Allied Force – USAF Part I


Yugoslav army experts check the wreckage of the downed American F-117 aircraft, in the village of Budjanovci, 30 miles northwest of Belgrade.

While Deny Flight and Deliberate Force showed the growing gap between American training and other allies’ preparation, Allied Force demonstrated the transformation that had occurred in the air force’s combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission set. Allied Force began as a means to force President Slobodan Milošević to stop the ethnic cleansing he had ordered in Kosovo. Allied Force provided examples that Red Flag still worked, especially when it came to the ability to rescue pilots from hostile environments. It also demonstrated that the CAS exercises known as Air Warrior and the advanced training received at the Fighter Weapons School provided important experience as well. The CSAR missions were conducted by air force special operators known as pararescue jumpers. These missions had been practiced at Nellis AFB from the earliest days of Red Flag. More than any other mission type, the training conducted to pick up a downed pilot in hostile territory was tested during Allied Force. The training proved worth it. The realistic training exercises of Red Flag and Air Warrior used A-10s and rotary wing assets to rescue downed personnel. Between 1980 and 1990, the annual CAS Red Flag and the block on command and control taught at the A-10 weapons school changed the way the air force conducted rescue operations. Never before had air force personnel and assets been able to conduct a rescue operation in such a highly contested threat environment as the one found in Serbia.

The threat environments tested at the Red Flag exercise eventually mirrored what would be seen during Allied Force. During the air war over Serbia in 1999, NATO was unable to completely destroy Yugoslavia’s surface-to-air missile capability. Historian Daniel Haulman stated at a conference of the Society for Military History in 2001, “Surface-launched missiles and antiaircraft guns continued to present much more of a threat to [air force] aircraft than enemy aircraft. Enemy fighters sometimes served only as bait to lure Air Force fighters into areas with heavy concentrations of surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery.”

The bombing of Serbia provided another useful example of how differences between strategic and tactical no longer mattered and how the training practiced at Red Flag was very close to combat operations. F-117s flying early in the conflict struck underground command and control bunkers, military barracks, radio relay stations, and other targets that served both strategic and tactical significance. Each target, regardless of its nature, was just something that needed to be destroyed or disabled, and each operation moved NATO closer to ending the campaign. The B-2 bomber also saw its first combat missions during Allied Force, flying from its home station in Missouri and returning there rather than be stationed overseas. The B-2 had entered into Red Flag exercises in the summer of 1995, participating in a second Red Flag a few months later. The air force deployed the B-2 to Red Flag events more often than other fighter squadrons in its earliest days to ensure it was prepared to enter actual combat, which it did in 1999. Still, this was not a return to the days of strategic bombardment. The bombers now fell under Air Combat Command and executed deep strikes against targets. What mattered was a target’s destruction and, consistent with that objective, aircraft were assigned based solely on their ability to carry out a particular mission and not because of what command they belonged to.

The combat search and rescue missions provided an excellent case study of just how important realistic training was to actual operations. Training to perform the CSAR mission was far more central to success in the actual rescues than the technology used. CSAR operations were an important task during Vietnam, of course, but Red Flag helped perfect the entire mission set. Red Flag exercises had included combat search and rescue operations since 1976, and these CSAR missions proved to be a mainstay of the exercise for the next two decades. Outside of Red Flag, those select pilots chosen to go attend the Fighter Weapons School, particularly A-10 pilots, were also exposed to training for CSAR operations. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Haave stated in A-10s over Kosovo (2003) that graduates of the weapons school became qualified to lead CSAR missions and that their abilities ranked at the top of U.S. and NATO “must have capabilities” when planning for combat. CSAR-qualified commanders are given the coveted call sign “Sandys.” The “sandy” name went all the way back to the Vietnam conflict and denoted the escort of search and rescue helicopters into enemy territory. Lieutenant Colonel Haave stated, “Due to the difficulty and complexity of the mission, only the most experienced and capable A-10 pilots are selected to train as Sandys.” Training to lead a CSAR mission was among the most mentally challenging mission sets learned by combat pilots. Lieutenant Colonel Haave said that these pilots must “use exceptional judgment to find and talk to the survivor without giving away information to the enemy, who may also be listening or watching. The Sandy must have an extraordinary situational awareness to keep track of the survivor, numerous support aircraft, rescue helicopters, and enemy activity on the ground.”

There is a direct link between the rescue efforts in the Balkans and those practiced at Red Flag and at the Fighter Weapons School. Exercise parameters during a search and rescue training mission anticipated the rescue of downed pilots in Serbia perfectly. More important, the rescue efforts demonstrated that realistic training was as important as the technology needed to go in and rescue a downed pilot. The combat search and rescue efforts to retrieve Dale Zelko after he was shot down by surface-to-air missiles began long before he ever took off on his mission.

The search and rescue effort to save Dale Zelko, the largest such operation since the Vietnam conflict, demonstrated the importance of training over technology. One of the benefits of Red Flag proven during this particular rescue effort was the value of training with different types of aircraft. Air force pilot Lieutenant Colonel Brian McLean said in his book Joint Training for Night Air Warfare (1992) that Red Flag “exposes the participants to more than one type of aircraft, [and] the participants learn what skills and capabilities can be provided by other types of aircraft and crews.” During the search and rescue efforts, Red Flag graduates knew where each and every aircraft would be located by altitude and exactly what type of mission the pilot of that aircraft would be responsible for. Another mission taught at Red Flag that was used during this rescue effort was the ability to conduct operations at night. In the fall of 1991, after Desert Storm proved the importance of operating at night, Red Flag moved its afternoon “go” to a night “go” to train pilots in nighttime operations. Lieutenant Colonel McLean indicated that conducting operations during periods of darkness allowed pilots to coordinate their “timing to achieve a more effective overall mission package.” This effectiveness in timing proved its worth in the rescue of Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko.

