USAF F-117

Above: An F-117 Nighthawk drops a GBU-28 guided-bomb during a live-fire weapons testing mission in 2000. Credit: Tech. Sgt. Edward Snyder/USAF.


Above: An F-22 Raptor on the runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Credit: Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker/USAF.


Above: A B-2 Spirit USAF bomber in 2007. Credit: Unattribted/USAF.


The USAF F-117 Nighthawk (now retired), the B-2 Spirit, and more recently the F-22 Raptor, represent a sea-change away from the conventional developmental narrative of ever-increasing range-payload-and-speed that dominated through the twentieth century. In the era of the ubiquity of orbital surveillance, horizon-scanning, and the ethos of "what is seen is already destroyed," military research-and-design has become focused on low-probability-of-detection--in other words, furtiveness, covertness, slyness, and deniability.

Stealth aircraft are, for Virilio, well worthy of further critical-philosophical scrutiny in that these are examples of "a synthetic object that anticipates the disappearance of its own image, the destruction of its representation." The plane is there, but its virtual representation is not (DS: 19).

Stealth aircraft are designed-and-manufactured to go unrecognised by radar surveillance systems--only one or two percent of the stealth jet's ordinary radar signature is returned (or bounced back) to those monitoring a given airspace. Any such plane thus disappears from enemy radar screens; untraceable, untrackable, dematerialized, near-invisible. And this being the case, the stealth plane is able to pierce enemy radar-surveillance undetected and so attack targets (e.g., launch its missiles) with impunity. The net military benefit being the return of the surprise attack--a classic military tactical advantage; a means by which, "the unidentified flying object springs up like Death."

The designers of the F-117 and B-2 were working very definitely in the field of "the art of illusion (AM: 66)." Illusionists cause the viewer to be unable to distinguish between what is real and what he thinks is real (AM: 66). In this way the designers of the F-117 followed in the tradition of great illusionists such as Daguerre (the Diorama), Harry Houdini, or the stage magican Jasper Maskelyne. (Maskelyne also worked during WWII at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre on military subterfuge and deception, including innovating the inflatable Sherman tank decoy.) The F-117 and its radar-image is a duality that is comparable to man and his mirror reflection: a duality which is ordinarily indestructible. Thinking of the achievement of the F-117, Virilio recalls the narrative of Galeen's The Student of Prague, the story of a young man who makes a deal with the Devil and by which he separates from his reflection/mirror-image. When the student looks in the mirror there is no longer any reflection.