Culture

Will Advances in Radar Make Stealth Jets Obsolete?

Will radar technology advances render stealth jets obsolete, as one Russian military expert claims? Probably not, but it does add another element to a constantly-changing equation. Joe Trevithick has the story:

It’s not for no reason that the U.S. Navy is taking its time acquiring stealth fighters, and is instead focusing on building more and better EA-18G electronic-warfare jets that can jam enemy radars instead of avoiding them.

Likewise, consider Washington’s renewed interest in extremely long-range, fast-flying hypersonic weapons. These super-fast weapons could help make up for the decreasing effectiveness of stealth. An attacking warplane wouldn’t need to fly so close to enemy radars if it could simply attack from long range with a weapon that’s really, really hard to intercept.

Even aging and portly B-52 bombers—which are anything but stealthy—could lob hypersonic projectiles at targets from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The speedy missiles could zip right through enemy defenses.

In theory. In reality, the Americans—as well as everyone else—have struggled to get hypersonics to work. Just like it’s hard getting stealth to work. And just like better sensors also require intensive development and investment over many decades.

Perhaps most importantly, Moore’s Law—the idea that computing power doubles every two years or so—has never been repealed, so to speak. The fact is, stealth like any advanced technology was always bound to face challenges from any number of other technologies, particularly those that hinge on improvements in computer processing.

But future plane designs will still incorporate stealth features, even if those features don’t represent a major advantage. Stealth might not be a panacea, but having no stealth at all just might be aerial suicide. New sensors work even better again non-stealthy jets than they do against stealthy ones. [Emphasis in original]

I’m reminded of what almost killed Volvo as a make of automobile. While most carmakers sold models based on horsepower and performance, or luxury and status, and later gas mileage and economy. Volvo took a different tack, selling cars to consumers concerned about safety. “Boring but safe” was for years Volvo’s brand.

But then seatbelts were mandated, followed by airbags. And a host of other safety features like crumple zones and anti-lock brakes became standard features on just about every car made. “Safe” became the lowest common denominator of every new car sold, leaving Volvo with nothing but “boring.” The brand nearly died as a result.

Stealth is now the “safety” of modern jet fighters, and increasingly of bombers, too — you’ve got to have it just to have a chance at all. What’s telling is how difficult it’s proving for anyone but American aerospace companies to develop fully-stealthy fighters. China is trying with the Chengdu J-20, but development is slow going. Further hindering the effort might be that China still doesn’t even have a fully homegrown fourth-generation fighter, much less a stealthy fifth-gen. Russia has upgraded their aging fourth-gen designs with much-improved avionics and some stealth-type features, but also has floundered trying to develop a true fifth-gen fighter. The Europeans and the Brits are kinda-sorta trying, but their tiny defense budgets probably can’t handle the strain.

But stealth-defeating radars and missiles are a helluva lot easier to develop than fleets of fighter aircraft. And even if they don’t totally obsolete our F-22s and F-35s, advanced detection certainly complicates things for us.

So we’d best find the money to stay a step ahead of the game, or risk going where not even Volvo has gone before.