Analysis, Context n°51 (May 2002) - Stealth by Any Means

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Stealth by Any Means

A recently-published book (cited in Context  No. 50, Analysis ) relates in detail the fate of the General Dynamics/McDonnell Douglas A-12 (ex-ATA) program, abandoned in 1991 and subsequently the subject of a drawn-out legal battle between the builders and the US Navy. The book is The $5 Billion Misunderstanding, by James P. Stevenson (Naval Institute Press), a remarkable example of the type of investigative reporting that America prides itself on.

After some general information on the ATA/A-12 program, we shall endeavor to examine the role of stealth technology in the program, from a critical if not contentious viewpoint, on the basis of the information provided by Stevenson. And it is the information provided by Stevenson that opens the door to such disputation.

We are speaking here exclusively of the stealth technology integrated into military aircraft, primarily the USAF's F-117A, B-2, F-22 and JSF/F-35. Stealth technology in surface ships and submarines is a different matter. There is no quarrel over that aspect of stealth technology, since the naval application, which is developing at a much slower pace, readily incorporates any technique allowing greater dissimulation and is easier to control from every standpoint. For aircraft, however, which have extreme speed and three-dimensional travel as their main characteristic, dissimulation techniques — primarily because of the aerodynamic penalties entailed >197> have always constituted a much more problematic enhancement.

Why are we so interested in stealth technology? Because it — along with precision guidance technology and communications technology — is one of the three pillars of modern military power as America defines it. It is essential to any concept of power as that concept is imposed upon us and it influences our policies and our vision of the world. In order to place stealth technology in its true historical perspective, it is important to revisit what certain key players had to say concerning the rapid development and integration of this technology during the decade of the eighties, which witnessed the ATA/A-12 affair. A hard look is especially needed to try to determine the true value of stealth technology, since there does not today exist any persuasive demonstration that stealth technology is the operational and strategic panacea that the Pentagon claims it to be <197 at least according to the USAF and the Secretary of Defense's inner sanctum, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).

Let us first examine some of the salient facts about the ATA/A-12 program in order to be able to appreciate the analysis of stealth technology as it appears in Stevenson's book. In the early eighties, when the Reagan Administration was settling in, the new Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, an official with a strong personality, began to examine the problem of the Navy's deep strike mission. The Grumman A-6E Intruder aircraft, tasked with the mission, were beginning to show their age and the search for a replacement aircraft was becoming a matter of some urgency. Lehman was an early partisan of an advanced version of the Intruder, the A-6F, under an arrangement whereby certain A-6Es could be modified and some A-6Fs could be delivered in the form of new models. It soon became apparent to Lehman that it would be necessary to come to an understanding with the Pentagon's &quot;Stealth Mafia&quot;. As early as the start of development of stealth technology, in 1974-75, certain powerful factions in the Pentagon and in OSD came up with the notion that no new military aircraft could come off the drawing board that did not incorporate stealth technology. Lehman was obliged to alter course: he launched a new Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program integrating stealth technology, but sufficiently distant in time to justify the interim development of the A-6F.

The USAF's Exclusive on Stealth Technology Means No Transfer to US Navy

One of the key — and rather spectacular — aspects of the assessment of stealth technology in the book is the attitude of the USAF toward the technology. The USAF was the military service primarily concerned by stealth technology in 1975 (although the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA] had been interested in it since 1973 at the instigation of a few influential men). It was normal enough that the USAF was the first to be contacted since what was under consideration was stealth technology for air vehicles. The Air Force had initially been reluctant because of its concern that stealth technology could be the wedge for the development of ultra-light fighter aircraft. For there is nothing that displeases the USAF bureaucracy more than the prospect of having to say good-bye to its pet doctrine — which it has been promoting for over half a century — based on heavy aircraft loaded with more and more systems, and of course calling for increasingly more complex and costly aircraft. In any event, starting in 1975, the USAF became the champion of stealth technology, which it lost no time in integrating in its operational programs (the F-117A and the ATB strategic bomber [the future B-2]).

