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.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.