Stealth fighter's mystique adds to its arsenal
September 13, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Carl Rochelle
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Mysterious and menacing, the F-117
stealth fighter became a star of the Gulf War in 1991. In
its opening nighttime strikes, the stealth fighter flew
undetected right over Baghdad, dropping laser-guided bombs
with pinpoint accuracy.
That dazzling feat came to symbolize an unstoppable high-tech
military of the future. Not a single stealth was lost or
What makes the plane unique is a design that either deflects
or absorbs radar, making it virtually invisible to radar
searches on the ground and able to penetrate deep into enemy
"America knows ... if we're going to place people in harm's
way in Iraq -- servicemen, U.S. servicemen -- this is the
platform to do it," said stealth fighter pilot Capt. John
Moring of the U.S. Air Force. (213K/28 secs AIFF or WAV sound)
The plane, officially called the Nighthawk Stealth Fighter,
flies combat missions only at night, for good reason. As its
pilots point out, the fighter is not invisible to the eye.
On a clear day, its black color and chunky shape make it
stand out against the sky.
Cloudy weather doesn't help either, because although it would
hide the plane, it would hinder the plane's laser targeting
system, which has trouble penetrating clouds.
Evolved into bomber
The F-117, which first flew in 1981, was meant to be a
fighter. It has proven suitable only as a bomber because
it's neither fast nor agile. Its top speed is only 640 mph,
and it can only fly about two hours without refueling, making
its range limited.
But the stealth fighter does carry a powerful punch: two
2,000-pound bombs that, unlike cruise missiles, can penetrate
hardened concrete bunkers like those that house Iraq's air
defense command and control center.
Also unlike the missiles, the bombs can hit targets like
mobile missile batteries.
"I believe that the stealth fighter should have been used the
first time," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who sits on
the Armed Services Committee. "They are much more capable as
far as the kind of weaponry that they can deliver, which has
far more penetrating capability."
During its development in the 1970s and '80s, the stealth
fighter was one of the country's best-kept secrets, flying
only at night to escape the prying eyes of journalists and
But now, the United States touts its capabilities and
publicly announces its deployment, using the stealth
fighter's mystique as a weapon of intimidation against Iraq.
It is not the only U.S. aircraft capable of precision
strikes, but its ability to evade radar makes it much less
likely to be shot down. That strength is a strong factor for
U.S. officials, who want to avoid the spectacle of a captured
pilot being paraded through the streets of Baghdad.
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