Why was the F-117 retired after so few years in service (Approximately 25 years) while other military aircraft are in service for many decades? Many of the 60 built should still be air-worthy.

For example, the F-15, F-16, and F-18 models have been kept in service for 40 years.


1 Answer 1


Several reasons can be found for its early retirement:

  • the aircraft was instantly obsolete after one was shot down over Yugoslavia by a 30 year old SAM system
  • Maintenance was pretty expensive and difficult (and according to some involved large quantities of highly toxic chemicals that are still causing health problems for the people involved)
  • Few military reasons to keep it in the existing threat environment. An F/A-18 is cheaper to operate than an F-117 for bombing missions against insurgents and terrorists.
  • Politics. Retiring the F-117 could have been intended as a step towards asking for funding for more F-22s, claiming that the USAF was now without a tactical stealth aircraft for the ground attack mission (the F-22 at the time was envisioned as a multi role aircraft, having a secondary ground attack function like the F-15 and F-16).
  • The F-15 and F-16 have been kept in service through extensive replacement and upgrade programs for older models. There never was an upgraded F-117 proposed or built. The F/A-18 E/F are effectively a completely new aircraft and shouldn't be considered the same type as the older A/B.
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    $\begingroup$ It was less the aircraft itself that became obsolete than the extremely static mission planning which sent the F-117 on the same route, day after day. All the Serbs had to do was to point their missile at the right spot and fire it at the right time once they had learned the schedule. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2018 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf true, but under the original idea that missile never would have been able to get a lock on the aircraft. That's where the obsolescent technology failed it (and indeed, the planning and flight crew ignored SOP by flying the same route day after day, making themselves predictable). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Jan 19, 2018 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ Get close enough and every stealth aircraft becomes visible. Luftwaffe pilots who participated in exercises with F-117s were regularly briefed not to disclose how much of the F-117 could be detected by their aircraft's sensors. Just this much: They were not completely invisible. A decent missile will get a lock on a low-flying F-117 that flies directly overhead. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2018 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf yes, but not at the distance and using the systems employed for the shootdown in Yugoslavia. There it was triangulation using multiple radars at a distance that should not have led to detection, leading to a visual fix on the aircraft and eventual optical tracking of the missile to an infra red lock on the engine exhaust (which was also deemed to be next to impossible, though the distance may have been short enough at that stage to make it within the design parameters of the aircraft). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Jan 19, 2018 at 9:46

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