Do Not Give Up on Stealth Technology
If the U.S. Air Force’s biggest problem is that it is so good at its job that some Americans have come to question its relevance, stealth appears to be suffering a similar fate within the Air Force. In his recent series of articles for War on the Rocks, which challenge the utility of stealth technology for future generations of aircraft, Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha offers a number of thought-provoking ideas that deserve further discussion. Pietrucha has become an intellectual iconoclast within the U.S. Air Force — of which there are too few — by challenging the wisdom of the F-35 program and other sacred cows.
His three-part assault on stealth technology provides an elementary education on what stealth offers the warfighter. In the first article, Pietrucha argues that an all stealth force is unwise because of the capabilities given up in the name of stealth, as well as the expense associated with the technology. On this fundamental point we agree, because a look at the successes and failures of the Air Force demonstrates that platforms for dedicated missions are often a necessity. In other words, a one size fits all approach has led to high combat losses in the past, which makes a mix of capabilities and approaches the only wise way forward.
In his second article, Pietrucha argues for a reconsideration of the value of low altitude penetration for survivability — a point worth further discussion. We, however, see speed as the most viable alternative to stealth. Given Chinese and Russian work on hypersonic glide vehicles, which are maneuverable kill vehicles that can travel at Mach 5 and greater, there is evidence to support such a view.
In part three of his challenge to stealth, Pietrucha argues less against stealth and more for a return by the Air Force to a dedicated suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) capability — a point where we agree. Pietrucha effectively describes the cause and effect of decisions made by senior leaders, which led to the Air Force’s loss of a strong SEAD capability. But we do find an important point to disagree on: It was incorrect for Pietrucha to blame the concept of stealth for a lack of vision on balancing capabilities within the Air Force.
Pietrucha’s articles, while educational and useful, can leave readers with the incorrect impression that stealth is dead or that the Air Force should give up on stealth. For some critics of stealth, the Joint Strike Fighter’s (JSF) shortcomings are being intertwined with a broader attack on stealth itself. The apparent shortcomings of JSF development should not be placed at the feet of stealth. Rather, Pietrucha’s larger point, that a mix of platforms with a mix of capabilities, is well-supported by the cautionary tale of the JSF. Congress and the Pentagon sought to build an “all things to all people” tactical fighter in all factories across 50 states. The result, thus far, may be less than satisfactory, but it is worth noting that the F-14, F-15, and F-16 also suffered similar criticism at this point in their development, yet turned out to be beloved aircraft with stellar records.
In challenging the utility of stealth as a capability, Pietrucha offers a number of pointed critiques of current and future stealth aircraft. His larger argument focuses on the idea that maintaining the “stealthy” shape is an expensive proposition because of the decrease in payload and range it necessitates. Pietrucha also suggests that the future of stealth is in doubt as adversaries seek to develop less costly ways of detecting these aircraft.
While it is true stealth aircraft must give up the ability to carry external stores (i.e. armament and fuel tanks) to maintain their stealthy shape, it is not true that they must also experience an accompanying decrease in range. External stores create drag, and drag increases fuel flow. Given the same distance of flight with increased fuel flow, it is easy to see that range is diminished when aircraft are configured for external stores. With stealth aircraft seeking to minimize their radar cross section by optimizing their overall size and shape, it is inaccurate to say stealth inherently equates to reduced payload or range.
As the B-2, F-22, and F-35 demonstrate, designers balance competing requirements to build an aircraft that best meet a warfighter’s needs — either increasing or decreasing the range and payload of an aircraft to meet mission requirements. This may mean that carrying 16 AGM-86 nuclear cruise missiles instead of the 20 carried by the B-52, but it is well worth the reduction in radar cross section the size and shape of a B-2 provides.
Pietrucha is correct in suggesting that not all missions require stealthy shapes and materials, and in many cases the added expense is unnecessary. Most of the sorties flown in Iraq, and nearly all in Afghanistan, never required stealthy shapes or materials as a capability; therefore, the added expense was unjustified. The good news is that the vast majority of Air Force sorties in both conflicts have been accomplished with non-stealthy aircraft.
It is also true, as Pietrucha suggests, that low-level flight is one way to delay detection by radar. However, low-level flight makes the aircraft susceptible to ground fire. For example, British Tornados suffered significant losses as a result of the low level profiles they flew during the opening days of Desert Storm. Does that mean low-level flight should be dismissed as a capability? No, but neither should it be considered without understanding the accompanying risk.
