Unconventional Weapon

What we learned about stealth technology from the combat career of the F-117

Staff Sergeant Robin Walker (left) reports no foreign objects in the inlets to Staff Sergeant Greg Slavik piror to takeoff from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. (Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald/USAF)
Air & Space Magazine

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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.

Another F-117 mission was carried out when the rules of engagement demanded that harm to surrounding people and buildings be kept to an absolute minimum. The F-117, with its ability to deliver a 2,000-pound warhead with precision, could also hit tougher targets and sturdier bunkers than any missile.

One of the 1990s avionics upgrades had included time-over-target control, or four-dimensional navigation. If the requirement was to have the bomb go off at a precise moment, the F-117 could do it.

But the final blow against the future of the F-117 was dealt by expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Struggling to maintain its budgets and protect pet projects like the F-22, the Air Force has targeted older aircraft like B-52s, U-2 spy airplanes, and F-117s for retirement.

In 2006, the Air Force announced that the Nighthawk would be gone by 2008. New Mexico’s Congressional delegation complained briefly, but was placated with the promise of an F-22 wing at Holloman. This time, the F-117 could not hide from its foes.


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