Stealth Fighter Uncloaked : Gulf War: British radar apparently picked up the F-117 up to 40 miles from its targets. Should we worry?

<i> Daniel Plesch is director and Michael Wardell is research assistant at the British American Security Information Council, an independent research organization that analyzes U.S. and European security policy</i>

The Persian Gulf War was a proving ground for many of the U.S. military’s newest high-tech weapons. One was Lockheed’s F-117 Stealth fighter, which was highly successful in hitting Iraqi targets. But a number of the Gulf allies claim to have spotted the aircraft on radar. If so, the future viability of stealth technology may be imperiled.

First deployed during the Panama invasion in 1989, the tent-shaped F-117 is designed to deflect or absorb radar. It is intended to close in on its target unnoticed, virtually eliminating the enemy’s capacity to react. Its radar signature is supposed to be no bigger than that of a duck.

Yet last month, the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that members of Parliament were crowing over reports from radar operators aboard Royal Navy destroyers that they had identified F-117s in the Gulf at ranges of up to 40 miles from their targets.

These British destroyers use the Marconi Type 1022 radar. Far from exotic, it employs technology more than a decade old and operates in the widely used NATO “D” frequency.

Detecting a Stealth plane on a radar screen is only a defender’s first challenge. Shooting it down would require success at the more precise operations of tracking and targeting--a more difficult feat. But the British reports seem to give the defender time to respond.


Stealth detection at 40 miles would give an enemy about four minutes’ warning, enough time, for example, to deploy faster fighters. A Stealth jet traveling at 600 m.p.h. might be hunted down quickly by a supersonic interceptor, whose speed ranges to 1,500 m.p.h.

Advocates of Stealth technology never promised total invisibility, just near-complete surprise for the enemy. That would have been achieved even if the British destroyers had spotted the F-117s at point-blank range--giving the defender seconds, not minutes, to react. But 40 miles is a different story.

The Stealth-technology revolution can be seen in many aspects of military aviation. Designers, enthralled with the prospect of sneaking up on targets, plan to incorporate stealth features into the Air Force’s new B-2 bomber and advanced tactical fighter and the Army’s next-generation light helicopter.

But even if they operated as advertised, Stealth aircraft are, as a rule, expensive--$50 million for an F-117, more than 10 times as much for a B-2 bomber. Since our Gulf allies relied mostly on older, less-expensive aircraft to overwhelm Iraq and since there is no technologically sophisticated enemy on the horizon, it is unclear whether the new systems offer a military advantage worth the cost.

Before Congress spends more money on such multibillion-dollar systems, it should investigate the reported uncloaking of the F-117 40 miles from target. If improvements in radar technology were to extend the range of Stealth-plane detection to, say, 80 miles, at relatively modest costs, the attacker may be the one surprised.