Foreign Policy

A Stealthy Goodbye


The Wobblin' Goblin is winging into retirement after 25 years on the job. The F-117A stealth fighter was quietly retired this week at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Reports are that 55 of the aircraft were originally built, but the exact number is classified, as is any attrition over the years. The new F-22 Raptor is to replace the F-117A and presumably take up its stealthy, tactical first-strike mission.

Some wild speculation out there: Perhaps the F-117A is not quite as invisible to radar as the aircraft had been only a few years ago. Military tech does not often stand still for very long.


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  1. Living near Norfolk VA, the retirement of the F14 Tomcat was very prevalent in out local media. Just as close is Langley AFB and the TFW. I am surprised that this is the first I’d heard of the 117A being hangered.

    Watching reports about the F14, I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t sell the “neutered” post retirement versions of these jets to smaller (but friendly) countries. For the most part, they still kick pretty serious ass.

  2. That’s a bummer. I did my wind tunnel laboratory experiment sophomore year on the old F117. Oh well fuck it.

  3. I doubt there is a much of a market for them now that there are cheaper alternatives for attack aircraft (e.g. UAVs). As I recall, these things are cash and maintenance black holes.

    As to why you wouldn’t hear about it, I imagine that the F-117 pilots and people are still more inculcated in a culture of secrecy than anybody else. Would anybody who was flying them back in 1991 (when they became public), still be flying them?

  4. All these WWII relics like planes, tanks, aircraft carriers, etc., will be rendered obsolete by relatively cheap swarming semi-intelligent robot drones.

    Still, good pork for the folks back home.

  5. All these WWII relics like planes, tanks, aircraft carriers, etc., will be rendered obsolete by relatively cheap swarming semi-intelligent robot drones.

    Which, of course, will in turn be rendered obsolete by the “gray goo” army of nano-robotic warriors.

  6. Wasn’t the F117 sort of a plane in search of a mission? It wasn’t capable of serving as a frontline fighter and its bombing capabilities are quite limited compared to the B-2. As I understand it, the basic role of the stealth planes is to take out radar and C&C facilities so that non-stealthy planes can then go in and have a relatively easy time of it. But I’m no expert; most of my aviation enthusiasm as a kid was reserved for biplanes of the WWI variety.

  7. Silly people, everyone knows that the “wars” of the future will be armies of genetically engineered, Aryan super clones wiping out us inferior “normals!”

    I think the F-117 days must have been numbered when the Serbs shot that one down.

  8. Jeff,
    That’s rather interesting. I was at a rocket “air show” (X-Prize Cup) about two weeks ago down in Las Cruces with my company doing some engine firing demos when we had to temporarily stand-down for an F-117A flyby. They told us to head north from our site 200ft to get out from under the flight path, but the thing ended up flying only about 100ft directly above us…that’d be really ironic I got to see one of the last flights of the F-117A from that close.

  9. Still, good pork for the folks back home.

    Reminds me of all those small government Repub families when I was a jr. high kid, rooting for Reagan’s bid for the White House. After all, nearly every job depended on that government teat that was the stealth program.

  10. lg,

    Although I spent a few years in the navy (SSBNs) twenty years ago, I don’t know much about carriers or carrier-based planes. Does any other country even have a carrier large enough to handle F-14s? The former USSR was building a couple of full-sized carriers when the Communist government fell. There was at least talk of selling one of the carriers to India, but I’m not sure that ever happened. Building a full-sized carrier alone probably costs more than the defense budgets of all but a handful of countries. Add the escort ships and I don’t know that any other country could afford a full-sized carrier fleet. Even if someone wanted to use the F-14s as land-based fighters, the fact that the USN determined they are too expensive to maintain indicates no one else would be likely to take on that burden. I was shocked when I saw an F-14 up close – the planes are huge.

  11. The F-117 was probably doomed by the success of the Tomahawk program. ChrisO had the mission fairly well described. That role is more easily and flexibly accomplished by GPS-guided missiles and rarely by larger bombers.

