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Anti-access Air Defenses: Tracking the Development of Anti-stealth Countermeasures

The introduction of stealth technology into U.S. combat aircraft in the late 1970s, leading to the addition of the F-117 Nighthawk strike aircraft to the Air Force fleet in 1983, significantly changed both design requirements for future military aircraft and how the opening days of combat are fought. It also marked the beginning of what has become a major international effort to develop anti-access defensive capabilities against stealth aircraft.

Leading the effort to develop effective counter-stealth capabilities is the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). According to Wayne A. Ulman, a senior China analyst at the U.S. Air Force (USAF) National Air and Space Intelligence Center, China has spent more than a decade working on technologies, systems, and procedures to detect, track, and engage stealth aircraft and cruise missiles.

“They are developing a network-centric kill chain to fuse data from an extensive and diverse sensor network. They are also working to reduce the signature of current aircraft designs and on developing a low-observable fighter. As the PLAAF gains access to reduced signature systems, it will allow the development of tactics, training, and procedures for use against low-observable threat systems.”

“They are developing a network-centric kill chain to fuse data from an extensive and diverse sensor network. They are also working to reduce the signature of current aircraft designs and on developing a low-observable fighter. As the PLAAF gains access to reduced signature systems, it will allow the development of tactics, training, and procedures for use against low-observable threat systems,” he told the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in May.

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is working on a very comprehensive approach to information superiority. They seek to integrate electronic warfare, cyber operations, PSYOPS [psychological operations], denial and deception, and kinetic attack to defeat adversary information systems. The PLA seem intent on integrating electronic warfare with cyber operations. Chinese efforts to develop counter-space capabilities are also an important element of this effort to achieve information superiority by denying or degrading adversary ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], C4 [command, control, comunications, and computers], and navigational capabilities. Overall, the PLA considers itself at a fairly early stage of informationalization, with a goal of achieving a fully informationalized PLA by 2050.”

Russian PAK-FA

The United States’ sole possession of stealth technology is now being contested by the Russian PAK-FA (shown above) and Chinese J-20. Photo courtesy of Sukhoi

An understanding of the nature and extent of anti-access programs – and their impact on a U.S. combat air capability increasingly based on stealth – requires an understanding of the technology’s development, how well it has acquitted itself in combat, and the extent to which U.S. and allied air forces are committing themselves to stealth in the coming decades.

The F-117 saw its first action in the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, in which two Nighthawks penetrated Panamanian air defenses to bomb Rio Hato airfield. While comprising only 2.5 percent of American aircraft deployed to the First Gulf War in 1991, the F-117s hit more than 40 percent of strategic targets – some 1,600 high-value targets in 1,300 sorties – and with a success rate exceeding 80 percent.

Before its early retirement from service in 2008, only one F-117 was lost to enemy air defense fire in 25 years. That happened during combat operations over Kosovo in March 1999, when Yugoslav air defenses, using unusually long radar wavelengths that made the aircraft visible for brief periods, hit the aircraft with a Soviet-built SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missile (SAM). The commander of the air defense unit later said he believed the Nighthawk’s normally low radar signature also may have been disrupted by open bomb-bay doors.

The F-117 – and its successors – otherwise flew with impunity, typically as the first to hit enemy targets, especially on Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions, clearing the way for other, non-stealth air superiority and ground attack platforms. It played a major role in the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Perhaps more importantly, it proved the value of stealth – which had not been an especially popular concept with the Air Force during initial development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and, later, the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, where the Nighthawk was built.

On Oct. 28, 2006, at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., the Silver Stealth 25th anniversary celebration of the first F-117 flight was somewhat muted by the USAF announcement it would take the Nighthawk out of service two years later.

“Whenever its nation called, the F-117 answered, providing capabilities that had never been known before. If we needed the door kicked in, the stealth was the one to do it. Never before had such an aircraft existed,” one of the first Nighthawk pilots, retired USAF Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, commented at the time.

The commander of the 7th Fighter Squadron at Holloman, Lt. Col. Chris Knehans, agreed: “This is a strategic weapon that really reshaped how the Air Force looked at strategic warfare. It doesn’t matter what defenses you put up, how deep you try to hide, or how much you surround yourself with collateral damage, this airplane will come and get you.

“From a pragmatic point of view, we all understand why it’s leaving. I mean, it’s a 30-year-old concept now. But when you look at its history, its design, and its combat record … yeah, the Air Force is going to lose basically a very unique weapon system.”

“From a pragmatic point of view, we all understand why it’s leaving. I mean, it’s a 30-year-old concept now. But when you look at its history, its design, and its combat record … yeah, the Air Force is going to lose basically a very unique weapon system.”

