The Truth Behind the Lie – A Brief History of US Stealth
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The Truth Behind the Lie: A Brief History of US Stealth

US History
US History
June 1, 2023
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Stealth technology in the United States is not a new or original concept. The very first professional conflicts in the new nation included attempts at stealth, using basic camouflage techniques to defeat British forces wearing bright red coats into battle. Some of the King’s units adopted a forest green uniform, but by then it was too late to help them. Since those early efforts, the United States has remained at the forefront of military deception technology, so let’s take a look at a few of the ridiculous and effective examples of how our nation hides its combat forces.

Union v. Confederates

During the American Civil War, camouflage techniques were used by Union and Confederate troops alike, but the general advantage went to the Confederates. With a heavier population of experienced rural hunters, they took the lead on hiding their troops early on. “Confederate Grey” uniforms themselves were designed to be more difficult to spot at a distance, and the color was in fact imported from European military units before receiving its colonial moniker.

When it came to naval forces, however, the Union pulled ahead. Painting some of their ships to match the color of the water and sky, the Union ships could evade being spotted for long enough to take the advantage in ship-to-ship combat. To this day US naval vessels adopt the ‘battleship grey’ color to make them harder to distinguish, despite them being far more massive and easily spotted technologically than their predecessors. 

America Joins the Fight in WWI

While there were many different influences during the period preceding WWI, one of the largest with a direct impact on forward troops was Homer Saint-Gaudens. The son of a sculptor and a Harvard alum, Homer entered WWI as an engineer. During his time in service, he tinkered with a great many materials and techniques, to include cut up pieces of Confederate uniforms sown with other colored cloths to create camouflage blankets to cover scouts and snipers crossing dangerous terrain. He also produced a paper-based material, due to the shortages of cotton, dyed in various earth tones to accomplish the same effect, that was later used on buildings and vehicles. Homer was so effective in fact, that serving as a Colonel in WWII, he oversaw camouflage and concealment for Allied forces on D-Day and beyond. Speaking of which… 

The War to End All Wars

There were many advances in uniforms and aircraft during WWII, but one of the most ambitious projects America undertook for defense was to conceal its stateside manufacturing facilities. Col. John F. Ohmer, for example, returned from the European front having seen the innovations made by the British, and tried to implement them immediately. Rejected initially as unnecessary, the attack by Japanese Imperial forces on the naval base in Pearl Harbor ushered in a concentrated effort to protect wartime resources. Col. Ohmer began with Lockheed plants, using many low-tech solutions to transform their aerial appearance to make them look like simple suburbs. 

Some areas used a more simple and natural approach. In Hawaii, the US government installed several hundred Hitachi trees (a variant of the monkeypod tree) to conceal ground forces and structures from observation. These enormous trees have broad, umbrella-like canopies which provide obscuration from anything in the skies at the time. These trees can still be seen today, hulking over buildings and roadways with their massive cover.

A Modern Approach

Covering up what you’re doing is one thing, but as militaries continued to modernize with radar, chaff, and other technologies, the US had to maintain its competitive advantage. Enter the SR-71 Blackbird. Designed in the 1960’s, the SR-71 was a completely new beast. Featuring a unique shape to minimize radar intercept, material coatings to deflect radar and laser signatures, and boasting a top speed above Mach 3, the Blackbird was the equivalent of being cut with a knife so sharp you didn’t feel the damage until after it occurred. The aircraft didn’t even have counter missile systems… It didn’t need them. Between its maximum altitude and its top speed, the Blackbird’s primary defense against missiles was to simply outrun them.

Just as interesting from a covert perspective was how the Blackbird was created. As it turns out, the materials used to build planes at the time would violently shake themselves apart or lose structural integrity at the speeds the SR-71 could reach. The engineers had a then unique fix… Build it with a new material, Titanium. 

The problem was, Titanium was rare in the 1960’s, few people had any experience with it, and most of the the world’s supply belonged to the very people we intended to use the Blackbird against. Russia. Once again it fell to good old fashioned American deception to fix the issue. The Central Intelligence Agency set up dozens of shell corporations in dozens of countries and began buying up all the Russian Titanium they could get their hands on. The result? Stealth reconnaissance tech that would last until the turn of the century.

Today’s Bleeding Edge

When the F-22 Raptor was introduced, it was the most advanced airframe the world had ever seen. To this day, 24 years after its initial design, the fifth-generation fighter can still easily crush the next best fighter of any opponent, friend or foe. The simplified F-35, the Raptor’s more expensive younger brother, holds a similar distinction. Able to remain undetected until well after a kill shot is fired from miles away on enemy aircraft, neither fighter has anything even close to a rival in the skies. 

While there have been some major setbacks in the design of the US Navy’s Zumwalt class destroyers, none of them were a result of their stealth capabilities. Designed with unique hull configurations and electronic warfare packages, the Zumwalt class was at the time of launch a nearly undetectable threat to enemy vessels in the surrounding waters. Unfortunately, the time between design and construction can drag on, and many post deployment add ons to the Zumwalt class negated its radar defeating properties. You win some, you lose some, I suppose.

The Undiscovered Country

Where do we go from here? Even older technologies, such as the F-22’s initial designs, are kept classified, so it’s difficult to know what the United States could manage in the decades to come. I for one am holding out for Active Camouflage, but I won’t hold my breath. One thing is for certain; as long as America stands, it will do so at the front lines of military deception.

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