Stealth fighters like America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor are often touted as being “invisible on radar,” but they’re actually not invisible at all. In fact, all of today’s modern stealth fighters, including China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57, are pretty easy to spot on even dated early warning systems that have been in service for decades.
Stealth designs minimize an aircraft’s radar signature, delaying and sometimes even preventing detection, but because of the physical requirements for tactical jets, stealth fighters can be easily spotted by certain low-frequency radar bands.
In fact, it’s not even uncommon for air traffic control radar to be able to spot stealth fighters on their scopes. And we’re not just talking about when these aircraft are carrying external munitions or fuel tanks, rather, even in full-on “stealth mode,” F-22s and F-35s aren’t as sneaky as you might think.
But they are very tough to shoot down.
The bottom line
“Does the mission require a cloaking device or is it OK if the threat sees it but can’t do anything about it?”-Unnamed U.S. Navy Officer as quoted by Dave Mujamdar for War is Boring.
Modern stealth fighters are designed to delay or prevent detection from radar arrays that are capable of providing a “weapons-grade lock,” — in other words, radar arrays that can guide a missile to a target. Lower frequency radar arrays are not capable of guiding weapons with this sort of accuracy but are capable of spotting stealth fighters.
As a result, most nations operate early warning systems that can identify stealth fighters in their airspace, they just lack the means to effectively target them. Using these radars in conjunction with other systems and targeting methodologies can feasibly allow someone to engage stealth fighters, and that’s why mission planning is essential for all stealth air operations.
Read on for a more in-depth explanation below.
Related: Russia’s stealth fleet ranks 11th in the world
Stealth is more complicated than you probably realize
Stealth is often discussed in a singular sense, as though it’s one technology that can be incorporated into an aircraft’s design. But stealth (or low-observability) is actually a combination of overlapping technologies, design traits, materials, production methodologies, and combat tactics all intended to delay or prevent detection. Developing a stealth platform is a constant battle between cost, capability, and the limitations of existing technology — which means no stealth platform is truly invisible.
In a general sense, stealth is a term used to describe efforts made to reduce an aircraft’s radar, infrared (heat), acoustic, and even visual signatures.
“The ideal for a stealth aircraft is to reduce the signature in all aspects. All-aspect reduction is valuable because enemy fighters and ground-based air defenses might observe the attacking aircraft from multiple angles as the aircraft flies its mission. However, in practice, signature reductions are not uniform. Aerodynamic trade-offs also force compromises in signature reduction.”“The Radar Game: Understanding Stealth and Aircraft Survivability” by Rebecca Grant, Mitchell Institute, 2010
Radar systems work by broadcasting electromagnetic waves in pulses and then measuring those waves when reflected back by an aircraft or weapon. Stealth fighters are designed to deflect these radar waves away, rather than directly back at the receiver.
While it’s commonly understood that stealth aircraft are designed to delay or evade radar detection, how they go about doing so is usually more complex than the sort of stuff discussed in polite dinner conversation.
Because electromagnetic waves can be broadcast at different wavelengths and frequencies, they interact with bodies they encounter in different ways, forcing designers to make compromises regarding the types of radar they want their fighters to avoid.
Related: Stolen stealth fighter: Why China’s J-20 has both US and Russian DNA
Stealth fighters are only designed to limit detection against specific kinds of radar
Different radar arrays broadcast in different wavelengths and frequencies for different reasons. The types of design elements that can help delay or prevent detection from one type of radar won’t necessarily help prevent detection from another.
As a result, stealth fighter designs are specifically intended to limit detection from the types of radar arrays that can effectively guide a weapon to its position. While stealth aircraft are still not invisible to radar arrays that work within these bands, the goal is to make their radar returns small enough to delay detection, allowing the stealth fighter to either engage or escape without ever being targeted.
Radars operate by broadcasting electromagnetic energy (radar waves) in the L, S, C, X, or K bands. Each band leverages a different wavelength and frequency, with only higher frequency (smaller wavelength) systems providing the image fidelity needed to accurately target an aircraft.
