Another stealth US military aircraft has been spotted sporting a metallic-look coating. This time it’s a US Navy F-35C Joint Strike Fighter sporting a mosaic of mirror-finished panels. This is a different coating than the “chrome” previously seen on one of the service’s F-35Cs, but very similar to what has been seen on a US Air Force F-22 Raptor in the recent past.
The aircraft in question belongs to the Navy’s Aerial Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine (VX-9), the “Vampires,” and has serial number 168842. The aircraft – seen in the photos at the top of this story and below taken by Fred Taleghani of FreddyB Aviation Photography, who goes by @cvvhrn on Twitter – has been flying from Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) in Point Mugu, California, since at least last week.
The aircraft also has the modex number 105, which is painted on the outside of its two twin tails, along with the tail code VX-9 XE. A faint variation of the VX-9 logo can also be seen on the outside of the left tail, consisting of a bat and double lightning bolt with four stars arranged above it.
The markings are, of course, much less interesting than the patchwork of diamonds, triangles, and squares arranged around the fuselage. This is distinct from the pattern seen on the mirror-finished F-22 that emerged last year, which featured a mix of square, trapezoidal and somewhat triangular panels, as you can learn more about here.
A second “chrome” Raptor appeared in March of this year with a different cladding pattern, characterized by a series of smaller rectangular, trapezoidal and triangular panels. This application has more in common with the F-35C in this post than the earlier Raptor mirror coating.
The skin currently on 168842 is also different from that previously seen on at least one other F-35C VX-9, which had distinctive scalloped edges midway down both wings and a much larger surface area covered with more foil-like material on some wings. zones, similar to the first “mirrored F-22”.
It has been suggested that 168842 might have had this coating earlier. However, the aircraft seen with him while flying over an area along the California-Nevada border in January had a different modex number, 100. Of course, more than one of VX-9’s F-35Cs could have had this other coating applied at some point.
In any case, we now know definitively that at least two of VX-9’s Joint Strike Fighters have had at least one of the metallic-look finishes applied. The F-35C’s previous skin appeared to be translucent, appearing reflective or matte depending on the angle of view, and inverted the contrast of the markings below as the perspective shifted from front to rear. It is not entirely clear if the 168842 coating has similar qualities.
In addition to the two different styles of mirror coating for the F-22, we’ve recently seen at least one of the Air Force’s not-so-retired F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft with a similar finish. Even one of Scaled Composites’ Model 401 demo jets was seen with a similar liner over the NAWS China Lake long before F-22s showed up with it. Similar coatings date back even to the fully operational days of the F-117 program.
We do not yet know the exact history of these finishes, but it is believed that they help reduce the signature of these already stealthy aircraft, particularly in the infrared spectrum, without drastically impacting the aircraft’s radar cross-section. It may also have to do with making the sensitive, unobservable skin of the aircraft more maintainable and robust over time. It is not clear if these particular coatings are designed to be representative of something that could be applied to operational aircraft, or if they are only being used for research and development and test and evaluation purposes in their current form.
It’s also not entirely clear why 168842, specifically, is located at Point Mugu. Earlier this month, Naval Base Ventura County issued a somewhat cryptic press release about increased flight activity at the base beginning August 22 and running through September 2.
“NBVC Point Mugu will host approximately 50 aircraft. Aircraft supporting the multiple test events are expected to operate during flight hours from NBVC Point Mugu from August 22 to September 2, with the largest flight segments occurring between August 22 and 26,” the statement read. release. “There are no night operations scheduled at this time.”
However, the press release also described what would be happening as a singular “exercise” that is intended to “provide unit-level training for pilots and aircrews at the Point Mugu firing range.”
It is almost certain that 168842 is at Point Mugu to participate in this test/exercise plan, whatever it is. It appears that other aircraft in the Navy test and evaluation community, as well as similar units in the Marines and Air Force, have flocked to the base for the same reason. Photographer Matt Hartman was able to capture images of several of these other planes, and there were a few of particular interest.
Other VX-9 aircraft, including F/A-18E and F-model Super Hornets and at least one EA-18G Growler, were among them. Another EA-18G from Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23 (VX-23) also landed.
As seen in the photo below, the VX-23 Growler arrived with two new AN/ALQ-249(V)1 Next Generation Jammer-Mid-Band (NGJ-MB) electronic warfare pods under its wings. These are one part of a suite of new electronic warfare pods being developed for the EA-18G, which you can read more about here.
Two Air Force F-117s, now used regularly in major exercises and test events, often as stand-ins for low-visibility (stealth) aircraft and cruise missiles, are now also at Point Mugu. One of the service’s newest F-35A Aggressors, assigned to the recently reactivated 65th Aggressor Squadron, has also landed at the base.
Two F-35Bs from the Marines of the First Operational Evaluation and Test Squadron (VMX-1) are also among the new arrivals.
Whichever test and/or training event Point Mugu is currently hosting, a wide variety of specialized assets are involved that are capable of presenting, or at least mimicking, an equally diverse range of threat profiles. Of the other aircraft besides the mirrored F-35C, the EA-18G with the NGJ-MB pods is particularly noteworthy given that the Navy has said in the past that it expects this electronic warfare system to reach initial operational capability by late of Fiscal Year 2022. Fiscal Year 2022 ends on September 30.
It is also important to remember that the aircraft noted in this story are only those that have been spotted in the open. The NBVC press release mentions 50 aircraft, so there are definitely others involved in testing/training that have not necessarily been visually observed. For example, online flight tracking software recently showed an Air Force B-52 bomber flying a mission off the coast of Southern California the day after test/training activities were said to have begun. at Point Mugu.
It should also be noted that this would be far from the first time that elements of the Navy and Air Force have conducted joint advanced test and training activities off the coast of Southern California. At the same time, these types of events have been occurring more frequently, and have been growing in size and scope. This is largely a product of efforts to better incorporate higher-level threat representations, and to do so at larger scales and greater distances. In June, for example, the two services teamed up at the Southern California Firing Range Complex to conduct a major multifaceted training exercise that also included fighter jets, bombers and a carrier strike group. , among other means, as you can read here.
All in all, from what we have seen, it seems very possible, if not likely, that the testing/training activities being carried out from Point Mugu are aimed, at least in part, at evaluating a variety of different sensors and countermeasures. in larger, operationally representative environments. In many ways, what has been observed so far of aircraft operating from the base closely resembles previous Orange Flag and Black Flag Air Force large force test and evaluation exercises, which have generally taken place within of airspace over the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), although this would be run by the Navy.
It will certainly be interesting to see what details, if any, subsequently emerge about the metallic-looking F-35C and the Point Mugu test/training events it is now participating in. What now seems certain is that there are basically two flavors of “chrome” coatings for stealth jets that are being increasingly tested by both services.