This Is What You Need To Remember: The upgraded stealth attack plane was passed over for the Joint Strike Fighter, which later became the F-35.
The F-117 Nighthawk made a definite impression on both Iraqi air defenses and the American public when it demonstrated the capabilities of stealth technology in the 1991 Gulf War. Yet the iconic jet-black attack plane was ultimately left behind by improvements in technology and retired in 2008 in favor of the new F-22 stealth fighter.
But what if the Nighthawk design had been evolved into a carrier-based multi-role fighter capable of flying longer distances at higher speed with a greater weapon load? In fact, Lockheed proposed exactly such a “Seahawk” in the early 90s.
The original F-117’s iconic faceted airframe was limited in performance because it was a product of first-generation stealth technology. Despite being called the “stealth fighter”, the F-117 was incapable of engaging enemy aircraft. It was not particularly fast, could only carry two bombs, relied on in-flight refueling to traverse significant distances, and lacked its own radar. New coats of expensive radar-absorbent paint had to be applied frequently. Such a plane was constrained to the role of infiltrating enemy air defenses to attack strategic installations not too far into enemy airspace.
As a result, the Pentagon procured only 59 operational F-117As and quickly moved onto newer stealth aircraft that evolved into the B-2 bomber, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and ultimately the F-35 “joint strike fighter.”
However, the Gulf War had raised the esteem of the Nighthawk in the public’s eye—and more crucially, in the eye of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Perceiving an opportunity, in 1992 Lockheed proposed the F-117N “Seahawk” to the U.S Navy.
The original fairly unambitious proposal would have simply involved an automatic carrier landing system (ACLS) and corrosion-resistant coatings for the F-117. But the Navy was in the process of phasing outs its pure attack planes (the A-6 and A-7) in favor of additional FA-18 Hornet and upgraded F-14 “Bombcat” multi-role fighters with significant ground attack capabilities. A single-role stealth attack plane was not what the Navy was looking for—it wanted an actual fighter with supersonic speed and air-to-air capability, which led to it pursuing the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program.
After the initial F-117N was rejected, Lockheed sketched out new aircraft that incorporated technologies from various proposed F-117Bs rejected by both the U.S. Air Force and the British Royal Air Force.
The ultimate iteration was the A/F-117X Seahawk, which threw everything but the kitchen sink into Nighthawk airframe. The Seahawk’s wings were lengthened nearly 50% to 64 feet long and adjusted from a 48 to 42 degree slant, while additional horizontal ailerons were added on the tail. This was done to improve the Nighthawk’s aerodynamics and low-speed handling to enable landing on carrier decks. Visibility was improved through a bubble canopy. Of course, the Seahawk also came with reinforced landing gear, ACLS, arrestor hook and folding wings standard for carrier operation.
More powerful F114 engines with afterburners—the same type used in the Navy’s Super Hornet fighters today—would have increased speed, possibly even enabling supersonic flight. Likewise, the Sea Hawk’s range would have nearly doubled at up to 970 miles.
The Seahawk also included both a multi-mode air-to-air and air-to-ground radar and an Infrared Search and Tracking System (IRST), and it could carry air-to-air missiles on the interior of the bomb bay doors, including short-range heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders as well as the long range radar-guided AIM-120 Scorpion. The Scorpion missiles in particular could theoretically have allowed the lower-performing F-117 to be a viable air-superiority fighter, sniping from far away at enemy aircraft unable to detect its presence. A bulge in the Seahawk’s bomb bays would have permitted an increased internal bombload to 10,000 pounds (up from just two 2,000 pounds bombs on the F-117A), and there were even provisions for an additional 8,000 pounds of un-stealthy bombs on underwing hardpoints to be mounted after enemy radars had been neutralized.
Lockheed’s proposal was for 250 of the upgraded stealth fighters at an estimated unit price of $70 million per airframe. The Seahawk was submitted to the JAST competition—but was turned down because the Navy was looking for a higher-performing fighter plane. Lockheed was warned by the Pentagon not to continue promoting the plane to its champions in the Armed Services Committee at the risk of its contract for the F-22 stealth fighter.
And so the F-117 program went quietly into the night. The JAST ultimately developed into the “Joint Strike Fighter,” the F-35. The Navy estimates it will finally have F-35C stealth fighters operational in 2019, twenty-seven years later.
The F-35, billed as cheaper mass-production alternative to the high-performing F-22 stealth fighter, has its share of detractors not only because it is inferior to the F-22 in performance, but because endless delays and cost overruns have failed to make it that much cheaper. However, the F-35 does benefit from far more modern avionics and datalinks than the Raptor, and the Pentagon is counting on a combination of stealth, long-range missiles and networked warfare to minimize the F-35’s shortcomings.
The Seahawk might have been turned out to be a decent multi-role strike plane—and it would have looked quite stunning—but the Pentagon wanted to pursue a more capable next-generation stealth fighter rather than trying to revive a dated design. Investing long-term was probably the right call to make in a decade where serious military challenges to the United States’ post-Cold War hegemony had yet to materialize.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article originally ran in 2016.
Image: Two specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly on one of their last missions. The F-117s were retired in a farewell ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 22, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey)