by Tech. Sgt. Pat mcKenna
photo by Master Sgt. John McDowell
As Maj. Joe Salata skimmed over the desert of Iraq, flying his F-117A Nighthawk in the initial wave of stealth fighters to bomb Baghdad the first night of Desert Storm, one thought nagged at him.

Did he leave the lights on?

No, not the lights in his dorm room back at Khamis Mushait Air Base, secluded high in the mountains of Saudi Arabia, but the exterior lamps on his black, bat-winged jet.

When properly primed, the F-117A's stealth technology aids the jet in foiling enemy radar, but if its outside lights are on, the Nighthawk becomes about as covert as a used car salesman wearing a white suit.

"Some fighters have a pinkie switch for selecting missiles to guns, but on the F-117, it controls the lights, showing you just how important it is," said Salata, now a lieutenant colonel at the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. "During the war, the switch's three positions were up for bright, down for dim, and in the middle for off. I'd turn it off when I was 'stealthing up' by pushing up first, then down and finally to the middle. But then I'd second guess myself. 'Did I push it up too high? I better check again.' I must've checked it 20 times before each combat mission."
After Desert Storm, the Air Force fixed this design glitch, modifying the switch so that "off" was down instead of in the middle. Also as a result of the war, the Air Force netted important intelligence about the F-117's effectiveness in battle. War planners and tacticians discovered the stealth fighter's unique features-its ability to evade enemy air defenses and drop precision-guided munitions-made it a perfect platform to perform the aerospace role of force application: placing steel on target.

Richard B. Cheney, former defense secretary, said, "If there's one lesson out of the [Persian] Gulf conflict, it is the value of stealth.''

The stealth fighter attacked the most heavily fortified targets during Desert Storm, and it was the only coalition jet allowed to strike targets inside Baghdad's city limits. The F-117A, which normally packs a payload of two 2,000-pound GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, destroyed and crippled Iraqi electrical power stations, military headquarters, communications sites, air defense operation centers, airfields, ammo bunkers, and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons plants.

Salata bombed Baghdad's sector operations headquarters, which directed all of the Iraqi air defense fighter aircraft, at H-hour-3 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991-and a few minutes later he razed a radio relay station on his way out of the city. The first raid, carried out by 10 Nighthawks, was so unexpected the city's lights were still on when Salata released his first bomb.

"Those early attacks along with the next few waves, knocked the eyes and ears out of the Iraqis, so they were blind and deaf," said Salata, 38, who flew 21 combat missions by war's end. "Saddam's forces were quickly into a backup mode in their air defense system, meaning the normal chain of command was totally disrupted. They had many bases and a lot of air defense sites that were working autonomously for a while. That really paralyzed them. Those initial attacks were crucial to the war's outcome in the next few weeks."

Although the stealth fighter accounted for only 2.5 percent of the total force of 1,900 fighters and bombers, the F-117 flew more than a third of the bomb runs on the first day of the war. In all during Desert Storm, the Nighthawk conducted more than 1,250 sorties, dropped more than 2,000 tons of bombs and flew more than 6,900 hours.

Salata described that first mission into Baghdad as surrealistic.

"None of us, except the DO (deputy commander for operations), had ever been in combat before, so we didn't know what to expect," Salata said. "The first time I saw triple-A [anti-aircraft artillery], I wasn't quite sure what it was. I thought something in the city was on fire. The flak was still fairly light, but after we dropped the first bombs, the city lit up like a Christmas tree.

"Triple-A was coming from all directions, some of it in streams and some of it heavy stuff going up over the cockpit and exploding," he said. "It was an amazing sight. I nearly forgot about my second target because I was watching the display outside the window."

More than 3,000 anti-aircraft guns and 60 surface-to-air missile batteries protected the city, but despite this seemingly impenetrable shield, the Nighthawks owned the skies over the city and, for that matter, the country. The Saudis nicknamed the sleek, angular jet "Shabah," Arabic for ghost.
The stealth fighter, which is coated with a radar-absorbent material, operated over Iraq and Kuwait with impunity, unscathed by enemy guns. Of the 36 jets deployed from the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Tonopah Test Range-located 150 miles west of Las Vegas, Nev.-not one received a single scratch from flak, shrapnel or bullets.

"There were times when the Iraqis were firing triple-A from one end of the city to the other, and it would be dropping on their own residential areas ... it was that thick," Salata said. "It wasn't just on the outskirts, it was everywhere. It looked so dense I thought it would be impossible to fly through without at least getting a couple of hits. But we didn't.

"I guess it always looks worse than it really it is. That's, at least, what I always tell the guys. You get through it anyway," said Salata, who is now the 49th FW chief of weapons and training. "You try to block the triple-A out of your mind for a moment and hit the target. You don't want to get hit by anti-aircraft flak or by a SAM, but at the same time, you don't want to go back to the squadron with a miss because you were looking out the window. It's actually not as tough as you think to pull yourself back into the cockpit to do what you have to do. Right after you hit [the target], you can look out and get scared again."

According to Salata, squadron scuttlebutt said only half the pilots in the first wave of 10 would survived the Baghdad raid.

"When I saw the triple-A, I also didn't think we'd all make it through," he said. "And after I hit my targets and was on my way back, I listened to the check-in frequency with AWACs [Airborne Warning and Control aircraft] to see who would report in. Initially, I heard only five of the 10 guys check in. So when I landed back at Khamis Mushait, I thought we'd lost five guys. It was a real relief when I went around the squadron and saw everybody there. Fortunately, we didn't lose anybody the whole time."

If the Nighthawk's elusiveness is its greatest virtue, coming in a close second is its accuracy. Stealth fighters blasted 30 enemy jets bunkered in hardened aircraft shelters, prompting the Iraqi Air Force to send its remaining planes to Iran for safekeeping.

"Today, one F-117, flying a single sortie and dropping one bomb, can accomplish what it took B-17 bombers flying 4,500 sorties and dropping 9,000 bombs to do during World War II, or 95 sorties and 190 bombs during Vietnam," wrote Alvin and Heidi Toffler in "War and Anti-War."

In terms of today's technology, a typical strike mission without stealth would require 32 planes with bombs, 16 fighter escorts, eight Wild Weasel aircraft to suppress enemy radar, four aircraft to jam enemy radar electronically, and 15 tankers to refuel the group.

The same mission could be accomplished with only eight F-117s and two tankers to refuel them. Salata said the Nighthawk's two primary payloads-the GBU-27 and GBU-10 laser-guided bombs-give them pinpoint accuracy, assuring them almost 100 percent target destruction with minimum collateral damage and limited casualties.

"It's not good enough just to hit a building. You need to know what part of the building is important-the target of interest-because one part of the building could be a military command center while another could be for civilian use," Salata said. "We have to be very precise, and we have strict rules of engagement. In other words, if we're going after a target and miss slightly, hitting a building across the street that's a mosque or elementary school is unacceptable.

"I can remember one target in Baghdad-it was a bridge. My objective was to drop the bridge into the water. It wasn't to kill everybody on the bridge," Salata said. "But I saw a car starting to drive across the bridge, and I actually aimed behind him, so he could pass over the bridge. If I had hit the left side of the bridge, he would've driven right into the explosion. Instead I hit the right side. You can pick and choose a little bit in the F-117. In any other type of aircraft, I would've never had the opportunity to move my spot. I would've missed everything, and then I wouldn't have been able to see what happened anyway. Stealth allows us to look longer at the targets before release, as well as after release.

"I think the guy made it safely across the bridge, but you can't really think about that when you're at war. You could drive yourself crazy, thinking of those kind of things. If you have a target to hit, you hit it," the colonel said.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Air Force chief of staff, said that precision munitions alone will greatly increase the Air Force's capability. But when leveraged with other technology, it becomes decisive.
He said that stealth, supercruise and integrated avionics are the new dimensions in aerial warfare.
"The combination of stealth and precision attack is going to impact future battles in a classic way-with shock and surprise. Shock and surprise," said Fogleman during a speech at the Air Force Academy in April 1995. "Every major turn in the history of warfare has come from the introduction of shock and surprise in some new manner or form. It won't just be at the tactical level, but at the operational and strategic level as well. Our Air Force is unique in this regard."

Salata sums up the advantage of stealth and its role in air power another way. "The F-117 isn't invisible. The enemy might be able to see us, but if they can't shoot us down or hit us, who cares? It's too late. Our mission is accomplished, and we're gone."