So while stealth is proliferating, is it that big a threat?
This is a very very common misconception. Most fighters today are optimised to be difficult to spot on X-Band radars. These bands are the frequency ranges of the radio signals a radar emits for detecting targets. It is entirely possible a certain frequency will light up stealth fighters like a Christmas tree. All the anti-stealth radar tech development is concentrating on looking for bands or power settings in which this shaping is useless. For examples L-Band is said have good VLO detection capability.
It is entirely possible that a force goes in all guns blazing with an entire stealth line up i.e. from fighters to bombers to tankers to transports but the force is lit up due to anti-stealth radars and neutralised. It would be a nasty shock economically as VLO platforms are costlier than non VLO ones in almost all areas. Hence my personal perversion to going all stealth in the line up without even looking at the costs as this places all eggs in one basket.
Can we ever forget this incident?
If radars aren’t enough, what about the visual spectrum? We might see a shift in technology where visual detection with smart AI is used to filter aircraft in the night sky at very high ranges. We have AI used in our cell phone cameras to detect things. A decent IRST with good long distance imagery coupled with AI could do the deal. Quoting and slightly modifying what Syndrome said in Incredibles, “If everyone has VLO platforms and the ability to detect them then no one has VLO platforms!!”
Stealth was initially developed as a Day 1 force multiplier to destroy as many enemy air defence assets (SAMs+fighters) as possible. The usage might extend over the next few days until air supremacy is established or decent edge is gained, regular platforms could then swoop in. This is done to reduce the overall cost of operation and increase the effectiveness. A stealth platform is compromised in terms of performance and payload compared to a regular one and payload comes in handy for maintaining CAS circuits. Overall a full stealth force will be a costly affair.
All combat ops done by VLO types have Luneberg lenses to hide the true radar signature. Thus VLO types operate as legacy types and stealth clearly plays no role in the ops they are used in. They are actually used to supplement AEWACs with their superior sensor fusion and help with battle management.
One needs to understand that all VLO platforms have a specific coating augmenting the radar defeat of the base design. Also, if fighters and bombers weren’t enough, people want VLO tankers and transports. The coating needs maintenance and is one of the primary reasons for a lower mission availability compared to legacy platforms. Larger the coating surface means the platform is more maintenance intensive. The maintenance needs to be done in pristine environment controlled hangars. These factors add maintenance costs, operational costs and infrastructure costs. Portable facilities have been developed for use at forward bases but at a cost.
For a reference the mission availability rates are,
- F-22A: 49%
- F-35: 55%
- B-2A: 53%
- F-15C/D: 71%
- F-15E: 75%
- F-16C/D: 70% (for C), 66% (for D)
- B-52H: 72% (the B-1B is at a dismal 53% but is a known hangar queen)
I’ll try to explain operational costs by a simple example. Consider an operational theatre which requires 100 sorties a day. The reliability is 50% and atleast 2 sorties per day per jet you would need 100 aircraft deployed. Considering 70%, we need 71 aircraft. So while a VLO platform costs more to design, develop and maintain it costs more to operate as you need more aircraft at the scene than legacy platforms.
Obviously the reliability numbers will surely be higher for deployed units thanks to preferential treatment, VLO platforms would still cost more. For example Russia sustained 60 sorties a day, sometimes peaking to 80s and 90s with 25-30 odd jets during the initial days of Syrian operations.
It will be interesting to see how other navies handle VLO platforms at sea
(The picture is a Photoshop)
Let us reconsider the need for air conditioned hangars. Incase a force does not have such a facility at a forward operating base, it might mean quicker rotation of deployed fleets than legacy platforms. This would be done to make sure the deployed fleet retains the VLO capability as harsh forward operating bases might damage the coating. The USN and USMC had to modify their deployed maintenance SOPs to make sure the VLO coatings are maintained properly on their respective carriers.
Let us conclude with a potential solution of the multi-billion dollar deployment costs of VLO platforms. The solution is to stick with some legacy platform which do the dirty work while VLO platforms handle the difficult and dangerous missions. It would be similar to having a dedicated fleet to support spec ops teams while the regular fleet serves the regular infantry units.
And for the detractors!
- Portable Hangar: https://www.stripes.com/news/portable-b-2-bomber-shelters-are-built-in-parts-officially-unknown-1.1054
- The need for climate controlled hangars: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/23/world/the-2-billion-stealth-bomber-can-t-go-out-in-the-rain.html
- Operational availability: http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/19119/heres-a-handy-inventory-list-of-usaf-aircraft-and-their-mission-capable-rates
- 60 strikes a day: http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-russia-syria-snap-story.html