The United States has maintained the technical edge in stealth technology for nearly thirty years, but if America hopes to keep it, we’ll need to develop new ways to leverage our stealth aircraft.
The introduction of the F-117 Nighthawk in 1983 represented a pivotal shift in military aviation, proving once and for all that aircraft survivability does not have to be a measure of brute force. After decades of pushing the envelopes of both speed and altitude, the F-117 took a different track. Despite its “fighter” designation, the F-117 was anything but; The Nighthawk possessed no air-to-air capabilities whatsoever, and in fact, was only barely faster than the massive B-52 bomber, which entered service some thirty years before the Nighthawk first took to the sky. It wasn’t the Nighthawk’s performance that made it special, it was its ability to skirt past enemy defenses.
That ability is commonly referred to as “stealth” as though the technology is singular. In truth, however, stealth is accomplished through multiple overlapping technologies, production methodologies, and combat tactics. Like any military capability, stealth can be degraded by newer and more advanced air defense or weapon systems, or through novel strategy — like that employed by Lt. Col. Zoltán Dani of the Yugoslavian Army when his unit successfully downed a Nighthawk with a Soviet-era air-to-air missile in 1999. That incident serves as a reminder that stealth doesn’t mean invisible. In fact, often, stealth doesn’t even mean undetectable.
You’re probably thinking about stealth in the wrong way.
The F-117’s unique shape was born out of a design Lockheed’s Skunk Works dubbed, “the hopeless diamond.” Its unusual body, adorned with hard angles and jagged edges, bears little resemblance to the sleek and sexy stealth fighters of today like the F-35 and F-22, but there’s good reason for that. In order to defeat radar, Lockheed had to rely on computers to do the really heavy lifting when it came to determining the aircraft’s design.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, computing power was limited, forcing an unusual (and some feared un-flyable) shape in order to reflect radar effectively. The sleek lines of modern stealth fighters do not represent a shift in our approach to defeating radar, so much as a maturation of what was a fairly rudimentary approach to the problem. Today, when we think of stealth, we often still think of it as a means of defeating radar–but the truth is more complicated than that.
Technically speaking, even the most advanced stealth aircraft like the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are still susceptible to tracking via radar, it’s just not the right kind of radar to be able to shoot them down. Radar works by projecting electromagnetic waves into the air and then reading the radar return that gets bounced back by an aircraft those waves make contact with. Radar arrays can be built to utilize high or low-frequency bands for these purposes, but stealth fighters are really only designed to sneak past those of the high-frequency sort.
Lower frequency radar bands can often spot stealth aircraft as they enter their airspace, and China has even claimed that they have in the case of the F-22. But because of the nature of that lower frequency, these systems may be able to spot a stealth aircraft, but they won’t be able to target one effectively enough to actually hit it with a surface to air missile. Because of this, stealth fighters are primarily designed to defeat just high-band radar, to limit the enemy’s ability to actually target them.
In other words, stealth doesn’t even mean invisible to radar… it really just means these jets are a lot harder to shoot down than others. Often, you’ll hear Air Force pilots refer to stealth as a means of delaying detection, not defeating it, for this very reason.
Other important elements of a stealth aircraft include limiting its infrared signature by shielding the jet outlets and dissipating as much heat as possible, otherwise, these aircraft would be susceptible to missile attacks that leverage “heat-seeking” capabilities. Other electronic countermeasures are also often employed, to help further limit detection or engagement, and finally, the tactics leveraged by the pilots of stealth aircraft are meant to lean into strengths while mitigating weaknesses, ensuring that these jets engage targets in a manner that presents the smallest possible risk of detection.
Why stealth has to change
Stealth technologies are always changing and maturing, from the design of stealth aircraft to the radar-absorbent coating they’re painted with, but in order to remain competitive in a conflict with a technologically advanced opponent, America’s sneaky aircraft may not cut it using stealth alone.
Russia and China have both claimed to have developed air defense systems capable of engaging stealth aircraft, and while Russia’s claims should always be taken with a grain (or handful) of salt, it truly is only a matter of time before a means of detection comes along that reduces the efficacy of America’s stealth doctrine. At that point, America will once again find itself bumping its head on the technological ceiling as it had decades prior with pre-stealth aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird. Despite flying faster than Mach 3.2 and higher than 80,000 feet, air defenses and intercept fighters began closing the capability gap with the famed Blackbird, forcing a shift toward satellite reconnaissance and a great deal of emphasis on stealth in the years that followed.
Today, America’s air power is once again approaching such a crossroads, with standing fleets of stealth aircraft America’s enemies have been working to detect more effectively for decades. Now, it’s important to point out that the world is likely a long way off from developing air defenses that can truly defeat the stealth capabilities of jets like the F-35, but it’s equally important to remember that such a system doesn’t have to work every time to represent a serious threat. Russia’s S-400 air defense system, for instance, has already been touted as capable of engaging F-35s (though many question those claims).
“Russia has invested in low-band early warning radars, with some great variants out there, but can it use these to put a good picture together, and process it to develop a track against low-observation aircraft?”asked Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at CNA Corporation.
“It’s great being able to see an aircraft or parts of it, but getting accuracy such that you can confidently get a missile near the target is the primary challenge.”
It seems likely that even the most advanced air defense systems of today likely can’t identify, track, and target an F-35… but these jets are meant to stay on duty for next half century, meaning there’s still plenty of time to work out the kinks.
At the end of World War II, America has some 300,000 combat aircraft. Today, that figure has been reduced to around 13,000. Of course, America’s military aircraft of today are far more capable than the underdeveloped and often highly specialized platforms of the Second World War… but no matter how capable the platform, it can still only be in one place at a time. Of those 13,000 aircraft, only a few hundreds of them are F-35s, just 186 are F-22 Raptors, and only 20 are stealthy B-2 Spirits. With such small numbers of stealth jets, losing just a handful could be a significant setback. A new F-35 will run the taxpayers around $80 million, and the last time America paid for a B-2 Spirit, they rang in at an astonishing $737 million a piece… in 1997 dollars.
America simply doesn’t have the volume of stealth aircraft it would need to be willing to fight an air war of attrition if an opponent were to field an air defense system that’s even moderately capable of downing stealth jets. In such a conflict, stealth will have to be coupled with decoys and technological disinformation in order to be both effective and survivable. In effect, stealth will become that much more effective when awash in a sea of white targeting noise.
Decoys and Drone Swarms: Stealth’s best friend
Russia, China, the UK, and the United States have all made statements suggesting the development of 6th generation fighters, and while the generational designation isn’t quite as scientific as it sounds, expectations for this new brood of fighters are high. These new jets are expected to leverage the same stealth and data fusion capabilities found in the F-35 and more, including high power output for directed energy weapons (lasers), and potentially even plasma hologram systems that can distract inbound missiles. Among these exotic possibilities is one the Air Force and other organizations are already focused on: Coupling crewed fighters with uncrewed combat vehicles.
Much has already been said about the value drone wingmen can provide a 5th or 6th generation fighter, from extended sensor capabilities to engaging ground targets and more. There’s also been a fair amount of discussion regarding how low cost “attritable” UCAVs like Kratos’ Valkyrie could allow for even broader mission sets thanks to the lost price of these highly capable drones. Each Valkyrie drone costs only slightly more than a Tomahawk cruise missile, making their loss easier to accept among military leaders.