Stealth and Syria

F117A Nighthawk at night - Southern Watch 1998Yesterday I posted about the fact that non-stealthy Israeli aircraft apparently had no problems striking deep in Syria and that the Syrian air defenses could do nothing about it. I also noted that this wasn’t the first time that Syrian had been shown to be virtually impotent against Israeli aircraft.

Today, I’ve got what basically amounts to a guest post by two regular commenters on MO, Dfens and James. I’ve pulled large parts of what they’ve got to say on the subject. Very slight editing only.


At the time when we were facing the Warsaw Pact, the problem of penetrating enemy airspace was not the individual systems but the multiple overlapping dense placement of differing types of air defenses. Basically, we had a problem of two many enemy radar sets operating on different frequencies from multiple source points. Our jamming systems were incapable of suppressing the threats with a reasonable loss rate. Basically, every war game had us going nuclear within 7-10 days with most of air forces strike assets being rendered ineffective within 5 days. It was really grim. That lead to the development of stealth, the heavy investment in cruise missiles, anti-radiation munitions and some specialized space assets.

Syria has nothing like the defenses East Germany had. So you can bypass and neutralize the air defenses by attacking a few key choke points. By disrupting the communication systems, you force each site to operate on its own. Since the local radars are relatively short ranged, their effective reaction time will be limited and if you disrupt command and control, its very probable that the site will be unable to act effectively. If you know the location, frequency, operator habits, command and control lines associated with missile site, its pretty easy to suppress the site. The Russia missile systems specs and operating protocols are well known, and can be countered.

More, and a pic of our current attack aircraft, below.

Syria has nothing like the defenses East Germany had, so you can bypass and neutralize the air defenses by attacking a few key choke points. By disrupting the communication systems, you force each site to operate on its own. Since the local radars are relatively short ranged, their effective reaction time will be limited and if you disrupt command and control, it’s very probable that the site will be unable to act effectively. If you know the location, frequency, operator habits, and command and control lines associated with missile site, it’s pretty easy to suppress the site. The Russian missile systems specs and operating protocols are well known and can be countered.

In the absence of massive interconnected defenses with multiple ranks of redundancies, your non-stealth craft can penetrate most air spaces. The reason we built the F-117’s was to have them penetrate the East German air defense and be able to take out the key nodes that would render the system vulnerable to the non-stealth aircraft.

IMO Stealth aircraft are a great force multiplier, but you give up a lot of capability and have to spend a lot of money to achieve stealth. Once the air defenses are down, the stealth premium is no longer needed. So why in heavens name would you want an all stealth air force?


The stealth cost is, for the most part, an industry lie. Stealth does not demand that aircraft be made from composites, especially when it comes to small fighter airplanes. The composites are a performance item, and their value there is controversial. They certainly detract from maintainability and survivability when compared to aluminum and titanium. Stealth coatings are expensive, but not all that expensive in the grand scheme of things that make these airplanes cost a lot, and they add less to the stealthiness of an airplane than shaping.

Given that shaping is the most important aspect of stealth, and that stealth shaping in the post F-117 era is not incompatible with good aerodynamics, there is really no reason why stealth aircraft should be significantly more expensive than non-stealth aircraft. The cost would be more noticeable with a transport or bomber because you’re holding tighter tolerances, etc., but for a fighter it’s pretty close to a wash. In fact, I cannot see any good reason not to incorporate at least some degree of signature reducing shaping into every current generation US fighter. It would be inexcusable not to, in my opinion.

Here is the current lineup of attack aircraft:

Korean and US Air Force (USAF) Commanders are given the opportunity to view static displays of the USAF F-117A Nighthawk (foreground), USAF F-16C Fighting Falcon, USAF F-15E Strike Eagle, and an UASF A-10 Warthog (rear) at Osan Air Base, Korea. Camera Operator: SSGT SUZANNE M. JENKINS, USAF Date Shot: 17 Mar 2003

Since this was taken, the F-22A Raptor has, of course, entered service and will presumably be taking on some of the stealth strike missions currently handled by the F-117A.