Ending the F-117’s service with its only operator three years early allowed the Air Force to shift more than $1 billion from Nighthawk maintenance to some of its stealth successors – the B-2 Spirit bomber, F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter, and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

The stealth technology incorporated into the B-2, which first flew in 1989 and entered service eight years later, was more than a decade advanced over the F-117, but by that time both stealth technology and anti-stealth detection capabilities also were advancing with ever-increasing speed. Partly as a result, only 21 of the originally planned 132 bombers were built; 20 of those remain in service, the only loss coming in a crash shortly after takeoff in 2008.

By the time it entered service, the Cold War scenarios for which it was designed also were gone with the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the B-2 made good use of its stealth capabilities in major operations over Serbia in 1999, flying nonstop from and back to home base in Missouri. The first combat aircraft to deploy GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) “smart bombs” – and the only one able to carry such weapons in a stealth configuration – the B-2 was credited with destroying a third of the coalition’s primary targets in Serbia during the first eight weeks of U.S. involvement.

As with the F-117, the B-2 is exclusive to the U.S. Air Force, which used it extensively during major combat in Iraq and continues to fly it on missions over Afghanistan. As with some other new aircraft in recent years, the B-2 was involved in numerous combat missions long before the Air Force officially declared full operational capability in December 2003.

Stealth took another major technological leap with the design of the F-22 Raptor, America’s third major stealth aircraft, which, like its predecessors, is restricted to the U.S. Air Force (although some allies, such as Japan and Australia, have sought authorization to buy Raptors before the production line is shut down next year). Rather than relying almost entirely on radar-absorbent materials (RAM) and shaping to deflect and scatter radar waves, the F-22 design sought to shield the aircraft from other forms of detection – visual, infrared, acoustic, radio frequency – and decrease overall observability from all directions by all types of radar.

F-35 Lighting IIs

The next-generation F-35 employs more durable, low-maintenance stealth materials. Lockheed Martin photo by Tom Reynolds

Changes in its thrust-vectoring nozzles make it harder for heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles to home in on the Raptor. Other technologies reduced radio and noise emissions and even made it less visible to the naked eye. The reduced reliance on F-117-style RAM also sharply reduced the maintenance those materials require, including the climate-controlled hangars needed to house the B-2. But the new approaches came with their own maintenance requirements, which had a negative impact on the F-22’s mission capable rate.

As with the F-117 and B-2, the original planned buy of 650 F-22s was dramatically reduced – to only 187. The next stealth aircraft, the F-35, was seen by some as more advanced and capable, so USAF money that would have gone toward additional Raptors will, instead, be shifted to the F-35A (the conventional takeoff and landing variant). In addition, while the F-22’s high-frequency radar signature has been compared to a “steel marble,” there have been reports it is far more visible to low-frequency radars, such as those used by old Soviet weather and warning stations.

The F-35 has continued the move away from high-maintenance coatings, with a greater use of durable, low-maintenance structural materials. Even so, it reportedly has a larger radar cross-section than the F-22 – a metal golf ball rather than a marble. Unlike the Raptor, the F-35’s stealth is primarily directed at radars in front of it, especially X- and upper S-band systems used by fighters, SAMs, and tracking radars, and, to a lesser extent, L-band surveillance systems.

Stealth also has been incorporated into requirements for some next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), especially unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), which some believe may make the F-35 one of America’s last manned fighter aircraft. In addition, non-U.S. efforts to build fifth-generation fighters – at present, only the F-22 and F-35 – include both materials and shaping for stealth.

But many experts say the Russian Sukhoi T-50 (and its proposed Indian derivative, the HAL-FGFA) and Chinese J-20 are at least a decade from initial – much less full – operating capability. Nor do those nations have the production infrastructure or available funding to build large numbers of what more likely will be classed as Gen-4.5 fighters, in the same class with the F-15E Strike Eagle, F/A-18F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab JAS 39 Gripen NG, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, and Mikoyan MiG-35.

Outside the United States, the three-variant F-35 is likely to fill the fifth-generation and stealth requirements of most U.S. allies for the majority of this century, while potential adversaries are unlikely to have access to such aircraft. Perhaps in large part because of the difficulties in designing and building either a true fifth-generation or advanced stealth fighter, many nations are following China’s lead in putting more emphasis on anti-stealth, anti-access air defense technologies.

Indeed, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasized the need for the U.S. Navy (USN) and Air Force to confront anti-access capabilities being developed by China, Iran, and North Korea to counter the B-2, F-22, and F-35.

“Our deterrent remains grounded in land, air, and naval forces capable of fighting limited and large-scale conflicts in environments where anti-access weaponry and tactics are used, as well as forces prepared to respond to the full range of challenges posed by state and non-state groups,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates wrote in the QDR Executive Summary.

“U.S. air forces will become more survivable as large numbers of fifth generation fighters join the force. Land-based [USAF] and carrier-based aircraft [USN/USMC] will need greater average range, flexibility and multi-mission versatility in order to deter and defeat adversaries that are fielding more potent anti-access capabilities.”

“U.S. air forces will become more survivable as large numbers of fifth generation fighters join the force. Land-based [USAF] and carrier-based aircraft [USN/USMC] will need greater average range, flexibility and multi-mission versatility in order to deter and defeat adversaries that are fielding more potent anti-access capabilities.”

In a section on “Rebalancing the Force,” the QDR focused on the need to deter and defeat aggression in anti-access environments.

“North Korea and Iran … are actively testing and fielding new ballistic missile systems,” the report noted. “As the inventories and capabilities of such systems continue to grow, U.S. forces deployed forward will no longer enjoy the relative sanctuary that they have had in conflicts since the end of the Cold War. As part of its long-term, comprehensive military modernization, China is developing and fielding large numbers of advanced medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, new attack submarines equipped with advanced weapons, increasingly capable long-range air defense systems, electronic warfare and computer network attack capabilities, advanced fighter aircraft and counter-space systems.

“In recent years, a number of other states have acquired sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles, quiet submarines, advanced mines and other systems that threaten naval operations. In addition to these weapons, Iran has fielded large numbers of small, fast-attack craft designed to support ‘swarming’ tactics that seek to overwhelm the layers of defenses deployed by U.S. and other nations’ naval vessels. U.S. air forces in future conflicts will encounter integrated air defenses of far greater sophistication and lethality than those fielded by adversaries of the 1990s. Proliferation of modern surface-to-air missile systems by Russia and others will pose growing challenges for U.S. military operations worldwide.”

As a result, the Pentagon is working to develop a new joint air-sea battle concept designed to defeat adversaries across a wide range of military operations, but with a special emphasis on those employing sophisticated anti-access and area-denial capabilities. Those include the stealthy fifth-generation USAF F-22 and F-35A, Marine Corps F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) and Navy F-35C carrier-based aircraft, but supported and supplemented by advanced long-range strike and ISR capabilities.

“A number of related efforts are under way. The Navy is investigating options for expanding the capacity of future Virginia-class attack submarines for long-range strike. It is also slated to conduct field experiments with prototype versions of a naval unmanned combat aerial system [N-UCAS]. The N-UCAS offers the potential to greatly increase the range of ISR and strike operations from the Navy’s carrier fleet,” the QDR reported. “The Air Force is reviewing options for fielding survivable, long-range surveillance and strike aircraft as part of a comprehensive, phased plan to modernize the bomber force. The Navy and the Air Force are cooperatively assessing alternatives for a new joint cruise missile. The department also plans to experiment with conventional prompt global strike prototypes.

Airborne ISR assets must be made more survivable in order to support operations in heavily defended airspace. The department is also exploring options for expanding jam-resistant satellite communications and for augmenting these links with long-endurance aerial vehicles that can serve as airborne communications relay platforms. In order to counter the spread of advanced surveillance, air defense, and strike systems, the department has directed increased investments in selected capabilities for electronic attack.”

In a May 2010 speech to the Navy League, Gates discussed some of the problems facing the Defense Department as it seeks to balance high-end weapons platforms and systems unmatched by any potential adversary against the growing development of anti-access capability among those same nations and even non-state terrorist organizations or “a bunch of teenage pirates wielding AK-47s and RPGs.”

“No one intends to bankrupt themselves by challenging the U.S. to a shipbuilding competition,” he said. “Instead, potential adversaries are investing in weapons designed to neutralize U.S. advantages – to deny our military freedom of action while potentially threatening America’s primary means of projecting power: Our bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them. At the higher end of the access-denial spectrum, the virtual monopoly the U.S. has enjoyed with precision-guided weapons is eroding – especially with long-range, accurate anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that can potentially strike from over the horizon.

“These issues invariably bring up debates over so-called ‘gaps’ between stated requirements and current platforms – be they ships, aircraft, or anything else. More often than not, the solution offered is either more of what we already have or modernized versions of pre-existing capabilities. This approach ignores the fact that we face diverse adversaries with finite resources that consequently force them to come at the U.S. in unconventional and innovative ways. We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again – especially as advances in anti-ship systems keep pushing the potential launch point further from shore.”

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...