1,000+ Stealth Aircraft - Now That’s a Milestone

1,000+ Stealth Aircraft - Now That’s a Milestone
December 12, 2022

Lockheed Martin hit a significant milestone with the total deliveries of very low observables (VLO), otherwise known as stealth technology, to over 1,000 aircraft. Contributing to this success are the F-117, F-22, F-35 and RQ-170 – the first American operational stealth UAS.

Delivering 1000+ VLO aircraft is an extraordinary achievement in and of itself. However, it's the advancement of these aircraft and what they symbolize that deserve to be in the spotlight. These aircraft have played a substantial role in guaranteeing our national security for more than 40 years with stealth technology developed by Skunk Works® Signature Management and Survivability, and Technology Roadmaps teams.

Pioneering Stealth: The F-117

Lockheed Martin had been integrating stealth features into the Blackbird series in the 1960s but things really took off in the late 1970s with DARPA’s Experimental Stealth Testbed program that produced the Have Blue demonstrator and gave roots to the F-117. The F-117 was developed and fielded through Initial Operational Capability in less than five years and served our nation for over 25 years before its retirement.

Both the success of Have Blue and the F-117 were due largely to their unique appearance and shape which allowed them to appear no bigger than an eagle’s eyeball. This is all thanks to a modeling technique developed by Lockheed engineer, Denys Overholser, called ECHO I. For the first time, we were able to develop a computer program to precisely predict the radar cross section (RCS) return of any given shape – provided it could be made from flat panels. This along with other advanced technologies made the F-117 a decisive air power game changer by removing the advantages of adversary air defenses.


Fast Forward to the F-22

In the 1980s, the F-22 took stealth technology to a whole new level as the world’s first 5th generation fighter. As an Advanced Tactical Fighter, it employs stealth, super-cruise speed, unprecedented mission systems capability, exceptional maneuverability and weapons capability. On top of that, the F-22 has composites throughout, and advanced edges with embedded antennas that can be simultaneously stealthy while allowing large amounts of information to be transmitted and received.

Further evolution of computational tools, such as 3D Method of Moments (MM3D), allowed better radar return predictions over arbitrarily curved surfaces, thus avoiding the facetted flat panel look of the F-117. Our Signature Management and Survivability team continues to support the Raptor with sustainment-related improvements to low-observable materials and components.


And Today... the F-35

Winner of the “Battle of the X-Planes”, the F-35 has a shaft-driven lift fan packaged into a stealthy vehicle with sensors and antennas throughout. We continue to make advancements with new radar-absorbent materials developed to handle the harsh and corrosive Navy environment, and new low observable materials capable of reducing volatile organic compounds by millions of pounds in support of the Pollution Prevention program. Additionally, the Technology Roadmaps team, together with Manufacturing Technology and Mission Systems artificial intelligence researchers, has developed a tool to reduce the time required for stealth validation of nearly a half mile of panel seams on each F-35 on the production line helping to speed delivery of these vital aircraft.

1,000 and Counting

As the threats to our national security continue to evolve, our capabilities are steadily improving. This includes new manufacturing methods and materials, improvements to the sustainment of low-observable components, and the application of artificial intelligence. We maintain focus on today’s and the next generation of aircraft to stay ahead of our adversaries.

Warren Gilmour, a stealth expert and colleague of Skunk Works founder, Kelly Johnson, said “If you think racing cars, you think Ferrari. If you think low observables, you must think Skunk Works.” Our Technology Roadmaps team continues to develop and evolve technologies and predictive tools and shares its experience in low observable systems across Lockheed Martin so that all our business areas may benefit and keep our customers ahead of ready.

It's with the help of our breakthrough technology and advancements that the men and women in critical roles in America, and our allied countries, achieve their missions and come home safely every night. We are proud of our contributions to the nation’s security, our stealth heritage, and this awesome milestone of delivering 1,000+ VLO aircraft…and counting!