Shortly after the massive success of the F-117A Nighthawk during the Operation Desert Storm, Congress and Lockheed moved together to support buying 24 more F-117s that would be primarily configured as reconnaissance platforms. The jet would have additional cockpit interfaces to control both an ATARS based camera system, derived from the tactical reconnaissance system employed aboard a handful of Marine F/A-18Ds, mounted in one bay and a multi-mode synthetic aperture radar mounted in the other. These systems would be modular, allowing for the F-117s to be switched back to their strike role if need be. Such an asset would provide not only tactical imagery over highly defended targets, but it would also allow for a J-STARS like ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and high-resolution mapping capability, albeit at a tactical, not strategic, level. In many ways, this system would have made partially good on the immense promise shown by Northrop’s “Tacit Blue” technology demonstrator program of the early 1980’s. Tacit Blue was part of the Battlefield Surveillance Aircraft-Experimental (BAS-X) program and also related to the larger “Pave Mover” initiative that would eventually see the 707 based E-8 J-STARS become a reality. The idea was to provide persistent surveillance, especially via cutting edge radar technology, from deep inside enemy territory, and Tacit Blue proved not only that such a capability was possible, but that is was remarkably effective. Yet Tacit Blue’s great potential and promise of an operational penetrating tactical surveillance aircraft was never fulfilled, or maybe it was…

Seeing as Congress was all for buying 24 new F-117s with this new battlefield surveillance capability in mind, and Lockheed was chomping at the bit to get the F-117 production back in full swing, with potential customers like the Navy or even possibly Britain waiting in the wings, what on earth happened to this logical adaptation of even at the time a legendary aircraft design? The answer is both puzzling and telling at the same time- the USAF did not want the RF-117. In fact they flat-out were against it. Considering that there was nothing known at the time that could provide tactical reconnaissance directly over the battlefield it seems astonishing, almost criminal, that the USAF would deny Congress’s offer of such a unique and worthwhile capability. The reality is that there was almost certainly an operational aircraft flying the RF-117s exact same mission at the time, albeit in small numbers, and that aircraft was most likely produced by Lockheed’s biggest stealth competitor, Northrop.

During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the stealth revolution was quietly in full swing at the clandestine airbases in the American SW and in the windowless engineering rooms of key American aerospace defense contractors. In the end Lockheed seemed to have won the attack portion of equation and Northrop eventually won the surveillance, and later the Bomber side of the equation. Both competed vehemently a decade later for the fighter end of the low observable spectrum with Lockheed’s YF-22 besting Northrop’s YF-23 at the end of the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition. None-the-less, we all know the story how Lockheed’s Hopeless Diamond morphed into “Have Blue” which then morphed into “Senior Trend” and finally the operational F-117A Nighthawk as we all know of it today. So one has to ask themselves, what the hell happened to Northrop’s equally (if not more) successful “Tacit Blue” stealthy battlefield surveillance demonstrator? Sure elements of its design ended up in the B-2, YF-23 and even stealthy cruise missiles, but what about its very mission? Simply put, there is a survivable and persistent battlefield reconnaissance gap running from after the end of “Tacit Blue” all the way up to 2007, a year that marked the first sightings of the now famous RQ-170 Sentinel. From this point in the story I must refer to my hugely popular special feature “RQ-170 Origins Part II: The Grandson Of Tacit Blue” to fill in the rest of this part of the story.

In the end I truly believe that the RF-117 never came to be because something better was already flying, most likely the speculated Northrop TR-3A “Black Manta” or something very similar to it. Such an aircraft could have easily morphed out of the Tacit Blue and then the prototypes and technology demonstrators that were part of the Advanced Technology Bomber (ATB) program that resulted in the B-2 Spirit bomber. With such an aircraft clandestinely in use, the RF-117 simply could not compete with a purpose-built aircraft’s system integration, possibly featuring real-time low-probability-of-intercept data-links pioneered by Tacit Blue, and most importantly a much longer on station and loitering capability and possibly a higher degree of low observability. Just a scant few years after the RF-117 was proposed, the TIER III- program would emerge that would see the rise and supposed fall of Lockheed’s Darkstar stealthy battlefield surveillance drone, featuring an unmanned capability on par with the RF-117, and even more-so the speculated TR-3A, and the direct forerunner to the RQ-170 Sentinel as we know it today. You can read more about this unique family tree in the first installment in my RQ-170 Origins series “RQ-170 Origins Part I: Darkstar Has Grown Up.”

It is amazing that in the last 30 years we have only been told about less than a half-dozen aircraft that were at one time secret enough that they had to be tested at Groom Lake. Yet that base, and its Tonopah Test Range Airport satellite, are massive in scale and have remained very active to this day. I believe that the RF-117 is a key part of America’s secret aircraft history, not for the fact that it became an operational aircraft, but for the fact that it did not. Such a development of a known and successful platform is incredibly logical and should have been a no-brainer seeing as a frugal Congress was on-board. In the end it seem apparent that the Air Force simply knew that something much better already existed, and thus the RF-117’s fate was sealed before it ever left the drafting table…

*Make sure to read both “RQ-170 Origins” pieces linked in this article to fully understand the 30+ year evolution of America’s shadowy low observable deep penetrating tactical battlefield reconnaissance platforms!

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  1. Steve says:

    Exactly- During the same time frame the SR-71 was retired with no known replacement. I agree with your conclusions.

    • says:

      Right, and basically the SR-71 was a satellite on call, with limited loiter time. Imagine if you could pack that same capability into an aircraft that could hang around the battlespace for not minutes but hours!

  2. nico says:

    A few years back, for am interview for Jane’s, head honcho for Skunk Works pretty much admitted to working on about 30 programs when only about 6 to 7 were in the white world. We knew very little about some the successes of Northrop in the black world, I also believe that there’s a few “missing links” in the family tree of LO planes in US inventory.

    What you are talking about happened in the late 80s to 90s, RQ170 being the most recent program open to the world, one has to wonder what and where the US has gone in the black world in the intervening years and current 2000s! Even the Boeing Bird of Prey was started in 1992, what has happened since? Can someone speculate on what a current VLO would look like and how capable such machine could be? It is kind of mind-boggling to imagine where the USAF could be if such a machine was developed and what strange avenues they went down….

    It would seem to me that looking at RQ170, USAF is looking at daytime LO in radar,noise and visual wavelengths. High persistence. High speed is probably optional…maybe modular platform for ISR and optional strike…

  3. Mathew Parry says:

    A compelling argument, however a quote from Einstein comes to mind “A man should look for what is, not what he thinks it should be” if the proposed manned stealthy tactical reconnisance aiframe really did exist the security measures surrounding it must be remarkable, see the case of the F117

  4. Bruce Johnson says:

    Remember that most black programs don’t involve building and flying completely new aircraft. Have Blue and Tacit Blue were unusual in that the technology that they were testing involved the entire shape of the aircraft, so complete special airframes had to be designed and built.

    Most black programs are centered on developing a particular area of technology. It can be computer systems, weapons systems, radar systems, or whatever. It’s generally developed in labs and flight tested on modified existing airframes. After the technology is proven, then the customer can start thinking about what aircraft to put it in.

    Developing a completely new aircraft, and keeping it completely in the black world, is very, very expensive. Particularly back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. The programs that I worked on back in those days were enormously expensive, and didn’t involve any new airframes. But the technology all ended up in the major white world programs.

    What I’m saying is that black world programs rarely result directly in secret operational aircraft. Too much money and too much politics. These days, with the UAV’s it’s probably somewhat easier, but still difficult.

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