When it comes to the general public, stealth technology is among the most widely acknowledged but least understood facets of the American defense apparatus, and as such, there’s also a great deal of confusion regarding the defensive weapon systems designed to engage them.
Russia’s S-300 and S-400 air defense platforms, for instance, are often touted as among the best in the world, with a greater reach and a better means of detection than any previous Russian systems. Some even contend that Russia’s air defense weapons are superior to America’s — though both nations do have a habit of dressing up their air defense claims for the sake of both foreign sales and geopolitical posturing. That posturing can sometimes make it difficult to make an objective assessment about America’s military capabilities: after all, in a near-peer level conflict, America would rely heavily on its formidable fleet of stealth aircraft including the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and B-2 Spirit deep penetration bomber — but how likely are these aircraft to survive against the most advanced anti-aircraft weapons on the planet?
If the United States were to find itself at war with Russia… who would win in a face off between America’s stealth aircraft and Russia’s air defense systems? The answer can be tough to come by when working in the realm of the hypothetical, but there is some strong evidence to suggest that, despite advancements made in anti-air defenses, stealth is still king when it comes to warfare.
Believe it or not, Russia’s advanced anti-aircraft platforms actually share one significant strength with America’s premier stealth fighter the systems were designed to intercept: networking. Russia’s air defense systems share targeting data across a digital network that offers different systems around the nation advanced warning of approaching aircraft pieced together by other radar assets. Like the F-35, which can accumulate targeting data from drones, satellites, ships and ground personnel to engage targets beyond its own scope, modern air defense systems can engage enemy aircraft in a similar fashion — that is, if they’re able to first detect them, and then, acquire them as targets. Unbeknownst to many — those are technically two different challenges.
“Static radar can help detect low observability aircraft, and acquire it. Now, an intercept requires a smaller aperture. When you transfer from acquisition to the weapons system you will need at long ranges, that dramatically reduces the ability for intercept. Detection is not what it is all about, you have an entire kill chain needed to eliminate a low-observable threat,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior Maven in an interview about stealth aircraft.
What the general means is that it’s one thing to spot an approaching F-35 formation — it’s entirely another to be able to hit it with anything. While “stealth” in the modern sense includes limiting visibility across a range of detection methods that include infrared, when it comes to radar-based weapons systems, the incoming aircraft needs a radar cross-section that’s large enough for detection in order to be spotted — but in order to acquire the target and feasibly hit it, you need more than that.
“Even if a radar can detect, I now have to track, and when I engage I will have to shoot a missile using much smaller detection. Also, a fusing mechanism can be affected by low observability technology,” Deputla said. “At every level, low observability can help.”
As a general rule, detecting a stealth aircraft requires a roughly 30-foot aperture. If you thought about anti-air assets in terms of a rifle scope, that means you’d only need to swing your scope into the general vicinity of an aircraft to detect it. When you switch over to firing at the aircraft, however, the aperture is reduced to about six inches. To go from detection to intercept, anti-air systems must first spot the aircraft within that 30-foot aperture, but then they have to whittle their targeting data down to a margin of error of only about six inches if they hope to shoot it down.
The advantages allotted by stealth are compounded when operating at night, during adverse weather conditions, or when supported by electronic attack aircraft that can interfere with radar and air defense operations. Because of all this, the advantage remains squarely in favor of stealth aircraft over even the most advanced anti-air weapons systems — at least for now. The United States continues to heavily fund advancements in stealth technology solely because they anticipate that advantage will soon begin to diminish as defensive technology catches up with the earlier generation stealth tech employed by aircraft like the B-2.