We are now seeing Russian and Chinese "stealth" aircraft appear, at least in prototype form. The Chinese have prototypes of the J-20 large fighter bomber, which looks as if it may enter service with the Chinese Air Force in 2018. In a recently published report on Chinese military power, the US Department of Defense wrote that the J-20 shows "China's ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics and supercruise capable engines." Supercruise in this context means that the aircraft can fly at supersonic speeds for sustained periods of time. This has only been achieved by the now grounded US SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance jet and the F-22.
Americans should get used to the idea that today's military technological breakthrough will be commonplace on tomorrow's battlefield. It costs a lot to develop and build the best military in the world.
If the pundits are right, and if major international war really is obsolete, it is largely due to America's overwhelming military superiority: it makes adversaries reluctant to take us on. Maintaining this U.S. superiority is what keeps the world more or less at peace.
Russia, meanwhile, is working on the Sukhoi T-80, also known as the PAK-FA -- a supposedly stealthy version of the SU-27 family of fighter bombers. The Russians have negotiated a co-development deal for this aircraft with India, which plans to buy around 200 copies.
Sukhoi has three T-80 test aircraft in operation, and hopes to have 11 more test aircraft flying before the first production model is delivered in 2013. The Russian air force is planning to have the T-80 in service sometime in 2015 or 2016, but its arrival in the Russian Air Force will probably be delayed. How effective the T-80 will be is open to question. Russia has developed some excellent combat airplanes over the years, but it has also built large numbers of fighters that have proven to be less than reliable, such as the 1970s' MiG 23.
Meanwhile, the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which originated in 1993, grinds ahead. It has already cost US taxpayers more than $400 billion. By the time the last F-35 leaves the production line sometime in the 2030s, the whole program will have cost more than one-and-a-half trillion dollars.
The F-35 was supposed to be the final manned fighter airplane built by the US; after that, all combat flying would be done by drones -- but things may not turn out that way. The US Navy has started preliminary work on a new manned fighter attack aircraft called the FA-XX.
The F-35 was also supposed to be a fine example of multinational cooperation. Certainly the US's European partners, including the British, the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Italians and the Danes, all had memories of successful collaboration with the US Defense Department on projects in the past. America's foreign partners are already suffering from "sticker shock," but as they have already invested considerable sums in the program, probably few of these partners will choose to walk away.
Any real stealth secrets inherent in the F-35 will almost certainly leak out through these foreign partners. They may have already leaked. However since the classified technology dates from the mid-1990s, it can hardly be considered truly "cutting edge."
Many Americans believe that Stealth technology is still an exclusive US military advantage and that the "Secrets of Stealth" must be preserved at all costs. Stealth, or as it is sometimes called, Low Observable Technology, has acquired an almost mythical significance. This myth tends to blind both political leaders in Washington and many media commentators to the true value of what is misleadingly referred to as invisibility. During the 1980 Presidential campaign, the Carter administration announced that it was working on an invisible bomber, which turned out to be the very expensive B-2 bomber, of which the US Air Force managed to buy a grand total of 21.
In the late 1970s, the US Air Force was working on a smaller Stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk, which secretly entered into service in 1982. Publicly unveiled in 1989, the US Air Force hailed it as a giant breakthrough in its military technology. That was nearly quarter of a century ago, it is hard to see why anyone expects that the secrets of stealth are still secret.
The US had been working on radar-evading and heat-signature-suppressing technologies since the late 1950s. There is nothing either very secret or surprising about this. All military forces try to hide their forces and are willing to spend a lot of money and effort on various forms of camouflage and concealment.
Stealth technology as we know it came into being in the 1970s, thanks in part to work by a Russian mathematician, but mostly thanks to advances in US computer technology. Lockheed was able to build a technology demonstration aircraft for the air force called the "Have Blue," which showed that an aircraft with the new radar-evading technology could penetrate Soviet-style 1970s integrated air defense systems.
"Have Blue" was followed in the early 1980s by the secret F-117 Stealth "Fighter," which was never actually a fighter but, as it was roughly the size of a fighter, the Air Force choose to call it a fighter, even though it would have been more accurate to call it a light reconnaissance bomber.
Although the F-117 was first used during the overthrow of the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, it proved itself during the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraq air defense system, which at the time was the best that Saddam's oil wealth could buy, was unable to shoot down a single F-117, even though they flew dozens of missions over the most heavily defended parts of Iraq, especially over Baghdad. The F-117s were able repeatedly to hit Iraqi headquarters and other critical targets such as bridges and industrial facilities. It was this that crippled Saddam's ability to continue the war.
At the same time in the early 1990s, the Air Force was introducing its new strategic bomber, the B-2. This was, and is, an extraordinary aircraft that combines stealth with a long range. The B-2 can fly more than 5000 miles on a single fuel load, as well as anywhere in the world with air-to-air refueling, even with a heavy payload. This bomber was first used against targets in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
Since its existence was revealed during the 1980 Presidential campaign, "stealth" has become surrounded by an aura of mystery and invincibility that tends to obscure its value in being able to defeat the most advanced air defense systems. Although talk about invisible and invulnerable airplanes was hogwash, normally skeptical journalists and media commentators bought into the myth, and sometimes used it to propagate a dangerously sterile vision of modern war, especially the idea that wars can be fought with no friendly casualties and almost no casualties on the enemies' side.
In 1999, during the Kosovo operation, an F-117 was shot down over Serbia by an old Soviet SA-3 surface-to-air missile. This seems to have been done by a Serb missile battalion commander who, using basic intelligence methods, analyzed US air operations. Specifically, Serbian intelligence had informers with cell phones around US bases; the informers would phone in the departure times of US aircraft. Using this data the Serbs were able to make educated guesses when and where US aircraft would appear in the skies over their missile launchers.
The pilot ejected and was rescued, but the wreckage of the plane was recovered by the Serbs; it is believed they gave the debris to Russia as a "thank you" for Moscow's political support.
Whatever the next military technological breakthrough is, if it keeps American troops alive and victorious in war and globally respected in peacetime, it will be worth every penny.