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Chinese and Russian Radars On Track To See Through U.S. Stealth

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An F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) in 2013. A former senior Navy official told USNI News its stealth protection could be pierced by new Chinese and Russian radars. US Navy Photo

An F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) in 2013. A former senior Navy official told USNI News its stealth protection could be pierced by new Chinese and Russian radars. US Navy Photo

A growing trend in Russian and Chinese radar could make U.S. stealth fighters easier to see and — more importantly — easier to target for potential adversaries, a former senior U.S. Navy official told USNI News.

U.S. fighters — like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) — are protected by stealth technology optimized for higher frequency targeting radars but not for lower frequency radars.

Until now a focus on higher frequencies have not been a problem because low frequency radars have traditionally been unable to generate “weapons quality tracks.”

JSF and the F-22 are protected from higher frequencies in the Ku, X, C and parts of the S bands. But both jets can be seen on enemy radars operating in the longer wavelengths like L, UHF and VHF.

In other words, Russian and Chinese radars can generally detect a stealth aircraft but not clearly enough to give an accurate location to a missile

But that is starting to change.

“Acquisition and fire control radars are starting to creep down the frequency spectrum,” a former senior U.S. Navy official told USNI News on Monday.
With improved computing power, low frequency radars are getting better and better at discerning targets more precisely.

“I don’t see how you long survive in the world of 2020 or 2030 when dealing with these systems if you don’t have the lower frequency coverage,” the former official said.

Further, new foreign rival warships are increasingly being built with both high and low frequency radars.

“Prospective adversaries are putting low frequency radars on their surface combatants along with the higher frequency systems,” the former official said.

Chinese warships like the Type 52C Luyang II and Type 52D Luyang III have both high and low frequency radars, the former official said.

The first of the People's Army Liberation Navy Type 052D Luyang III destroyer. PLAN Photo

The first of the People’s Army Liberation Navy Type 052D Luyang III destroyer. PLAN Photo

“If you don’t have the signature appropriate to that [radar], you’re not going to be very survivable,” he said.
“The lower frequency radars can cue the higher frequency radars and now you’re going to get wacked.”

Nor will the Navy’s vaunted Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) do much to help the situation. Firstly, given the proliferation of low frequency radars, there are serious questions about the ability of the F-35C’s survivability against the toughest of air defenses, the former official said.

“All-aspect is highly desirable against this sort of networked [anti-air] environment,” he said.
Secondly, the Chinese and Russians are almost certain to use cyber and electronic attack capabilities to disrupt NIFC-CA, which is almost totally reliant on data links.

“I question how well all these data links are going to work in a heavily contested [radio frequency] environment where you have lots and lots of jamming going on,” the former official said.

Moreover, in certain parts of the world potential adversaries —China and Russia— are developing long-range anti-radiation missiles that could target the central node of the NIFC-CA network—the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

E-2D Hawkeye from the Pioneers of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 1 on Aug. 27, 2013. US Navy Photo

E-2D Hawkeye from the Pioneers of Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 1 on Aug. 27, 2013. US Navy Photo

“I think the anti-radiation homing weapons that are passive and go long-range are very, very difficult for the NIFC-CA concept to contend with,” the former official said.

Fundamentally, the Navy’s lack of an all-aspect broadband stealth jet on the carrier flight deck is giving fuel to advocates of a high-end Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft that can tackle the toughest enemy air defenses.

Without such capability, the Navy’s carrier fleet will fade into irrelevance, the former official said.

  • CharleyA

    Lots going on with this article, but basically it says that F-35C is essentially obsolete before it gets to the fleet. Better to kill it now, and develop a heavy strike UCLASS, and start the F/A-XX now. As for long range anti-radition missiles, they are a threat. However, incoming missiles can be detected and the active radar can be cycled, plus passive ESM geolocation with E-2D / Growlers has been testing fairly well.

  • Peter

    Looks like the EA-18G will have even more importance now.

    Really, there are ways around this, such as the USN and USAF adopting longer-range standoff missiles (even foreign made ones) so that the F-35s don’t have to get so close to the targets to do damage.

    The F/A-XX is indeed a possibility and the USN has hinted that they want a new fighter/interceptor like what the the F-14 was on the carriers.

