China has for long been trying to develop stealth technology for its fighter aircraft, and the end results have been questioned by experts. However, the Asian giant seems to be taking the problem in a manner that’s totally different from how the West, particularly the US. The Chinese are trying to develop materials that when used to cloak aircraft, can even make older non-stealth aircraft nearly invisible.
Reports in Chinese media have referred to it as the ‘cloak of invisibility’. This approach is different from the Western methods of relying on stealthy airframes and surfaces for the aircraft. It will rely on ‘metamaterials’ to either absorb or deflect radio waves, theoretically making the aircraft invisible on command.
The news is likely to gain sustained interest and analysis in defence circles because it would help turn much older aircraft into stealth variants.
Stealth technology is not a single unit of technical know-how. It is more of a collection of design principles and material usage that helps an aircraft or a ship minimise its radar cross-section. That means a massive craft will show up as a much smaller object when it is picked up by a radar. The very idea of stealth is aimed at giving fighter jets more time before they are detected, cutting down on the reaction time available to the adversary.
For instance, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, considered the pinnacle of stealth technology so far, has wings that stretch 13.56 meters from tip to tip. But it will be detected by radar as an object that’s the size of a steel marble, according to some estimates. The technologies and radar-absorbent materials developed for the F-22 are presently available only to the US, and that’s why the manufacturer is banned from selling the F-22 to anyone other than the US military.
The Chinese have claimed that their bid at building a stealth fighter – the Chengdu J-20 – has been successful. But defence experts have raised doubts on what they point out are design elements that are fundamentally anti-stealth – like the J-20’s canards.