Warplanes: May 11, 2005

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How far ahead of the pack is the F-22? Especially when compared to European fighters like the Rafale, Eurofighter, and Gripen? This is something that matters a lot to the Air Force, which thinks the F-22 is vital to maintaining air superiority replacing the F-15C as soon as possible, even at the expense of reducing the buy of the F-35. How valid is the Air Forces claim?

First, one needs to look at how visible the aircraft in question are on radar. The F-15C is probably the most visible, entering service just as Lockheed began work on the F-117 Nighthawk. The Rafale and Eurofighter have taken steps to reduce their radar-cross section from the front. The Gripen has not had as much work on this front. The F-22, however, has the lowest radar-cross section and has it on all aspects. It also has another major advantage in this regard when compared to these European fighters: the F-22 carries its weapons internally, while all three of the European fighters carry the weapons externally. While some missiles like the Storm Shadow and SCALP have reduced radar cross-sections, some weapons still reflect radar well. This means that the Rafale and Eurofighter will still be at a huge disadvantage.

The next question is how good the radars are. The F-15s APG-70 has been upgraded over the years, to the point where it can distinguish an aircraft using Non-Cooperative Target Recognition (NCTR). The Air Force does not reveal much about the system, but NCTR is said to be capable of revealing the model and even variations on a given model of a target being tracked by radar. The Rafales RBE2 is capable of searching out and tracking targets in the air and on the ground or sea, as well as classifying those targets, and it also is a low-probability of intercept radar, which means that it can track targets with less chance of the target knowing it is a target. The Eurofighters CAPTOR (a variant of the Blue Vixen used on the retiring Sea Harrier F/A.2s) has a unique three-channel system that gives it additional ability in electronic counter-counter measures (ECCM) as well as air-search and surface-search capabilities. The F-22s radar is designed to use spread spectrum transmission to locate and track targets before they even know the F-22 is there. The F-22 also has the most advanced NCTR system put into a fighter aircraft.

Finally, how good are the countermeasures? The Rafale, Gripen, and Eurofighter rely on active jamming systems. These put out energy to distract radar. However, these systems will still advertise the presence of the aircraft and provide ample warning. These days, missiles can be programmed to home in on jamming and that means life could be exciting and short for pilots who use them. The F-22, on the other hand, does not rely on jammers as much as they rely on diverting and absorbing radar waves. Comparing these systems is difficult, since information about systems used in electronic warfare (including jamming and systems like NCTR) is usually classified.

Even though stealth is wrapped in cloaks of secrecy, two things are apparent: First, the United States has a significant head start on stealth technology mostly because of the head start of ten to fifteen years that was gained by the successful protection of the F-117s gestation. France is working on a stealthy UAV, which will supposedly have a lower RCS than the F-22 or F-35, but that is not yet proven. The United Kingdom is also rumored to be working on a stealth aircraft called HALO, with D-Notices allegedly being issued to press outlets to keep sightings from making news. Second, the stealth race is on, and efforts are being made to catch up with the United States. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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