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While thinking about the MiG-29’s dedicated rough-field intakes, I started wondering about rough-field operations for other types of combat aircraft, and, naturally, since most new combat aircraft designs are stealth aircraft...

...how do stealth aircraft, with their fragile radar-absorbent coatings, operate from rough or contaminated fields (such as basically any frontline bases, which they would have to operate from in a war of equals,1 given that launching from rear-echelon airbases and then refuelling over the combat zone isn’t possible in such a situation, seeing how flying a tanker somewhere you don’t have air supremacy is merely a rather expensive method of suicide) without the attendant sand and grime and rain and hail and discarded shrapnel and whatnot quickly rendering them non-stealth?


1: A full-scale war between the United States and China, for example.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not an expert by any means but as far as I know the stealth characteristics are not only achieved by the surface coating, I think a major factor is the geometry of these aircraft. A lot of the surfaces are at an angle to avoid reflecting the radar waves back to the direction they came from. And a bit of dirt is probably not going to change that geometric shape... but that's just my idea here. $\endgroup$ – Jan Mar 17 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ Most of your assumptions are incorrect. I would recommend doing your homework about this first and then coming back to rephrase the question. For one thing, air refuelling for aircraft operating in the front lines of a conflict is a commonplace occurrence. Also, the coatings on "stealth aircraft" are not something I would describe as "fragile." $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez Mar 19 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ 1) Both. 2) Media reports something on the Internet, so of course, it must be true. Riiiight. Reminds of a certain company's advertisement featuring French models. :) $\endgroup$ – Juan Jimenez Mar 25 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ I don't understand. You're proposing to have an air field with a dodgy runway that's close enough to the action that your stealth aircraft can perform their mission from there without refuelling. If that place is safe enough to put planes on the ground, isn't it also safe enough that you can refuel in the air immediately above it? $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 25 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ Seeing as the B-2 can't even operate in rainy weather without its billion dollar paint job getting ruined (maybe they've solved that problem by now, but it was a real concern) I seriously doubt any thought was given to operating them from unprepared strips in combat zones. F-117 ditto, special tents had to be constructed in Saudi during Desert Shield to house those. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Mar 26 at 4:38
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I think you're working off some incorrect assumptions.

Firstly the "fragile radar-absorbent coatings" you refer to aren't quite the issue you think they are - yes the B-2 is famously something of a garage queen (famously requiring climate controlled hangars and suffering a degradation in the stealth performance with each flight) and essentially cannot be deployed to a "rough field" base such as you describe. The thing with something like the B-2 though is that it doesn't need to be - its range (6,000 NMi, or 10,000 with one refueling) means it just flies from Andersen or from Whiteman etc.

Even the B-2 however is not solely reliant upon the Radar Absorbant Material (RAM) coating for stealth - a large portion of its reduced radar cross section (RCS) comes from its shape, and other stealth characteristics come from reduced heat, acoustic and visual signatures. "Stealth" is so much more than just slapping a coat of Dulux Radar Absorbent Paint[1] on any old jalopy you've got lying around.

More recent "stealth" designs (i.e. the "Fifth Generation" fighters) such as the F-22 have a further reduced reliance on RAM skins as the understanding of radar reflections and the technology to compute it have improved. The F-22 doesn't require the climate controlled hangars of the B-2 and can be operated and maintained out of "normal" bases and hangars. Could it operate out of a really rough field? Don't know - if the USAF has tried they haven't mentioned it that I know of. I believe it was deployed to bases in Malaysia for operations in Syria.

The F-35 takes this a step further - Lockheed say that some of the RAM is "baked in" to the skin of the aircraft, making it much more durable and slower to degrade and the coatings are supposed to cure much faster than those used in the F-22, reducing maintenance turnaround. The F-35 certainly seems fairly flexible in terms of the environments it can be deployed in - operating from carriers, the UK, Israel etc.

TL/DR: with the exception of the B-2 the RAM coatings on in-service stealth aircraft[2] aren't that fragile, aren't that hard to restore and aren't actually that important. And the B-2 would be extremely unlikely to ever need to operate out of the sort of base you describe in the first place.

[1] I don't think Dulux actually make RAM paint - but wouldn't that be a great talking point at dinner parties?

[2] I've not forgotten about the J-20, but the PLAAF hasn't exactly published much about it!

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