Reflections Off The F-22

Stealth is one of the current most secret military technologies. There have been experiments with making just about every military weapon “stealthy” that can be, including the Lockheed Sea Shadow, AKA “The Stealth Fail-Boat.”

So, there’s a good chance I may be wrong about some of this. With stealth, the devil’s in the details and the details are (mostly) concealed. But it’s like nuclear weapons: once you understand it’s possible then it’s physics-driven engineering and that’s going to be somewhat predictable.

The F-117 Nighthawk (nighthawks are not badass – they are relatives of turkeys) stealth fighter/bomber was the thing that broke open the secret about stealth. Ben Rich’s book The Skunk Works also publicly revealed some interesting points: you take a computer-designed aircraft, build a radar reflectance model into the design system, then de-optimize the aircraft’s surfaces for reflection of signals. After that, your problem is simply “how do we make this thing fly?” which is a matter of computer feedback controls and power to weight ratio: you can make anything fly if you put enough power behind it. But then you have to de-optimize the signal of the power-plant’s output, etc. Check out the leading edge of the targeting laser port on the front of the plane below the cockpit – the wedgies along the edgies are set up very much like an audio engineer’s sound absorbing foam, for the same reason. It’s just physics, right?

The other aspect of ${absorbing}-stuff is that it needs to be dense enough to absorb the energy that it’s collecting, but that’s mostly academic [I think] when you’re talking about a mass the size of a submarine trying to absorb some sound and radar impulses. I’m going to assume further that the sort of “wedgies” anti-reflection surface is going to have an optimal frequency range, which will depend on knowing something about ${enemy}’s fire-control radar and its working frequencies. Another way of putting it is that your ideal radar non-reflecting surface is going to be a bunch of fractal valleys, a signal motel that energy checks into but doesn’t check out of. I’m not sure whether to call it “radar absorbing” paint  or “non-reflective” paint but I think of it as fractal paint.

A guy I know, years ago, wound up in possession briefly of a piece of F-117 which he bought on Ebay. Apparently that had an early stealth coating that was a way-point in the evolution of non-reflective paint. He said it was cool stuff but that’s all. Grr. I’m going to go out on a limb and hypothesize that the way you’d make this kind of paint/coating would be some kind of base material that is pretty strong, say polyurethane resin – but light and thin – and UV resistant – and mixed with some kind of volatile substance that out-gasses just the right amount at the right temperature and humidity to create that fractal surface. I’m hypothesizing that it’s a paint/coating made of pure trade-offs. This hypothesis is further supported by a couple things:

  • The coatings apparently must be applied under very specific temperatures and humidity.
  • The people applying the coating have to be protected against nasty volatile chemicals (more so than usual for aircraft paint).
  • The coating “wears” and wears disproportionately on the surfaces exposed to the most slip-stream and heat.
  • Allegedly the stealth coating of an F-22 does not like rain; I expect that water gets in the surface and fills the fractal valleys and reduces its effectiveness.
  • It does not appear to hold up particularly well to sunlight. Sub-hypothesis, if it’s radar absorbing maybe it’s also UV-absorbing and that speeds its decay. Before you jump on me and point out that UV and radar are nowhere near the same spectrum, I know that. But The Sun is constantly beaming a hell of a lot of energy and if some paint absorbs that energy a little better than average paint, that’s going to be a problem for the paint.

One question that burns in my mind is why the F-22 and F-35 have different stealth skin creme. My bet is that it’s just procurement pork-spreading – each program came up with its own painting process and supply-chain and they don’t share because they don’t have to and there’s enough money in the trough that nobody’s fighting over it.

Another question, which seems to me to be pretty obvious, is why the Air Force didn’t spec out some “daily driver” F-22s that don’t need stealth beyond what they get from the design of the aircraft’s flight surfaces. As I’ve mentioned many times before, here, F-22s and F-35s main combat role is going to be dropping bombs on civilians insurgents and none of those customers have anti-stealth weaponry, in fact they don’t generally have anti-aircraft weaponry. I can understand that, at the edge of performance where one is squaring off against the latest and best from China and Russia, it matters – but mostly these aircraft will do fly-bys at air shows and air strikes on Medcins Sans Frontiere’s hospitals. Oh, right, I think I already answered my question: the Air Force was not concerned with budget because they’ve got an infinite money supply. It’s shocking to imagine that the Air Force would spend taxpayers’ money inefficiently but that seems to be the inevitable conclusion.

