Radar-absorbent coating is an important element of any stealth aircraft’s ability to avoid detection. Air platforms that were purpose-built with stealth in mind already offer a limited radar return, thanks to meticulously-developed designs and production practices that allow for extremely tight tolerances, ensuring the aircraft has few hard angles prone to producing a radar return. The addition of radar-absorbent coating offers an additional layer of “stealth security,” if you will, but it alone doesn’t make for a particularly stealthy aircraft. It also doesn’t usually make an aircraft invisible to the naked eye, but according to China, a splash of paint was enough to effectively do both for its Shenyang J-16 fighters.

“Brigade commander Jiang Jiaji, the first pilot to win the PLA’s Golden Helmet competition three times, told CCTV at the exercise that the silver-gray painting covering the J-16 is a kind of cloaking coating that gives the warplane a certain stealth capability, making it nearly invisible to the naked eye and electromagnetic devices,” China’s state-owned Global Times reported earlier this week.

China says a new paint job just turned its J-16 into a 'near-stealth' fighter
These pictures must have been taken before they could turn invisible. (Chinese Military)

Officials touting this “cloaking” advancement didn’t stop with Jiang.

“The stealth coating can reduce detection of the J-16 by radar,” Fu Qianshao, a Chinese air defense expert, told the Global Times. “The jet’s camouflaged coloring makes the aircraft blend into the sky and sea, so that the enemy will only recognize it at close range, giving it a huge advantage in combat.”

What you really get when you add radar-absorbent coating to a fourth-generation fighter like the J-16, to be fair, isn’t nothing. Chances are good the added paint (provided it works effectively) would hinder detection of an inbound J-16 for a short time. Boeing, for example, has included a layer of radar-absorbent coating among the slew of upgrades included in the forthcoming Block III Super (Duper) Hornet program. The aim is to buy the fighters a few more seconds before they’re spotted. While a Super Hornet, like a J-16, lacks a stealth design, there really is something to the idea that you can just spray on a layer of stealth over an existing fighter platform. It wouldn’t work anything at all like China claims, but the concept isn’t preposterous.