F-117: Not Fit To Fight?

One mystery of the U.S.-led air war against Serbia is a mystery no more. CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin has learned just how Serb forces were able to take out a $45 million plane they weren't supposed to be able to see.

It was the fourth night of the air war and disaster had struck the allied bombing campaign. An F-117 stealth fighter, supposedly all but invisible to enemy air defenses, had been shot down.

Publicly, the Pentagon claimed it didn't know how it happened. Secretly, military officials knew it was not a lucky shot.

A well-informed military source has told CBS News the F-117 was tracked by three early warning radars. They sent their data to an SA-3 missile site, which fired at the F-117 without having to turn on its own radar and give its location away until the last second.

The pilot never had a chance, although he managed to bail out and was rescued.

The Pentagon immediately suspended all F-117 missions until those early warning radars could be located and destroyed. But the radars were mobile and the Serbs kept moving them around.

Two days later, a U-2 spy plane pinpointed their location and Navy ships launched three cruise missiles, one at each radar. The radars were destroyed, and it was safe for the stealth aircraft to fly again.

But military officers say the F-117s, which eight years before had been the star of the air war against Iraq, missed their targets dozens of times because bad weather interfered with their laser-guided bombs.

One senior military officer says the F-117 can no longer be counted on to take out an enemy's most heavily defended targets.

©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved