v2.1.0 / 2 of 2 / 01 feb 03 / greg goebel / public domain
* The F-117 finally went into combat in 1989 during the American invasion of Panama, and served prominently in the Gulf War two years later. It still remains a prominent and highly effective weapon in the US military arsenal.
* The F-117 saw its first combat in December 1989, in OPERATION JUST CAUSE, the American invasion of Panama. Antagonism between the Americans and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega had led US President George Bush to order that Noriega be removed from power by force.
F-117s were assigned to perform pinpoint bombing strikes as diversions to ground operations. As the Panamanians had no real air defenses, the selection of the F-117 for the mission was based on its precision bombing capability, not stealth. The primary mission was for two F-117s to drop laser-guided bombs near Panamanian Defense Forces barracks in order to stun and confuse the defenders. Two others were to be on hand to back up an attempt to capture General Noriega, and two more came along as spares.
The six aircraft left Tonopah on the evening of 19 December and flew to Panama with the help of mid-air refueling. The attempt to capture Noriega didn't come off, and in the end only the two F-117s assigned to the primary target actually performed strikes. There was some confusion at the last moment and the aircraft missed their aim points, though the results were as desired. In any case, US military forces proved well-organized and efficient, and by the next day Panama was in American hands.
The use of the F-117 in the operation seemed to many as overkill, and public criticism of what appeared to be a Pentagon publicity stunt was loud and strident. It was not a very impressive combat introduction. Something more challenging was needed.
* In the early morning hours of 2 August 1990, three Iraqi armored divisions invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait. Kuwait fell quickly, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was then in a position to move into Saudi Arabia and assert control over the world's oil supplies. He stayed where he was, however, and within days American forces began to flow into Saudi Arabia.
On 20 August, F-117s left Tonopah to fly across the Atlantic to King Khaled Air Base in Saudi Arabia, arriving the next day. Their new home was at the southern tip of Saudi Arabia, well out of range of Iraqi Scud missiles, and was well-equipped with hardened shelters. It became known as "Tonopah East". The F-117 pilots soon began an intensive training program, since few of the pilots had combat experience in any sort of aircraft.
In the meantime, the confrontation with the Iraqis settled into a sitting war, with both sides trading propaganda and jockeying for political position. On 12 January 1991, the US Congress voted to allow the use of force to remove the Iraqis from Kuwait, in support of a UN resolution demanding that Saddam pull out of the country. On 15 January, the deadline specified by the UN resolution expired.
The next day, the F-117 pilots were briefed for their strikes. They would be among the leading elements in the air war, knocking out air-defense centers and other vital elements in the Iraqi war machine to allow conventional strike aircraft to make further raids unharmed. Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, was a prime target, and was defended by about 4,000 anti-aircraft guns and SAM launchers. The targets were at long range for the F-117, and the pilots would have to perform several inflight refuelings for each mission.
At 2:35 AM that following morning, Iraqi flak guns began firing into the skies over Baghdad, despite the fact that the air attacks hadn't begun yet. At 2:39 AM, US Army Apache helicopter gunships fired the first shots in the air war by knocking out early warning radars near the Iraqi border.
By this time, eight F-117s were moving into Iraqi airspace, along with F-15E Strike Eagles that were assigned to destroy Scud missile launch sites in Iraq. At 2:51 AM, one of the F-117s dropped a laser-guided bomb on a bunker that contained an air-defense control center. The hardened bomb blew off the bunker's doors.
At 2:56 AM, the aimless firing from Baghdad went silent. There had been nothing to shoot at, though ironically the stealth fighters were just approaching the city, completely undetected. Moments later they hit communications centers; Iraqi Air Force Headquarters; an air-defense center; and one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
The Baghdad air defenses opened up again, while F-117s that still had bombs went on to hit secondary objectives. Minutes later, starting at 3:06 AM, a wave of Tomahawk cruise missiles began to hit leadership targets, such as the Iraqi Baa'th Party headquarters. Tomahawks armed with warheads that spewed out spools of conductive fibers shorted out power stations, knocking out the power grid.
At 3:30 AM, Iraqi air defenses picked up a huge attack force heading toward Baghdad. In reality it was a fleet of decoy drones, backed up by conventional strike aircraft carrying high-speed antiradiation missiles, or HARMs. As the air-defense radars locked onto the drones, the HARMs knocked out the radars.
At 4:00 AM, the second wave of F-117s hit Baghdad. Approach to the city was a fearsome experience. From 150 kilometers away, one pilot described it as looking like "a charcoal grill on the fourth of July", glowing with the fire of massed anti-aircraft guns. The Nighthawks hit some of the same targets bombed in the first wave, as well as air bases and command-and-control sites all over Iraq. The first two waves dropped 33 LGBs and scored 23 hits.
A third and final wave came in just before dawn to hit chemical and biological weapons bunkers. It was felt that sunlight would help kill anthrax spores scattered from the bioweapons sites. Unfortunately, cloudy weather made targeting difficult, and of 16 LGBs dropped, only five scored hits.
The F-117s returned to their Saudi Arabian base, their pilots feeling washed out and exhausted, glad to be alive. Much to their surprise, all of them came back. Despite worries, stealth worked. The F-117s had attacked one of the most heavily defended target areas on the planet with complete impunity.
* Over the next few days the F-117s returned to Iraq with confident pilots. The Iraqis poured anti-aircraft fire into the night sky over Baghdad, almost at random and without effect. One pilot simply lowered his seat so he couldn't be distracted by the fireworks, allowing him to concentrate on his target run.
A daylight attempt to attack Baghdad with conventional strike aircraft on 19 January failed, causing little damage to the target and the loss of two F-16s. From that point on, only F-117s or Tomahawks were used to attack the city. The F-117s continued the assaults on command-and-control centers, chemical-biological weapons dumps, and other targets. On 21 January, the Nighthawks hit and crippled a nuclear research facility in Baghdad, putting it out of operation. The Iraqis didn't know an attack was in progress until the bombs detonated.
The next night, F-117s followed up daylight raids by F-111 strike aircraft to hit Iraqi Air Force hardened aircraft shelters. The strikes were made with conventional LGBs, however, and failed to dent the shelters. The Iraqis began to hide more of their aircraft away in the shelters. The night after that, the F-117s destroyed a set of Iraqi bombers that intelligence indicated were being loaded for a chemical attack, but the aircraft in the shelters remained safe for the moment.
The USAF realized its error and re-armed the F-117s with hardened penetrator bombs. On the night of 24 January, they struck the shelters again, scoring 20 hits that punched into the shelters and blasted them out. Two days later, the Iraqi Air Force began to flee to Iran, where the aircraft were interned and repainted with Iranian markings. F-117 strikes on the shelters were stepped up to destroy as many Iraqi aircraft as possible before they could fly out of reach.
On 27 January, General Norman Schwarzkopf, head of Coalition forces, shifted most of the air assets from attacks on Iraq to strikes on Iraqi forces in Kuwait. Only the F-117s and F-111s continued attacks on Iraq itself. On 5 February, the F-111s were shifted to attacks on Kuwait, leaving Iraq to the F-117s.
For the following weeks, the F-117s continued their strikes, while the Iraqis poured antiaircraft fire into the sky in a vain hope of hitting one of them. They never scratched them, justifying the nickname the Saudis had given the aircraft: "shaba", Arabic for "ghost".
Then, in the early morning hours of 13 February two F-117s hit a command bunker in Baghdad. This bunker happened to also be housing a number of the families of the Iraqi elite, and the Iraqi press loudly denounced the slaughter, claiming that the bunker was really an "air-raid shelter" and had been deliberately targeted to kill civilians. The result was that General Schwarzkopf declared leadership targets off-limits and halted strikes on Baghdad.
The F-117s kept busy anyway, hitting Iraqi chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare centers in the rest of the country. Bad weather dogged the strikes, reducing visibility and bombing effectiveness, though when the skies were clear the results of the attacks were devastating. The Nighthawks were also assigned to other well-defended targets as opportunities arose.
It was not until the night of 27 February 1991 that the F-117s returned to Baghdad, going "downtown" with two waves of strikes that did particular damage to the Ba'th Party Headquarters. A third wave was called off, and a short time later a cease-fire was announced. The Gulf War was over. The 40 F-117s assigned to the conflict had flown more than 1,270 missions and had dropped 30% of all the precision-guided munitions used in the war.
* The F-117s began to return to Tonopah on 1 April and began to relocate to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the pilots did not have to be separated from their families, nor shuttled at expense to and from the desert. The transfer required the setup of new facilities at Holloman, including a RAM spray facility. By early July, the Black Jets had a new home and a new name, the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing.
The F-117 crews now performed their training flights in a more comfortable environment, although one aircraft was lost on 4 August 1991, when it caught on fire after takeoff. The pilot ejected safely, but the aircraft was completely destroyed.
