Stealth Aircraft — Stealth aircraft are aircraft that use stealth technology to avoid detection by employing a combination of features to interfere with radar as well as reduce visibility in the infrared, visual, audio, and radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Development of stealth technology likely began in Germany during World War II. Well-known modern examples of stealth aircraft include the United States’ F-117 Nighthawk (1981–2008), the B-2 Spirit, the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II.
While no aircraft is totally invisible to radar, stealth aircraft prevent conventional radar from detecting or tracking the aircraft effectively, reducing the odds of a successful attack. Stealth is the combination of passive low observable (LO) features and active emitters such as Low Probability of Intercept Radars, radios and laser designators. These are usually combined with active defenses such as chaff, flares, and ECM. It is accomplished by using a complex design philosophy to reduce the ability of an opponent’s sensors to detect, track, or attack the stealth aircraft. This philosophy also takes into account the heat, sound, and other emissions of the aircraft as these can also be used to locate it.
Full-size stealth combat aircraft demonstrators have been flown by the United States (in 1977), Russia (in 2010) and China (in 2011), while the US military has already adopted three stealth designs, and is preparing to adopt another.
Most recent fighter designs will at least claim to have some sort of stealth, low observable, reduced RCS or radar jamming capability, but as of yet there has been no actual air to air combat experience against stealth aircraft.
The general design of a stealth aircraft is always aimed at reducing radar and thermal detection. It is the designer’s top priority to satisfy the following conditions; some of which are listed below, by using their skills, which ultimately decides the success of the aircraft:
- Reducing thermal emission from thrust.
- Reducing radar detection by altering some general configuration (like introducing the split rudder).
- Reducing radar detection when the aircraft opens its weapons bay.
- Reducing infra-red and radar detection during adverse weather conditions.
Benefits of Stealth Aircraft Designs
A smaller number of stealth aircraft may replace a large fleet of conventional aircraft while maintaining or increasing combat efficiency, possibly resulting in longer term savings in the military budget. A stealth aircraft strike capability may deter potential opponents from taking action and keep them in constant fear of unopposed airstrikes, since they can never know if planes are already underway, or what they might strike next. This may make an opponent more willing to accept a diplomatic solution, although the moral reasoning behind this is disputed.
Stealth aircraft allow raids on important point targets to occur, while maintaining a cover of plausible denial. Since the approach and departure routes would likely remain unknown, a stealth operator could simply refuse to comment and hope to avoid war. The production and fielding of a stealth combat aircraft design may force an opponent to pursue the same aim, possibly resulting in significant weakening of the economically inferior party. The 1980s American Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) program served a similar purpose against the USSR.
Use of Stealth Aircraft
USAF F-22 Raptor stealth fighter of the 27th Fighter Squadron. To date, stealth aircraft have been used in several low- and moderate-intensity conflicts, including Operation Desert Storm, Operation Allied Force and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In each case they were employed to strike high-value targets which were either out of range of conventional aircraft in the theater or which were too heavily defended for conventional aircraft to strike without a high risk of loss. In addition, because the stealth aircraft do not have to be dodging surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery over the target they can aim more carefully and thus are more likely to hit the target and not cause as much collateral damage. In many cases they were used to hit the high value targets early in the campaign (or even before it), before other aircraft had the opportunity to degrade the opposing air defense to the point where other aircraft had a good chance of reaching those critical targets.
Stealth aircraft in future low- and moderate-intensity conflicts are likely to have similar roles. However, given the increasing prevalence of excellent Russian-built surface-to-air missile systems on the open market (such as the SA-10, SA-12 and SA-20 (S-300P/V/PMU) and SA-15 (9K331/332)), stealth aircraft are likely to be very important in a high-intensity conflict in order to gain and maintain air supremacy, especially to the United States who is likely to face these types of systems. It is possible to cover one’s airspace with so many air defences with such long range and capability that conventional aircraft would find it very difficult “clearing the way” for deeper strikes. For example, China license-builds all of the previously mentioned SAM systems in quantity and would be able to heavily defend important strategic and tactical targets in the event of some kind of conflict. Even if anti-radiation weapons are used in an attempt to destroy the SAM radars of such systems, or stand-off weapons are launched against them, these modern surface-to-air missile batteries are capable of shooting down weapons fired against them. The surprise of a stealth attack, and the ability to penetrate the air defenses and survive, may become the only reasonable way of making a safe corridor through which conventional bombers and other aircraft can enter the enemy’s airspace.