Dayhawk Flying Missions

The Gray Dragon (Aug 22, 2004 entry)

The gray-colored F-117A stealth fighter apparently is flying day and night missions. I take this to mean mission over Iraq or Afghanistan, but that isn’t clear. I noted the plan to test the gray stealths in December. According to Strategy Page:

The test aircraft, nicknamed “Dragon,” has now been dubbed the “Gray Dragon.” If the gray pattern is successful, the current fleet of fifty-five F-117 will be repainted in the two-tone scheme. It won’t be the first time the F-117 has operated in different colors. During the mid-90s, the Air Force experimented with a camouflage scheme that was a gray scheme with swaths of brown and blue to break up the shape, but someone high in the chain of command allegedly demanded an all-black color scheme for the fleet.

See my December post for a pic.


  1. I remember a rumor that F117 was painted black because some Air Force brass though it needs to be black to operate at night… (During the proto-type, it’s either grey, or a mix-patch grey and black). Seriously, during night run, so as long as it isn’t metallic color, grey works just as well as black.

  2. I hope ‘paint it black’ wasn’t one of those ‘do it because I said so even if it doesn’t make sense’ decisions. Perhaps it was a confused reference to a Rolling Stones song? Maybe the person who made the black paint decision has a brother that sells black paint and a cousin who sells gun oil to the Army.

  3. Well, I’d have serious trouble buying the ‘even if it doesn’t make sense’ argument even if it was an arbitrary decision by some desk jockey. It seems to me that a few other night/stealth aircraft have been painted black in the past. Well, okay. Basically all of them. I’m just making this up, but I’d guess that the gray scheme is 90% as effective at night and 250% as effective during the day as the black paint scheme. If the plan at the time was to fly the F-117A only at night and never during daylight, then black was the right decision. Today, the needs have changed and the decision may have to be re-thunk. That’s not quite the same as writing the decision off to stupidity or corruption.

  4. Okay, now I have to say something serious to make it clear my earlier post was mostly facetious. I would presume that what they are using isn’t just Krylon semi-flat black. Are there technical reasons for the color choice? I would guess that the type and amount of paint and pigment have to affect the radar signature. Is the threat visual identification? With or without searchlights? In the general aviation community the red night vision flashlights have started to be traded in for green, defying what had been long held ideas. Perhaps black is no longer the clear choice for night?

  5. All right. I guess I came on a little harsh. A little. (You’ve shown a tendency to snarkiness at times, so don’t blame me if I took it wrong.) I don’t know about the F-117, but the black paint on the B-2 Stealth Bomber is a special low-reflectivity mix to dampen the signal return of radar. The B-2 and the F-117 obviously use different approaches to dealing with radar, but I imagine that the paint on the fighter very well might be similar. As for eyeballing it, black is almost certainly the color of choice for after-dark parties, regardless of searchlights. No other color doesn’t reflect visible-spectrum light like black doesn’t. Right?

  6. Right, but how are these aircraft ‘seen’? Is visible spotting and identification a problem? Are they threatened by optically sighted weapons? Do we not want enemies to know what just dropeed a bomb on them? I honestly don’t know what the goals of the paint are. And the Rolling Stones reference was at least a little clever, wasn’t it? C’mon. throw me a bone here.

