Why is the F-117 Nighthawk, America's first true "stealth" aircraft, still prowling the skies years after its retirement in 2008?
Since the F-117 officially stopped flying, the famous triangular black jet has been spotted on numerous occasions. Even a video taken by a highly credible source emerged in 2010 of a lone F-117 ripping around the northern portion of the Nellis Range Complex, while other videos depicting the F-117 refueling from a KC-10 Extender and playing with an instrumented testbed aircraft north of Groom Lake have also appeared on the net. Additional sightings have occurred as recent as October of last year, and some have even said they saw a pair of F-117s recovering at Nellis AFB early in the evening fairly recently.
It was originally stated that the entire F-117A fleet, minus one pre-production example which was scrapped as an experiment at Plant 42 in Palmdale, CA, would be put into regenerative storage at the F-117′s original operational home, desolate Tonopah Test Range Air Base in south central Nevada. The stored aircraft's systems would be "mummified" and their wings would be removed so that up to five aircraft could fit into a single hangar which once housed two of the jets during their early operational heyday. Although there were murmurs about a handful of F-117s being kept in flying condition, the USAF has not addressed exactly how many of the black jets would be kept in such a state, and more importantly, why they would be kept in a flyable condition in the first place.
Keeping even a small force of F-117s flying is not a cheap or easy task. As the program's active operational talent retires, or migrates deeper into other aerospace programs, the "brain-drain" pertaining to such a unique weapons system would represent serious challenges.
Also, the Nighthawks were unique and temperamental aircraft and required a comprehensive logistical train to keep them in the air. Keeping just a handful of these jets flying would be costly and not without risk. In order to do so the USAF, or Lockheed Martin, would have to keep pilots current without the simulators and large training regimens that once existed for the aircraft. Furthermore, knowledgeable maintenance folks would have to keep these aircraft in the air and their temperamental radar absorbent material, which is somewhat archaic by today's standards, would need constant care.
Is such a feat possible? Sure it is. Would keeping a small handful of these aircraft and crews flight ready be prohibitively expensive? Yes. Seeing as we know that at least one, and reportedly up to six F-117s are still flying, the question now becomes why is the DoD and/or industry going through the trouble and cost of doing so?
F-117 EXPERIMENTAL TESTERS?
At the time of the F-117s official retirement, and its subsequent banishment to tomb-like hangars deep in the Nevada Desert, the aircraft was the most understood low observable platform in the history of aeronautics. Hundreds of thousands of hours were flown on the fleet of 64 aircraft (including pre-production versions), crashes were deeply investigated and improvements on the effectiveness of the aircraft were constantly being made.
In other words, the F-117 is a known commodity to the DoD and the USAF, and this is especially true when it comes to the aircraft's unique radar, radio and infrared signature. In fact, I would not be surprised if the F-117 represents the most studied aircraft "signature" of all time. With this in mind, the F-117 could be theoretically used as something of a "flying measuring stick" for evaluating a radar system's ability to detect and track low-observable flying objects. Or conversely, it could be used as a surrogate to test new radar absorbent materials and coatings applied to its flat, facet like structure that was originally built to accept such applications.
By specifically utilizing the F-117 for such-real life tests and evaluations, defense program managers could have a control variable, in this case the F-117′s well documented radar cross-section, infrared and visual signature, and an independent variable for which to test upon it. That independent variable being an experimental radar absorbent material or other signature control application.
Testers of new signature control applications, such as an innovative new version of radar absorbent material (RAM), could leverage highly accurate real-life metrics and historical data collected throughout the life and development of the F-117. They can then fly their new application on the jet so that new data can be collected for which to compare and help judge the effectiveness of the experimental capability being tested.
On the radar and infrared tracking side of argument, the F-117 is also a near-perfect and highly available low observable aircraft to test everything from ground based radars and SAM systems, both foreign and domestic, AWACS modifications, fighter radars and even infrared search and track systems.
By doing so, testers can come up with a clear idea of what the capabilities of the system being tested are against a hard to detect target. In doing so, tacticians can work on solutions for defeating any weaknesses in the system while at the same time working on emphasizing its unique strengths. Even keeping a couple "sterile" F-117s available for calibrating and improving the DYCOMS array at Groom Lake, used for measuring the radar cross sections of aircraft flying under real world conditions, may be in itself an entirely necessary and worthwhile reason to keep a small cadre of F-117s operational.
Another interesting use for the officially retired F-117s could be associated with the realm of "optionally manned" aircraft. Many wondered why the F-117 was retired in full instead of being turned into an unmanned combat aircraft of some sort. Would having a proven stealth attack platform that could help bridge the gap between manned deep strike platforms of the past and unmanned deep strike platforms of the future be beneficial? I think so.
