The F-117 Stealth Fighter Just Can't Stay Retired

F-117 Nighthawk
January 20, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-117StealthMilitaryDefenseStealth Fighter

The F-117 Stealth Fighter Just Can't Stay Retired

The F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters keep coming out of retirement for various training drills. It seems this legendary weapon of war still has some use. 

The F-117 Just Won't Go Retire - Photos circulated last summer of a pair of United States Air Force F-117 stealth fighter jets taking part in an exercise in Alaska.

Though the aircraft has been largely retired from service, Congress had ordered that all F-117s mothballed after September 2006 were maintained so that they could be returned to service – and clearly, even after all these years, the F-117 Nighthawk can soar.

The F-117’s Wings Haven’t Been Clipped

The two aircraft arrived at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to take part in the Northern Edge 23-1 exercises that ran from May 4 to May 19.

The Nighthawks joined the five ships and more than 150 aircraft that were involved in the joint and combined training exercise, which was sponsored by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and led by Headquarters Pacific Air Forces. It serves to integrate land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains for joint, interagency, and multinational training.

This was reported to be the first time that the F-117 had been operating out of a base in Alaska. Eagle-eyed aviation enthusiasts also noted that the F-117s that operated from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson had been fitted with removable radar reflectors, which are typically employed so that the aircraft can be seen on air traffic control radars.

Those may have been removed when the Nighthawk's unique low-observable radar signature was required – such as if the F-117s served to augment the 18th Aggressor Squadron during the exercises.

The deployment to Alaska for the Northern Edge exercise also came just weeks after another pair of F-117s (or perhaps the same ones) was spotted in Southern California's Sidewinder Low-Level training route, which is located in the vast R2508 Range Complex. Video footage of the aircraft in flight has been shared on social media.

F-117 Nighthawk in the Crosshairs

The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was developed by the aerospace and defense giant's secretive Skunk Works division (officially the Advanced Development Projects) where its teams had also produced a number of noteworthy aircraft including the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lighting II. 

However, the Nighthawk was the first operational aircraft to be designed with stealth technology. 

It was so secret that it was in service for six years before the U.S. Air Force even admitted its existence.

Officially designated as a fighter, it was developed to address Soviet threats, but as the Cold War wound down it might have seemed as if the billions of dollars spent in its development had been for nothing.


The F-117 was finally used in action in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama, when a pair of fighters targeted outside the Panamanian Defense Forces barracks. It only had a chance to show its potential in delivering utter devastation to the enemy when it was used against Iraqi positions in the early stages of the Gulf War in 1991.

From the first night of the attacks, the F-117A was employed against critical strategic Iraqi command and control installations as well as key communication centers, research and development, production, and storage facilities for nuclear and chemical weapons. The Nighthawks were then employed to target especially hardened aircraft shelters at numerous Iraqi airfields.

It now seems that now more than three decades after its role in the Gulf War and years after being officially retired, the F-117 Nighthawk remains quite "active."

Author Experience and Expertise

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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