War in Europe: Radio hams hear death calling from 23,000ft

When the sirens sound, some in Belgrade make for the roofs. There they listen to the eerie voices of America

Robert Fisk
Saturday 24 April 1999 23:02

FROM HIGH above Belgrade, the voices are often disjointed but unmistakably American, very occasionally humorous but usually talking like computers.

Indeed, that is what they are reading as they turn across the skies of Yugoslavia. "Contact three-two-two and twenty-four". "About four miles to ..." "I'm going to do a left-hand turn." "One victor ..." "Negative." There are Midwest voices, New York accents, Californian boys, high-altitude static cutting off their voices in the air-conditioned interiors of F- 16s.

Yes, the Yugoslavs can hear the US pilots above them. For when the air raid sirens sound at dusk, Belgrade's radio hams go to their roofs rather than their shelters and tune in to Nato's state-of-the-art air alliance. There are very few moments of emotion in those voices from the other world, just the hint of a joke and some laughter come down from the ether. Or the sudden, unprofessional surprise of a young pilot who didn't realise how real his bombs were until they exploded.

"Two impacts - wow, look at that," a young voice says. Then there are seconds of silence.

"On the right side."

"Pods quiet."

"I might continue climbing up to base plus 10."

"Comin' right, reference two-one-zero."

"Twenty-three thousand."

What are "pods"? How high is "base"? Is 23,000 the altitude of the F- 16 (altitudes being the great undiscussable, secret subject of all Nato briefings)? But be sure that if the radio hams of Belgrade can pick this stuff up, so can the Yugoslav military. And they will be listening with more professional ears than the cold men on the chilly roofs of the capital.

Already, government propagandists are making use of these radio intercepts, cutting them into false passages of "pilot" transmissions in which actors pretending to be American or British aircrew say they are ejecting from their jets or bombing refugee convoys. Radio-TV Serbia ran a taped "conversation" between an Awacs aircraft and an F-16 pilot last Saturday that purported to be a record of the Nato attack on the Kosovo Albanian refugee convoy on 14 April. "I see tractors. I hope Reds have not camouflaged tanks into tractors," the "pilot" supposedly says.

The fake "Awacs" responds: "Mother to Charlie Bravo. What kind of a strange convoy? What civilians? Hell. It's all Serbian doing. Destroy the target!" Although the fraudulent tape betrays an odd parallel to the reality of the refugee convoy attack - Nato did indeed claim it had originally mistaken tractors for military vehicles - the words of the "Awacs" are more like those of a space cartoon than the USAF. "Destroy the target!" is Battleship Galactica, not Nato.

Not so the radio ham intercepts which are undeniably real, a tape of which has been handed to The Independent on Sunday in Belgrade. And it is just possible - even for a non-technical ear - to understand how the Nato air strikes are controlled. At one point in a night raid near the capital, for example, a clear but very distant voice (much softer than the pilots') states: "Aircraft Zero-Two, SA-6, charted acquisition, Romeo Fox, five zero four three, location map ... two three seven two three. Co- ordinates four four north zero one nine."

The voice appears to be an Awacs - a real high-altitude Boeing stuffed with electronics and air controllers - which is directing a Nato (Zero- Two) jet on to its target co-ordinates, warning of possible anti-aircraft missiles (SA-6 is a Soviet-made ground-to-air missile system).

Pilots' voices then break in on the tape.

"I'm pushing up now. I'm about through seven o'clock for bomb 'ap'."

"... with the goggles yet?"

"Say again."

"Have you seen the flare with the goggles yet?"


At one point, a pilot appears to make a joke about the moon. "Can you see a floating strobe light up there?" And there is laughter from another voice. Then a poor-quality voice says, "... how high the strobe light is ... the stars", receiving the response: "Yeah, we're seeing it, man."

Stars and laughter in the skies over wartime Yugoslavia. Listening to all this on the ground, as the rain gutters down from the caked roofs of old Belgrade, it's possible to believe that we live in different worlds.

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