25 Years Later: How a US Stealth Bomber Strike on China’s Belgrade Embassy Shook the World

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25 Years Later: How a US Stealth Bomber Strike on China’s Belgrade Embassy Shook the World

The strike symbolized the height of the unipolar moment of the post-Cold War era – and forced potential U.S. adversaries to shore up their defenses.

25 Years Later: How a US Stealth Bomber Strike on China’s Belgrade Embassy Shook the World

Chinese students chant anti-U.S. and anti-NATO slogans during a protest against the NATO strike on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, May 8, 1999.

Credit: AP Photo/Greg Baker

On May 7, 1999, a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit intercontinental range stealth bomber launched a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite guided bomb over the Yugoslav capital Belgrade to destroy the office of the military attaché in the Chinese embassy. The strike caused 27 casualties, including three deaths, and marked the most significant attack on a diplomatic building since the end of World War II.

Although the attack was launched during NATO air operations against Yugoslav forces, which had begun 44 days prior on March 24, it was later confirmed by CIA director George Tenet that the air strike had been a special mission carried out outside of NATO. It was the only air strike operation of the campaign organized and directed by his agency rather than by the Pentagon.

The CIA, the State Department, and British Foreign Office all maintained the strike was accidental, with the real target meant to be the headquarters of a Yugoslav arms agency. They claimed that the strike was the result of compounded errors, as the embassy was not clearly marked and NATO was using obsolete maps. This was not widely considered credible by experts or officials. 

The Chinese government referred to U.S. explanations of the incident as “anything but convincing.” In 2017, Kyle Mizokami summarized prevailing views in the West at the time in the National Interest: “[I]t’s difficult to imagine that the vast U.S. military and intelligence apparatus could mistake an embassy with a traditional Chinese green tiled roof for a military logistical hub.” 

At NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre in Vincenza, Italy, an American colonel was widely cited by Western media outlets near the end of the year for admitting to the intentional strike, stating: “That was great targeting … we put two JDAMs down into the attaché’s office and took out the exact room we wanted … they won’t be using that place for rebro [re-broadcasting radio transmissions] any more.”

Discourse surrounding the attack continued to evolve throughout the remainder of 1999, with new details continuing to emerge. Writers at The Observer, in a report published six months after the attack, described an episode at joint NATO command: 

In the immediate aftermath of the attack there were some among non-U.S. staff who were suspicious. On 8 May they tapped into the NATO target computer and checked out the satellite coordinates for the Chinese Embassy. The coordinates were in the computer and they were correct. While the world was being told the CIA had used out-of-date maps, NATO’s officers were looking at evidence that the CIA was bang on target.

The Observer also cited the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency as calling the Pentagon’s official story “a damned lie.” The Observer, citing a range of sources including multiple serving officers from NATO colonels to intelligence officers and a general, concluded that the Chinese Embassy was deliberately attacked. As one intelligence officer told the paper: “If it was the wrong building, why did they [U.S.] use the most precise weapons on Earth to hit the right end of that ‘wrong building’?” 

Speculated motives for the CIA operation vary. The Observer’s report concluded that “The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was deliberately targeted … because it was being used by Zeljko Raznatovic, the indicted war criminal better known as Arkan, to transmit messages to his ‘Tigers’ – Serb death squads – in Kosovo.” That was the “rebro” factor cited by the U.S. colonel above.

Other possible motives included sending a strong signal to the Yugoslav leadership that the international community, including China as the world’s leading non-Western power, could not save it from the Western assault. Still others speculate that Chinese intelligence was using the embassy to monitor NATO cruise missile strikes under combat conditions with the view to developing countermeasures. 

Western security experts the writer spoke to otherwise reported that the military attaché’s office had gathered parts from a U.S. F-117 stealth fighter shot down by Yugoslav forces 41 days prior at the embassy, with the intention of sending them to China for study. U.S. intelligence viewed it as imperative to prevent these highly sensitive technologies from reaching Chinese soil. At the time, the F-117 was the first and only stealth fighter class operational anywhere in the world, and access to the remains of its airframe could provide both support to China’s own then-ongoing stealth fighter development while also accelerating its forces’ progress in developing means to counter such aircraft. 

In 2019, the BBC noted, “It’s widely assumed that China did get hold of pieces of the [F-117] plane to study its technology.”

Thus even among those who hold that the strike was intentional – which is denied by the U.S. government and NATO to this day – the motive remains disputed and can likely be attributed to a combination of multiple factors. 

The embassy attack was notable in that it was launched from a continent away and totally without warning. The $2 billion B-2 bomber had joined the U.S. Air Force in 1997, and could deploy only from a select number of bases in the United States, meaning the operation to strike the Chinese embassy required a sortie lasting close to 30 hours flown from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri over 8,500 kilometers away. This was only around 21 percent shorter than the 10,600-10,900 kilometers needed to strike Pyongyang or Beijing. 

At the time the possibility of the B-2 being used to strike targets in East Asia was far from unthinkable, with the Bill Clinton administration having less than five years prior come very close to authorizing large-scale air strikes against China’s treaty ally North Korea spearheaded by stealth aircraft. Further attack plans would be seriously considered over the next two years and were initially favored under the George W. Bush administration. B-2s had in 1998 made their first ever forward deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, which was a primary staging ground for potential strikes against targets in the Western Pacific, with the aircraft flying near the Korean Peninsula during this period. 

The B-2 had been specifically designed to evade new generations of Soviet and Russian air defense systems, including the new S-200 and S-300 systems supplied to North Korea and China respectively. The bomber combined advanced stealth capabilities with revolutionary precision targeting capabilities particularly using the new JDAM bomb that had its capabilities demonstrated against the embassy. The B-2 combined stealth and precision with a massive 18,000 kilogram weapons payload, allowing each aircraft to deploy 16 JDAMs against 16 separate targets per sortie. 

These features revolutionized U.S. offensive capabilities and allowed its fleet of just 21 bombers to destroy an array of targets that would previously have required entire fleets and major military buildups. The fact that the B-2 could do so from a continent away, which contributed to the lack of warning on approach, was truly earthshaking and made it far more difficult to defend against

NATO’s air campaign against Yugoslavia was later acknowledged even by advocates in the West to have been illegal, and was ardently opposed from the start by China, India, Russia and several other non-Western states. Attacking the embassy of China, which at the time had by far the largest economy and defense budget of states outside the Western sphere of influence, signaled the United States’ unprecedented ability to act with impunity. While the B-2 was developed with the primary mission of attacking targets in the Soviet Union, an operation to bomb a Soviet embassy, or to bomb Yugoslavia in any capacity, would have been considered unthinkable a decade prior. 

The strike could thus be seen to have symbolized the height of the unipolar moment of the post-Cold War era. The CIA’s operation highlighted the tremendous shift in global order and the balance of power that had taken place, forcing potential targets of future attacks – including China, Russia, North Korea, and others – to enact a wide range of responses primarily focused on improving their air defense and retaliatory strike capabilities.