A Cold War Legacy: The Decline of Stealth
"Physics probably favors detection and the ultimate demise of stealthy systems." So predicted the Hart-Rudman Commission in 1999. Sixteen years later, it's time for the Department of Defense to ask tough questions about whether to continue investing scarce resources into stealth technology. Foremost among those questions is this: Are we sacrificing too much capacity in a quest for an exquisite capability, a capability that may not offer the edge it once did and whose efficacy is in decline?
Revolutionary technologies, such as the machine gun, aircraft carrier, and stealth, are characterized by large increases in performance per unit cost - gains so great they shift established paradigms. Yet, their revolutionary characteristics are ultimately transitory. The hard truth is that stealth, the cornerstone of American airpower, has entered the evolutionary phase of its development. Evolutionary technologies, which revolutionary technologies eventually become, are characterized by small increases in performance per unit cost. (For more, see Michael Horowitz's The Diffusion of Military Power and Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma). In fact, evolutionary technologies demonstrate diminishing returns along the investment curve. In the case of stealth, the initial generation of aircraft represented a massive performance increase over existing, non-stealth platforms. However, as the technology matured, continued investment began to see decreasing performance gains and therefore advantage per unit cost.
This declining return on investment is accelerated by the emergence of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) networks creating lethal, sensor-fused operating environments that dramatically raise the threat faced by aircraft. While advanced stealth aircraft will continue to be able to operate in that environment, there will be increasing limitations on such operations. These limitations have been driving calls for a high end UCLASS to operate inside of denied zones. This declining efficacy calls into question continuing investments aimed at fielding a fleet of stealth combat aircraft. For a sense of scale, the Department of Defense will have invested approximately $600 billion (in then-year dollars) in the development and acquisition of four different stealth aircraft: the F-22, B-2, F-35, and LRS-B (assuming LRS-B costs do not rise and ignoring lifetime sustainment costs which are higher than for non-stealth aircraft).
The first Gulf War trumpeted the arrival of stealth aircraft. Stealth, the combination of specific design configuration and absorptive coatings to greatly limit an aircraft's radar cross-section (RCS), is a remarkable example of a qualitative U.S. military advantage. The past successes of this technology are manifold: it offset the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces; it allowed the U.S. to gain air superiority over Iraq during the First Gulf War; and it permitted the United States to penetrate Pakistani airspace and conduct the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. An almost unblemished record of success has created a mystique around this technology. Stealth has been the trump card on which American air dominance has staked its claim. Other nations have seen the value in stealth-both in having it and defeating it-and are playing catch-up. China, Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France are all pursuing some type of stealth aircraft. The United States will rely on this technology to give it the edge with its next generation of combat aircraft, including the F-22, F-35, and LRS-B