1st Combat for Stealth Fighter--Panama Airfield Bombed


The F-117A Stealth fighter, an aircraft whose existence was a secret until last year, was used in combat for the first time in Panama, slipping past air defenses to bomb a key installation of the Panama Defense Forces, military sources said Saturday.

Flying in formation out of their base at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, about six of the radar-evading aircraft swooped over Panama under cover of darkness Tuesday night, senior Pentagon officials said.

The planes, shrouded in secrecy until the Air Force acknowledged their existence in November, 1988, dropped 2,000-pound bombs on a field outside the Defense Forces’ Rio Hato compound, a former U.S. airfield 75 miles west of Panama City, in a surprise attack designed to stun the Noriega forces without inflicting casualties.


Home to the 6th and 7th Infantry companies, Rio Hato is also the site of one of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega’s homes. Pentagon planners considered rapid neutralization of Rio Hato a key objective, because the troops based there had come to Noriega’s aid decisively during the unsuccessful coup attempt in October.

As a result, the Stealth planes were ordered into action, according to knowledgeable sources.

Minutes after the F-117As’ bombing runs were completed, 800 Rangers parachuted onto the Rio Hato airfield. They found PDF infantrymen scattered and in disarray, reeling from the surprise attack. Many fled and several hundred were taken prisoner immediately, according to Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

Sources said the bombing, as planned, did not kill any PDF members but provided an important diversionary tactic.

“This is the sort of thing for which we are going to use this plane,” said one Pentagon official, who added that the planes delivered the bombs on the field with pinpoint accuracy.

“The key to Stealth is allowing the plane to get in undetected,” the official added. “We felt it was extremely important to get those troops in unmolested.”


One source said that one of the Stealth’s bombs failed to explode, posing a risk for paratroopers engaged in a perilous nighttime jump. A Pentagon official could not confirm the report.

The F-117A, developed and flown as a so-called black program since the late 1970s, was such a closely guarded secret that it flew only night missions until early this year. At that time, observers began spotting flights of 10 of the aircraft near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mohave Desert.

Like its long-range counterpart, the B-2 Stealth bomber, which only recently began production, the bat-like F-117A uses special design and materials to elude detection by radar. At least 52 of the aircraft are now in existence; in all, the Lockheed Corp. is to build 59 of the planes, developed at its “Skunk Works” experimental facility in Burbank, Calif.

Pentagon officials said that at least one type of Soviet-designed anti-aircraft missile, the SAM-7, has been found by U.S. forces among a cache of 10,000 weapons uncovered in Panama.

Officials noted that several types of Air Force planes have played a major role in the Panama invasion. They were used to deliver troops to locations more than 3,500 miles away in orchestrated waves, and for fighting missions because officials hoped the accuracy of their guns would minimize civilian casualties.