Stealth is a continuous battle between hider and finder, signature modification and sensing, and quieting and listening. No service knows this better than the U.S. Navy. For decades, the Navy has been on both sides at the same time by continuously improving its ability to avoid detection while also developing new and better means for detecting, tracking and prosecuting hostile forces.
The Navy’s premier stealthy capability is its submarine force, the Silent Service. Indeed, that is how the Navy presents this capability as centered around the stealthiness of submarines. U.S. submarines, both the attack boats, SSNs, and nuclear missile submarines, SSBNs, have dominated the oceans in large part because of their superior stealthiness. The Soviet Union built good submarines but they were generally noisier than their U.S. counterparts, meaning less stealthy and thus easier to find. One reason SSNs are so highly prized as intelligence collection platforms is their ability to operate close to the target without being detected. At the same time, each generation of SSNs demonstrated improved capabilities to unmask their opponents. The Virginia class SSNs are the state-of-the art both in their stealthiness and detection capabilities. Anyone who has read the novels of Tom Clancy or seen The Hunt for Red October can appreciate what advanced stealth provides.
The Navy has also applied the same concept of stealth to its surface fleet. The new Zumwalt class DDG 1000s were designed with reduced visibility, hence greater stealthiness, in mind. Unlike most classes of warships which have hull and superstructures with relatively straight lines perpendicular to the water, the DDG 1000 has a ‘tumblehome’ hull form, meaning that the hull slopes inward from above the waterline. Like the design of stealth aircraft, this reduces the DDG 1000’s radar reflectivity. The integrated deckhouse, composite superstructure, sensors and antennas are all designed for reduced emissions and enhanced electronic countermeasures.
The Navy has been a leader in electronic warfare, including emissions management and signals intelligence. During the Cold War, the Navy diligently practiced emission control or EMCON which allowed battle groups literally to disappear from hostile sensors. This is an art the Navy has to relearn. In addition, the Navy has been the leader in electronic warfare (EW), in all the ways to defeat prospective adversaries’ sensing capabilities. As the other side’s sensors improve and their techniques get better, electronic warfare capabilities have to improve too. This is another version of the age old “hiders versus finders” dynamic. The Navy is investing in the Next Generation Jammer to go aboard the EA-18G Growler to advance its ability to conduct electronic warfare against future sensor threats.
So why does the Navy seem to have such difficult with stealth when it comes to carrier aviation? One would assume that the Navy would seem to be the Service most inclined to understand the value of signature reduction in all its forms. It practices signature management all the time in the submarine force and surface fleet. Moreover, the value of stealth combined with EW against the growing anti-access/area denial threats of the 21st Century should be self-evident to the Navy. The Navy’s seeming reluctance to embrace the F-35 is unfathomable.
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