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Modern Air Warfare and the Impact of Stealth Aircraft

Updated on September 30, 2014
A F-35A (Air Force version) on a flight over the desert.
A F-35A (Air Force version) on a flight over the desert. | Source

United States' Stealth Combat Aircraft:

As of 2012, the United States possesses the most "true stealth" combat aircraft and types, the retired F-117A "Nighthawk" bombers, 20 of the massive B-2A "Spirit" batwing bombers, 184 twin-engine F-22 "Raptor" fighters, and the now coming-into-service single-engine F-35 "Lightning II" fighter/bombers. "True stealth" is defined as an aircraft that was designed from the onset with low-observable features and characteristics from the start of the program. China and Russia have started their own "true stealth" fighter prototype programs, but so far have not started full-scale production.

As of the end of 2012, no Stealth aircraft has engaged another enemy fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat. All Stealth aircraft involved in battles have been bombing runs mainly performed by bomber-types such as the F-117A "Nighthawk" and the B-2A "Spirit" bomber.1

F-117A "Nighthawk" Stealth Fighter (Retired)

The F-117A "Nighthawk" Stealth Fighter is actually a bomber as it carries two GBU laser-guided bombs.  All F-117As have since been retired from U.S. Air Force active service.
The F-117A "Nighthawk" Stealth Fighter is actually a bomber as it carries two GBU laser-guided bombs. All F-117As have since been retired from U.S. Air Force active service. | Source

Current (FY2014) U.S. Air Force Stealth Fighters

USAF F-22A (top) and USMC F-35B (bottom) Stealth Fighters
USAF F-22A (top) and USMC F-35B (bottom) Stealth Fighters | Source

Current (FY2014) B-2A Stealth Bomber

As of 2014, there are only 20 B-2A Stealth Bombers, each with a price tag of around $2.2 billion (yes, billion) dollars.
As of 2014, there are only 20 B-2A Stealth Bombers, each with a price tag of around $2.2 billion (yes, billion) dollars. | Source

F-16CJ

The F-16CJ is responsible for suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses for U.S. airpower.
The F-16CJ is responsible for suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses for U.S. airpower. | Source

B-1B Bomber

A non-stealthy supersonic bomber, the USAF's B-1Bs could drop massive loads of GPS-guided bombs.
A non-stealthy supersonic bomber, the USAF's B-1Bs could drop massive loads of GPS-guided bombs. | Source

Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM)

The AMRAAM is the U.S. Air Force's standard radar-guided homing air-to-air missile.
The AMRAAM is the U.S. Air Force's standard radar-guided homing air-to-air missile. | Source

High-speed Anti Radiation Missile (HARM)

The HARM is the standard U.S. missile for defeating and destroying enemy radars.
The HARM is the standard U.S. missile for defeating and destroying enemy radars. | Source

Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)

The JDAM is a U.S.-made GPS-guided smart bomb used for destroying surface targets from a distance.
The JDAM is a U.S.-made GPS-guided smart bomb used for destroying surface targets from a distance. | Source

Stealth's Impact: Same Mission Results with Less Aircraft Used:

Stealth aircraft in theory allow for the same destructive target results for the least amount of aircraft employed to achieve those battlefield results due to the ability to remain low-observable and hopefully mostly undetected as it approaches the target.

An example scenario would be to attack a ground target building deep behind enemy lines.

A conventional non-stealthy strike package could have four F-16CJs with eight HARM Anti-Radiation missiles for dedicated Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) against ground radars, followed by a B-1B bomber with four Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) for target building destruction, followed by four F-16Cs with eight Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) for fighter patrol air defense and escort. That package alone would have eight fighters and one bomber (12 crew total) and the possible usage of sixteen missiles and four bombs.

A stealthy attack package could use two F-22As with four AMRAAMs and four JDAMs for the same ground target mission. In theory, since the F-22s are stealthy and have advanced networked sensors and datalinks, they could fly around SAM sites and radars (no need for dedicated SEAD aircraft), avoid detection by enemy fighters (no need for AMRAAMs), and just use four JDAMs. That's the usage of two Stealth fighters (just two pilots) and four bombs-the same mission results with less aircraft used.2

Stealth Aircraft Combat Usage and Effects:

During the 1991 Gulf War, only 2.5% of U.S. Air Force aircraft were F-117A "Nighthawks." And yet the F-117A bombed 40% of all strategic targets with an 80% effectiveness rating.