A detachment of F-117s had remained in Saudi Arabia at Tonopah East after the end of the Gulf War to help enforce sanctions against Iraq. After numerous violations of the cease-fire agreement, on 13 January 1991, six of the Nighthawks performed strikes on air-defense targets in southern Iraq. Results were mixed, due to bad weather, but overall the strikes achieved their goals.
The F-117 was also used to some unknown extent during the occasional confrontations between the USAF and Iraqi air-defense systems during the 1990s. In some cases, F-117s were armed with AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles. F-16Cs would fly at a standoff distance from the area where air-defense sites were believed to be operating, while F-117s flew over the area. When an air-defense radar lit up, an F-117 would hit it with a HARM.
* Three more F-117s have been lost. One crashed into the Zuni Tribal Reservation on 5 April 1995. It was apparently another case of CFIT, and the pilot was killed.
Another F-117 broke up during an airshow near Baltimore, Maryland, on 14 September 1997, with the pilot ejecting safely. The crash was partly caught on video and occurred during a series of other accidents involving Air Force planes, giving it a high public profile. The 53 surviving F-117s were grounded while the problem was investigated. It turned out to be due to the failure of a control surface.
The third loss was the first combat casualty for the F-117. The Nighthawk returned to active combat in the spring of 1999, when it participated in air attacks on Serbia and Kosovo as part of OPERATION ALLIED FORCE, the NATO response to Serbian aggressions in Kosovo. In the early morning hours of 28 March 1999, an F-117 was shot down by Serbian air defenses.
US defense experts eventually concluded the shoot-down was the result of poor mission planning, which plotted the same flight path over enemy territory four times in a row, and left the stealth aircraft unprotected by electronic countermeasures aircraft. The Serbs figured out the pattern and shot it down more or less by "Mark 1 Eyeball".
The pilot was quickly rescued. However, in another embarrassment, the wreckage of the F-117 was not promptly bombed, and the Serbs invited their Russian allies to inspect the remains.
* The USAF has an ambivalent attitude towards the F-117. After the Gulf War, the US Congress opposed the Air Force's effort to buy 72 new F-16 fighters, citing claims that the F-117 was "eight times more effective" than the F-16, and so the service could buy a much smaller number of F-117s to obtain the same effect.
This was not a story that USAF brass liked to hear. The F-117 was designed as a specialized aircraft, basically a covert operations weapon, and for the majority of missions an F-16 could do the job much better. The F-117 lacked range, munitions capacity, flexibility, and was relatively expensive to operate. The service strongly opposed restarting production of the F-117, and no more Nighthawks were built.
However, for the missions for which the F-117 was designed, nothing else can touch it, and it remains one of the USAF's most valuable combat aircraft. Flight duty in the type is regarded as an elite job, and pilots tend to be very experienced in other types of combat aircraft.
The aircraft poses challenges. Visibility from the faceted cockpit is poor, and is believed to have contributed to the CFIT accidents. F-117s tend to fly together in a tandem configuration because of the the limited visibility, rather than wingtip-to-wingtip as in, say, an F-16.
The fact that the pilot must both fly and perform attacks by himself is another test of skill. The pilot must juggle multiple roles, allowing the autopilot system to direct him on final attack run to the target while he drops the bomb and guides it to its target.
Despite, or maybe because of, such challenges, one pilot calls it "a marvel to fly" and "more cerebral" than other fighters. Its pilots praise ability to perform extremely accurate strikes. They often simulate bombing "a guy's toolshed in his backyard, or something that small, just for practice."
* In the early 1990s, Lockheed tried to promote a number of naval versions of the F-117, with various designations such as the "F-117N" and "A/F-117X", with modified wing and tail surfaces. The Navy wasn't interested.
Lockheed also suggested an "F-117B" to the USAF with more powerful engines to increase its range and payload, allowing it to carry over 8 tonnes (18,000 pounds) of bombs, four internally, four externally. The external weapons were to be covered with RAM to keep the aircraft stealthy. Military budgets were tight and that idea went nowhere as well.
Lockheed tried to promote the F-117 to the British Royal Air Force (RAF) as well. The company didn't make a sale, but it is interesting to note in this context that RAF pilots have been qualified on and flown the F-117 as part of USAF-RAF military exchange programs.
* In any case, the Nighthawk flies on. The aircraft has been subjected to a stream of minor upgrades since its introduction to service, mostly under the "Offensive Capability Improvement Program (OCIP)", which was conducted in three phases, beginning in the late 1980s. OCIP 1 introduced an improved mission computer and support for the GBU-27 Paveway III LGB.
OCIP 2 provided an improved cockpit layout, featuring color multifunction displays (MFDs) to replace the older monochrome MFDs; a new data-entry panel; a "Flight Management System" that coupled the autopilot to the navigation system to allow the aircraft to automatically fly to a precise location; and a "Pilot Activated Automatic Recovery System (PAARS)". PAARS allows the aircraft to return to the straight-and-level with a push of a button, and was designed specifically in response to the fatal accidents due to CFIT. F-117 pilots insist they've never used PAARS.
OCIP III replaced the older INS with a Global Positioning System / Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS) module. Other upgrades include several updates to the IRADS targeting system; improvements to the engine exhaust system, which was a prominent source of trouble in the early days of the F-117; carbon-carbon brakes to replace the original steel brakes; a new composite-material fin; composite weapons-bay doors to replace the original metal doors; a MIL-STD 1760 munitions data bus; and an improved "Low Probability Of Intercept" secure communications system.
* The RAM scheme has been a particular focus for improvements, not just to improve operational effectiveness but to simplify maintenance. Ground crews for the aircraft have particular challenges in dealing with the RAM that coats the aircraft. The RAM has to be scraped off to allow access to panels for maintenance, and razor blades, Exacto scrapers, and sprayguns are essential parts of the toolkit. The RAM is sensitive to moisture and fuel leaks, and so F-117 pilots try to keep the aircraft as dry as possible.
Maintaining RAM has been complicated by the fact that RAM schemes changed in production and differ from aircraft to aircraft. Early Nighthawks used a a "wallpaper" scheme to apply RAM, while later aircraft used spray-on RAM, and further tweaks have been made in RAM processes. The most modern RAM schemes make access to panels easier, and the latest RAM coatings are significantly lighter than the original schemes, improving aircraft performance.
In 2000, Lockheed Martin began a "Single Configuration Fleet (SCF)" effort to modify surviving F-117s to a consistent and up-to-date RAM configuration, with the intent of reducing maintenance time by 30% and expenditure of RAM consumables by 20%. A robotic system is used to apply the new RAM coating. 51 aircraft are to be modified through 2005.
* The SCF effort is currently being followed up with yet another set of upgrades, designated "Block 2", to allow the F-117 to carry newer munitions, particularly the EGBU-27 900 kilogram (2,000 pound) bomb, an enhanced version of the GBU-27 that adds GPS/INS guidance to the existing laser guidance system.
Adding a GPS-weapon capability to the F-117 will give the aircraft an all-weather attack capability, which was sorely needed during the NATO Kosovo campaign. At present, the upgrade will allow the F-117 to drop EGBU-27s that have been preprogrammed before takeoff, but the pilot will not be able to retarget the munition in flight.
The USAF is looking for funding to give the F-117 such an update capability. Other goals of the Block 2 upgrade are to permit integration of the new "Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)" 900 kilogram (2,000 pound) GPS-guided bomb, and the "Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser (WCMD)" INS-guided cluster bomb.
* A Block 3 upgrade is now under consideration. Some of the F-117's critical components are no longer in production, and though the Air Force acquired stockpiles of these items from final manufacturing builds, the stockpiles are expected to be used up by 2009. A development program will be initiated in 2004 to determine how to replace the obsolescent items, with aircraft upgrades beginning in 2006 or 2007.
The primary goal of the upgrade program is the replacement of obsolescent systems, but unsurprisingly even the least sophisticated of the candidate new systems are as a rule much more capable than the antiquated ones they replace, and the upgrade program also implies an improvement in capability. For example, the new Block 3 targeting system is expected to have greater range and resolution than the old. A program official says the new targeting system will allow the pilot to "figure out which pane in the window you want to put the weapon on," not just the whole window.
A second priority for the upgrade program will be replacement of the two cockpit multifunction displays. There is a third display for sensor data, but USAF officials are uncertain if this will be replaced as well, and emphasize that a complete cockpit upgrade is not being considered.
Another item being considered for the Block 3 upgrade program is an update to the F-117's current electronic data-transfer system, used to transfer data from a ground mission-planning planning system and put it into the aircraft's on-board mission computer. The current system has very limited memory, and a new system based on plug-in data cartridges is being considered.
