Written by Dabney B. on Thursday, November 8th, 2012
The USAF is putting all of its eggs into the stealth basket. Its current strategy is to pour money into the F-22 and the F-35, both top-of-the-line stealth fighters. Many experts see stealth technology as the future of aerial warfare, but others aren’t so sure.
Lt. Col. Christopher Niemi, a former F-22 test pilot who also served as a commander in a frontline squadron of F-22s, recently published a letter explaining his concerns with the stealth aircraft. You can read the full 29-page essay here, but in a nutshell he argues that stealth technology isn’t as powerful as the USAF seems to think, and that the high-cost jets are crippling the overall strength of the active fleet.
The best way to understand Niemi’s argument is to get a better understanding of the trade-offs of stealth technology. On the one hand, stealth fighters are better at evading enemy radar and detection systems. This gives stealth aircraft an offensive and defensive advantage – offensive because it allows an aircraft to strike deep into enemy territory, and defensive because they’re harder to take down.
But stealth technology is a double-edged sword. Stealth aircraft typically carry munitions within the aircraft itself, rather than attached beneath the wings. This strategy encases missiles within radar-deflecting materials to reduce the aircraft’s overall radar signature. The downside is that this technique limits the amount of firepower that a stealth fighter can carry. And that’s not the only thing – as Niemi puts it, stealth technology limits “range, security, weapons carriage, sortie generation, and adaptability.”
We still haven’t even gotten into the issue of cost. Radar-absorbing materials require a lot of maintenance and we all know how pricey the F-35 program has become. F-35s are powerful machines – there’s no doubt about that – it’s just that the billions of dollars that the DoD has spent on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program could have gone towards fleshing out other programs.
Niemi argues that stealth technology won’t even get us very far: “Stealth provides no advantage in conflicts such as those in Afghanistan or Iraq (since 2003), and (despite its obvious utility) it cannot guarantee success in future struggles with a near-peer adversary.”
If it’s any consolation, though, the US isn’t the only country investing in stealth fighters. China is currently developing two different stealth aircraft, the J-20 and the newer Shenyang J-31. Failure of stealth technology will mean that the US and China are sitting in the same stealthy boat. At that point we’ll all be left scratching our heads wondering, “If stealth technology doesn’t represent next-gen warfare, then what does?”
It’s hard to tell who’s right, because you have experts arguing with experts. Is stealth technology truly as powerful as we thought it was? Has the JSF program been a colossal waste of money, or will it all pay off in the end? Ultimately, only time will tell. If the stealth program fails, then the USAF would benefit tremendously from listening to pilots like Niemi and military consulting firms to get a much more accurate picture of modern aerial warfare.
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