After a fairly amazingly well documented week of F-117 Nighthawk action over desolate Death Valley, the Facebook page of an established aviation enthusiast's website from the Netherland's featured a post that has raised a remarkable amount of attention. In it, they state that the F-117 Nighthawk—an aircraft that had supposedly been retired from operational service for over a decade—was sent back into combat as recently as 2017, albeit in very small numbers. This claim was quickly parroted by military aviation websites around the globe, leaving many asking what they should believe.
Here is the post from Scramble Magazine's Facebook page that fired up the rumor mill:
Beyond recapping the same encounter we posted about earlier in the week and sharing some lovely photos of the F-117 over Death Valley, this is the section of the post that has garnered so much attention:
Back in 2017, and not published by any other source so far, Scramble received very reliable information that at least four F-117s were deployed to the Middle East as an operational need emerged for the USAF to resurrect the stealth F-117 for special purposes. One of the deployed aircraft was involved in an in-flight emergency and landed far away from its temporary home base that was likely located in Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar.
During this extremely covert deployment, the four Nighthawks flew missions over Syria and Iraq with Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs).
These claims are not new. I have heard rumors about the USAF regenerating a portion of the F-117 force to combat capable status for use in Syria dating back to 2016. These rumors have come from good sources, but none of them were confident they were actually true. As such, to my knowledge, nobody saw it worth betting their reputation as a journalist on reporting the claims as fact with their name directly attached to the byline. In fact, nobody found there to be enough evidence to even report them as rumors.
The latter claim that a handful of these aircraft were sent into the region and that one experienced an in-flight emergency also isn't new. But that rumor has also been just that, a rumor.
Overall, I have seen zero actual evidence or direct sourcing that this deployment took place or that the F-117 force was ever spun-up in any meaningful way to support a limited deployment to the Middle East.
My readers know how seriously I take using undisclosed sources when making grand claims about aircraft programs and secretive projects. The problem with just buying something like this as fact is that we don't even have an actual known person that is hanging their reputation on it as it comes from a website's Facebook page. What is Scramble's policy for using undisclosed sources? Is there one? Is "very reliable information" from a good source an official sharing classified info on a program or someone who is a friend and interested in the military aviation community?
This is not a knock of Scramble at all. I really like what they do and have shared their content before, but in those cases, it was not a big claim that has only been spread as rumor over the years, at least to my knowledge, and without any primary sourcing, or any attributed sourcing at all for that matter, nor from a named author.
With that being said, let's take a look at the claim itself. Is there a reason the Pentagon would regenerate a small number of F-117s to work in the Middle East, and primarily Syria?
Yes, there is.
When the USAF retired the F-117 it lost a number of capabilities. A stealthy tactical platform that could drop 2,000lb class bombs for instance. As far as we know, only the B-2 could do that mission after 2008, and at the time there were only 21 of them and they are limited operationally, especially in regards to how they are deployed. The F-22 could only drop 1,000lb class bombs. But it's not the weight of the weapons it could employ that was the biggest loss when the F-117 was put into mummified storage at Tonopah Test Range Airport, it was how it could employ its weapons.
With the retirement of the F-117, the USAF gave up the ability to drop laser-guided bombs (LGBs) from a stealthy platform that was capable of designating its own targets. LGBs have their limitations. Bad weather being the biggest one of them. If the target is obscured by clouds or smoke, laser designation from the air becomes very troublesome if not impossible.
In addition, the attacking aircraft has to fly a profile near the target after the weapon is released in order to continue to guide it accurately to its precise impact point using its laser designator. This can leave the aircraft vulnerable as it has to stay near what is likely a highly defended target.
GPS guided munitions, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) are fire-and-forget weapons—once released, the launch aircraft can move to a safer position as the weapon flies to its target on autopilot. The launching aircraft can also release the weapon farther from its target as it doesn't have to designate the target itself. But GPS weapons have their limitations too. They don't provide as precise and dynamic targeting capability as LGBs, and above all else, they can't hit moving targets.
Some of that is changing now as the latest generation of GPS enabled weapons is being built with multi-mode seekers that can autonomously track their targets if they move away from the original target area during the weapon's terminal attack phase. Networked weapons can also leverage offboard sensor data to remain honed in on their target even if it is moving to a new location. But these concepts are cutting-edge weapons technology today, and they really weren't available even a year or two ago. They also have their own limitations and are less suitable for making direct precision strikes on highly mobilized targets, and especially those in complex and dynamic urban environments or that exist under strict rules of engagement.
The F-117 is really a flying laser-guided bomb delivery vehicle above all else. It was designed and built around this technology and concept of operations. Its pilots, which didn't have radar for navigation, couldn't even communicate with the outside world while over enemy territory, and above all else, didn't have the help of GPS, had to navigate to their targets using a number of unique methods, and always in the pitch black of night.
They also had to do this while flying a painstakingly devised route that kept them as safe as possible from known enemy threats. Their infrared sensors, one forward-looking and one downward-looking, and their laser systems were essential in this task. They would 'squirt' landmarks along their route with the laser in range-finding mode to update their positions—a task that was much harder than it sounds—in hopes of finally arriving over their target at an exact point in time and space. They didn't even have threat warning gear that would allow them to know if a missile system was about to fire at them. They were truly alone up there.
