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See This Plane? It Was Almost the U.S. Navy's First Stealth 'Fighter'

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: 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. 

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.

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.

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