The Banja Luka incident on 28 February 1994, was an incident in which six Republika Srpska Air Force J-21 Jastreb single-seat light attack jets were engaged, and four of them shot down, by United States Air Force F-16 fighters southwest of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Part of the rescue effort was the authentication of the downed pilot through the isolated personnel report information already obtained by the A-10 pilots who provided on-scene command. In the case of Zelko, an enthusiastic numismatist, it was his answer to the question of what his favorite coin was—the Mercury dime—that confirmed to the on-scene commanders that they were, in fact, dealing with the downed American pilot.
As the rescue helicopters, two MH-53 Pave Lows and an MH-60 Pave Hawk, moved into the area and called, “Two miles out,” Serbian surface-to-air radars began targeting the A-10s. One of the A-10 pilots made an unusual transmission, calling, “Magnum,” the code word used by the F-16 CJ pilots to denote the firing of a high-speed antiradiation missile (HARM). The ploy worked; no sooner had the pilot made the false call than the Serbians turned off their radars. At precisely the right moment, all aircraft began the extraction. The MH-60 located the survivor and moved overhead, and the two MH-53s circled overhead in a perfect Lufbery circle, each one covering a 180-degree arc around the actual rescue helicopter. Above them, the A-10s did the same, ensuring complete 360-degree coverage over the pilot. The MH-60 Pave Hawk, call sign Gator-31, settled onto the ground, and a pararescueman jumped out for the final authentication. A mere forty seconds later, Zelko was inside the helicopter and the entire mission began the race out of enemy airspace.
The combat search and rescue effort that night, though “far from flawless,” proved the importance of the training scenarios the rescuers had practiced time and again. Zelko later indicated that the role of the equipment in his rescue was less important, pointing instead to a more significant factor in his rescue: “Technology and sophistication are very, very important, but what about the human? What about the operator? This combat search and rescue was successful because of the training and preparation.”
The members of the combat search and rescue crews later said that the rescue of Dale Zelko was the “most challenging; most intense; the most physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting peacetime or wartime mission” they had been involved in during their careers. Still, each and every pilot, whether flying a fighter, attack aircraft, or helicopter, had trained for this very particular type of mission at his or her home station and at Red Flag. True, the aircraft were all technologically advanced, but so was the F-117 that had just been shot out of the sky. The key element in success was the training.
The six-hour rescue ordeal concluded on the very ramp from which Zelko had taken off earlier that night. Word spread quickly that Zelko was arriving on a C-130 at Aviano Air Base. Each member of his squadron, the A-10 pilots who led the rescue mission, and dozens of others gathered as the C-130 landed, taxied, and dropped its ramp. Zelko was greeted with raucous applause. As Hinman recalled, “The wing commander greeted him, followed by his squadron commander, and next in line was a young airman first class, Katrina Carterer. Zelko spotted her, reached inside his flight suit, and withdrew the American flag he had carried on that mission for her. With the sun rising and the Alps in the background, it was like something out of a movie.” The rescue of Vega-31 was a high point in the Kosovo air war. The rescue proved that Red Flag training scenarios for search and rescue missions were perfectly suited for real-world execution.
The U.S. Air Force was transformed through the use of realistic training exercises, but this produced a gap between the capabilities of American pilots and those of other allied nations, as the experience of Allied Force clearly showed. The NATO allies were decidedly untransformed. Cesar Rodriguez opined that “one could argue that, in Allied Force, NATO was the Achilles’ heel of allied air forces when it should have [been] and needed to be the crown jewel.” Lieutenant Colonel Steven Ankerstar, who flew F-15s during Allied Force, echoed Lieutenant Colonel McLean’s thoughts on the importance of night operations, pointing out that American pilots had trained for “lights-out” night operations for decades, while this was a mission that many allies were not comfortable conducting.
Allied Force demonstrated that for every action there is a reaction; the use of stealth in Desert Storm had led to other countries attempting to counteract it. Elements of the Serbian Army configured their radars to give them the best opportunity to detect the F-117. The downed F-117 also became something of a sore subject with many in the air force. The inability of the Americans to completely destroy their downed aircraft meant that certain aspects of the low-observable aircraft probably fell into enemy hands that night. If the aircraft wasn’t compromised before Allied Force, it certainly was after it.
