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Stealth aircraft

By Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia,

The retired F-117 Nighthawk stealth strike aircraft of the U.S Air Force
The retired F-117 Nighthawk stealth strike aircraft of the U.S Air Force

Stealth aircraft are aircraft that use stealth technology to interfere with radar detection as well as means other than conventional aircraft by employing a combination of features to reduce visibility in the visual, audio, infrared and radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Well-known modern examples of stealth aircraft include the United States' F-117 Nighthawk (1980s-2008), the B-2 Spirit "Stealth Bomber,", the F-22 Raptor, and the F-35 Lightning II.

While no aircraft is totally invisible to radar, stealth aircraft limit current conventional radar's abilities to detect or track them effectively enough to prevent an attack. Stealth is accomplished by using a complex design philosophy to reduce the ability of an opponent's sensors to detect, track and attack an aircraft.


The first true "stealth" aircraft was most likely the Horten Ho 229 flying wing fighter-bomber. In addition to the aircraft's shape, which may not have been a deliberate attempt to affect radar deflection, the majority of the Ho 229's wooden skin was bonded together using carbon-impregnated plywood resins designed with the intention of absorbing radar waves. Testing performed in early 2009 by the Northrop-Grumman Corporation established that this compound, along with the aircraft's shape, would have rendered the Ho 229 virtually invisible to Britain's Chain Home early warning radar, provided the aircraft was traveling at high speed (~550 mph) at extremely low altitude (50-100 feet).

In the closing weeks of WWII the US military initiated "Operation Paperclip", an effort by the US Army to capture as much advanced German weapons research as possible, and also to deny that research to advancing Russian troops. A Horton glider and the Ho 229 number V3 were secured and sent to Northrop Aviation in the United States for evaluation, who much later used a flying wing design for the B-2 stealth bomber. During WWII Northrop had been commissioned to develop a large wing-only long-range bomber (XB-35) based on photographs of the Horton's record-setting glider from the 1930s, but their initial designs suffered controllability issues that were not resolved until after the war. Northrops small one-man prototype (N9M-B) and a Horton wing-only glider are located in the Chino Air Museum in Southern California.

Modern stealth aircraft first became possible when a mathematician working for Lockheed Aircraft during the 1970s adopted a mathematical model developed by Petr Ufimtsev, a Russian scientist, to develop a computer program called Echo 1. Echo made it possible to predict the radar signature an aircraft made with flat panels, called facets. In 1975, engineers at Lockheed Skunk Works found that an airplane made with faceted surfaces could have a very low radar signature because the surfaces would radiate almost all of the radar energy away from the receiver. Lockheed built a model called "the Hopeless Diamond". It was named that because it looked like a squat diamond and looked too hopeless to ever fly. For the first time, designers realized that it might be possible to make an aircraft that was virtually invisible to radar.

Reduced radar cross section is only one of five factors that designers addressed to create a truly stealthy design such as the F-22. The F-22 has also been designed to disguise its infrared emissions to make it harder to detect by infrared homing ("heat seeking") surface-to-air or air-to-air missiles. Designers also addressed making the aircraft less visible to the naked eye, controlling radio transmissions, and noise abatement.

The first combat use of purpose-designed stealth aircraft was in December 1989 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. On December 20, 1989, two USAF F-117s bombed a Panamanian Defense Force barracks in Rio Hato, Panama. In 1991, F-117s were tasked with attacking the most heavily fortified targets in Iraq in the opening phase of Operation Desert Storm and were the only jets allowed to operate inside Baghdad's city limits.


B-2 Spirit stealth bomber of the U.S Air Force
B-2 Spirit stealth bomber of the U.S Air Force

Instability of design

Early stealth aircraft were designed with a focus on minimal radar cross section (RCS) rather than aerodynamic performance. Highly stealth aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk and B-2 Spirit are aerodynamically unstable in all three axes and require constant flight corrections from a fly-by-wire system to maintain controlled flight. Most modern non-stealth fighter aircraft (F-16, Su-27, Gripen, Rafale) are unstable on one or two axes only. However, in the pursuit of increased maneuverability, most 4th and 5th-generation fighter aircraft have been designed with some degree of inherent instability that must be controlled by fly-by-wire computers.

