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In this episode, we interview Dr Peter Westwick, Director of the Huntington-USC Aerospace History Project, about his new book Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft. We talk about the design process of stealth planes like the F-117 and B-2 at Lockheed and Northrop and answer the tough questions, like why did stealth research seem to be focused on California? What role did Russian research play in stealth development? And of course, how is Disney connected to all this?
Dr Peter Westwick is a research professor of history at the University of Southern California and Director of the Aerospace History Project at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He is the author or editor of several books, including Into the Black: JPL and the American SpaceProgram, 1976-2004, which won book prizes from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the American Astronautical Society.
Header Image: The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter flying over Nellis Air Force Base in 2002. (Source: US Air Force)
The advent of stealth technology – making aircraft nearly invisible to radar detection – in the 1970s was one of those rare moments in the history of military aircraft technology that seemed to shape much of the development that followed it. Over 40 years later, most new aircraft designed around the world incorporate stealth characteristics in some way or another. Taking a sweeping look at the advent and early development of stealth aircraft within a broad context is the aim of Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft by Peter Westwick, director of the University of Southern California’s Aerospace History Project. The book is a fascinating look at two companies, Lockheed, and Northrop, that continually competed for stealth projects – each coming at the technology from very different perspectives and methodologies. With this comparative lens, Westwick explores the ways that culture shaped each company’s differing solutions to similar technological problems.
The most significant limitation for any book about stealth is the lack of unclassified sources, and this book is no exception. While much of the material here will be familiar to stealth aficionados, Westwick has conducted a large number of new interviews that shed new light on some familiar events, and reveal new, fresh stories, many that speak to the unique personal experiences of those involved in stealth development.
Westwick emphasises that Lockheed’s approach to stealth relied extensively on computer modelling, which was a significant shift for the firm at the time. For decades, successful designs from Lockheed, including the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird, which each incorporated stealth characteristics, had been grounded in Chief Executive Officer, Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson’s adage that planes that look beautiful fly beautiful. When Johnson retired, his replacement Ben Rich allowed radar experts to have a more significant say in the design process. Their creation of powerful computer programs that could calculate radar returns from a variety of shapes fueled their design process. Nevertheless, the limitations of the program influenced the team to rely on flat, faceted surfaces – an approach that was quite successful, winning the company that contract for the aircraft that became the F-117 Nighthawk.
Lockheed’s programs made use of Soviet research that, ironically, had been requested for translation by engineers at Northrop. Although Northrop also incorporated this research and made similar computer modelling programs, their engineers combined them with a more intuitive approach. Northrop designers used their extensive knowledge of radar theory in a more hands-on way, often literally through iterative modelling and moulding. One of the more dramatic moments of Westwick’s narrative involves Northrop engineer Fred Oshiro visiting Disneyland and sitting outside the Tea Cup ride playing with a lump of modelling clay – a common practice at Northrop – until he intuitively developed the idea of using complex curves to minimize radar returns. The Tea Party ride had been designed by Lockheed engineer and stealth pioneer Richard Sherrer.
This tale of two engineering houses, each with different cultural approaches to designing stealth, forms the backbone of the story, which traces the development of the Have Blue, F-117, Tacit Blue, and B-2 programs. Along the way, Westwick dispels some prevalent misconceptions that frequently crop up in discussions of stealth. For example, some readers might assume that Northrop’s B-2 design was a ‘flying wing’ conception because the company was founded by Jack Northrop, who was obsessed with flying wings and designed several himself. However, Westwick reveals the company had completely abandoned the idea for decades, and only adopted it after Lockheed had submitted their flying wing bomber concept. Another of the more dramatic moments in the book involves the aging Jack Northrop’s heartwarming response to seeing the B-2 designs, which I will not spoil in this review.
Westwick goes beyond the analysis of these companies and attempts to place the development of stealth in a larger context in terms of culture, strategy, and Cold War geopolitics. This includes implying that the inherent creativity around the ‘[i]magineering’ culture of Disney that pervaded California in the 1960s and 70s was a contributing factor to stealth development. On a broader scale, Westwick goes as far as to say that stealth provided an alternative to nuclear deterrence, in some ways making nuclear weapons obsolete. He argues that stealth delivered what President Ronald Reagan’s fanciful Strategic Defense Initiative could only promise. With the ability to essentially defeat the Soviet Union’s massive investment into radar-based air defence networks, stealth broke the foundation of Cold War deterrence theory, and, according to Westwick, pressed the Soviet Union into an unsustainable increase in defence spending that contributed to the nation’s collapse. These ideas are interesting and worthy of consideration, but Westwick’s presentation of them is far too brief; these ideas are not nearly as fully developed as they could be. That does not take anything away from the book as it is. To really make these larger points hit home would probably require a different type of book with a different focus. However, this type of overarching analysis is welcome and thought-provoking, perhaps pointing to further research directions on how stealth technology contributed to the end of the Cold War in specific ways.