The compromise of the F-117 did not stop the air force from concluding that air power alone had delivered the ceasefire to NATO leaders. A RAND Corporation study conducted after the war yielded the book NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment. This work went so far as to reassert that Allied Force was “the first time air forces had successfully coerced an enemy leader in the absence of significant friendly ground force involvement” and that “NATO’s bombing effort … played the determining role in bringing about Milosevic’s defeat.” These statements directly contradict the following facts. First, the air war was originally planned to last for forty-eight hours but instead lasted seventy-eight days. Second, Milošević and the Serbian military showed great resiliency against the air campaign, to the point that many NATO countries believed the only way to stop the ethnic cleansing was a massive influx of ground troops. Finally, it was only after NATO threatened to use ground troops and Russia withdrew its backing from Milošević that the latter agreed to a ceasefire.
But what did operations in the Balkans say about the way the air force trained for war? The shooting down of two F-16s and the F-117 exposed no real flaw in the training paradigm. Even in an uncontested environment the occasional aircraft will be lost. Red Flag still demonstrated its merit, even at the expense of other nations’ egos. As Cesar Rodriguez noted, American pilots operated on an entirely different level, thanks in no small part to years of training for day and night missions. Blue Flag proved to be a more difficult training exercise to evaluate. Participants at Blue Flag were not instructed in how to wage a war of escalation, nor were they taught how to plan for operations led by the UN or NATO, although this undoubtedly should have been inserted into the training programs. Perhaps the biggest problem for air planners and pilots conducting operations was that there existed no training mechanism addressing how to get organizations to work together coherently in combat. Planning for and flying in Red Flag was relatively simple. Lines of authority were clear, and the “enemy” was a more or less known quantity. However, planning and executing an air campaign in which the United States was not the lead organization proved difficult to simulate in training.
Another problem during the campaigns in the Balkans was the clash of personalities, also difficult to train for in an exercise environment. Whereas General Horner at least understood General Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm, there are strong indications that General Wesley Clark and his air component commander, Lieutenant General Michael Short, did not get along with each other. The importance and power of personality conflicts during military operations should not be underestimated, especially if those clashes change or compromise the use of one military arm versus another. Training and technology aside, personality conflicts between senior leaders are never productive.
Moreover, there was a lack of clearly defined objectives given to allied air planners before the beginning of hostilities. This again underscores the point that, although training prior to the campaign prepared pilots for aerial combat, the training for campaign planning itself showed a need for modification.
Nevertheless, there are many positive outcomes of the Balkan campaigns that can be tied directly back to air force training exercises. If one could overlook the failure to achieve NATO and UN objectives, the overall results of air power in the conflict, especially American air power, were quite impressive. In all, the Americans lost three aircraft during the conflicts. Among these, the air force lost two F-16s and one F-117. All three aircraft were lost to surface-to-air missiles and all three pilots were rescued, although in one case it took several days to accomplish the task. In return, the American military destroyed six MiG-29s and at least four J-21s and two J-22s during the Banja Luka incident.
American missile technology continued to be improved as well. After Desert Storm, twenty of sixty-one kills were accomplished beyond visual range. This was due in large part to the air force’s use of the AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile. Despite the great increase in beyond-visual-range kills, other factors showed that beyond-visual-range weapons were not nearly as effective as some claimed. Since the first use of the missile in 1992, the air force recorded ten AIM-120 kills, but four of those were not achieved beyond visual range. Furthermore, two were against nonmaneuvering, fleeing aircraft, and none of the ten downed aircraft had actively employed electronic countermeasures. In each of these situations, the United States had a numerical advantage, and none of the enemy aircraft were equipped with similar beyond-visual-range weapons.
Air combat during the 1990s continued to prove the value and efficacy of Red Flag, Blue Flag, and other training exercises. In essence, training events gave American pilots the opportunity to “dry-run” a mission before actually flying it in combat. Air force pilots’ ability to plan for and execute very complicated missions in a tiny air space over the former Yugoslavia was something that they had developed in training on more than a hundred different occasions. Every Red Flag training mission and every sortie in what was called “continuation training” (the missions conducted daily at an aircraft squadron’s home station) prepared American pilots for exactly these types of missions.
After 1975, the air force was transformed in the way that it trained for and executed aerial warfare. The training revolution directly led to the success of Operation Desert Storm. After Desert Storm, the air force continued to expand its training exercises, and an already existing gap in capabilities between the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces began to widen. Red Flag, Blue Flag, and other training events continued to demonstrate their utility, but air force flyers were now so far ahead of some of the other allied nations that it was difficult to conduct operations alongside them.