Warplanes: The First Stealth Warplane Still Flying


February 17, 2023: The U.S. Air Force has gone public about one of the worst kept secrets in military aviation; the un-retirement of the F-117 stealth “fighter”. Officially retired in 2008, the F-117s began quietly coming out of retirement over a decade. Going public was all about needing more maintenance services for a growing number of unretired F-117s. There is also a series of upgrades for existing F-117s which will make them easier and safer to operate. The air force needs enough contractors to maintain at least 30 F-117s until 2034 or longer. Of the 59 originally built, only 45 remain and at least ten have already been promised to museums. These will be delivered after the F-117s are actually withdrawn from service.

The F-117 Nighthawk was the first stealth aircraft to enter service in the 1980s. Retirement in 2008 did not last long. The air force tried to keep the un-retirement quiet or at least stealthy. Initially the reactivated F-117s flew only at night and at remote bases. That gradually changed because the F-117s were often used to train fighter pilots to deal with enemy stealth aircraft. The F-117 was early stealth tech but that was still adequate for training purposes. Two years ago, F-117s were seen providing realistic opposition for reserve F-15 squadrons training to deal with enemy stealth aircraft. This is adversary training and the F-117 proved to be excellent at providing a realistic stealth foe. For several years F-117s have been spotted over training areas, where they apparently serve as “aggressor stealth aircraft” for training active-duty pilots. The move to stealth fighter adversary training for reserve F-15 pilots is probably related to reserve fighters getting the new AESA radars, which were designed with the ability to better detect stealth aircraft. Doing that requires practice for the pilots.

Using the F-117 is all about the fact that the key element in air combat has always been getting in the first shot. From 1914 into the 1940s the key to success in air-to-air combat was knowing how to fly into a position where you would see the enemy first and carry out a surprise attack. The earliest of these tricks was the World War I tactic of trying to have the sun behind you to make it more difficult for the enemy to see you coming. Another tactic was trying to get higher and out of sight for as long as possible until you could dive on the enemy aircraft in a high speed, and unexpected, attack. After World War II, the surprise aspect of air combat continued to be essential. In effect, “stealth” and the resulting surprise was always the key to victory. The F-117 represents the impact of stealth for pilots training for their first encounters with enemy stealth aircraft.

The initial retirement of the F-117 consisted of placing the then 52 remaining aircraft in a high-level of storage at the air force “boneyard” where there are several levels of “retirement”. The highest level, where the F-117 ended up, has the aircraft “semi-retired” and periodically flown. What this semi-retirement means is that the air force still has to maintain a force of maintainers and pilots for F-117 because this form of retirement is meant for aircraft that can be returned to service within 30-90 days or sooner. The air force will not say how many F-117 maintainers and pilots there are but there have apparently been some ever since the F-117 retired in 2008. The recent search for contractors to supply more F-117 support indicates that the number of un-retired F-117s is also increasing.

F-117s have been spotted in the air frequently since 2008 and in 2016 four were apparently sent to the Middle East for an unspecified mission. Their presence became public when one of those F-117s had to make an emergency landing at a Kuwait airbase. It is believed that the F-117s have been used as stealth reconnaissance aircraft to determine if a target had been destroyed or just damaged.

In 2019 some F-117s were spotted over a training area and the local gossip was that the F-117 stealth capabilities were similar to those of Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft and thus useful for training, or testing how effective the foreign stealth aircraft could be. Russia has twice sent some of its Su-57 stealth fighters to Syria and that allowed the Americans and Israelis to measure the degree of stealth the Russians had developed. China believes the Russian stealth technology is superior to their own. Chinese stealth fighters have been less available for close observation but apparently some have been spotted operating near the coast. In 2021 the Chinese J20 was declared fully operational because China had finally put its high-performance engines into production and no longer had to rely on Russia for engines. The J20 had earlier gone through many changes to its stealth, electronic and mechanical components. Chinese engines were the last item needed.

The Americans concluded that the F-117 would be a good aircraft to use as “enemy stealth fighters” during training and a small squadron of F-117s appear to be back in service performing that duty as well as any other chores the three-decade old stealth warplane is suitable for. Currently that includes F-117s sent to reserve fighter squadrons to give pilots a taste of what they would encounter if they faced the Chinese J20. Russia has dropped out of the stealth fighter business and is pitching its Su-57 and a generation 4.5 fighter with some stealth capability. Stealth fighters are considered Generation 5.

The F-117 is a 23 ton, twin-engine, single-seat aircraft. It has an internal bomb bay that can hold two 2,000 pound (909 kg) smart bombs. The bomb bay may also have been modified to carry a reconnaissance pod that has the same shape as a bomb but contains high-resolution digital cameras for recording what is down below in great detail, day or night. The new program allows for T-2 modifications on some aircraft to upgrade some features, including cockpit controls. The range on internal fuel is still 1,700 kilometers but the aircraft can be refueled in the air and has been observed doing that since retirement.

To save money to pay for new stealth fighters, there were several attempts by the air force to retire the F-117 light bomber. Those efforts appeared to succeed in 2008. Long called the "stealth fighter," the F-117 was designed from the start as a light bomber. The retirement decision was made in 2006 when the aircraft was 18 years old. Official retirement came two years later, which was also two years after the last class of new F-117 pilots graduated. The F-117 was 1970s technology that, after years of effort, was made to work in the 1980s. But better stuff is out there, and the stealth technology of the F-117 was obsolete when it came to some of the more recent sensor developments. The F-22 was a direct, and more effective, replacement for the F-117 as a light bomber. Plus the F-22 is also a far superior fighter, currently the best in the world. Within five years of the F-117 retirement, the F-35 showed up and took over the light bomber functions of the F-117. At this point potential foes like China and Russia were developing stealth aircraft. Yet there were still some tasks the F-117 was best suited for.

Earlier attempts to take the F-117 out of service ran up against political opposition. Bases would have to be closed, which meant lost jobs. The air force finally got Congress to allow retirement by working out deals to take care of jobs, and the F-117 was assumed to be gone by 2008. But the F-117 was not completely retired, still isn’t and that was not publicized as much as it was gradually discovered.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close