The Invisible Airplane Issue

Oct. 1, 1980
Washington, D.C., Sept. 2 Following a series of news reports about a startling technology program that apparently makes possible “invisible” aircraft, cruise missiles, drones, RPVs, and perhaps even ground vehicles as well as ICBMs, the Defense Department not only acknowledged its existence but ascribed to it near magic power. Both the timing of the leaks and the gushing enthusiasm and confidence with which the Administration marketed the amalgam of technologies know as “low observables” or “stealth” are worthy of scrutiny.

Dr. William J. Perry, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, in late spring widened the circle of members and officials of Congress with access to the information to more than one hundred. Until then only a very small number of key personnel on Capitol Hill had been briefed on the program under extremely tight security control. Informal USAF reaction to Dr. Perry’s expansion of access was one of apprehension. In the Congress, the reaction tended toward suspicion that the Administration was overstating the revolutionary nature of the technologies and the certainty and rapidity with which they could be brought into the operational inventory. Similarly, there was widespread concern that the real purpose of the briefing blitz was derailed inchoate moves in Congress to authorize development and deployment of a new strategic bomber using conventional technologies.

On August 22, Secretary Brown, Dr. Perry, and Lt. Gen. Kelly Burke, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisition, announced at a Pentagon press conference that because of a series of leaks “it is not appropriate or credible for us to deny the existence” of the program. Terming the program a major technical advance of great military significance, Secretary Brown explained that the stealth technology “enables the United States to build manned and unmanned aircraft that cannot be successfully intercepted with existing air defense systems. We have demonstrated to our satisfaction that the technology works.”

Dr. Perry described the stealth technology as not involving “a single technical approach, a single gimmick, but . . . rather a complex synthesis of many.” Theoretically at least, he added, the technologies could be applied to “any military vehicle which can be attacked by radar-directed fire.”

Work on stealth technology has been going on for the last two decades and by 1977 led to the conclusion that it “could be considerably extended in its effectiveness and could be applied to a wide class of vehicles, including manned aircraft.” Current annual funding, according to Dr. Perry, is 100 times greater than when the Carter Administration decided to accelerate the program in 1977. The implication that the current Administration is responsible for bringing the program to fruition while the previous ones lacked the will and foresight to do so, drew heated Republican responses. Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) convened a special press conference to charge that “the timing of the Administration’s revelation of the stealth technology is politically motivated and does not coincide with either a new breakthrough or a new commitment. Stealth technology is not new, but it does offer promise for the future. While the technology may work, it is reckless grandstanding on the part of the Secretary of Defense to insinuate that is stealthy bomber is to be deployed in the 1980s.”

Governor Reagan’s principle defense advisor, William R. Van Cleave, charged that the Administration “grossly exaggerates what we know of the effectiveness of this technology and distorts the time factors involved in any eventual application of technology.”

Even members of the President’s own party hinted darkly that the Administration was using the stealth technology issue as a ruse for thwarting a congressional mandate to have a new manned bomber in production by 1987. Sen. John Glenn (D-Calif.), sponsored an amendment to the FY ’81 defense authorization bill to that effect, complained that Secretary Brown is “thwarting the will of the Congress” by not committing the Defense Department to the development and deployment of a multirole bomber.

“It is our intent,” he said, for “this plane to begin appearing on our runways—not in a study . . . as soon as practicable but not later than in 1987.” Senator Cranston termed Dr. Brown’s statement that “whether we will need a new penetrating bomber is not clear” a disappointment to those who thought that the Pentagon’s announcement about the stealth program “meant that Secretary Brown has endorsed development and production of a new bomber.” In announcing the stealth program to the press, Secretary Brown continued to hedge on the bomber question, saying whether or not a penetrating bomber—a follow-on to the B-52—will be needed is “an open question in my mind.”

In marked contrast with this relative uncertainty about the need for a follow-on bomber is the certainty with which the Administration presents the stealth program. Dr. Perry, for instance, talked about having achieved “excellent success on the program, including flight tests of a number of different vehicles.” Dr. Brown rhapsodized that “in sum, we have developed a new technology of extraordinary military significance. We are vigorously applying this technology to develop a number of military aircraft, and these programs are showing very great promise. . . . It can contribute to the maintenance of peace by posing a new and significant offset to the Soviet Union’s attempt to gain military ascendancy by weight of numbers.”

Under questioning by the press, Dr. Brown predicted that the stealth technology would be effective against existing as well as foreseeable Soviet air defense systems, including “the ones that are now in development and cold be deployed during the rest of the decade.” Acknowledging that the Soviets are bound to come up eventually with countermeasures that will have to be met with countercountermeasures, he claimed nevertheless that “the balance is strongly tilted in the direction of penetration by this technology.”

He conceded, however, that although stealth was an important characteristic in aircraft performance, there are other features that determine capability. Elaborating on this subtle point, General Burke suggested that “you can only prioritize one design goal at a time, and obviously you don’t get any desirable features.” Asked whether he was certain that the stealth technologies would be ready by 1987 to enter the operational inventory or whether the congressional deadline for having a new multirole bomber should be extended and the void filled by a stopgap design, General Burke answered that “it’s premature to try and answer this.”

He added that the Air Force is trying to have definite answers ready by the congressional deadline of March 15, 1981, but warned that “there is an enormous amount of work to be done between now and then, not just quantitative analysis but a lot of engineering evaluation.” At this point Secretary Brown interjected the comment that “it’s too soon to say what the precise mix of our capabilities in the 1990s will be, but it is not too soon to say that by making existing air defenses essentially ineffective, this alters the military balance significantly.”

Under further questioning, Dr. Brown conceded, however, that in the strict sense of the word, these stealth technologies don’t result in an “invisible airplane,” adding that the Soviets would be able to know that it was coming,” but too late to intercept you.” There would be enough time for the Soviets to retaliate, using their nuclear forces against the US, because once the aircraft is “close enough,” hostile air defense radars will be able to “see it.”

In the view of Capitol Hill analysts, this trait of the stealth technologies generates some doubt about their generates some doubt about their long-term viability. Most of these experts believe that a manned strategic system using the full range of stealth technology can’t be brought into the inventory before the mid-1990s. By that time, they argue, airborne or even spaceborne laser weapon systems would well be operational. Laser weapons deliver lethal thermal energy with the speed of light. Hence, these experts fear that such weapon systems might be able to intercept stealth aircraft in spite of the very limited period of time between the latters’ detection and acquisition and the formers’ ability to act.

While the degree of purely “eyeball visibility” of the stealth technologies is not clear, it can be adduced that sufficient “camouflage” has been incorporated to prevent timely detection by present-generation electro-optical sensors, especially since strategic aircraft using stealth technologies probably would penetrate its night.

While some of the technologies associated with stealth can be used to modify and retrofit existing aircraft, according to Dr. Perry, “in their entirety they [cannot]. They require a design from the ground up.” He also speculated that in a “dollar per pound basis,” aircraft using this combination of technologies probably will cost about the same as conventional designs.

In acknowledging publicly the existence of this technology, the Administration spokesmen promised that “we will be drawing a new security line to protect that information about the program which could facilitate Soviet countermeasures.” It is possible to question the validity of this claim since obviously the best measures would have been continued abstention by the Administration from leaking the information to the widening circle of members of Congress and the press.

A House subcommittee is considering demands for criminal prosecution of those Administration officials responsible for the release of this sensitive national security information.

PD 59: Much Ado About Nothing

During the lull between the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, a well-orchestrated news leak livened up Washington’s August dog days and garnered headlines and prime-time coverage well beyond the significance of the event. The issue that was built up to larger-than-life-size stature by a selective leak to prestigious newpapers—reportedly by “high Administration officials”—is a Presidential Decision know as PD 59.

PD 59 codifies and refines what had been acknowledged by at least three administrations: The importance of providing mechanisms and means for flexible, limited strategic responses below the level of a total reprisal attack on the Soviet population, both to first strikes. First formulated brilliantly and articulately in 1974 by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, the concept of flexible strategic options-except for some thinkable preemptive attack stratagems-remains an elusive goal for the US.

Thus, even senior officials within the Administration familiar with the topic were startled when the White House decided to elevate what had been a systematic, long-tem cataloging of SIOP (single integrated operational plan) adjustments and hardware requirements emanating from a flexible options policy to a full-blown Presidential Decision and media event. There was, these officials points out, no specific development or reason to expose this highly sensitive issue at this time, in the middle of an election campaign.

Political posturing and the sensitive nature of this issue aside, there are potentially positive aspects to PD 59. By committing itself formally to the attainment of such a posture, the Administration presumably will soon be forced to fish or cut bait. Either it takes the steps needed to carry out a policy of flexible options or failure to do so, assuming reelection, could lead to a loss of public faith in its rectitude. Coincidentally, the Republican Party’s platform embraced essentially the same policies and doctrines that were codified by PD 59.

