Computing the Value of Stealth: It’s Not That Simple
Editor’s Note: This is intended as a follow-on to “Stealth is King, the World is Flat”, which called for renewed emphasis to evolve the fight in the low-altitude regime and to reduce what some surmise is an overreliance on stealth.
Commentaries regarding stealth on War on The Rocks may have left readers with the impression that there is a binary force structure choice between the “haves” and the “have-nots” regarding aircraft with stealth characteristics. While it is human nature to seek out binary decisions, this could not be further from the truth. Any current, competent, experienced warfighter knows that we commit a significant disservice when the subject of stealth is oversimplified. It’s not that simple.
If there is one thing the U.S. Air Force should prioritize above all else, it is air superiority. Air superiority has consistently been a necessary prelude and continuous requirement for the joint force to meet military objectives. Simply put, air superiority permits the ability to maneuver, support, and fight at will on land, sea, and air. In wars of necessity, you don’t win without it.
When in a financially constrained environment, capital investment to maintain air superiority should always prioritize strategic asymmetry over tactical asymmetry. Focusing on America’s strategic advantages is one of the soundest ways to ensure our nation maintains control of the skies, regardless of defense budget toplines. In that perspective, Cold War-era stealth investments introduced a unique asymmetric advantage that the United States maintained for the last 35 years. Following the overwhelmingly lopsided success of American airpower in the Gulf War, middle powers around the world — including adversaries of the United States — have taken notice. Following America’s lead, they have invested heavily in counter-stealth and other anti-access/area-denial capabilities, including indigenous stealth fighters. This complicates the tactical asymmetry arena, forcing the United States into an ever-evolving and more complex tactical problem.
Competent warfighters know that complacency kills. An overreliance on a specific technology (or platform) results in limited tactical flexibility strategic predictability, and it ultimately leads to the loss of a two key principles in joint operations: surprise and economy of force. Against a near-peer adversary, this lack of platform diversity could lead to defeat for reasons that will be explained. This would seem to indicate that losing ground tactically would likewise erode the strategic asymmetry of stealth technology. Yet technology is not a tactic. It is simply one tool in a much larger collection of instruments that the United States uses to project force in the air domain.
What is “Stealth?”
While everyone understands that “being invisible to radar” is a good thing, the strategic role that stealth technology plays is generally misunderstood. As a standalone capability, stealth reduces or delays aircraft detection or prevents the enemy from completing an intercept. It presents an opportunity to break the kill-chain at multiple points during an engagement.
Today, “stealth” has become shorthand for a variety of technologies, processes, and techniques that dramatically increase the probability of survival of an aircraft or aircraft package and simultaneously increase the probability of defeating adversary capabilities. It is no longer just about the first-order effect of reducing radar signatures; stealth is an essential and integrated part of successful U.S. military operations in the 21st century. However, the disposition for binary thought often lulls one to conclude that all things should now be stealth, too. Again, it’s not that simple.
The Cost of Compromise in Weapons Systems
Everything that flies is a compromise. Nothing is free. Engineers and operators live this fact every day, but it is sometimes lost in translation during analysis and commentary. Historically, there has been a relatively polar compromise in design: prioritize range and payload (bombers) or maneuverability and speed (fighters). Variable-swept wing aircraft like the B-1, F-14, and F-111 attempt to have it all, but it comes at a drastic increase in weight, complexity, and cost — both in dollars and in aircraft and aircrew readiness.
The popular multi-role fighters today are just that: fighters doing various things. Although originally purpose-built, aircraft such as the F-16 and the F-15E evolved to seemingly bridge the compromises with configuration changes: fuel tanks, targeting pods, and additional bombs, all of which decrease speed and maneuverability. These evolutions resulted in a median capability sitting somewhere around the middle of the capabilities spectrum, with a bit of each attribute. Depending on the tactical scenario, this ends up being enough capability to fulfill a support role behind a purpose-built platform. Strategically, it lends itself to a less diverse aircraft fleet that is “good enough” for a variety of tasks, but not purpose-built to excel at a specific task with overwhelming advantage.
Since then, the design tradeoffs changed. A new set of compromises evolved that can be collectively referred to as S-cube (sensors, speed, and stealth). S-cube challenges the prior binary construct with even more competing priorities, which is really where the root of the stealth debate is (range and payload are generally more finite in stealth aircraft due to the necessity of avoid external carriage).
The F-117 “Nighthawk”, whose inaugural flight was in 1981, was the first aircraft that truly prioritized stealth at the expense of all other attributes — it was subsonic with extremely limited range and payload and could not fly without a 1980s cutting-edge flight computer. Despite these limitations, the F-117A was a transformational aircraft that rendered Iraqi air defenses virtually useless in 1991. As a purpose-built aircraft, it had fulfilled its role, but its lack of range, payload, and maneuverability made it vulnerable to evolving adversary surface-to-air systems.
The first real stealth bomber debuted in 1999 over Kosovo: the B-2A “Spirit.” The B-2 took advantage of rapid advances in computing and aerodynamic design, and it was able to achieve a significant gain in total payload over the F-117. Although the B-2 possesses a payload smaller than that of the B-1B and less versatile than that of the venerable B-52, the Spirit can deliver significant weapons effects (up to 80 individually targetable munitions) and achieve freedom of maneuver across more advanced air defense systems risk-prohibitive to non-stealth aircraft. Again, this achievement came with tradeoffs. The B-2 remains the costliest aircraft to both own ($1.1 billion in 1998 dollars) and operate ($135,000 per flight hour) in the entire operational inventory. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the total buy of the B-2 fleet was prematurely cut from 121 to a lowly 21 (now 20 due to a loss), and the small B-2 fleet remains mostly tied to Whiteman Air Force Base, where they reside in purpose-built climate-controlled hangars to protect their sensitive coating.
Despite expensive maintenance and readiness costs typical of a small fleet, the B-2 program resulted in a round-the-clock U.S.-based conventional and nuclear global strike capability that allows the president of the United States to hold any target in the world at risk at any given time. Like the F-117, the B-2 has dominated the last two decades and still possesses considerable capabilities against credible adversaries. However, as history proved with the F-117, the threat will continue to evolve and eventually push the B-2 into obsolescence.
The F-22A Raptor was the first platform to not compromise much of any of these aforementioned design compromises, though it only matched the payload of the F-15C it was intended to replace. Also, like the F-16 and the F-15E, external stores may be placed on the F-22A, increasing its range and payload, but they compromise the stealth, speed, and maneuverability that make the platform so capable. Unfortunately, shortsighted budget decisions repeatedly cut the fleet to less than 190 – less than a quarter of its original planned size. What remained of the fleet was then stripped of original requirements, such as infrared search and track (IRST) and a helmet-mounted cueing system that would have made it even more survivable in the coming decades.
Most importantly, the F-22 wasn’t originally designed to be intrinsically linked with the rest of the Air Force and joint force because operational integration was deemed secondary to tactical prowess when the program started. The Raptor lacks satellite communications, can only receive (not send) data link signals, and does not possess a robust method for offloading signals intelligence. The F-22 evolved with many lessons learned from the F-117 and B-2, but began as a purpose-built platform. Not until after the aircraft was deemed fully operationally capable did the program start to capitalize on the real asymmetric advantage of the aircraft: the ability to collect, disseminate, and prosecute information in contested airspace.
Lastly, the F-35 prioritizes sensors and stealth above all, and what remains is a compromise between competing tri-service design requirements. Thus, the Joint Strike Fighter remains underpowered by F-22 standards and carries less low-observable (internal) payload. It improves on range, sensors, and external payload measured against the F-16 it will replace (but not the F-18E/F payload). Yet again, nothing is free, and even sensors and associated software require compromise (time, cost, or capability) inherent in their complexity and ever-evolving capabilities. This forms the premise of concurrency that is now well known.
The Side Effect of Secrecy
After all that compromise, fielding a stealth aircraft is merely the beginning — not an end-state — and the joint force has failed to realize this for decades. For example: During the Cold War, the investment and development of stealth technology was revolutionary. It rendered aircraft essentially invisible, permitting planes like the SR-71, F-117, and B-2 to operate against their era’s biggest threats with relative impunity from air and missile threats — the textbook definition of air superiority.
Unfortunately, these aircraft were segregated from the non-stealth force, compartmentalized due to their highly classified nature. Ironically, the technology that gave these aircraft relative impunity in the 1990s also inhibited the same aircraft from integrating into the rest of the U.S. Air Force. Non-stealth aircraft such as the A-10, B-1, B-52, F-4, F-15C/E, and F-16 were relegated to developing tactics separately from their black world counterparts. Decades later, the problem is slowly improving, but true integration and information sharing struggles to keep up with the constantly changing advances in space and cyber domains, as well as virtually every other mission set imaginable. This has only compounded the stovepipe problem, adding additional barriers to integration. For the Air Force and the joint force to truly move combat capability forward, there must be a significant increase in collaborative information sharing about platform capabilities. Alongside this must be a truly integrated and robust joint training plan that allows airmen, sailors, soldiers, and marines to think through tactical and strategic problems with an honest understanding of what the joint force is capable of achieving.
