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Monday, February 16, 1998 Published at 18:12 GMT

Special Report

Top Gun - the F-117 Stealth Fighter
image: [ The F-117 led the early raids on Baghdad in 1991. ]
The F-117 led the early raids on Baghdad in 1991.

Of all the military planes now in the Gulf, the F-117 Stealth Fighter looks the most fearsome.

Compared to many of the aircraft which the US has stationed in the region, the F-117 is relatively slow - it flies at subsonic speeds.

But the black, dart-like machine has a mythology all of its own, borne out of its exploits in the 1991 conflict.

The plane, nicknamed Nighthawk, is claimed to be virtually undetectable on radar.

Star Trek technology

This Star Trek-like ability to cloak its movements comes from its unusual shape and construction. The whole fuselage is coated with a radar-absorbent material. Invisibility is further enhanced by the angular lines and flat panels which dramatically reduce any radiation that is reflected.

The exhaust openings on the engines channel hot gases in such a way that they mix quickly with colder air, reducing the plane's infra-red profile. The pilot even sits behind radar-defeating glass.

Secret development project

The F-117 was conceived in the 1970s and first flew in 1981. What was so remarkable was that the plane was designed, built and operated for several years in almost total secrecy.

Rumours circulated that the US military had an invisible plane - toy manufacturers even released artist impressions - but it was sometime before the Pentagon admitted that such a plane existed and released a photograph.

[ image: The unusual design helps reduce its radar profile.]
The unusual design helps reduce its radar profile.
In the 1991 Gulf War, F-117 fighters flew 1,300 sorties without a single loss.

With the cruise missiles launched from ships in the Gulf Sea, it led the first attacks on Baghdad, striking Iraqi radar and command bunkers. It quickly earned the tag of being untouchable.

However, we now know that many of the claims made for the Stealth Fighter were overstated. A congressional report later concluded that the survivability of Stealth in combat was no greater than other less-expensive aircraft involved in the war.

It also said Gulf commanders exaggerated the accuracy of F-117 attacks. Initial Pentagon statements claimed the aircraft hit their intended targets 80% of the time.

The report said: "the real hit rate may have been as low as 41%".

Other US planes in the region:

B52: A long-range, heavy bomber. During Desert Storm, B-52s delivered 40% of all the weapons dropped by coalition forces. Flying at a height of 50,000 feet, it can drop or launch a range of weapons from gravity bombs to laser-guided missiles.

B-1: Another long-range, heavy bomber, but newer and much more advanced than the ageing B-52. This supersonic jet was originally designed to carry nuclear payloads. It has now been given a conventional role after technical problems hampered its early operational life.

[ image: F14s fly from the nuclear-class carrier USS George Washington.]
F14s fly from the nuclear-class carrier USS George Washington.
F-14: Nicknamed "Tomcat", this is the US Navy's standard carrier-based fighter.

F/A-18: A carrier-based fighter-bomber. It has a special laser designator which allows the pilot to accurately direct so-called smart bombs.

EA-6B: Its role is electronic warfare. It runs ahead of an attack group, jamming the enemy's radar systems.

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