  1. What I’d really like to see us do, and I’ll apologize now for harping on this, is a small, low cost, air defense fighter incorporating signature reducing shaping. I do not see why it would need a radar at all in these days of digital data links. Even if you wanted to shoot a radar guided missile, the radar could be on an AWACS at a ground station. Heck, I can get weather radar shots at my desktop PC that are current up to the last 5 minutes. Why could a domestically based air defense fighter not do the same? I don’t see why this has not even been brought up for consideration in this post 9/11 era. We did not shoot down a single 9/11 airplane, and our response has been to reduce the number of military bases and cut the number of fighter aircraft. Then the military complains that people have forgotten the lessons of 9/11? In reality, they’re not the least bit interested in any weapon that isn’t a glorified Swiss Army knife and doesn’t cost a fortune. If their job number one isn’t keeping the skys of the United States of America safe, then there’s some Generals who need a good ass kicking.

  2. Dfens One word: Jamming. Data links and radars can be jammed. The closer you are, the more power you have, and the tighter the beam on the FC radar, the less effect jamming has. The area search radars (that you refer to) are not precise enough to use for fire control. AWACS is used just to get the fighter in area. It is normal to direct fighters into the ball-park with those search radars because, Fire Control radars (used by fighters) are not very good at search due to too narrow of a beam…

  3. Defens there is a project that relates to what you are talking about. ‘The AWACS Bistatic UAV Adjunct is a proposed $850M+ acquisition program with prototype in FY08 and completed in 2015. High Altitude Endurance (HAE) Dark Star/Global Hawk UAVs with bistatic receivers for the AWACS radar will expand area coverage of a single E-3 orbit and with the inherent significant signal to interference ratio enhancement provide increased coverage of low RCS targets while operating inside and outside an air defense threat environment. The inclusion of the Bistatic UAV adjunct to the E-3 would allow reduced E-3 operational tempo in some theaters and the ability to cover two major regional conflicts with fewer E-3s. By only carrying the receiver, IFF interrogator and a JTIDS/JCTN transmitter package, the UAV weight limitations can be met (combat ID systems might also be included if weight and size allows). The bistatic UAV would also be able to serve as an adjunct to the E-2, TPS-75 and other air/ground radars. Most important, the Bistatic UAV is a key part of the USAF transition from the E-3 to UAVs and Space for the AWACS mission, with the mission crew on the ground. The Bistatic UAV will be able to serve as the receiver using a satellite as the radar transmitter instead of the E-3. The bistatic UAV is a common link to a reduced E-3 fleet and use of Space for surveillance of large to LO/VLO air vehicles (missiles and aircraft) in the battlespace. ‘ This concept has been rattling around the mid 1990’s and one the reasons the cancellation of the E-10 project did not have people jumping out of windows.

  4. And if they can jam your communications link they can jam your radar. Terrorists won’t have jamming equipment at their disposal. Besides, the idea is to have a lot of these small air defense fighters with eyeballs and passive sensors – optical and IR cameras with processing software to help the pilots see the bad guys. Additionally, we should have a network of microphones scattered around the country so we could track sonic signatures. Hell, we’ve got an internet. Might as well use it for something other than porn. I’d base the fighters at commercial airfields and let the National Guard operate them. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have a hard time finding pilots!

  5. Yeah, James, just like that, except I think you ought to put a person in there, because if you’re going to fly in our civilian airspace, you’re going to need a human pilot. Also if you’re going to flame something in civilian airspace, you’re going to want to have someone who can make a judgement call on-site.

  6. Iran’s F-14A Tomcat’s accounted for over 150 kills during the Iran-Iraq War. Victims included numbers of MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25 and Mirage F 1 aircraft. Recognizing the deficiencies of relatively high cost air defense systems previously fielded unsuccessfully by Iraq, Serbia and Syria, Iran has instead opted for a point defense, which includes a complete refurbishment of its successful remaining Tomcat fleet. Overall, Iran’s defense is based on the deterrence provided by weapon systems such as ballistic and cruise missiles, an example of which scored a direct hit against the Israeli Navy in 2006. Sean O’Connor provides an excellent analysis of both Syrian and Iranian SAM networks, including google satellite imagery, on the following site: