Note on stealth fighters

Nowadays, stealth fighters – F-22, F-35, J-20 and PAK FA – are often being compared to each other and to other, non-stealth fighter aircraft. While these comparisons make sense, exposing certain advantages and disadvantages, they typically ignore one crucial detail. All stealth fighters are designed for one, or a narrow range, of highly specific missions. F-22 was designed for air combat deep inside the Soviet-era IADS, intercepting enemy fighters while they were still heavy with unspent fuel and missiles and possibly gaining altitude after takeoff. As a consequence, it was designed with emphasis on supercruise and all-aspect stealth. F-35 is a result of USAF / US Navy’s requirement for first-day-of-the-war stealth bomber, intended to degrade IADS before nonstealthy strike aircraft and equally nonstealthy escort fighters move in to carry out their missions; consequently, frontal stealth, in-built targeting pod and MAWS were given emphasis while supercruise and maneuverability were more-or-less ignored. J-20 is designed to take out US AWACS aircraft, which would be a major blow in the war due to USAFs excessive reliance on the same, especially in beyond visual range combat (as USAF has so far ignored importance of BVR VID capable sensors, such as IRST); as a result it has high cruise speed and altitude but comparably less maneuverability. J-31 is an F-35 copy, designed for same missions but without problematic STOVL requirement. PAK FA is designed for both air combat and strike missions deep inside the enemy IADS, but it sacrifices rear-quarter stealth and relies instead on significant supercruise capability to keep it safe from rear-quarter threats. Outside of these missions stealth fighters are seriously disadvantaged by difficult maintenance, larger than average visual signature, IR signature and fuel consumption, limited weapons loadouts and requirement for strict EMCON (last one applies to all fighter aircraft, but significantly more so to stealth fighters where even one communications or IFF burst can give away its position).

Despite all that, stealth fighters have had more and more requirements pushed onto them. F-22 is typically assumed today to be general-purpose air superiority fighter, similar to the F-15; and it indeed may have to take on that role, with F-15s and F-16s growing older, F-35 being incapable of serious air-to-air combat and no other fighter being avaliable to fill in the role. Due to aging legacy fighters with no non-stealth replacement (excepting the F-18E Super Hornet, which is equally incapable of air-to-air combat) and limited number of F-22 airframes avaliable, F-35 has seen itself turn into allegedly “multirole” fighter, with air superiority role being pushed onto it but with no corresponding change in designed capabilities to compensate for it. PAK FA, J-20 and J-31 seem to have kept within their designed missions, being intended to serve alongside nonstealthy fighters instead of replacing them. While that might change due to influences of aerospace industry on defense politics, this influence is likely weaker in Russia and China than it is in United States. In either case, this requirements creep has forced the aerospace industry and militaries to engage in extensive fact-warping campaign, which they may have started to believe themselves.

34 thoughts on “Note on stealth fighters

  1. A great and ubiquitous danger of propaganda is that propagandists end up believing their own propaganda, as if it were the obvious truth. It happens in politics, science, economics, sociology, humanities, biology, physics, philosophy, etc. Not just in weapons’ procurement. It’s a human trait which is more pronounced the more oligarchic the system under consideration is.


    1. Actually, for propaganda to be effective, propagandists should, ideally, believe their own lies – that way they are more convincing. And indeed in most cases they (eventually) convince themselves that what they are saying is true. Take a look at Milton Friedman. His neoliberal ideology started out because his father – who was a capitalist – had some major problems with workers’ unions and state regulations. Neoliberalism is nothing but a rather pragmatic way to give power to capitalists and rid them of any form of oversight. And it worked, but I really do believe that most neoliberal economists truly believe what they are saying.


  2. What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that radar stealth has been portrayed as total invisibility or something close to it.

    Radar stealth comes with some pretty substantial drawbacks.

    Raw performance
    – Bigger and less aerodynamic fuselage (especially in a dogfight where the aircraft is flying clean without missiles)
    – This a more draggy fuselage and all things equal, less range (due to lift drag ratio)
    – Drag can affect cruise speed, transient performance, and a few other characteristics
    – Worsening this, fuel fraction declines

    Then there is
    – Extremely expensive to buy and per hour of flight
    – Long logistics chain, making the aircraft hard to keep supplied
    – Limited if any rough field capabilities
    – Poor flight to maintainenace ratio, making it hard to get enough sorties and to build up a core of pilots with enough hours

    There are other problems, but these seem to be the largest.


    1. “What makes me uncomfortable is the fact that radar stealth has been portrayed as total invisibility or something close to it.”

      Eh, most humans turn into either morons or monsters as soon as you dangle a bit of money in front of them. But problem is that general populace lacks critical thought, we have all the gurus being portrayed as “objective”, “independent” and “infallible” when they are none of it, and most people are afraid to question them.

