Zoltán Dani: The Serbian commander who shot down F-117A

The Serbian battery commander, whose missiles downed an American F-16, and, most impressively, an F-117, in 1999,  has revealed many of the techniques he used to achieve this historic moment. Colonel Dani Zoltan, in 1999, commanded the 3rd battery of the 250th Missile Brigade. He had search and control radars, as well as a TV tracking unit. The battery had four quad launchers for the 21 foot long, 880 pound SA-3 missiles. The SA-3 entered service in 1961 and, while it had undergone some upgrades, was considered a minor threat to NATO aircraft.

Zoltan was an example of how an imaginative and energetic leader can make a big difference. While Zoltan’s peers and superiors were pretty demoralized with the electronic countermeasures NATO (especially American) aircraft used to support their bombing missions, he believed he could still turn his ancient missiles into lethal weapons. The list of measures he took, and the results he got, should be warning to any who believe that superior technology alone will provide a decisive edge in combat. People still make a big difference. In addition to shooting down two aircraft, Zoltan’s battery caused dozens of others to abort their bombing missions to escape his unexpectedly accurate missiles.

This is how he did it, Zoltan had about 200 troops under his command. He got to know them well, trained hard and made sure everyone could do what was expected of them. This level of quality leadership was essential, for Zoltan’s achievements were a group effort. Zoltan used a lot of effective techniques that American air defense experts expected, but did not expect to encounter because of poor leadership by the enemy. For example, Zoltan knew that his major foe was HARM (anti-radar) missiles and electronic detection systems used by the Americans, as well as smart bombs from aircraft who had spotted him. To get around this, he used landlines for all his communications (no cell phones or radio). This was more of a hassle, often requiring him to use messengers on foot or in cars.

F-117-shot down

But it meant the American intel overhead were never sure where he was. His radars and missile launchers were moved frequently, meaning that some of his people were always busy looking for new sites to set up in, or setting up or taking down the equipment. His battery traveled over 100,000 kilometers during the 78 day NATO bombing campaign, just to avoid getting hit. They did, and his troops knew all that effort was worth the effort. The Serbs had spies outside the Italian airbase most of the bombers operated from. When the bombers took off, the information on what aircraft they, and how many, quickly made it to Zoltan and the other battery commanders.  Zoltan studied all the information he could get on American stealth technology, and the F-117.

There was a lot of unclassified data, and speculation, out there. He developed some ideas on how to beat stealth, based on the fact that the technology didn’t make the F-117 invisible to radar, just very to get, and keep, a good idea of exactly where the aircraft was. Zoltan figured out how to tweak his radars to get a better lock on stealth type targets. This has not been discussed openly. The Serbs also set up a system of human observers, who would report on sightings of bombers entering Serbia, and track their progress. The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time. This made it difficult for the American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) to use their HARM missiles (that homed in on radar transmissions.) Zoltan never lost a radar to a HARM missile.

Zoltan used the human spotters and brief use of radar, with short range shots at American bombers. The SA-3 was guided from the ground, so you had to use surprise to get an accurate shot in before the target used jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away. Zoltan got some help from his enemies. The NATO commanders often sent their bombers in along the same routes, and didn’t make a big effort to find out if hotshots like Zoltan were down there, and do something about it.

Since retiring from military service, Dani has been working as a baker in his native village Skorenovac. Dale Zelko, the pilot of the F-117A now retired from the US Air Force, has met with Zoltán Dani and developed a friendship in recent years.

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  • Another Guest

    No wonder why stealth technology is certainly a scam. It is supposed to be invisible for radar which it never was. It just reduces the cross section and visibility, making the plane look smaller on radar than it is. Nothing more or nothing less.

    Stealth is useful only against short-wavelength radar of the kind that might be carried on an interceptor or used by a radar-guided missile. Physicists say no amount of RAM (Radar Absorbent Material) coating will protect you from 15ft to 20ft wavelength radar of the kind the Russians have had since the 1940s.

    The F-35 JSF in particular will be ineffective against the current generation of extremely powerful advanced Russian and Chinese systems; In any combat engagements between the F-35 and such threat systems, most or all F-35 aircraft will be rapidly lost to enemy fire.