Here’s some more supporting discussion of F-22 coatings, then we’ll get to some pictures of F-22 striptease: [national]

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, which are taking part in military operation in Syria, have started to lose their radar-absorbing coating.

As reported by Aviation Week in fact the radar-absorbing coating, that hides the Raptor from radars, warped and started to peel off. According to the USAF one of the reasons of this problem are climatic conditions affecting the area of operations.

A claim confirmed by John Cottam, head of the F-22 program of Lockheed Martin, who noted that external factors, such as rain and sand dust, not only wrinkle and peel off the coating but also turn it into its original liquid state.

Oh dear me. That sucks. It sounds as though the F-22 program achieved “a hangar queen by design” because, if there’s one thing a combat aircraft is expected to do, it’s “experience climatic conditions” i.e.: go outside.

Indeed this is not the first problem experienced by the F-22’s radar-absorbing coating: according to in 2009 US pilots complained that the coating easily erased from Raptor’s body during contact with fuel and lubricating oil.

I’m not joking: sounds as though they coat the thing in mascara. Which, is about right, per my hypothesis – makeup is also one of those coatings that solidifies when a volatile (usually de-scented alcohol) out-gasses from the mixture. There, now I’ve given you a visual, picture the F-22 as Frankie.

This is another fun aspect of the F-22 story: there’s not enough paint bandwidth to keep the fleet in paint. [acc]

“No one touches the aircraft and gets into the systems without LO having a part in that job,” Senior Master Sgt. Angela Stovall, 325th MXS Fabrication flight chief, said. “LO is the first one to touch the aircraft because they have to remove the coatings so [maintainers] can take panels and parts off. LO is the last one to touch the aircraft because they restore the coatings.”

Each week, LO does outer mold line inspections. This involves checking each jet’s signature, which is makes an aircraft appear on detection devices. A very high signature equals a very low stealth capability leaving the jet exposed to radar.

“It is extremely essential. Being invisible is priceless in combat situations,” said Scott Christian, DS2 Aircraft Maintenance supervisor.

Right, so when someone pulls a panel off the aircraft, it’s going to peel the edges of the coating away, and I suppose you don’t want mechanics’ grubby paws on the surface of the aircraft while they’re maintaining it. That’s not too extreme; I mean it’s Formula-1 extreme, which is pretty extreme, but money’s no object.

The part that makes me laugh, about all that, is that the aircraft are not actually flying missions against state of the art radar. “Who cares?” ought to come to mind but instead the Air Force wants to pretend as though their precious hangar queens are going to be furballing it up over the Mediterranean, probably shooting down Vietnam War-era Soviet warplanes. [I am referring to the notable 1989 engagement in which a pair of F-14s managed to shoot down two Mig-23s, which was the air combat equivalent of Mike Tyson going up against PeeWee Herman and eking out a victory somehow] [wik]

Safety is a high priority during the entire process. The maintainer’s personal protective equipment is designed to repel the harmful chemicals and debris that they might be exposed to while working with the coatings. Their PPE includes: a Tyvek protective over suit, a pair of gloves and a respirator.

“The first step is always going to be to mask the aircraft, to ensure sanding debris is contained,” said Staff Sgt. Armando Castellon, 325th MXS Low Observable Signatures coordinator.

This step keeps from spreading the contamination of hazardous chemicals associated with working with the LO coatings.

Next, the maintainers remove the damaged areas by sanding and then thoroughly cleaning those sanded areas to ensure a proper bonding of the coatings.

Once that is complete, LO reapplies the coatings starting with the boot layer, which is the radar absorbent material that allows for stealth capabilities. The additional top coats of paint follow. The jet is then removed from the system to avoid confusion.

