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This might seem like a purely opinionated thing, but bear with me. I think there is some general statement to be made here not based on guesswork.

Question: Is the F-117 actually inferior in its RCS (Radar Cross Section) to the F-22 and B-2?

My own attempt at arriving at an answer:

The F-117, the F-22, and the B-2 don't have any publicly available information on the actual RCS to my knowledge, nor do they offer any details disclosed about the exact makeup of their RAM (Radar Absorbing Material). So, how can anyone actually know this?

I watch a lot of aviation documentaries, read sometimes the odd article, on Wikipedia, etc. -- it seems most sources simply make the statement that, the F-22 has a "much better RCS" than the F-117. Same with the B-2.

enter image description here

What do I mean by superior or inferior? Well, therein is the answer to the question as well.

I think the answer is: It depends.

The RCS depends on a number of attributes, certainly at least: The orientation of the object being measured, the frequency of the radar system, the weather.

Even in this simple 2D example, for a non-stealthy aircraft, its RCS profile is non-uniform.

enter image description here

For an aircraft with flat, angular surfaces like the F-117, disregarding possible differences in RAM (Radar Absorbent Material), an angled surface will always reflect away a signal hitting it at an angle, better than a curved surface. In a simplified setting, an angular surface, except when it is hit directly perpendicular with a signal, should reflect away all the energy.

In reality, of course, the asperity of the surface of the material will ensure that some energy does get reflected. However, it is probably fair to say that you'd prefer an angled surface hit at an angle over a curved surface being hit with a signal, given that everything else is equal and remains unchanged.

Basically, this appears to me to imply that (again disregarding RAM differences) the F-117 actually enjoys superior RCS from any angle except the set of angles where the aircraft happens to expose one of its angled surfaces perpendicularly to an observer.

How big is this set? Probably quite big. However, this is something that can be planned for and mitigated. E.g. when facing adversaries on the ground, the F-117 is observed from below, and from below, the F-117 has only one surface. The F-22, has a lot of complex geometry, in comparison.

enter image description here

enter image description here

So roughly speaking, unless the F-117 flies directly overhead an observer, why would the F-117 have inferior RCS?

As for the RAM, it is again sometimes said that the F-22 enjoys superior RAM -- but again, this is not publicly available, is it? It is merely an assumption, that the F-22 has superior RAM. The exact makeup and details of the RAM for all of the abovementioned aircraft remain classified. Correct me if I'm wrong.

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    $\begingroup$ Why wouldn't newer aircraft have better 'stealth'? A couple of decades of development would bring better 'performance'. It has been thus with all tech. Cars, computers, aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – WPNSGuy
    Jul 25, 2023 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ It's not that simple. Remember radar waves are interfering waves, so that the reflections from two surfaces could interfere can create a third path of strong echo. With 1970's computing power there's essentially no way to know this. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ Other than the (entirely reasonable) "decades newer is likely to be better" conjectures, it's unlikely that there is enough authoritative information available in the public domain to provide an actual, objective answer to this. Seems like this is unanswerable except with opinions & conjecture. Some of that conjecture may be intuitive, reasonable, and believable (i.e. the comments above), but the question itself is a question about speculations, and probably a poor fit for Av.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Jul 26, 2023 at 16:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RalphJ Wouldn't that make the answer quite simple, in the same vein as I've been suggesting might be the answer: This is not publicly known, and any documentary or article that attempts to claim otherwise, are simply, wrong? This is not public information, and therefore, we simply don't know. The F-117 might have better RCS from some angles, or it might not, depending on the RAM and other attributes? $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ If you'd like to ask a question and self-answer, that's completely acceptable. However, you should ask the question in the "Your Question" box, then provide the answer in the "Your Answer" box. Putting the answer in the question isn't how things work here. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Feb 7 at 15:22

2 Answers 2

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The few people that know the lab measurements, aren't at liberty to tell. So the only public information on stealth comes from modeling. However, stealth is complicated. It's not just specular reflections, which are easily modeled by physical optics, but a number of others:

enter image description here.

As a result, the outcomes of modeling are all over the map. RAM is prominently excluded from most of these models, and some even miss radar blockers.

But combat experience allows us to make an estimate. It's well known that one F-117 has been shot down by a rather outdated radar-guided missile.

Some early media reports of the shootdown have speculated that the missile was "eyeballed", or that bomb bay doors were open. The former is impossible: the crew's located inside a windowless room, and the missile isn't on a turret. Open bay doors would explain detection, but not a shootdown, since these older SAM have separate, mechanically steered search and targeting radars, taking about a minute to launch. There's a Hungarian-written SAM simulator which shows the controls and operation of the S-125.

The reports available today show the SAM was operated in radar mode, as intended, tracked / lost track of the target 4 times, and ultimately one of the two launched missiles achieved lock and hit; the other missed. Here is the report from the battery's commander, translated from Serbian:

I arrived at the firing position around 20:30. There were no nearby targets in the air, but some were at greater distances in various azimuths. Suddenly, on the observation radar display, at an azimuth of 195, I spotted a target at a distance of 23 kilometers.
At a distance of 14-15 km and an azimuth of 210 degrees, the firing officer, Lieutenant Colonel Zoltan Dani, ordered to search for the target. The targeting radar's radiation was turned on. We radiated for more than 10 seconds unsuccessfully.

I saw the target again at an azimuth of 240 degrees and a distance of 14 km. The guidance officer's dials clicked, but the operators lost it. Just when I thought this attempt would also fail ... The dials clicked, and the operators locked on. Stable tracking, azimuth 242 degrees, distance 14.5 km. The first missile launched, then the second after 5 seconds. Muminovic reports the first launched and locked, the second launched but not locked. (20:55, end of engagement)

This report is consistent with how the SAM operates. It shows that the S-125 was able to detect an approaching F-117A at 23 km and engage it at 14.5 km. That was its very limit, as indicated by spotty tracking. The aircraft was detected and lost again 3 times, until the final lock on and shot. The exact missile used was "5В27Д" aka "В-601Д". Its specifications are as follows: minimum target RCS - 0.3 m2, maximum range - 28 km.

From this, we can estimate that, even if the missile's "minimum RCS" is specified at maximum range, the F-117's RCS, with RAM, can't be lower than (14.5/28)^4*0.3=0.02 m2, and is likely closer to 0.3 m2. Or, in dBsm terms, between -16 and -3 dBsm. The former figure is optimistic, since minimum RCS is normally specified at the best-Pk range, which is usually around half of maximum range.

While the claims about -40 dBsm for the F-22 and -30 for the F-35 should be taken with caution (it's direct head-on at one frequency only), the consensus from most modeling is that it's no more than -16 dB without RAM, and likely -25 dBsm with RAM for the F-35.

The only other stealth aircraft with RCS without RAM in the -3 to -16 dB range is the Su-57, modeled here, which is consistent with the manufacturer's patent. And it's a sure bet that Lockheed's 3rd and 4th attempts at stealth are better at it than Sukhoi's first, especially being more of a "Silent Flanker" than a pure stealth design.

What has improved in technology since the F-117A includes:

  • Composite skins. The F-117A is all-metal, and metal panels are susceptible to creep deformation. CRFP panels retain their initial shape much more accurately.
  • Composite sandwich panels. While the main skin has to be a radar reflector to shield the internals, semi-transparent sandwich panels are very useful for control surfaces, which need to move.
  • S-ducts that are heavy, but very effective at concealing the engines. The F-117 uses radar blocker grates to shield them, visible on the outside. Out of modern stealth aircraft, only the Su-57 uses that design.
  • Thrust vectoring, allowing for quiet maneuvering without using the control surfaces, which make the shape less-stealthy while in use.
  • Edge treatment. Semi-transparent fiberglass composites are used on the edges of modern stealth aircraft, greatly reducing traveling waves and edge diffraction.
  • Data from the F-117A itself - lessons about what works for stealth and what doesn't, in a full-scale aircraft going through a brief but real lifecycle.

enter image description here

More recent reports also indicate that another F-117 has been detected and shot at by a similar SAM over Serbia, but only received minor damage. This article, coming from that plane's pilot, also details the lengths the US went to in order to keep the F-117s safe: avoiding "double-digit" SAM (SA-10 and above), providing F-16CJ SEAD escort with HARMs, and EF-111 and EA-6B providing radar-jamming.

Protecting a stealth aircraft with so many non-stealth ones isn't a sign of great confidence. But flying it in combat conditions was definitely worth it, for valuable lessons to improve future stealth designs.

Regarding composite vs metal, this is what the "flat" skin of the F-117A actually looks like. The wrinkles around the metal are pretty good at reflecting radar. This is further evidence that the F-117A is between 0.1 m2 and 1 m2 in terms of RCS. 0.3 m2 seems most likely, since that's what the S-125 is advertised at.

That said, the F-117A does have some great stealth features that have been lost in newer aircraft. One is the narrow slotted exhausts - they provide the lowest infrared and sound signatures of all shapes. Another is the first IRST on a US jet, which unlike even LPI radar is completely immune to interception.

https://www.twz.com/air/the-most-stunning-f-117-photos-weve-seen-since-its-retirement

Conclusion: the F-117 was an early attempt at stealth, made with limited knowledge, tools, and materials. Its shape reduces specular reflections, but these are just one of many kinds. It's likely that its designers have under-accounted for many variables.

Combat experience indicates the F-117's actual RCS to be significantly higher than predicted by a basic physical optics model. In particular, its S-band RCS is likely on the order of -3 dBsm, at best -10. Modern stealth design is considerably better in that regard, even for the Su-57, the least-stealthy of 5th gen fighters.

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    $\begingroup$ Very nice answer. However, what are your thoughts on angular surfaces I mentioned briefly in the question? Do you believe that the F-117A enjoys lower RCS viewed from certain angles, such as the underside (which appears like a flat surface) at angles that are significantly offset from the perpendicular? $\endgroup$ Feb 8 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AlphaCentauri The flat surfaces are excellent at minimizing specular reflections. But it appears that returns at the edges weren't as well-addressed in the F-117A. An aircraft's RCS is a 4D function, so there likely are angles from which the F-35 would be a larger target - in particular, from the rear. But from the bottom, the F-117A was a large enough target for three different radars (search, targeting and missile's own) to find and track it in Serbia. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Feb 9 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ Nice story bro but you should mention that F117 bomb bays were open or bring arguments against it as several sources report this version of the facts. $\endgroup$
    – HAL9000
    Feb 11 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @HAL9000 Some of the older reports have speculated on this version. But it's not consistent with the Serbian report, or with the report from another USAF pilot, who said the mission lacked EA-6 support. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Feb 11 at 13:00
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A lot of the answers above sound about right with the lack of public data and the f117 being older should have an inferior RCS. After reading both Skunk Works and Stealth, the info shows those answers to be correct. One thing mentioned in the books were round shapes actually have a better RCS than flat shapes placed properly. This is why the competitive B2 is still in wider use (of course there’s other reasons too). This is also a reason why the F22 has its more rounded shapes. Round vs flat comes down to radar reflection and sparkling. Another big reason is the windshield on the f117 is flat and they went though some massive struggles on its coatings/materials (that constantly deteriorate) to make it low radar and actually transparent for the pilot to see out of. This does not even mention the other jamming and false signals newer aircraft utilize to mess with radar. Hopefully this added some more insight vs the “classified and outdated” answers even though they are perfectly right.

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