When the B-2 stealth bomber made its wartime debut last March 24 in the skies over Yugoslavia, the Pentagon’s hype machine went into overdrive. The traditional Big Three networks featured the B-2’s mission on their evening news programs, and most major newspapers carried it prominently the next morning. After the fighting ended, President Clinton traveled to Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, home of the B-2 fleet, and made a speech in which he called the bomber “a truly remarkable aircraft.” Suddenly, the Air Force bomber best known for its batlike profile, exorbitant price tag, and difficulty flying in the rain was gaining a reputation as the weapon of the future.
The B-2’s performance seemed to vindicate the Pentagon’s confidence in stealth technology, which has been the military’s technological Holy Grail for nearly two decades. Stealth — which the Pentagon claims makes planes nearly invisible to radar and therefore all but immune to anti-aircraft missiles — is the backbone of the United States’ future military strategy. The Pentagon has already invested about $60 billion to develop stealth technology and has spent vast sums more to purchase stealth aircraft. In addition to the $46 billion program for the B-2, there’s the F-117 light bomber, already in service at a cost of $45 million per plane. Meanwhile, the Pentagon plans to spend a staggering sum — more than $280 billion — to manufacture fleets of two new stealth fighters, the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter (the latter to be used by the Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as Great Britain). “Stealth is a growth business,” says General Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. “The Air Force will never buy another nonstealthy combat aircraft.” Asked about the steep costs involved, McPeak said, “All cutting-edge technology is expensive. Stealth has a high price, but we think it’s worth it.”
But military experts interviewed by Mother Jones vigorously disagree. They charge that stealth planes are far from invisible; they are merely harder to detect on radar than conventional aircraft. They claim that the B-2 (and stealth planes in general) are less efficient as strategic weapons due to compromises and additional maintenance required by the stealth design. They say, also, that stealth craft are highly vulnerable to cheap defense measures readily available to potential adversaries. Indeed, during the fighting in Kosovo, Yugoslav anti-aircraft gunners downed an F-117 with a Russian-made missile whose technology dates back to 1964. Another F-117 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and had to limp back to base.
Finally, critics point to the outlandish costs of stealth technology. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) calls the B-2 and other stealth aircraft a waste of taxpayer money, especially in a post-Cold War era with the United States left as the world’s sole superpower. “It’s hard these days to identify our competitors, much less our enemies,” he says. “Our air force is so superior to anyone else’s that even to be talking about the need for stealth technology is laughable.”
In the days before stealth technology — first used in combat with the F-117 during the invasion of Panama in 1989 — air commanders had two means to deal with enemy radar. They could confuse it with “jammer” planes that fill the sky with electronic static, or they could deploy attack aircraft to seek out and destroy enemy radar stations. Stealth planes, proponents said, would change all that. Because stealth planes would be virtually impossible to detect on radar, the fleets of expensive jammer aircraft would be superfluous and there would be less risk to U.S. airmen.
There are two ways to make a plane stealthy. The first is to cover it with radar-absorbing panels and a special stealth coating, or skin. The second is to design the plane in a shape that dissipates radar (reflecting the signals up or down, rather than back to their point of origin). Engineers also seek to eliminate or muffle other “signatures” that could enable an enemy to detect the aircraft — heat and noise from engines, ionized gases from the exhaust, even the air turbulence planes create as they fly. In selling stealth to Congress and the public, the Pentagon claimed that future planes would be no more visible to enemy radar than a small bird.
Designers gave the F-117 a distinctive, knife-edge shape to reduce its radar return. For the B-2, engineers opted for the smooth flow of continuous compound curves to achieve the same goal, taking advantage of improved computer modeling. But therein lies a fundamental flaw of stealth, says Pierre Sprey, an engineer who helped design the F-16, which after 20 years is still considered one of the best fighter planes ever built.
According to Sprey, once you opt for stealth design, you decrease stability and performance. “There is an optimum shape for a plane, and then you radically change that shape so it won’t reflect radar,” he says. “It’s got nothing to do with the efficient flow of air, which is what good aerodynamics is all about.”