  7. Well, here’s MO’s kindergarten-level thoughts on the subject. (Not because you need it explained at at kindergarten level — because that’s as advanced as I’m capable of going on this subject.) The three main ways of ‘seeing’ an aircraft are visual, radar, and infra-red. The F-117 deals with radar mostly via its bizarre shape which reflects radar signal off at bizarre angles so that they are not picked up as a ‘return’, effectively making the aircraft ‘invisible’ to radars searching the skies. It deals with infra-red mostly via ducted engine outlets that significantly cool the output of the plane’s jets. It deals with visual mostly via operating at night. This approach apparently isn’t going to be the exclusive approach since daylight operations are being asked for. The black paint certainly is part of the night-fighter approach. Whether the paint also impacts the radar (probable) and infra-red (not so probable) approaches is unknown to me. Even if it does, the chemical mix that reduces the radar and/or infra-red signatures can probably be used in colors other than black, so the choice of black seems (to me) to only really apply to the visual aspect of ‘being seen’. (I guess radio transmissions are also a major way of ‘being seen’, but that is mainly addressed by not transmitting and isn’t really part of this discussion.) Of the three main ways of being seen, radar is probably the most critical to defend against and visual is probably the least critical to defend against, at least for this aircraft and the missions that it performs. Radar is the most important because not only can it be used to track and target the plane by air-defense missiles on both land and airborne systems, but it can detect the mere presence of the plane, which will raise the alert and blow the surprise. Visual is the least important because visually-guided weapons have only a small chance of actually bringing down a plane, though I believe that is how the F-117 that was shot down in the Balkans was hit. So, the color black really only effects the visual method of ‘seeing’ the plane. And even though that’s probably the least-important method, it was best approached with black paint since the plane only operated at night. Now that plans might be changing, black isn’t the best all-around choice. To take it to the opposite extreme, we wouldn’t paint stealth aircraft bright orange even though optical sighting is the least important of the three main detection methods. Deer use sound and smell more than they use their eyes, but hunters still camouflage their spots because every little thing matters. I think that’s why F-117s are currently black, and I think that’s why they’re considering changing colors now that they’re considering changing operating environments.

  8. Visible light spectrum stealth technology is not a new idea. It’s close to the same technology that make the F-117, B-2, F-22, JSF, etc., all but invisible to radar waves. Those planes work by bending the radar waves around the aircraft, reflecting as little back to the reciever as possible. The material and also the coatings(paint) used help do this as well as the shape. If zero light reflected back from the monitor into your retina, these words would be invisible. The paint absorb the energy, but acts sort of like a one way mirror at a microscopic level. The light(or radar), is allowed to pass through multiple layers of extremely small one way mirrors. The light hits the surface, reflects around the plane or into the mirrored side of the microscopic one way mirrors until it does.

  9. One thing to remember about this, though, is that while black might absorb all the radiation transmitted into it, the sky is acutally emitting large amounts of scattered light. If your plane absorbs everything that hits it, it looks black, but during the day this isn’t much count, as the sky is glowing a very bright shade of blue. The point isn’t to suck in all the radiation that hits the plane. The point is to minimize contrast between the plane and its background, which in this case, is literally glowing blue. Air Force tests during Vietnam actually found that effective visual stealth for a plane required you to stick floodlights on it to brighten its outline and ‘erase’ it against the sky, because even white planes tend to stick out as black specks at a distance.