      “There are other problems, but these seem to be the largest.”

      Aye. There is also increase in IR signature and increase in required logistical chain.


    2. Well, a bit off topic, but in the US, the Texas Republican Party adopted a platform banning critical thinking back in 2012.

      See here:

      This happened again in 2014:

      Kind of scary, but Texas Republican Party won the general election in 2014. It was actually a very big victory for them.


      1. Turning US into fascist dictatorship, step by step. No critical thinking = no democracy; institutions in that situation are irrelevant.

        (This assuming that US are not a totalitarian dictatorship already, which they actually are – definition of fascism is a union between big government and big business, and guess who actually rules United Sttes and the West)?


      2. What is scary is that there are a lot of people who will vote for this. In Texas, in 2014, the Republican Party got 60% of the vote with their platform.

        If you were to take the rhetoric of the most right-wing politicians and transport them to Germany in the 1930s, they would likely fit right in.

        The other issue is that the corporations are out of control. They own the political system and can do whatever they want.


  3. Pak FA is certainly not stealth: Sukhoi claims it has (should have ) a frontal rcs between 0,1 and 0,4 square metres, that means larger then a clean eurocanards;tiny bays wotn allow t accomdate any long range air to air missile, if even russij will ever build one like meteor; lateral and back sides dont promise any good rcs reduction..Current 4 prototypes are alla lloy based, while paper specs (weight issues) will force to a vast use of composites(can they do That ? )
    latest deal consit in 8 prototypes of pak fa and 3 prototypes of FGFA : if first FGFA will not be built within 3 years India is definetely out of programme.

    Neuron drone looks much more combat ready then pak fa, considering it has no paper specs engines, fuselage,radar…

    Last but not least important IR signature of any pak FA prototype gonna be gigantic, considering no heal concealing measures are evident by design, and huge dimensions , low efficiency.


  4. hello picard your analysis of all major western fighters are awesome.Can you please do a similar analysis for all current attack helicopters,expecially eurocopter tiger and indian lch.


  5. Hello everyone! Francesco every time you see PakFa written, your vision goes RED, and you start whining about it being an X plane. Get over it, focus on the demonstrator Neuron, with one plane built in …ahh since 2008.
    Look at the F35, they just announced, at 145 built planes, that the rythm of appearance on new problems is still superior to that of the fixes. Creating and building planes is not easy, especially when it’s a weapons system, not just a ‘plane’. good evening


  6. The bigger the plane, and the bigger its lack of aerodynamics, indeed, the more its Infra Red signature. The F35 for the Marines may make sense, supposing it is better than the Harrier. But the other versions, clearly do not make any sense.


    1. All sukhoys have terrible(gigantic) infrared signatures : F35 does not have flat noozles like b2 or f22 but other, more comnventional heat track concealing tecniques such as in raphale and typhoon. I Think that f35 operational tactics do not involve using afterburner very often, using its stealth to stay hodden the more is possible.
      Dont forget thjat f35 is ythe first stealth fighter to be able to use meteor missile :stealth+meteor+evolved sensor fusion and data link make an awesome combination for real silent kills (ambush) vs suhkoys for example.This is much less true considering the combination f22+amraam considring that operational range of amraam D is much less then half of meteor’s one.


      1. To Francesco:

        From Business Insider, a year ago:

        Stealth may offer diminishing returns anyway. The technology isn’t foolproof, and radar technology is improving around the world.

        “You can only go so fast, and you know that stealth may be overrated,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said during a speech in February. “Let’s face it, if something moves fast through the air, disrupts molecules and puts out heat — I don’t care how cool the engine can be, it’s going to be detectable. You get my point.”

        The F35 has a gigantic round nozzle, meaning the exhaust plume is going to be much more visible than with a flat exhaust (F22, B2) or double exhaust (Rafale, or Airbus’ Eurofighter). Moreover F35 cannot supercruise (as F22, fully armed Rafale, Eurofighter).

        Business insider again:

        The F-35 may be more detectable at distance than the plane’s advocates claim, meaning the plane might have questionable utility during long-range aerial combat and attack runs. On top of that, the F-35 could find itself outgunned in a potential missile engagement with rival Russian or Chinese fighters.

        The F-35 is supposed to be outfitted with AIM-120 Slammer missiles, which have a comparable range to Russian and Chinese air-to-air missiles.

        However, as Trevithick notes, the F-35 may actually turn out to be slower than its Russian and Chinese rivals. It’s lagging speed means that it cannot launch the missiles with as much force as enemy jets. Moving at supercruising speed, a sustained speed exceeding the sound barrier, an enemy aircraft could “potentially fling its missiles farther than a missile’s advertised range.”

        Last I heard, Meteor would have to be clipped to fit inside F35. And, when it’s wearing stuff outside it’s neither hidden, nor quick.

        The F35’s problem is besting the F16…


      2. You might want to check out my “Airborne IRST properties and performance” post.

        “Moving at supercruising speed, a sustained speed exceeding the sound barrier, an enemy aircraft could “potentially fling its missiles farther than a missile’s advertised range.” ”

        IIRC, BVRAAM range assumed launch platform to be at Mach 2 and some 50.000+ ft. So actual combat range will be lot less than advertised range, seeing how most fighter aircraft won’t even try to reach Mach 2 (or their respective top speeds in general) due to fuel expenditure. Hence importance of supercruise.


      3. Patrice Ayme you are very badly wrong:

        Modified meteor has already been ordered; it was a 5-6 yo decision; a part from meteor, which is outclassing any other missile not only for range but for kinematic and percentage of kill, (it is supposed to be 5 times more effective then amraam C ), russian and chinese bvr missiles are a lot behind western counterparts forr ange,ecm resitance,weight,dimensions,; nowdays western wvr missiles are much better of eatern missiles too: they are smaller, less heavy, much more countermisures resistant, and IRIS-T for example, probably the bets wvr missile, can be launched at 180 position and has very effective defensive capability, vs wvr missiles and bvr missiles and even cruise missiel: anyway to trow an expensive fighter in a wvr scenario means that something has gone wrong: sukhoys are very bad bvr fighters not only because of missiels but mainly because are very draggy planes with horrendous supersonic STR and Horrendous IR signature optimized just for wvr: they are prehistoric designes.


    2. Aye, the entire single-platform multirole tri-service idea is a scam. Even Rafale, which did not get f***ed up by a STOVL requirement, is incapable of properly doing some of the more important missions (close/maneuver air support, forward air control, basically all actually important ground attack missions with the exception of SEAD/DEAD and some limited battlefield interdiction).


  7. Francesco: I am aware of the MBDA Meteor. And also that it will take years to fit it, software side, in the F35. Anyway that represents a failure of the entire passive stealth approach of the USA. Long ago, the F22 and the concept of the Meteor (very long range BVR missile) were viewed as incompatible (and, indeed, they are).

    From Wikipedia:
    On 9 September 2005 the first flight of Meteor on board a French Navy F2 standard Rafale M was successfully carried out from the Centre d’Essais en Vol at Istres in southeast France.[68] This was in preparation for a week-long series of trials from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle which commenced on 11 December 2005 in the Mediterranean.[68] The Meteor trials were conducted at the end of a series of tests of other Rafale weapons including SCALP-EG, ASMP-A and MICA…

    I have never tried to claim Chinese and Russian planes were excellent. They are enormous, and the Rafale is deliberately small.

    Picard: Indeed some in France view now developing the Rafale as a jack of all trades was a mistake. This being said, it can do lots of things pretty well, including nuclear bombing penetration missions… The empire of the USA is mighty, in part, well, because it’s an empire (see the acquisition of Rafale by Korea, which was politically reversed, inter alia…)


    1. Yeah, I know. F-35 would not have gotten a single export if it weren’t for the fact that it is a US-made aircraft. Piece of crap, but piece of crap made in the US, and that is what matters. France isn’t a superpower like US, or a neutral country like Sweden, and that hampered Rafale exports. Especially as US are ready to apply arm-twisting to get their way.


    2. R “that represents a failure of the entire passive stealth approach ” why ? Totally non sense.
      Do you really think you can detect an F35 from 150km? Is amramm better?Nope!
      Meteor is first ramjet powered with trust control till last mile and is expected to be 5 times more effective that current amraam: any other missiles a part from meteor is rocket propelled.
      BTW 1200 metwors have been ordered till now: is operational on gripen from last december ; during 2016 is beeing integrated with raphale and gonna be integrated with typhoon within year..
      meteor is a game changer to get a 60% plus kill ratio with zero loss proababilities if flying an high energy platform like f22 or eurocanards and even f35 since you can detect it 150km away…


      1. Main flaw of 22, a part frome expensive maintenance of ram coating, and indeed is gonna be substituded with f35 one, at least as effective and with 1/10 maintenace issues and cost, is that it cannot host meteor.


  8. Francesco: Last I heard the helmet in which the display is mounted in the F35 did not work well, and it would take years to incorporate the Meteor in the software. Once again, Meteor is the anti-passive stealth weapon (that’s why the USA did not develop a Meteor-like missile). Thus putting Meteor on F35 is an admission that passive stealth, F35-like did NOT work.

    Presenting the Meteor as a F35 weapon is thus rather ironical…

    Another point: electronics is progressing by leaps and bounds (if you don’t believe this, read about the detection of gravity waves!) The plume of the F35 should be detectable in infrared in clear weather from 500 kilometers away (horror!)

    Italy made a big mistake betraying Europe to embrace American LM…


    1. R :Patrice Ayme:

      why are you speaking about f35 helmet ?

      ” putting Meteor on F35 is an admission that passive stealth, F35-like did NOT work.”
      For sure if it had just wvr missiles passive stealth would not work even on f22.

      Why ? May be you dont know that meteor has not only 3 times range of amraam, but it is claimed to be 5 times more letal due to up to last mile trust, beeing ramjet powerd and not a rocket…Would you be displeased to shot down targets from150km rather that from 50?
      Meteor grants f35 chance to complete real assimetric bvr fight : I would define it an “ambush”
      It would be nice to see a shorter ranged meteor, may be with double seeker (which has been already planned) : a 100km meteor would still be better then amraam for many points of view. If you have both missisles on stealth fighter like f35, you can decide then which one to fire depending on boogie’s radar .


      1. Just a nitpick, but neither can a Meteor shoot down a maneuvering target from 150 km nor can an AMRAAM do it from 50 km… aerodynamic range is 315 km for Meteor, and either 100 or 180 km for AMRAAM-D, but at that range, neither missile will be shooting down anything… unless somebody starts using Zeppelins again. As a rule of thumb, for AMRAAM-style missiles, effective range against non-maneuvering target is half the aerodynamic range, effective range against aircraft in attack is 1/5 of the aerodynamic range, and effective range against aircraft in retreat is 1/4 of the range against aircraft in attack. At low altitude, all ranges get cut down to 1/4. So effective range is 4-100 km for Meteor, and 1,25 – 36 km for AIM-120D.

        And Meteor only has thrust for 100 km I believe… better than AMRAAM, which only has thrust during first few seconds of the flight, but maximum range is still achieved through usage of ballistic flight path and no-thrust coasting.


      2. Meteor ha trust till last mile in exchange of lower and avariable cruising speed; 150km plus figure is vs a manouvring subsonic target ,but launched from a subsonic platform; thats why is a very good idea to launch meteor in supersonic regime beeing launched from a very safe distance, not detectable in case of 35. meteor is a gam changer; f35 can exploit it probably with dofferent tactics then unstealthy lauinch platform.
        So in my oipinion Picard you are wrong both in mere numbers both in this Scenario (f35+meteor) : f35,beeing undectable from 150km except may be from f22 aesa atroughly 120km and typhoon’s captor E from same distance more aor less,, can launch meteor vs approaching targets : I said even approaching targets, so if launch it supersonic vs aroaching targets such as larage rcs ones like sukhoys, so easily detectable even from 200km distance, it coukld launch meteor even at 180-190km distance, expeccially if can go sueprsonic for 30-40 seconds,beeing confident not gonna be detected.


      3. “Meteor ha trust till last mile in exchange of lower and avariable cruising speed; 150km plus figure is vs a manouvring subsonic target ,but launched from a subsonic platform”

        That is the first time I have heard of it. I tried finding figures, and this is what I have found:
        View at
        32 km for AIM-120D, 100+ km for Meteor.

        Another data I have found talks about a necessity to “run down” a target 80 km distant, which would fit cca 100 km range against a maneuvering target.

        If 150 km range really is against a maneuvering target, it would then indicate a ballistic range far greater than 300 km. The only figure I have found so far is 200-315 km ballistic range.

        “f35,beeing undectable from 150km except may be from f22 aesa atroughly 120km and typhoon’s captor E from same distance more aor less,, can launch meteor vs approaching targets”

        Actually, it can’t. If it uses radar, it is not undetectable, if it uses IRST, it cannot launch before it is itself noticed (at least against aircraft with modern IRST). And if it uses datalinks, nothing prevents the enemy from jamming or hijacking datalinks, and it still requires the spotter to get fairly close to the target in order to resolve jamming.


  9. Obviously if it use radar is detectable ,like any other plane; or you really think that a single f35 ? do you really think a single f35 will ever fly vs encoming threats without wingmates or at least other radar support ? Ahh

    On gripen is already integrated; during this year raphale; within 2017 typhoon.
    On the link you provided, there is written ” What little MBDA has said regarding Meteor indicates a range significantly greater than 62 miles”..So we dont know how much… ” The actual effective ranges of both the Meteor and the AMRAAM are very likely to be well in excess of published figures.”

    F35 stealth make it usable also vs no escaping boogies: F35 can launch meteor vs incoming boogies from longer distance


    1. Said “radar support” is dependant on the assumptions that datalinks will be avaliable. A rather far shot, and I have adressed datalinks – next time read the answers before replying to them.

      Effective range of AMRAAM is in low tens of kilometers, tops. There is only so much you can get from that type of a missile.


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