Towards the end of its career, the F-117 received GPS-guided JDAM capability, which offered a great advantage in survivability and when it came to reliably striking fixed targets in bad weather. But the laser and LGB combo was still the surgical scalpel that the Nighthawk community could employ on a level unlike any other.
So, how does any of this matter in a complex and modern aerial battlefield like Syria? The answer is fairly straightforward.
By early 2016, Russia and Syria had largely shut down the airspace in the western part of the country to any manned, non-stealthy, allied aircraft. Sure, the U.S. and its coalition could go there if they had to, but aside from the F-22 or using long-range standoff munitions, doing so would come at an elevated risk of the loss of an aircraft and the start of a major international incident. Drones, like the MQ-9 Reaper, are easily tracked and totally vulnerable to enemy air defenses and losing one doesn't mean a pilot will be captured and used as a propaganda tool. They are, in essence, expendable, regardless of what the Pentagon will tell you.
So, what happens if the U.S. needed to strike a target with extreme accuracy and one that could very well be on the move without anyone knowing they were there? The F-22 couldn't do it, its GPS-guided JDAMs and Small Diameter Bombs can only hit fixed targets. The MQ-9 couldn't do that clandestinely. The RQ-170 Sentinel is not armed. So outside of any less than public capabilities, generally speaking, there wasn't an apparent solution for striking say a high-value terrorist target that was on the run deep inside western Syria without the Russians and Syrians knowing an aircraft was stalking above and the general origin of that aircraft. And doing so would come at very great risk.
Well, that is aside from some mothballed first-generation stealth jets sleeping quietly in their hangars deep in the Nevada desert. Oh, and of that lot there are roughly four to six jets that are in flying shape at any time. So, resuscitation of stored airframes may have not even of been necessary.
The F-117 has other advantages as well. Its radar signature and the technologies behind its design are far better known by the enemy than those of 5th generation fighters or cutting-edge stealth drones. Losing one in combat wouldn't result in a massive dump of extremely high-value intellectual property right into the enemy's hands. In fact, an F-117 has already been lost in combat and its carcass exploited for intelligence purposes.
The F-117 also features a very low infrared signature, which would better hide them from patrolling Russian fighters and point air defense systems that now pack advanced infrared search and track capabilities. Also, their low-observability may not be able to get right up to Russia's latest air defense systems, but until recently, Syria employed far less sophisticated systems, ones from the Cold War-era that the F-117 was designed specifically to evade. And paired with electronic warfare, the F-117 would still be a challenge for Russia's most advanced systems to reliably track at a distance.
The F-117's unique concept of operations also means that disruptions in GPS, something Russia has become quite capable of and it is actively employing these capabilities against American assets in Syria, really don't matter when it comes both to its ability to navigate and strike targets with pinpoint precision.
The F-117s could also be beneficial for intruding into other areas in the Middle East for the exact same reasons as those stated above. Even into the backyards of countries who are deemed allies of the United States. But Syria is where the real tactical problem has lied.
So, with all this in mind, was the F-117 brought back into service by the USAF to fill a glaring and urgent gap in America's ability to strike very high-value targets in contested airspace that may not be of a fixed nature?
The answer to that question is possibly.
Quite frankly, it's also quite possible that if the F-117s were put back into service, the USAF wasn't who did it. A particular American agency may have instead. One that would have very limited, but essential use for such a unique assassination tool.
While all of this sounds relevant and plausible, actually paying to get just a handful of these jets fully combat capable with at least some updated sensors (it's DLIR in particular) and other systems and deploying them halfway around the globe for very special and limited missions seems like a reach, but not one too far to fathom.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Pentagon has once again regained its ability to laser-designate and attack targets with a stealthy penetrating airframe—the F-35. Not just that, but it also regained its ability to employ 2,000lb class weapons in a similar manner from that same 5th generation stealth tactical jet. As such, the need for F-117s would have come and gone, but this doesn't impact the timing of the Middle East deployment rumors, it actually fortifies them.
Still, in the end, there is no evidence that the F-117 was sent back into combat in any form or magnitude. Zero. At the same time, there seems to have been a fairly good reason to do so, at least in small numbers. And these aircraft were mandated by Congress to be preserved at great cost for operational contingencies. Why do that if their unique capabilities couldn't be leveraged when needed. But without any evidence, all this is speculation, and it seems hopeful speculation at that.
Clearly, there is an amazing amount of infatuation with the F-117 even a decade after it was officially retired. The fact that it is still flying in some form has only turbocharged that interest. So, we have to remain very skeptical of any grand claims or when rumors that didn't have enough evidence to justify printing them years ago are stated as fact when the F-117 hype is at its pinnacle today.
We have multiple Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, both old and new, in regarding this matter, so it is possible new details will eventually emerge.
In the meantime, there is another facet to this story that hasn't been told, one that ties into the Pentagon's ability to deliver laser-guided weapons on target even in contested airspace long after the F-117 was retired. We will tell that shadowy story in our next installment.
Author's note: You can find links to much of my highly diverse F-117 coverage in this story. They include everything from futuristic hand scanners used as security devices for the program to the F-117's 'Klingon Cloaking Device,'—yes it actually had one... Well, at least sort of!
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com