Stealth technology also known as LOT (Low Observability Technology) is a sub-discipline of military electronic countermeasures which covers a range of techniques used with aircraft, ships and missiles, in order to make them less visible (ideally invisible) to radar, infrared and other detection methods.
The concept of stealth is not new: being able to operate without the knowledge of the enemy has always been a goal of military technology and techniques. However, as the potency of detection and interception technologies (radar, IRST, surface-to-air missiles etc.) has increased, so too has the extent to which the design and operation of military vehicles have been affected in response. A 'stealth' vehicle will generally have been designed from the outset to have reduced or controlled signature. It is possible to have varying degrees of stealth. The exact level and nature of stealth embodied in a particular design is determined by the prediction of likely threat capabilities and the balance of other considerations, including the raw unit cost of the system.
A mission system employing stealth may well become detected at some point within a given mission, such as when the target is destroyed, but correct use of stealth systems should seek to minimize the possibility of detection. Attacking with surprise gives the attacker more time to perform its mission and exit before the defending force can counter-attack. If a surface-to-air missile battery defending a target observes a bomb falling and surmises that there must be a stealth aircraft in the vicinity, for example, it is still unable to respond if it cannot get a lock on the aircraft in order to feed guidance information to its missiles.
The term 'Stealth' in reference to reduced radar signature aircraft became popular during the late eighties when the F-117 stealth fighter became widely known. The first large scale (and public) use of the F-117 was during the Gulf War in 1991. However, F-117A stealth fighters were used for the first time in combat during Operation Just Cause, the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Since then it has become less effective due to developments in the algorithms used to process the data received by radars, such as Bayesian particle filter methods. Increased awareness of stealth vehicles and the technologies behind them is prompting the development of techniques for detecting stealth vehicles, such as passive radar arrays and low-frequency radars. Many countries nevertheless continue to develop low-RCS vehicles because low RCS still offers advantages in detection range reduction as well as increasing the effectiveness of decoys against radar-seeking threats.
The possibility of designing aircraft in such a manner as to reduce their radar cross-section was recognized in the late 1930s, when the first radar tracking systems were employed, and it has been known since at least the 1960s that aircraft shape makes a very significant difference in how well an aircraft can be detected by a radar. The Avro Vulcan, a British bomber of the 1960s, had a remarkably small appearance on radar despite its large size, and occasionally disappeared from radar screens entirely. It is now known that it had a fortuitously stealthy shape apart from the vertical element of the tail. On the other hand, the Tupolev 95 Russian long range bomber (NATO reporting name 'Bear') appeared especially well on radar. It is now known that propellers and jet turbine blades produce a bright radar image; the Bear had four pairs of large (5.6 meter diameter) contra-rotating propellers.
Another important factor is the internal construction. Behind the skin of some aircraft are structures known as re-entrant triangles. Radar waves penetrating the skin of the aircraft get trapped in these structures, bouncing off the internal faces and losing energy. This approach was first used on SR-71.
The most efficient way to reflect radar waves back to the transmitting radar is with orthogonal metal plates, forming a corner reflector consisting of either a dihedral (two plates) or a trihedral (three orthogonal plates). This configuration occurs in the tail of a conventional aircraft, where the vertical and horizontal components of the tail are set at right angles. Stealth aircraft such as the F-117 use a different arrangement, tilting the tail surfaces to reduce corner reflections formed between them. The most radical approach is to eliminate the tail completely, as in the B-2 Spirit.
In addition to altering the tail, stealth design must bury the engines within the wing or fuselage, or in some cases where stealth is applied to an existing aircraft, install baffles in the air intakes, so that the turbine blades are not visible to radar. A stealthy shape must be devoid of complex bumps or protrusions of any kind; meaning that weapons, fuel tanks, and other stores must not be carried externally. Any stealthy vehicle becomes un-stealthy when a door or hatch is opened.
Planform alignment is also often used in stealth designs. Planform alignment involves using a small number of surface orientations in the shape of the structure. For example, on the F-22A Raptor, the leading edges of the wing and the tail surfaces are set at the same angle. Careful inspection shows that many small structures, such as the air intake bypass doors and the air refueling aperture, also use the same angles. The effect of planform alignment is to return a radar signal in a very specific direction away from the radar emitter rather than returning a diffuse signal detectable at many angles.
Stealth airframes sometimes display distinctive serrations on some exposed edges, such as the engine ports. The YF-23 has such serrations on the exhaust ports. This is another example in the use of re-entrant triangles and planform alignment, this time on the external airframe.
Shaping requirements have strong negative influence on the aircraft's aerodynamic properties. The F-117 has poor aerodynamics, is inherently unstable, and cannot be flown without computer assistance. Some modern anti-stealth radars target the trail of turbulent air behind it instead, much like civilian wind shear detecting radars do.
Ships have also adopted similar techniques. The Visby corvette was the first stealth ship to enter service, though the earlier Arleigh Burke class destroyer incorporated some signature-reduction features Other examples are the French La Fayette class frigate, the USS San Antonio amphibious transport dock, and most modern warship designs.
Similarly, coating the cockpit canopy with a thin film transparent conductor (vapor-deposited gold or indium tin oxide) helps to reduce the aircraft's radar profile because radar waves would normally enter the cockpit, bounce off something random (the inside of the cockpit has a complex shape), and possibly return to the radar, but the conductive coating creates a controlled shape that deflects the incoming radar waves away from the radar. The coating is thin enough that it has no adverse effect on the pilot's vision.
Much of the stealth comes from reflecting the transmissions in a different direction other than a direct return. Therefore detection can be better achieved if the sources are spaced from the receivers, known as bistatic radar , and proposals exist to use reflections from sources such as civilian radio transmitters, including cellular telephone radio towers.
Early stealth observation aircraft used slow-turning propellers to avoid being heard by enemy troops below. Stealth aircraft that stay subsonic can avoid being tracked by sonic boom. The presence of supersonic and jet-powered stealth aircraft such as the SR-71 Blackbird indicates that acoustic signature is not always a major driver in aircraft design, although the Blackbird relied more on its extremely high speed and altitude.
If the RCS was directly related to the target's cross-sectional area, the only way to reduce it would be to make the physical profile smaller. Rather, by reflecting much of the radiation away or absorbing it altogether, the target achieves a smaller radar cross section.