The Price of Admission: Understanding the Value of Stealth

June 2, 2016

The U.S. Air Force is in need of recapitalization. The value of stealth in this fleet-wide transformation is currently a subject of differing opinions with reasonable arguments made by both sides, as evidenced by the F-35 debate over the last decade. Two colleagues of mine, Colonel Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha and Major Mike “Pako” Benitez, have represented one side of this discussion well in a recent series of War on the Rocks articles. This article offers another perspective to add to that offered by Robert Spalding and Adam Lowther earlier this week.

As one might expect, the actual performance of stealth aircraft is a matter held close to the vest. As such, I am not going to offer any specific thoughts on the performance of various types of stealth aircraft versus specific classes of threat systems. Additionally, I will not comment in any detail on more sophisticated forms of analysis that extend past one-on-one scenarios (one aircraft versus one threat system) to examine the effectiveness of stealthy aircraft. At a conceptual level, however, I would like to offer another perspective on three of the core points articulated in Pietrucha’s series of articles on stealth: the evolving threat environment in air warfare, the tradeoffs inherent in stealth designs, and the merits of relying on traditional tactics, such as low-altitude penetration as a substitute for stealth.

The Evolving Threat

As both Pietrucha and Benitez point out, surface-to-air missile (SAM) designers have made progress in developing countermeasures to stealth technology over the last couple of decades. Just as the Soviet Union worked tirelessly to develop SAMs that could reach the altitude of the U-2, overtake the speed of the SR-71, and counter the low-altitude profiles of penetrators such as the F-111, SAM engineers have attempted to address stealth for at least the last quarter century. The success of the F-117 in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 presented a clear threat to the viability of Soviet-built air defenses, and potential adversaries of the United States took notice.

However, this progress in air defense has not made stealth obsolete. This is because stealth technology and employment tactics have evolved along with the threat. For example, tomorrow’s B-21 bomber will be generations ahead of the long-retired F-117 in terms of its stealth characteristics. Additionally, a low radar cross section has always been just one method of survivability available to stealth tacticians. Stealth is most effective when employed in concert with standoff weapons geared toward destroying air defenses, electronic warfare, and kinetic suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) assets.

Decades of stealth tactics development and validation have shown that the level of complementary capabilities required in conjunction with an aircraft’s low observable characteristics is simply a matter of context. In many scenarios, a stealth aircraft’s inherent survivability is enough to penetrate enemy air defenses and accomplish the mission on its own. Against the world’s most advanced networks of air defense systems, stealth employment is integrated and synchronized with the full range of complementary platforms (some stealthy and some not) to ensure both survivability and mission effectiveness.

There is no question that adversary air defenses are improving against the entire spectrum of combat aircraft capabilities, including stealth. However, this is not cause to abandon low observable characteristics. Instead, it is cause to continue innovating in the realm of stealth technologies and tactics.

Stealth Involves Trade-Offs

Pietrucha is correct in asserting that stealth designs inevitably involve tradeoffs. When designing a combat aircraft within cost constraints, the traditional three design priorities are range, survivability, and payload. Stealth shaping often requires substantial sacrifices in range and payload to ensure survivability. This is lamentable in many operational contexts. The counterinsurgency fight of the last 15 years, discussed in-depth by Pietrucha, certainly illustrates how a stealthy design can impose penalties in a low-end fight. However, we will not always be fighting in uncontested skies. Given how lethal adversary air defenses have become against legacy aircraft, stealth is now the baseline requirement for winning in both today’s and tomorrow’s sophisticated threat environments.

The range and payload loss from a fourth-generation (F-15 or F-16) to a fifth-generation fighter (F-22 or F-35) is certainly steep in many respects, but advantages in range and payload are irrelevant if a platform is not survivable. Advanced air defenses are not just cost imposing in an operational sense.  It is important to acknowledge and accept that they also impose costs from a design and procurement standpoint.  This cost, however, is not operationally prohibitive if stealth platforms are effectively integrated with other assets, such as legacy bombers with large payloads of standoff weapons, in a manner that leverages the complementary strengths of a diverse force.

If fighters and bombers could be designed to be survivable in advanced threat environments without a low radar cross section, the United States would field combat aircraft with increased range and payload properties. However, this is not the world we live in. Instead, the joint force must look for ways to strike a balance between these attributes to ensure future effectiveness. Just as designers of the past were forced to make sacrifices in order to prioritize speed and maneuverability over range and payload, today’s designs must incorporate the demands of stealth. A great example of this balance is the capability of the F-35 to utilize external stores once the threat has been sufficiently degraded. This does not turn the F-35 into a heavily loaded F-15E, but it does help alleviate the tradeoffs associated with its stealthy design.

Going Old School

Given advances in counter-stealth threats and the tradeoffs inherent in stealth designs, it is tempting to look to the time-honored tactics of low-altitude high-speed penetration and electronic warfare as potential solutions, as Pietrucha suggests. Terrain masking can be very effective in many circumstances, and the joint force definitely should continue to innovate in the realm of electronic warfare. However, this line of thinking ignores the fact that the same contemporary threats designed to challenge stealth make the adversary increasingly effective against legacy electronic warfare and SEAD platforms.

Instead of reverting back to platforms and techniques superseded by advancing threats, the joint force should combine stealth with appropriate traditional tactics, techniques, and procedures enabled by new generations of sensors, jammers, and anti-radiation missiles. The Navy’s EA-18G Growler is an excellent example of this needed progression in electronic warfare capabilities, and it illustrates the importance of joint integration for the future of combat aviation. The Air Force’s Miniature Air Launched Decoy-Jammer is another great example of progress in this regard.

While Pietrucha is correct that such capabilities warrant some degree of recapitalization and further development, this must be done in conjunction with rather than as a substitute for stealth. Unfortunately, electronic warfare and low-altitude tactics are simply not adequate replacements for the survivability offered by stealth. Taken together, however, the combination of these capabilities and tactics can and will keep U.S. aircrews ahead of the threat.

The Future

Pietrucha notes that, despite their small fleet sizes, F-117s and B-2s made significant and unique contributions in every air campaign waged over the last 25 years. This leads him to conclude that stealth, while valuable, might be best viewed as a niche capability. Such an approach to tomorrow’s force structure would ultimately fail to honor the progress made by threat systems over that same timeframe. At the end of the day, threats that attempt to challenge stealth are far more capable against legacy platforms and techniques than they are against low-observable aircraft. This means that yesterday’s attrition-heavy techniques are even less viable than they were in their prime.

While the F-35 is not perfect, it is a leap forward in both survivability and lethality given its combination of stealth technology and next-generation sensor fusion technologies. The combat air force must embrace these capabilities and start to grow into them tactically. In this regard, everything should be on the table, including low-altitude tactics and an emphasis on electronic warfare, as the combat air force works to transition to a new mainstay fighter that will work in concert with the rest of the diverse joint force. Like it or not, the F-35 is the future backbone of the force and the U.S. military must plan for this now by emphasizing its strong points and using other assets with deeper magazines, such as the B-2 and future B-21, to make-up for the tradeoffs required by its stealthy shape.

None of this means that there are not important force structure decisions still being made that must be informed by a full understanding of the value of stealth. The current debate over whether or not to restart F-22 production is a case in point. The future of close air support and the debate over what a high/low mix of combat aircraft should look like in the near term is another discussion in which the value of stealth in contested environments must be both appreciated and balanced with other considerations. In this context, understanding the value of stealth should not preclude the possible procurement of limited numbers of low-end combat aircraft tailored to operate in permissive threat environments. However, it should be clear that such aircraft will only be effective in niche scenarios, such as counterinsurgency operations, for the foreseeable future.

Stealth is not (and never was) a one-size-fits all stand-alone solution to survivability. However, it is “the price of admission” for relevance in 21st-century contested environments. It provides a margin of survivability not available from other means. This is why Russia, China, and Japan are all flying indigenously produced stealth fighter prototypes, with China even developing a second type that appears geared toward the export market. It is also why a growing number of European countries are testing their own stealthy unmanned aerial vehicles, why Russia is developing a stealth bomber, and a central reason why the list of F-35 buyers continues to expand. In an operational era increasingly defined by anti-access/area denial technologies and techniques, stealth characteristics have simply become another cost of doing business.


Major Josh “HALF” Wiitala is a B-2 instructor pilot currently serving as a staff officer with United States Strategic Command.  He has extensive operations and planning experience across the entire inventory of stealth aircraft and weapons.  The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or any U.S. government entity

The author would like to thank Lt Col Rich “BIGS” Ganske (B-2 instructor pilot), Lt Col Jeff “Opie” Schreiner (B-2 instructor pilot), Maj Chris “Jonah” Weir (B-52 instructor navigator), and CDR Doug “Cricket” White (EA-18G instructor electronic warfare officer) for their insightful reviews of this article.

Image: StratCom