Local News

Springer Journal: 20 Years... Really?

Posted September 4, 2002 12:26 p.m. EDT

— Has it really been 20 years since the first flight of the radar-evading stealth fighter, the F-117? Yes, it really has been twenty years. Does that worry you a little bit? It should. I know I am concerned that our "go-to" fighter for the most demanding targets has been flying now for over 20 years.

The F-117 is probably best known to Americans and others around the world for the initial strikes against Baghdad at the onset of Desert Storm over 10 years ago.

Although the stealthy F-117 took on the most heavily defended targets during that brief skirmish in the desert, none of the planes suffered any battle damage. During the Desert Storm air campaign, the F-117 flew over 1,300 sorties, attacking over 1,600 high value targets in Iraq. More recently, in the Balkans, the stealth fighter was again called on for some heavy duty missions in a fairly sophisticated enemy air defense system. This time we lost one stealth fighter to enemy fire, but the pilot was rescued.

The F-117 had its maiden flight on June 18, 1981. It was an exceptionally well kept secret. The planes were initially bedded down at the Tonopah Test Range in northern Nevada. The pilots and support personnel were nominally stationed at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas. Each Monday morning civilian contract aircrews flew these airmen from the Las Vegas airport to their "temporary" duty station at Tonopah, and returned them to Las Vegas on Friday afternoons. These men and women could not discuss their mission or their location even with their immediate family. Theirs was a truly special and highly classified effort.

From mid-1982 until the fall of 1984, I was the Commander of the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph AFB, Texas. In that capacity I was also the Chairman of the Air Force Morale, Welfare and Recreation Board of Directors. During my tenure there, I learned of the Tonopah Test facility and the urgent need for some recreational outlets for those deployed to Tonopah on their Top Secret mission. I did not know specifically what the Tonopah Test Facility mission was.

After being granted a special clearance, I flew to Las Vegas and then took a special flight into Tonopah for a visit. I shall never forget being escorted into a large modern hangar and gasping at the sight of this strangely shaped modern jet fighter. I thought later how eerily similar that was to Jimmy Stewart's walk into a hangar in the movie "Strategic Air Command" in the 1950s and seeing the B-47 jet bomber for the first time.

During my brief visit to Tonopah, I saw enough to be totally impressed with the radar-evading characteristics of stealth, These stealth characteristics were not yet known to the public, nor would they be for nearly a decade after first flight. Although the first flight was in 1981, the technology had been developed several years earlier.

During my visit there, I was also convinced that these marvelous airmen involved with this special project did need some recreational opportunities beyond those available to them. As a consequence, I approved a new bowling alley and snack bar. That may not sound like much in today's "virtual" climate, but it was very relevant to those serving there in the early 1980s.

A few years later, in the mid-80s, I was serving as the United States Air Force Inspector General. Again, I was privileged to learn of another spectacular Air Force development project. Following on the many successes with the stealth technology of the F-117 fighter, the Air Force and its aerospace partners were developing an even more sophisticated aircraft.

After receiving some special clearances I flew to southern California to visit the B-2 production plant in Palmdale. Again, I wasn't certain what I would be seeing. I only knew that a very special project was in place there. When I entered this facility, I was again in awe of what was there in front of me. I saw the initial B-2 with the right wing mated to the fuselage. I could only envision what the plane would look like after completion. I don't recall wondering why there would be no tail section, rather just a bat-like shaped aircraft was emerging.

The Department of Defense went public with this stealth bomber early on. In fact, it was first publicly displayed in November 1988, well in advance of its first flight in July 1989. Since that time many Americans have seen the B-2 in flyovers or on static display at airshows and open houses around the country.

During the most recent crisis in the Balkans, the B2's were assigned several highly defended targets where stealth would be a factor. Significantly, the B-2's were launched from their home base at Whiteman AFB in Missouri. They flew missions in excess of 30 hours round trip to targets in eastern Europe and returned to Whiteman with several mid-air refuelings enroute. These missions gave a new dimension to the Air Force's slogan of "global reach-global power."

The Air Force procured only 59 F-117 stealth fighters. They bought only 21 B-2's. Yet in the several years of their operational existence, they have been strategically important to our overall war-fighting capability. They retain an unsurpassed technological edge, but for how long?

This journal column is not designed as a nostalgia trip for me. Rather, I hope to convey two things. One is that America's aerospace partners have an incredible capacity to develop and support the best technology in the world. Secondly, we all need to reflect on just how "old" today's best technology really is.

The F-117 is late 1970s technology and a 1981 first flight. That was 20 years ag0 -- really! The B-2 is early to mid-1980s technology with a first flight a dozen years ago. Think about the leapfrogging technology of the three Cs: calculators, computers and cell phones in that same time frame.

Remember that old slow 386 PC? Remember the bag phone of just seven or eight years ago? America's first line fighters and bombers predate them and they are aging quickly.

There is new technology available and we need to embrace it in the immediate future. American airmen simply do not seek a fair fight. They seek an unfair fight where they have the technological superiority to defeat any enemy. We owe them that advantage!

This is the latest in a series of monthly columns written by

retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert D. Springer

is a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.