Strength in Diversity
Legacy American aircraft once enjoyed both a qualitative, and in some scenarios a quantitative, advantage over adversaries. That era is quickly coming to an end with the downsizing and aging of a significant portion of U.S. aircraft. But stealth can’t (and shouldn’t) go it alone, either. For the foreseeable future, there will be no binary choice between stealth and non-stealth aircraft. To truly be prepared for the full spectrum of conflict, America should invest in integrating and training with large-force exercises with all of its platforms and capabilities.
Stealth, like most capabilities, is most effective when integrated with a robust, diverse, and complementing set of capabilities working in concert with one another to achieve a synergistic effect. Single platform-on-platform comparisons make for good arguments in the bar and in the comments sections of websites, but warfighters understand that is not how it works in the real world.
For example, the F-22A Raptor possesses advanced stealth capabilities, aircraft engines that can reach twice the speed of sound, and an avionics suite that integrates a wide range of sensors and information. It is not invincible, but when combined with other assets produces several second-order effects. For example, F-22s operating with low-altitude F-15Es and A-10s provide a targeting problem not easily overcome by the enemy. Flying at 60,000 feet, the F-22 is low-observable by design; flying nap-of-the-earth to avoid radar, the A-10 and F-15Es are “stealthy” by how they’re employed. Combined with multiple F-16s, jamming, and stand-off munitions, the targeting picture is dramatically altered.
This formula has been refined, but not significantly altered, in nearly a decade, and it’s certainly not perfect. But the collective effects of combining proficient operators of stealth and non-stealth platforms yields a significantly more flexible, capable, and lethal combat force across the full spectrum of operations that the nation requires of its military. Furthermore, this scenario and the hundreds of other scenarios that America must be ready to defend against are complicated. Integration of multiple platforms yields success orders of magnitude above what is capable of a swath of similar platforms.
Once fully operational and working as advertised, the F-35’s robust-yet-secretive electronic attack capability will fill one of the largest existing voids in the current joint force. The Joint Strike Fighter can then assume some of the roles currently stop-gapped by the EA-18G Growler, but with some large differences. Putting the capability on a stealth platform provides stand-in attack at penetration ranges that are more risk-tolerant and viable than a non-stealth aircraft. If supporting another low-observable platform such as the B-2 (and presumably B-21), the return signal to be masked is exponentially lower, meaning more effect can be achieved with less power.
Adding integrated and proficient operators from platforms like the F-16, F-15E, B-1, and A-10 adds to depth, and flexibility of combat capability that is inherent of a truly integrated stealth and non-stealth force. Every aircraft and weapons system has its unique strengths and weaknesses. When isolated by an adversary, those strengths can be more easily muted and the weaknesses more easily exploited. To overcome this reality, the Air Force uses what it calls force packaging, but it is often better understood if the joint force thinks of it as akin to the mass and maneuver of combined arms. Or, you can simply call it teamwork.
Like any professional team, the roster alone doesn’t encompass the team entirely. Take America’s expanding compliment of space, cyber, and ISR capabilities, and overlay those effects into the small examples above. Then look at something that U.S. adversaries largely lack: allies. One can start to see where America’s true asymmetric advantage exists, and it is significantly more powerful the just the sum of its pieces or a poster of a fighter jet.
Stealth is not dead. Yet stealth capability alone is not a panacea to the panoply of tactical, operational, and strategic problems facing the U.S. Air Force or the threats that are evolving to challenge America’s 60-plus years of air superiority. The discussion of “stealth” versus “non-stealth” must progress beyond parochial aircraft-centric arguments to focus on the next generation of integration and warfighting. True integration is the desired return on investment, and that investment should be a balanced, diverse portfolio encompassing all of the previously described airpower attributes. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein puts it, “Airpower has become the oxygen the joint force breathes. Have it and you don’t even think about it. Don’t have it, and it’s all you think about.”
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. Maj. Dave “Ghost” Deptula is an F-22A Instructor Pilot with multiple deployments to the Pacific, European, and Central Command areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, and is currently serving as an Air Force Congressional Legislative Fellow. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.