In 1978, the U.S. contracted with Lockheed and its Skunkworks to build a radar-evading attack plane. Thirty-one months later, the F-117 made its first flight. The single-seat plane carries two laser-guided 2,000-lb bombs (internally) and flies subsonically. Inflight refueling gives it an unlimited range. It was first used to bomb Panamanian targets in 1989 but was not acknowledged to exist until 1990. A year later, it gained fame for missions it flew during the 1991 Desert Storm assault on Iraq. Lockheed delivered 59 F-117s to the Air Force by 1990 and kept five test aircraft for itself. Each plane cost an estimated $122 million.
B-2 Spirit, 1989
The B-2, a long-range bomber built by Northrup Grumman that carries 40,000 lb of conventional or nuclear bombs, sprang from a 1981 program and first flew in 1989. Manned by a crew of two, it can fly 6,000 miles unrefueled at close to 500 mph. The four-engine plane’s radar signature is greatly reduced, thanks to its shape and the absorbent materials covering it. Engineers also took pains to reduce its infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, and visual signatures. The aircraft cost about $2.1 billion and 21 were built, 16 of which are operational.
YRB-49 Flying Wing, 1947
The YB-49 was a flying prototype built by Northrup as a long range spy plane. It was not intended to be stealthy, but radar tests at the time showed that it was. Its eight J35 jet engines gave it a top speed of 510 mph (faster than today’s B-2) and it could cruise at almost 41,000 ft. The plane’s shape and control scheme made it unstable and avionics and controls had not been developed to the point that engineers could make the test plane safe. It crashed in 1948, killing all five crewmen. Edwards AFB is named for one of those dead airmen, Capt. Glen Edwards.
F-22 Raptor, 1997
Lockheed Martin’s F-22 first flew in 1997 when it won a fly-off to be the Advanced Tactical Fighter, but it was not operational until 2005. The Air Force originally wanted 750 of the capable stealthy planes. Eventually, 195 were built (8 test and 187 operational), at cost of $412 million per plane. The twin-engine, single seat plane has a top speed greater than Mach 2 with afterburners and can cruise at Mach 1.8. It can deliver air-to-air or air-to ground munitions or carry out electronic warfare (jamming).
Sea Shadow, 1984
Lockheed engineers began designing a stealth ship in the early 1980s and completed the Sea Shadow in 1984. Besides stealth, the experimental ship also tested several automation technologies which let it sail with a crew of four. The unarmed, twin-hulled ship was powered by a diesel-electric powertrain that gave it a top speed of 14.2 kt. The public didn’t learn of its existence until 1993. After several years of testing, the Navy tried selling the ship for scrap to the highest bidder in 2006, but couldn’t find a buyer until 2012 and it was dismantled.
The F-35, another stealth jet plane from Lockheed Martin, is a single-seal, multi-role tactical aircraft that is going through a long, difficult round of test and development which began in 1996. The first prototype flew in 2006. A major stumbling block in its development has been the goal of designing and building three variants: one for conventional take-offs and landing for the Air Force, a short take-off and landing version for the Marines, and one fit for carrier-based launches and landings for the Navy.
USS Independence (LCS-2), 2010
The USS Independence, a littoral combat ship from General Dynamics, has the smooth lines and oblique angles common in stealth designs. A series of water jets propels the trimaran. For low speeds (0 to 18 kt), two diesel-powered jets are used. For higher speeds (up to 44 kt), a pair of gas turbine-powered water jets kick in. The ship can carry a variety of modular weapon pods and helicopters, and is crewed by eight officers and 32 enlisted. This ship, the first in its class, costs about $700 million; follow-on ships should be in the $350 million range.
The oddly shaped USS Zumwalt with its tumblehome hull is a stealthy guided-missile destroyer that carries anti-aircraft and anti-sub missiles, as well as Tomahawk strike missiles. The $3.5 billon ship is equipped with Raytheon’s AN/SPY-3 phased-array radar that can detect incoming aircraft and missiles, as well as stealthy ships, and provide targeting and control information for the ships’ missiles and guns. The phased-array radar also eliminates any rotating antennae supported by angular masts which would increase is radar cross-section.