Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Remember when stealth technology was mysterious?

Now it's available for export. Lockheed Martin has agreed to sell Japan 42 of its almost-ready-to-mass-produce F-35 Lightning II multirole aircraft. The F-35 is stealthier than any other production aircraft in the world besides the F-22, and has other fascinating capabilities, like an electro-optical helmet-mounted display that lets the pilot literally look through the bottom and sides of the plane. Neat stuff, and I'm happy Japan is replacing its F-4s with such a capable piece of hardware.

But it makes me think back to the 1980s, when stealth technology basically sounded like science fiction (although the first prototypes were flying in the 70s) and no one knew exactly what it looked like until the F-117 made its debut. And what a debut: The Nighthawk looked like no other aircraft before it (and no other aircraft since)... almost alien, and definitely impressive.

Lookin' sharp. Literally.

Now it is horribly outdated and retired. And its limitations--slow, no air-to-air capability to speak of, blind spots in onboard sensors--have been addressed, and then some, by the Raptor, the world's most advanced fighter.

The biggest sign that the technology has come a long way, and continues to advance in secret, is that the U.S. is building a stealth airframe that has been approved for export. By the end of the decade, the U.S., Britain, Japan and probably South Korea, among others, will all be flying various iterations of the Lightning II. Yes, they are staunch U.S. allies and it is hardly a threat to national security to ensure they have high-tech hardware.

But it also means the U.S., whose Air Force top brass has long adhered to the doctrine that it "never wants to be in a fair fight," has something better up its sleeve.

Can't wait to see it.

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