The stealth fighter is among the most consequential innovations of modern air power, offering an unprecedented degree of tactical and strategic flexibility. From the F-117 Nighthawk’s seminal role in the First Gulf War to the B-2 Spirit’s highly effective bombing runs during the 2011 Libyan intervention, stealth aircraft have been a key operational pillar in the US Air Force roster. But—capable as they are—these machines are neither invincible nor, as it were, invisible. Here are five ways to counter stealth fighters.
Stealth, contrary to common misconception, is not an invisibility cloak; it does not, as per former President Donald Trump’s judgement, make a plane “literally” impossible to see. Rather, “stealth” is an umbrella term for a diverse assortment of design features that reduce a fighter’s infrared, radar, visibility, and other signatures. Fighters like the F-35 are primarily designed for optimal stealth performance against radars using X-band wavelengths. In theory, low-bandwidth radars would have an easier time detecting a stealth fighter. They are not terribly accurate, but could possibly reveal the approximate location of a stealth aircraft. There is also some speculation that over-the-horizon radars, such as Russia’s Podsolnukh (Sunflower) system, are capable of identifying stealth fighters and tracking them over great distances, although the success rate of these tools remains a topic of debate.
Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) Systems
Another potential solution comes in the form of infrared search and track (IRST) technology; namely, the use of thermal imaging to track the heat signature of stealth fighters. IRST equipment has grown in sophistication over the past decade, employing increasingly more advanced algorithms; the Eurofighter Typhoon boasts an IRST system so advanced that it can spot a “campfire on the moon,” joked defense expert Justin Bronk. “In theory, state of the art IRST could find and track F-22 at quite long range,” said Bronk. There are some real-world complications—IRST fields are fairly small, and you’d have to have a general idea of where to look. Still, stealth fighters are not immune to IRST countermeasures.
Even if generally undetectable, stealth fighters are still relatively vulnerable in certain modes of flight. To retain their stealth characteristics, fighters like the F-22 and F-35 store their weapons in internal bays. These planes’ radar cross-section (RCS) spikes as they launch their weapons; depending on the circumstances, that could give the enemy a window to track and target the stealth fighter in question. An F-35 operating in its external weapons configuration, known as “beast mode,” would have an increased RCS right out of the gate.
This category will depend on the specific stealth aircraft in question, but many such fighters—including the F-35 and B-2—were not made for an air superiority role and can therefore fall prey to an advanced enemy air superiority fighter like the Su-57. There are compelling battlefield reasons why such a head-on confrontation is fairly unlikely, but it cannot be completely discounted—particularly in the catastrophic scenario of a major conventional war between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Although not inherently a design flaw, it’s well worth noting that stealth aircraft are frequently limited by their crippling research and production costs. At a staggering $2 billion per aircraft, the B-2 Spirit is the world’s most expensive airplane. Aside from colossal opportunity costs (i.e. what else could that money have been spent on?), this comes with a major military drawback: the Air Force simply doesn’t have enough of them, potentially a crippling operational liability in the event of a full-scale conflict with another great power.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.