The Buzz

The F-117 Nighthawk: Why America's First Stealth Fighter Is Still a Legend

Lockheed did later try to market more versatile variants of the F-117 capable of operating from carriers, with more powerful F414 engines and twice the weapons load, including the ability to fire long-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles. However, the type was rejected both by the U.S. Navy and the Royal Air Force.

Nighthawks over Baghdad and Belgrade

The first major operator of the Blackhawk was the 4450th Tactical Fighter Squadron, based in Tonopah Air Base starting in 1983. To keep the Nighthawk secret, the unit officially flew A-7 Corsair attack planes out of Nellis Air Force Base.

Shortly after entering service, the F-117 was almost deployed to bomb the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon in retaliation for the 1983 Beirut Barracks bombing that killed 220 Marines. The raid was cancelled by Defense Secretary Weinberg just 45 minutes before takeoff.

The Pentagon finally released grainy photographs of the Nighthawk in 1988. A year later the plane was finally saw action over Panama, as part of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. overthrow of ruling strongman Maneul Noriega. The F-117s were tasked with dropping delayed fuse bombs 50 meters besides the Rio Hato barracks of Noriega’s elite troops in order to stun and confuse them while minimizing the actual death toll. The mission didn’t quite go as planned; the Guard were mobilized before the F-117s arrived, and the Nighthawk pilots got confused as to which targets they should hit. In the end, the attack probably contributed to the chaos and confusion of the Panamanian Defense Force, but not quite in the manner intended.

In the 1991 Gulf War the Nighthawk finally displayed its potential. The 415th and 416th Tactical Fighter Squadrons were deployed to Saudi Arabia, and from their launched (almost) the opening shots of the war when they struck targets in Baghdad on January 17, 1991. Preceded by Apache helicopters that took out Iraqi low-bandwidth radars that might have warned of their approach, the F-117s slipped into the Iraqi capital’s heavily defended airspace. Major Feest’s Nighthawk destroyed the air defense center for Baghdad. Immediately afterwards, anti-aircraft artillery lit up the sky, but the remaining F-117s proceeded to target radars, air defense headquarters and telephone centers with 49 laser guided bombs.

Throughout the war, F-117s flew 1,280 missions and struck 1,600 targets, including bridges, biological and chemical weapon sites, parked Iraqi bombers, communication hubs, command bunkers and ammunition dumps. Pilots reported that the relative safety from radar-guided missiles meant they felt safer taking more time to precisely aim at their targets to minimize collateral damage. For example, in one incident a pilot reported delaying weapons release to allow a civilian vehicle to cross a bridge.

F-117s delivered about 30% of the attacks on Baghdad, and played an important role in weakening air defenses so that conventional aircraft could operate overhead in greater safety. However, a report released after the conflict by the Government Accountability Office pointed out that the type only delivered weapons on 60% of its assigned targets. This was largely a result of poor weather conditions prevailing over Baghdad that made it difficult to accurately identify targets on the ground.

After the Gulf War, the F-117 force was reassigned to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico as part of the Forty-Ninth Fighter Wing. The stealth fighters went back into action during the 1999 Kosovo War, operating from bases in Aviano, Italy and Spangdahlem, Germany as part of the NATO-led effort to force the Republic of Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia) to end its crackdown on the ethnically Albanian minority in Kosovo. An F-117 dropped specialized BLU-114B graphite “soft bombs” that disabled 70% of the Yugoslavian power grid on the opening day of hostilities. (The power grid went back into operation within 24 hours and then collapsed again, leaving the ultimate effectiveness of the graphite bomb subject to debate). A controversial Nighthawk attack later destroyed a Serbian media center, killing 10 civilians.

The Yugoslavian Air Force fielded capable MiG-29 fighters against NATO aircraft during the Kosovo campaign. Though the MiG-29s couldn’t detect the Nighthawks, they could still be seen by them. In one incident, an F-117 on a strike mission was caught in the crossfire between escorting F-16s and nearby MiG-29s, with air-to-air missiles fired by the former shooting over its bow. The Nighthawk escaped unscathed thanks to the intervention of the F-16s, however.

Of course, the Nighthawk’s greatest claim to fame in the conflict was when one was downed by a local variant of the Russian S-125 NEVA (NATO codename SA-3) radar-guided missile. This feat was achieved due to the cunning of Yugoslav Colonel Zoltan Dani, commander of the missile battery. Using more advanced tactics than employed by Iraqi missile batteries, he activated his radars only for short bursts and routinely redeployed his missile launchers, both to avoid air-defense suppression attacks as well as to position them in the likely approach vector of NATO aircraft. NATO often employed EA-6 Prowler jamming aircraft to lower the effectiveness of his radars, but they were not available to escort every sortie.