In other words, only certain types of radars can be used to guide a missile toward a target and get it close enough to destroy it. Lower frequency arrays are often capable of spotting stealth fighters in the air, but because of their larger wavelengths, they can’t provide accurate enough data to actually lock onto an aircraft with a missile.
Stealth fighter designs only limit detection against higher frequency radar arrays, including parts of the S band and the C, X, and Ku bands to prevent being targeted. Because these fighters are still visible on lower-frequency radar bands like S and C, they can be leveraged effectively as early warning systems, notifying defensive forces that stealth fighters are in the area, and allowing for other defensive systems to be oriented in the right direction.
In fact, because most air traffic control towers operate radar arrays in the S band, they can often spot stealth fighters without much difficulty.
In other words, it’s not particularly difficult to spot an inbound stealth fighter using even quite dated low-frequency radar arrays, but actually shooting them down is another question entirely. Low-frequency arrays aren’t capable of guiding a weapon accurately to a fighter-sized target. They can only point in a general direction and say, “there’s a target over there.”
Related: Why is it so hard to develop stealth aircraft?
Because stealth fighters are detectable, mission planning is essential
While among the least-often discussed elements of operating stealth fighters in combat, mission planning is absolutely essential to successful stealth operations.
“Preparing our mission with the best plan possible, with the best data possible, is important because that can reduce challenges and errors, as variables on the battlefield inevitably change,” explained Lt. Col. Christopher Conant, 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander said in an interview with DVIDS.
“Our mission planning philosophy combines the tenants of flexibility with a holistic perspective on how to execute a joint air campaign.”
As should be evident by now, stealth fighters are not invisible, even to radar, so it’s essential that stealth fighter operations involve a great deal of mission planning. Effective mission planning calls for good intelligence of the battlespace, so pilots can plan their route to and from a target in a way that leans into their aircraft’s strengths and away from its weaknesses.
“In the B-2 community, we say ‘mission planning is our primary tactic’ and our quality of mission planning is what sets us apart,” Conant added.
Because stealth bombers don’t have to have the same sorts of control surfaces required of fighter designs, they are actually harder to detect even by low-frequency radar arrays, despite their greater size. Despite that, however, mission planning remains a priority.
So even if you’re flying in the F-22 Raptor, widely considered to be the stealthiest fighter ever to take to the sky, you still can’t just fly into contested airspace without a plan. Stealth is a toolbox full of handy capabilities, but it’s not a blanket solution for all the problems combat may present.
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the publisher of this article has some good points is giving less credit due to the f22 and f35 aircraft. it’s safe to say the us military anti aircraft defenses is at the very least on par but most likely ahead of its allie’s and enemy.
the f22 and f35 has been tested in actual live simulation against the us military own defense technology and its allie’s had success. furthermore the f22 and f35 have a high kill ratio against its previous generations counterparts.
If you have a down looking, phased array radar, with high resolution ground mapping capabilities such as on the Magellan or the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, shouldn’t you be able to see a moving blank spot on the screen below you where a stealth craft is blocking the ground returns? I don’t know if stealth is stealthy from the top. But I do know that it will block radar signals from passing through it like any other solid object. So if you had a blob of unmappable area on your screen that is about the size of a small aircraft, and that blank spot is moving on its own trajectory, did you just find your stealth target? At which point can you launch TV or IR guided weapons at stealth based off radar or visual/IR spotting? I’ll let the experts take it from here.
Some erroneous reporting there. You’re lacking lots of details that are critical in evaluating this.
First of all, the F22 isn’t the stealthiest.
Second, the most critical part which you did mention but barely and ignore for the rest is mission planning. For any mission a detailed radar coverage map with is used to fly a path of least exposure. Sensor airplanes can pick up mobile stations easily and calculate what can be seen where using terrain data, weather data, fixed radar, etc etc. Using the LOWER visibility of an airplane this will give an excellent tool for missions. Your gibber jabber about not being stealth doesn’t mean anything. There are MANY MANY more factors at play.