Finally, Block 3 may include a mechanical upgrade for the elevon-control system. The current elevon-control system involves a structural support that has to be removed to permit common elevon maintenance tasks. This is not just a maintenance nuisance, it causes wear on the structural support, and the problem was linked to the 1997 crash of an F-117 near Baltimore. Lockheed Martin designed a replacement scheme several years ago, but the USAF hasn't been able to afford to implement it.
* The Air Force is even thinking of ideas for a Block 4 upgrade. One possibility is integration of the "Link-16" datalink to allow the F-117 to receive tactical data from other aircraft. The implementation would be on a "receive-only" basis, since giving the F-117 a capability to transmit would make it easier to detect, defeating its utility. Another possibility is fitting an all-weather targeting system, probably based on a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor.
The Block 4 upgrades are purely speculative at this time. One issue is the expected lifetime of the F-117. Current USAF plans envision the aircraft being retired in 2018, but this is just an assumption for planning purposes. The F-117 fleet currently has much more airframe life than originally expected, simply because they haven't been flown as much or as hard as anticipated, and the Block 3 upgrade should keep the aircraft combat-effective well after 2018.
Possible replacements for the F-117 include an attack version of the F-22 Raptor, the new Joint Strike Fighter, or a robot uninhabited combat air vehicle (UCAV). For the time being, however, the F-117 is soldiering on just fine, remaining a unique asset decades after its first flight.
* As an interesting footnote to the F-117 story, in October 2002 Boeing released details of a top-secret demonstrator aircraft that the company's secret Phantom Works organization had begun work on in 1992. The subsonic "Bird of Prey (BOP)", named for its general resemblance to a Klingon Bird of Prey warship from the STAR TREK TV series, was designed to evaluate new stealth technologies, as well as techniques for rapid development of flight prototypes. The program had many similarities to the HAVE BLUE effort.
The BOP performed its first flight in the fall of 1996, conducting a total of 38 test flights into 1999 at the Groom Lake facility. The flights were performed by Boeing test pilots Rudy Haig and Joe Felock, as well as Doug Benjamin, then with the Air Force but now with Boeing.
The Bird of Prey had a flattened, lozenge-shaped fuselage, with rear-mounted swept gull wings and, initially, a dorsal fin. The intake for the aircraft's powerplant was on the back, almost buried behind the cockpit, with a slit exhaust in the tail. The aircraft was built largely of composites to reduce its radar cross section. The top and bottom halves of the fuselage were almost single pieces.
The BOP was 14.2 meters (46 feet 8 inches) long, had a wingspan of 6.91 meters (22 feet 8 inches), was 2.82 meters (9 feet 4 inches) tall, and had a takeoff weight of 3,346 kilograms (7,379 pounds). It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney JT15D turbofan, the same as used on some models of the Cessna Citation, with 13.3 kN (1,360 kg / 3,000 lb) thrust.
Top speed of the BOP was only 480 KPH (260 knots), and as it was unpressurized its ceiling was only 6,100 meters (20,000 feet). It used mechanical flight controls, linked to "rudderons" on the outer wing and "elevons" on the inner wing. Cockpit instruments were minimal, though it did have a GPS receiver. Pilots reported that it handled well and was very docile.
The Air Force oversaw the program, but Boeing provided all the funding, to the tune of $67 million USD. Off-the-shelf components were used wherever possible, including the ejection seat from an AV-8B Harrier, as well as parts from the F-15, F-18, and even a nosewheel from an F-100 Super Sabre. The BOP was donated to the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio. Boeing stated that they had no intention of building an operational variant of the BOP, but that the technology validated in the flight test program was valuable to a wide range of company efforts.
* At least three F-117s are on public display, one at the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, one as a "gate guard" at Nellis Air Force Base, and one at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. All three are early evaluation prototypes.
The F-117 is an interesting aircraft, particularly because it gives insight into the nature of top-secret programs. The most interesting thing is how far off base most of the rumors were.
Odd stories still float around about the machine. For example, soldiers guarding the aircraft in Saudi Arabia were said to have been startled by dead bats lying around the hangars. The bats had flown into the Nighthawks, which were as invisible to bat sonar as they were to human radar.
Documenting it is simple, though, because there's only been two versions: the HAVE BLUE prototype and the SENIOR TREND operational variant.
* Sources include:
* Revision history:
v1.0 / 01 nov 97 / gvg
v2.0 / 01 jan 01 / gvg / Major update, went to two chapters.
v2.0.1 / 01 jan 02 / gvg / Minor cosmetic update.
v2.1.0 / 01 feb 03 / gvg / Added Boeing BOP comments.