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.
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.