    Improvements in radar almost definitely have nothing to do with it. This is poorly analogous to having one exotic calibre gun in your arsenal. Eventually, you’ll get sick of paying for the ammo, or in this case, for parts.

  12. I remember running a projection on the costs of planes back when the F117 was developed.

    The curve indicated that by 2025, the entire USAF budget would be required to purchase one plane.

  13. Actually the USN was not the only operator of the F-14. We sold some to a friendly government, namely Iran during the reign of the last Shah. Needless to say, after the revolution the Iranians had a problem securing parts for them and there probably isn’t one in flying condition left, despite the Iran-Contra deals.

    I don’t think it is so much that the F-117 is obsolete, though it may be getting a bit long in the tooth; it is much more likely that the Air Force needs the cash and rationale to buy more F-22s, which are far sexier in that you can use them to shoot down other planes. The Air Force HATES ground support.

  14. Despite it being originally designed for carrier use, a bunch of countries use the F-18 as their air superiority fighter. I think the marines do to, though I don’t know if theirs are carrier landing capable (as they are “naval aviators”).

  15. IIRC, in a splendid bit of consistancy, the alarming # of deaths by liver cancer(a sprinter, not a slogger) of the techs involved in attaching the anechoic tiles (another job for the “free market” refugees ?) was denied for years- on National Security grounds, of course- by the DoD as far as insurance payouts go. It was the adhesive. It defeated the filtration systems. Families won. Finally.
    And the stealth aspect didnt work when they were wet! Whatthe hell, I hate America, obviously.
    But the true Stealth A/C is the B1 & its variations. Billions for a machine that was obsolete at rollout, like the B58 Hustler. From high altitude supersonic bomber- missile bait- it went to low altitude subsonic iron bomb sled. It was more important (for votes & campaign contributions) to fund this faberge egg of a turkey (block that metaphor!) than cancel it. One of many, one small splinter of Ike’s “Cross of Iron”.
    And where is my Tang or velcro from the Goblin? From the SLCM program I got idiots who have GPS in thier Hummers, at least.
    IIRC, the Goblins who dumped 1/2 ton bombs on Panama City were wide of the mark more than half the time. I dont want to know how much decommisioning these flying toxic dumps will cost. You wont see em parked in front of VFW halls…..
    jeez, sorry gang, Im in a very sour mood.

  16. Iranian Tomcats have been observed airborne in the last year or so by our boys (and girls – saw some interesting reports of Iranian reaction to woman pilots). I imagine they’re limping along, but there are also reports that they have servicable AIM-54s or the equivalent still.

    The F-117 has been rendered less useful by a combination of things, especially UAVs and new standoff munitions delivered by current frontline ACs and the F-22 in the future. And the Tomahawk’s versatility. And the B-2 as mentioned.

  17. …The -117 was still fully capable of dealing with any threat out there, and that included the Chinese or the Russians. But Rimfax had it right – they’re expensive to maintain and getting progressively harder to to take care of. (Remember the one that shed a wing a year or so back – I’ve heard reports of structural problems in the fleet that could be fixed if the USAF was willing to spend the money.) There were also some electronics upgrades to the -117 that the USAF was a little reluctant to pay for as well. The F-22 has turned out to be every bit as stealthy, if not more so, than the -117, with the added bonus(as noted)that you can whack other planes with it. Keep in mind too that we now have more -22s in service (70+ with #100 under construction)than we ever had -117s.

    Mike Kozlowski
    USAF Retired

  18. “…by 2025, the entire USAF budget would be required to purchase one plane.”

    If we had a Doomsday Machine we wouldn’t get nickeled and dimed to death with all these flyboy toys.


    “I dont want to know how much decommisioning these flying toxic dumps will cost. You wont see em parked in front of VFW halls…..”

    For the right price, I’ll let them park one at my house. Next to the roller coaster.

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