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Comment: no simple lick of paint

The US Air Force has invested untold billions in the stealth performance of the Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter. Stealth is the F-22's most elemental design requirement, so it is no trivial question to ask whether the US Air Force - and the US taxpayer - has got its money's worth in the bargain.

So far, the public record is spotless about the ability of the F-22 to effectively cloak itself from detection across the spectrum of radio frequency sensors. Of course, this information is also rigorously protected and boasts by Lockheed, the US Air Force and other defence officials are impossible for neutral observers to verify.

Perhaps more important is the lack of complaints about the F-22's radar cross section.

That critical silence has never been the case when it comes to public comments about the reliability and maintainability of the high-technology coatings that enable the F-22's low radar profile.

 © USAf/Senior Airman Clay Lancaster
Stealthy, and supposedly built to stay that way

Over more than a decade, a series of operational test reports and comments by senior Department of Defense officials have established a clear record of concern. Most recently, John Young, the former undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters in November that the brittleness of the F-22's low observable system remains an issue.

Young spoke less than a year after an F-22 sustained major damage when a section of its stealth coating peeled off in flight and was ingested by one engine.

Now comes a lawsuit from a former F-22 engineer, Darrol Olsen, who accuses Lockheed Martin of knowingly providing defective stealth coatings and covering up its mistake through at least 2004. To be fair, Lockheed fired Olsen in 1999, and the Department of Justice declined an opportunity to take up the case on Olsen's behalf. Lockheed also denies any wrongdoing and intends to fight Olsen in court.

The legitimacy of Olsen's complaint may never be fully known, and that is a pity.

The F-22's stealth prowess has not yet been tested in real combat against a sophisticated air defence system. Until that moment comes, there is no open source data to objectively measure the public claims of the USAF and the F-22's other supporters.

What makes for real debate, however, is the continuing drumbeat of criticism about what it takes to maintain and repair the F-22's stealth capability.


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