Under certain circumstances the F-117 fleet could have even been turned into an even more potent and employable "silver-bullet" attack force by removing the pilot from the equation. Also, seeing as one F-117 had already been lost to enemy forces during Operation Allied Force over Serbia, and its wreckage evaluated by America's military technology competitors, the technological risk of using such a modified platform in future conflict seems negligible. In fact, it would probably be much lower than using a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that features the latest in stealth, sensor and automated technologies.
In an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft configuration, the F-117s could be loaded with a pair of 2000lb GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), or 12 small diameter bombs (SDB) for hitting highly defended targets at standoff ranges, and sent into combat with no need for man in the loop communications and control. Furthermore, in the most dire of circumstances, where an enemy has denied America's armed forces close proximity basing to targets of strategic value, the automated Nighthawks could be sent on one-way suicide missions to strike critical air defense nodes and other key target sets located deep inside enemy territory, self destructing once their bombs have been dropped. Once again, aircraft modified in this fashion would have no need to actively communicate with a command post or mission control center while over enemy territory.
A "suicidal" F-117's last actions could be to upload their FLIR footage of the target being struck before they take their own lives. A similar self destruct fail safe could also be installed to trigger if the aircraft is damaged during its flight into the target area or if any critical subsystems fail. Surely, this would have been a better use of the F-117 force than having them sit in dark hangars in the middle of nowhere for years, or possibly even decades, on end, or even worse, being destroyed systematically.
Although there are no indications that the Nighthawk fleet was modified for such a use as a whole, it is possible that the small handful or the aircraft seen flying today are experimenting with such a conversion. Even if such a modification was not intended specifically for the F-117 fleet, its advanced autopilot and navigational suite would most likely make such a "man out of the loop" conversion easier to test than in a more conventional surplus fighter aircraft. Maybe even a crude version of such a conversion has been developed and tested and could be implemented on the remaining mothballed Nighthawk fleet during a time of war against an enemy with an advanced integrated air defense system.
BLACK JET AGGRESSORS?
The F-117 is the only disclosed surplus operational stealth aircraft in America's inventory. That being said, the world's armed forces probably have a pretty good idea of its true stealth capabilities after decades of operations around the globe, its participation in many international exercise and the proliferation of low observability design knowledge in the decades since it entered service. This is not to mention the undoubtedly countless espionage operations conducted by America's enemies and allies alike in regards to the F-117's unique technologies.
The rest of the world is increasingly catching up to America's once exclusive monopoly on "stealth" technology. Fighters such as the Russian Sukhoi T-50 and the Chinese Chengdu J-20 are well on their way to becoming potential challengers to American and allied air supremacy. Furthermore, stealthy unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles are even easier to develop than their manned counterparts. So it would make sense for the United States and other allied nations to begin training against low observable adversary aircraft, especially in the realm of detecting, intercepting and engaging them. With all of this in mind, it would make total sense for the USAF to field the F-117s as stealth aggressors.
Having a small aggressor force of F-117s available for putting our, and our allies' latest radars, infrared search and track and electronic detection system to the test, as well as to develop tactics for defeating such threats, seems like a perfect job for the F-117. Seeing as the F-117 is a largely declassified program, the technological risk of standing up such a unit and employing it even in training with our allies would be negligible. F-117 aggressor duties could also be of great value when paired with advanced electronic warfare and jamming. In other words, combining other tactics aside from the aircraft's inherent stealthy design could still make for a world class low observable opponent or target even though the aircraft itself is well over 30 years old.
As non-American stealth platforms hit the skies operationally around the world, the US is going to have to begin fielding some sort of low observable aggressor aircraft for large air warfare exercises. Red Flag, the largest aerial war-game of it kind, just so happens to take place right where the remaining F-117s are based, either at Tonopah Test Range Air Base, or at Groom Lake, otherwise known as Area 51.
These electromagnetically silent and stealthy jets would give our allies' active fighter, AWACS and surface to air missile forces a run for their money, while not giving up all of our secrets. Additionally, the USAF's F-15C, F-15E, and F-16C fleets are in the process (hopefully) of slowly being outfitted with cutting edge Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars that are much more capable of detecting small radar signature targets than their mechanically scanned, and mostly analogue, predecessors. Flying the F-117 directly against these newly deployed systems would provide a good training opportunity for aircrews that are learning the capabilities of their newly enhanced systems.
Simply put, an investment by the USAF in keeping a small fleet of F-117s flying as "first generation" low observable aggressors would represent an incredibly unique and valuable training tool, especially seeing as these aircraft are all already bought, with a full fleet of spares available, to support years of continued operations.
A CONTINGENCY PLAN?
Another reason why the DoD could have chosen to continue flying F-117s, even if only on a very limited scale, would be to keep a small cadre of pilots and support crew, either contracted or military, familiar with the aircraft so that they could more easily reconstitute the program if need be. If this is so it would point toward a couple very interesting possibilities.
