The Buzz

The 5 Most Deadly Stealth Weapons of All Time

Famous for being the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 is less well known for being a stealthy aircraft. The SR-71, which cruised at Mach 3.2, was one of the first aircraft to incorporate multiple stealth features into its design.

First flown in 1962, the SR-71 incorporated four stealthy features into its design. First, surfaces were designed to avoid reflecting radar waves. Second, the aircraft’s wings, tail and fuselage made use of composites, alternating with titanium, on the idea that composites were radar-absorbing. Third, the massive J-58 afterburning engines, with their large air-gulping inlets were positioned close to the fuselage of the airplane.

The fourth feature incorporated into the SR-71 was a black paint infused with tiny iron ferrite spheres. The paint, which gave the SR-71 its distinctive “blackbird” look and helped reduced the plane’s radar cross section, cost $400 a gallon.

Stealth, or the idea of reducing the ability of the enemy to detect a weapon, has been around since the first caveman sewed a pocket into his clothing and hid a rock in it.

Thousands of years later, with the ability to detect objects on the ground, in the air and at sea using electromagnetic radiation, hiding weapons in plain sight has become much harder. The idea of making an aircraft invisible to radar waves was not pursued as the properties of radar with regards to object shape were not fully understood.

Pyotr Ufimtsev, a Russian physicist, published a number of papers on predicting the reflection of electromagnetic waves—radar waves. The Soviet Union, not understanding the gravity of his work, translated many of them into English.

But aerospace engineers at Lockheed did, and extrapolated from it a correct theory on reducing the radar cross section of aircraft. The result was the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth “fighter.” Since then, stealth has been an integral part of every tactical aircraft deployed by the United States. Here are five of the most lethal stealth weapons of war.

SR-71 Blackbird:

Famous for being the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 is less well known for being a stealthy aircraft. The SR-71, which cruised at Mach 3.2, was one of the first aircraft to incorporate multiple stealth features into its design.

First flown in 1962, the SR-71 incorporated four stealthy features into its design. First, surfaces were designed to avoid reflecting radar waves. Second, the aircraft’s wings, tail and fuselage made use of composites, alternating with titanium, on the idea that composites were radar-absorbing. Third, the massive J-58 afterburning engines, with their large air-gulping inlets were positioned close to the fuselage of the airplane.

The fourth feature incorporated into the SR-71 was a black paint infused with tiny iron ferrite spheres. The paint, which gave the SR-71 its distinctive “blackbird” look and helped reduced the plane’s radar cross section, cost $400 a gallon. Altogether, the SR-71’s stealthy design gave it a radar cross section of less than 10 square meters. By comparison, the radar cross section of an early F-15 Eagle is 100 square meters.

F-117 Nighthawk:

The first operational stealth aircraft, the F-117 is often mistakenly referred to as a “stealth fighter.” Contrary to popular belief, the F-117 is actually a tactical bomber, with no air to air capability.

The F-117 was developed from the top secret Have Blue project, which produced two stealth technology demonstrating aircraft. The Have Blue aircraft emphasized a low radar signature over aerodynamic performance, and indeed needed fly-by-wire technology just developed for the F-16 to prevent the aircraft from losing control in flight. Fifty nine F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters were eventually built.

The existence of the “stealth fighter” was speculated for much of the 1980s, reaching a frenzy after a July 1986 crash of a F-117 outside Bakersfield, California. The attempted cover-up only served to heighten public interest, and the Air Force confirmed the existence of the plane in 1988.

The F-117 first flew in combat in 1989, when it bombed targets during the invasion of Panama. The F-117 next flew in Operation Desert Storm, flying nighttime missions over Baghdad, and participated in no-fly zone operations against Iraq in the 1990s. F-117s flew missions over Kosovo in 1999, and Iraq during 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. The F-117 was retired in 2008.

B-2 Spirit:

First revealed in 1988 by the Northrop Corporation, the B-2 Spirit was to be America’s first truly stealthy strategic bomber. The tailless design was meant to minimize the aircraft’s radar signature, allowing it to penetrate Soviet air defenses during a nuclear war.

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