The F-35 has been designed with stealth. It has the ability to enter a heavily defended territory undetected. It is so important to the military that they will accept compromises to performance to achieve stealth.
If stealth were to be rendered redundant by new counter-stealth technology, would it deal a fatal blow to the F-35 Program?
The purpose of this post is to ease you nerves about stealth. Undetected or detected stealth is important to have and everyone knows it.
Stealth Technology Works
First, stealth is a proven technology. Second, the F-35 is not invisible and has never claimed to be.
vocabulary.com defines stealth as “to do something so quietly and carefully that no one notices”. This is pretty much what the F-35 is trying to do.
The F-35 is designed to be most effective against targeting radar (the ones that guide missiles to their target). Not only that, these are the most common radars used in air defence duties around the world. Putting this into perspective, stealth allows the F-35 to have the first to shoot first to kill capability.
The graphics below show the range that a SU-35 fighter plane and Russian S-400 ground based radar can detect 4th and 5th generation aircraft.
A F-35 AIM-120C Air to Air Missile has a range of 105km. Compare this to the detection range – the S-400 (34km) and SU-35 (58km).
How the F-35 Achieves Stealth
The F-35 is designed to reduce the likelihood of being detected by radar, allowing it to conduct missions unchallenged. Cutting a long and technical story short the aim of stealth is to dramatically reduce the size of a planes Radar Cross Section (RCS). With a small RCS, targeting radars interpret the returned signal from the stealth plane as a small bird or filters it out altogether thinking it is environment clutter. The small RCS can be attributed to two main design features.
- SHAPE – The F-35 shape is optimized to disperse radar rather than reflect it.
- RADAR ABSORBING MATERIAL – A material called “Fiber Mat”, is cured into the skin of the F-35 rather than sprayed on increasing effectiveness of the coating and reducing maintenance. airforcetechnology.com
The F-35 does not stop at the key physical design features other include:
- the ability to carry all weapons and fuel internally – far more low observable compared to the F-16 below.
- A reduced thermal signature of the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. The engine is placed deep into the fuselage, hot exhaust is diffused & cooled, diverterless supersonic inlets (DSIs) direct airflow into the engine without compromising the fighter’s low-observable (LO) characteristics.
- Electronic Warfare capability allows the F-35 to jam nearby radar to avoid detection.
2/Stealth Technology is Proven in Battle
The F-117A Nighthawk, the first operational stealth combat aircraft kicked off the first Gulf War by attacking key strategic targets in Iraq’s capital of Bagdad. The capital city had an extensive air defence system using Russian Equipment and they were not able to stop the destruction of their most critical assets.
An extract from PBS.org of “Team Stealth F-117” by Robert Shelton, Jr. and Randy Jolly, Specialty Press we can see the true benefit of the stealth fighter:
- Mission planners targeted the F-117A against critical strategic Iraqi command and control installations, key targets such as communications centers, research, development, production, and storage facilities for nuclear and chemical weapons; and a variety of other targets–especially hardened aircraft shelters at many Iraqi airfields.
- The F-117A logged nearly 1,300 combat sorties while flying 6,905 combat flying hours.
- The F-117A pilots delivered over 2,000 tons of precision-guided ordnance with a hit rate of better than 80 percent.
- Even though the 42 x F-117A aircraft participating in Operation Desert Storm represented 2.5 percent of all allied fighter and attack aircraft in the Gulf, the F-117A’s attacked more than 31 percent of the strategic Iraqi military targets attacked during the first 24 hours of the air campaign.
To close this point www.leyden.com reported “Air Force commanders reported that the F-117 flew 3% of the total missions, but destroyed over 43% of the total targets. With no reported losses”.
3/ Counter Stealth Radar Systems can be Countered
Introduction of Counter Stealth Radar systems pose a real threat to stealth aircraft. Depending what you read this will mean the F-35 cannot operate undetected and will be an utter failure. Although a worthy adversary, counter-stealth radar can be countered by the F-35 and its stealth capability will have a lot to do with it.
What is a Counter Stealth Radar?
Unlike a traditional Radar operating within a single frequency, counter stealth radar is designed to triangulate co-ordinates received from multiple radars of different frequencies. This strategy will overcome the shortcomings of a traditional radar and offer the critical first to shoot capability. The diagram shows a Russian NNIRT NEBO M radar complex and how such a system will work.
Problems with these Systems:
- Complexity. There are many links in the chain of activities that will lead to a missile striking the F-35. Break one of these links through normal reliability issues or attack and the effectiveness of the radar will be neutralized.
- VHF Radars are huge. Huge radars emit a large electromagnetic signature that will shine brightly on any fire control system in the vicinity.
