Page 2 of 2 The tearful origins of China's stealth
By Peter Lee
One of the JDAMs, as The Observer reported, indeed went right into the window
of the Chinese intelligence directorate, seriously injuring Ren (who was
evacuated on a special plane to China for medical treatment).
It is variously speculated that:
The Chinese Embassy was intercepting NATO radio traffic.
China was monitoring the performance of US cruise missiles (which is what Ren
reportedly said was the case).
China was abusing its embassy immunity privileges to operate a radio
retransmission station that on behalf of a Serbian paramilitary bad guy.
China was testing a new kind of stealth-detecting radar in the embassy and
passing information to the Serbian military.
The raid was an attempt to assassinate Slobidan Milosevic during a visit to the
The raid was an effort to punish and intimidate China for its support of
The most interesting theory is that the US attacked the embassy
to destroy wreckage of the USF-117A that China was planning to ship back to
The F117A had been shot down a few weeks prior to the embassy bombing, on March
27, 1999, by a Serbian anti-aircraft battery.
Apparently, the F-117A was designed to be stealthy to modern, high frequency
radar but was at least partially visible to the antiquated long-wave Czech
radar operated by the Serbs.
The F-117A crashed in a field outside Belgrade and wreckage was all over the
place. The loss of the plane caused extreme anxiety in the United States.
A RAND study indicated that the only thing that kept the US from bombing the
wreckage to flinders was the presence of a crowd of government officials,
diplomats, journalists and gawkers at the crash site:
Heated arguments arose in Washington and elsewhere in the immediate
aftermath of the shootdown over whether USEUCOM had erred in not aggressively
having sought to destroy the wreckage of the downed F 117 in order to keep its
valuable stealth technology out of unfriendly hands and eliminate its
propaganda value ... Said a former commander of Tactical Air Command
"I'm surprised we didn't bomb it because the standard operating procedure has
always been that when you lose something of real or perceived value - in this
case, real technology, stealth - you destroy it." ... Reports indicated that
military officials had at first considered destroying the wreckage but opted in
the end not to follow through with the attempt because they could not have
located it quickly enough to attack it before it was surrounded by civilians
and the media. 
As noted above, the Chinese reportedly
bought some pieces from farmers; some found its way to a military museum in
Belgrade, where it can be viewed today (at one time it was reportedly possible
to buy souvenir fragments at the museum gift shop); but much of the wreckage
was apparently acquired by the Serbian government, which distributed - or
possibly sold - chunks to its allies as reward/payment for their support.
In 2001, the Russians confirmed that they had received pieces of the F-117A and
used it to improve the stealth detection capabilities of their anti-aircraft
It is not unreasonable to assume that the Chinese got some pieces as well -
despite the efforts of a "Pentagon analyst" to make the case that China's
technological backwardness would disqualify them from any interest in owning
some stealth wreckage.
An article in the September 27, 1999, issue of Aviation Week and Space
Technology reported, "A Russian official said that some parts had made their
way to Moscow, but that the bulk of the airframe was shipped to China," a claim
that "Pentagon analysts" dismissed "because "China ... doesn't have the
industrial capability to benefit from either the design or the systems."
In this context, it is suggestive that the F-117A was rather abruptly retired
in favor of the F-22A Raptor, perhaps because the Serbian shootdown
demonstrated a rather embarrassing lack of stealthiness, and/or access to the
wreckage enabled more effective anti-stealth measures by Russia and China (it
was reported that plans to deploy the F-117A in South Korea were redrawn after
the 1999 incident raised concerns about its vulnerability).
Chinese rumor-mongering on the Internet also tried to fill in the blanks, and
link the F-117A wreckage to the attack on the embassy.
According to an Internet account of "a private encounter with a Chinese naval
officer who was slightly tipsy" (now deleted), the Yugoslavian government had
recovered the wreckage of the shot down F-117 and sold key pieces of it to
China. The navigation system, fuselage fragments with the Stealth coating, and
high temperature nozzle components of the engine were spirited into the
basement of the Chinese Embassy. Unfortunately, according to this story, there
was a locator beacon inside the INU powered by a battery and, before the
Chinese could discover and disable it, the US military was alerted to the
location of the F-117 fragments and executed the bombing.
It would not be out of the question that the Bill Clinton administration would
bomb the Chinese Embassy to deflect criticism for its handling of the F-117A
wreckage debacle, demonstrate its national security muscularity, and score some
Team America points by pummeling some tangentially-related Third World asset.
Indeed, this is what happened the next year, in 2000, when an al-Qaeda attack
seriously damaged the USS Cole in Yemen, killing 17 seamen; the US
cruise-missiled a seemingly innocent pharmaceutical plant in Sudan - then an
al-Qaeda stronghold - in apparent retaliation.
