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.