- Cannot detect Very Low Observable aircraft like the B2 Bomber.
How the F-35 is planning to Counter the Counter-Stealth Radars
No matter how good the counter-stealth radar become, new innovation, tactics & strategies will counter them. Using all the available military platforms, including the F-35, it is possible to secure air domination and at the very least suppress the enemy advantage.
To quote Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Mark Welsh “stealth is an interesting discussion because people tend to identify a piece of it and think someone will compromise that piece. They conclude that therefore stealth is no longer valuable. The reality is stealth is a combination of things. It is not just about being low observable. It is a way of breaking Kill Chains.”
The Navy has adopted this philosophy and is developing a cooperative engagement capability (I would call it teamwork) through its NIFC-CA project.
Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA)
The US Navy is actively pursuing its proposed NIFC-CA system. A system the Navy is developing to counter the threat posed by counter-stealth. USNI News reported on NIFC-CA following an interview with Rear Adm. Mike Manaziras – Every unit within the carrier strike group—in the air, on the surface, or under water—would be networked through a series of existing and planned data links so the carrier strike group commander has as clear a picture as possible of the battle-space.
“We’ll be able to show a common picture to everybody,” Manazir told USNI News during a 20 December interview.
To give you an idea of how a NIFC-CA scenario can play out I have included an example provided in an article by The Diplomat:
“The sensor-rich F-35C will act as an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform, channeling data back and providing terminal guidance to standoff missiles launched by other aircraft and warships. Supporting the F-35 from a distance will be USN EA-18Gs and F/A-18E/Fs equipped with powerful standoff jammers and long-range missiles, respectively. These two non-stealthy platforms will use data received from the F-35 to jam and engage enemy targets while remaining beyond the reach of enemy SAMs.
In the future, the strike package will also include the navy’s low observable Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) platform (drones) which will give the fighters with aerial-refueling as well as additional surveillance and strike capability.”
The above example is not the only example of tactics used by NIFC-CA. Other noteworthy examples can be accessed at these links WIKI and an online PDF Paper on Low Observable Technology by Anon (no name is provided).
What Will Happen if the F-35 is Detected by Counter-Stealth Radar?
It would create a difficult situation for sure however the game would be far from over. Actions following detection could include the F-35:
- Engaging the radar complex exposed while attempting to find the stealth aircraft.
- Relaying accurate targeting co-ordinates to support platforms including other fighters, ships and submarines to fire standoff missiles and destroy the radar complex.
- Utilizing the Electronic Warfare capabilities of the F-35 and supporting aircraft such as the F-18G Growler to jam the signals, deploying decoys and chaff to generally disorient the radar and reduce its ability to target the F-35.
- Call in the B2 Bombers as they are “very low observable” aircraft that cannot be detected by counter-stealth radar. They will be able to use co-ordinates supplied by the F-35 to penetrate the defended area undetected and destroy the radar complexes.
I am sure there are many more actions available to avoid being targeted.
4/ For Every Action there is an Opposite Reaction
The strong efforts to counter the threat posed by stealth technology has seen new systems developed to combat it. Now, we are seeing development and innovation to counter the counter-stealth radars.
To show that the F-35 program is not going to pick up its bat and ball and go home because there is counter stealth radar, I have listed several developments now underway for the F-35 below:
Longer Range Missiles
As counter-stealth radar continues to extend the range it can detect and target the F-35, new missiles with longer range are in development. Several beyond visual range missiles are in development and will become operational in the coming years.
An example is the comparison of the AIM-120C air-to-air missile used by the F-35 today that has a range of 97nm. The “Meteor” a new Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile is in development and its planned range is 160nm.
F-35 Can use the Improved 6th Generation Engine
As counter stealth radar improves the risk of detection increases. A threat of this nature may need the F-35 to run and survive for another day. It is well-known that the F-35 is not as fast or agile as it should be when detected. An effective counter to this would be using a new engine with greater power.
This may sound far fetched however the new 6th generation engine is already in development by General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. A decision on the best engine is due in 2018 with new engines scheduled to be available in 2021. There is a big chance the new engine will be retrofitted to the F-35 to give greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency.
Implementation of Multi-Use Drones as a Force Multiplier
The F-35 will rarely have the numerical advantage in air to air engagements. The opposing fighters will out number the F-35 and even if it is a one on one battle the opposing fighter will have more missiles than the F-35. Survivability is again threatened if counter stealth radar detects the F-35 and can pass this information to the fighters.
To combat the numerical advantage of the opposing fighters, drones are in development via DARPA’s Gremlins Project to work with the F-35. The idea is use of drones as a weapon platforms, decoy and jammer to “deceive, distract and saturate” radar systems with false signals. These reusable drones, designed to create chaos among enemy air defences will be relatively cheap at about $700,000 each. (popularmechanics.com).
