What is Stealth?
Stealth is not invisibility. Rather, stealth gives the F-35 the ability to elude or greatly complicate an enemy’s ability to find and destroy an aircraft using a combination of design, tactics and technology.
Can stealth be retrofitted to existing aircraft?
True stealth cannot be retrofitted in an existing aircraft. It has to be built in the design of an aircraft. In general, stealth is the ability to evade detection by radar, infrared sensors or emission interception.
F-35 Ret. Marine Maj. Dan Flatley (USMC) Explains:
American adversaries have built impressive arrays of very high frequency, or VHF, and other integrated radars that can spot even the US’s most advanced and stealthy jets like the F-22 and the F-35 under the right circumstances.
Flatley said "Adversaries have to build a kill chain, just because a radar can find an object — and VHF radars can spot F-35s — doesn’t mean it can fix, track, target, and consummate that kill chain with a missile hit. We’re not trying to prevent every aspect of that chain, just snap one of those links."
Flatley further explained "So while an infrared search and tracking system could spot an F-35 and give enemy pilots an idea of where it is, it couldn’t track it or target it with a missile. I don’t need to stop everything all the time of the kill chain. I just need to make you unable to finish what you’ve already invested tons of time and money and effort in trying to shoot me down.”
“That’s the thing people don’t understand,” Flatley said. “They think we’re saying we’re invisible to everyone all the time, at all bandwidths and energy levels. … That’s not what we’re saying.”
Flatley says, the reality is that the F-35 is a huge piece of flying metal and alloy — a radar pointed at the right place at the right time will definitely spot it, but good luck shooting it down.
Meanwhile, as the enemy systems scour the skies for any trace of the F-35, the F-35 sees all of those radar emissions and can pinpoint the air defenses and enemy planes.
Where legacy planes had to choose between lethality and survivability on a mission, the F-35 can do four, 16, or even 32 things at a time, meaning that while air and ground threats look for the stealth jet, the F-35 can drop bombs to smash them, according to Flatley.