The Old F-117 Nighthawk Nearly Went to War From an Aircraft Carrier

The Old F-117 Nighthawk Nearly Went to War From an Aircraft Carrier

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By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest

The F-117 Nighthawk made a definite impression on both Iraqi air defenses and the American public when it demonstrated the capabilities of stealth technology in the 1991 Gulf War. Yet the iconic jet-black attack plane was ultimately left behind by improvements in technology and retired in 2008 in favor of the new F-22 stealth fighter.

But what if the Nighthawk design had been evolved into a carrier-based multi-role fighter capable of flying longer distances at higher speed with a greater weapon load? In fact, Lockheed proposed exactly such a “Seahawk” in the early 90s.

(This first appeared several years ago.)

The original F-117’s iconic faceted airframe was limited in performance because it was a product of first-generation stealth technology. Despite being called the “stealth fighter”, the F-117 was incapable of engaging enemy aircraft. It was not particularly fast, could only carry two bombs, relied on in-flight refueling to traverse significant distances, and lacked its own radar. New coats of expensive radar-absorbent paint had to be applied frequently. Such a plane was constrained to the role of infiltrating enemy air defenses to attack strategic installations not too far into enemy airspace.

As a result, the Pentagon procured only 59 operational F-117As and quickly moved onto newer stealth aircraft that evolved into the B-2 bomber, the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and ultimately the F-35 “joint strike fighter.”

However, the Gulf War had raised the esteem of the Nighthawk in the public’s eye—and more crucially, in the eye of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Perceiving an opportunity, in 1992 Lockheed proposed the F-117N “Seahawk” to the U.S Navy.

The original fairly unambitious proposal would have simply involved an automatic carrier landing system (ACLS) and corrosion-resistant coatings for the F-117.  But the Navy was in the process of phasing outs its pure attack planes (the A-6 and A-7) in favor of additional FA-18 Hornet and upgraded F-14 “Bombcat” multi-role fighters with significant ground attack capabilities. A single-role stealth attack plane was not what the Navy was looking for—it wanted an actual fighter with supersonic speed and air-to-air capability, which led to it pursuing the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program.

After the initial F-117N was rejected, Lockheed sketched out new aircraft that incorporated technologies from various proposed F-117Bs rejected by both the U.S. Air Force and the British Royal Air Force.

The ultimate iteration was the A/F-117X Seahawk, which threw everything but the kitchen sink into Nighthawk airframe. The Seahawk’s wings were lengthened nearly 50% to 64 feet long and adjusted from a 48 to 42 degree slant, while additional horizontal ailerons were added on the tail.  This was done to improve the Nighthawk’s aerodynamics and low-speed handling to enable landing on carrier decks. Visibility was improved through a bubble canopy. Of course, the Seahawk also came with reinforced landing gear, ACLS, arrestor hook and folding wings standard for carrier operation.

More powerful F114 engines with afterburners—the same type used in the Navy’s Super Hornet fighters today—would have increased speed, possibly even enabling supersonic flight.  Likewise, the Sea Hawk’s range would have nearly doubled at up to 970 miles.

The Seahawk also included both a multi-mode air-to-air and air-to-ground radar and an Infrared Search and Tracking System (IRST), and it could carry air-to-air missiles on the interior of the bomb bay doors, including short-range heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinders as well as the long range radar-guided AIM-120 Scorpion. The Scorpion missiles in particular could theoretically have allowed the lower-performing F-117 to be a viable air-superiority fighter, sniping from far away at enemy aircraft unable to detect its presence. A bulge in the Seahawk’s bomb bays would have permitted an increased internal bombload to 10,000 pounds (up from just two 2,000 pounds bombs on the F-117A), and there were even provisions for an additional 8,000 pounds of un-stealthy bombs on underwing hardpoints to be mounted after enemy radars had been neutralized.

Lockheed’s proposal was for 250 of the upgraded stealth fighters at an estimated unit price of $70 million per airframe. The Seahawk was submitted to the JAST competition—but was turned down because the Navy was looking for a higher-performing fighter plane. Lockheed was warned by the Pentagon not to continue promoting the plane to its champions in the Armed Services Committee at the risk of its contract for the F-22 stealth fighter.

And so the F-117 program went quietly into the night. The JAST ultimately developed into the “Joint Strike Fighter,” the F-35. The Navy estimates it will finally have F-35C stealth fighters operational in 2019, twenty-seven years later.

The F-35, billed as cheaper mass-production alternative to the high-performing F-22 stealth fighter, has its share of detractors not only because it is inferior to the F-22 in performance, but because endless delays and cost overruns have failed to make it that much cheaper. However, the F-35 does benefit from far more modern avionics and datalinks than the Raptor, and the Pentagon is counting on a combination of stealth, long-range missiles and networked warfare to minimize the F-35’s shortcomings.

