The following article by Paul Manson was published by The Hill Times on January 14, 2013. General (retired) Paul Manson is a former chief of the defence staff. He was manager of the New Fighter Aircraft program which led to the selection of the CF-18 and is a former president and board member of the CDA Institute.
The demonization of stealth
Although it is a complex matter, there are two basic arguments in favour of stealth, and both are significant: mission effectiveness and pilot survivability.
In the recent furor over the F-35 one casualty stands out as having serious implications for national security. Stealth, a widely-publicized attribute of the F-35, has been downplayed, denigrated, ridiculed, and attacked to the point where Canadians can be forgiven for believing that it is an unnecessary and costly feature of the aircraft, or indeed of any aircraft eventually selected to replace the CF-18.
That is unfortunate. Setting aside the political dimensions of the situation—which are many—a compelling argument can be made for the inclusion of stealth technology in Canada’s next fighter aircraft. Although it is a complex matter, there are two basic arguments in favour of stealth, and both are significant. They are mission effectiveness and pilot survivability.
Although stealth in the form of camouflage has been a part of military operations for centuries, since the Second World War there has been a surge in the development of new and sophisticated stealth technology. New applications first received widespread public attention with the American F-117 fighter and the B-2 bomber, both of which proved the validity of the concept in real conflicts. Stealth is sometimes described, rather awkwardly but more precisely, as “low observability.”
By virtue of radical design features in an aircraft’s external shape, the use of radar-absorbent surface coatings and the suppression of electronic and heat emissions, detection range can be greatly reduced. Typically, whereas a conventional aircraft might be detected at 75 miles, its stealth counterpart might not be “seen” until it is within a few miles. This has enormous operational implications, for obvious reasons.
In air-to-air combat, for example, first sighting of an opponent has always given a fighter pilot the advantage over an adversary. In a stealth versus non-stealth situation the advantage becomes huge. One consequence is that the pilot of the non-stealth aircraft is at great risk, and his or her survivability is greatly diminished. In a typical situation the aircraft might be destroyed before its unsuspecting pilot was even aware of the enemy’s presence.
Likewise, in attacking or reconnoitring a defended ground target, the stealth pilot reaps great benefits in mission effectiveness and survivability.
In weighing the merits of stealth in the next round of the CF-18 replacement program, evaluators will have to take into account one critical reality. Were Canada to select a non-stealth replacement for the CF-18, our Air Force is at risk of becoming a pariah amongst our Allies, and for a very simple reason. Our new fighter would no longer be welcome to operate jointly with stealth-equipped Forces. Non-stealth aircraft cannot mix in with a flight of stealth aircraft in combat because even one will contaminate the force by virtue of its vulnerability to early detection, thus compromising the stealthy approach of the remaining aircraft.
It is fair to say that, in an examination of the range of likely Canadian missions and roles over the life of the CF-18 replacement, stealth will be of limited value in North American operations such as joint continental air defence through our partnership with the U.S. in NORAD, and in protecting our sovereignty in the Arctic and on our coasts. (In either case, though, stealth would allow the undetected approach to a suspected intruder, which is of operational value.) When it comes to overseas expeditionary missions conducted jointly with allied air forces, on the other hand, stealth becomes very important, for the reasons mentioned above, unless Canadians wish to see the RCAF relegated to third-rate status.
All of which is to say that, in the “re-set” round now underway, great care must be given to assessing the real importance of stealth without allowing misconceptions and distortions to colour the analysis. It is by no means the unnecessary and even sinister feature that its detractors have made it out to be. Clearly and undeniably, the F-35 has a significant advantage because of its stealth capability, and past polemics must not be allowed to distort this reality. Too much is at stake.