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F-22 Raptor Radar Cross-Section: Bird, bee, fly?

Flying Invisibly

The F-22 Raptor is known for its stealth capabilities worldwide. Years before its introduction into service, adversaries were already clamoring to develop radar defenses able to see it. Even in 2019 it remains as elusive as it is awesome. Below we’ll take a look at the F-22’s radar cross-section, and how its able to slip through air defenses undetected.

A 1st Fighter Wing’s F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. pulls into position to accept fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker with the 756th Air Refueling Squadron, Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility, Md. off the east coast on May 10, 2012. The first Raptor assigned to the Wing arrived Jan. 7, 2005. This aircraft was allocated as a trainer, and was docked in a hanger for maintenance personnel to familiarize themselves with its complex systems. The second Raptor, designated for flying operations, arrived Jan. 18, 2005. On Dec. 15, 2005, Air Combat Command commander, along with the 1 FW commander, announced the 27th Fighter Squadron as fully operational capable to fly, fight and win with the F-22. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

F-22 Radar Cross Section

The Raptor’s stealth capabilities largely come down to two main features of the aircraft, its shape and its external coatings. Stealth aircraft are designed specifically to deflect radar waves, ensuring they don’t return back to any tracking equipment and give away the jet’s position.

Imagine trying to find two objects at night in a field with a flashlight. One is a mirror, and the other is a chalkboard.

The results of this characteristic are apparent all over the exterior of the F-22. Most noticeably it can be seen in the wedge-shape of its fuselage and nosecone. While most aircraft are round, even legacy jet fighters, the F-22 has a distinct “top” and “bottom” all the way from its nose back to the engine exhaust. Round objects reflect radar waves evenly in all directions, making it easy for air defenses to pick up on their presence. The Raptor, on the other hand, deflects the waves away in strategic angles, making it much harder to detect.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, flies in formation over the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, July 18, 2019. The JPARC is a 67,000 plus square mile area, providing a realistic training environment commanders leverage for full spectrum engagements, ranging from individual skills to complex, large-scale joint engagements. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James Richardson)

Aside from the shape of the fighter, the F-22 also relies on its exterior coatings to reduce its radar signature. Typical aircraft paint over an aluminum frame is a great reflector of radar waves. Because of this the Raptor is instead coated with a Top Secret material that absorbs radar waves rather than reflecting them. The difference in these two approaches can be staggering. Imagine trying to find two objects at night in a field with a flashlight. One is a mirror, and the other is a chalkboard. That’s why stealth capabilities are so important.

For the F-22, this all comes together to create a staggering result. When modern air defenses attempt to search for a Raptor in the night sky, the radar cross-section they see is about the size of a bumble bee.

That’s one mean and dangerous bumble bee.

When you consider the value of the aircraft and everything in it, the value of the mission, and the value of America’s increased influence on the world stage, it becomes incredibly apparent why stealth is critical in military aviation.