The F-117 Nighthawk: Why America’s First Stealth Fighter Is Still a Legend

    Sebastien Roblin


    It was a killer. 

    For several decades, the F-117 offered the United States military a unique ability to slip through enemy air defenses and takeout high value targets with its precision guided bombs. However, the Nighthawk’s first-generation stealth technology limited the roles it could fulfill, and decades of advancement have pushed the envelope further in what stealth technology can achieve.

    The F-117 Nighthawk, America’s original stealth plane with a deeply sinister appearance, is an example of a weapon system designed around the limitations imposed by a promising new technology. The Nighthawk was revolutionary when it entered service in 1983—not that many could appreciate that, as the plane was kept secret from the public for five years.

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    Ironically, the Pentagon had a Russian researcher named Pyotr Ufimtsev to thank for first elaborating in a 1964 paper the concept that visibility on radar was not based purely on the size of an object, but also the angle at which radar waves reflected off its edges. Ufimtsev devised a method for calculating the Radar-Cross Section of objects, determining how visible they are on radar.

    Ufimtsev’s research attracted attention in the United States rather than Russia, and in the late 1970s Lockheed Martin began working on the Have Blue project to design a plane with the smallest radar cross section possible. The key was to employ flat surfaces that reflected radar waves away from the transmitter.

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