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
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,
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
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
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
"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."