Why does stealth matter to Canadians? A stealth aircraft can operate undetected far longer and get far closer to enemy defenses before being seen. That gives the F-35 the ability to direct where the attack will take place and operate offensively, not being scared of being detected 100’s of kilometers away. That sense of impunity allows the F-35 freedom of movement, to attack the enemy defenses, avoid them all together or a combination that most effectively allows the formation to accomplish its mission and egress safely. For NORAD missions, that means detecting enemy fighters and bombers without them knowing that the F-35s are present. For Coalition Operations overseas, that means operating in higher threat environments without being shot down. This revolutionary characteristic ensures that at best, the adversary would know that stealth aircraft are already upon the target or are leaving, with their bombs in the air as they egress from the enemy. And why does that matter? Having Canadian fighter pilots come home safely each and every mission is why that matters.
Does stealth mean invisibility? No. But a Very Low Observable (VLO) aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 would be detected at such a late stage in an attack that the enemy would not be able to react in time to shoot at it. But if the enemy did by chance detect a VLO aircraft, could it be shot down? Highly unlikely. Why? 5 steps have to be accomplished in the Kill Chain to actually shoot down an aircraft. The enemy has to detect, then track that F-35 with a radar system, another different radar system would be needed to track and guide a missile, then maintain that F-35 as a track as it fires and finally guides the missile all the way to impact. In the time frame required to accomplish those 5 steps, assuming that the enemy was lucky enough to maintain a track on the VLO fighter, that jet would maneuver, deploy defensive capabilities and break the kill sequence. The difficulty to solve the Kill Chain means that even if the enemy knows that an F-35 is present, he cannot solve all the elements of the equation to successfully shoot down that F-35. Without VLO technologies, that Kill Chain equation will be solved much easier and sooner against a Gripen E, Super Hornet or any other legacy fighter.
Is Stealth Just Geometric Shaping?
Geometric shaping to deflect radar energy is the essence of a stealth design. Radar defecting designs reduce or eliminate radar energy bouncing back, send it off at different angles, scatter or absorb it so that no reflection of the radar is seen. But VLO designs incorporate so much more than just shaping. VLO aircraft are not ‘painted’ but instead are coated with radar absorbent materials. Any protrusion on the exterior of the aircraft must be eliminated which forces designers to embed radio and navigation antennas in the skin of the aircraft. Air intakes and exhaust ducts to cool avionics inside the jet are hidden as well as the front fan blades of the engines. Fuel sufficient to fly the mission needs to be stored inside the aircraft so that fuel tanks don’t have to be slung from the underbelly / under-wing. Bombs and missiles need to be carried on the inside and the electro-optical tracker that allows the pilot to zoom in on enemy targets and send laser signals to guide bombs must also be hidden. Any external protrusion contaminates the aircraft stealth design and allows some element of radar energy to potentially be bounced off it and seen by the enemy. The shaping design must take in consideration not just in the front face of the jet but also shape the sides, back end and bottom. The engine exhaust nozzle of a GE-414 on Gripen E or Super Hornet is a huge radar reflector unlike the jagged edge nozzles seen on the PW-F-135 engine of the F-35.
A stealth design understands that heat signature matters against sophisticated Infrared Search and Track Systems flown on most advanced fighters today. Hiding the engine exhaust of the fighter is critical to avoiding early detection using those heat-based detection systems. Not emitting electrons every time a radio is used, or a Link 16 message is sent via the datalink network is immensely important. F-22s and F-35s often choose not to communicate with legacy fighters on open radio or datalink networks. These legacy systems send open signals for anyone to detect and while the enemy might not be able to decipher what is being said or transmitted, they can locate the source of the transmission, the Gripen E or Super Hornet. Low Probability of Detection ‘radios’ send directed transmissions to the VLO fighter. Low Probability of Intercept datalinks, like in F-22 and F-35, exchange networked information between fighters that is precisely directed and cannot be intercepted by the enemy. These advanced techniques allow the 5th Gen fighters to communicate and share information in their network freely without being detected as would happen with legacy radios and datalinks.
Is Stealth a Fad?
Stealth is not a fad but instead a revolutionary change in aircraft design which has led to a generational change in aerial warfare. Modern stealth design was first seen with the F-117 during Gulf War 1, and then later in combat over Kosovo and Serbia in Operation Allied Force. That F-117 was not a maneuverable aircraft with its sharp lines and was only employed at night so that it could not be seen. Since then, technology advances have allowed designers to build aircraft that are not only VLO but have the maneuverability of aggressive fighters, benefiting from advances of flight control systems plus more in-depth understanding of how to shape more effectively to not compromise the capability. The YF-22 and YF-23 prototypes were superb examples of extreme maneuverability combined with very difficult-to-detect designs. F-35 further improved on this over the next years.