In 1999, B-2A bombers had their combat debut over Kosovo and destroyed 33% of the selected strategic targets for that air campaign.

B-2s have also seen combat in Afghanistan ("Operation Enduring Freedom") and have flown 47 sorties for the Iraq War ("Operation Iraqi Freedom") and dropped 1.5 million pounds of munitions.

B-2s were used in "Operation Odyssey Dawn," the United Nations enforcement of the Libyan no-fly zone. In March 2011, three B-2s dropped 40 bombs on a Libyan airfield.3

Extremely Low Radar Cross Section:

To understand stealth's impact in modern air warfare, one has to recognize that stealth goes beyond just remaining low-observable to radar. The best stealth performance against enemy radars comes when the stealth aircraft is approaching head-on towards a threat. Stealth aircraft are compromises between aerodynamics and stealth features, typically designed to be less stealthy from the sides and rear because the cost to make the entire aircraft's stealth design perform equally against both enemy radar and infra-red is just too expensive; however, even so the radar cross section is in the order of "birds and bees size" compared to say a B-52 which has the radar cross section of a barn.4 (This is why the F-35 has an ordinary non-stealthy round exhaust engine nozzle to cut down on design and build costs compared to the more expensive and stealthier rectangular exhaust nozzles on the F-22). Stealth aircraft design encompasses radar, acoustic, visual, and infra-red signature reduction in its design by placing weapons internally, burying engines deep within the body, and using smooth and angled shapes to scatter radar. Thus, as a stealth aircraft flies around SAM sites, the radar coverage grows and shrinks depending on what angle the stealth aircraft exposes itself to the radar. Nonetheless, the stealthy shape makes it difficult for the enemy sensors to reliably track the stealth aircraft for engagement.

Possible Radar Cross Section of B-2A Stealth Bomber

Since the batwing B-2's engines are buried inside, the rear radar cross section of the B-2 combined with the stealthy front triangle shape gives the B-2 a "bowtie" radar return, large on the sides and small on the front and rear.
Since the batwing B-2's engines are buried inside, the rear radar cross section of the B-2 combined with the stealthy front triangle shape gives the B-2 a "bowtie" radar return, large on the sides and small on the front and rear. | Source

Possible F-35 Stealth Fighter Radar Cross Section

Since the F-35 has an exposed metallic engine nozzle at the rear, the F-35 is most stealthy when approaching head-on.  As such, the F-35 has a "Pac-Man" shaped radar cross section return.
Since the F-35 has an exposed metallic engine nozzle at the rear, the F-35 is most stealthy when approaching head-on. As such, the F-35 has a "Pac-Man" shaped radar cross section return. | Source

Best Networked Sensors:

With these traits, Stealth aircraft's role in modern warfare is to remain as undetectable and untrackable to enemy sensors and weapons for as long as possible through a combination of aircraft shaping, materials, design, sensors (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Surveillance, Intelligence, and Reconnaissance (C4SIR)) to produce a key ingredient of battleā€¦information. This "Information Superiority" and the denying of information to the enemy give the Stealth aircraft pilot a crucial advantage in winning over the adversary by allowing the Stealth aircraft pilot to know the placement and locations of enemy air defenses and taking counters to them. Stealth aircraft do this by often having the best systems: radar arrays (usually Active Electronic Scanned Arrays (AESA)) that could scan, jam, track and emit the fewest detectable emissions as possible, powerful engines with fuselage design elements that reduce heat signatures, computers with gigantic processing power, datalinks that communicate with other fighters and ground forces, passive electronics that snoop on enemy transmissions and communications, and information sharing through sensor-fusion5, all while remaining as undetectable as possible. All this gives Stealth aircraft enormous advantages over more conventional combat aircraft. Often Stealth aircraft such as the F-117 and B-2A have dropped bombs and fired missiles outside the range of air defense systems' effectiveness just by knowing where the enemy radar and SAM sites were.

