The B-2A Spirit was conceived to fight the Cold War but has proved invaluable to both the ‘New World Order’ and more recently the Global War on Terrorism. The combination of low-observability, precision strike, range and payload flexibility has made the Spirit the weapon of choice when America hits its enemies at the start of a campaign. B-2s from 509th Bomb Wing (BW), which is the sole frontline user of the type, fired the first shots of Operation Allied Force (OAF) over Kosovo and Serbia.
As told by Thomas Withington in his book B-2A Spirit Units in Combat, one of the targets hit by the B-2 resulted in OAF’s biggest diplomatic faux pas when, on May 7, 1999 the Chinese Embassy in central Belgrade was hit by three GPS-Aided Munitions (GAMs, the precursor to the GBU-31 satellite-guided JDAMs). Three people were killed and the incident unleashed a barrage of noisy protests from the Chinese government. No sooner had tempers flared than the conspiracy theorists began to work overtime, speculating on why the Embassy had been attacked. ‘Cloak and Dagger’ tales of the Chinese government providing a secret communications conduit for Serbian government radio transmissions to their forces in the field was one of the milder theories posted on the internet.
Intrigue continued to hang over the incident and, months afterwards, two respected European newspapers suggested the strikes were by design.
In those first hours after the bombs fell, the US and NATO wasted no time to announce that it was an accident. China’s representative at the UN, meanwhile, denounced a “crime of war” and a “barbarian act”.
In Brussels, Jamie Shea – the British NATO spokesman who became the public face of the war – was woken up in the middle of the night and told he would have to face the world’s press in the morning. The information available in those early hours was thin but he would give one of the first explanations of what had happened, along with an apology. The warplanes, he said from the briefing podium, had “struck the wrong building”.
“It’s like a train accident or a car crash – you know what has happened but what you don’t know is why it has happened,” he said to BBC 20 years later. “That took a lot longer to establish… But it was clear right from the get-go, that targeting a foreign embassy was not part of the NATO plan.”
It would take more than a month for the US to give Beijing a full explanation: that a series of basic errors had led to three GAMs striking China’s embassy – including one that hurtled through the roof of the ambassador’s residence next to the main building but didn’t explode, likely sparing his life.
The real target, officials said, was the headquarters of the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement (FDSP) – a state agency that imported and exported defence equipment. The grey office building is still there today – hundreds of metres down the road from the embassy site.
NATO had initially hoped the bombing campaign would only last a few days until Milosevic gave up, pulled his forces out of Kosovo and allowed peacekeepers in. But by the time the embassy was hit it had stretched to more than six weeks. In the rush to find hundreds of new targets to sustain the aerial assault, the the US government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was not normally involved in target-picking, had decided the FDSP should be struck.
But it seems that the CIA had used an out-of-date map for targeting, having thought that the building was the Serbian Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. It had been issued with targeting coordinates and imagery and had attacked the target as ordered. Responsibility for the error lay far further up the chain of command with the CIA and, ultimately, with President Bill Clinton.
The Chinese ambassador who narrowly survived the strike, Pan Zhanlin, denied in a book that the embassy had been used for re-broadcasting and that China, in exchange, had been given parts of the US F-117 stealth fighter jet that Serbian forces had shot down in the early stages of the NATO campaign.
For Liu Mingfu – a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel known for his hardline views of the US – the embassy bombing was part of a series of events that proved the US was engaged in a “new Cold War against China”.
“It was totally intentional. It was a purposeful, planned bombing, rather than an accident,” he said.
China would receive $28m in compensation from the US for the bombing, but had to give back close to $3m for the damage to US diplomatic property in Beijing and elsewhere caused by protesters who stormed the diplomatic district, and pelted stones, paint, eggs and concrete at the British and American embassies in the aftermath of the bombing. The US paid another $4.5m to the families of the dead and injured.
However, the 509th BW and the Spirit were completely in the clear. ‘It performed just the way we designed it to’ was how James Kinnu, Northrop Grumman’s B-2A Project Manager, summed up his feelings on how the B-2A fared in OAF. ‘All of us who were fully knowledgeable of its capabilities saw it being deployed just the way it was designed. The ability to fly from Whiteman AFB, to go “black” near the European continent and have everybody try to find it, but nobody doing so. Then having it accurately deliver weapons on target, including the Chinese Embassy, which was a mistake but not by the bomber, and the ability to do it under all weather conditions’.
B-2A Spirit Units in Combat is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Sasa Stankovic/EPA/Shutterstock
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