Combat Aircraft’s exclusive post at the weekend that showed photographs of a US Air Force F-117 in possible hybrid colors raised some interesting questions. While we cannot be certain, the images appear to show that the aircraft bears patches of white and gray paint, as well as its traditional black radar absorbant material (RAM). The patches (especially the one on the tail) also appear to be an attempt mask the visual signature of the aircraft, much as some aggressor schemes on other types aim to do.
So, could the photographs show an F-117 in an aggressor scheme?
To start, it’s important to understand what aggressor aircraft actually do.
Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not just about close-in dogfighting against other pilots to build skillsets. Aggressors have a multitude of roles, from training to test and evaluation. This means that they are often used to present certain adverary profiles to another aircraft or a ground-based air defense system, for example, so that the operator can either learn, develop tactics or simply assess the performance of the equipment in question.
If, for example, a new sensor pod is being tested or evaluated, the chance to use a low observable aggressor will provide valuable data on the performance of said piece of equipment against a stealthy target. A skilled aggressor pilot will possess the threat replication knowledge to be able to best present the kind of scenarios needed in the trial. The proliferation of advanced stealthy fighters in China and Russia is sure to warrant such evaluations in the US and many speculate that the F-117 could have a similar radar cross section (RCS) in certain aspects as the Chinese J-20.
So, why use an F-117 for this? Well, it’s offers a low observable platform for test without impacting the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning communities. Even maintaining a small fleet of F-117s for this role is likely to come in cheaper than using the USAF’s advanced fifth-generation fighters.
Turning to the more traditional aggressor role of training, some of the comments on the original story said that the F-117 isn’t a fighter and therefore would not be a useful aggressor. Often, much of the aggressor’s work in achieving desired learning objectives (DLOs) is done well before the merge, often they never get into a close within visual range fight at all. Adversary flying is increasingly about presenting certain profiles at long range — a Raptor or Eagle pilot, for example, wants to ‘kill’ the bandit with radar-guided weapons well before they can actually see each other — so a stealthy aggressor has a big role to play here. This is partly why the USAF is now planning to use early F-35As in a new aggressor unit at Nellis AFB, Nevada. It’s also why some of the 64th Aggressor Squadron’s F-16Cs now wear the Upgraded Have Glass gray paint to reduce RCS.
So, there is a clear requirement for a type such as the F-117 to be used as an ‘aggressor’, be that for test or for training.
Ironically, the question that could undermine the aggressor label is why paint this aircraft as such? USAF aggressors bear incredible, threat representative, schemes from arctic splinter to Su-57 ‘Frazor’ pixelated camouflage. But the F-117 looks like an F-117 and it’s difficult to make it look like anything else visually, plus as we’ve already discussed, the Nighthawk’s value will be in the beyond visual range scenario. So there isn’t much of a case for painting it as an aggressor in the traditional sense aside from good old squadron culture and acknowledgement of the role.
If this particular case isn’t just wear and tear on the RAM — and the finish looks too deliberate for that — this could be an example of using an F-117 to test new external coatings in infra-red or radar-tracking modes. While this may not mean it is an aggressor in the traditional sense, it could point to any of the above applications as factors in the ongoing activity of the USAF’s F-117s — which appear to be doing much more than simply being kept in flyable storage.
To read more about the USAF’s aggressors, the July 2019 issue of Combat Aircraft features an in-depth article on Nellis’ 64th Aggressor Squadron. Click here to see our subscription offers to ensure you never miss an issue either in print or on your mobile device: https://combataircraft.keypublishing.com/subscribe/