Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Why did the USA bomb the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999?

Between the 24th of March and the 10th of June 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) conducted a military campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, employing airpower and cruise missiles from a range of naval and aviation assets. The operations directed against Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milošević and his government in Belgrade, although lacking United Nations Security Council backing, were justified by the NATO leadership as necessary to force Yugoslavia to allow peaceful succession for the province of Kosovo from the Federation and prevent the Yugoslav military from perpetrating genocide against the ethnic-Albanian Kosovans behind the independence movement, as they had done to Muslim and Croat-Bosniaks in Bosnia during the early 1990s.

Despite the noble rationale proclaimed by NATO to be behind the decision to launch Operation Allied Force, Russia and China were wary of the motives of the USA and its western allies in becoming embroiled in the complex conflicts and tumultuous politics of the Balkans. Moscow resented American interference in a region which it considered its traditional sphere of influence. This stance was largely imitated by China, which as an aspiring world power, treated with hostility moves by the US it perceived to be attempts to flex its military and diplomatic strength and impose a “new world order” with America at the apex of a uni-polar international system, following the end of the Cold War. Although Chinese opposition to Operation Allied Force was no secret, with Sino-Russian intransigence key to the failure to obtain Security Council backing, the reasons behind the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by a US aircraft on the 7th of May are less clear.

In the wake of the outrage vented towards America and NATO by the Chinese government and public at the destruction of their diplomatic mission to Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration was forced to account for its actions. While the US government swiftly accepted responsibly for the bombing, an admission that was coupled with an official apology, the attack was branded as a mistake and it was claimed that nearby Yugoslav government buildings housing the Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement were the intended targets.

Although the USA has resolutely maintained that the bombing was an unfortunate accident resulting from outdated and inaccurate mapping, this story was very quickly picked apart by investigations by media organisations such as the Danish publication Politiken which claimed that NATO was fully aware of the location of the Chinese embassy, having placed its coordinates on a “strictly forbidden” list of targets at the start of military operations.1 The London Observer and Yoichi Shimatsu of Asia Weekly also published anecdotal evidence from within NATO's signals-intelligence node in Vincenza, Italy and the CIA, which confirmed that not only had the five precision guided munitions dropped by the US Air Force B-2 bomber hit their aim point, but that the coordinates of the embassy were identified correctly on NATO and American maps.

The intrigue surrounding the bombing, with everyone within NATO's cartographic and targeting communities under no illusions about the intentionality of the strike, was further heightened in July 1999 during a Congressional inquiry whereby the director of the CIA, George Tenet confirmed that the mission was directed by his agency and was the only such intelligence led operation of the war.2 Not only did this corroborate an earlier claim by the French Ministry of Defence that the mission was not conducted within the NATO chain of command but was an independent US military operation, but also seems to contradict the claim by the US government that the intended target was a Yugoslav government building of the kind which were being routinely targeted by NATO as part of the attempt to degrade the efficacy of Milošević's political and military infrastructure.

So while it can be deduced with some certainty that the US strike on the Chinese embassy was a deliberate operation, despite the widespread failure of the mainstream western media to acknowledge the evidence refuting the official line given by the US government, the question still remains; why was the order given to attack the Chinese diplomatic headquarters in full knowledge of the political maelstrom this would inevitably cause? Two primary theories have emerged amongst journalists and commentators as to why the USA would feel it had more to gain from bombing the embassy in Belgrade than it did to lose.

The first of these is a belief that the Chinese embassy was acting as a broadcasting station, relaying directives from the Yugoslav government to military formations and therefore violating China's de jure neutrality in the conflict.3 In addition to the symbolic message this sent to the Americans about China's true position in the conflict, the channelling of Yugoslav radio broadcasts via a supposedly invulnerable medium would have enraged the US military and intelligence agencies. Indeed, NATO placed great emphasis on prosecuting a campaign of Electronic Warfare against Yugoslavian communications networks in an attempt to deny Milošević effective command and control of his military. The number of sources from both Europe and America which have asserted these claims against China make them likely allegations and the undoubtedly undermining role it would have had on Operation Allied Force has led many to draw a direct link between the broadcasting and bombing, which could be viewed as a stark message to China not to come between NATO and its military objectives.

However, others have placed greater emphasis on the actions of the Chinese following the downing of an American F-117 stealth aircraft by Yugoslav air-defence forces on the 27th of March. Despite the sophisticated stealth features incorporated into the design of the F-117, such as an electronic cloaking system of hot-wired copper filament spun within the airframe, intended to make the aircraft invisible to radar and invulnerable to missiles, the 3rd Battalion of the Yugoslav 250th Air Defence Missile Brigade under the command of Colonel Zoltán Dani was able to briefly detect and successfully engage an F-117 participating in Operation Allied Force. Much of the wreckage of the F-117 was left intact after the US government refused to bomb the crash site, as is standard procedure, due to the presence of large numbers of Western journalists who quickly descended upon the remains of the downed bomber. It is widely acknowledged that consequently, Chinese intelligence assets were highly active in procuring sensitive components of the aircraft from the Yugoslav authorities in control of the crash site, and from local Serbian farmers who had additional debris littering their land.4

