Stealth planes not all the cracked up to be?

In some discussions about stealth planes, some people seemed to consider stealth planes rather overrated. This is kind of perplexing, since the F-117 had a great use in Gulf War I. I’ve heard some figures state that it had an extremely high success ratio- none were lost in the Gulf and the laser-guided bombs were able to hit targets with pinpoint accuracy in the heart of Baghdad.

The F-22 is also supposed to be stealthy as well. Wouldn’t a stealth fighter be a good thing?

A lower radar cross-section is always an advantage, but it comes at a cost of stability and aerodynamic efficiency. As with most things, a compromise needs to be struck. Super stealthy planes are probably going to be around for awhile and used primarliy to take out ground radar stations. Once those are gone, is having a less stealthy fighter that much of an advantage? Maybe, maybe not.

Wasn’t an F-117 shot down in Bosnia?

Yeah. I don’t think it was necessarily being tracked by radar. I believe a triple-A gunner just saw the plane, aimed, and fired.

I heard about that too- That incident always had me scratching my head.

Stealth planes also don’t work too well when they get wet. Well, they’ll fly just fine, but the stealth materials are more reflective when wetted.

The stealth fighter isn’t really a fighter. It’s more of a light bomber. As fighters go, it tends to suck. The pinpoint accuracy of the bombs it dropped in the first gulf war was also a bit overstated, though the ones it drops these days are much better.

The F-22 isn’t a stealth fighter, it’s a fighter that is designed to be stealthy. The important difference here is the F-117 was designed with stealth as its primary design objective, but the F-22 was designed with fighting as its primary design objective. The F-117 for example can’t even go supersonic. The F-22 in contrast can supercruise, which means it can go supersonic without even using its afterburner. You wouldn’t want to dogfight in an F-117, but that’s what the F-22 was designed for.

Stealth gets a lot of press because it’s a “sexy” new technology (well, sorta new). It probably is a bit overstated at times. Stealth serves a purpose, but it’s only one piece in a big puzzle. Some folks who are impressed with its sexiness do tend to overstate its abilities, so the claim that it’s overrated often is true.

There is some debate about whether the bosnians had managed to lock onto the F-117 (which they claimed) or they just got lucky (which their opponents claimed). Stealth is not 100 percent invisible (that’s another aspect of stealth that is often overstated), so either one is possible.

I’m sure that I remember hearing about at least one F-117 getting shot down during the Gulf War. Plus, at least one got shot down during the war with Yugoslavia. Stealth is helpful, but it’s not all that it’s hyped up to be.

BTW, there are persistent rumors that the B-2 bomber was badly overhyped, which is why you don’t hear much about it these days.

The problem with moisture is real. The radar reflecting material isn’t very durable. One of my professors in college helped develop those materials. (Yes, really!) He gave us the low-down. Basically, the material has a tendency to absorb water. When aircraft are in flight, they get very hot due to air resistance. This heat causes the absorbed moisture to boil off, and when it does the material is damaged. The upshot is that the stealth material requires constant maintenance, and overall these aircraft are very expensive to operate.

I’ve been searching for a cite, but I haven’t found one.

IIRC, the F-117 was shot down in part because the SAM crews knew basically where the NATO flights were happening, and threw up missles until one locked on.

I’d imagine that stealth would be used for a long time to come. The only situation I can think of where it would lose it’s effectiveness would be something like satellite IR tracking. Maybe that exists right now, I dont know.

From what I gather, stealth planes have a very low IR and radar cross section when viewed from underneath (where radar stations would be looking for them from) - however, looking from above the plane is a different story. Many of the engine exhaust gasses are released above the wing (thereby lowering the IR cross section from below, but increasing it from above). I would guess that using satellites to track planes frmo above might change things around a little bit. But based on how I believe spy satellites work, I dont know that a plane-tracking satellite would be all that useful, unless it was in a geostationary orbit - in which case it would really have to magnify the IR image quite a bit.

Keep in mind that probably about half of everything I just said is a load of crap and not true - but neither you nor I know which half :smiley:

Stealth planes are not that fast by the way, and how about that B2 bomber which has to fly and return to the same base (only one in the world)before paint peels off.

The F-117 is a fighter in name only. Its a light ground attack aircraft. It has absolutely no weapons of any kind other than two laser guided bombs.

The one shot down in Yugoslavia was flying during the day, when its all black paint scheme is a disadvantage. This is one of the reasons the Air Force is currently repainting all of them in a greyish camo.

The B-2 is something of an anachronism in that it was built for a very specific mission. Namely to do clean up work after a nuclear exchange between the US & USSR. It could fly undetected anywhere thru the Soviet Union and destroy key hardened targets with nuclear bombs. As horrible as that sounds it went a long way in detering the Soviets from thinking that they could a nuclear war with a massive first strike, knowing that a fleet of super-secret inviso-bombers would still be around to wipe them out and there would be no way to stop them.

Boy, those were the days. :smiley:

But make no mistake, the first Gulf war proved the worth of stealth. Baghdad had a huge air defense network and the F-117 penetrated & destroyed it with impunity. Radar was high-tech in WWII but every nation has it now. Only we have deployed stealth aircraft (thank god).

The effectiveness of stealth is another one of those sword/shield things. At first, the advantage went entirely to stealth planes, because since no one knew about them, no one even bothered to try to find out how to find them up there.

Time passed, and the balance began to shift slightly in favor of radar, if you consider only large permanent ground based radar. Low profile returns can be detected, and higher power helped some. But, the radar power problem hits a wall fairly soon, because you can’t look at everything, and everything returns some radar, even subtle differences in the temperature of the air itself. Also, it doesn’t help to illuminate a target if the illuminating radar itself is the first target.

So the balance shifted back to stealth as better radar absorption and deflection refinements brought the power level needed to a point where it was pretty much pointless to spray megawatts at everything, if you couldn’t pick out the targets from the noise. That lasted a while.

Computer power is now the main problem for stealth. As the processing power of small station computer systems improves, a small portable radar system is able to decipher more and more noise obscured data into targeting information. And, just like everything else about computers, what was prohibitively expensive last year is only wildly overpriced this year. Next year it will be on sale at bargain prices. Stealth on the other hand doesn’t seem to be coming down in price on the same curve.

So, the multibillion dollar stealth plane of the future could be in danger of being defeated by the hundred thousand dollar mobile radar system of the future. Also, miniaturization will allow mounting such systems on planes, and eventually air to air missile systems. Those will cost a million or so a pop, but two or three of them might cost you a six billion dollar attack aircraft. It’s and expensive way to fight a war.


I thought I heard about an idea to write software that could coordinate the returns that were collected on cell phone networks. Those antennas are built to receive very weak signals. It was at least postulated that you could see if a bunch of antennas were watching a similar signal track across the sky in the same position.

This was suggested as a possibility at the time - though the incident actually happened in the late evening.

Much closer, though the reason that the Serbians knew where the flights were was probably from collating fleeting radar sightings.
This New York Times article describes the theorising about the incident and the conclusions that were drawn about how they might have done it. It tallies with my memory of Aviation Week’s conclusions about it.

Stealth planes are designed to minimize radar reflections (returns) from the highest-threat directions, not to eliminate them entirely (which is probably not technically possible at this point). The idea is to have radar returns going back to the most likely source of detection reduced to the minimum, so that the return will get lost in the general “clutter” of returns from hills, flocks of birds, rainstorms, etc. This can be done by reducing the reflective properties of the plane using radar absorbing materials, or controlling the reflection so that it bounces in a direction away from the radar.

The result is that a stealth plane may be very difficult to detect from one direction, but much easier to find from another direction. This is partly countered by using electronic reconnaissance to identify the hostile radars, then routing the plane in such a way as to have the low reflection directions matching the hostile radar directions as much as possible, plus using “terrain masking” (hiding behind hills, etc.), radar jamming by supporting aircraft, and other tactics.

If the search radar gets lucky and hits the stealth plane from the right direction it can “see” it as easily as a non-stealth plane. The F-117, for example, is not very stealthy against airborne radars looking down from above. Very powerful radars can also “burn through” by putting out a radar beam that is strong enough that even the small percentage reflected back to the antenna is large enough to be detected. Multiple radars can be positioned so that at least one or two will be scanning from a direction where the stealth effects are minimized and the radar will get a good return. Again the F-117 is a good example of this problem, as the angular shape which minimizes returns from most directions also maximize them from certain other directions. (The B-2 uses improved anti-stealth technology and is not as subject to this problem, although it apparently changes to “extremely non-stealthy” as soon as the bomb bay doors are opened.)

And, last but not least, as shown in Yugoslavia, the anti-radar stealth is not much use against the backup Mark 1 Eyeball system :slight_smile: .

Did not the US build some special hangers to base B2 bombers in Diego Garcia prior to the ivasion of Iraq?

[QUOTE=BookkeeperThe B-2 uses improved anti-stealth technology and is not as subject to this problem, although it apparently changes to “extremely non-stealthy” as soon as the bomb bay doors are opened.[/QUOTE]
Of course, when that happens, you’re not exactly going to be worried about where the plane is…

Yep. Both locations have climate-controlled hangers to protect the reflective material on the B2. Can you imagine how much electricity must be required to air condition an entire freakin’ airplane hanger?

The Russians claim that their S-400 (designated SA-20 “Triumf” by NATO) missile system has “no problem” tracking and destroying stealth aircraft. Testing finished for this system in February of this year, and Russia has begun a heavy marketing campaign for foreign sales of it (probably in an attempt to recoup development costs before creditors start knocking). China has apparently already spent $0.5 billion on future S-400 systems. Given the respect that the S-300V system (NATO SA-12A, “GLADIATOR” and SA-12B, “GIANT”) garnered for its performance, there’s a healthy chance that many of Russia’s claims should be taken seriously.