Here's What You Need to Know: It's an incident the U.S. Air Force would probably like to forget.
On March 27, 1999, an S-125M missile crew from the Serbian 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade fired two missile V-600 missiles at a U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter that was flying back to its base in Italy after bombing a target near the Serb capital Belgrade.
The air raid was part of NATO’s intervention in the bloody civil war pitting Serb forces against insurgents in Kosovo, a breakaway region of Serbia.
The intervention ended with Serbia agreeing to terms. The new country of Kosovo was born.
Still, the F-117 shootdown near the town of Budanovci was “an outright military victory,” according to Zoltan Dani, the colonel in command of the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade’s 3rd Missile Battery.
The battery anticipated the American plane’s flight path and, in contravention of standard tactics, powered up its high-frequency radar several times for 20 seconds each in order to get a fix on the F-117. Such frequent illumination risked drawing fire from NATO warplanes.
Dani received a promotion after the war and, a decade later, enjoyed much of the credit for the victory. It wasn’t until recently that other members of the battery began to speak out, challenging Dani’s control of the narrative and, in particular, pointing to another man who also deserves credit. Fellow battery control-officer Dorde Anicic.
Battery veterans speak out in Stealth Down, a Serbian documentary about the events of March 27, 1999.
The shoot-down was no secret, of course. F-117 pilot Lt. Col. Dale Zelko managed to eject from his damaged jet and spent a day hiding from Serbia patrols before an Air Force HH-60G rescue helicopter flew in to retrieve him.
The incident immediately was headline news in the United States.
But it was years before anyone in the Serbian military took credit for the kill. Dani finally went on a sort of P.R. offensive, talking to reporters and appearing in two documentaries, The 21st Second in 2009 and, in 2013, The Second Meeting, which depicts Dani’s first face-to-face meeting with Zelko.
The two get along great, and even visit a museum where the wreckage of Zelko’s F-117 is on display.
“I was in command that night, that was my destiny,” Dani explains in Stealth Down.
On the 11th anniversary of the shoot-down, the local government in Budanovci even gave Dani property in recognition of his wartime leadership. Dani accepted but acknowledged later that other members of the 3rd Missile Battery also deserved thanks. “Give everyone on the team a property, then,” Dani says in Stealth Down.
But by then Dani’s former missileers had turned on the famous commander. “We had two targeting operators in the moment the missile was shot, Dani and Anicic,” battery veteran Boris Stoimenov says in the recent documentary. “If one got the promotion, why didn’t the other?”
“Nobody did it for the medals or promotions,” Anicic says in Stealth Down. But that doesn’t mean that the men who worked together to shoot down Zelko’s F-117 don’t all want credit for their military prowess. “Truth must live on,” Anicic says.
This article first appeared in March 2020.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo