The Pentagon should continue to invest in stealth aircraft because the technology remains among the most effective means of improving and ensuring aircraft survivability, according to Rebecca Grant, who today released an updated version of her 1998 report, "The Radar Game: Understanding Stealth and Aircraft Survivability." Grant is the director of the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies.
Noting that radar detection has improved since the debut of stealth aircraft during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Grant told InsideDefense.com today that fifth-generation fighters are needed to combat the technology on the ground:
A lot of the earliest surface to air missiles were relatively shorter-range. We see now systems like the S-300 and S-400 series (surface-to-air missiles) (with) the ability to detect non-stealth aircraft at ranges of around 100 miles or more. So to just get close enough to be effective, you have to have a fifth-generation stealth aircraft. So that is why stealth is so important.
In irregular warfare, as in Afghanistan, the need for stealth technology has diminished. However, for possible future conflicts with traditional state actors like Venezuela, China or North Korea, Grant said modern stealth aircraft could be key:
Now integrated air defenses are sold very widely. Venezuela has purchased fairly modern systems. We see them on contract in Iran. So nearly any adversary we face is likely to have at least some of these systems. And the tier of adversaries we worry about, such as those with ballistic missiles, other things that we'd want to go in and defeat, are certain to have integrated air defenses as well.
In her foreword to the updated version, Grant writes:
Stealth remains at the forefront of design. One of the best signals about the ongoing value of stealth lies in new applications. Leading unmanned aerial vehicles for high-threat operations incorporate stealth. Navy ships have adopted some of its shaping techniques. Of course, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter remains the nation’s single biggest bet on future airpower.
Success in the radar game will continue to govern the value of airpower as a tool of national security. Many of America’s unique policy options depend upon it. When and if the SA-20 joins Iran’s air defense network, it will make that nation a considerably tougher environment for air attack, for example. Already there are regions of the world where only stealth aircraft can operate with a good chance of completing the mission.
In fact, stealth aircraft will have to work harder than ever. The major difference from 1998 to 2010 is that defense plans no longer envision an all-stealth fleet. The Air Force and joint partners will operate a mixture of legacy, conventional fighters and bombers alongside stealth aircraft even as the F-35s arrive in greater numbers. The radar game of 2020 and 2030 will feature a lot of assists and the tactics that go along with that.