I am trying to catch up with reader requests and one common strain of emails pertains to questions surrounding why the F-117 Nighthawk, America’s first stealth attack aircraft, is still flying around the Nellis Range Complex years after it’s official retirement back in 2008. Since then, the famous triangular black jet has been “spotted” on numerous occasions. Even a video, one 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 have appeared on the net. Since then numerous other sightings have occurred and some have even said they saw a pair of F-117s recovering at Nellis AFB early in the evening fairly recently.
Originally it was said 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 Airport in central Nevada. The stored aircraft’s systems would be “mummified” and their wings would be removed so that up to five aircraft could fit in a single hangar which once housed up to two of the jets during their 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 would be kept in such a state, and more importantly why they would be kept in a flyable condition at all.
Keeping even a small force of F-117s flying is not a cheap or easy task. As the program’s original operational talent retires, or migrates deeper into other aerospace programs, the “brain-drain” pertaining to such a unique weapons system would represent serious challenges when it comes to keeping a small portion of the now defunct fleet flying. The Nighthawks were unique and temperamental aircraft and required a large and finicky logistical footprint to keep them in the air even at the height of their active careers. Keeping just a handful of the jets flying would be costly and not without risk. In order to do so the USAF would have to keep pilots current without the simulators and large training regimens that once existed for the aircraft. Further, 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, in tip-top condition. Is such a feat impossible? No, not at all. 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?
At the time of the F-117s official retirement, and 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, 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 infra-red signature. In fact, I would not be surprised if the F-117 is the most studied aircraft “signature” of all time. In other words, the F-117 could theoretically be 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 built originally to accept such applications.
By specifically utilizing the F-117 for such-real life tests and evaluations, program managers could have a control variable, in this case the F-117’s well documented radar cross-section, infra-red 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. By doing so, testers could leverage highly accurate real-life metrics for which to judge the effectiveness of their new application and then either ditch it or improve upon it, with the goal of eventually migrating it to operational weapon systems.
On the radar and infra-red 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 infra-red 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, and thus tacticians can work on solutions for defeating any weaknesses in the system while at the same time working on emphasizing its unique strengths when it comes to detecting low observable targets. 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 an entirely necessary and worthwhile reason to keep a small cadre of F-117s operational in itself.
Another interesting use for the officially retired F-117s would be in the realm of “optionally manned” aircraft. Many wondered why the F-117 was retired 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. In fact 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 platform during dire circumstances against a peer state foe would seem negligible.
In an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft configuration, the F-117s could have been loaded with a pair of 2000lb GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) and sent into the most defended targets in the world, with no need for satellite communications (many believe the F-117 could not be retrofitted with the communications apertures needed for an unmanned mission set) or a man in the loop to control its actions. 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. The suicidal F-117s 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 egress 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 hangers in the middle of nowhere for years, or possibly even decades, on end.
Although there are no indications that the Nighthawk fleet was modified for such a use as a whole, it is possible that a 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.
The F-117 is the only disclosed surplus stealth aircraft in America’s inventory, and the world’s armed forces probably has a pretty good idea of its true stealth capabilities after decades of operations and international exercises, as well as undoubtedly countless related espionage operations by America’s enemies and allies alike. With this in mind, it would make total sense for the USAF to field the F-117s as stealth aggressors against American and even friendly foreign combat aircraft and aircrews during military exercises. 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 real challengers to American and allied air supremacy. Furthermore, stealthy unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles are even easier to develop than their manned, and in most cases, more capable counterparts. With all this in mind 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. Having a small aggressor force of F-117s available for putting our allies latest radars, infra search and track systems and data-links to the test, as well as to develop tactics for defeating such threats, seems like a perfect job for the F-117, especially when operating in a dense electronic warfare environment. 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. 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 such as Red Flag, which just so happens to take place right where the remaining F-117s are based, either at Tonopah Test Range Airport, or, and most likely, at Groom Lake, otherwise known as Area 51.
In many other ways it makes sense for the USAF to field a small active squadron of F-117s to perform first generation low-observable aggressor duties around the US and beyond. These electromagnetically silent and stealthy jets will give America’s active fighter, AWACS and surface to air missile force a run for their money. Also, seeing as the F-15C, F-15E, and F-16C fleets are in the process 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. Simply put, such an investment by the USAF in an incredibly unique and valuable training tool would make total sense, especially seeing as these aircraft are all already bought, with plenty of spares available via the mothballed fleet to support years of continued operations.
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 entire program if need be. If this is so it would point toward a couple very interesting possibilities. First, it would mean that the USAF was actually very serious about being able to redeploy these aircraft during a time of war. Most of the time when an asset is retired fully like the F-117 it means that it will almost certainly never fly again, unless it is to be used for limited testing duties, and even that may be rarer than one might imagine. Secondly, it may point toward a black program, which was still in a high-risk development phase at the time of the F-117’s retirement, that was intended to replace the F-117’s hard-hitting precision strike capability. Such a program could have been an advanced unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). I would be very surprised if the USAF does not have a small cadre of stealthy UCAVs by now that can drop up to 2,000lb+ class weapons and provide some sort of limited electronic attack support. 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. Did the USAF really just push aside stealthy deep strike unmanned combat aircraft for the better part of a decade, letting the Navy take the reigns on such a revolutionary weapon system? I don’t think so. I have a good feeling that on the USAF’s side of the J-UCAS program, or one similar to it although with less lofty demands than the Navy’s carrier borne UCAS-D program, 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 dated F-117 fleet, 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 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, minus the bomb bay, in the once secret RQ-170 Sentinel, which also happens to live at Tonopah Test Range Air Port.
The multiple spottings 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 1980’s and performed at airshows 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 almost certainly do, then they are deeply embedded in a culture of secrecy and deep compartmentalization, and thus they will probably not be making air show appearances any time soon. Further, there exists strong rumors that mothballed fleet’s (not the ones still flying) days may be numbered. Multiple sources once closely related to the program say that the hanger facilities at Tonopah allotted to the dismantled F-117s are not adequate for long-term storage of the jets and that much of the jet’s original tooling has long since been destroyed. Thus these stealth mummies of sorts will be disposed of over time by being dismantled and buried within the highly secured vicinity of the Tonopah Test Range Air Base. 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 content is 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…
LONG LIVE THE NIGHTHAWK, WOBBLIN’ GOBLIN’, GHOST, BLACK JET, STEALTH FIGHTER OR WHATEVER ELSE YOU WANT TO CALL IT…
*If you have any information on this story please shoot me a confidential email at Aviationintel@gmail.com
Download the footage here of an F-117 playing with a signature testbed and refueling from a KC-10 Extender well after its supposed retirement: