The US Air Force (USAF) has confirmed that the country’s first stealth fighter, the F-117 Nighthawk, which was retired more than a decade ago, has received a new lease of life.
Lieutenant-General Michael Loh, who heads the Air National Guard, told reporters about this development at the Air Force Association’s Annual Air, Space and Cyberspace Conference recently.
The development of the Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk was a closely guarded secret. The fighter jet program received the green light in the 1970s, at the peak of the Cold War. and took its maiden flight in 1981.
Interestingly, the Nighthawk was designated as a fighter aircraft despite being an attack aircraft. General Robert J. Dixon at Tactical Air Command felt that an ‘F’ (for fighter) designation would be more attractive to ace pilots than the ‘A’ (for attack) classification.
However, despite the semantics, the F-117 Nighthawk was never intended for aerial combat and was instead designed to drop bombs.
The F-117 proved its operational effectiveness during the Gulf war and the Balkan conflict. The fighter jet, which officially retired in 2008, was spotted at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport recently.
The Second Coming
Military analysts are struggling to find out why two F-117 Nighthawks had landed at the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport earlier this month.
Furthermore, they made a surprise appearance at the 114th Fighter Wing’s base, located on the south side of the airport’s passenger terminal. No radar reflectors were seen on their airframes.
The 144th Fighter Wing’s public affairs department confirmed the development later. It said the arrival of the F-117 Nighthawks was planned, and they would be training alongside the USAF’s F-15C/D Eagle jets.
The Nighthawks are believed to have been involved in war games as part of an aggressor squadron, however, this training role was never formally acknowledged by USAF.
Cruise Missile Surrogates?
The development of Russia’s Su-57 and China’s J-20 had diminished the US monopoly over the stealth or low observable aircraft technology.
Cruise missile and stealth technology bolster the adversaries’ operational capabilities and may pose a new challenge for American air assets, especially ones mandated to protect its maritime borders and carry out territorial air defense missions.
This requires USAF fighters to refine tactics to meet new aerial threats. This is where the Nighthawks will come in.
The 114th Fighter Wing’s F-15C/Ds along with several other aircraft across USAF’s inventory have been equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. These radars aid American aircraft in acquiring and engaging targets with lower radar cross-sections (RCS).
However, USAF pilots have not been extensively trained against stealth aircraft or cruise missiles, so training against the F-117 Nighthawks as part of an advanced program for pilots, (including F-15 pilots attached to the 114th) may help them better locate and intercept stealth aircraft in the future operations and counter enemy cruise missiles.
“When you look at 117s that come and land and do that stuff they’re a stealth platform right? Early days of stealth, but they are still a stealthy platform. So, they can simulate things out there like cruise missiles that we could actually face. So are they a perfect platform for a cruise missile defense exercise? Absolutely,” Lt Gen. Loh explained this at the conference.
Any Link To B-21 Raider Program?
It was not just in Fresno where the stealth plane was spotted first since its retirement. Aircraft photographers can confirm that at least two F-117 Nighthawks were seen cruising towards the ultra-secretive Area 51 previously.
In March last year, the stealth plane was reportedly seen cruising through the Rainbow Canyon, near Death Valley Nevada, where the covert military facility is located. In July this year, aviation enthusiast Joerg Arnu saw two F-117 Nighthawks heading towards the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which houses Area 51, and captured it on camera.
The Nighthawks were also seen heading towards the secretive Tonopah Test Range (TTR). This raised eyeballs over the nature of the development. Both of these facilities have been seen as the nerve center of covert military R&D and testing for advanced military aircraft projects.
TTR had housed the secretive 4477th Test and Evaluation (TES) Squadron which tested and evaluated Soviet hardware during the Cold War. The 4477th was known to test the adversaries’ capabilities, identify vulnerabilities and take part in mock dog fights with USAF fighters’ jets to devise countermeasures.
This may be indicative of what the F-117 Nighthawks were doing there. Arnu believes that Nighthawks are housed inside TTR. The letters ‘TR’ painted on the Nighthawks tail are indicative of it being housed within the facility.
Arnu claimed that the sighting may also be linked to the upcoming B-21 stealth bomber program which is slated to commence tests next year. USAF currently has five B-21 Raiders under production.
The B-21 is the direct successor to the Northrop-designed B-2 bomber. The B-2 prototype had entered competitive bidding with Lockheed Martin’s F-117 prototype as part of the first contract to develop stealth technology in the 1970s.
While one could keep connecting these dots, the actual use of the bygone-era Nighthawks continues to be shrouded in mystery.
- Aritra Banerjee is a defense journalist who has worked in both online and print media. He has laid an emphasis on issues related to military human resources, tactical psychology, military-media relations, professional military education, and combat fitness. He can be reached at [email protected]
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