The History of Stealth Fighters: How Do They Work?

In early January of 2011, China unveiled it’s newest toy… the J-20 stealth fighter. While the J-20 is still a prototype, it’s maiden voyage was a clear message to America, and the rest of the world, that China is beginning to gain ground with it’s military. However, China still has a lot of work to do with it’s stealth fighter program. They let the entire world know that they’re working on such a technologically wonder, which isn’t very secretive to us. Some are even questioning if the J-20 is stealth at well, since it was believed that it remained years away from completion. Regardless, China is still working on their own stealth fighter, but they still have a distance to go before they catch up to America in that department.

America’s stealth fighters can be traced back to World War II, thanks to Germany. Germany developed a radar absorbing paint to combat the new radar technology that the Allies were using to locate German U-boat submarines. Shortly after WWII, Northrop Aircraft accidentally built the first stealth plane. The YB-49 Flying Wing was a bomber that resembled a wing, since it had no body or tail. After it’s test run over the Pacific, the bomber returned home. Because it’s slim wing edge was pointed directly towards the base radar, it never appeared on any radar screens. The YB-49 project was quickly shelved after it crashed in the Mojave desert in 1948.

At this point, the U.S. and USSR were heavily involved in the Cold War. This resulted in America wanting to convert larger planes, like bombers, into spy planes. To accomplish this, the government turned to the Advanced Development Projects team at Lockheed in California. The result was the U-2. This was the first plane to use radar absorbing paint, which was known as “Iron Ball”. The U-2 was successful for a time, but as radars grew stronger, and surface-to-air missiles were being developed, developers knew it wouldn’t last. They were right. A U-2, and it’s pilot Gary Powers, were shot down. Fortunately, we were already developing another stealth fighter.

By the 1960’s, the A-12 aircraft, which would later be renamed the SR-71 Blackbird, was developed. It had one objective, to have low observability. The revolutionary design was long and slim, with the engines built within the wings, not under them. It was capable to reach high altitudes (above 80,000 feet) and speed (2,000 mph). The SR-71 was also built with radar absorbing materials other than paint, which reduced reflections off of flat surfaces, and contained “electronic countermeasures”. However, as technology advanced, so did the stealth fighter.

During the Vietnam War, and throughout the 1970’s, there were tremendous advancements in stealth. There were the first true stealth aircraft, the Q-Star and the YO-3, which were not very fast, had no armor and were difficult to maneuver. By 1974, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began Project HARVEY, which was named after after a well-known comedy about an invisible giant rabbit, to develop aircraft with low “radar cross section” (RCS). In April of 1976, Lockheed won the competition with it’s “Hopeless Diamond” design. The government asked for Lockheed for two of these designs for flight and RCS tests, which cost $32.6 million, provided by DARPA and the USAF, and another $10.4 million from Lockheed. A year later, 1977, two more prototypes were constructed. They were dubbed HAVE BLUE. Their prototypes were 38 feet long, with a wingspan of 22.5 feet and a weight of 12,500 pounds. While not completely stealth, they achieved low RCS. Unfortunately, both prototypes failed, and were buried somewhere in the desert. Around the same time, another prototype was constructed, the SENIOR TREND, which was essentially a larger version of HAVE BLUE.

In 1978, Lockheed began work on yet another stealth program, known as “Skunk Wars,” which were designed from the HAVE BLUE and SENOR TREND prototypes. By 1982, the first F-117A Nighthawk was delivered. The F-117A was an utterly unique design. Its surfaces and edge profiles optimized to reflect enemy radar away from the radar detectors. It was also coated with radar absorbing materials, which resulted in a radar-cross section equivalent to a small bird. It was powered by a pair of 48 k-N General Electric F404-GE-F1D2 turbofans. To keep the aircraft as invisible as possible, the engine exhaust area was wide and flat, with the air intakes on both sides of the fuselage covered by gratings coated with radar absorbent material. The Nighthawk’s two large tail fins lent outwards, obstructing infrared and radar returns of the engine exhaust area. To ensure maximum invisibility, the F-117A didn’t rely on radar for navigation or targeting. The fighter was 65 feet, 11 inches long, 12 feet, 5 inches wide, had a wingspan of 43 feet, 4 inches, weighed 52,500 pounds and cost $45 million per plane. After serving in the first Gulf War, the F-117A was retired.

Currently, America relies on the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor. It’s origins can also be traced back to the early 1980’s, but after the company won a contract from the government in 1991, they began to make modifications on their YF-22 design. The F-22 made it’s first flight in April of 1997, and, was officially introduced on December 15, 2005. The F-22 features dual afterburners, can reach speeds up to at least Mach 2, is 62 ft 1 in long, 16 ft 8 in wide, has a wingspan of 44 ft 6 in, and weighs 43,430 lb. It’s stealth features are due to a combination of factors, including it’s shape, being built from radar-absorbent materials and focusing on the sensors that involve radar signature, visual, infrared, acoustic, and radio frequency. The F-22 costs $150 million per unit.

It’s only fitting that we end on America’s premier stealth fighter, the Northrop B-2 Spirit. We first saw the B-2 on November 22, 1988. The first operational B-2 was delivered on December 17, 1993, and it hasn’t looked back since. The shape of the aircraft contributes to its stealth and a special radar-absorbant paint further reduces its radar image. It’s exhaust system was designed to hide it’s emissions. The B-2 is capable of not only dropping conventional bombs, but also nuclear weapons. It features Four General Electric F118-GE-100 turbofans of 17,300 lbs. thrust each. Is 69 ft. long, 17 ft. high, has a wingspan of 172 ft. and can reach speeds up to high subsonic. The B-2 costs an astounding $737 million per unit.

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