So you think stealth technology was born at the Lockheed Skunk Works in the mid 1970s do you? You really believe engineer Denys Overholser developed the equations and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter was the result.
You poor, deluded soul.
As everyone knows, the U.S. Navy made a ship disappear during World War Two. Known as Project Rainbow and/or The Philadelphia Experiment, the ship, the U.S.S. Eldridge, disappeared from Philadelphia harbor one day in July, 1943, reappearing in Norfolk harbor moments later.
Unfortunately a couple of crewmen rematerialized encased in the hull through some sort of malfunction. A few others went insane due to the chaotic energy fields.
Well, you know how these high tech experiments go. Can’t expect everything to go smoothly, can we? The main thing is stealth (and teleportation) were invented in the middle of Philadelphia harbor in July of 1943.
Actually the Navy didn’t even commission the Eldridge until the autumn of 1943 but never mind.
Oh, and by the way, a certain experimenter by the name of Nikola Tesla, although dead at the time, also took part in the test. So it would appear we have reanimation of dead bodies, stealth and teleportation all present in the storyline.
Never let facts get in the way of a good story though - just ask any politician.
Fast forward to the 1960s where we find that one of the Federation’s mortal enemies has perfected something called a Cloaking Device. Much to Capt. James Tiberius Kirk’s displeasure, a warship belonging to the Romulan Empire became invisible at a most inopportune moment. Fortunately, the Romulan ship had to “de-cloak” in order to fire its photon torpedoes so our hero was able to save the day.
Oh yes….Mr. Spock seduced the female captain of the Romulan ship and made off with both the lovely Commanding Officer and the device itself. Connected to the Enterprise’s systems by the ever resourceful Mr. Scott, the device covered Kirk’s escape and all was well in the universe since the balance of power was restored.
Fast forward again to March 27th of 1999. An F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter is knocked out of the sky over Kosovo. Had the Kosovo defenders found a way to defeat the U.S. Air Force’s equivalent of the Romulan cloaking device?
In a manner of speaking, they had, but not through discovery of a flaw in the design of the stealth technology itself.
What happened was the Kosovo military - with assistance from those pesky Russians - noticed that the F-117s appeared to be entering Kosovo airspace via the same route each night.
So, they set up a wide dispersion radar system and scanned the corridor, mapping what it looked like when no aircraft were present. This gave them a baseline for determining when things had changed.
Rewind to the Star Trek episode described above. Remember how there was a distortion in the star field when the cloaked Romulan ship was present? You couldn’t actually see the ship but you could infer its position from the change in the background when the ship blocked the stars.
Same deal in Kosovo. Life imitates art.
The Kosovo radars couldn’t see the F-117 but they could still track it because they knew what the radar mapped background looked like without an aircraft present. They could infer the Nighthawk’s position due to the distortion of the background caused by its passing. A few moments later, the F-117 was fluttering down in pieces.
So, stealth technology wasn’t defeated because of a design or maintenance related shortcoming. Instead it was defeated because Air Force battle planners failed to realize how predictable the attack profile was and how resourceful the enemy had become.
Research continues into more robust anti-radar technology and also into ways to defeat the tricks. Frequencies ranging from the mid HF bands all the way to the upper reaches of super high frequency microwave are being examined as scientists and engineers play a high tech game of “Tag - you’re it”. Right now, the physics is on the side of the stealth researchers but the anti-stealth side isn’t far behind.
Meanwhile researchers are closing in on a way to implement visual stealth.
One promising path involves the use of sensors that determine the color temperature of the environment surrounding an aircraft. Sensors on the top of the aircraft feed a microprocessor which commands hundreds of LEDs embedded in the underside of the wing and portions of the fuselage to emit colors that duplicate the natural environment.
The shadowy underside of the aircraft is thus obscured by a duplication of the surrounding sky so by the time the aircraft is close enough for the defenders to take action, it’s too late. Coupled with radar evading stealth technology, the aircraft becomes, like the fictional Romulan ship, cloaked.
Hopefully, life won’t continue to imitate art. We don’t want an agent working for our enemies to seduce one of Lockheed’s Skunk Works engineers.
Or should we worry about one of those engineers materializing inside the wing of an F-35?
John Loughmiller is an Electrical Engineer, Commercial Pilot, Flight Instructor and a Lead Safety Team Representative for the FAA.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.