Nighthawk helps shape PJ legacy

  • Published
  • By Dr. Deborah Kidwell
  • OSI Command Historian

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk is a single-seat, twin jet engine stealth attack aircraft developed by Lockheed’s secretive Skunk Works division in southern California for the U.S. Air Force.

The F-117 was based on the Have Blue technology demonstrator. Readers of these OSI history articles will recall that a previous article discussed Northrup Corporation’s Tacit Blue program. The Have Blue was a similar technology demonstrator built by the Lockheed Corporation. 

The F-117 was introduced in late 1983 and was the first operational aircraft designed with stealth technology. The Air Force retired the aircraft in early 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor, which was thought to be a superior air-to-air fighting platform.

The Nighthawk was highly praised for its performance during Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991). OSI Special Agents were present during the technology development and operational phases, providing program security and counterintelligence support to this highly effective and, at the time, top secret technology both in garrison and while deployed.

The aircraft flew approximately 1,300 sorties and scored direct hits on 1,600 high-value targets in Iraq during Desert Storm, while accumulating more than 6,905 flight hours.

The program remained in the Air Force’s “black” or classified inventory for the decade prior to its first deployment. It was based out of Tonopah Test Range Airport in Nevada under the 4450th Tactical Group. Since the Nighthawk program was classified at the time, the unit was officially located at Nellis Air Force Base and allegedly equipped with an A-7 Corsair II aircraft.

Many early pilots told friends and families they flew the Northrop F-5 in aggressor squadrons against Tactical Air Command while the program was classified. The aircraft was also an integral component of Operations Allied Force in 1999, Enduring Freedom  in 2001 and Iraqi Freedom in 2003. After its initial operational deployment in Desert Storm, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, became home to the Air Force’s Nighthawks.

OSI’s Office of Special Projects (PJ) provided program security and counterintelligence support to ensure the secure transfer of stealth aircraft overseas, and stood by during the  deployment of the stealth Special Access Program (SAP) aircraft for extended military operations. Thus, OSI enabled successful Desert Storm air operations against risky and dynamic targets. 

A retired PJ agent shared a bit of wisdom, regarding the challenges of protecting classified technology and projects. 

He noted that, “While working on national level Red Team efforts, including United States Air Force and Defense Science Boards, I found that our counterintelligence issues quickly reverted to historical precedent. The question of who gains access to these highly sensitive programs and sub-compartments is, of course, the ultimate problem which has threatened security and counterintelligence for at least 5,000 years…HUMANS.”

The greatest threat to all of our efforts is the human threat, the threat of spies, human and of course modern technological espionage such as overhead platforms.

As Shakespeare said, “Herein lies the rub. Who do you trust and how far can you trust them?”  There is no easy answer and perhaps there never will be.