Stealth Is Dead! Long Live Stealth!

Fighter jets can't hide forever, but that's old news

By Joe Trevithick

A Russian military expert has sounded a seemingly dire warning for the United States. Dr. Igor Sutyagin claims that stealthy fighter jets and bombers can’t stay hidden much longer as enemy radar technology improves.

The U.S. military is betting hundreds of billions of dollars—in essence, its whole air-power investment—that detection-dodging stealth works … and will keep working for many decades to come.

So if Sutyagin is absolutely right, America could be in big trouble. The roughly trillion dollars Washington has spent designing and building F-117s, B-2s, F-22s, F-35s and new Long-Range Strike Bombers since the 1970s has been a waste. And the United States is about to lose its aerial advantage.

At least, that’s the simplistic reading of stealth and counter-stealth in today’s warplane development. And make no mistake, Sutyagin’s argument is simplistic.

In truth, the Russian expert’s claims aren’t particularly new. And there’s no reason to think that better radars are about to render radar-evading warplanes totally obsolete. Emphasis on totally.

Reality is more complicated that Sutyagin’s warning implies. Back-and-forth technological advancements mean that, yes, stealth is no panacea. Instead, radar-evasion is becoming just one standard feature in warplane design—albeit still a very important standard feature.

Again, there’s nothing particularly new about that. Stealth has never been perfect. It’s not perfect today. It won’t be perfect tomorrow. But it still matters.

The core of the alleged former spy’s recent article — published by the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute, where Sutyagin is a fellow — is that “low-band” or “low-frequency” radars are quickly getting a lot better at finding radar-evading aircraft.

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But Sutyagin admits up front that these sensors have been around for more than 80 years. Indeed, reports suggest that Serbian troops deployed this type of equipment to shoot down a U.S. Air Force F-117A stealth fighter-bomber 15 years ago.

Military officials around the world warned about the “limits of stealth” — that’s also the title of Sutyagin’s article — before and after Serbia shot down the F-117 during NATO air raids on the rogue country in 1999. Every air arm working on new stealth planes is fully aware of the low-band radar problem.

Are these air forces wasting their time, effort and money? Or do they know something Sutyagin doesn’t know … or won’t admit?

For his part, the Russian expat seems to suggest that Western aircraft manufacturers have been oblivious to the low-band threat. But it’s hard to ignore a possible nationalistic prejudice in his assessment. At times, Sutyagin’s essay in RUSI’s Defense Systems reads like an advertisement for Russian arms manufacturers.

“Unlike Western states, Russia has been constantly developing low-band radar technology since 1930s and has achieved impressive results,” Sutyagin expounds. “The air-defense detection systems currently marketed by Russian producers represent a serious potential challenge to Western air power in many parts of the world in the future.”

Here’s the truth. Yes, low-band radars can detect very small objects or tiny individual parts of larger objects—for instance, protrusions on a stealth jet’s airframe. Experts including Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman have criticized the F-35 for its lumpy, bumpy fuselage, which could make the jet easier to find.

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Joe Trevithick
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