F-117 Nighthawk that was shot down over Serbia in 1999 and incorporated the technology into its own recently unveiled Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.
Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia's military chief of staff during the Kosovo war, says that Chinese agents were scouring the country for intelligence information at the time and that they were buying up anything they could lay their hands on.
"At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers," Admiral Domazet-Loso says. "We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies ... and to reverse-engineer them."
The Nighthawk was downed by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile during a bombing raid on 27 March 1999. It was the first time one of the fighters had been hit, and the Pentagon blamed clever tactics and sheer luck. The pilot ejected and was rescued.
A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up "in the hands of foreign military attaches" but did not specify which countries were involved.
Parts of the F-117 wreckage [serial number 82–806], including its left wing, cockpit canopy, ejection seat, pilot's helmet and radio, are exhibited at Belgrade's aviation museum. But Zoran Milicevic, deputy director of the museum, said, "I don't know what happened to the rest of the plane. A lot of delegations visited us in the past, including the Chinese, Russians and Americans ... but no one showed any interest in taking any part of the jet."
However Zoran Kusovac, a Rome-based military consultant, said the regime of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic routinely shared captured western equipment with its Chinese and Russian allies. "The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese," Kusovac said.
The fact that Serbian forces launched Soviet-provided "Neva-M" missiles (NATO designation SA-3 Goa) to down the F-117A adds some credence to the story. According to an article published by DefenseTech in 2008 the wreckage of the F-117 was not immediately bombed due to possible media fallout from news footage showing civilians around the wreckage. This was despite the belief that the Serbs had invited Russian personnel to inspect the remains, inevitably compromising the US stealth technology.
While it is at least eight or nine years from entering service, the Chengdu J-20 made its inaugural flight on 11 January, revealing a dramatic step in the country's technological and militaristic development. Its maiden flight which came as US Defense Secretary visited China and met with President Hu has also concerned some within the Pentagon.
While the Pentagon have not commented on the latest claims, Robert Gates himself admitted that China was a lot farther down the road than previously believed.
Russia's Sukhoi T-50 prototype stealth fighter made its maiden flight last year and is due to enter service in about four years. It is also suspected the Russians also gained knowledge of stealth technology from the downed Nighthawk.
The United States Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor and the impending fielding of the F-35 Lightning II. While both employ stealth technology the retirement of the F-117 is considered to be a bad decision by some. "It was a mistake to retire them," said Dr. Richard Hallion, former historian of the Air Force and special assistant to that service's secretary. Hallion explained that the large number of F-16 and F-15 fighter-type aircraft flown by the Air Force are not stealthy and the number of F-22 Raptors, which do have stealth characteristics, are too few in number to meet the need for low-observable strike aircraft.
Although designated as a "fighter," the F-117 had no air-to-air capabilities. It was an attack aircraft that could carry some 2,000 Kg of bombs or missiles in an internal weapons bay. The first F-117s were retired in December 2006. The surviving aircraft are stored in hangars at a secret location in Nevada. Their special storage is based on retaining the secrecy of their special features rather than any consideration of someday reactivating the planes. However, this may well have already been compromised if the reports in the Guardian are to be believed.
On a final note, it has to be mentioned that only 41 days after the downing of the F-117A, the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade [Wikipedia]. While President Bill Clinton claimed the bombing was an accident, this was dismissed by the Chinese. Former ambassador Li Daoyu stated "we don't say it was a decision of Clinton or the White House", but the Chinese government describes the US explanation for "the so-called mistaken bombing" as "anything but convincing" and has never accepted the US version of events. The bombing may well be a coincidence, but recent reports will certainly raise eyebrows in some quarters.
tvnewswatch, Beijing, China