In a memoir published in 2006, China's ambassador to Serbia, Pan Zhanlin,
rather coyly intimated something very important had been extracted from the
embassy in the chaotic aftermath of the attack:
The two comrades in
charge of the embassy's important assets were Little Wang and Little Zheng. One
slept in the duty office on the fifth floor, one slept in the dormitory on the
fourth floor. Little Wang pierced through the dust and smoke and by the light
of the flames descended from the fifth floor to the fourth floor.
At this time, Little Zheng emerged from the bedroom. Little Wang grabbed hold
of Little Zheng and ran back upstairs. Little Zheng had already been injured
and his face was flecked with blood. People who ran into them urgently asked:
"Why are you going back up?" Little Wang replied: "There is something that
needs doing. This is our job."
They picked up four cases of national important assets and battled through
smoke and pierced through flames to get downstairs. The stairwell was cut off,
they stumbled down to the third floor. Ahead of time, the embassy had made
various preparations for an emergency, so these four cases of important things
had already been prepared. If any untoward event had occurred, they could be
picked up and moved immediately. They knew, these things were more important
than life. 
"Something more important than life". Stealth
wreckage? Pan isn't saying.
Regardless of the motives or mistakes behind the US bombing of the Belgrade
embassy, however, the consequences were significant. Viewed in retrospect, the
bombing can be considered, albeit on a smaller scale, a 9/11 moment for China.
Pan Zhanlin's description of the attack awakens dark memories of our own.
He conveys the shock and fear as the embassy explodes into flames, "the loudest
sound I ever heard". Survivors found the stairwells blocked by rubble and fire
and desperately improvised escapes down the exterior of the building using
knotted drapes. Pan saw his friends and colleagues stagger from the ruins of
the embassy dazed and bloody, crying out for help.
Amid the chaos everybody ducked in fear of a follow-up attack as NATO bombers
thundered overhead (May 7 was one of the busiest nights for aerial bombing).
Then came the frantic ad hoc attempts to rally the survivors, account for the
living, and search for the missing.
First responders were initially unable to enter the compound because the
electric gate was disabled when the bombing cut the power; ambulances raced up
to the shattered structure with sirens howling to rush away the injured
willy-nilly; embassy staffers mounted a frantic search through local hospitals
for the injured.
Finally, there was the extraction of the dead; consoling of the wounded; the
grieving; and a defiant patriotic oration.
One JDAM failed to explode and buried itself in the ground near the embassy
foundations; the building was abandoned and the expensive and dangerous job of
removing the bomb was only accomplished five years later.
Again viewed through a post-9/11 lens, Pan's account also paints a picture of a
privileged Chinese elite that has been stripped of the illusion that it is
immune to attack, and realizing with anger, shame and disgust that at that
moment it is helpless, vulnerable and unable to retaliate.
Reports of the bombing triggered an outpouring of populist and official Chinese
anger that signaled a break from the pre-democracy/pro-US popular Chinese
outlook prevalent during the democracy movement period, and a shift to the
nationalist tone that dominates Chinese opinion today.
Chinese opinion was not mollified by the US apology, accompanied by Western
insistence that the incident was a simple, regrettable mistake.
It should also be noted in passing that Pan's memoir debunks the canard, spread
at the time by Western news reports seemingly anxious to minimize the
destructiveness of the attack, that at night the embassy was empty (presumably
excluding Chinese spooks huddled over their equipment in the intelligence
In fact, at night the embassy was filled with staffers and their families, who
believed that it was safer to stay at the embassy - whose coordinates were
registered with NATO - than spend the night at their homes as NATO bombing
operations against Belgrade were at their height.
One Chinese legend has a Chinese plane returning dozens of coffins - instead of
the officially acknowledged three - to the motherland. The stealth wreckage,
according to this story, returned to China on the same plane.
In the reported words of the tipsy naval officer ("who spoke with tears in his
"Although some of our people sacrificed their lives, we gained
no less than ten years in the development of our stealth materials. We
purchased this progress with our blood and international mortification."
Premier Zhu Rongji - not given to sentimental public displays - reportedly wept
when he met the plane carrying the victims. Another Internet poster wrote:
we know, and it causes us to appreciate even more profoundly that a nation,
when it is poor and weak, is without recourse and pitiful (How helpless and
evoking bitterness in people's hearts were the tears of Premier Zhu Rongji as
he wept at the airfield when the remains of the martyrs were transported back
Whether it was a matter of stealth technology - or
the conviction that China must strive for military parity with the United
States in order to secure its security and render it impervious to insults and
intimidation - it is safe to say that, to a certain extent, the J-20 was Made
in America ... via Belgrade.