US Air Force maintenance technicians prepare to tow a B-2 Spirit aircraft after a local training mission at Anderson Air Force Base, Guam. Photo: courtesy US Air Force.

It was pre-9/11, and we were heading to Edwards Air Force base, when we saw the most amazing sight.

A B-2 Stealth Bomber, on the deck — and I mean, on the deck over the dry lake bed. This big, honkin’ airplane, was doing knife edge turns at high speed, with an F-16 chase plane following and mimicking its every move.

It seemed impossible, that such a big aircraft — a flying wing, essentially — could do this. But this was no ordinary aircraft.

I would later find out from confidential sources it sported a top-secret new aerospace technology, developed at Lockheed Martin’s ultra-secretive Skunkworks© in Lancaster, Calif. A peculiar anti-gravity technology on the B-2’s wing-tips.

Anyway, it blew us away, and in those days stealth technology was new and ground-breaking. Enemy radars would no longer be able to track US bombers and fighter jets, or so we thought.

But that was then.

In the year 2021, Chinese researchers now say they are developing a new quantum radar technology that could detect stealth aircraft by creating a small electromagnetic storm  (EMW), according to a recent study published in the Journal of Radars, a China-based peer-reviewed publication, reports the South China Morning Post.

According to Interesting Engineering, this isn’t the first time researchers from China have made big claims about a functional quantum radar, and many experts from other countries contest the very feasibility of such devices.

Should we take the claim with a grain of salt? Or are they indeed one step closer to tracking US fighter jets.

Keep in mind, all weapons sooner or later face counter-weapons, so it may not be outlandish to think that stealth aircraft can one day be detected.

And it’s no secret that Beijing and Washington have been in the middle of a quantum arms race over the past few years, drawing parallels to the Cold War.

On the other hand, it is in keeping with China’s current “be afraid, be very afraid” military posturing.

So let’s talk about radar.

Conventional radars have a fixed or rotating dish, but the quantum radar design more closely resembles a gun, and accelerates electrons to nearly the speed of light.

Once they pass through a winding tube exposed to strong magnetic fields, the electrons could generate a vortex of microwaves that swirl forward like a horizontal tornado, according to the report.

If successfully completed, the novel quantum radar system would outclass any radar system of the past, but that’s still a big “if” according to Tsinghua University’s Zhang Chao and his team, in the aerospace engineering school.

But the potential benefits are worth the hard work, according to the team of scientists.

The “better the stealth technology, the higher the gain” of the quantum radar system, they added, in the SCMP report.

However, the fundamental particles employed in this artificial electromagnetic storm would exhibit weird properties, added the researchers.

In the study, each particle retained a spiraling momentum that didn’t drop as time went on and distance increased.

Einstein’s work predicates that this isn’t physically possible, but the researchers emphasized that quantum mechanics bypass the late physicist’s theories, enabling the system to detect targets that conventional radar would never see.

And it not only works from a great distance, but also during inclement weather.

If the system really works, and is implemented in contested airspace, it could become a significant advantage.

Stealth aircraft like the F-22 Raptor or F-35 fighter jets, for example, absorb a large portion of the radar waves via a special coating material which, combined with minimal right angles in the external structure, can reduce a radar signal to an object the size of a baseball.

However, recent years have seen military radar increase in sensitivity, possibly high enough to detect even stealth aircraft. But, in turn, novel metamaterials have further enhanced stealth capabilities, reducing aircraft visibility even more.

Stealth is a two way street — both it and detection technology, is advancing.

And, if stealth technology continues to improve, some believe it will advance beyond the detection capabilities of any radar. That is an opinion of course, not fact.

Military scientists in China said they were already testing a quantum radar prototype in 2016, but this has been hotly contested.

Scientists are a picky bunch, they like to see proof … claims don’t cut the mustard.

A report published in Science Magazine last year argued that quantum radar may never be deployed for long-range uses like tracking stealth airplanes, since experiments have seen critical flaws — one of which suggested such devices only work near absolute zero — far below the temperature of China’s skies.

“I am convinced that when [China] announced their quantum radar it was not working,” said Fabrice Boust, a radar specialist and physicist from France’s aerospace agency, ONERA, in the 2020 Science Magazine report.

“But they knew they would get a reaction.”

One thing is certain, however — Beijing has placed a major premium on research into quantum technology.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Shanghai government have gone so far as to sign a cooperation agreement to develop the Shanghai Research Center for Quantum Sciences on June 14, 2019.

It is a leading name in quantum technology research at the university level.

A 2018 US defense report also noted: The scope of the new Chinese project is not truly known, and Chinese Communist Party propaganda cannot be ruled out.

Sources: South China Morning Post, Interesting Engineering, The Eurasian Times, Science Magazine, Journal of Radars, Science Magazine