Written by Dabney B. on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
Without doubt, stealth technology represents the newest wave of aviation technology. Its benefits are almost too many to count. Stealthy fighters can strike first, before enemy aircraft are even aware of its presence. The ability to hide from radar serves as a greater form of protection than any armor plating, and stealthy aircraft can complete reconnaissance missions without enemies ever being aware of their presence.
For all of the benefits of stealth technology, it can come at a cost. Generally speaking, aircraft become less stealthy as they carry more weapons, so modern aircraft need to be able to strike a balance between offensive payload and defensive stealth.
To understand the dilemma, it is important to understand how stealth technology confuses radar. First and foremost, stealth technology is not a single device or technique, but a combination of many design features working together. All of these stealth features, from radar-absorbent materials to angular edges, are designed to foil radar systems and other methods of detection.
Radar is a very simple and effective principle. Radar waves are emitted, which travel through the air invisibly at high speeds. When they hit an object, they bounce back. This allows people to measure the distance and altitude of aircraft in the area. Stealth technology redirects radar waves so that they cannot be detected. Think of it as if were nighttime and you were shining a flashlight at a hidden enemy. If that enemy were holding a mirror, the light would bounce back at you and you could easily see the reflecting light of your flashlight. If the enemy held the mirror at an angle, the light would bounce off and the mirror and it would be almost invisible to you. Stealth aircraft operate on the same principle, deflecting radio waves in random directions so that they cannot be detected.
The tricky thing about stealth technology is that any exterior objects add angles that make it more detectable to radar, so a stealth fighter that carriers external missiles becomes less stealthy. For this reason, many stealth aircraft, such as the B-2, rely on internal weapon bays.
The F-35, fulfilling its role as a multi-purpose fighter, has both internal weapon bays and external pylons. When a mission calls for stealth, the F-35 can carry all of its weapons internally so that it maintains its stealthy shape. During flights when firepower is more crucial than stealth, the F-35 can carry additional weapons on any of its external pylons. At first glance, it might seem that this need for balance in the F-35 is a disadvantage, but in fact the versatility of the F-35 enables it to respond to the demands of any situation.
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