F-117A Nighthawk in Action
The F-117A first saw action in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. On 20 December 1989 pilots of the two F-117As flew to Rio Hato, Panama, to drop one 2,000-pound bomb each within 150 yards of the PDF's 6th and 7th Rifle Company barracks to stun and confuse the occupants just before Rangers of Task Force RED parachuted into the area. Upon reaching the target area, the pilots encountered high winds coming from an unanticipated direction. The lead pilot swung to the left, and dropped his payload only sixty yards away from the barracks that was supposed to be the near target of the pilot in the second aircraft. Keying on the first pilot, the second pilot dropped his bomb further to the left, up to three hundred yards away from the target that had been originally assigned to the lead pilot. Despite the error, the bombs exploded precisely where aimed and momentarily stunned the PDF troops occupying the barracks.
The stealth fighter attacked the most heavily fortified targets during Desert Storm (January-February 1991), and it was the only coalition jet allowed to strike targets inside Baghdad's city limits. The F-117A, which normally packed a payload of two 2,000-pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, destroyed and crippled Iraqi electrical power stations, military headquarters, communications sites, air defense operation centers, airfields, ammo bunkers, and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons plants. The real lesson for the future was the value of stealth. On one attack against one Iraqi target, Shiba airfield, having three aimpoints, eight strike airplanes (four A-6Es and 4 Saudi Tornadoes) were screened by 4 F-4G Wild Weasels, 5 EA-6B jammers, 4 F/A-18s for combat air patrol, 3 drones, and no less than 17 F/A-18 Harm antiradar missile shooters. Thus, the ratio of escort to attacker was 4 : 1, consistent with previous experience virtually back to the dawn of military air attack operations. At the same time, just by themselves, 21 F-117s were attacking 38 even more heavily defended aimpoints by themselves. In another case, eight F-117s could strike sixteen different aimpoints by themselves, offsetting a package of sixty nonstealthy aircraft-32 bomb-droppers, 16 air superiority escorts, 4 jammers, and 8 Wild Weasels.
Although only 36 stealth fighters were deployed in Desert Storm and accounted for 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, they flew more than a third of the bombing runs on the first day of the war. In all during Desert Storm, the stealth fighter conducted more than 1,250 sorties, dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs, and flew more than 6,900 hours. More than 3,000 antiaircraft guns and 60 surface-to-air missile batteries protected the city, but despite this seemingly impenetrable shield, the Nighthawks owned the skies over the city and, for that matter, the country. The stealth fighter, which is coated with a secret, radar-absorbent material, operated over Iraq and Kuwait with impunity, and was unscathed by enemy guns.
In response to a real world crisis, the wing's F-117s began a deployment to Kuwait in November 1998, reaching an intermediate point in Europe before being turned around and sent back to Holloman.
In the opening phase of Allied Force, aimed primarily at Yugoslavia's integrated air defense system, NATO air forces conducted more than 400 sorties. During the first two night attacks, allied troops in the air and at sea struck 90 targets throughout Yugoslavia and in Kosovo. F-117 Nighthawks from the 8th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base NM participated in air strikes against targets in the Balkans during NATO operations. The wing deployed 25 F-117A Nighthawks and more than 550 people to Aviano Air Base, Italy, and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, in support of the air operation. F-117s flew combat missions against the most highly defended, high value targets throughout the 78-day air campaign, including first-night attacks.
Stealth technology has allowed USAF airplanes to be less vulnerable to enemy fire. No stealthy F-117s were lost over Iraq, although they were used extensively against some of the most heavily defended sites around Baghdad. The shape and materials of such aircraft reduce their radar and infrared signatures enough to make them almost invisible to enemy detection systems. Despite the F-117 loss over the former Yugoslavia in 1999, stealth technology will guard increasing percentages of USAF combat aircraft in the future. Stealthy B-2s and F-117s took part in the initial bombing of Afghanistan during the opening of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in October 2001.
After more than 25 years of storied service, the F-117 Nighthawk, the Air Force's first stealth fighter, was retired in April 2008. The technology that once made it a unique weapon system has now caught up to it and newer fighter aircraft are now joining the fleet. Still, the Nighthawk was the first of its kind, a fact anyone who has spent time around the aircraft is quick to point out.
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