What we learned about stealth technology from the combat career of the F-117.
- By Bill Sweetman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2008
Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/USAF
(Page 7 of 10)
A December 2006 account of the shootdown in Air Force magazine says only that Zelko’s “routine suddenly was shattered by indications that Serbian air defense systems had targeted his aircraft.” (Zelko ejected and was rescued by an MH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter six hours later.)
The shootdown led to such changes as the formation of an F-117 weapons school to develop, formalize, and train in tactics, and an increased emphasis on training with other forces, including the jet’s first participation in Red Flag war games. “Stealth is not perfect, and we still count on other assets to improve our capability,” Shoaf told the London conference.
As other systems started to encroach on the F-117A’s battlefield jobs, the aircraft’s retirement loomed. One early herald of the end of the Nighthawk’s service life came in 1994, when the Air Force decided to add a guided bomb on the F-22.
The only guided bombs available when the F-22 was designed used laser designation, and the F-22 flew too high for that to work. The picture changed with the development of the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition and the realization that better computers could make it possible to get a high-resolution ground image from the F-22’s radar. The fighters could drop ordnance on pinpoint positions.
And then came the missiles. The view from the F-117’s strange cockpit is so limited that the mission does not call for the pilot to see the target with the naked eye. The airplane’s navigation system would guide the aircraft to a point where the infrared sensors could see the target.
Then the pilot would find the exact aim point within the image and lock the laser designator on to it. But missiles such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), which entered service in 2003, can do the same thing, comparing the image from an infrared camera to digital images of the target area.
Neither the JASSM nor the F-22 could replace the F-117 directly, but each reduced the number of tasks that only an F-117 could perform.
By 2005, according to Major Doug Downey, in charge of tactical training for the fighter, the F-117 force was focused on just a handful of missions. One was “eyes on target”: when no missile could be trusted to ensure that the target was hit, and it was critical to verify that the correct target had been struck.