According to reports on Chinese state-owned media, a group of intercept fighters were scrambled from China’s East China Sea fleet to patrol a portion of China’s Air Defense Identification Zone that was apparently the site of unidentified aircraft reported by radar on February 10.
Other fighters were equipped with missiles while China’s carrier-based helicopter brigade were also dispatched to patrol the area. This large-scale response to unidentified aircraft popping up on Chinese radar scopes wasn’t the result of concerns about flying saucers, however. According to Chinese media, they were tracking America’s own combat operational UFO: the F-22 Raptor.
According to Chinese military experts cited in outlets like China’s People’s Daily, the nation has developed the means to spot airborne F-22 Raptors on radar, allowing them to mount a defensive show of force like they did on February 10, or anytime America’s advanced stealth fighters approach their shores. It the simplest of terms, this would amount to a troubling development for the United States, who prioritize low observability in their combat aircraft to allow American fighters and bombers to operate in heavily contested airspace while minimizing the chances of detection or engagement.
Could China potentially be able to track the F-22 on radar?
U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released
In a word, absolutely — but that’s not as bad as it may seem. It’s important to note that, despite far-reaching misconceptions about America’s stealth technology, “stealth” itself isn’t a singular invisibility device. Modern “stealth” is actually the result of multiple overlapping technologies incorporated into the aircraft from the design-level forward. The idea is to limit detection not only from radar, but in terms of heat dissipation and even, to an extent, visual identification. Everything from the electronics on board to the coat painted over the body panels of an aircraft plays a role in its stealth profile, but all of this hard work doesn’t result in an aircraft nobody can spot coming… stealth is quite a bit more complicated than that.
Because radar comes in a number of different frequency bands, stealth fighters rely on trying to limit their detectability on higher-frequency bands. Feasibly speaking then, it would still be possible to detect and even track many stealth aircraft using radar that operates at lower frequencies. It’s not a secret that most stealth fighters (who by design tend to have harder angles than larger stealth aircraft like the B-2 Spirit or forthcoming B-21 Raider) can be spotted by these lower frequency radar arrays — the trade-off is that these lower frequency radar bands tend not to provide a sufficient track to produce weapons lock from air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles.
Two F-22 Raptors and a B-2 Spirit bomber deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam (U.S Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)
And of course, all of that assumes that an F-22 Raptor flying over the East China Sea would be attempting to maintain a stealth profile. Often, when flying long distance patrols, these aircraft are fitted with external fuel tanks that compromise the fighter’s low observability for the sake of extended range, not unlike the F-35’s “Beast Mode” that trades stealth for ordnance. It’s entirely possible that if a an F-22 flight was present over the East China Sea, these jets would have been equipped with external fuel stores that would make their detection not only easy, but expected.
So, it’s entirely likely that China can track the F-22 under a variety of circumstances — but it’s equally likely that they still lack the means to effectively engage the aircraft even when they can spot it on their scopes. Stealth, it’s important to remember, is about limiting detection, but the laws of physics make eliminating detection something that’s beyond even the F-22 Raptor’s reach.