The difficulty to maintain the F-117 in pristine stealth form required enormous effort and manpower. Lessons learned in the ensuing years were incorporated into the F-22 design so that restoring those stealth coatings was not as difficult. Even more lessons were learned during F-22 operations that were fed into the design of F-35 so that servicing and restoring the F-35 to pristine stealthiness is managed as relatively normal maintenance.
Look around the world at new aircraft designs and decide for yourself, is stealth a passing fad in aircraft design like the 1980’s Euro-canards of Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale? Look at the design for the new USAF B-21 bomber, imagine what the 6th Gen Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter will look like (when those pictures are released). Look at the newest fighter designs: UK and Saab’s Tempest, the German and French Future Combat Aircraft System, the Korean KF-21, Japan’s 6th Gen fighter, the Chinese J-20 and J-31 or the Russian Su-57 and proposed Su-75 stealth aircraft. Is there any nation or company that believes building a non-stealth fighter is survivable or viable? Generational change in fighter design yes…fad…no.
What Happens to the ‘Have Nots’?
Legacy fighters and even upgraded 4th Gen aircraft without baked-in VLO design must always operate knowing that adversaries will see them coming. Their operations rely on external specialized aircraft to mask the fighter’s presence and protect them from attack. Legacy fighter attacks require significant numbers of this aircraft mix to combine the bombers, plus fighters in front to protect from enemy fighters, aircraft that can jam enemy defenses, and still other aircraft to attack those enemy defenses (while permitting the bombers to get through safely). Recall that in combat operations over Kosovo and Serbia in Operation Allied Force in 1999, that specialized mix of aircraft could be as large as 60+ aircraft. Since that time, the size of attack formations has shrunk in overall numbers but not the requirement to have mixed specialized aircraft to protect the legacy fighters, just so the bombers can achieve their primary task.
In modern warfare against today’s advanced surface-to-air defenses, legacy fighters like Gripen E, Typhoon and Rafale will not be included in the attacks with F-35s. The vulnerability of the non-VLO aircraft not only make them easier prey for enemy surface-to-air missiles but including them in 5th Gen fighter attacks would compromise all the technology advancements of the F-35. Does that matter to Canada? So many have said that Canadian fighters will never be in the front of attacks on Day 1 of a war…except they were. The first aircraft across into enemy territory in combat of Operation Allied Force was a formation of 4 CF-18s. In Libya and Syria, CF-18s took on a major role. So now that history reminds us that Canadian fighters will in fact be tasked to fight alongside other nations, Canada best equip those fighter pilots with jets that will survive against the most modern threats, not just the legacy defenses that we faced in the last 30 years.
Anyone want to bet the lives of Canadian fighter pilots on flying a formation of Gripen E’s in the Ukraine crisis now or would the universal vote be for F-35?
What about a “Romulan Cloaking Device”?
The marketing hype surrounding the newest version of Gripen E has Canadian aviation enthusiasts keen on the electronic ‘Defensive Shield’, described as a 360-degree sphere of protection where no adversary can find the Gripen inside this sphere. For all the years of technology development invested into 5th Gen, not once did the US Government believe that a Romulan Cloaking Device could be developed like Saab claims exists for Gripen E. Electronic warfare, detecting the location of enemy signals, jamming them, confusing the enemy and hoping that the precise location of the fighters cannot be determined to allow them to complete their mission has been a focus for technology experts for generations. We collectively get more creative, more ingenious with each generation of fighter; and the counter technologies to defeat our advancements in EW are developed. One step forward is soon countered by the other side. Saab’s Romulan Cloaking Device, in spite of great marketing hype, will not stand the test of time. The most effective EW jamming power in a combat fighter comes from the ‘radar’ array which can deliver precise jamming, of relatively high power, to obscure and confuse enemy defenses. As effective as the front facing radar might be, in concert with other electronic equipment in the fighter, there is no equivalent system to protect the fighter on its sides, from behind and from underneath. So, until we steal the Romulan stealth technology, putting all our hopes on an electronic warfare system that has never been tested in operations or combat means risking the lives of our men and women. That is an enormous risk that no one will take.
I commanded the Canadian Task Force Aviano during Operation Allied Force in the spring of 1999. 69 different pilots flew in combat during that conflict. For all the amazing effort and effectiveness of the Canadian Hornets, the single biggest accomplishment that I cherish is that I brought everyone home. Even for warriors, nothing else matters.
