The US had been working on radar-evading and heat-signature-suppressing technologies since the late 1950s. There is nothing either very secret or surprising about this. All military forces try to hide their forces and are willing to spend a lot of money and effort on various forms of camouflage and concealment.
Stealth technology as we know it came into being in the 1970s, thanks in part to work by a Russian mathematician, but mostly thanks to advances in US computer technology. Lockheed was able to build a technology demonstration aircraft for the air force called the “Have Blue,” which showed that an aircraft with the new radar-evading technology could penetrate Soviet-style 1970s integrated air defense systems.
“Have Blue” was followed in the early 1980s by the secret F-117 Stealth “Fighter,” which was never actually a fighter but, as it was roughly the size of a fighter, the Air Force choose to call it a fighter, even though it would have been more accurate to call it a light reconnaissance bomber.
Although the F-117 was first used during the overthrow of the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989, it proved itself during the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraq air defense system, which at the time was the best that Saddam’s oil wealth could buy, was unable to shoot down a single F-117, even though they flew dozens of missions over the most heavily defended parts of Iraq, especially over Baghdad. The F-117s were able repeatedly to hit Iraqi headquarters and other critical targets such as bridges and industrial facilities. It was this that crippled Saddam’s ability to continue the war.
At the same time in the early 1990s, the Air Force was introducing its new strategic bomber, the B-2. This was, and is, an extraordinary aircraft that combines stealth with a long range. The B-2 can fly more than 5000 miles on a single fuel load, as well as anywhere in the world with air-to-air refueling, even with a heavy payload. This bomber was first used against targets in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
Since its existence was revealed during the 1980 Presidential campaign, “stealth” has become surrounded by an aura of mystery and invincibility that tends to obscure its value in being able to defeat the most advanced air defense systems. Although talk about invisible and invulnerable airplanes was hogwash, normally skeptical journalists and media commentators bought into the myth, and sometimes used it to propagate a dangerously sterile vision of modern war, especially the idea that wars can be fought with no friendly casualties and almost no casualties on the enemies’ side.
In 1999, during the Kosovo operation, an F-117 was shot down over Serbia by an old Soviet SA-3 surface-to-air missile. This seems to have been done by a Serb missile battalion commander who, using basic intelligence methods, analyzed US air operations. Specifically, Serbian intelligence had informers with cell phones around US bases; the informers would phone in the departure times of US aircraft. Using this data the Serbs were able to make educated guesses when and where US aircraft would appear in the skies over their missile launchers.
The pilot ejected and was rescued, but the wreckage of the plane was recovered by the Serbs; it is believed they gave the debris to Russia as a “thank you” for Moscow’s political support.
Whatever the next military technological breakthrough is, if it keeps American troops alive and victorious in war and globally respected in peacetime, it will be worth every penny.
Originally published by Gatestone Institute http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org