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colonel john snider

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U.S. Air Force, Stealth bomber pilot
By now the campaign moved into downtown Belgrade, after April 3rd. What is it about the Stealth F117 that makes it suitable for those kind of missions?

I think there are three things that the F117 brings to the table that are very important, particularly for high value strategic targets such as downtown Belgrade targets. First of all is the survivability that Stealth allows; the reduced radar signature and other signatures allows us to be more survivable than many other aircraft with a lower amount of support assets. The second piece is the precision. Our pilots are highly trained, the aircraft systems are finely tuned, we can strike targets with precision that is unheard of in previous conflicts. And a by-product of that is our ability to avoid collateral damage. We hit what we're supposed to, when we're supposed to and we don't hit other things. And particularly in a high density civilian area, we're always concerned about are bombs going astray and causing other damage. We were very successful in this campaign, successfully striking our targets, even in avoiding any collateral damage.

And about collateral damage, we're not just referring to a building two blocks away, are we? I mean how precise can you be with your munitions?

Well, these are the guys who put it in the window that you want it in or put it down a particular vent hole. We work for tolerances that are measured in feet rather than meters. And that precision often is required for the military objective, simply because of the type of structure, the type of target or the nature of the damage you intend to inflict, that precision also allows you to avoid damage to structures that are maybe as close as a 100 metres [to the target.]

Were you conscious of the fact that by the time you arrived, in a sense the war was being ratcheted up, the pressure now was to take the war, the fight directly to Milosevic and the principle means of delivering that message would be through your planes?

I think when we arrived it became apparent that we were being used against the kind of targets that we excel against. The fragmentary orders and the target lists that we were given were high value, highly defended targets, many in the heart of Belgrade or the other urban centres, also many important commanding control sites or communication sites.

Tell me how it feels as you are, you've refuelled, you've crossed into enemy territory and then suddenly as you look forward out of the cockpit you see the lights of Belgrade? I mean what was going through your mind when you suddenly realised that you were going to be going right into the heart of the capital?

The first thing was I hoped there aren't any clouds, because the laser system and the forward looking infrared system that we use depend on us being able to see the target from our employment altitudes, and the rules of engagement dictated that we were able to positively identify the target before we released the weapons. And that again was to limit the possibility of collateral damage. So that's the first thing--you hope you're gonna be able to be successful. I think as you make the turn from the initial point onto the target run, you get into almost a mantra, that you've built up from all the training missions. And there is a very set process of switches to check, switches to actuate, controls in terms of guiding the bomb, releasing the bomb and so forth.

As you make that turn and the target area starts to become visible on the sensor display, you first identify the general area of the target and the perhaps the target building. As you get in closer you'll identify the very specific point at which you intend to place your bomb. At about that time it's time to release the weapon. The bomb starts its travel down, you activate the laser to ensure laser energy on the target that the bomb can guide towards, it's very smooth, the tracking, as the bomb is in the air and you're guiding it in. You watch that, your full attention is placed on guiding the bomb to a specific point on the target. When it hits, that's obvious to you, and now it's let's get out of Dodge. You safe up the systems, start the aircraft, turn off of target, looking for a way out. . . .

What are some of the lessons that you took out of that campaign concerning the capabilities of this aircraft? Were there any surprises when you look back on the campaign and the way in which the plane performed?

I don't think there were any surprises. The biggest thing that we learned, well, we already knew, if we're gonna go operate in Europe, we have to be prepared to operate with more of a weather cover, more of a cloud cover over our targets, and we need to work on our all weather capability. Beyond that, we had great success in terms of the pay back from the training that we do on a day-to-day basis. . . . . We work very well with our NATO allies, those were all good lessons learned I guess. The Germans were grand hosts to us and I think the Italians also. But in general the missions that we took on very closely resembled what we do on day-to-day training missions and the pilots came back proving that that training had paid off with outstanding success.

I wonder finally whether there was any frustration on your side to the fact that you went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage, and yet there was so much attention given to those instances where there were collateral victims, collateral damage was carried out, not necessarily as a result of F117s but as a result of the Allied campaign, that people tended to focus in on the very few mistakes and overlooking what had been achieved by the precision of your munitions. Was that something that was a cause of frustration to you as you watch your pilots come back and you watch CNN?

I think the Yugoslavians were very successful in a propaganda campaign of controlling the media access within Serbia, and even though there were the little disclaimers on every bit of film that came out. I think the Western journalists were effectively used by the Yugoslavians to paint a picture that did not accurately reflect what was happening on the ground. That's not my battle. My battle is how they defended targets downtown. We accomplished that very successfully.

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