    Because the F-35 was defined during the mid-1990s to have “affordable” aerodynamic performance, stealth performance, sensor capabilities and weapons loads to be “affordably” effective against the most common threat systems of the era past – legacy Soviet Cold War era weapons, not for the emerging 21st Century Anti-Access & Area Denial threats.

    The F-35 is designed primarily to support ground forces on the battlefield with some self defence capabilities and is not suitable for the developing regional environment and, not suitable for close air support missions. The aircraft is unsuited for air superiority, deep interdiction bombing and cruise missile defence due to limited range/endurance, limited weapons load, limited supersonic speed and limited agility. As its limitations are inherent to the design, they cannot be altered by incremental upgrades.
    How is the F-35 detectable?

    The VHF band element in the 1L119 Nebo SVU / RLM-M Nebo M AESA radar will detect the F-35 at a distance of tens of miles. That is without a doubt. What that means is that the aircraft is going to be in great difficulty if it tries to deal with what I call a modern or contemporary threat. The same is also true when you deal with these newer stealth fighters, because they are designed to compete with the F-22 Raptor. They fly higher; they are faster and more agile—much, much more agile. They have more powerful radars and much, much better antenna packages for other sensors. The F-35 is not meeting its specifications and its specifications are inadequate to deal with the changed threat environment.

    If the F-35 was to be able to meet its specifications, the aircraft will have the ability of going up against a 1980s Soviet air defence system of the type that we saw destroyed very effectively in Libya around 2011, the F-35 would be reasonably be effective in that environment, because these older short-wavelength Soviet radars would not see it.

    But if you are putting F-35 up against the newer generation of much, much more powerful long-wave length Russian radars, as well as the P-14 Tall King family or P-18 Spoon Rest of Cold-War era radars and some of the newer Chinese radars of a ground-to-air unit that would have no difficulty detecting and tracking an approaching F-35.

    The F-35 will also be detected by the L-Band AESA which will be equipped on the Su-35S and PAK-FA. It is used for targetting which they’ll be able to track LO/VLO stealth aircraft, as well as the F-35.

    Also the F-35 has the large exhaust nozzle, which will be extremely hot and has a very big heat signature. The back end of the F-35 in full afterburner is something like 1600 degrees (Fahrenheit). In terms of temperature, aluminium combusts at 1100. You are talking about something really, really hot. If you have got a dirty big sensor on the front of your Su-35S or your PAK-FA or whatever, it lights up like Christmas lights and there is nothing you can do about it. The plume because of the symmetric exhaust, is all over the place. It is not shielded, it is not ducted in any useful way. The Sukhois will be able to seek and destroy the F-35 when using the heat seeking BVR (Beyond Visual Range) AA-12 (R-77) Adder air-to-air missiles.

  • Maosucks

    A-10 all the way, baby!!

  • krishna

    The shooting down of 117A brings back a combat anecdote, of old war horses downing glitzy fighters – during the Indo-Pak conflict during 1965, the pakis used Star Fighters of US make and had initial air superiority in the war. what turned the course of war vis-a-vis the aircraft and the supposedly invincible Patton tanks were simple tactics adopted at the battlefield by DIY soldiers.

    i dunno if people remember Gnat fighters of the british origin, were used by Indian Airforce at that time, which had limited firepower and lesser staying power compared to star fighters of US origin. these aircraft shot down a number of Gnats and people were terrified of this war machine. i think in a dogfight realized that the Starfighters had a larger turnaround than Gnats and instead of using air-to-air mililes, started using their cannons because the Gnats could drance around the slow turning star fighters many times over and kept up their cannons to damage. thus the airsuperiority of pakis was demolished within days !

    similarly the patton tanks were feared by one and all till such time, one tank commander, ordered to withdraw, had a brain wave when he saw the bottom of an advancing patton tank clearing a culvert. he shot the patton tank at that precise moment to destroy it ! on the same day, this commander demolised more thanks than pakis could anticipate.

    we in india consider the needless Gulf conflict, an ad exercise for american superiority in arms bazar which is all make-believe. specially, even Iran is making Stealth Fighters ! and Moldovia developing Space Lasers, the latter on a lighter vain.