Overall, the book is an excellent addition to any air power or history bookshelf. This book manages to be the best starting point for those new to the topic of stealth while also providing new insights and details for the already initiated. Even more impressive, Westwick delivers these contributions while writing in an engaging and personal style that is great to read and sure to be enjoyed by scholars and still easily accessible for enthusiasts and general readers.
Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.
Header Image: The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter flying over Nellis Air Force Base in 2002. (Source: US Air Force)
In the past couple of days, several sources have reported on the fact that in 1986, the US President, Ronald Reagan, offered Britain the opportunity to co-operate on stealth technology and purchase the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Details of the project, codenamed MOONFLOWER, have become known through the recent release of files by the British National Archives. This release is part of the material coming out of the Prime Minister’s files for the 1980s and the specific reference for MOONFLOWER is PREM 19/1844. An important issue to note with these files is that they have not been digitised and were opened just before the New Year. This is an important consideration when reading many of the reports on the internet as it is probable that the one in The Guardian – from which most derive – has only cited certain parts of the file. Indeed, I have not read the file yet.
The F-117 remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the latter part of the Cold War. Publically announced in 1988, the F-117 emerged from Lockheed’s Have Blue project and was developed by the company’s Skunk Works division. The F-117 was first operationally used in the US invasion of Panama in 1989, but it was during Operation DESERT STORM that it rose to prominence. During the 1990s and 2000s, the F-117 was used in other conflicts, and one was shot down in 1999 during Operation ALLIED FORCE, and it was eventually retired in 2008.
What appears to have got people talking is the fact that Britain was offered the F-117 at a time when it was still officially a ‘black’ project i.e. before it existence was officially acknowledged. Moreover, according to the various reports, the key reason that Britain did not pursue purchasing the F-117 was for this very reason. However, while this may be one reason for rejecting the F-117, it should be noted that while the release of British files is interesting, this is not strictly a new story, though it is potentially a new dimension. Several histories of the F-117 cite the fact that in 1986, several Royal Air Force (RAF) test pilots were sent to fly the aircraft. For example, Paul Crickmore reflected that the RAF ‘had its chance to evaluate the F-117’ as a thank you for British support of Operation EL DORADO CANYON. However, what these secondary sources lack is the archival evidence to understand why the evaluation took place. It is probably – though I would not like to say for certain until I see the file – that this assessment formed part of this project.
As already noted, the reason cited in the reports for the RAF not purchasing the F-117 was the ‘black’ character of the project; however, I have to wonder how well this aircraft would have fitted into the Service’s force structure and concept of operations in the 1980s. Moreover, it will be interesting to see if anything more is mentioned in the file as to why the F-117 was not purchased. Nevertheless, a few issues come to mind that may have been challenges. First, the RAF operated at low-level in small packages, and I am unclear how the F-117 would have fitted into this concept of operations. Second, by 1986, the RAF was in the middle of purchasing the Panavia Tornado that had been designed for the low-level role, as such; again, what additional capability the purchase of the F-117 would have added to the RAF at this point remains unclear. Finally, there is the issue of numbers. The F-117 was never built in significant numbers, and it seems unlikely that the RAF would have bought more than the United States Air Force, as such, again, what additional capability would the addition of a highly complex piece of equipment have added to the RAF? Yes, it would have added a stealth capability but this needs to match a concept of operations, and in my mind, this remains a murky area. As such, this is more an interesting example of the so-called ‘special relationship’ rather than a significant ‘What-If’ for the RAF.
This is not, however, where the story ends as in 1995, Lockheed once again tried to sell the RAF an improved F-117 that included locally produced content, such as GEC-Marconi supplied avionics. This approach was in response to the RAF’s Staff Target (Air) 425 that had began the process of looking at replacing the GR4 variant of the Tornado, which became known as the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). FOAS closed down in 2005 and aspects were rolled into Future Joint Combat Aircraft project that has seen the purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – an aircraft with a stealth capability.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Paul F. Crickmore, Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014), p. 26.
 Guy Norris, ‘Lockheed Martin targets RAF and USAN for F-117,’ Flight International, (28 June to 4 July 1995), p. 4.
 Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘The UK’s F-25 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,’ Standard Note (SN06278) UK House of Commons Library, (6 February 2015), pp. 5-6.