RIP F-35: DARPA Thinks the Future of Air Warfare Might Not Be Stealth

Michael Peck

Key point: Physically and technologically it might not be possible to make planes any stealthier and the enemy is getting better at countering stealth as it is.

Did the Pentagon just admit that stealth technology may not work anymore? Or that America must be ready to face a future where its airpower doesn't control the skies?

DARPA, the Pentagon's cutting-edge research agency, has quietly raised these possibilities as it searches for future technology to fight the next war. And stealth technology may not be the answer.

“Platform stealth may be approaching physical limits,” says DARPA.

The agency also admits that “our acquisition system is finding it difficult to respond on relevant timescales to adversary progress, which has made the search for next-generation capabilities at once more urgent and more futile.”

If that’s the case, then the next generation of aircraft—the designs that will eventually replace the F-22, F-35 and B-2 stealth aircraft—may not be any stealthier than their predecessors. Or, in the endless race between stealth technology and the sensors that seek to penetrate its veil, stealth may have hit a brick wall.

Thus, DARPA has to ask a question that America has never really had to contemplate before. “Are there acceptable alternatives to air dominance?” DARPA asks. “Is it possible to achieve Joint Force objectives without clearing the skies of enemy fighters and bombers, and eliminating all surface-based threats? Can this be achieved without placing a high-value, sophisticated platform and crew at risk—reducing leverage potential adversaries currently hold over the U.S.?”

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