Editor’s Note: A lot of folks equate “stealth” with complete invisibility and that is simply not the case. Any aircraft with what we call LO or “Low-Observable” features can be seen by radar. It simply depends on the conditions in which the aircraft is operating, and what systems are attempting to locate it. So while we’re not here to give away our secrets or reveal sensitive capabilities of our 5th-Generation aircraft, it does help to know what the other side is working on to try to negate our nation’s LO capabilities.
State-run Chinese media is claiming that the People’s Liberation Army has been able to track the U.S. Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over the East China Sea. While the Chinese report might be easily dismissed as propaganda—it is not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact—it’s very possible that China can track the Raptor. Stealth is not a cloak of invisibility, after all. Stealth technology simply delays detection and tracking.
First off, if a Raptor is carrying external fuel tanks—as it often does during “ferry missions”—it is not in a stealth configuration. Moreover, the aircraft is often fitted with a Luneburg lens device on its ventral side during peacetime operations that enhances its cross section on radar.
That being said, even combat-configured F-22s are not invisible to enemy radar, contrary to popular belief. Neither is any other tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft with empennage surfaces such as tailfins—the F-35, PAK-FA, J-20 or J-31. That’s just basic physics.