In 1980s the US offered the UK the chance to buy the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter to equip RAF Squadrons but the British MoD declined the proposal. Here’s why.

In 1980s the US offered the UK the chance to buy the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter to equip RAF Squadrons but the British MoD declined the proposal. Here’s why.

By Dario Leone
Dec 7 2022
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US President Ronald Reagan had offered Margaret Thatcher the chance to work on US advanced military programs during the 1980s such as the Space Shuttle program and the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter.

The F-117A Nighthawk was the world’s first operational aircraft designed to exploit low-observable stealth technology. This precision-strike aircraft was able to penetrate high-threat airspace and used laser-guided weapons against critical targets.

The F-117A production decision was made in 1978 with a contract awarded to Lockheed Advanced Development Projects, the “Skunk Works,” in Burbank, Calif. The first flight over the Nevada test ranges was on Jun. 18, 1981, only 31 months after the full-scale development decision.

The first F-117A was delivered in 1982, and the last delivery was in the summer of 1990. Air Combat Command‘s only F-117A unit, the 4450th Tactical Group, (now the 49th Fighter Wing, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.), achieved operational capability in October 1983.

Although the Nighthawk was never exported, in 2016 the British National Archives released newly declassified documents which revealed that US President Ronald Reagan had offered Margaret Thatcher the chance to work on US advanced military programs during the 1980s such as the Space Transportation System (STS, as the Space Shuttle program was officially designated) and the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter.

According to Theguardian.com, Thatcher agreed that for Britain the Space Shuttle program was more cost-effective than the European Ariane expendable launch vehicle.

The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in fact wanted to send two Skynet 4 military satellites into orbit to provide communications across Europe and the Atlantic, and the shuttle launch was priced at £58m – £23m cheaper than Ariane.

F-117A print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

However the Challenger disaster, along with French prime minister Pierre Mauroy letter in which he pleaded Thatcher to reconsider her decision, played against the Space Shuttle program.

Moreover Theguardian.com reports that in 1986 President Ronald Reagan wanted to share a highly sensitive US military technology with the UK.

After Thatcher “met privately” with Casapar (Cap) Weinberger, the then U.S. defence secretary, to discuss this unique project, the U.K. Prime Minister sent a top secret personal message (on which someone wrote in faint pencil “Stealth”) to the U.S. President where she stated: “Dear Ron, I was immensely impressed by your splendid achievement: three cheers for America! I was also very touched by the generosity of the offer of participation which [Cap] brought. It brings home once again who our real friends are.”

The program was codenamed “Project Moonflower” and was aimed to sell the still top-secret F-117 to the United Kingdom.

The Lockheed F-117A was developed in response to a US Air Force (USAF) request for an aircraft capable of attacking high value targets without being detected by enemy radar. By the 1970s, new materials and techniques allowed engineers to design an aircraft with radar-evading or “stealth” qualities.

Eventually the offer to buy the Nighthawk to equip Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadrons was declined by the MoD because the F-117 was still a black program. In fact a Dec. 1986 MoD letter to Charles Powell, the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, informed him that “Mr Weinberger has offered us a chance to purchase the current US aircraft but we have replied that we would not wish to actually buy hardware while the programme remains strictly black [secret].”

Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Kim Frey / U.S. Air Force

The weird story of the USAF F-117A that flew close to the left wingtip of an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 during Operation Desert Shield (and a quick look at pre-Desert Storm Intelligence gathering)

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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