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weapons: f-117a stealth


f-117a The F-117A Stealth fighter was in service for six years before the Air Force admitted its existence. The super-secret aircraft was born in 1978 at Lockheed's so-called "Skunk Works" in Burbank, California which has developed many other advanced aircraft for the Air Force. Configured in the shape of a large, flat delta, or arrowhead, the F-117A was designed to be virtually invisible to radar, and difficult to spot with the naked eye as well.

The F-117A is a single-seat, twin-engine aircraft with a cockpit set low in the front of the fuselage. The engines, buried in the wing roots and deeply recessed to minimize their infrared signature, are set above the fuselage centerline. The skin covering is composed of small, flat surfaces that reflect radar signals in every direction. Almost all of the external surface is coated with radar-absorbent material.

wobbly goblin

The aircraft is equipped with fly-by-wire controls, which suggest that it is unstable in flight and needs the constant attention of the flight control computer to keep it flying. It is highly maneuverable aircraft, but due to its outlandish appearance and the bumpy ride it affords those who fly it, it has come to be known as the "Wobbly Goblin."

The Air Force first flew the F-117A in 1981, and from 1981 to 1989 the aircraft was flown only at night to maintain secrecy. The primary mission of the aircraft probably entails low-level precision attacks on high-priority targets with smart bombs or air-to-ground missiles stowed in internal bays.

From: Gulf War - A Comprehensive Guide to People, Places & Weapons by Col. Walter J. Boyne, U.S. A.F. (RET) Signet, 1991

how the stealth fights

The pilot operates a very accurate Honeywell ring-laser gyro inertial navigation system. The aircraft has two weapons bays, one for each of its primary weapons, which are 2,000 pound laser-guided bombs. The aircraft is fitted with an exceptionally accurate weapons computer. It also has a FLIR sensor that produces TV-quality images of distant objects, even on hazy nights.

A second downward-looking IR system under the aircraft is used for weapons delivery. Both IRs are steerable and can be aimed by the pilot or, automatically, by the INS. The downward looking IR sensor is boresighted to a laser designator to guide the LGBs. It was this sensor that provided the image, widely shown on world television, of a laser-guided bomb destroying Saddam's telecommunications building in downtown Baghdad.

The pilot views FLIR imagery on a large cathode-ray tube in the center of his instrument panel. The same screen provides flight information such as attitude, altitude, air speed, and navigation information. The pilot acquires the target on his FLIR, usualy in the wide-field-of-view mode, identifies the target, and then switches to the downward-looking IR for weapons delivery through the weapons computer.

After acquiring the target, the pilot positions the cross hairs of his weapon system on the aimpoint and actuates the laser designataor by depressing a button on his throttle. The computer takes over, and when the pilot depresses the consent ( or "pickle") button, releases the weapon at a point in flight from which it can home in on the laser energy reflected from the aimpoint. The pilot monitors the automatic process, or can perform it manually.

Adjusting to combat in the Persian Gulf, pilots would typically wake up in the afternoon to report to briefings as early as 4 p.m. for an 8 p.m. takeoff. The next wave of pilots would report at 8 p.m. for a midnight takeoff. Although at times takeoffs or landings were made in daylight, the combat operations were at night.

At Tonopah, the average mission lasted 1.6 hours. Flying out of Khamis Mushait, the long distance from Iraqi targets pushed the average sortie time up to 5.4 hours per sortie, with some sorties lassting almost seven hours.

Pilots refueled in the air before crossing into Iraq and after coming out. F-117 pilots also worked shifts in the wing's combat planning cell. After a shift, they rested for twenty-four hours. Most aircraft flew twice each night.

The principal munition for the F-117 was the GBU-27, an improved 2,000 pound bomb, modified with a Paveway III laser guidance kit. The bomb was developed in the mid-1980s when the US Air Force studies indicated the Warsaw Pact and other potential adversaries were hardening likely military targets against conventional attack.

The I-2000 casing is forged from high-strength steel. It is slim and bullet shaped, and in tests it was able to penetrate reinforced concrete more than six feet thick, remain intact, and then detonate reliably. It was what the Air Force needed to destroy Saddam's 600 hardened aircraft shelters, command bunkers, and command and control facilities.

Other weapons employed by the F-117A in Operation Desert Storm were the standard 2,000-pound bomb and the 500-pound Mk 82, both with Paveway II laser guidance kits. They were deadly against all except the most hardened targets.

From: "Airpower in the Gulf" by James P. Coyne. An Air Force Association Book, Aerospace Education Foundation, Arlington, Virginia.


Mission planners targeted the F-117A against critical strategic Iraqi command and control installations. Other key targets assigned to the 37th TFW(P) included key communications centers; research, development, production, and storage facilities for nuclear and chemical weapons; and a variety of other targets--especially hardened aircraft shelters at numerous Iraqi airfields.

As a coalitions workhorse, the F-117A logged nearly 1,300 combat sorties while flying 6,905 combat flying hours. During their mission, the F-117A pilots delivered over 2,000 tons of precision-guided ordnance with a hit rate of better than 80 percent.

Although the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing Provisional and its 42 stealth fighters represented just 2 1/2 percent of all allied fighter and attack aircraft in the Gulf, the F-117As were assigned against more than 31 percent of the strategic Iraqi military targets attacked during the first 24 hours of the air campaign.

----From: "Team Stealth F-117" by Robert Shelton, Jr. and Randy Jolly, Specialty Press. Shelton, an 18-year veteran of military service was chief of public affairs for the initial Stealth unit. In 1990 he spent eight-and-a-half months in Saudi Arabia as chief of public affairs for the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing (the only Stealth unit to serve in Operations Desert Shield and Dessert Storm.)


FRONTLINE Interview with Bernard Trainor co-author, "The Generals War"

FRONTLINE Interview with Rick Atkinson, author, "Crusade."

"White Paper--Air Force Performance in Desert Storm" Department of the Air Force, April 1991

From: "Gulf War Air Power Survey Summary Report" by Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen:

"U.S. Forces used three platforms during the Gulf War that were in the stealth/low-observability category: the F-117 stealth fighter and two long-range cruise missiles, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and the Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM)......The F-117, which flew only two percent of the total attack sorties, struck nearly forty percent of the strategic targets and remained the centerpiece of the strategic air campaign for the entire war.

Low observability made possible direct strikes at the heart of the Iraqi air defense system at the very outset of the war. In the past, air forces fought through elaborate defenses and accepted losses on their way to the target or rolled those defenses back. In the Gulf War, the Coalition could strike Iraqi air defenses immediately, and they never recovered from these initial, stunning blows. With the combination of stealth and accuracy possessed by the F-117 and cruise missiles, these two platforms carried out all attacks against downtown Baghdad; the F-117 operated at night and the TLAMs during the day. Given the American sensitivity to casualties--our own and Iraqi civilians--they were ideal weapon systems for attacking targets in the heart of a heavily defended, heavily populated city. Moreover, the F-117 had a psychological utility that was probably shared only by the B-52. Both were aircraft of a kind that only a super-power could have, and both could deliver destruction with no advanced warning--small wonder, then, that both figured prominently in psychological operations pamphlets that were showered upon Iraqi troops.

On the other hand, the F-117 and long-range cruise missiles also had limitations: both were less flexible and considerably more expensive than most conventional systems. The F-117, a subsonic, light bomber, had to operate at night to maximize stealthiness, and nearly nineteen percent of the strikes attempted by F-117s were adversely affected by weather (misses or no drops). While not as sensitive to weather conditions as the F-117, cruise missiles had a smaller payload, required a lengthy targeting process, and could not be retargeted after launch. Even without the flexibiltiy of other aircraft, however, these platforms were able to set the terms for air operations over Iraq and to bring the reality of the war home to the residents of Baghdad."

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