  • John O’Reilly

    Haha, it’s clear now that USNI has, for some reason (financial perhaps?), adopted the mission of pressing for a so-called “strike UCLASS” and is unabashedly attempting to influence popular opinion by putting garbage like this out. An unnamed “former senior U.S. Naval official” tells USNI about the well-known development of low freq radars and this is news? This article wreaks of pure desperation as the UCLASS RFP is finalized.

    The conclusion of the article is downright laughable. How survivable is UCLASS going to be when a Flanker, or better yet a J-20+ fighter, comes hunting for it? Oh, I guess UCLASS will have the magic stealth that protects it from all detection methods, probably even visual. Someone better tell the Navy to cancel the E-2D also, it’s just not survivable apparently. Among other ridiculous things, the article also argues that because our datalinks are vulnerable, we should become MORE reliant on UAVs for combat operations. Logical.

    Get it together, USNI. This is absolutely embarrassing. Your reputation is at risk with the Fleet.

  • 2IDSGT

    “Until now a focus on higher frequencies have not been a problem because low frequency radars have traditionally been unable to generate ‘weapons quality tracks.'”

    Uh, Dave…. This may be confusing to you, but the limitations of low-frequency radar have nothing to do with “tradition.” I know… you feel like an important insider when one of Axe’s washed-up O-6s repeats what he read in a two year-old AVweek he flipped through at the VA.

  • Ctrot

    So the source for this is an unnamed “former senior US Navy official”. How convenient.

  • omegatalon

    Everyone knows stealth was designed to only give a small margin of relief and the DoD is already planning their GEN 6 aircraft which will be stealthy, maneuverable and very fast (Mach 3+).

    • DMH

      That’s why they want to buy 2,500 F-35’s? Because they know it will be obsolete?

      • Skaya

        Because they’re the DoD and they have the money for it.

      • CoryC

        No…because its U.S. tax payer money, not their own…And the politicians we elect are getting tremendous RFV – Return For their Vote. It’s been that way for a looooonnngg time. The only difference between when this started and today is – we used to be a creditor nation and now we’re a debtor nation beholden to China and the today’s politicians know they are on borrowed time and dwindling fumes.

    • Gary Sellars

      Fast aircraft get hot due to friction, and their hot skin means they shine like the sun for IR seekers and imaging thermal trackers. Not exactly stealthy…

      Stealth is useful, but its not omnipotent, and it requires many design constraints that limits aircraft performance.

  • zaza

    Black on the USSR……..etc.

  • zaza

    I guess it will come down to anti-anti-missile-missile-anti-missiles.

  • Supernova1987

    At some point in the future the F-35 will be armed with long range missiles to take care of these low band radar systems.
    I know that the future for anti-radar missile is supposed to be the Next Generation Missile, but couldn’t the AMRAAM be modified to have an anti-radar capability for the short term?
    The F-35 could even launch at M1.6/40000′ to extend the range and speed of the AMRAAM.
    It would not have a sufficient warhead to completely destroy a radar system, but it would probably be sufficient to damage it for long enough to be able to approach it and destroy it completely with other weapons.
    Using F-18s with HARM would be much more dangerous because they are not stealthy at all.

    • madskills

      You didn’t read the article. Stealth is a myth. If you have volume, like a plane, there is a way to spot you. Using missiles from non stealth planes, that cost $10 million, is just as effective as using planes costing $150 million. The f-35 still has a range problem, unless you put external tanks on which then makes them non stealth….

      • Supernova1987

        No sealth is not a myth. Radars used to guide weapons are uneffective against the F-35, except at close range. Low band radars would detect it from a certain distance but would be too unaccurate to guide a missile effectively.
        And the F-35 has a pretty good range.

        • madskills

          They can’t use the F-35 on the DEW line because of range. Stealth may make it more difficult to shoot down, but they have a signature and if they know you’re coming there goes the advantage.

        • Gary Sellars

          Ever heard of IR seekers? Modern ones do not need to lock onto hot engine exhausts and are all aspect.

          • Supernova1987

            At what range? Nobody ever said the F-35 was completely undetectable.
            Any plane with no IR reduction will be detected from significantly further.

    • Gary Sellars

      Long range missiles? In the F-35s cramped internal missile bays?

      • Supernova1987

        A JASSM-ER almost fits inside the bay… 500nm+ range.
        The JASSM-ER being stealthy it could even be carried on external pylons without increasing much the signature of the plane against these LF radars. The F-35’s pylons are supposed to be LO to some extent.

  • NavySubNuke

    all the more reason to cancel the F-35 and keep building F/A-18s and F-15s

    • FWGuy

      yea that makes sense lets fly none stealth aircraft easily spotted on radar against Russia’s and China’s stealth aircraft that will become operational in the next 5-10 years. China is already test flying its J-20 and is in works on a J-20+ enhanced (more stealthy) version.
      Why don’t we go back to the P-51 mustang, we can manufacture them for less than $1 million each.

      • NavySubNuke

        You clearly don’t really have any idea of what you are talking about on this. You should at least try to read the article next time so your position isn’t based complete ignorance.

        • thehotfinger

          His point is valid. For all the shortcomings of stealth versus advancements in radar technology, low observable is the future and will almost always have the advantage over legacy air frames. It’s well understood that even an all aspect stealth aircraft like B-2 is not completely invisible to radar energy, rather the combination of shape, materials, electronic countermeasures, and tactics all coalesce to reduce the effective detection range of radar systems in essence creating gaps in an enemy’s integrated networks.

          The point being this: if these new radars can be effective at putting fifth generation stealth aircraft as risk, legacy systems such as F-18 with no defense at all might as well stay parked lest they be knocked out of the sky with little effort.

          • NavySubNuke

            Given how much stealth cost the fact that it isn’t going to actually be low observable for the bands in which they are now building radars means you are just wasting money. Look at the cost per flight hour for stealth aircraft vs. non-stealth. Those coatings don’t maintain themselves. While the B2 is notoriously bad the F117 and F22 were not all that much better.
            I’d rather save the money and build more legacy fighters that are cheaper to buy and to operate so we can actually build a sufficient amount of them. The F22 is the greatest fighter ever build but the fact that we have <200 of them is a serious problem.

          • Gary Sellars

            The F22 is a hangar queen. One hour in the air, and the diva needs 3 days in the spa getting her nails done….

          • NavySubNuke

            exactly the problem with stealth aircraft – the cost of keeping that skin “stealthy” is much higher than that of legacy planes without RAM coatings. Better to buy more planes that are cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate!

          • SAC Forever

            I love it! Great comment! I’m guessing you’re prior service Air Force. I’ll go so far as to guess the ‘old but gold’ SAC?

          • J_kies

            You stated a false expectation; using LF radar or multilateration systems to alert and an imaging IR / Passive radar seeker head on the interceptor missile, that stealth bird is no more difficult than a 777 straight and level.

            Buy enough aircraft that you can remain combat effective when you’re sacrificing pilots for your combat objectives. Plan on high attrition rates regardless of aircraft costs / shapes.

          • thehotfinger

            I do not believe that is correct – from the standpoint of detection ranges, low frequency radar emissions increase all radar cross sections exponentially therefore while all aircraft could be detected at longer ranges, comparatively speaking an SU-35 for example would be detected at much longer ranges then an F-22 or F-35, these latter examples possessing a fraction of the baseline RCS compared to the former.

            In any event LRF, while potentially useful in helping to reduce the efficacy of stealth, is not a magic bullet by any means and is susceptible to various countermeasures – most notably low altitude flight profiles cause tremendous interference with ground clutter with LFR. Given the physics involved, I’m not sure that is a limitation that will overcome anytime soon.

          • J_kies

            As a physicist and sensor guy, I am very comfortable with the physics involved. One of the attributes of ‘stealth’ is to prevent coherent addition of the various surface areas that increase the retroreflection skin return; LF radar sees the volumetric return tied to the size of the vehicle, multi-lateration provide 3d returns. A LF radar return from a funny shaped vehicle will pretty closely resemble the skin return from any vehicle of similar size so F-35 or F-22 will be ~ F18 or F-15.

            As for ground clutter, let me introduce you to the magic of Doppler rejection and as to various self-protection jammers etc please consider Pseudo-Random Noise Waveforms and Gordon Moore’s observation. Sir you’re just flat wrong.

          • Nick

            your a physicist and sensor guy, and i’am the last King of Scotland and fully qualified to tell you about everything in life. Don’t buy in to folks who have to qualify thier comments with a completely unproven identity.

