Stealth, or aircraft signature reduction, is a potent and viable military capability in modern combat, and will remain so well into the future. It is not, however, an all or nothing capability, as some critiques have suggested. Investments in stealth technology significantly improve the ability of US aircraft to penetrate enemy air defenses and create significant costs for adversaries who attempt to defend against this technology.
In certain environments, stealth may have the ability to penetrate with little support. However, stealth is most effective when employed in concert with other aircraft, tactics, and capabilities. Adding stealth to a multicapability force package creates a lethal synergy that is difficult to defend against. By reducing the enemy’s ability to detect attackers, this complicates air defense efforts and reduces time for adversaries to react effectively.
After years of observing US military operations, other nations too are convinced of the advantages of stealth design, and are moving to close the capability gap. Russia and China have adopted stealth in a range of new aircraft designs that are currently in development, and are slated to enter production in the next decade.
Stealth aircraft have now been in development and service for over 40 years. As with any military capability, the potential offered by technologies to counter stealth advantages are being developed, and also being debated. As a result, several questions must now be addressed. Do the advances in computational power and radar systems seen in the digital age undermine stealth aircraft survivability? Will stealth remain viable in future decades in the face of these technologies, or will its effectiveness wane? Should the United States continue to invest in stealth systems to improve them or mitigate technology that attempts to counter them, or shift its approach?
Over the long run, the US will engage opponents who field increasing numbers of powerful digital multiband radars. Because ground-based systems are bigger and able to deploy larger arrays, their theoretical ranges and capabilities will be greater than those carried by fighters and airborne early warning aircraft.
The ground-based systems, if they can successfully detect and locate an aircraft, can alert SAM batteries and vector fighters to the threat location – perhaps without ever losing track. This will pose new challenges for US stealth aircraft, but there are several factors to keep in mind in this offense-defense struggle:
• Reduction in RCS continues to offer huge operational advantages by shrinking the ranges at which the aircraft can be detected. The laws of physics are hard to break. If newer radars can detect stealth aircraft at longer ranges, their ability to detect non-stealthy aircraft is also increased.
• Current operational stealth aircraft feature highly tuned systems that detect adversary radars and use knowledge of the aircraft’s RCS to optimize routing in order to minimize the potential for detection and engagement. Stealth is a combination of reduced RCS and operational tactics that result in signature reduction.
• Multi-band or broadband stealth is growing in importance as more multi-band radars are fielded. Such radars are still in their infancy, but will grow in numbers over the coming decades. This will put an emphasis on larger, tailless designs such as the B-2, B-21, and X-47.
Reducing the ability of modern enemy air defenses to discover, track, and engage US and allied aircraft is essential. But it is important to stress that stealth is not an all or nothing military capability. Much like improved missiles and guided munitions, stealth has also advanced over the past several decades. Investments in this technology significantly improve the ability of US aircraft to penetrate enemy air defenses, and create significant costs for adversaries who attempt to mitigate US aircraft signature reduction capabilities. The costs for adversaries to attempt to offset this advantage are significant. Although highly capable, modern SAM systems such as the SA-21 are estimated to cost around $400 million per division (a division of SA-21s is comprised of 8 launchers, 112 missiles, and numerous command and control and support vehicles).
At the same time, stealth aircraft are more affordable than ever. For example, the F-15SG variant of the F-15E sold to the Republic of Singapore Air Force features a raft of improvements from the base F-15E Strike Eagle model, such as an advanced infrared search and track system, a modern targeting pod, and improved engines, among other features. These aircraft, delivered between 2009 and 2013, came out to around $85 million a copy for a buy of 24 airframes. In comparison, the last F-22s to roll off the assembly line before its termination cost between $90 million and $100 million a copy, and subsequent airframes could have cost even less. The F-35 is now on a cost reduction curve to get just below $90 million a copy, as production ramps up and customers begin to receive modern, operational aircraft. In light of these trends, it’s important to consider capability and costs versus requirements for modern combat aircraft. Low observable aircraft are a very compelling proposition, even at a 10 to 20 percent cost premium when compared to other non-stealthy aircraft, especially in light of higher threat combat scenarios where these aircraft could face modern defenses against Russia, China, or a military equipped with capabilities from both of these potential adversaries.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.