According to the wikipedia article, a stealth plane requires the following features in order to reduce its radar signature and thermal detection:

  1. Reducing thermal emission from thrust

  2. Reducing radar detection by altering some general configuration (like introducing the split rudder)

  3. Reducing radar detection when the aircraft opens its weapons bay

  4. Reducing infra-red and radar detection during adverse weather conditions

How do aircraft actually achieve reduction in their thermal emission from thrust?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It helps to realize that IR emissions rise very, very quickly as the temperature rises. 1% of cooling reduces emissions by 4%. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Jul 15 '15 at 18:39

The short of it is that it's really hard to hide the heat signature of a device that is powered by burning large amounts of kerosene and shoving those gases out behind it. IR stealth is therefore a secondary concern (or lower) to designers of stealth fighters, primarily because the IR signature only matters at much closer ranges where stealth technology itself has reduced value (you can hide from radar, and camouflage to an extent, but you can't disappear entirely from visual range).

However, there are some things that can be done to make an aircraft less than blindingly obvious to IR sensors. Here are a few:

  • High bypass. Not all of the air that enters a turbofan engine's intake enters the actual combustion chamber. Bypass air helps to cool the hot combusted air before it exits, reducing the IR signature.

    The A-10, not a "stealth" aircraft in the slightest, nevertheless operates in situations where MANPADS (shoulder-fired SAMs) are a big threat, so to reduce its IR signature it uses some of the highest-bypass turbofans ever put on a military single-seater, at a 6:1 bypass ratio. These high bypass engines, however, reduce performance at high altitudes and high airspeeds; neither disadvantage is a problem for the low, slow A-10's mission profile, but for a more high-performance air superiority fighter this is a big deal.

    High-performance jet engines in fighters tend to be relatively low bypass compared to airliner engines for this reason. The F-15 and F-16 were powered by a P&W turbofan with just 0.36:1 bypass ratio, however this only increases IR signature by requiring higher fuel flow rates for the same thrust at lower speeds (lower bypass also reduces the effect of afterburners because there is less unburned bypass air to feed the additional combustion).

    The F-22 mitigates the efficiency losses of a turbofan with a variable bypass intake system, allowing it to function as a turbofan with similar bypass to other fighters (about 0.3:1) at low speeds and altitudes, but converting to a near-turbojet configuration (almost zero bypass) at high altitudes and supersonic speeds, which is more fuel-efficient than an afterburner (and so allows the F-22 to supercruise).

  • Exhaust baffles. The thing designers typically want to avoid at all costs is exposing the actual point of ignition and primary combustion in a jet engine to the ground; this makes the hottest part of a plane's visible IR signature within the plane itself instead of the stream of hot air behind it, allowing easy targeting by IR SAMs. Imagine being an SA-13 "Gopher" mobile SAM launcher and having these twin fireballs from an F-15E for a target:

    enter image description here

    To hide this massive heat source, stealth aircraft are designed with exhaust vents that mask the exit point of the engine's exhaust from observation by the ground. There's really not a lot you can do design-wise to mask the IR signature from directly behind the aircraft; it's the pilot's job to ensure nobody ends up at that angle within missile range.

    Northrop is a fan of directing exhaust out over the top of their fuselage designs. Here's the B-2; you can see the heat plumes of the exhaust trail, but the source of actual combustion is well within the engine housing, and with the aircraft at any altitude the exhaust vent itself would be totally obscured:

    enter image description here

    Here are the exhaust channels of the YF-23, which incorporated lessons learned from the B-2; notice the similarities in the strategy for directing the exhaust out over the top of the aircraft's trailing edge:

    enter image description here

    The F-22 Raptor uses a similar theory of tucking the engines way back behind exhaust ducts, but these ducts can move to vector thrust or open to allow afterburners, so for greatest effect the ducts are placed to the rear instead of over the top of the fuselage as Northrop's designs tend to:

