Stealth planes have been around since the Fifties, but nothing has matched the F-22’s combination of speed, blistering firepower and state-of-the-art stealth technology.
Unveiled in 1997, the F-22 Raptor has many technical and design secrets still protected by a US export ban. However, we do know that every bit of the technology it contains has been either designed or tested for stealth. From the concealed surface-to-air missiles to the revolutionary Signature Assessment System that warns the pilot when the plane’s radar signature has changed through wear or combat, the F-22 is king. It may not have the lowest RCS in the skies, but when combined with its powerful M61A2 Vulcan Gatling gun, AIM-120 and Sidewinder missiles and multiple bomb payload, it’s hard to envisage much else standing up to it. Neither is the Raptor’s stealth capability all about radar, having been designed with five types of visibility in mind – including infrared, acoustic, and radio.
And if you’re thinking all this can’t come cheap, you’d be right. In 2006 the cost of the F-22 Raptor was estimated to be USD361 million per aircraft, its USD65 billion programme cost making it one of the most expensive aircraft ever produced. Hardly surprising, then, that in more budget-conscious times, the Raptor’s shock-and-awe capability was deemed out of kilter with the more modest threats America now faces. As a result, it is due to be replaced in 2014 by the smaller, cheaper F-35 Lightning II.
Stealth planes facts
However, every time an object moves, a different facet becomes visible to radar. This explains why stealth planes are so angular in parts (the nose, wings and tail) yet ultra-smooth everywhere else. Basically, anything that interferes with RCS -including weapons systems, engines and antennae -must be concealed or camouflaged.
Deadliest stealth plane – B-2 Spirit bomber – By no means the quickest, the B-2 Spirit could still drop 80 500lb guided bombs or 16 B83 nuclear bombs in a single pass, probably before anyone realised it was there.
Most versatile stealth plane – The F-35 Lightning is being lined up to replace the super-expensive F-22 Raptor, thanks to its lower cost and versatility, including both vertical and horizontal take-off models.
Fastest stealth plane – Sukhoi PAK FA – Still under development, will the Soviet PAK FA’s top speed of Mach 2.1 finally take the F-22’s ‘ultimate stealth fighter’ crown to Russia? Only time, and cash, will tell.