Clearly, the Chinese attainment of technology from one of America's most sophisticated weapons systems, said to include amongst other things the advanced jet exhaust vents which suppressed the aircraft's heat signature, was of great concern to the US government. Nevertheless, suggestions that the raid on the embassy in May was intended to destroy the technology before Beijing could exploit it seem unlikely. Reports suggest that the wreckage was swiftly transported out of the war-zone by a Chinese cargo plane, captured by US satellite imagery loading large containers at Belgrade Airport.5 This is corroborated by evidence that the Chinese were able to capitalise upon the captured technology, such as the development of a Chinese stealth aircraft, the Chengdu J-20, ahead of many commentators' expectations and the early retirement of the F-117 in 2008, presumably due in part, to the aircraft's compromised stealth capabilities. It seems more feasible that the strike on the embassy on the 7th of May constituted part of the 'severe consequences' threatened by the US government when the technology was not surrendered by the Chinese to American authorities as requested.

However, these two theories are by no means mutually exclusive. It seems probable that both scenarios had a significant role to play in formulating decisions made within the upper echelons of the US intelligence agencies, in the sense that both situations were necessary factors, but not sufficient individually to prompt such a response. While the problems caused by the downing of the F-117 can be seen as the more serious and critical to the US government, the decision to include the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade as a stipulated 'severe consequence' was likely to have been influenced by the issue of the broadcasting of Yugoslav signals, which as a “bird”, did not warrant its own “stone”, but could nonetheless be “killed” as part of the package of retaliation.

Furthermore, there is perhaps another dimension to this story, which draws together even closer the link between the murky world of Electronic Warfare, the capture of key components of the F-117 and the bombing of the Chinese embassy. Colonel Zoltán Dani testified after the war that his missile batteries had been able to lock onto the F-117 by operating their search and target acquisition radars at unconventionally low frequencies. The stealth features of the F-117 were designed to counteract modern radars, which emit high frequency signals on the centimetre and millimetre wavelength spectrum,6 enabling them to be compact enough to be portable in mobile ground-stations and on-board aircraft. However, the F-117's stealth features seem to have been subverted by the use by antiquated, Russian-made radar equipment which could operate at wavelengths of 2 meters, making the aircraft more reflective and detectable.7

Although it may initially sound implausible, there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that the Chinese could have been acting as an air-defence hub for the Yugoslav military, using similarly low-frequency TV waves to detect and track flights by US stealth aircraft via a system known as Passive Coherent Localisation (PCL). The existence of PCL is acknowledged by the US government and has been described by the US Department of Homeland Security as follows:

'In PCL, an ambient broadcast signal, such as FM radio, HDTV or cell phone, is used as the illuminator. Exploiting signal processing, a set of networked receivers covering the area of interest combine echoes from moving targets to form tracks. PCL has been developed primarily for detection of aircraft targets, including stealthy aircraft.'8

It would seem that neutralising the Yugoslav TV broadcasting capability was a priority for NATO during the campaign, with attacks on television transmitters in Belgrade and other cities such as Nis well documented. The use of cruise missiles to explode strands of carbon fibre over power-lines were also recorded,9 which could have been attempts to deny their use as signal receivers for reflected TV waves. At the same time, the supposedly neutral and immune Chinese embassy was continually broadcasting Chinese movies which could have formed the basis for a PCL system which helped the Yugoslav military detect and destroy the F-117 on the 27th March.

If this was indeed the case, then it is easy to see why US intelligence chiefs felt compelled to destroy the Chinese embassy in order to prevent further losses of the American stealth bomber fleet as well as punish the Chinese for profiting from the technology of the downed F-117. It may also be true that the loss of the F-117 to the gain of the Chinese represented a useful catalyst to hard-line elements within the US intelligence community who wished to take action against China regardless for their general stance in the conflict, as demonstrated by more minor misdemeanours, such as the relaying of Yugoslav communications signals.

Although the precise reasoning behind the bombing of the Chinese embassy may never be fully revealed, due to the gullibility of the majority Western media outlets, the event has passed into mainstream history, at least for the time being, as a mere mistake, an unfortunate error. Perhaps we can expect to see more of these “accidents” as China continues to rise as a powerful, global player, challenging American interests.

1Yoichi Shimatsu, Did the US deliberately bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade? <>
2DCI statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Open Hearing, <> [Accessed 22/06/2011]
3Yoichi Shimatsu, Did the US deliberately bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade?
4Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatian military chief-of-staff, <> [Accessed 22/06/2011].
5Yoichi Shimatsu, How China's Stealth Aircraft Rose From The Ashes Of The Balkan War, <> [Accessed 22/06/2011].
6The Belgrade Bombing, the F-117 Cake, and the Tears of Premier Zhu Rongji, <> [Accessed 22/06/2011].
7This is consistent with a report from the 1991 Gulf War that a British warship detected an F-117 due to the use of radar operating at a wavelength twice the length of the plane, resulting in the aircraft reflecting a very strong radar return. <> [Accessed 21/06/2011].
> [Accessed 29/04/2011].
9Yoichi Shimatsu, How China's Stealth Aircraft Rose From The Ashes Of The Balkan War.


  1. Are we to assume that the B-2's stealth capabilities are more advanced than those of the now retired F117? Or is the high altitude envelope - in which the B-2 operates - why it was not detected before the embassy strike?