First, it could mean that the USAF was actually somewhat serious about being able to redeploy these aircraft during a time of extreme warfare. Originally, the choice to mothball the F-117 fleet inside of their former hangars at Tonopah Test Range Air Base was mainly said to be due to the sensitive nature of the aircraft. Others posited that it was because the jets remain highly toxic due to their unique building materials. Lastly there was mention about potentially being able to reconstitute the force if need be, although this seemed like a tertiary excuse at the time. Most of the time, when a niche capability asset is retired fully like the F-117 it means that it will almost certainly never fly again. But the fact that the type remained in limited operation may point towards a black program, which was still in a high-risk development phase at the time of the F-117′s retirement. Such a clandestine weapon system would have been developed to replace the F-117′s hard-hitting, 2,000lb weapon carrying, precision strike capability.
Such a program would have almost certainly been of an advanced unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) variety. To put it frankly, it would be very surprising if the USAF does not possess a small "pocket force" of stealthy UCAVs by now that can drop up to 2,000lb class weapons and provide some sort of limited electronic attack support and surveillance capabilities.
The Joint-Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (J-UCAS) program formed between the US Navy and USAF was dropped by the USAF in 2006 and has continued on with the US Navy in the form of the highly promising X-47B UCAS-D program, and in the near future with the UCLASS initiative. Are we really to believe that the USAF just pushed aside the development of a stealthy deep strike unmanned combat aircraft for the better part of a decade, letting the Navy take the sole reins on such a revolutionary weapons technology? Unlikely.
In reality, the better bet would be on the possibility that the USAF's side of the J-UCAS program, or one similar to it but without the Navy's carrier operations demand, was thrust into the "black world" at the time of its "cancellation." By 2008, such a program, along with the operational maturity of the F-22 fleet, may have been promising enough to mothball the expensive and aging F-117 force, while still not being proven enough to see the Nighthawks scrapped permanently in full. If this conjecture is at all accurate there is a good chance that the dismantled F-117s quietly collecting dust at Tonopah Test Range Air Base are most likely surrounded by the unmanned systems which replaced them as America's silver bullet tactical force of choice.
In many ways such a program would be akin to an "F-117 program 2.0," where it would be kept under wraps for as long as possible so that if needed it could take our enemies almost totally off-guard. Further, we know this technology is operationally solvent, we have seen it, in a smaller form, in the once secret RQ-170 Sentinel, which also happens to live at Tonopah Test Range Base.
The multiple reports of the F-117 flying inside the Nellis Range Complex over the last few years can be akin to spotting a famously extinct animal roaming in the wilderness. In many ways, the F-117 has truly become the Coelacanth of the aviation world, whose reemergence has captured the minds, and frankly the prayers, of throngs of aerospace and military technology geeks around the globe. Yet one has to wonder, seeing as the F-117 was declassified in the late 1980s and performed at air shows for almost the next 20 years, why keep it secret once again? I cannot fully answer this question with any real conviction aside from saying that either they are almost always scarred with sensitive test modification and/or if they fly from Groom Lake, which they may although being based at TTR is more likely, then they are deeply embedded in a culture of secrecy and compartmentalization, and thus they will probably not be making public appearances any time soon.
There exists strong rumors that the mothballed Nighthawk fleet's (not the ones still flying) days may now be numbered. Multiple sources once closely related to the program say that the hangar facilities at Tonopah allotted to the dismantled F-117s are not adequate for long-term storage of the jets and are in demand by "other programs" that will remodel them for their needs. Thus these stealth mummies of sorts will be disposed of over time by being stripped of their useful parts, cut up (a process already proven by Lockheed around the time of the F-117s retirement as shown in the picture above) and buried within the highly secured vicinity of the Tonopah Test Range Air Base. This photo may actually add some weight to this rumor. Some have even said the jets will get their own headstones with their unique names inscribed on them for posterity sake, although USAF officials have never corroborated such a claim.
As years pass by, Tonopah Test Range Air Base may become something of an aerospace Fort Knox, a place where nobody really knows if the equivalent to "aerospace bullion" is really hidden behind its closed off facade. In some ways, if the F-117′s tomb like hangars are in fact now empty, and their vacated contents are now buried a dozen feet below the Nevada desert, the legendary F-117 Stealth Fighter may have pulled off its final and most astonishing vanishing act of all; providing a perceived potent war-reserve to deter would-be enemies of America, while in reality ceasing to exist in credible numbers at all.
Whatever the real reason, and it may be a long time before we find it, it is exciting to know that a handful of lucky examples continue to patrol the skies over their own birthplace, the southern Nevada desert...
LONG LIVE THE NIGHTHAWK, WOBBLIN' GOBLIN', GHOST, BLACK JET, STEALTH FIGHTER OR WHATEVER ELSE YOU WANT TO CALL IT…
Photos credit: USAF, Lockheed Martin. Refueling picture of gray F-117 courtesy of "boomer135," RCS mockup: The Howland Company