Each of Pietrucha’s three articles, therefore, seems to imply there is an either or choice on whether to design stealthy aircraft. The implication seems to be either it’s too expensive, too capability limiting, or other tactics might preclude its necessity. The truth is stealth creates capabilities that enhance America’s ability to deliver unmatched effects from the air. In order to see this one only needs to understand the adversary’s problem when trying to counter stealthy aircraft. At a basic level, the task is to find a target in the air and bring it down. Non-stealthy aircraft appear on radar as much larger targets; thus, the problem is easier.
When considering survivability in the air domain, any other combination of tactics and technologies designed to make the process of defeating an air attack more difficult are made that much more capable if the aircraft is designed to be stealthy — reducing its radar signature. The argument then is not about whether or not to do stealth, but more about tradeoffs.
It is also important to note that you cannot add stealth after the fact. While you can fly lower or add electronic attack capabilities to a stealth aircraft, you cannot add stealth to a non-stealthy aircraft. Therefore, to borrow the words of a former secretary of defense, you go to war with the aircraft you have, not the aircraft you might want.
The other question Americans should be asking is whether the U.S. advantage in operating stealth aircraft is truly an asymmetric capability that should be preserved. Since the details of the development, production, operations, maintenance, and training of a stealth aircraft capability are closely controlled, one can only discern whether the capability actually works from the success or failure of military operations carried out using those assets.
American dominance in air campaigns since the Gulf War, most if not all of which have been led by stealth aircraft, aimed at striking the most important and highly defended targets, should give pause to anyone that would suggest that stealth aircraft do not present an asymmetric challenge to the nation’s adversaries. With only two nations—Russia and China—possessing air defenses of sufficient capability and quantity to pose a significant threat to American airpower, the United States should remain dominant in the air for decades to come. In the case of Russia and China, it is nuclear weapons, not conventional airpower, that will likely keep us from fighting one another.
Beyond the question of whether or not to build stealthy aircraft, it is imperative to consider the broader type of aircraft we built. Each aircraft’s size and shape contribute unique attributes which determine the manner in which the aircraft defeats the adversary’s attempt to bring it down. Some aircraft are designed to defeat the shooter (e.g. missile battery) and some aircraft are designed to defeat the finder (e.g. radar). The former is difficult to bring down, while the latter is difficult to detect.
These two designs led to the philosophy of stealth. Stealth that defeats shooters leads to conventional campaign tactics. The adversary knows you are there, but is often powerless to do anything about it. Stealth that defeats finders can enable operations that take place without the adversary being aware. Both types have their time and place, but require completely different operating concepts to employ effectively.
Early airpower theorists believed an air attack was difficult to stop, and that remains true today. During Vietnam, the highest loss rates were suffered by the F-105. This still only amounted to 2.078 losses per thousand sorties. Since Vietnam, both survivability and accuracy have improved dramatically, making attack from the air the most deadly form of warfare in the world. Stealth is a key component of that capability.
Contrary to what Pietrucha seems to imply, the United States has reaped the benefit of decades of developing, producing, operating, maintaining, and training stealth aircraft units. The airmen involved in this process have become experts at providing a key capability which contributes to America’s security. And as adversary tactics and capabilities have improved, airmen have also adapted their tactics and capabilities to counter those of the enemy. Thus, to suggest that stealth is dead is an oversimplification of the ongoing dynamic that exists in air warfare where adversaries are constantly attempting to overcome a real or perceived shortcoming by developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures, and, if possible, new weapons to overcome those of their enemy.
What this means for stealth aircraft is that the nation’s adversaries are seeking to both build their own stealth aircraft, such as Russia’s PAK-FA and China’s J-31, while also developing new radars that can more effectively detect American stealth aircraft. This should come as no surprise. The real question is not about whether to abandon stealth. Instead, American airmen should be asking a different question: How will we adapt to the new capabilities of our adversaries? In his own article on the subject, Major Mike “Pako” Benitez offers additional supporting evidence to bolster Pietrucha’s point. This does not, however, change our proposition that stealth will remain relevant when employed at the right time and place and in the correct manner. There is no question that stealth has its limitations and adversaries are attempting to overcome its advantages.
Just as American sailors are developing innovates ways to employ new technology from aircraft carriers as a way to keep them relevant in scenarios where they are most at risk, airmen and their partners in industry will be called on to develop new technologies (cyber, low observable, stand-off, etc.) and tactics that abate the tactical and technological developments of adversaries. This should come as no surprise. American airmen have been doing this very thing since the earliest days of air warfare.
Col Rob “Speedo” Spalding is a B-2 pilot. He holds a PhD in economics and is fluent in Chinese. Dr. Adam Lowther served in the U.S. Navy and worked at the Air Force Research Institute prior to aiding in the stand-up of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies at Kirtland AFB. The views in this article are their own and do not represent the opinions of the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth