Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


What China, Russia and America Are Obsessed with Stealth Fighters

F-22. Image: Creative Commons.
A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor conducts a heritage flight during the 2022 Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Air Show at MCAS Miramar, San Diego, California, Sept. 24, 2022. The F-22 Raptor is the Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Its combination of stealth, super-cruise, maneuverability, and integrated avionics, coupled with improved supportability, represents an exponential leap in war-fighting capabilities. The theme for the 2022 MCAS Miramar Air Show, “Marines Fight, Evolve and Win,” reflects the Marine Corps’ ongoing modernization efforts to prepare for future conflicts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Adam Bowles)

What exactly is stealth anyway? Air defense systems have improved markedly since the early days of aerial warfare. Sophisticated radar detection systems, paired with lethal surface-to-air missiles, make penetration of defended airspace virtually impossible for conventional aircraft. The exception, the prerequisite for operating in contested airspace, is aircraft equipped with stealth technology.

(Subscribe to Our YouTube Channel Here)

Stealth technology is a relatively new, constantly improving feature on military aircraft. Basically, stealth technology allows an aircraft to avoid detection by reducing its reflection of radar, infrared and visible light, radio frequency, and sound. The first ever operational stealth aircraft was the US Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk, which was developed in top secret through the 1980s. The F-117, which looks like something out of a BatMan film, was a watershed moment in aircraft design. Designed around its stealth technology, the F-117 made several design sacrifices, all for the sake of incorporating what are now perceived as the general principles of stealth aircraft design: reducing thermal emission from thrust; reducing radar detection through structural modifications; reducing radar detection with an internal weapons bay; reducing infra-red and radar detection during adverse weather.

For example, in the case of the F-117, in order to make the flight surfaces lowly observable to stealth technology, the jet was designed in a way that made it inherently unstable along all three axes, requiring constant input from a fly-by-wire system to remain in level flight.

Another problem with earlier aircraft was the afterburner. Because hot exhaust, and the heating of the aircraft skin that occurs at high speed, increases an infrared footprint – and because a sonic boom is quite detectable – the F-117 and the B-2 (the second operational stealth aircraft) were designed without afterburner technology. Technically, the lack of an afterburner would limit performance characteristics, creating a significant mismatch with an uncompromised fighter aircraft. Although, in the case of the F-117 and B-2, which were both bomber aircraft, the performance limitations were irrelevant.

Because external hardpoints, loaded with angular bombs, missiles, and fuel tanks, have a high radar cross-section, true stealth aircraft carry their weapons and fuel internally. The problem is that carrying everything internally reduces the total payload capacity. A plane only has so much storage space inside the fuselage. For example, the F-117 was limited to carrying only two layers of GPS-guided bombs at a time, whereas other non-stealth aircraft could heft several times as much weaponry. So, stealth aircraft in effect have less firepower. To compensate, the Air Force would theoretically need to fly more stealth aircraft than conventional aircraft just to complete the same mission.

Additionally, stealth aircraft are often designed with special skin meant to enhance the aircraft’s stealth characteristics. Typically, the skin features radiation-absorbent materials (RAM), which feature carbon black particles or tiny iron spheres. Although, the exact RAM used on specific aircraft is generally classified information.

Gradually, aerospace designers are mastering the technology. Today, new stealth aircraft are being developed without the glaring drawbacks of the F-117 and B-2. The F-22F-35, and upcoming B-21 are all fully stealth. The Russians have the Sukhoi Su-57, their first-ever stealth aircraft, although only a few are operational. Similarly, the Chinese have their first-ever stealth aircraft, the Chengdu J-20.

Both Russia and China are currently developing new stealth fighters; Russia is working on the PAK DP, PAK DA, PAK ShA, and Sukhoi Su-75 programs. China is working on the J-35 and JH-XX programs. Several other countries are also trying their hand at stealth aircraft: India, Taiwan, Sweden, the UK, Pakistan, Turkey, Spain, and Japan– they all have programs in the works. Although, observers are skeptical that the lesser powers will be able to successfully field stealthy aircraft.

The US for their part, despite being the world leader in stealth technology, is not complacent. Instead, the US is working to develop improved, future-generation platforms, like the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance. Despite ongoing efforts around the world to produce viable stealth aircraft, the US can be expected to maintain its dominance in the realm of stealth technology for the foreseeable future.


Maj. Joshua “Cabo” Gunderson, F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team commander, performs at the Thunder Over New Hampshire Air Show at Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, N.H., Sept. 11, 2021. The mission of the F-22 Demonstration Team is to showcase the unmatched maneuverability of the Air Force’s 5th generation air dominance stealth fighter, highlight the history of the Air Force’s service though heritage formation flights, and interact with local communities through outreach events. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Steven Tucker)


A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, above the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, March 14, 2022. The F-22 Raptor is a fifth-generation aircraft that combines stealth, supercruise, maneuverability, integrated avionics, and is designed to project air dominance, rapidly and at great distances, and deter regional aggressors while deployed in the USCENTCOM AOR. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Frank Rohrig)


Eight F-22 Raptors with the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, receive fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 507th Air Refueling Wing from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, Feb. 7, 2022, while the Okies flew to the U.S. Virgin Islands for training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Lauren Kelly)


A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from the 95th Fighter Squadron, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., moves into position behind a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, RAF Mildenhall Air Base, England, to conduct aerial refueling Sept. 4, 2015, over the Baltic Sea. The U.S. Air Force has deployed four F-22 Raptors, one C-17 Globemaster III, approximately 60 Airmen and associated equipment to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. While these aircraft and Airmen are in Europe, they will conduct air training with other Europe-based aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.