When the US Navy launched the ATA program in 1984, it turned toward the USAF for help in developing the program, since the Navy wanted to integrate a certain number of technologies involved in stealth developments. The position of the USAF was totally negative and remained intractable because of the Air Force's determination to lord its operational preeminence over the Navy. According to Stevenson: « One reason the Navy spent so much money and suffered development delays that postponed the A-12's first flight was the Air Force's complete unwillingness to share the lessons it had learned in developing the F-117 and the B-2. Its obstinacy in refusing to share information was designed to fulfil its post-World War II claims that aircraft carriers were an unnecessary expense because bombers could perform the same mission. Because the Air Force, like all services, sees its missions primarily as achieving dominance through budget share, it was successful in taking the deep strike mission from the U.S. Navy and is not likely to return it. »

This episode conveys some sense of the intensity of the bureaucratic battles and of the depths of the parochialism that prevails among these bureaucratic forces which behave like private interest groups, with no inclination to effect an accommodation in the interest of national security. Such is the climate of inter-service rivalry that permeates Pentagon thinking and that apparently precludes any serious inter-service cooperation, not to speak of any hypothetical and Utopian international cooperation.

John Lehman's Strong and Well-Founded Misgivings: Does Stealth Technology Really Do Anything?

The Navy's position was all the more difficult because, starting in the early eighties, stealth technology had become an article of faith within the Pentagon. John Lehman's views, culled by Stevenson in 1997-98, afford an interesting insight into stealth technology. Lehman is a former A-6 pilot, known among his cohorts in the Reagan Administration for his outspokenness. For Lehman, « the story that you had to have stealth to defeat the Russians was created in OSD ».

Lehman evinces the greatest skepticism with regard to the operational virtues of stealth technology. His arguments have not aged, especially in a climate characterized by the systematic degradation of the air defense capabilities of numerous countries — in any event, of countries potentially hostile to the US. Talking about the April 1986 raid against Libya and the Gulf War, Lehman observed: « Look, Libya and Iraq had the best air defenses the French and Russians had to offer . Downtown Tripoli was more heavily defended than any target in Russia, and we went in and out of there without being shot down. We would have done the same thing in Russia. So there's the proof that we didn't need stealth. » The realities have never belied Lehman's skepticism. The F-117A pilots requested electronic protection by EF-111A and EA-6B ECM jammer aircraft. As Stevenson explained: « In fact, this was more than a desire, the requirement to fly at night and with jammers is codified in the pilot's operational manual. » During the Desert Storm operation in January-March 1991, the performance of the F-117A was also described by the famous reformist Pentagon analyst Pierre M. Sprey in his 1991 testimony before Congress: « At high altitudes there are no guns to reach you, and the radar missiles that can reach you are very easy to outmaneuver, with or without stealth. In general, in previous wars it has taken anywhere from 100 to 500 surface-to-surface missiles to get a single kill. They are just not a big threat if you see them coming and if you fly high. So the F-117 achieved the same thing as the F-16 or the F-15. When you fly high, you didn't get hit. There is no miracle there. »

The affirmations of the partisans of stealth technology are described as characteristic of « the intellectual arrogance of 'we know and you don't' ». Chuck Bernard, Director of the Naval Weapons Center compares this attitude to that of the partisans of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) during the same period: « For years I would have conversations with associates about certain concepts in physics that we would all agree on. But once my associates got hired by Star Wars, their position would change. The law of physics had not changed but their position had. [...] I could show the same correspondence with stealth. » The main promoter of stealth technology was William Perry. At the end of the eighties, it was he who launched the program and who succeeded in imposing it on the Pentagon bureaucracy, bolstering it through able exploitation of the media (the popular notion of the 'invisible aircraft'). A man of charm, admired by all, Bill Perry was also a highly effective inside-fighter within the Washington bureaucracy. Upon his return to government in 1993, as Under Secretary of Defense, then as Secretary, he managed to ensconce stealth technology in its primacy through the connivance of the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Lehman left the Pentagon in 1987. He maintains a certain bitterness, the bitterness born of disappointment arising from his having gotten it wrong and from his ultimate lack of accomplishment. Like Gorbachev, Lehman had wanted to enjoy his moment of glasnost: « What bothered me was this belief that future increased costs were so deterministic. The problem was the impersonal approach in the building. I believed that if you freed the people, they would want to do right and so I attempted to protect them from the system so that common sense would prevail. To the degree that I thought I could change the culture I was simply naive and wrong. » Lehman failed. He is gone, but stealth technology is present more than ever, surrounded by its aura of wizardry, and its capabilities still to be demonstrated in the real world.