Ironically, stealthy design also makes for a less efficient weapon of war. Because any surface irregularity increases a plane’s visibility to radar, stealth craft carry all “accessories” inside. Missiles and bombs must be carried internally, instead of on wing-mounted pylons as on conventional craft, and there are no external fuel tanks to extend the plane’s range. All this translates into less room and load-carrying capacity. The B-2s that flew missions in Yugoslavia carried 32,000 pounds of bombs. Conventional F-16C multirole fighters — which cost $25 million each, just over one percent of the cost of a B-2 — can deliver up to 8,000 pounds of bombs in a typical combat situation. Thus, for the cost of a single B-2, nearly 100 F-16s could take to the skies.
The radar-absorbing materials, because they are fragile, also make it more difficult to repair the aircraft. Beyond that, they add enormously to a plane’s weight, which means the aircraft requires bigger engines that burn more fuel. The result is that stealth aircraft tend to have poor acceleration and handling, and reduced range — the B-2s that flew to Kosovo had to be refueled twice on the way and twice on the return trip. The workhorse B-52 heavy bomber — which Boeing engineers basically designed over the course of a long weekend in 1948 — is far superior aerodynamically to the B-2. Free of the radar-evading design concessions, it can fly more than 1,500 miles farther without refueling, even with antiquated engines and about twice the bomb load.
Stealth coatings present a host of other problems. To be effective, the plane’s surface must be kept perfectly slick. Exposure to rain or hail can cause nicks and scratches that dramatically increase the craft’s radar signature. Even optimal flying conditions take a toll on a plane’s skin. In a study released in June 1998, congressional investigators who observed a B-2 after one test flight reported that the plane “had damaged tape, caulk, paint, and heat tiles…. In addition, we observed hydraulic fluid leaks beneath the aircraft that further damaged the caulk.”
After a stealth aircraft flies, maintenance workers must recoat the skin, repairing the tiny dings and burrs that increase the craft’s radar signature. The materials they use are highly toxic. Stealth composites act much like epoxy compounds available at any hardware store. Workers mix two or more chemicals to create a paste that hardens over several days. No figures are available about the effect of these materials on worker health — the Pentagon refuses to release them — but anecdotal evidence is compelling. Five workers and the widows of two others at the Air Force’s secret Groom Lake facility in Nevada (also known as Area 51) filed lawsuits in 1994, alleging that workers suffered illnesses through exposure to the toxic materials used in stealth coatings.
The B-2’s skin is so sensitive that maintenance on the plane must be carried out in environment-controlled hangars that currently exist only at Whiteman Air Force Base. The B-2s that participated in the Kosovo campaign thus had to fly more than 30 hours round-trip between Missouri and Yugoslavia. It then generally took from four to seven days to get them ready to return to combat, and they did not fly at all in the last 30 days of the conflict. Partly as a result, the six B-2s that saw action in Kosovo flew a combined total of less than 50 sorties out of the more than 30,000 allied air missions.
The most fundamental problem, however, is that stealth planes are hardly undetectable to enemy defenses. The B-2 is nearly as visible as a 747 to a ground observer, one reason that it — like the F-117 — flies only at night. Furthermore, the Pentagon’s supposedly invisible stealth aircraft fly into action with the same radar-jamming escort planes that accompany conventional warplanes. Demand for jammers was so high during the Kosovo conflict that the Pentagon had to redeploy electronic warfare planes from Turkey, where they are being used in the ongoing air campaign against Iraq. “For stealth planes, jammers are just like American Express,” says a military analyst who works with Congress. “Don’t leave home without them.”
It’s impossible to know just how stealthy stealth planes really are since the Pentagon has made the entire program highly classified, which means that it operates virtually without oversight from Congress or watchdog groups. There are, however, disturbing signs that stealth planes are far from invulnerable. During the Gulf War, the British Royal Navy infuriated the Pentagon by announcing that it had detected F-117 stealth fighters from 40 miles away with 1960s-era radar. The Iraqis used antiquated French radar during that conflict, and they, too, claimed to have detected F-117s. The General Accounting Office, Congress’ watchdog agency, tried to verify the Iraqi claim, but the Pentagon refused to turn over relevant data to GAO investigators. Likewise, the Pentagon has revealed no specific details about the F-117 shot down over Kosovo, but Yugoslav sources and news accounts say the Serbs brought the plane down with a Russian SA-3 missile, a 35-year-old model. General McPeak calls the incident a “lucky shot.”
