American stealth planes have soared the skies undetected for nearly half a century; however, Moscow’s S-400 and S-500 system seems to challenge that. Is the Russian S-400 too formidable for America’s F-35 stealth fighter?
Stealth or “low observable” technology has revolutionised military affairs since it first traced its history in the 1940s. Given the nature of sophistication and technological know-how involved, it had long remained the monopoly of the United States Military; however, that has changed.
Both Moscow and Beijing have demonstrated stealth capabilities with the (Russian) Sukhoi SU-57 and the (Chinese) J-20. Besides the democratisation of stealth technology amongst world powers, the advances in air defense technology, such as the Russian S-400 and S-500, have challenged America’s days of flying over battlefields undetected.
The image of American aerial invisibility was first shattered with the downing of the USAF F-117 at the hands of Colonel Zoltan Dani, Commander of the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade, on 27 March 1999. Since then, the US has embarked on making strides in stealth technology to ensure that such a development never takes place again, and for over two decades. Technology has a way of catching up and while there have been no concreted deterrents to stealth aircraft, remaining invisible is a lot harder these days.
A Brief History of Stealth Technology
Stealth traces its origins from the experimental YB-49 aircraft which Jack Northrop designed in 1947. The aircraft’s ‘peculiar’ design had generated a minuscule image on radar detections systems; however, its relevance was not realised at the time. The project was scrapped in 1949.
The next chapter in stealth technology was found in the pages of a 1960s research paper by Russian physicist Pyotr Ufimtsev. In it, he hypothesised that electromagnetic waves bouncing off flat surfaces could be calculated and used to estimate the return on the radar. His findings, however, had faded away into obscurity.
It was not until the 1970s that the urgency of developing stealth technology was felt. The risk to fighter aircraft and bombers from enemy air defenses prompted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to collaborate with the USAF to mask aircraft signatures.
Aerospace giants General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas could not commit to the novel initiative as they were occupied with developing the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. The onus, therefore, fell upon Lockheed Martin and Northrop. Both competitors took vastly different approaches to the project.
In 1971 the Airforce Foreign Technology Division translated the Russian physicist’s paper on EMW. Lockheed engineer Denys D. Overholser incorporated these concepts as part of a computer program called Echo 1. This program proved to be a breakthrough for Lockheed to effectively compute the radar cross-section (RCS) from different angles and wavelengths.
Lockheed engineers, however, found themselves at the mercy of the Information Technology (IT) limitations of the time, which could only calculate results from flat surfaces. The solution available was to spread out the calculations to hundreds of individual aspects, following which the results were combined to evaluate the RCS of the entire aircraft.
On the other hand, Northrop modelled the compound curves and shaped the edges of the aircraft in their bid to achieve a lower observable profile. The resulting prototype B-2 bomber was reminiscent of the experimental YB-49 designed by the company’s founder in 1947. The company’s engineers maintained that the concept began from scratch. Prototypes from both companies were compared side by side in a ‘pole off’ in which both prototypes were hit with EMWs simultaneously to compare their RCS.
While Lockheed was awarded the contract, it is poignant to note that the Northrop design had worked well. It effectively deflected radar from the front however was found lacking from deflecting radar from the aircraft’s sides.
Northrop’s experience during this project was not without its merits; the company secured a contract in 1978 with DARPA to design the Battlefield Surveillance Aircraft (BSAX), Tacit Blue, that was a part of DRAPA’s larger Assault Breaker program, which was in response to a potential tank invasion in Europe by the Soviets. The BSAX was expected to maintain a high stealth profile to operate at the cutting edge of battle without being detected.
Lockheed was around five years ahead of Northrop in stealth technology and had entered the next evaluation stage dubbed “Have Blue.” This prototype went for flight testing in April 1977. This demonstrator aircraft had odd angles and was covered with facets to scatter radar beams away from the aircraft’s body and was about 60% of the operational F-117 Nighthawk size.
The development of the Nighthawk at the time was a top-secret project classified as a ‘back project’. By this time, Northrop was awarded a contract to develop the Advanced Technology Bomber in 1981, which came to be known as the B-2 bomber in 1984. This project was a security classification scale lower than the Nighthawk and was classified as a ‘grey project’. The B-2’s prototype dubbed “Tacit Blue” took its maiden flight in 1982.
The Northrop team had described the prototype as a “butter dish with wings” owing to its peculiar shape. While others in the know had called it a “box with low observable material wrapped around it.” This prototype had flown around 135 test flights, but it was not until July 1989 that B-2 would take its maiden flight as an operational aircraft.
The F-117 Nighthawk took its maiden flight in 1981. Interestingly it was designated as a fighter aircraft despite being an attack aircraft. General Robert J. Dixon at Tactical Air Command preferred the “F” (for fighter) designation over “A” (for attack) to attract the best pilots.
But, despite the semantics, the F-117 was not meant for aerial combat and was designed to be bomb trucks. The F-117s were deployed in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Subsequently, both the F-117 and the B-2 displayed stellar performances in the Gulf war and the Balkans conflict. These operational experiences paved the way for the next generation of stealth fighters in the form of the Lockheed-designed F-22 Raptor.
The F-22 Raptor was an air-to-air fighter jet that first flew in 1997. The fighter’s RCS is compared to the size of a golf ball or a bee, depending on who is asked. Following the F-22 came the uber-sophisticated F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which specialises in aerial combat and ground attack missions. This top-of-the-line stealth fighter is in use by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps.
A tradeoff for stealth was speed; however, modern technology has since broken these limitations. Current F-22s can reach Mach 2 speeds, whereas the F-35s can go up to Mach 1.6 speeds. This year, the Northrop-designed B-2 bomber’s successor, the Grumman B-21 Raider, will enter flight testing.
Is Stealth Invincible? Col. Dani Disagrees!
The downing of an American F-117 Nighthawk at the hands of Col. Dani lifted the perceived infallibility of stealth by experts. The Serbian military officer had studied western Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) concepts and drilled his troops like a well-oiled machine. The Colonel’s professional acumen, unconventional mobile air defense tactics, rehearsals, and superior intelligence over USAF flight patterns that particular day led to the downing of an F-117 by a Soviet-era S-125.
This incident showed that stealth aircraft are not infallible. They can be shot down from the sky like any other aircraft. However, there is a view that his exploits resulted from exceptional circumstances and professional insight and cannot be easily replicated. However, with the modern S-400 and S-500, this premise may have changed.
How will American F-35s Fare Against Russian S-400s?
The S-400 has the distinction of being considered one of the most sophisticated surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems available and is a nightmare for any fighter aircraft, including the F-35. Questions about how an F-35 will fare against an S-400 have often been raised. However, it is important to point out that a scenario involving an individual F-35 pitted against an individual S-400 is hypothetical at best and is unlikely to take place in reality. Going by a theoretical analysis presented by Covert Cabal in a 2017 video essay, such a scenario would involve a dozen aircraft along with multiple short, medium, and long-range SAM systems and interceptor aircraft there to counter it.
A realistic hypothesis would consider that modern SAM sites are usually clubbed radar stations, command and control posts and are located close to the air force stations. Collectively they are called Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS). IADS are very deadly for fighter aircraft, including top-of-the-line stealth fighters like the F-35. SAMs can be put on ambush mode by turning off their radar systems allowing them to remain undetected. These SAM’s are fed with data from another radar system within the IADS framework.
The only credible deterrence an F-35, for instance, has against a SAM is to avoid it. However, since IADS are typically housed in the vicinity of high-value strategic targets, a confrontation between an F-35 and an S-400 battery may be a far-fetched possibility. In such a scenario, the F-35’s options are to destroy the IADS command post.
This is perilous as these posts are strategically located inside non-permissive environments; however, if an F-35 can penetrate undetected and destroy the radar or sensor suits, then it will be successful in blinding the system rendering it useless. Another option for the F-35 would be to target the S-400 weapon system itself; however, the S-400 with its multiple launchers would place the aircraft within the line of fire. Furthermore, flying straight toward the S-400 would be suicidal but may be negated.
Employing SEAD tactics like the deployment of anti-radiation missiles and decoys could be potential countermeasures. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) may be deployed ahead of F-35s using a loyal wingman concept. This ensures both the pilot’s safety and the expensive aircraft by sacrificing a lower-cost combat drone in its place. Terrain masking is another tactic pilots may employ. This is carried out by flying very close to the ground to avoid radar detection.
However, the reality is that Moscow has a vast network of IADBs and stealth detection capable Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) radars. They are manned by approximately 45 battalions of the S-400, dozens of older S-300s, and other short-range SAM platforms. The S-400, in particular, boasts an exceptional operational range and comes armed with the 40N6 missile, which has a 400 Kilometers range. An average S-400 battery has a host of munitions accounting for a variety of threats.
The S-400 is that it was designed keeping stealth aircraft and radar jamming threats in mind, and its 40N6 long-range missile is made to counter high altitude, lower manoeuvrable aircraft like the E3-Sentry AWACS, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System or STARS, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint ‘Airseeker’ spy plane.
The Russian S-400’s 9M96 and 48N6 missiles, boasting operational ranges between 100-200 km are potent against fighter aircraft. In particular, the 9M96 can turn 20G and attack both hostile aircraft and cruise missiles as low as five meters above the ground. This makes terrain masking a questionable tactic.
The primary standoff weapons of the F-35’s are the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) and the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). They are both glide bombs; this means that these munitions’ range depends on the range the aircraft is cruising at. An F-35 can carry about eight SDBs and as compared to JSOWs.
Furthermore, the F-35’s stealth profile is not enough for it to fly past an S-400 undetected and will have to take offensive action instead. An F-35 attack on an S-400 would likely include at least a dozen aircraft armed with SDBs and decoys supported by the EA-18g Growlers rigged with jamming pods and anti-radiation missiles.
They would have to fly low, under the radar as long as operationally feasible prior to the launch of the decoys to fool hostile radars to turn and inadvertently reveal their location. Upon acquiring the radar site locations, munitions may deploy to eliminate them with HARM anti-radiation missiles from the accompanying EA-18s. Such a hypothetical battlefield scenario may destroy the S-400 site but will incur exorbitant costs.
Flying low may reduce the F-35’s detection time; however, it will require the pilot to get dangerously close to striking; this puts the pilot literally into the jaws of death. Such an operation may result in the downing of several F-35s along with human casualties. This most likely will not be an acceptable mission cost for the mission commander and is quite far-fetched.
Adding on to Russia’s expansive air defense capabilities is the S-500. While a lot had been speculated about the long-standing project, Moscow had finally released a video of the latest missile defense system.
According to reports, the S-500 has an interception radius of 600 km and can neutralise a host threat ranging from ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, planes, and helicopters. The S-500’s are expected to be inducted into the Russian Air Defence and Missile Defence units near Moscow; however, the tentative date is unknown. However, Deputy Defence Minister Alexei Krivoruchko was reported by the state media last year saying the inductions were expected by 2025.
While time will tell the efficacy of the S-500 platform, the S-400 has been at the center of geopolitical contention with the US. Washington has been throwing fits over the procurement of the S-400. The US has been threatening sanctions against India upon hearing about its plans to procure the S-400. America has already imposed sanctions on its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, Turkey, over its procurement. These moves are indicative of the S-400’s potency and American military insecurity over the platform.