One of the biggest obstacles the group face while applying the coatings is the Florida weather. Lighting [I assume they mean lightning] within five miles of the base halts all flight line activities, including LO restorations taking place there, and the humidity and temperature levels makes it difficult to get a proper bond with the coatings, Sergeant Castellon said.

“When working with low observable material, everything deals with chemicals, and a lot of chemicals are required to stay within a certain temperature and humidity range to get the best bond,” said Sergeant Stovall. “Here in Florida, we have a tremendous level of humidity. If we have one of those high humidity days when these guys are doing repairs, it is very possible there will be a disbond in the material just because environmental controls aren’t where they need to be.”

To counter these conditions, LO has two climate controlled bays that are the ideal location for restorations, but due to constant need of LO restoration, these bays are never empty.

Genius. Pork-barrel procurement results in the paint bays being built someplace where the environment is unsuitable, so make a new environment. That’s the Air Force way of crossing a ditch: fill it with money and drive across.

What made me bug my eyes out when I read that is “top coats” – I knew this was no ordinary paint job, but that’s a whole lot of work to achieve a low observability that nobody needs.

“It doesn’t look like money, it looks like a bank” – Fred Eaglesmith “mighty big car”

[avgeek] discusses F-22s seen in Syria with body work that resembles a New York City delivery van:

That looks less like weather crumbling than that someone bounced the refueling boom off the nose of the plane. Thank goodness for carbon fiber, huh? The picture also shows a good view of the transition-line at the nose-cone (presumably where the radar sits) – more stealth wigglies.

Over at The Drive [thedrive] there are some pictures of F-22s looking like junkers from a used car impound lot:

That spot appears to be a problem; I am guessing that there’s a tremendous amount of air pressure there, when the plane is going flat out, as pilots are wont to do.

Unlike your old clunker, which can’t turn hard enough to harm its own paint, the F-22 is able to apparently peel its skin if it maneuvers hard:

Senior Airman Joshua Moon, 192nd Fighter Wing stated the following in a USAF news item about maintaining the F-22’s stealthy skin during Red Flag:

“We knew they were going to fly the hell out of the jets because this is a large-scale exercise… When the pilot flies he’ll bank real hard sometimes, which can tear or rip the radar absorbent material. If there are a lot of damages, the aircraft is easier to detect, so we try to keep those damages to a minimum to where you can’t see it on radar.

“Red flag” is training exercises. So, they take the expensive hangar queens out for some dogfightey and it starts to come apart. Right around now, the ghostly voice of Richard Feynman is wafting through my brain, reading from the space shuttle Challenger disaster report, [paraphrasing] “If the design spec for the F-22 doesn’t say ‘paint flakes off when you step on the gas’ then the aircraft, as implemented, does not match the design, which means the taxpayers did not get what they paid for.”

Also, is it me, or…? Does that look like “a flying piece of shit”? I remember sometimes flying on United Airlines and boarding these old air-frames from the 1960s that look like they had been painted with a roller in some guy’s garage, but that thing looks like it’s had a few body panels removed, beaten flat with a planishing hammer, and screwed back on. “Low observable”? “Duct tape” is more like it. And don’t anyone try to tell me that the big gap in the panel below the cockpit is “low observable” – it looks like it’s ready to peel off and blow away, which is a problem because that slit it’s right in front of is the engine intake.

F-15 EX high observability paint

By the way, it appears that the Air Force’s response to this problem is to quietly re-start the F-15 program. Really, they’re not F-15s, they’re a completely different aircraft that uses design principles from the F-15, i.e.: massive power and no stealth necessary because Mike Tyson doesn’t “stealth.” The new F-15s apparently are quite good, which is not surprising because the original 1980s F-15s were pretty good and newer manufacturing processes ought to produce a similar aircraft with excellent properties. Of course, it’s going to be mind-blowingly expensive because newer manufacturing processes are like that. [the drive] Throw money at it! My prediction is it’s going to be like the F-16: an incredibly successful program that everyone tries to cancel because who’d want an F-35 if they could strap into a great big old thundering 80’s style F-15? It may be that the F-15EX represents the commercial death of stealth. [F-15EX are also about $80 apiece, comparable to an F-35, but the operational cost is much lower]

Let me close with an image from the LO team, working on the stealth coating of a $350mn F-22:

That’s so very not Formula-1.

