It began in secret, with a "Skunk Works" project awarded in 1973. Thirty-five years later, it's scheduled to end with nearly as little fanfare.
I speak, of course, of the F-117 Nighthawk "stealth fighter," which in 1991 became the hero of Gulf War I in real life. But before that, I imagine many of us first learned of the plane's radar-baffling brilliance in 1987, when insurance salesman-turned-military-fiction writer Tom Clancy penned and published Red Storm Rising -- an account of World War III as it never came to be, a war in which the heroic efforts of the Nighthawk hamstrung a surprise Soviet invasion of Western Europe before it even began.
"Classified" until 1988, the aircraft was still a mystery to Clancy's readers back then. Just two decades later, Nighthawk, we barely knew ye, and now it seems you're ready to fly off into the sunset. This week, the Air Force announced it will be mothballing the Cold War relic in 2008, to make way for Lockheed Martin's
The whys of the decision are plane (sorry, pun) to see. There's the Nighthawk's notoriously lousy aerodynamics; its less than stellar record in combat (in Desert Storm, the Nighthawk was supposed to take out 15 Iraqi radar installations, but the success rate was uninspiring, with the plane hitting fewer than 50% of its targets and destroying just 20% of them); and the fact that the plane's secrets are probably common knowledge today. One Stealth was shot down during the Kosovo War and immediately handed over for inspection to the Serbs' Russian allies.
The implications for Lockheed are more ambiguous. Over its lifetime, only five dozen Nighthawks were built, for a total cost of $7 billion. For comparison, Northrop Grumman
That said, the planes slated to replace the Nighthawk are reportedly far superior to the original Stealth -- and cheaper, to boot. Lockheed's Raptor, for instance, costs less than $70 million per plane, or roughly half the Nighthawk's price tag. And if news reports are to be believed, Lightning IIs can be had for half the cost of a Raptor. All of which goes a long way in explaining why the Air Force is so keen to ground the Nighthawk just 25 years after it entered service. Investors, meanwhile, will just have to hope that Lockheed can make up the lost Nighthawk profits on bigger Raptor and Lightning II production runs.
That said, with the Lightning II aiming to replace Boeing's
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Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above.