Stealth in Helicopters and Drones:

Some stealth transport and drone aircraft such as the stealthily-modified U.S. Army's 160th Aviation Regiment's UH-60 "Silent Hawks" and U.S. Air Force's RQ-170 "Sentinel" drone allow for the users to get close to the target area without being compromised. The RQ-170's batwing appearance uses smooth blended curves, a smooth flat bottom, and a deeply recessed air intake and engine outlet on the top to minimize infra-red and radar cross section. A secret UH-60 stealth-modified "Silent Hawk" used in "Operation Neptune Spear," the Special Forces raid that killed Osama Bin Laden hiding in Pakistan, crash-landed in May 2, 2011, leaving behind a tail section that survived the demolition charges placed by the exiting elite Navy SEAL Team Six commandos. The "Silent Hawk" is rumored to have an angled faceted fuselage, coated windshield, extensive engine exhaust suppressors, main rotor and tail hub coverings, flush landing gear bays, and radar-absorbing light gray paint, stealthy design features different from conventional UH-60s. Only a handful of these extensively modified "Silent Hawks" helicopters exist, perhaps only four of which one crashed.6 and 7

Stealth Used Against the Largest Perceived Threat:

The most effective use of stealth is against enemy Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and their radar defense networks. Russia by far has and exports the latest and (arguably) SAMs, ranging from the high-mobility Buk-M1 (SA-11) to the enormous S-300V. These missiles can travel at speeds of up to Mach 6 and turn at eight times the force of Earth's gravity (g). Most fighter planes cannot speed faster than Mach 2.5 and evade in turns in excess of 9 gs. A Stealth aircraft could avoid these SAMs by using its own sensors to detect the enemy radars while remaining undetectable and out of range of enemy weapons, thus conserving gas and not subjecting the pilot to extreme g-forces. By being very hard to detect and track, an enemy would not be able to discern where the attacking stealth aircraft are coming from, how many or of what type, let alone take effective action against a stealth aircraft attack.8

By knowing where enemy radars, SAMs, fighters, and Command and Communication systems are, a Stealth aircraft could fly around or if needed, engage the enemy. One key tactic to this is through "sensor fusion," combining all information from air, ground, sea, space, and the Stealth aircraft's own sensors to merge into an overall picture of the theater of combat for increased "Situational Awareness" of one's surroundings. The Stealth aircraft's computers then creates a "moving map" showing the locations of the enemy's integrated air defense systems, allowing the stealth pilots to maneuver around them, or to engage them as mission parameters dictate. The tactic of maneuvering around the enemy radar coverage was used in the 1991 Gulf War where F-117As flew into Baghdad at night, dropped with impunity, and the anti-aircraft defenses couldn't react effectively to stop such bombardment because the enemy was unable to track the F-117As effectively to train counterbattery fire. F-117A pilots flew around known SAM and radar locations, thus avoiding exposure to enemy weapons' fire. Another effective result of stealth usage occurred during "Operation Neptune Spear" when two super-secret UH-60 stealth-modified "Silent Hawks" penetrated Pakistani airspace undetected and one exited without effective response from the Pakistani military.

By rendering expensive SAM and radar systems not very effective, stealth aircraft pilots could choose their own path and time for attack: They could engage when and where they choose, decline if the odds are not in their favor, and have the Situational Awareness from sensor-fusion to tell the difference.9 The best approach would be to sneak up on the enemy without them even knowing an attack was in progress by flying low against the terrain or very high outside of range of enemy air defenses. That is the true impact of Stealth combat aircraft technology-(maintaining) the element of surprise. An attacking Stealth aircraft doesn't need to rely on protection from other aircraft such as fighter escorts or electronic jamming planes, stealth allows the attacking plane to use a much more silent and passive approach to the target based on the information gathered from multiple sensors and information-sharing networks. The stealth pilot becomes more of a "battle manager," able to read and decide on the information presented in the cockpit displays. The "Look first, shoot first" reality of Stealth combat aircraft features mean that enemy defense systems with longer range and more powerful weapons are reduced in effectiveness if they cannot see or trace the incoming threat. An U.S. Air Force mock combat test pitted a single F-22 "Raptor" against eight F-15C "Eagle" fighters and the F-22 came out on top without the F-15C pilots even seeing the F-22 before they got "shot down."10