On the night of 27 March 1999, Lieutenant Colonel Zelko set out on a bombing run. He carried, in addition to the standard survival equipment, an American flag tucked under his flight suit; it had been given to him by the senior airman who’d prepared his target package that night. It has long been tradition in the air force for pilots and aircrews to carry American flags with them during missions. Zelko had just finished his run over Serbia in his F-117 when the unthinkable occurred—he saw at least two, possibly more, surface-to-air missiles closing in on his aircraft. As the first one passed extremely close to the front of his aircraft, the pilot was surprised that its proximity fuse did not engage to detonate the missile. The second exploded near the rear of his aircraft, sending it into a violent negative-G situation and forcing Zelko to eject. Colonel Ellwood Hinman, a member of Zelko’s squadron, later said, “If we had to pick one man we wanted to be in that situation, it would have been Zelko.” Zelko was the Forty-ninth Fighter Wing’s life support officer. His day-to-day job, outside of the cockpit, was to train pilots in ejection procedures and how to handle their survival equipment in the event of this very situation.

Less than a minute after ejecting and floating down under his canopy, Zelko made the following radio transmission: “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday, Vega-31.” Other aircraft in the vicinity and the large NATO airborne warning and control system aircraft orbiting nearby immediately picked up the transmission and responded: “Magic-86, on guard, go ahead.” The response stopped those who received the message dead in their tracks: “Roger, Vega-31 is out of the aircraft! Downed.” The pilot of another F-117, Vega-32, captured the entire episode on his radio, including the extremely shrill locator beacon that sounded as Zelko floated down toward enemy territory. Zelko was using a short-range radio intended only for communicating with aircraft orbiting nearby, meaning that once he was downed, he had difficulty contacting the airborne warning and control system aircraft again. A nearby KC-135 refueler began relaying the messages from Zelko to the AWACS aircraft. The only aircraft whose pilot heard all of the communications between Zelko, the air refueler, and the NATO AWACS aircraft was another F-117. This stealth pilot transmitted to the AWACS aircraft to “start the [combat search and rescue] effort.” A member of the combined air and space operations center team on the combat operations floor said, “You could have heard a pin drop when we realized it was a stealth.” Immediately after the moment of stunned silence, all hell broke loose as a massive rescue operation was set in motion.

Dale Zelko landed roughly five miles west of Belgrade and south of the town of Ruma; his location so close to Belgrade indicated to rescue officers that this would be a very difficult mission. Zelko’s landing site was little more than a flat farm field, meaning it would be extremely challenging for the downed pilot to find somewhere suitable to camouflage himself and wait for the rescue mission to arrive. Beyond that, he had landed within two miles of the wreckage of his aircraft and thus was in danger of being found by the Serbian Army before the American combat search and rescue team arrived. Zelko moved from his landing site into a small irrigation ditch that provided the only land cover between two plowed farm fields.

Major Ellwood Hinman was scheduled to fly in the “second go” of F-117s that night. When he entered the squadron, it was, in his words, “complete chaos.” Two problems immediately greeted Hinman and every operational officer at Italy’s Aviano Air Base that evening. The first was the rescue attempt to get Zelko out of enemy territory. The second was whether to bomb the wreckage to ensure that its components did not fall into enemy hands. Hinman volunteered for the second mission. However, for two reasons, the bombing mission never took place. First, every airborne tanker was diverted to support the rescue mission. Second, the proximity to Belgrade meant that local and international news stations arrived at the crash site quickly. In fact, by the time Hinman was preparing to taxi his aircraft, CNN had already broadcast images of the F-117’s wreckage burning in a field. With dozens of civilians at the crash site, there was no way the air force could destroy the aircraft without incurring civilian casualties.

While the F-117 pilots of the Eighth Fighter Squadron at Aviano Air Base struggled to decide what their next steps should be, a pilot from a nearby A-10 squadron showed up to collect as much information on the downed pilot as possible, including his “isolated personnel report,” which contained information only the downed airman would know and would be able to remember even under extreme duress. The A-10 pilot gave this information to to the first two A-10 pilots readying to take off in support of the rescue mission.

The rescue of Zelko involved dozens of aircraft and demonstrated the timing and coordination during night operations that had been emphasized at Red Flag after Desert Storm as well as the importance of pilots training with types of aircraft that had differing capabilities from their own. Furthermore, because of training exercises like Red Flag and home station continuation training, each pilot knew exactly how close he or she could push his or her aircraft into the Serbian defense system. After the first launch of aircraft that night, all other missions had been cancelled due to weather, and when the F-117 was shot down, more than a dozen airborne assets were retasked to participate in the rescue. These assets included at least two airborne warning and control system aircraft (NATO and air force); three intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; an RC-135 Rivet Joint; an RC-135 Compass Call; a U-2; an EC-130E airborne command and control center; four F-16 CJs that provided onscene command until the arrival of the A-10s; and USMC EA-6Bs, each of which provided unique capabilities to facilitate the rescue of the downed pilot. The KC-135 refuelers, which normally circled in preplanned orbits well outside of any enemy threat, pushed closer to Serbia and the threat of enemy MiGs to ensure that the A-10s, which had to refuel, were able to safely “chainsaw” back and forth to the refuelers while leaving one pair on station over Zelko.