The Seahawk might have been turned out to be a decent multi-role strike plane—and it would have looked quite stunning—but the Pentagon wanted to pursue a more capable next-generation stealth fighter rather than trying to revive a dated design. Investing long-term was probably the right call to make in a decade where serious military challenges to the United States’ post-Cold War hegemony had yet to materialize.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2
MMAI
MMAI
  1. Stealth At Sea requires an entirely new approach to sealing the airframe against moisture build up and particularly to development of galvanic cells under composite stacks as has already affected the F-35 community with failures to properly coat particular maintenance access hatches resulting in several reject jets, straight off the line, with, most distubrbingly, NO TQM PLAN to detect these in production as components come in from multiple sources.

The F-117X wings would be all-new (notice the lack of faceting in most artwork) but the fuselage would continue to be coated in linoleum like tiles. This begs trouble.

  1. The F-117 had several new airframe configuration choices around the back end, sacrificing total RFLO signature performance (more return strobe micro sectors) for an improved masking and setback system (similar to the A/FX) which would mask the aircrafts thermal signature by giving a more effective expansion channel, ala YF-23, to cool a squared plume with. This was a natural consequence to the added thrust and AB potential of the F414 but brought with it even more complexity in terms of structures cooling and added airflow requirements. At a fundamental level, the F-117X was a non-starter as a fighter, for the simple reason that, like the F-4K/M, it needed additional blow in doors to get enough coolilng/mass flow to the engines to make the AB work and these would compromise the supersonics performance (more Su-25 than F/A-18, which isn't saying much) as well as signature. Note the large blow in door on the fuselage sides. That's there to provide the needed spoolup for good performance in a missed wire condition, not a .85 to 1.25 missile sprint.

  2. The A-12 was designed as a Missileer. Even though it's APQ-183 was Ku band with about as much range as the TI GMR on the Tornado. It would have worked solely because it was paired with the APG-71 and it's massively powerful ERPs output, along with the AAAM which was effectively MICA-on-a-stick as the shortest, lowest cruise drag, metric, given the fastest possible boost to to around Mach 5. This gives you a 50nm loft, even from the weeds, which means that the threat is not going to bag you as it's MAKS sensors or IRST picks up your 15-20nm AMRAAM launch and 'fires down bearing' towards whatever it can snap-scan see.

To achieve this, the A-12 would have used advanced, configurable, palletized carriage of multiple weapon types. As many as 20 shots per jet. While the F-117X would have likely retained the single ejectors of it's parent design, staggered, per bay, for a total of 4 weapons hardpoints. The (GD) AAAM could be loaded onto multiple ejector for external carraige but even if this would fit inside the weapons bay without sterilizing the other station, it would never have had the antenna area to support long range shots, as the Tomcat D exited the fleet and the APG-73 equipped (early) F/A-18E/F proved to have significantly less capacity for long range engagement. APG-79 might have improved this but the Super Hornet is so kinematically inferior that it's a question of who would be escorting whom, with how many shots.

You normally fire 2 missiles, shoot-look-shoot, to get any kind of reasonable SSPK as, just like basketball, the three pointers are a lot harder to (randome threat tac turns etc.) predict the endgame on, with a loft.

Ramjet weapons do better, in terms of sustained impulse. But, at least at the time, were a lot slower and added ram-duct effects on carriage box size.

CONCLUSION: There were other reasons why the F-117X was not considered 'carrier compatible', largely having to do with thrust on the cat, CG on the recovery and the long tail length, behind the MLG struts, plus Cutlass like recovery angle with a strut extension, even on landing. But they could have probably been handled while the overall weapons system/maintainability effects were just not there to support the F-117X in the naval role.

I would close with the reality that the F-35C is also 'not a fighter' (38 seconds longer than predicted to hit Mach 1 in a pole-war) and that both stealth jets would have/will join the Navy in numbers which generally do not support the '50:50' deckload deemed necessary by the Navy for true stealth-emphasis operations. Some 250 airframes is barely enough for a robust 12-15 jet squadron per deck with training, attrition and PDM reserves.

Added to the slow transit cruise to longer radii and the fact that an EA-18G is going to cop out around 550nm, even with CFT and drone tankers, and you have a significant misperception on the part of the Navy as to exactly how the long range FTSF or 'Air Sea' battle is going to be performed in hostaging economic as much as a theater force targets in a missile (YJ-18, DF-26) dominated Pacific Pivot.

As a penetrating, multiweapon, delivery platform, you're either all in with stealth to sustain sortie metrics. Or you're an 'occasional aggravator' which cannot do much beyond first night of war A2AD reduction. Something which the F-117X, with suitable, powered, standoff munitions like JSOW-D or JSM, could likely do just as well as the F-35C, maybe better (bigger bays).

Tar Heel
Tar Heel

Very good evaluation of the problems with the proposed A/F-117X. Many dollars were wasted by a couple of senior Lockheed executives whose egos were too big to let them stop when it was obvious that the concept would not work and the Navy did not want it. They eventually moved on to the relief of the Skunk Works.