AIM-9X "Sidewinder"

The AIM-9X with its thrust-vectoring rear paddles is the latest heat-seeking version of the "Sidewinder" missile family.
The AIM-9X with its thrust-vectoring rear paddles is the latest heat-seeking version of the "Sidewinder" missile family. | Source

Stealth Strategy in Modern Air-to-Air Combat Warfare:

Stealth aircraft act as "Game Changers" in battle, playing pivotal roles in influencing the course and outcome of the conflict. Often seen as a "Doorbuster," Stealth aircraft would be tasked with knocking down the enemy's air defense network with the minimum of causalities to allow non-stealthy aircraft to follow. In a fighter attack scenario, Stealth aircraft would act as an awesome sensor, detecting incoming enemy fighters via low-detection radar emissions and sending the location, range, speed, and aircraft type information to friendly aircraft nearby who would not turn on their broadcasting radars. The Friendly Force could then launch missiles to intercept and destroy the attacking aircraft, or the Stealth aircraft could do this. Another option would be for the Stealth aircraft's advanced radar to jam enemy radar and communications by overloading and overwhelming them.11

F-35A "Lightning II."  The F-35 could only carry two JDAMs and two AMRAAMs internally.
F-35A "Lightning II." The F-35 could only carry two JDAMs and two AMRAAMs internally. | Source
F-22A "Raptor."  The F-22 could carry six AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 "Sidewinders" internally.
F-22A "Raptor." The F-22 could carry six AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 "Sidewinders" internally. | Source

The Impactful Disadvantages of Using Stealth Aircraft in Modern Air Warfare:

High Cost and Investments:

The downside of using Stealth aircraft is that stealth technology is extremely expensive and so precious that the U.S. military does not export any of its Stealth combat aircraft with the possible exception of the F-35, and even those F-35s exported will only be to close allies and have some classified radar absorbent materials and advanced secret systems removed. The expense of Stealth combat aircraft hits the taxpayers hard. To lose a single F-22A would cost $412 million U.S. replacement dollars as of March, 2012 when non-stealthy aircraft cost around $60-$80 million each. A single B-2A bomber costs $1.4 billion a copy to replace.12 Both the F-22A and B-2A are no longer in production, making each aircraft a highly-valuable asset to the U.S. Air Force. Due to the high materials costs, fewer Stealth aircraft are built compared to non-stealthy aircraft and the risk of "Quality over quantity where quantity has a quality all its own" comes into play, meaning huge numerical superiority could overwhelm a smaller more technology-advanced and trained stealth force and cause the latter to not be able to recover due to the time and cost of Stealth replacement aircraft and pilots. Having so few Stealth aircraft runs the risk of saving this "Silver Bullet" for conflicts of the utmost importance, and even then, militaries with Stealth aircraft may not be willing to risk the loss of so many of this precious and expensive weapons system. In fact, there were reports that B-2 bombers were escorted by conventional SEAD and electronic warfare aircraft during the 1999 Serbian Air Campaign to protect such a vital U.S. Air Force asset, thus rendering the notion of "Using fewer aircraft for the mission" ineffective with stealth technology.