Dogfighting ability

Earlier stealth aircraft (such as the F-117 and B-2) lack afterburners, because the hot exhaust would increase their radar cross section and infrared footprint. As a result their performance in air combat maneuvering required in a dogfight would never match that of a dedicated fighter aircraft, which was unimportant in the case of these two aircraft since both were designed to be bombers. More recent design techniques allow for stealthy designs such as the F-22 without compromising aerodynamic performance. Newer stealth aircraft, like the F-22 and F-35, have performance characteristics that meet or exceed those of current front-line jet fighters due to advances in other technologies such as flight control systems, engines, airframe construction and materials.

Electromagnetic emissions

The high level of computerization and large amount of electronic equipment found inside stealth aircraft are often claimed to make them vulnerable to passive detection. This is highly unlikely and certainly systems such as Tamara and Kolchuga, which are often described as counter-stealth radars, are not designed to detect stray electromagnetic fields of this type. Such systems are designed to detect intentional, higher power emissions such as radar and communication signals. Stealth aircraft are deliberately operated to avoid or reduce such emissions.

Vulnerable modes of flight

Stealth aircraft are still vulnerable to detection immediately before, during, and after using their weaponry. Since stealth payload (reduced RCS bombs and cruise missiles) are not yet generally available, and ordnance mount points create a significant radar return, stealth aircraft carry all armament internally. As soon as weapons bay doors are opened, the plane's RCS will be multiplied and even older generation radar systems will be able to locate the stealth aircraft. While the aircraft will reacquire its stealth as soon as the bay doors are closed, a fast response defensive weapons system has a short opportunity to engage the aircraft.

This vulnerability is addressed by operating in a manner that reduces the risk and consequences of temporary acquisition. The B-2's operational altitude imposes a flight time for defensive weapons that makes it virtually impossible to engage the aircraft during its weapons deployment. New stealth aircraft designs such as the F-22 can release munitions and return to stealthy flight in less than a second.

Some weapons require that the weapon's guidance system acquire the target while the weapon is still attached to the aircraft. This forces relatively extended operations with the bay doors open.

Reduced payload

In a 1994 live fire exercise near Point Mugu, California, a B-2 Spirit dropped forty-seven 500 lb (230 kg) class Mark 82 bombs, which represents about half of a B-2's total ordnance payload in Block 30 configuration.
In a 1994 live fire exercise near Point Mugu, California, a B-2 Spirit dropped forty-seven 500 lb (230 kg) class Mark 82 bombs, which represents about half of a B-2's total ordnance payload in Block 30 configuration.

Fully stealth aircraft carry all armament internally, which limits the payload. By way of comparison, the F-117 carries only two laser or GPS guided bombs, while a non-stealth attack aircraft can carry several times more. This requires the deployment of additional aircraft to engage targets that would normally require a single non-stealth attack aircraft. This apparent disadvantage however is offset by the reduction in fewer supporting aircraft that are required to provide air cover, air-defense suppression and electronic counter measures, making stealth aircraft "force multipliers".

Cost of maintenance

Stealth aircraft are high-maintenance equipment, as their stealth capability requires detail-oriented care. The most obvious aspect is the aircraft's skin, that has a specific shape to reflect radar impulses away from the emission source, and a coating to absorb electromagnetic waves using materials such as radar absorbing paint. All openings and edges are electromagnetically shielded. The cockpit windows are shielded with metal trimmings.

By way of example, until the relatively recent introduction of improved sealing products, on the B-2 it would often take more hours of work to reseal access panels that were opened for maintenance, than the required maintenance itself. Stealth aircraft skin must also be protected from foreign object damage, as imperfections in the skin can dramatically increase the radar cross section. In short, stealth depends on maintaining a high level of detail in every aspect of aircraft maintenance.

Sensitive skin

The B-2 Stealth Bomber has a skin made with highly specialized materials.

Cost of operations

Stealth aircraft are typically more expensive to develop and manufacture. An example is the B-2 Spirit that is many times more expensive to manufacture and support than conventional bomber aircraft. The B-2 program costs the U.S. Air Force almost $45 billion.