Abundant evidence exists, also, that stealth technology can be trumped with relatively inexpensive surveillance systems. The Stealth Program was designed to defeat the high-frequency radars used extensively by the former Soviet Union. But stealth planes are relatively easy to spot — if not to pinpoint — with older air-defense radars that use low frequencies. Russia and the Czech Republic both manufacture low-frequency systems, which they say can detect stealth. The former is marketing its version to all bidders, as were the Czechs before they joined NATO in 1999. Russia and France — as well as the United States — have built prototypes of radars that operate using the full range of frequencies. These too, some experts say, will have no trouble detecting stealth craft.
Even more worrisome are the emerging heat-sensitive Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems. Stealth aircraft have special systems that cool exhaust gases and mask hot parts of the plane. Nonetheless, the plane’s surface will always be hotter than background levels, and exhaust gases cannot be entirely cooled. Both of these factors produce heat signatures detectable by infrared systems.
The Scandinavians, French, and Germans are already building cheap, effective IRST systems. In fact, according to Rex Rivolo, a tactical aircraft and weaponry specialist at the Institute for Defense Analysis, a federally funded think tank that works exclusively for the Secretary of Defense, a college student with computer programming expertise and $30,000 could assemble an IRST system with off-the-shelf parts. “There’s nothing difficult here,” he says. “Without too much trouble you could have a decent IRST on your kitchen table and use it to track stealth and other aircraft in clear weather.” Rivolo predicts that IRST and low-frequency radars “will vitiate the benefits of stealth.”
Brigadier General Leroy Barnidge Jr., who commands the B-2 fleet out of Whiteman, concedes that stealth planes are not invulnerable and that potential adversaries are “pursuing tactics and hardware to counter stealth.” That, says Barnidge, is why we must invest in new and improved stealth warplanes. “We have air superiority today, but it’s not a zero-risk environment,” he told Mother Jones. “If we don’t [design and build new weapons], it’s reasonable to say that at some point our adversaries will catch up to our current position.”
Congress has, thus far, been largely supportive of the Pentagon’s stealth-spending plans. Perhaps to help ensure that it remains so, defense manufacturers — in addition to applying the usual lubricant of campaign contributions — have carefully spread out the economic rewards of their stealth products. Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the B-2, doled out work to various subcontractors in 46 states and, more importantly, in 383 of 435 congressional districts. Lockheed plans to build the parts for its F-22 in 48 states and Puerto Rico.
There are signs, however, that the political consensus on stealth may be cracking. Last September, lawmakers ordered that the F-22 fighter pass tests of stealth and avionics before Congress would commit funds for its production phase. “We’ve had these concerns, and the Air Force hadn’t responded to them,” Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) said at the time. “The message is to straighten out the program.”
The chief concern about stealth is the price tag, an issue that unites the left and the right. The F-22 is now projected to cost $184 million per plane, up from an initial estimate of $90 million. The Joint Strike Fighter, scheduled to be combat-ready in 2008, has a program price of more than $220 billion for about 2,800 aircraft. An earlier stealth fighter/attack jet, the Navy’s A-12, was canceled due to cost overruns — but only after nearly $5 billion had gone down the tubes. And the B-2 bomber, with its $2.2 billion price tag per plane, has a design life span of only 30 years. That’s a depreciation of some $8,300 an hour — whether it’s in flight or not, whether it’s invisible or not.
Paying the exorbitant cost of stealth technology is particularly questionable given that American air power is already dominant. By 2005, according to a study by the conservative Cato Institute, the United States will have some 3,000 warplanes in its inventory, all of them state-of-the-art. That will be about equal to the combined number of aircraft held by Iran, Iraq, China, and North Korea, and virtually all their planes are antiquated. Russia will have about 1,500 modern planes in its arsenal, but won’t be able to afford to maintain or operate its air force, or train its pilots. “Our air force is bigger and better than any in the world,” says Ivan Eland, director of defense policy studies at Cato and a critic of the Pentagon’s spending plans. “We are probably not going to have a serious competitor for 30 years.”
Rep. Conyers, one of Congress’ most liberal members, points to a study by the National Priorities Project that shows that Michigan taxpayers shell out $79.4 million for every B-2 produced. That money would pay for job training for more than 27,000 state residents or cover more than a year’s funding for a state program that rehabilitates housing. “These [stealth] planes have been overhyped,” Conyers says. “And even if they live up to all the claims, we still don’t need them.”