Jan Foster says
Mission Planning and execution
F22_35 ectRadar s400/300/Usa Himars Mobile Mortars system.
Interesting to observe each author presenting an incomplete operational picture of the aircraft the pilots the radars capabilites the strategy the Targets and the humans operating it and managing it all.
As one author points out
It’s all about Mission Planning and Human execution vs technology
More relevant to understanding
Comprehending how it all.plays out is observing how each peer enemy prepares its warriors and choices equipment to attack each Target Category.
Each element must be evaluated only in terms of its likely combined interactive outcome with each target defensive systems and its operators.
The USA did not create and use Stelth for appearances.
IT still works goodnuff as we say in the South.
S400 the much ballyhooed rf system has developed and utilizes an ADIZ automatic system signature of all non Russian aircraft in the World so that it’s multilayered radars and rockets can Ai choose and fire . THE data is collected from.a variety of sources and synthesized. Like all systems the vulnerabilities are the handoffs between acquisition and fire control .
Step.one is surprise approach then speed then defeating with standoff then destroying.
A strategy used by Israel in the 6 day war which has stood the tests of time weapons development and planning
The degree of Stelth and Wave Reality interact to create Windows of opportunity for success and failure.
That’s exactly what our employment strategy mission.planning does.
The experience of USA HIMMARS in Ukraine is very instructive.
The Achilles in this Scenario is that the s400ect can not timely cope with the speed and size of the Missile 😳 .boom!
Daniel Gray says
The author makes claims based on open sources and some terrible guessing. ATC can see the stealth aircraft because they have deliberate setups that alter the physical shape so radar can see them. I hate shitty journalism.
Robert Tanner says
F22 flies on totally different radio communication than f35 and is wayyyyyy more stealthy because of that . It’s an air superiority fighter not a joint multi roll
I would like to see an article about the Israeli AF F-35’s and how they have performed in Syria, as they have Russia’s S-300 SAM and possibly the S-400 also.
Robert Tanner says
It has blown past both many times without incident and hit targets with deadly precision
whoa, dude says
The author does not claim to have access to classified information related to stealth technology.
I would call this open-source reporting which is connecting dots from open sources and providing a clearer understanding of the subject. Helpful for the lay reader, does not compromise security, better than most internet offerings, and no one is forced to read it or like it.
You can target the F-35 on a UHF long range radar and simply vector a I/R missile to the general are and it will lock onto the exhaust plume.
“And, Bob’s yer uncle!”
Stealth aircraft use a device called a radar reflector during peacetime so ATC can see them. They’re also required to squawk IFF codes too. I’m a Mission Crew Commander Air Battle Manager on AWACS and control all military aircraft.
Brian Foley says
Another “hint” and “wink-wink, nod-nod” article about stealth…as if the writer has access to any real data or specifications. Writers love to throw a ton of “bits and pieces” from other articles and then slap a few borrowed graphics on it. I seriously doubt that the writer has the clearances necessary to really know what’s going on. Today’s writers are little more than gossip mongers, they read somewhere or heard somewhere something related to the subject…and all of a sudden they’re experts. Question #1. “How many documented engagements have there been between modern US “stealth aircraft” and “enemy radars” ? Question #2. “Of the known engagements between “US designed and built stealth aircraft” and “enemy radars” how many of those aircraft were engaged and shot down” ? Yeah, I thought so…don’t know, so how in hell can anyone make a blanket statement about the ability of “enemy radars” to detect US “stealth aircraft” ? Just another BS article.
How general is the positionning provided by such radars? I always wondered why a SAM wasn’t produced combining such radars with IR/EO terminal guidance.. Seeing the lack of such systems I’m guessing the starting coordinaate aren’t precise enough to get such a missile close enough. Or am I missing something else?
So these big mostly static radars can detect stealth….for about the first 15 minutes after the shooting begins….BOOM goes the system. Turn them on and die.
The fact we can see them in photographs proves they can be detected. (That’s the quality of the “analysis” that your click-bait title represents.)