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A bunch of years ago, some of the AT&T Bell Labs guys from the UNIX room went to do the “fly a Mig in Moscow” experience. Fred Grampp and Ken Thompson, as told to Peter Langston (who wrote Empire, and Ball Blazer) [lang] (a good read for aviation buffs) I remember someone at USENIX recounting the tale including the leaking stuff coming out of the plane, and the broken canopy lock switch – little things like that make me not want to even see an airplane, because I don’t like seeing people die in explosions.

Sort of related: half of the Indian Air Force’s Migs have been lost in crashes. [in]

I got an email from a Commentariat(tm) undercover agent who asked “why does the Air Force even build manned aircraft anymore?” That’s a great question and I may do a posting about it some day, but the short answer is “why does a male dog lick his balls?” Because he can and it feels good. But, yes, that is a really good question.


  1. johnson catman says

    F-15EX are also about $80 apiece, comparable to an F-35, but the operational cost is much lower

    I presume that there is a “million” missing after the “$80”, otherwise perhaps the operational costs are what would keep me from buying one?

  2. says

    Obviously there must be an answer, and equally obviously I’m not qualified to provide that answer, but i seriously wonder: just as glass is transparent to certain wavelengths, there have to be materials that are stronger than that paint that are transparent to the relevant radar wavelengths.

    So… why not have an outer radar-transparent airframe skin over an inner, stronger airframe skin with the radar absorber in the middle?

    I mean, even if it didn’t work as well in the computer models, if you can’t bank without your radar absorbing coating peeling off then the sandwich-protected LO later would certainly perform better in real life, and require less maintenance as well.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    F-15EX are also about $80 apiece

    Give or take a factor of a million.

    If the secret radar-absorbing sauce is really fizzy paint, they need to get some materials science experts on that. My idea would be to replace the process (paint that outgasses bubbles during application) with a meta-material; paint that includes small particles of a material with different radar-absorbing properties than the liquid portion of the paint.

    Next, the maintainers remove the damaged areas by sanding

    That sounds like a lot of work, and a chance of eroding the underlying material. If only there were an easier way to remove the paint.

    external factors, such as rain and sand dust, not only wrinkle and peel off the coating but also turn it into its original liquid state… maybe it’s also UV-absorbing and that speeds its decay.

  4. says

    johnson catman@#1:
    I presume that there is a “million” missing after the “$80”, otherwise perhaps the operational costs are what would keep me from buying one?

    We FTB bloggers get a special rate that is substantially lower than the general public.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    nighthawks are not badass – they are relatives of turkeys

    In the sense that they’re both birds, yes. But not even in the same order. And turkeys can actually be pretty badass.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    This looks like a fairly informative article;

    CD @2:

    Another important factor is internal construction. Some stealth aircraft have skin that is radar transparent or absorbing, behind which are structures termed reentrant triangles. Radar waves penetrating the skin get trapped in these structures, reflecting off the internal faces and losing energy. This method was first used on the Blackbird series: A-12, YF-12A, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

    One commonly used material is called iron ball paint. It contains microscopic iron spheres that resonate in tune with incoming radio waves and dissipate most of their energy as heat, leaving little to reflect back to detectors.

  7. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#6: (in referenced article)
    One such coating is iron ball paint, which contains microscopic iron spheres that resonate in tune with incoming radio waves and dissipate the majority of their energy as heat, leaving little to bounce back to detectors.

    I bet that’s the original black dress paint on the F-117

  8. Owlmirror says

    Pork-barrel procurement results in the paint bays being built someplace where the environment is [un]suitable, so make a new environment.

    Is that what you actually meant?

  9. Owlmirror says

    I am reminded of the jargon term “kludge”: an ugly workaround necessitated by the limitations of your tools.

    In fact, it looks like the entire process of modern aircraft design is to start with a kludge, then layer on more kludges. A kludge onion. Or kludge parfait, if you like all that money coming in to add in another layer.

  10. Owlmirror says

    One commonly used material is called iron ball paint. It contains microscopic iron spheres that resonate in tune with incoming radio waves and dissipate most of their energy as heat, leaving little to reflect back to detectors.