Theoretically there are a number of methods to detect stealth aircraft at long range.

Reflected waves

Passive (multistatic) radar, bistatic radar and especially multistatic systems are believed to detect some stealth aircraft better than conventional monostatic radars, since first-generation stealth technology (such as the F117) reflects energy away from the transmitter's line of sight, effectively increasing the radar cross section (RCS) in other directions, which the passive radars monitor. Such a system typically uses either low frequency broadcast TV and FM radio signals (at which frequencies controlling the aircraft's signature is more difficult). Later stealth approaches do not rely on controlling the specular reflections of radar energy and so the geometrical benefits are unlikely to be significant.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with support of DARPA, have shown that it is possible to build a synthetic aperture radar image of an aircraft target using passive multistatic radar, possibly detailed enough to enable automatic target recognition (ATR).

In December 2007, SAAB researchers also revealed details a system called Associative Aperture Synthesis Radar (AASR) that would employ a large array of inexpensive and redundant transmitters and a few intelligent receivers to exploit forward scatter to detect low observable targets. The system was originally designed to detect stealthy cruise missiles and should be just as effective against aircraft. The large array of inexpensive transmitters also provides a degree of protection against anti-radar (or anti-radiation) missiles or attacks.

Infrared (heat)

Some analysts claim infra-red search and track (IRST) systems can be deployed against stealth aircraft, because any aircraft surface heats up due to air friction and with a two channel IRST is a CO2 (4.3 µm absorption maxima) detection possible, thru difference comparing between the low and high channel. A F-22 traveling with Mach 1.7 generate a stagnation temperature of 188°F (86°C) in the shock cone. These analysts also point to the resurgence in such systems in several Russian designs in the 1980s, such as those fitted to the MiG-29 and Su-27. The latest version of the MiG-29, the MiG-35, is equipped with a new Optical Locator System that includes even more advanced IRST capabilities.

Wavelength match

The Dutch company Thales Nederland, formerly known as Holland Signaal, have developed a naval phased-array radar called SMART-L, which also is operated at L-Band and is claimed to offer counter stealth benefits. However, as with most claims of counter-stealth capability, these are unproven and untested. True resonant effects might be expected with HF sky wave radar systems, which have wavelengths of tens of metres. However, in this case, the accuracy of the radar systems is such that the detection is of limited value for engagement.

OTH Radar (Over the Horizon Radar)

Over-the-horizon radar is a design concept that increases radar's effective range over conventional radar. It is claimed that the Australian JORN Jindalee Operational Radar Network can overcome certain stealth characteristics. It is claimed that the HF frequency used and the method of bouncing radar from ionosphere overcomes the stealth characteristics of the F-117A. In other words, stealth aircraft are optimized for defeating much higher-frequency radar from front-on rather than low-frequency radars from above.

There are unsubstantiated rumours that Australian civilian air traffic controllers have tried to contact, in-air, high-altitude, F-117A pilots crossing the Australian continent without airspace clearance due to datafeed from the JORC. Apparently there was no response from the pilots.

Use of stealth aircraft

USAF F-22 Raptor stealth fighter of the 27th Fighter Squadron .
USAF F-22 Raptor stealth fighter of the 27th Fighter Squadron .

The F-35 Lightning II will be used by the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Israel, and Turkey.
The F-35 Lightning II will be used by the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Israel, and Turkey.

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 that were either out of range of conventional aircraft in the theater or 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 evade 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 cause less collateral damage. In many cases they were used to hit the high value targets early in the campaign, 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 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 large quantities and would be able to heavily defend important strategic and tactical targets in the event of a 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.

Stealth aircraft lost

The first (and to date only) case of a stealth aircraft being shot down happened on 27 March 1999, during Operation Allied Force. An Isayev S-125 'Neva-M' missile was fired at an American F-117 Nighthawk and successfully brought it down.

List of stealth aircraft


Fully stealth designs

In service
Under development
Technology demonstrators

Reduced RCS designs

Unmanned (full stealth)


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Published - July 2009

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