Radio aids to detection and ranging ... radar—as it’s
commonly called—transformed air warfare in 1940. It
has held a grip on would-be attackers and defenders ever
This special report from the Mitchell Institute for Airpower
Studies is a republication of a long essay I wrote in 1998 to
get at why stealth was such an important breakthrough for
airpower. Then, as now, there were questions about the future
Consider the times. The dazzling combat success of the
F-117 in the Gulf War of 1991 had been followed by the cancellation
of the B-2 stealth bomber program in 1992. Cuts to
the F-22 stealth fighter program had already been made. Experienced
airmen were strongly in favor of stealth. Some officials,
like former Secretary of Defense William Perry and then-
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Paul Kaminski, were
thoroughly steeped in the workings of stealth and its benefits.
But for many, intricate stealth programs seemed a questionable
investment given the declining defense budgets of the
late 1990s. Stealth was wrapped up in the value of airpower as
a whole and in the re-evaluation of American security policies.
Still, a dozen years ago there was a strong commitment
to stealth. The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps along with
Britain had committed to the Joint Strike Fighter. Teams led by
Lockheed Martin and Boeing were working on designs. Perhaps
most important, the long-range Air Force budget had
a plan to field an all-stealth fighter force of more than 2,200
fighters. The future of stealth seemed assured.
Combat experience quickly revalidated its importance
during the 1999 NATO air war with Serbia. B-2s flew missions
into heavily defended airspace and did everything from taking
out the Novi Sad bridge to attacking and destroying an
SA-3 surface-to-air missile battery. F-117s flew crucial missions.
(One F-117 was shot down.) The intensive air war with Iraq in
early 2003 again saw the use of both F-117s and B-2s against
a variety of targets in and around Baghdad.
Since then, stealth has come under assault. The reasons
have much to do with strategy, politics, and budgets, and
little to do with the capability assessments that drove the decisions
to develop and buy stealth aircraft in the first place.
The radar game itself is just as critical as it was a dozen
years ago. Radar remains the leader in technologies for detecting
aircraft and missile attack. As the study notes: “Why
were aircraft so vulnerable to radar detection? In short, for all
the reasons that increased their aerodynamic qualities and
performance. Metal skins, large vertical control surfaces, big
powerful engines” and so on.
The study details how the first rounds of the radar game
were all about electronic countermeasures. RAF Bomber
Command famously held back the first use of chaff for over
a year, fearing that the Germans would implement countermeasures,
too. During the Cold War, electronic countermeasures
and electronic counter-countermeasures became one
of the blackest arts of airpower and one of its most important.
Stealth was in part a way to break the tug-of-war.
That was why stealth was so attractive. Attackers must
undo the adversary’s advantage either by low-level ingress,
high-altitude operations, speed, electronic countermeasures,
or stealth. Of these, the ability to diminish the effects of
radar return is one of the most challenging and one of the
most rewarding. A low observable aircraft gains advantages
in how close it can come to air defense systems. Low observable
aircraft do not get a free pass in the battlespace.
Low observability has to be fine-tuned to defeat adversary
systems as they establish and hand-off tracks and zero in on
fire control solutions. Not much will prevent the big bump of
long-range, low frequency radars used for initial detection.
But, it takes much more than a blip on a “Tall King” radar to
unravel a well-planned mission.
Over the past decades, it’s never been easy to convey
what low observable technologies actually do. Understanding
them requires some grasp of physics, of radar phenom-
A MITCHELL INSTITUTE STUDY
enology, of aircraft design, of how missions are planned and
executed. One hears so often that stealth is not invisibility.
The inverse corollary is that a single radar detection of an
aircraft at a point in time and space does not equal an impenetrable
battlespace. The British nickname “Chain Home”
for their cross-Channel radar suite had it about right. It takes
a chain of detections, interpretations, and correct actions
by defenders to intercept an aircraft. Stealth breaks up the
chain by removing, reducing, or obfuscating a significant
percentage of those detection opportunities.
Much of The Radar Game is devoted to a basic discussion
of how stealth works and why it is effective in reducing
the number of shots taken by defensive systems. Treat this
little primer as a stepping off point for discovering more of
the complexities of low observability.
Of course, there is a wider electromagnetic spectrum to
consider. While radar is the focus here, true survivability depends
on taking measures to reduce visual, acoustic, and
infrared signatures as well as minimizing telltale communications
and targeting emissions.
The darling of passive technologies is infrared search and
track. Those in combat ignore the infrared spectrum at their
peril. Although it is not as often in the headlines, designers
of all-aspect stealth aircraft have worked since the 1970s to
minimize infrared hotspots on aircraft.
Finally, electronic countermeasures still have their role to
play. As before, it will take a combination of survivability measures
to assure mission accomplishment.
The Radar Game should also shed light on why complex
technologies like stealth cost money to field. The quest for
stealth is ongoing and the price of excellence is nothing
new. Take, for example, the P-61 Black Widow, which was the
premier US night fighter of late World War II. This all-black,
two-engine fighter was crewed by a pilot in front and a
dedicated radar operator in the back seat. Its power and
performance were terrific advances. “All this performance
Original Copyright 1998 Rebecca Grant
Acknowledgements from 1998 version: The author would like
to thank Dr. Scott Bowden for his assistance with historical research.
Also, the author would like to extend special thanks to
Tom McMahon, Phil Soucy, Ken McKenzie, and Charles Massey
of Modern Technology Solutions International, of Alexandria, VA,
for conducting the simulations of signature shapes in an air defense
environment to illustrate the tactical benefits of stealth.
came with a high pricetag,” noted Steven L. McFarland in his
1997 Air Force history Conquering the Night. “With Northrop’s
assembly line in full gear, a completely equipped P-61 cost
$180,000 in 1943 dollars, three times the cost of a P-38 fighter
and twice the price of a C-47 transport.”
Winning the radar game still carries a substantial price
tag—but stealth aircraft pay back the investment in their
Stealth remains at the forefront of design. One of the best
signals about the ongoing value of stealth lies in new applications.
Leading unmanned aerial vehicles for high-threat
operations incorporate stealth. Navy ships have adopted
some of its shaping techniques. Of course, the F-35 Joint
Strike Fighter remains the nation’s single biggest bet on future
Success in the radar game will continue to govern the
value of airpower as a tool of national security. Many of
America’s unique policy options depend upon it. When and
if the SA-20 joins Iran’s air defense network, it will make that
nation a considerably tougher environment for air attack, for
example. Already there are regions of the world where only
stealth aircraft can operate with a good chance of completing
In fact, stealth aircraft will have to work harder than ever.
The major difference from 1998 to 2010 is that defense plans
no longer envision an all-stealth fleet. The Air Force and joint
partners will operate a mixture of legacy, conventional fighters
and bombers alongside stealth aircraft even as the F-35s
arrive in greater numbers. The radar game of 2020 and 2030
will feature a lot of assists and the tactics that go along with
Rebecca Grant, Director
Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies