With the U.S. Air Force set to award a contract to build its Long Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) this week, it is a good time to look at the evolution of stealth starting with the Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk . That aircraft was retired in 2008, but would the F-117 still be useful today?
The answer is that against most mid-range threats like Iran, absolutely. But against higher-end threats like Russia or China, not so much. Technology has advanced since engineers first dreamed up the F-117 “stealth fighter” concept.
Developed in the 1970s and declared operational in complete secrecy in 1983, the F-117 ushered in a new era that would enable the United States to dominate warfare for decades to come. Ironically, the equations that ultimately enabled the United States to develop the Nighthawk have their origins in the Soviet Union with a paper titled Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction . An obscure Russian scientist by the name of Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimtsev wrote the paper in 1962. While the Soviet Union more or less dismissed Ufimtsev’s work as being wildly impractical, Lockheed Skunk Works engineer Denys Overholser saw potential in the Russian physicist’s equations.
Overholser’s work resulted in a concept that many at the Skunk Works—including the legendary Kelly Johnson—derisively called the Hopeless Diamond. But soon it became apparent that the ungainly diamond shape was incredibly effective at reducing an object’s radar cross section. As such, the Pentagon immediately awarded Lockheed a contract to develop a demonstrator called the Have Blue as part of its Experimental Survivable Testbed (XST) program. The Pentagon was forging ahead full steam to defeat the Warsaw Pact’s increasingly potent air defenses at the time. That was because it was increasingly apparent that NATO air forces would suffer horrific losses if the Cold War turned into World War III.
Lockheed was successful in developing the ungainly Hopeless Diamond design into a barely flyable design thanks to then new fly-by-wire technology. The resulting aircraft, which used a faceted design to defeat enemy radar—and resembled a subscale version of its F-117 successor—first flew in December 1977. While both of the prototypes were destroyed, the Have Blue program was a stunning success. As such, the Air Force decided to go ahead with the development of the follow-on F-117.
The F-117 first flew in 1981 and eventually entered service in 1983. Lockheed was able to develop an operational aircraft quickly as the company built the jet out of existing components already in use on other planes. The fly-by-wire controls came from the F-16 while the engines were non-afterburning versions of the F/A-18A’s General Electric F404 turbofans. Additionally, unlike later stealth aircraft, the F-117 was constructed using conventional aerospace aluminum—which made building the jet easier. Lockheed ultimately built a total of fifty-nine F-117As and five YF-117As developmental prototypes.
The F-117 made its debut in secret over Panama in 1989, but its performance was lackluster. However, the F-117 performed spectacularly well over Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. It also served in several subsequent conflicts including the second Gulf War during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The Air Force ultimately retired the Nighthawk in 2008 as a cost saving measure as the service struggled to pay for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. At the time, the Air Force claimed that with the advent of the air superiority-oriented Raptor—and eventually the F-35—meant it no longer needed the F-117.
During its time in service, only one F-117—flown by Lt. Col. Dale Zelko—was lost over Yugoslavia in March 1999 during Operation Allied Force. Zelko’s experience over Kosovo was the first inkling that the wider public had that stealth aircraft were not invincible nor are they invisible to radar and infrared. Military and national security professionals have never had such illusions, but during the 1990s, many grew overconfident in the capabilities offered by low observable aircraft. But stealth is mere delayed detection and tracking—the idea is one releases their weapons before the enemy is aware of you. Stealth is not a magical cloak of invisibility.
But the Air Force had always known that stealth aircraft are not invisible or invincible. In fact, during Operation Desert Storm, contrary to popular belief, U.S. Army AH-64 Apache gunships made the first air raids on Iraq rather than the F-117. Those attack helicopters had one mission—that was to eliminate Iraqi low frequency early warning radars operating in the VHF and UHF-bands. Those radars can detect and track stealth aircraft like the F-117, which are designed to operated against radars operating in the C, X and Ku-bands. The Apaches cleared a path for the stealth fighters to proceed to their targets deep inside Iraq undetected.
Subsequent stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 are also designed to operate against high-frequency fire control radars. The concept behind fifth-generation fighters—which in some ways are the direct successors to the F-117 tactical stealth attack aircraft—is that they operate with the enemy potentially knowing that something is present in their air space. The enemy just can’t do anything about their presence however—putting it basically—or so the theory goes. But, despite its public stance, the Air Force has never operated its stealth aircraft without the presence of Navy electronic warfare aircraft like Prowler or jammers.