Murphy's Law: Nighthawk Forever

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January 21, 2022: The American F-117 Nighthawk, the first stealth aircraft to enter service, was retired 14 years ago, but is still flying. The latest sighting was in late 2021 when two of these retired aircraft were seen providing realistic opposition for reserve F-15 squadrons training to deal with enemy stealth aircraft. This is called adversary training and the F-117 proved to be excellent at providing a realistic 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. To do that requires some 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 to deal with first encounters against stealth aircraft.

Retirement of the F-117 consisted of placing the 52 remaining aircraft placed 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.

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 range on internal fuel is 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 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 superior fighter, currently the best in the world. Within five years of 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. At the same time 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 angle, 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.

 


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