The Raptor is almost three times faster than the F-117, and highly maneuverable thanks to 2D vector engines.


More than 40 years ago, in December 1977, the prototype of the F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack aircraft, called Have Blue, conducted its first test flight.

The F-117 Nighthawk was a revolutionary American invention. This is the first aircraft in the world to be applied stealth technology. The purpose of stealth technology is to reduce the radar signature of an aircraft on the radar screen, with the size as a bird.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union introduced a series of anti-aircraft missile systems and high-speed interceptors. The Americans, afraid of losing their air superiority to the Soviet Union, focused on promoting the development of high-tech aircraft to deal with enemy radars. That was the purpose of the Nighthawk’s birth.

Stealth technology

Stealth technology was not an American invention, but the long-standing work of Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimtsev, a Soviet physicist and mathematician. He developed a mathematical formula that could compute the reflection of a radar beam in geometric shapes. The leading US aerospace scientist, Ben Rich, later called this equation a “breakthrough in stealth technology”.

Ufimtsev’s research had attracted more attention in the US than in Russia. Americans quickly embraced this technology by inviting Ufimtsev to teach Stealth technology at America’s top science universities. This was also an important step for the United States in training manpower for future stealth aerial vehicles programs.

Have Blue project

In the late 1970s, the US defense industry group, Lockheed Martin, began working on the Have Blue project to design an aircraft with the minimum possible radar cross-section. Based on Ufimtsev’s theory, Lockheed Corporation built the first two experimental prototypes in 1977. This new aircraft had a completely different appearance from the previous aircraft. It had the shape of a diamond crafted, with 2-dimensional edges.

When developing the F-117, the Americans did not have advanced computers to design a curved surface like the current B-2 Spirit or F-35. Therefore, the 2-dimensional surface design is also characteristic of the Nighthawk.

Due to the different design, even contrary to the aerodynamic principle, the first prototype of the F-117 was difficult to control. Lockheed developed a computer and software powerful enough to operate this new plane. The Have Blue prototypes were nicknamed ” Wobblin”, and both crashed during testing. Despite the failed trials, the US Air Force was encouraged by the prototype’s stealth effectiveness, and proceeded to produce the first stealth bomber, the F-117.

All information about project F-117 was confidential. To keep secrets from Soviet intelligence, the American press and the world did not know about the existence of this stealth aircraft. A total of 64 F-117As were built between 1981 and 1990, including the first five YF-117 prototypes. Costs $111 million per unit, excluding research and development costs.

The F-117’s unusual appearance was designed to reduce the radar cross-section. In addition, the Nighthawk also uses a radar-absorbent coating to reduce the reflection of electromagnetic waves. The engine’s exhaust nozzle was specially designed to reduce infrared exposure.

The F-117’s communication antenna was designed, compact and hidden inside. To ensure stealth, all of the F-117’s weapons were stored in the internal weapon bay. The plane did not design weapon hard points on the outside of the fuselage and wings.

However, the F-117 was a stealth aircraft to the radar, not invisible to conventional optical equipment, so it was painted black and recommended to fight at night.

F-117 was an attack bomber

Despite the designation of “F” to the fighter aircraft, the F-117 was an attack bomber, without any of the capabilities to engage in interception like the American “F” series fighters.

With a top speed of 1,100 km/h (684 mph), the F-117 was slower than the larger bomber, the B-52. Its operating range was 1,720 km (1,070 mi), without aerial refueling, its ability to operate was very limited.

Weapon payload was only 2,300 kg, which was a very limited payload for a bomber. The F-117 could only carry 2 laser-guided bomb with 2,000 lb Mk84 fragmentation, or BLU-109 or BLU-116 Penetrator warhead. It could also carry GBU-31 JDAM guided munition or B61 nuclear bomb. In short, with a limited weapon payload, the F-117 was only suitable for tactical attack missions.

The F-117A was not equipped with radar, so it had to rely entirely on a thermal viewfinder to aim at its target, and also used GPS and inertial navigation. With stealth, the F-117A took advantage of darkness, secretly penetrates the enemy’s defense center, used precision-guided bombs, destroy important targets, paralyze enemy command and air defense systems, so that non-stealthy planes enter combat.

Lockheed then attempted to develop more flexible variants of the F-117. The F-117N was capable of taking off from aircraft carriers, with a more powerful F414 engine and twice the payload of weapons. F-117N was equipped with a new ground-attack radar with air-to-air capability. In that role the F-117N could carry AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. However, this variant was rejected by the US Navy because the aircraft’s speed was too slow.

Another variant, the F-117B, was also unsuccessful and without orders.

Why did F-117 retire early?

In August 2008, Nighthawk was officially decommissioned after 25 years in operation. Why does a modern bomber that America’s rivals and allies all want to own must soon retire?

The first is due to the F-22 Raptor. The US Air Force put the F-22 into service in 2005. This is a multi-role stealth aircraft, with higher technology than the F-117; It can both attack ground targets and perform air superiority missions.

The Nighthawk’s radar cross-section measures 0.001 m2, 5 to 10 times smaller than the RCS of a conventional jet fighter. However, the radar cross-section of the F-22 Raptor is believed to be 10 times smaller than that of the F-117. At average altitude, the front hemisphere radar cross section of the F-22 is only 0.0001 m2, all low frequency and broadband radars are difficult to detect the F-22.

The Raptor is almost three times faster than the F-117, and highly maneuverable thanks to 2D vector engines.

In contrast to the F-117 without radar, the Raptor is equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. It has very good stealth, anti-interference and anti-electronic suppression capabilities, can detect enemy aircraft from a distance. A modern air combat principle is: “foresee, shoot first, escape quickly”.

Furthermore, the budget to keep the F-22 Raptor running is less than the Nighthawk. The reason was, after each flight, the Nighthawk had to repaint its radar-absorbent coating, so it was very expensive.

Despite its stealth features, but short range, especially the limited number of weapons, and no radar, so the F-117 was not considered a strategic bomber of the US Air Force. It could not replace an aging aircraft like the B-52 or B-1B.

Thus, the F-117 was removed from service to save money for the maintenance of the F-22 Raptor squadron.

Currently, the US Air Force continues to put the F-35 stealth aircraft into service. This is a multi-role fighter, cheaper than the F-22 but has stealth features, very strong combat capabilities, and has good electronic warfare capabilities.

For stealth bombers that need a longer range and carry a larger payload of weapons, the Air Force now has a B-2 Spirit and the upcoming B-21 Raider.

For many years, the F-117 was a weapon that helped the US military overcome enemy air defenses, to destroy high-value targets. However, the Nighthawk’s first generation stealth technology had many limitations, unable to meet the requirements of modern warfare.

Currently, US rivals such as Russia and China have put to use many new radars that can detect stealth aircraft, especially first generation stealth aircraft such as the F- 117A.

Either way, the Nighthawk was the first step in a revolution of stealth technology, laying the foundation for aircraft that could dominate the skies of the future.

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