile Brigade.
So, the attrition rate was not one airplane in 78 days. It was three in 78 days. That might seem impressive, except that the result of all that bombing was the destruction of only 21 Yugoslav armored vehicles (apart, of course, from the general ransacking of Serbian and Montenegrin economic infrastructure). The bizarre rules of engagement imposed on NATO forces kept aircraft so high in the skies that they generally couldn’t find ground targets, and the ones they did find were frequently just decoys.
The problem was that across the Allied side, public opinion about the war ranged from lukewarm to downright hostile. So, just as in 1995, NATO was trying to run a war without actually getting anyone killed. This meant that the air campaign was more fencing match than knife fight. After such a high-profile American loss in the first week, the air headquarters in Vincenza had all the more political motivation to restrict bombing to the safest of situations. That may say a lot about why losses were limited to survivable damage, at least until the end of April.
It does seem remarkable that the loss rate for presumably stealthy aircraft was actually higher than that for non-stealthy aircraft. The observation is hardly statistically meaningful, but the inversion of the logic does indicate that General Hostage’s point about the F-117 isn’t just inaccurate; it’s irrelevant. The PVO needed just three days to figure out how to shoot down a stealth fighter, and the attrition rate from such a one-sided and choreographed war probably shouldn’t be cited too broadly in defense of preferred purchases.