Popular Mechanics: Emerging Threats to U.S. Stealth Jets

There is an interesting article in Popular Mechanics this week that examines how Russian defense technology has moved towards increasing their anti-stealth capabilities in recent years. Some Russian defense experts are even claiming their newer systems may have the ability to combat even the stealthiest American fighter jets–including the F-35 Lightning II.

The article provides details of the various stealth features of the F-35 compared to the F-22 Raptor, another U.S. fifth-generation fighter jet with advanced stealth capabilities. According to some experts, the shape of the F-35 hinders its stealth capabilities when compared to the F-22, but there are several features of the F-35 that would make it well-matched to take on emerging anti-stealth systems from Russian and other countries.

From the article:

The F-35’s approach to radar-absorbent material (RAM) is more reliable than that of any earlier warplane. The F-22’s surfaces are made of aluminum, which are covered in RAM that must constantly be reapplied. This is, of course, a nightmare for maintenance crews. But the F-35 is made of carbon-fiber composite; Lockheed engineers bake RAM into the airplane’s edges in an effort to soak up inbound radar.

But the Lightning II’s key to survival is its own radar, the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) installed in its nose. Conventional radar systems turn their gaze mechanically—imagine a dish spinning or a flat surface tilting to aim radar beams. Electronically steered radar does not move, but its beams can broadcast in different directions, thousands of times a second and across many frequencies. This agility allows AESA to map terrain and track hundreds of targets.

AESA is built to do more than scan—it can reach out to enemy radars and scramble their signals. A combination of radar and electromagnetic warning sensors alert an F-35 pilot to the threat of enemy radar; he can then dodge the threat or use the AESA to jam the signal, no matter what frequency the radar is transmitting.

And, if a missile is launched, the F-35 can track it with 360-degree infrared-sensor coverage and then, in some cases, overwhelm the missile’s guidance system with the AESA. “Stealth works in conjunction with all those other techniques to make the F-35 what is probably the most survivable airplane of all time,” [Lockheed vice president and former F/A-18 pilot Steve] O’Bryan says.

Additionally, Popular Mechanics posts a compare and contrast rundown of the stealth fighters currently available, and the technology that hopes to take them on. Check it out for yourself!