    enter image description here

  • EMR-absorbing materials. A basic part of stealth design is the use of materials that absorb radar, and designing the aircraft's surfaces with angles that minimize the number of surfaces providing a direct return at any angle, while remaining aerodynamic. Other materials can absorb other frequencies in the EMR spectrum including IR; the Space Shuttle's lower and leading surfaces were covered in special ceramic tiles that could absorb enormous amounts of thermal energy while being cool to the touch. A similar material, not quite as effective but also less delicate, is used to protect the exhaust ducts of stealth fighters, and this has a secondary effect of lowering the radiant heat signature of the engines because the exhaust nozzles stay cooler. The radar absorbing material used elsewhere has some capacity for absorbing heat on leading edges, which helps avoid good lock-on by all-aspect IR missiles, but it's not the material's primary job.

In summary, designers do try to minimize IR signature, but tactically, if an enemy can launch an IR missile at you you have already failed at being stealthy. An infrared missile launch requires the launcher to tell the missile where to look, and that means they must at least be able to look at you themselves (using helmet-cued AA missiles), if not point the missile itself or the tracking radar at you. The idea of stealth is to minimize the amount of time the enemy knows that you exist by being invisible on radar, so they can't see you coming until they spot you visually, at which point they're either already dead or have mere seconds to react. Then for a ground run it's "one pass and haul ass" to avoid reprisals from anti-aircraft systems, while for an air-to-air engagement the first plane to launch a missile has an extreme advantage (and thus the advantage starts with the first plane to know where the other one is).

  • $\begingroup$ The 2nd paragraph of your High Bypass section would make an excellent answer to the supercruise question. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 14 '15 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan - It already is :-) $\endgroup$
    – KeithS
    Jul 14 '15 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ oh... Well done, mate!!! $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Jul 14 '15 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ "and with the aircraft at any altitude the exhaust vent itself would be totally obscured" ...unless the attacker is, I don't know, another aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Aug 9 '18 at 1:33
  • $\begingroup$ You forgot something: injecting cooling agents into the exhaust. The F-117 did that, probably others as well as needed. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Mar 26 '19 at 4:39

While they try to reduce it as best they can its often low on the list,

According to this article

The SR-71 was designed to minimize its radar cross-section, an early attempt at stealth design.[21] Finished aircraft were painted a dark blue, almost black, to increase the emission of internal heat

One of the problems you get at is that airframes heat up at high speeds. In the case of the blackbird it was fast enough (and could fly high enough) to outrun anything anyway so heat signature was less of a concern.

According to this article

In the B-2, all of the exhaust passes through cooling vents before flowing out of the rear ports

So it seems they cool the exhaust. Im not sure what effects this has on the over all thrust that the plane generates but Im sure it has an effect in some way.

The article also goes on to talk about the exhaust placement and how top mounted exhaust can help with ground based sensing that is looking up at the bottom of the craft

Putting the exhaust ports on the top of the plane further reduces the infrared signature, since enemy sensors would most likely scan below the plane.

Reducing heat signature has 2 main functions. To keep the plane from showing up on ground based heat sensing systems and to keep thermal guided weapons from locking on. For what its worth the SR-71 was able to outrun most missiles of the time, some 4000 by all accounts.

For what its worth:

the SR-71 design did not take into account the extremely hot engine exhaust and the particles in the hot exhaust reflect radar extremely well. Ironically, the SR-71 was one of the largest targets on the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) long range radars, which were able to track the plane at several hundred miles

So arguably the greatest spy plane of all time was not even that stealthy...

In regards to the F-117

exhaust was channeled through long narrow ducts lined with heat-absorbing material so that it was cooler by the time it exited the plane and therefore did not show up as well on heat detectors

Seems similar to the system employed on the B2


Low observable aircraft are designed to emit IR radiation at frequencies that are less useful for sensors and/or better absorbed by the atmosphere. This is done with coatings. Some aircraft such as the F-35 also use heat exchangers put some of the heat generated into the fuel supply. Heat sources such as the radar can be cooled by fuel rather than allowing the heat to escape the the atmosphere.


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