Advances in stealth technology uncloak career opportunities for engineers… and other creative problem solvers.
For the past 40 years, this technology and related tactics have been a critical part of modern air warfare. They have allowed low observability (LO) aircraft to penetrate enemy territory undetected and conduct their missions successfully.
According to a recently published report by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, stealth technology will remain central to aircraft survivability in combat threat environments for the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, U.S. adversaries remain as determined to detect our stealth platforms as we are to elude detection. To wit, enemy development of (1) more sensitive, longer range radars; (2) advanced digital signal processing (that speeds communications between ground radar systems and surface-to-air (SAM) sites or airborne interceptors; (3) more lethal, more mobile SAMS; (4) more advanced fighters carrying more advanced radar and longer range missiles; and (5) advances in command and control networking processes, are potentially putting U.S. stealth aircraft, their pilots and their missions at risk.
Against this backdrop, opportunities for engineers — and other types of creative problem solvers — to participate in this perennial game of stealth “cat and mouse” remain stronger than ever. Especially if they love solving hard problems — and not giving up.
Historically, stealth technology — the science of minimizing a stealth aircraft’s radar cross section and its electromagnetic signature — has been the domain of engineers well trained in aircraft design and electromagnetic theory. But in today’s stealth-focused labs, you’ll find people trained in a broader, more diverse set of disciplines — from electrical, mechanical and aeronautical engineering to materials and data sciences.
“The most successful survivability engineers we’ve hired in recent years have had degrees in multiple disciplines,” explains Elizabeth San Miguel, assistant manager of technology development for system survivability, Northrop Grumman. “Being able to understand multiple disciplines and how they affect each other in this context is an extremely valuable skill.”
But a good education is just the beginning.
“We’re looking for people who are curious and innovative, people who like to solve problems, and who are smart enough — and observant enough — to recognize unexpected results,” says John Ireland, director of survivability technology application, Northrop Grumman. Breakthroughs often occur, he adds, when engineers “stumble upon” an unanticipated result, but won’t let go of it until they completely understand it.
Today’s game of stealth is relentless and evolving, and playing out in multiple domains — air, ground, and space. Survivable platforms often operate as part of a broader network of air and space assets, so simply minimizing the radar cross section of a platform does not reflect the true complexity of the stealth equation.
“There are several levels to any stealth problem — the system level, the platform level, and the technology level,” explains Doug Young, vice president and deputy program manager for strike, Northrop Grumman. “To the extent that engineers can navigate comfortably among those environments, they will be very successful.”
But elegant engineering solutions alone won’t guarantee mission success for LO platforms.
“As we design new systems, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our adversary,” says San Miguel. “As fast as we think of something new, we’re also thinking of a countermeasure for it, trying to psyche out how someone with different objectives might try to attack us. That’s the inherent cat and mouse game of warfare.”
The most successful LO engineers in the future, claims Young, will be those who can suspend disbelief, start with a clean mental sheet, and remove from their thinking any perceptions of the past that might constrain their view of what’s possible.
“Don’t accept anything you already know as being required or the right answer,” he advises. “If you want to create a new possibility, you have to have a future that is empty and available to accept that possibility.”
Regardless of how stealth technologies and tactics evolve, one thing remains certain, declares Ireland. “Stealthy airplanes are sexy. Working in this field gives you a chance to be around things that few other people know about, and to affect the design of a truly unique platform. When that aircraft is produced, you’ll be able to say, ‘I did that, and I know how I made it better.”