The Problem with Stealth

Ben Cohen
The US Air Force intends to replace its current fleet of F-16's and A-10's with stealthier F-35's, but aircraft expert Pierre Sprey thinks that's a bad idea. While the F-35 is indeed stealthier than either of these planes, stealth is not the most important quality for the planes the F-35 is set to replace. The A-10 is built strictly to provide close air support on the battlefield where stealth would be irrelevant to its mission, since it flies at such a low altitude. The F-16 is designed to attack enemy planes and ground targets. To do this it has to be fast and maneuverable in order to dodge missiles, antiaircraft guns, or dogfight with other planes. Building a stealthier aircraft means sacrificing these other capabilities; the F-35 lacks the A-10's thick armor and compliment of weapons, and it also lacks the F-16's maneuverability. Because of this the F-35 is less capable than the fighters it is replacing, at least in the roles the air force intends it for.

As Sprey explains, in order to make the F-35 stealthier they had to change the shape in ways that reduced maneuverability. Stealth aircraft can still be seen visually and they do have a radar signature, albeit a smaller one. Stealth fighters are at a disadvantage in a dogfight or if they have to dodge missiles, because of the design compromises necessary to reduce their radar signature. It is also harder to train pilots on an F-35 because it requires more maintenance than an F-16. Pilots can't practice flying when their plane is being worked on. The F-35 also costs ten times as much as the F-16, largely because of its stealth capability.

Replacing the A-10 Warthog with the F-35 is a particularly bad idea. The A-10 is a specialized aircraft designed for close air support. It is designed to fly at very low altitudes in support of ground troops, where the biggest threat is enemy soldiers shooting at it with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. To accomplish this task the A-10 is slow, heavily armored, and carries a large cannon. The F-35 has none of these capabilities; it also costs eighteen times as much as the A-10.

For the last decade the U.S has been engaged in fighting terrorists and guerillas armed with basic infantry weapons. U.S aircraft are used almost exclusively to support ground troops, something the A-10 is perfectly suited for and the F-35 is not. Replacing the entire fleet of F-16's with stealth fighters would draw a considerable amount of resources away from the war on terrorism. It could also provoke a procurement war with China and Russia, which would draw even more resources away from the fight against terrorism, at a time whereterrorism is clearly a far greater threat than either Russia or China.

Stealth technology in aircraft represents a classic tradeoff. We can replace all of our current F-16's and A-10's with F-35 stealth fighters, but our fleet will be smaller, more expensive, and in some ways less capable. Considering the technical and economic tradeoffs involved, along with our likely enemies, is it worth the tradeoff?

The US Air Force intends to replace its current fleet of F-16's and A-10's with stealthier F-35's, but aircraft expert Pierre Sprey thinks that's a bad idea. While the F-35 is indeed stealthier than either of these planes, stealth is not the most important quality for the planes the F-35 is set to replace. The A-10 is built strictly to provide close air support on the battlefield where stealth would be irrelevant to its mission, since it flies at such a low altitude. The F-16 is designed to attack enemy planes and ground targets. To do this it has to be fast and maneuverable in order to dodge missiles, antiaircraft guns, or dogfight with other planes. Building a stealthier aircraft means sacrificing these other capabilities; the F-35 lacks the A-10's thick armor and compliment of weapons, and it also lacks the F-16's maneuverability. Because of this the F-35 is less capable than the fighters it is replacing, at least in the roles the air force intends it for.

As Sprey explains, in order to make the F-35 stealthier they had to change the shape in ways that reduced maneuverability. Stealth aircraft can still be seen visually and they do have a radar signature, albeit a smaller one. Stealth fighters are at a disadvantage in a dogfight or if they have to dodge missiles, because of the design compromises necessary to reduce their radar signature. It is also harder to train pilots on an F-35 because it requires more maintenance than an F-16. Pilots can't practice flying when their plane is being worked on. The F-35 also costs ten times as much as the F-16, largely because of its stealth capability.

Replacing the A-10 Warthog with the F-35 is a particularly bad idea. The A-10 is a specialized aircraft designed for close air support. It is designed to fly at very low altitudes in support of ground troops, where the biggest threat is enemy soldiers shooting at it with machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery. To accomplish this task the A-10 is slow, heavily armored, and carries a large cannon. The F-35 has none of these capabilities; it also costs eighteen times as much as the A-10.

For the last decade the U.S has been engaged in fighting terrorists and guerillas armed with basic infantry weapons. U.S aircraft are used almost exclusively to support ground troops, something the A-10 is perfectly suited for and the F-35 is not. Replacing the entire fleet of F-16's with stealth fighters would draw a considerable amount of resources away from the war on terrorism. It could also provoke a procurement war with China and Russia, which would draw even more resources away from the fight against terrorism, at a time whereterrorism is clearly a far greater threat than either Russia or China.

Stealth technology in aircraft represents a classic tradeoff. We can replace all of our current F-16's and A-10's with F-35 stealth fighters, but our fleet will be smaller, more expensive, and in some ways less capable. Considering the technical and economic tradeoffs involved, along with our likely enemies, is it worth the tradeoff?