Stealth Fighter Jets: Have They Lost Their Advantage?
By Wes O’Donnell
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Note: This article first appeared at In Military.
What if I told you that America’s era of stealth domination was coming to an end?
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You might say that I was being hyperbolic. Or better yet, you would proudly state that the United States has poured tens of billions of dollars into developing fifth-generation stealth fighter jets, such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. After all, why would we spend that massive amount of taxpayer money without future-proofing our aerial capabilities?
Stealth Undergoing Technological Challenges
America’s stealth aircraft were primarily built to counter the century-old technology of radar, which requires sending a radio wave out into the airspace where it bounces off of objects and returns to the radar site. The return wave is slightly different than it was when it was transmitted, and it’s this difference that gives us an abundance of information about an intended target.
However, considering the speed at which modern electronics technology improves, it was only a matter of time until new radar-like technology emerged to challenge stealth.
A German radar company may have done just that. Last year, radar manufacturer Hensoldt claims to have tracked two F-35s for 150 kilometers following the 2018 Berlin Air Show in Germany in late April. The company’s passive radar system, named TwInvis, is but one of an emerging generation of sensors and processors so sensitive and powerful that they promise to find previously undetectable activities in a given airspace.
According to government news organization c4isrnet, unlike traditional radar, passive radar technology computes an aerial picture by reading how civilian communications signals bounce off airborne objects. The technique works with any type of signal present in the air, including radio or television broadcasts as well as emissions from mobile phone stations.
This technology presumably negates stealth aircraft advantages. However, there are two disadvantages.
First, there needs to be abundant civilian radio VHF and UHF bands or cell traffic in the area of operation for passive radar to work. This requirement means that stealth aircraft could still operate unmolested in remote regions.
Second, VHF and UHF band radars have long wavelengths that return large radar resolution cells. As a result, contacts are not tracked with the required level of fidelity to guide a weapon onto a target. As one U.S. Navy officer rhetorically asked, “Does the mission require a cloaking device or is it OK if the threat sees it but can’t do anything about it?”
For its part, the German military has gone “all-in” on passive radar technology by creating a formal acquisition track for passive sensing. But there is another stealth killer on the horizon: quantum radar.
Quantum Radar Emerges in 2019
Two weeks ago, In Military covered a report by MIT Technology Review stating that researchers at Austria’s Institute of Science and Technology used entangled microwaves to create the world’s first quantum radar system.
Unlike traditional or passive radar systems, quantum radar is truly a technological leap in threat sensing.
According to MIT, quantum radar involves pairing photon particles, shooting one particle downrange while keeping the second particle captive for observation. The downrange particle will act in a certain manner as it bounces off certain objects, behavior that can be observed in the captive particle. The result is much more detailed information about the target than could be seen in previous radars.
Consequently, this type of radar results in an ultra-high-definition radar picture. So instead of seeing an indistinguishable blob on a radar scope, quantum radar would have the ability to make out fine details of an aircraft — for instance, the distinct shape of an F-35 Lightning fighter jet.
America Needs to Invest in Other Technologies
For nearly three decades, the U.S. was the only player in stealth capability. With China and Russia quickly working to negate our technological advantage and new technologies emerging seemingly every news cycle, America may need to re-think its future technology acquisition strategy.
If a German radar manufacturer can light up America’s finest fifth-generation stealth fighter jets at an air show, perhaps it’s time to admit that stealth has lost its luster.