In the 1970s, it became clear to Pentagon planners that the spread of advanced anti-air-defense systems meant US forces would be at risk if they needed to penetrate enemy territory. To help counter this, DARPA began a series of technology tests that eventually resulted in HAVE Blue, a stealth combat aircraft that had its first test flight by the end of 1977.
After the technology was proven to be practical, the Air Force developed and purchased the F-117A stealth fighter, which went operational in October 1983. That was followed by the development of the B-2 stealth bomber, which had its first flight in July of 1989. Since then, only one stealth plane has been shot down in combat — an F-117 taken down over Serbia in 1999.
Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute and a member of the Defense News advisory board, said the development of stealth "ushered in a change in the character of warfare."
"Stealth allowed us to dramatically reduce and — in some cases — eliminate altogether, the massive force packaging that's required for non-stealthy aircraft to reach targets anywhere in theater," Deptula said.
"That leverage, combined with the use of precision weapons, enabled the application of new concepts of operations focused on effects — vice destruction — to achieve strategic outcomes in a fraction of the time using conventional means."
While only 21 B-2 bombers were procured and the F-117 was retired in 2008, stealth is now a core tenant of US airpower, and its role will only expand.
Two of the largest programs for the US Air Force in the coming years will be the F-35 joint strike fighter and the B-21 bomber, both designs that rely on stealth characteristics. There is even talk about designing a stealth-capable tanker for the future.
Nations around the world also continue to invest in stealth capabilities, most notably China, whose multi-role FC-31 stealth fighter is widely assumed to be based on stolen technical data for the F-35. And many global US partners are customers of the F-35, meaning stealth technology will continue to proliferate over the coming decades.
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.