          • Joe

            Nick, you are dead wrong and sensor guy is spot on. Pick up any technical book on radar. To resolve a low altitude flight profile does not require more than 40MHz of bandwidth (i.e. 3.75m range resolution) and to process that is no issue with current Russian tech. That should also take care of the multipath effect. Ground clutter is no issue (it will fold into a different part of the Doppler spectrum).
            Regards,
            Joe

        • sferrin

          Pot/kettle. Your position makes about as much sense as a submarine with a screen door.

          • NavySubNuke

            at least a screen door doesn’t cost $1T like this botched concept. If you ever get a chance to talk to one of the test pilots privately – at least of the Navy variant – you will understand a little more of what I am talking about.

      • 98J-98C 1989-1998

        It has been well known for decades that military development in Russia and China is highly dependent on obtaining U.S. military / defense technology and then reverse-engineer for their production purposes….
        That is until our recent hyper-sonic technology seems to have been literally handed to China….how else could their hyper-sonic development attain its current level of sophistication as fast as it has to date?
        And perhaps that is actually in line with author Charles W. Taylor’s revelations in his book “A World 2010 – A New Order of Nations”, written for the U.S. Army War College and published in 2000, in which he states that as the U.S. withdraws its military from its former Cold War posture and downsizes all braches, it will simultaneously hand over its defense technology to other nations in order to “level the playing feild”….I kid you not.
        If the U.S. ceases further development of its stealth fighter programs, China and Russia will do the same out of necessity.

    • sferrin

      Oh brother.

  • Derek Sage

    Good thing we are going to spend about a trillion on the unsurviable F-35

  • madskills

    This is the equivalent of having the best Blackberry phone in the world. The problem is everyone switched to Apple and Samsung….. LOL! A bunch of clowns sold us this bill of goods. Wonderful. Stop building the F-35 today, Start thinking abut ways to overcome those missiles that look like telephone poles and missiles with those short stubby wings. I recommend they buy a whole bunch of rolls of Reynolds aluminum foil and start having guys cut them up and make chaff. Or we could buy it from Lockheed as $1.6 million a cut up roll….

    • Gary Sellars

      Even better is to learn to live with others, accept your relative decline, and simply accommodate the peaceful rise of other nations…

      If the British could do this after the collapse of their Empire, surely the US could manage the same?

      • J_kies

        Gary; the Brits weren’t graceful about it and they openly discussed their role as the Greeks advising the new Romans of empire (the US) who mostly shared their culture and beliefs.

        Are you are advocating the US find someone that shares our culture / beliefs and has free cash to afford the military supremacy costs? Who?

  • FWGuy

    The author seems to forget, jamming goes both ways and the US Airforce and Navy have very advanced EW systems and those system continue to be improved.

    • J_kies

      Gordon Moore’s observation and competent application of Maxwell’s equations with modern waveforms built as a multiple-transmitter multiple receiver systems makes the ‘very advanced’ title dubious for anything more than 2 years old. We ought not to assume that we have a military technical edge when high school students have built working passive radar systems. (I believe few people reading this comment have heard of passive radar systems, fewer people have considered the implications…)

  • FWGuy

    Long range and high speed anti-radiation & anti-ship weapons will also help solve the problem.

    • Gary Sellars

      Long range and high speed anti-radiation & anti-ship weapons will also help solve the problem of the threat posed by the use of carriers as the cornerstone of aggressive US power projection…

      • FWGuy

        Sounds like some of the Communists China’s view points that I have read online. With your pro-Communists view points, Cuba or China will be happy to accept you as new resident !!

  • J_kies

    Sooo; if the airborne arm is currently too short-sticked/short-legged and the ‘unaffordable’ F-35 won’t fix those issues… This isn’t pimping for UCLASS, this is open war against the flattops and most of the surface assets. This “news” as to the terribly obvious results of Moore’s law and EM physics pretty much makes ‘force projection’ a one-way trip against competent opponents. (IR / passive RF homing seekers don’t care if you thought you had hard wonder-woman’s invisible plane).
    So subs and VLS tubes stuffed with land-attack missiles are the wave of the future, plan on hate mail from the brown shoes.

  • matimal

    That’s because they stole the plans from lazy defense contractors.

  • xy

    >>“I think the anti-radiation homing weapons that are passive and go long-range are very, very difficult for the NIFC-CA concept to contend with,”

    Array coordination.