    So . . . a radio-wave avoidance becomes an IR-wavelength flare? Or do I misunderstand?

  11. says

    There was a fun bit in Rich, about the stealth boat apparently working too well, and appearing as a less noisy region in the water. I wonder if the stealthier boats, like the Zumwalt are slightly reflective of the clutter around them.

  12. says

    Manned aircraft still have a major advantage over drones in that you can’t jam a pilot. Or hack a pilot.

    They can be hacked at the political layer (thinking of the MiG-25 pilot who defected with his plane)

    Building secure comms systems for drones is not difficult in principle but it’s impossible under current procurement and development processes. There are stories I should tell about security in drones but I have to flag them as unconfirmed, maybe denied.

    Anyhow, building a small comms attack surface is one thing, but key management and the integrity of the endpoint is another. The USAF famously got malware in its predator drone command stations and had hell getting it out (a wipe) – there is a competence gap in here.

  13. kestrel says

    @Marcus, #4: Buy a jet? Not falling for that one! Wasn’t it you who wrote a post about how having a tank was not a wonderful thing, due to how heavy they are? Definitely don’t want one of these in the backyard, that’s for sure… leaking chemicals etc. all over the place… even if you *could* get one for the low, low, price of only $80!

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    Owlmirror @10: ‘Flare’ is a bit dramatic. Radar em is low energy, and the small amount of heat would be transferred to the plane’s body and dissipated.

  15. says

    When I was in the fleet I had a conversation with one of our sonar techs about the “stealth” sound-absorbing coating that the Soviets were putting on their submarines.

    The formulation worked very well, but had a deadly flaw. At cruising depth the coating began to peel and American STs quickly learned to listen for the “slap-slap” flipflop sound the material made flopping on the hull.

    The ST I was talking to, however, freaked and immediately demanded to know who had revealed this Top Secret information. I showed him my most recent copy of Strategy & Tactics, a now defunct gaming magazine, and he walked away shaking his head.

  16. says

    I may be spouting some ancient disinformation on the nighthawk/turkey thing. Remember back when Honda made a proto-sportbike called the “nighthawk”? A friend of mine bought one and another friend was trying to bring him down by telling him the nighthawk/turkey thing. It took me a while to remember how that got into my brain. I guess I was propagandizing.

    It was a really awesome bike, too. And I had the v45 magna.

  17. says

    The US military mindset for planes is the same as it is for the military as a whole: “It’s not enough to have the biggest, fastest or most powerful. If we can’t win three or four times over, we feel insecure.” If that were the US’s only problem and not government contractors making crap and lining their pockets, it would be tolerable.

    If you compared the cost of a few dozen F-22 and F-35 planes versus the cost of a few hundred F-15, F-16 and F-18 and training the extra pilots, which would be more cost effective and more effective militarily? As the saying goes, quantity has a quality of its own.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    I suspect stealth coatings are somewhat similar to Vantablack and its imitators in that it kind of creates a little labyrinth for incoming em radiation to get lost in. Vantablack et all do it for visible wavelengths, stealth coatings work elsewhere on the spectrum.

    You can buy things as effective as Vantablack for in the region of $100/litre. I’m not sure how far that would go, airbrushed onto a surface, but I suspect not far. Nevertheless, everywhere you look, every single FAQ features one question that I therefore assume gets asked a LOT: “can I paint my car with this stuff?”. Because obviously there are a lot of people about with money to burn who want their car to look like a hole in space. And ALL the FAQs from ALL the suppliers say the same thing: yes, technically you can paint your car with this stuff…. but it will peel off before you reach the end of the street. AND if you try to apply any kind of coating over the top of it to protect it – that’ll reflect light, defeating the point. Turns out absorbing 99.9% of incoming radiation AND standing up to even the mildest wear and tear is… I was going to say “hard”, but the fact that the stealth people obviously haven’t cracked it despite their budgets and staff rosters make me lean towards “impossible”.

    Post script: my bestest friend has a 3D printer. He’s making me two models of the Disaster Area stuntship. One will be painted black with silvery detailing and a yellow/red “DISASTER AREA” logo in Shatter. The other, dimensionally identical model is getting sprayed with Musou Black. Displayed together they should look pretty cool…

    When the pilot flies he’ll bank real hard sometimes, which can tear or rip the radar absorbent material

    To which the obvious answer is: don’t bank hard.

    Now: I have a fond memory of an airshow I was invited to by a friend. She did love screaming at jets. She was unmoved by the B-2 which had made a special journey all the way across the Atlantic (something like an 18 hour round trip with three in-flight refuels) just to fly slowly in a straight line low over the airfield flanked by four F-15s. She was barely moved by the B-1, despite it being the loudest noise I’ve ever heard (and I’ve been to a Rammstein concert). What she did like was the F-15, and the guy doing the commentary as it banked HARD around the sky. The phrase that stuck in her mind was “If you can’t turn tight, you can’t fight.” I have a number of things to say about that:
    1. if your LO paint peels off when you turn tight, you can’t turn tight. Which means you can’t fight. However… is that a problem? The chief test pilot on the Typhoon pointed out to me and some mates he was giving a talk to that the F-35 isn’t there to fight – it’s there to (in his words) “kick the doors down”, so that planes that CAN fight (like the Typhoon) can do so without distractions. You don’t need to pull 6g turns peeling off after dropping bombs on a hospit… anti-aircraft battery. Just gently pull back on the stick and go home. Tight turns are for dogfighting, and no F-35 is ever going to do that. So on one level, not being able to turn tight shouldn’t be an issue.
    2. How much of this is dick-waving about names? The F-117 “stealth fighter” got an “F” designation and always got called a fighter, but it wasn’t – it was, self-evidently, a BOMBER, no more nor less than the B-2, just a low-level, slightly faster(?), presumably more accurate one. But only fat chicks fuck bomber pilots, presumably, or something, so they had to pretend like it was a fighter to get fighter pilots to want to fly it. And it seems like it’s gone the same way with the F-35 and F-22.
    3. There are fairly hard limits on the kind of G-forces a human pilot, no matter how fit and experienced, can tolerate without passing out. And those limits are laughably low, compared to what a drone could do. You can’t out-turn something that can do a 30g turn.
    4. Intransitive has it bob-on: “quantity has a quality of its own” – never mind buying more, cheap, powerful manned jets. How long before a hulking great thing like an F-35 has to contend with a *cloud* of jet-powered drones, flocking autonomously but flown by a single pilot on the ground? Massively redundant, cheap as chips, manoeuverable as FUCK and basically impossible to shoot down? I’ve watched enthusiasts fly jet-powered model aircraft at 400+mph, models only three or four feet long. They don’t NEED to be stealthy if there’s five or ten or twenty of them, and you could probably buy the whole cloud AND the pilot for less than the cost of an F-35 pilot’s helmet (which also require LO coating, don’t forget…).

    Finally @timgueguen, 12:

    you can’t jam a pilot. Or hack a pilot.

    Marcus has pointed and laughed several times at the fact that the F-35 is a flying computer. The fact it’s got a pilot in it is neither here nor that – that pilot (and any pilot of any recent-generation combat plane or even civilian airliner in a lot of cases) has absolutely ZERO physical connection to the control surfaces. EVERYTHING is mediated by the computer(s). It’s been a long while since the pilot pulled a stick and that stick yanked a cable and the other end of the cable moved a flap. Modern super-manoeuvreable planes get that way because they’re inherently unstable and the only thing stopping them dropping out of the sky like a brick is the computers. The first plane I knew that about was the F-117 – it doesn’t look like it should be able to fly, because it shouldn’t.

  19. brucegee1962 says

    About the computer-controlled combat…I had fun once writing a story about what I think actual space combat would be like, unlike Star Trek “Fire phasers Mr. Worf” or Star Wars dogfighting. If you think you might be in combat on a realistic armed starship, then everybody is in acceleration couches at all times. If the computer senses an enemy at extreme long range, then a few seconds later everybody blacks out while the computer takes you through high-acceleration maneuvers. If you wake up, then congratulations, your computer beat the enemy’s computer. Otherwise, you’re all carbonized meat chunks floating through space.

