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As of late, there have been attempts to question the value of stealth

Posted by altandmain on November 27, 2019

An article was recently posted that was quite an improvement over the typical articles that we see in the mainstream media. Although I may not agree with all of the assertions here, the article was well written.

https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-good-stealth-f-22-and-f-35-anyway-82791

Let’s go through some of the key points in greater detail.

While virtually any plane can be equipped to fire long-range missiles, stealth airframes are built using radar-absorbent materials and engineered precisely to minimize reflection of radar waves. This constrains their load-carrying abilities, as external weapons or drop tanks could increase their visibility on radar. The United States fields two stealth fighters, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.

There seems to be an attempt here to make a serious discussion about the trade-offs of stealth technology.

 

Stealth aircraft are optimized to be difficult to observe on the precise X-Band radars used on modern fighters: while some radars have better resolutions than others, most will only be able to track a stealth fighter at shorter distances. An F-22 is claimed to have the radar cross section of 0.0001 square meters in certain aspect—the same as that of a marble.

Low-bandwidth radars are more effective at detecting stealth aircraft. These are typically used by ground installations and ships, but also found on specialized aerial platforms such as the E-2D. However, they come with a major limitation: they can reveal only the general location of a stealth fighter and are too imprecise to be used to target missiles—though they can indicate to an X-Band radar where to look.

Infra-Red Search-and Track (IRST) systems offer another means of detecting stealth aircraft, but their range is generally limited. The latest IRST system on the SU-35 has extended the range up to 50 kilometers, whereas its radar has detection range of up to 200 kilometers. Just like low-band radar, IRST doesn’t give a precise track and can’t be used to lock on weapons. Stealth fighters include features designed to minimize heat signature, but they are far from completely effective.

Of course, a stealth fighter can be seen within visual range, and is vulnerable to heat-seeking missiles.

 

I’m glad to be seeing a serious discussion about how stealth can be possibly defeated.

One factor that is difficult to calculate is how likely long-range missiles are to hit. Extrapolating from past usage of radar-guided missiles is problematic, both because missile technology has advanced considerably since its inception (early radar-guided Sparrow missiles had a less than 10 percent kill probability in the Vietnam War), and the conflicts in which radar-guided missiles have been more successful (Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Gulf War) involved poorly trained opponents lacking effective countermeasures.

It’s safe to say that long-range missiles will have lower hit rates than short-range missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder and the Russian R-73—modern versions of which have chalked up a roughly seventy percent probability of kill.

One of the recurring themes that Picard has always emphasized is that BVR radar guided air missiles are not going to have the kill ratios that they had in simulations.

This is also why shorter range IR missiles and guns are going to remain relevant today.

 

But referring back to the Battle of Britain can reveal a limitation of this strategy. The British hit-and-run attacks succeeded in inflicting deadly attrition on German bombers over time until they were forced to call off the air offensive. But they rarely prevented the German formations from hitting their targets. The German simply had too many aircraft.

At first, this was a problem: the Germans relentlessly pounded British airfields, degrading the Royal Air Force’s ability to fight in the air. But then the Germans switched to bombing civilian targets in London. While this inflicted many civilian casualties, the raids did not degrade the RAF’s ability to fight back. The British fighters could sustain their advantageous rate of attrition versus the German Luftwaffe until the latter was forced to tap out.

 

One thing I do like is that the author of this article is very well versed in aviation history.

 

Let’s consider what would happen when American fighters encounter a much larger force of fighters based on the coast. The American fighters could fire their long-range AIM-120D missiles from more than one hundred kilometers away—four from each F-35 and six on the F-22. Soaring at Mach 4—twice the maximum speed of the aircraft that launched it—an AIM-120 can traverse eighty kilometers in one minute.

The radar-warning receivers on their targets would light up as they detect the incoming attack. The further away the target, the more time it has to evade the missile. Therefore, BVR missiles may be fired at well below their maximum range to ensure a higher probability of a kill, particularly when engaging maneuverable fighter aircraft.

 

Presumably in this case, the author is referring to China.

One thing the author does not discuss is that a stealth heavy fleet means lower numbers. It means higher acquisition costs per plane, higher costs per hour of flight, and higher flight to maintenance ratios, which means less aircraft for a given amount of money.

 

What if the U.S. fighters close to short range after expending their long-range armaments, rather than prudently disengaging? If both sides are closing upon each other at maximum speed at high altitude, the distance between them would diminish at a rate of 60-80 kilometers a minute. Even if the AIM-120s were fired at maximum range, the opposing aircraft could close that distance in one or two minutes.

In short-range engagements, surprise, pilot training and flight performance will determine the victor.

The F-22 is a superb dogfighter. The F-35…not so much, though ithas its defenders. Both aircraft can carry two Sidewinder missiles and fire shells from their onboard cannons.

 

While I question the F-22’s value as a dogfighter, the author does have a very important point. Training, surprise, and flight performance will be decisive factors. One problem with stealth fighters in that regard is that pilots will have to spend more time in simulators rather than real world aircraft.  The higher costs per flight hour force this.

 

Why? The hostile aircraft didn’t have trouble detecting the tankers supporting the U.S. forces. Unlike the F-22s and F-35s, tankers have neither the speed nor stealth to evade a determined attack.

If the tankers get shot down, it doesn’t just force the U.S. fighters to abandon the fight. It could force them to crash into the ocean, without enough fuel to make it back to base. In effect, a tanker would be a high-value target that U.S. air-superiority fighters would need to defend to the last.

A similar problem exists while defending an aircraft carrier from attack. Unlike the resilient city of London in the Battle of Britain, a carrier is a vulnerable and militarily consequential target that must be defended at all costs. A lost carrier consigns its fighters to the ocean as well.

A final consideration is that opponents may field limited number of their own stealth fighters, such as the J-20 or the Sukhoi T-50. Even a small number of stealth fighters would be effective at sneaking into the range of the tankers and AWACs aircraft and taking them out before the U.S. aircraft could evade or retaliate. Very long-range missiles such as the R-37 and the PL-13 could also assist in the anti-tanker mission.

 

First, one concern is that there is a trade-off between stealth and aerodynamics. The second is that the tankers and AWACs are themselves not stealthy. Making tankers stealth would be costly and mean less money for fighter aircraft.

AWACs simply cannot be made stealthy. It will remain vulnerable to anti-radiation missiles.

 

Already, many theorists believe that carriers would be forced to remain far away from hostile shores. The survivability of airbases in the event of a mass surface-to-surface missile attack is also open to question. One possibility is that no large-scale air battles would materialize.

The two key limitations are logistical: lack of internal fuel to operate without support, and insufficient missiles to tackle superior numbers. For the time being, there is no obvious fix to the fuel problem: the latest U.S. fighters, the F-22 and F-35, are simply going to depend on tankers. Some suggest that the Navy should deploy light-weight low-observable drones from carriers that could potentially operate further afield.

 

In the case of aircraft carriers,  submarines might also prove to be a threat. So might land fired anti-shipping missiles.

Another issue is that rough field operation is a big deal for modern war – fixed airbases provide fixed targets for enemy forces.

 

The U.S. military is a big proponent of networked warfare. In theory, if one airplane detects an enemy, it could pass on that data to friendly ships and aircraft—and through Cooperative Engagement Ability, even potentially allow those friendlies to shoot at that target from far away. One potential tactic is to use a vanguard of stealthy fighters to identify incoming enemy aircraft and send targeting data to ships or non-stealth fighters, which can carry heavier weapons loads. The F-35’s excellent sensors and datalinks could make it effective in this role.

There is even an idea being kicked around to mount large numbers of missiles on a B-1 or B-52, which would be fired off hundreds of kilometers away from the battle. Of course, such an “arsenal plane” would be vulnerable if enemy fighters broke through the accompanying line of F-22s and F-35s. The tactic would likely require even longer-range missiles than the U.S. currently employs.

 

I’m not at all convinced this would work – keep in mind that an aircraft that is stealthy would have to transmit to the friendly aircraft information. That may be detected and it may be possible to reveal the locations of enemy aircraft.

Longer range missiles are likely to have an even lower probability of kill ratio, except against targets that don’t have the agility to defeat them.

 

Concluding thoughts

While I may not agree with all of the points in this article, I am happy to see someone who is asking questions about the limitations of stealth.

It is certainly an improvement over the fawning, and often uncritical coverage that stealth aircraft have received.

 

2 Responses to “As of late, there have been attempts to question the value of stealth”

  1. greatmanobi said

    Please i have a question, how do stealth planes fire off bvr missiles without revealing themselves, i was under the impression that they need to have their radar on to target the enemy, and soon as they switch their radar on they will be detected

    Liked by 1 person

    • tdcoish said

      Magic.

      But in all seriousness, they would need to use IR missiles. If not, then there’s no point. It’s like putting on facepaint and camo to hide yourself at night, then using a flashlight to look for the enemy soldiers. Not a great idea.

      Theoretically there are complicated schemes where you could have multiple fighters in the area, some with radars off, some without, and AWACS already exists.

      Like

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