  10. The human visual system works on a layered detection matrix of: bright (specular reflectance) motion (scintillance) outline (male dominant, limited color blindness in reds or greens) intrashape details (big male:female split here) true color (big male:female split here) In this array of ‘what we really see’, the intensity and shimmer (phase change) of light against the relative background is basically the amount of light which is absorbed relative to the true color match and the amount of it scattered both in band and as a secondary (contrasting) color fraction of that which impinges upon the shape. OTOH, most S2A missile systems, from MANPADS on up, now have a secondary EO or electro optical channel which is more or less a CCD camera that provides secondary tracking in high ECM environments and allows the weapons to be commanded (1 way, directional, uplink) without having to see their RF beacon or the aircraft radar direct return on-scope. This has been a fact of life since 1970 at least and is getting better and better as the same kinds of commercial multi-pixel detectors as you find in your average video camera are applied to military systems by retrofit. These systems can magnify ambient light to an incredible degree, even with civillian tech (if you’ll recall the stink over the ‘looking through a woman’s dress to spot the no-panty people’ upskirter handcam sensation) and as they operate in the near IR which you and I only see the bottom edges of (.76 through 1.3 microns) range, they also have a VERY WIDE degree of tuneable hi-low contrast definition by which to ‘pull’ a vague shape out using pixel:pixel shading matches. Now, combine this with the likelihood that the F-117 was below a cloudbase as it exited it’s Belgrade target area and thus relatively near urban sub-illumination of same which as anyone who has looked up at a night snow storm, realizes can turn utterly midnight-of-soul blackness to a late-dusk equivalent level of ambient (refractively backscattered) light levels. In these conditions, the dark-on-bright-backdrop factor becomes all the more difficult to escape and an aircraft which is nominally invisible _even as a black hole in sky silouhette_ on a bright day (because the eye is literally overwhelmed by the intense blue-whites of the atmospheric refraction index) becomes visible for MILES as the illumination is relatively dim but the moving shadow effect is not. The real sadness here is multifold: 1. The F-117 was always intended to and indeed _to this day_ maintains volume, cooling and power generation for, an LPI radar. Such systems can illuminate for 5-10 seconds in a ‘SAR’ mode which averages out multiple, highly coherent, swath illuminations into a single averaged image, achieving 1-3m average spot resolution from over 20nm. 2. The above compares to 10-20 seconds of illumination required for the ‘stealthier’ FLIR approach and lasing necessary to deliver LGB from what amounts to a laydown (overflight) target approach. In general, the closer you come to a target, _especially_ at the low-medium levels (10-12K) dictated by IRADS and weather, the more likely you are to find densely overlapped defenses which use EOCG or even optical laying (AAA) to attack you while you are at your most vulnerable during the attack run. 3. The B-xx force (BUFF, Bone, Batwing) have /long since/ moved away from dumbbombs and past SALH (‘Semi Active Laser Homing’) to ‘IAM’ or ‘Inertially Aided Munitions’ which are those which are more commonly known as GPS bombs or ‘JDAM’. Given that F-117 pilots had been saying, since the first night of Desert Storm ‘the flak was so thick, I knew it was just a matter of statistical odds’, and further given that the IAMs can ‘remember’ preregistered targets (think Pin The Tail On The Donkey), allowing the F-117 to both fly higher and drop further than it’s own IRADS (targeting FLIR) can reliably find and track point targets. There was absolutely no excuse to put the all-weather, all-altitude, all-airframe capable munition on the bigger jets which will _never_ be used as the tactical airpower is: repeatedly, in multiple sorties, BEFORE air dominance of both the A2A and the IADS threat is achieved. Not least because a B-2 came to the Balkans from Whiteman AFB Missouri once every 36hrs. And a B-52 from Mildenhall in England once every 9-10. While an F-117 coming from Aviano or a similar Italian airbase could make the ENTIRE trip (there and back again) in under 2. CONCLUSION: The USAF, regardless of the stupidity of it’s chosen selection of camouflage, knew beyond any reasonable assumption to the contrary (and had done so, since 1991), that they had a broken airplane that desperately needed to be upgraded with modern munitions and a better radar to target them. The latter being particularly important because a GBU-31 (JDAM) will fly between 12 and 15nm from a high altitude standoff. Whereas a GBU-27 is only good for about 6-8. And yet the ‘stereo error’ (atmospheric anaprop effecting signal timing) on the GPS satellites was such that the bomb really needs the best possible You Are Here starting point reference to ‘zero spatial, zero drift’ begin it’s trajectory. Yet they CHOSE not to fix this first-line shooter because the bombers, losing their SIOP importance, were rapidly becoming vulnerable to ‘Congressional Scaleback’. And so the F-117 had to drop while backlit by cloudbase and fires under the weather. While using a very predictable (same ground track as three nights running before) target approach lane to help the IRADS cue to target. In a delivery LGB attack mode that had as much in common with a Stuka in terms of near zero standoff. As it did with anything that could possibly be deemed ‘modern airpower’. For modern airpower protects the secrets of it’s ability to project same. Into the enemy’s backfield. And we threw away the exclusivity of radar stealth (even if it was ‘only first generation’, it is still all-round superior to that of either the F-35 or the F/A-22) for wont of our own engineering foolishness. KPl.