The Science of Stealth

Some of the technology featured in the new sci-fi flick is based on real Air Force research, but most appears out of thin air. Our aviation editor explains

There are three reasons why filmmakers distort science and technology: 1) to make things look cooler, 2) to make a story “work”, and 3) because they have no clue what they’re talking about, and they’ve chosen to ignore the advice (or pleas) of the film’s consultants. Although Stealth–a hypersonically paced Top Gun update about an unmanned air combat vehicle (UCAV) gone amok–gets correct some of the futuristic air-combat technology it depicts, much of it is dead wrong, and the film commits all three of the aforementioned sins.
Set in the near future, Stealth follows three young Navy pilots–played by Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx–who are, evidently, the only pilots capable of handling the Navy’s newest weapon: the ultrafast, ultra-deadly, ultra-sleek Talon fighter jet. The fourth star is Extreme Deep Invader, or EDI, a fully autonomous UCAV. As EDI returns from its first mission, things go downhill fast. It gets blasted by a lightening bolt, which rewires its artificial intelligence, contained in a very cool-looking but highly unlikely glowing sphere inside the cockpit. (Cockpit in an unmanned vehicle? We’ll get to that in a minute.) Now the vehicle suddenly has an alarming propensity to play indie-rock bootlegs illegally pirated from the Internet. Yes, moviegoers, the plane has turned evil–so evil that it illegally downloads music.

I won’t bother with that particular idiocy; there are plenty of other ways to complain about the science and technology depicted in this movie. While its basic premise–a future Air Force equipped abundantly with autonomous aircraft–is absolutely true, the various deviations from valid military air-combat future trajectories are rampant. In no particular order:

  • The title: The movie is called Stealth, but there’s virtually no discussion of anything remotely stealth-related. This despite the fact that stealth–both visual stealth, to conceal aircraft against a variety of backgrounds, and radar stealth, to hide them from missile batteries and other aircraft will be a vital part of most combat-aircraft designs in the future. In fact, the Soviet-era fighter jets sent up to intercept EDI and co. as they streak across Eurasia have no trouble at all finding them and getting a few good shots in before, predictably, they’re waxed by the high-tech adversaries.
  • The Talon’s cockpits are excessively complex. Lucas, Foxx and Biel are surrounded by hundreds of switches, lights and controls in giant, sprawling instrument panels. In reality, fighter-jet cockpits are getting simpler and simpler. Modern aircraft, both civilian and military, are increasingly using LCD screens that selectively display information they need, but only when they need it. Most controls are multifunction and located on the joystick. (See sin #1 above.)
  • Speaking of cockpits, why does EDI have one? No UCAV in test now or being planned in the future has a place for someone to sit. The reason EDI has one, of course, is so that later in the film, Lucas can climb aboard and save the world. (See sin #2.)
  • The airplanes fly at hypersonic velocities, which is fine at high altitudes. But they also fly obscenely fast through mountain canyons and 20 feet off the ground. No human pilot, now or in the future, could withstand the G-forces that the Talon pilots are subjected to as they make hard lefts and rights at more than 1,000 knots. Nor could they actually do any of the flying at those speeds and altitude–only a computer could steer that quickly through the mountains. (See sin #3.)
  • The Talons and EDI have aeroelastic wings, which in this case merely sweep back and forth based on how fast the craft is flying. Those have been around for decades, in the F-14 Tomcat and the B-1 bomber. A more imaginative designer would have given the aircraft actual morphing wings and fuselages, which could change shape to any number of configurations based on the type of flying needed.
  • The aircraft designs themselves: Bill Sweetman, a noted aerospace analyst and a Popular Science contributing editor, had mixed feelings about the “imaginative creations.” He says, “Black-project buffs will recognize the swing-wing aircraft as first cousin to Northrop Grumman’s top-secret Switchblade fighter. But don’t even think about going supersonic with those tiny engine inlets. They’ll be breathing nothing except turbulence and junk at any speed above Mach 1. Also, the sharp bulges will send a fat radar spike dead ahead, just where you don’t want it.”
  • Most of the combat action takes place at close range using machine guns. First of all, almost all combat action now takes place at long range using missiles. That will probably remain true forever. Secondly, the airplanes are moving so fast that any bullet hits can only be attributed to dumb luck, of which there is a lot in this movie.
  • Without giving away a crucial plot line, the most ridiculous fib comes when the Navy pilots finally figure out how to take EDI down. Let’s just say that you’ll never guess how they do it, because how they do it makes no sense.

Some elements in Stealth are pretty much on target. There is validity to the propulsion system, for example. The captain describes it as a pulse-detonation engine boosted by scramjet turbos. Both these engine types are in active development and will certainly propel aircraft to the kinds of speeds depicted in the film. And there is also substantial truth to the “neural network” used in EDI’s artificial-intelligence system. Designers of autonomous systems are striving to make them replicate human thinking and reasoning processes as much as possible. It is very unlikely, however, that a lightning bolt would turn them “evil”, especially to the tune of Internet piracy. Far more likely, though perhaps lacking dramatic potential, is that a lightning bolt would simply make them crash.

Directed by Rob Cohen

Written by W.D. Richter


Josh Lucas–Lt. Ben Gannon

Jessica Biel–Lt. Kara Wade

Jamie Foxx–Lt. Henry Purcell

Sam Shepard–Capt. George Cummings

Richard Roxburgh–Keith Orbit

Joe Morton–Capt. Dick Marshfield

Ian Bliss–Lt. Aaron Shaftsbury

Ebon Moss-Bachrach–Josh Hudson