On May 4, 1999 one of the RAF E-3D aircraft flown by a No. 23 Squadron crew was targeted by a Serbian MiG-29 flown by Lt. Colonel Pavlovic
Tense moments experienced by RAF E-3D AWACS aircrews during Operation Allied Force.
Even if the end of the Cold War between 1989-1991 brought to a massive drawdown of offensive weapons systems, because of the new conflicts emerged few months after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft became even more necessary.
The Balkan Peninsula in fact began a period of turmoil in summer of 1991, when the former Yugoslavia split into six independent republics. Following the loss of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia, Yugoslavia was reduced to the state of Serbia and Montenegro. The subsequent subjugation of Kosovar Albanian population perpetrated by Serbian Nationalists culminated into Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Since Belgrade refused the deployment of peacekeepers inside Kosovo, NATO had no choice but use the force and a plan was developed to build up the coalition that would have forced Serbia to give up control over Kosovo.
Operation Allied Force was launched on the night of Mar. 24, 1999.
Among the air assets deployed in Italy to coordinate the air campaign over Serbia, there were also the Royal Air Force (RAF) E-3Ds. This detachment consisted of several E-3Ds from No. 8 Squadron that were deployed to Aviano Air Base (AB) since 1992, joined in 1999 by other AWACS crews from No. 23 Squadron.
Having served for 32 years in the RAF, Ian Shaw had the chance to work closely with the RAF E-3D force during Operation Allied Force and he reported his impressions in the book written with Sergio Santana Beyond the Horizon The History of AEW&C Aircraft. According to Shaw the most valuable lesson learned during this war by the AWACS aircrews was that their aircraft was a prime target for the opposing forces. In fact as he explains “we had been alerted as a wing at Aviano to the MANPADS threat in the area. Intel had been received that possible Yugoslav special forces had got on to mainland Italy with some shoulder-launched SAMs and were heading for Aviano.”
To reduce the MANPADS threat, the fast jets changed their departure profile, lit the burners and spiral climbed in the overhead, but the E-3Ds weren’t obviously able to do this and they could only climb straight ahead in full power whatever the threat. Since the MANPADS menace was taken quite seriously, this claim was often repeated to E-3Ds pilots: “You’ve got four engines, you’ll only lose one!”
The scariest episode took place on May 4, 1999. That day one of the RAF E-3Ds flown by a No. 23 Squadron crew was targeted by a Serbian MiG-29 flown by Lt. Colonel Pavlovic from 127th Fighter Squadron, 204th Fighter Regiment of then Air Force of Serbia and Montenegro (Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo Srbije i Crne Gore – RVSiCG). Pavlovic took off from Nis without clearance and flew very low before popping up at 12.41 local time.
Pavlovic’s Fulcrum was picked and tracked by a female weapons controller (WC). She saw him coming towards the AWACS as a large NATO strike package was egressing the target area. Even if most of the allied aircraft had departed, a couple of USAF Wild Weasel F-16Cs were still in the area. The two Vipers were short on gas and they were heading to the tanker, when the AWACS link manager contacted them and passed the two F-16s to the WC.
She successfully vectored them on to the MiG-29 that was shot down at 12.46.
As Shaw recalls once the E-3D crew landed back at Aviano and entered the Ops Room the relief was palpable: “Although not a ‘Top Gun’ moment the crew were congratulated on an excellent and professional job and immediately phoned the F-16 pilot who if I recall had also been flying out at Aviano that day. I must admit that episode bought it home to me how vulnerable our crews were and how this wasn’t a game or an exercise…”
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com