It will always come back to the lives of the men and women who fly the jets. Stealth development changed a generation of how aircraft were designed and how aerial warfare operates. For many years, the USAF was the only service flying VLO aircraft, while other nations watched from the sidelines at the extraordinary effectiveness, lethality and survivability demonstrated. With F-35 being built and sold to other western air forces, more nations now possess that advantage. In the case of Canada, RCAF pilots flying CF-35s will be coming back home each and every mission. Never lose sight of that.
Hi Billie. Excellent Blog. Is that a new fairing bulge between the vertical stabilizers and just ahead of the engine nozzle? Your explanation of the stealth design issues of shape and radar non reflectivity was very interesting. They must drive the designers crazy. With that in mind and the fact that the F-117 only operated at night, most of the F-35 images show it operating in what looks like northern Canada in winter. The very dark jet is an anomaly in these pictures because of its colour. Is it possible to produce a stealth coating in white? Maybe winter white and summer camo? I recall that the KLM airliners painted in a medium to light blue were very hard to see against a clear blue sky. Cheers, Billy Best
Camoflage worked for flying down low to the ground…a fighter flying in the 30-40’s won’t need white / grey / or other painting…and remember that F-35s aren’t painted, they are coated.
The bulged fairing on the back of the aircraft is the dragchute housing that was developed for the RNorwegianAF
Yes but no. The drag chute was intended for markets like Canada and Norway and now Finland. The Norwegians supported the testing and development but it was never intended or developed exclusively for the RoNAF. As early users of the F-35 in the cold, clearly having them involved gave the push to accelerate the testing of the drag chute.
The Norway military had problem with braking and wind with the planes they had due to ice in northern Norway and then they was going to have a F35 which is heavier so wind affect them less and ice affect breaking more due to weight but brakes was better then previous planes and stronger engine breaking power. The result during testing at short Norwegian military airfield. Who knows who did or said what but it resultet in Norway signed when they got the solution that is not working as it should but work is in progress.
I think what you are trying to describe is the difficulty that the F-16 had landing on icy runways. In Norway, the F-16 always flew with a drag chute which was remarkably effective. The F-16 has notoriously tiny brakes and a weak braking system. The F-35s in Norway also have a drag chute but a much mor powerful set of brakes than the F-16. I have not heard of any issues landing and controlling the F-35 on icy surfaces in Norway in the 3-4 winters that those jets have operated in Norway and those slick runway conditions. There is no additional work needed as the drag chute works already.
Excellent article . The MIG-41 the superfast interceptor is not yet off the drawing board at the Mikoyan Military Aircraft Design Bureau. Mass production scheduled to begin prior to 2025. Will be able to intercept hypersonic drones from the USA although Russia’s S-500 theoretically would be cable of shooting it down.
We should all pay attention to the development of hypersonics which will be the next generational leap in aerospace.
Excellent article Mr. Flynn and as a Australian, I very much hope for all those in Canada with which we share so much in common as brothers and sisters in the Commonwealth of nations, that Canada chooses the F-35 as its next fighter. The shear bulk of Canada’s allies now operate the F-35 and those in the decision making process for Canada’s next fighter are privy to all this information – F-35 is a “known known”.
F-35 as a program will be running for another 45-50 years, maybe longer. How does this compare to the Gripen-E program which is tiny by comparison with such a small fleet size. More F-35s are made each year than all the Gripen-Es currently on order. So as a program, Gripen-E offers the worst “future proofing” versus the F-35 program. Gripen marketeers and supporters state words to the effect “Oh SAAB will give you everything, all the code, the works – isn’t this great for Canada’s sovereignty!”. Well, this actually looks more to me that SAAB is dropping its bundle on its clients with a “We’ve given you all the tools, if you want anything extra, you can sort it out yourself!”. So F-35 has planned software and hardware upgrades keeping it relevant over 45-50 years. These on going development costs are shared across all those users who choose to upgrade their F-35s over its operational life – costs shared across a huge fleet so there are large economies of scale at play here. Gripen-E – meh, sort it out yourself! Good luck with that Canada if your choose Gripen-E!
As a Aussie who actually cares about our brothers and sisters over in that fair land of Canada, I truly wish the F-35 is finally selected for the RCAF. It’s time to give Canada’s best men and women in the RCAF the best fighter available so they can do their best job defending your nation and its values. My fingers are crossed for Canada in this regard.
The issue of future growth potential is key to the long term viability of the F-35. Staying tactically relevant over the decades will be key, not just that the fighter works in the near term.
I think Canada will buy the F-35. However at the moment it needs to sort out its domestic politics. As a foreigner with relatives in Canada I despair at the current situation.
The F-35 was the only real choice for Canada (i.e.RCAF) from the start. It’s sad that it became a political football for many…….
Long-term I believe history will look very favorably on the F-35 and the entire JSF Team! Especially, members like Billie Flynn……..We all owe him a great deal. THANK YOU SIR