Expensive, Classified, and Untested Advanced Combat Technology:

In addition, Stealth aircraft contain advanced sensor and electronics technology not quite combat tested. As of New Year 2013, the information-sharing and sensor fusion systems, huge investments in the F-22s and F-35s, have yet to be used in a real shooting war. Finally, Stealth aircraft have advanced technology and elite pilots that when destroyed, captured, or stolen could have a huge impact on the effects of the combat theater and may give the enemy a huge technological leap as evident in the shooting down of a F-117 on March 27, 1999 by the Serbian Army. The F-117A at the time had its bomb bay doors open, drastically increasing its stealth signature to radar. The pilot was rescued but the debris was left behind and not bombed by the U.S. military. The crash-landing of the secret UH-60 "Silent Hawk" in the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in May 2, 2011 let the Pakistanis and reportedly the Chinese to examine the still intact tail section before the Pakistanis handed over the debris to the United States. Finally, the capturing of the RQ-170 "Sentinel" spy drone by Iran in December 2011 gave Iran practically a secret drone in very good condition except for the bottom half.13 Due to these incidents, stealth technology has reportedly fallen into the hands of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan who have examined the destroyed parts and radar absorbing paint, leading Russia and China to develop their own stealth combat fighters that look very similar to the F-22A's overall shape.

Decreased Ordnance Loads:

Furthermore, Stealth aircraft usually carry less ordnance than a non-stealthy aircraft. By having the weapons stored internally for maximum stealth, a Stealth aircraft may have to fly more sorties than a non-stealthy aircraft which carries a much larger ordnance load externally, thus risking Stealth plane and pilot again and again. While most Stealth aircraft could mount weapons externally, that would negate their stealth-shaping advantages because metal bombs' reflect radar. As some critics have pointed out, a Stealth aircraft could evade enemy detection, but once its ordnance load is expended, it is just an expensive plane with no defensive weapons whatsoever. And when it turns around to head home, it exposes its more non-stealthy rear end to enemy counterattack. Due to the limited ordnance carrying capabilities, stealth features and advanced sensor-fusion have to work seamlessly to allow multiple combat sorties with minimal losses.

Conclusion:

The impact of Stealth aircraft in modern air warfare has resulted in millions of pounds of ordnance and thousands of JDAMs dropped over several air campaigns. Stealth aircraft's results are considered classified, but one could attest that Stealth aircraft's impact in modern air warfare has given the United States impressive and also mixed results. The successes of stealth helicopters used in "Operation Neptune Spear" and the F-117A and B-2 bombing runs have yielded huge tactical results while the losses of Stealth bombers, drones, and helicopters have produced undesirable transfers of secret technology to foreign nations. Of course one could argue that the high replacement costs of a Stealth aircraft doesn't compare to the cost of the human pilot it protects. Stealth aircraft's impact on modern warfare will continue when these expensive and sophisticated weapons see additional future combat.

F-22A
F-22A | Source

Editor's Note

On September 22, 2014, the USAF F-22s saw their first ground attack combat bombing missions in Syria.

References:

1 Wikipedia: "Stealth Aircraft: F-117A, B-2, F-22, and F-35."
2www.ausairpower.net "Australian Air Power"
3 Wikipedia: "Stealth Aircraft: F-117A, B-2, F-22, and F-35."
4 Sweetman, Bill. F-22 Raptor. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1998.
5 Sweetman, Bill. F-22 Raptor. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1998.
6 Kmainski, Tom. "The Osama Bin Laden Raid." Combat Aircraft July 2011: 2. Magazine.


7
Axe, David. "Cutting Edge: Bin Laden Raid Reveals New Stealth Capabilities." Combat Aircraft July 2011: 1. Magazine.
8
Sweetman, Bill. F-22 Raptor. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1998.
9 Davies, Steve. U.S. Multi-Role Fighter Jets. Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2011
10 Davies, Steve. U.S. Multi-Role Fighter Jets. Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2011
11 Davies, Steve. U.S. Multi-Role Fighter Jets. Long Island City, NY: Osprey Publishing, 2011
12 Wikipedia: "Stealth Aircraft: F-117A, B-2, F-22, and F-35."
13 Wikipedia: "Stealth Aircraft: F-117A, B-2, F-22, and F-35."

Hasegawa 1/48 F-22 Raptor USAF

Inside the (B-2) Stealth Bomber (Motorbooks)

KTH80103 1:48 Kitty Hawk F-35A Lightning II MODEL KIT

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    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 2 years ago

      A good article. You explain how stealth works and give the advantages and disadvantages of stealth. Having advanced technology falling into enemy hands is always a problem. It is still better to be in the keeping ahead position than in the playing catch-up position.