Image Caption: DARPA’s Gremlins program seeks to develop innovative technologies and systems that would enable existing aircraft to launch volleys of low-cost, reusable unmanned air systems (UASs) and safely and reliably retrieve them in mid-air. In an important step toward that goal, DARPA has awarded Phase 1 contracts for Gremlins to four competing teams led by Composite Engineering, Inc., Dynetics, Inc., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., and Lockheed Martin Corporation. Click below for high-resolution image.
Plasma Technology to Achieve Stealth
The stealthy design of the F-35 has created plenty of compromises in performance. It’s agility, speed and range have all been degraded by the focus on stealth. An alternative to the current stealth technology (shape, radar absorbing material, etc.) is the use of plasma technology. An aircraft with this capability will inject a stream of plasma in front of the aircraft. The plasma will cover the entire body of the fighter which will absorb the electromagnetic energy of radar waves (reducing the Radar Cross Section significantly) thus making the aircraft difficult to detect by radar (Defence Aviation).
The advantages of this technology is that it can be used in place of passive stealth (shape, RAM, internal carriage of weapons) allowing design refinements that will improve performance and allow payload to be carried externally without increasing the RCS.
The Russians have worked on this technology for some time. It has already been tested some years ago on an SU-27 and continues. If the Russians are experimenting with it so are the American and other countries.
The small payload of the F-35 described in my post “Can the F-35 Fire All Its Weapons” can be offset by a laser. A laser, can be used as an alway available defensive weapon. The technology already exists and is in use by the US Army. Speaking at a media briefing on 5 October 2015, Lockheed Martin’s Senior Fellow for Laser and Sensor Systems confirmed:
“We’re looking at concepts for the integration of a laser weapon onto the F-35” UK Defence Journal ; and this
Lockheed Martin is already exploring “concepts” for installing and employing a high-power fibre laser weapon on the F-35 for shooting down missiles and other airborne threats. Flight Global
5/ If You Can’t Beat Them Join Them
If stealth is becoming obsolete why are multiple countries developing their own stealth aircraft?
I will tell you why – “STEALTH WORKS”.
We only need to look to China and Russia to see that stealth is not dead. Both are developing stealth aircraft while at the same time their new counter-stealth radars are touted as stealth killers.
The list of countries with stealth fighter programs include:
- INDIA – HAL AMCA (a derivative of the PAK FA)
- TURKEY – TAI TFX / F-X
- JAPAN – Mitsubishi ATD-X (Shinshin)
- SOUTH KOREA – KAI KF-X –
- RUSSIA – Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50)
- CHINA – Chengdu J-20 (Black Eagle)
- CHINA – Shenyang J-31 (F-60)
WARNING: The F-35 is Being Challenged!
This statement from Colonel Michael Pietrucha from airforcetechnology.com summarises the state of stealth v counter-stealth from his perspective:
“Our assumptions about the operational environment, made more than a decade ago, do not match the current reality. The mission of the aircraft – to penetrate the most advanced air defences and drop precision-guided munitions on critical targets of a peer adversary – remains questionable at best.
If introduced on time, the F-35 would have experienced close to a decade of dominance. This period could then be used for additional development to maintain the advantage over counter-stealth radar. With the massive delays experienced developing the F-35 the playing field is now level at best and the competition for superiority will continue for some time.
With a greater understanding of stealth and counter stealth technology, I have provided my subjective four pillars rating for the F-35 stealth fighter below.
(I suggest 50% is a pass, 75% & above is excellent)
Affordability – 2.5/5
- The Good – In theory, leads to lower cost as smaller fleets, limited losses, new technology is easier to maintain.
- The Bad – In reality stealth development is very expensive as is manufacture and maintenance processes.
Lethality – 3/5
- The Good – the F-35 is stealthy with a small Radar Cross Section. Multiple countries are developing their own stealth aircraft.
- The Bad – Counter Stealth radar is developing at a fast pace and the detection range continues to fall.
- The Good – the F-35 is a low observable fighter, technology has been proven in battle.
- The Bad – The F-35 is not a very low observable plane, stealth design has compromised performance.
Supportability – 4/5
- The Good – Stealth built into the F-35, stealth material fused into the airframe to reduce maintenance.
- The Bad – Maintenance requirements remain higher than non-stealth aircraft.
The Last Word
Critics of the F-35 are quick to condemn its stealth capability and tell us the worst that can happen. All the while, those working on the F-35 Program are unable to counter these arguments as they are sworn to secrecy as much of this information is classified.
This post is dedicated to those silent individuals who will get their day in the sun very soon.
Related reading can be found on my “F-35 Lightning II” page.