  20. dangerousbeans says

    It seems like better radar and signal processing is the cheaper option in this arms race. Especially combined with drones like sonofrojblake is talking about.
    Not as useful for force projection, but as civilised nations surely our defense force is just for defense :P

  21. sonofrojblake says

    “Not as useful for force projection”

    They’re BETTER for force projection for lots of reasons.

  22. says

    Here I thought only German military was stupid enough to buy material that doesn’t work under outdoors conditions. Glad to hear. Military projects being a completely fucked up waste of money that doesn’t work is probably doing more for world peac

  23. lorn says

    Years ago I read an account from radio astronomers using obsolete ex-military radar that one day they started getting strange blips showing up. They were quite strong and well localized but at an estimated range so extreme that it seemed impossible for units that were retired from the military in the early 60s. These blips would come and go and remained a mystery until someone noticed a pattern and then another chimed in that the B-2 were flying about that time.

    An astrophysicist conjectured that if the stealth coatings were optimized to absorb one band of radar they might show up more brightly in another, in this case a much lower frequency, band.

    There is also the well established tendency for things invisible in radar, to show up quite distinctly in thermal imaging.

    Robotic aircraft may soon demonstrate superior maneuverability, no mushy humans that liquefy at high Gs. They already implicitly have an advantage in stealth. Not having humans on-board means you can have a much smaller aircraft. Which means, all things being otherwise equal, means harder to spot.

  24. sonofrojblake says

    Another point struck me: no humans on board means you can, paradoxically, be SLOWER without undue problem. Warplanes have to move fast partly because people are shooting at them, but people are only shooting at them because they can see them, and often HEAR them. I’ve landed in fields next to people who expressed utter shock about where the hell I’d come from. I’d wafted in under twenty five square metres of fairly brightly coloured fabric, but I’d made absolutely no noise and according to our local ATC don’t really show up on radar (apparently they can see our helmets but that’s about it). A couple of my buddies learned to do the same, at night, after deploying from planes fifty miles or more from a target, in the Air Troop.

    Put a drone under a mainly-fabric aerofoil and it could fly arbitrarily slowly and be practically invisible. Actual munitions would scupper that, probably, but speed and hard turns aren’t everything….

  25. sonofrojblake says

    Another thing on drones, and a scenario I’ve been pondering and positing for about five years. It was inspired by a conversation with a friend while he flew his drone over Buttermere. He got it out of the car, fired it up (it was NOISY), and sent it across the lake for a look at Red Pike and the rest of the ridge. Then he parked it loitering about two and a half thousand feet above our heads on our side of the lake. I couldn’t hear it, and I could barely see it in the perfectly clear sunny sky.

    It occurred to me that such a device could be built to carry the mechanism of a single shot handgun, with a camera/sight for the operator. Load it, cock it, fly it over to where your quarry will be (back garden, door of a restaurant, school pickup point, wherever you’d have a good chance of catching them outdoors at a somewhat predictable time). Loiter and observe. When they emerge, cut the motors. Your drone drops two thousand feet like a rock, and kicks in its motors on full beans in time to arrest its fall four feet from the ground. Steady up, acquire target, fire, then full beans back up to two thousand feet, make good the escape, and move on.

    From the target’s point of view and the POV of any nearby witness they see and hear nothing until a very loud buzzing sound announces your drone is there. Seconds later there’s a bang, then the buzzing gets louder and the drone is gone, straight up. No witness could tell anyone anything useful. The only forensic evidence is the slug in the victim’s body – casings retained on the drone. The shooter could be a mile or more away in a van, if they even want to retrieve the drone, or they could optionally program it to ditch in any nearby body of water and leave as soon as the shot is fired.

    I wonder if anyone has been killed by something like this already, and I wonder further that if they had, how we’d know. It’s a pretty clean assassination method. Equipment is cheap, untraceable and easily available. Reliability is only getting better. Method is dealers choice – you could of course deploy a grenade instead of a bullet if you prefer. Either way, consumer-level drones can already do everything you’d need to do what I’ve just described. I’m amazed they’re not already in use like this.

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