Genesis of PD 59 was PD 18, a comprehensive directive issued in the early days of the Carter Administration. PD 18 asked for a sweeping review of all US strategic war planning and spawned a series of subsequent presidential directives that run the gamut from comprehensive mobilization planning and means for assuring continuity of government in nuclear war to improved civil defense and more survivable communications netting.

The lineage of PD 59 can be traced back further in time to a so-called National Security Decision Memorandum of the Ford Administration, know as NSDM 242, that spelled out Dr. Schlesinger’s selective strategic options doctrine. But PD 59 unquestionably is broader, more mature, and more in step with evolving technology than the older NSDM 242. Where the former was limited essentially to coming up with sets of targets prior to the outbreak of war and being ready to pick from a number of preprogrammed SIOPs, PD 59 calls for a two-pronged approach; Preplanned SIOPs as well as flexible, near-real-time targeting intelligence to permit application of forces in response to existing conditions rather than pre-war assumptions.

Secretary Brown described the purpose of PD 59 to the NATO Defense Ministers not as a break with past polices that for some time now included effective and comprehensive coverage of Soviet military and control targets, but “as an evolutionary development of our doctrine.” US capabilities in terms of flexible coverage of the Soviet target system, he said, “will continue to be improved and made more flexible as we implement the countervailing strategy. For it is crucial that the Soviet leadership recognize that by aggression they would risk not only a general US retaliation on the full range of targets; they must also understand that if they choose some intermediate level of escalation, the US could by more limited responses impose on the Soviets an unacceptably high cost in terms of what the Soviet leadership values most—political and military control, military power, both nuclear and conventional, and the industrial capacity to sustain military operations.”

Under the new directive, Dr. Brown suggested, US strategic forces also must deter nuclear attacks “on smaller sets of targets in the US or on US military forces and be a wall against nuclear coercion of, or attack strategic forces, in conjunction with theater nuclear forces, must contribute to deterrence of conventional aggression as well.”

The underlying reason for the new directive, Dr. Brown said, is that the Soviet leadership “appears to contemplate at least the possibility of a relatively prolonged exchange if war comes, and, in some circles at least, they seem to take seriously theoretical possibility of victory in such a war. We cannot afford to ignore these views—even if we think differently, as I do. We need to have, and we do have a posture—both forces and doctrines—that makes it clear to the Soviets and to the world that any notion of victory in Nuclear war is unrealistic.”

The belated conversion of the Carter Administration to nuclear Realpolitik is laudable, especially in light of the fact that many of its members assumed office fully persuaded that by practicing a minimum assured destruction policy the US could coax the Soviets into reciprocating. Yet, as this column was told, the subsequent, relentless Soviet arms buildup has caused these members of the Administration to change their outlook—“although grudgingly”—from total euphoric détentism to PD 59.

But changes in outlook don’t translate immediately into changes in capabilities. Gen. Richard H. Ellis, Commander in Chief of the Strategic Air Command, in a letter of April 1979 to Dr. Brown, observed that the demonstrated and projected growth of Soviet capabilities will continue to erode our relative strength until sufficient numbers of ALCM, Trident, and MX are deployed in the mid- to late-1980s. In the interim, the survivability and quality of our forces supporting the SIOP will cause a shift in our deterrent posture from one capable of fulfilling a countervailing strategy toward one much less capable.

Transforming PD 59 from a piece of paper into strategic reality clearly will take several years and the combined, sustained support by the Executive Branch and Congress. At this time it would be premature to wager on the outcome.

Washington Observations

ê The likelihood of Congress failing to make the October 1 deadline on the FY ’81 Defense Budget appropriations—which start that day—is approaching certainty. What is not yet clear is how long it will take Congress to agree on a so-called continuing resolution—a procedure that permits continued spending at the current, in this case FY ’80 level. Last year, the Defense Department and the Air Force carried on “business as usual” for about two seeks before Congress passed a continuing resolution. This may not be possible this year without senior civilian and military Pentagon prosecution if they authorize further funds.

In response to the request by President Carter, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civeletti informed executive branch agencies that “it is my opinion that, during periods of ‘lapsed appropriation,’ no funds may be extended except as necessary to bring about the orderly termination of an agency’s functions, and that the obligation of funds for any purpose not otherwise authorized by law would be a violation of the Antideficiency Act.”

ê Under the heading of “win some/lose some,” the Air Force succeeded in persuading OSD to keep the F-15 production line open during FY ’82, but failed to achieve production status for the KC-135 reengining program. In the case of the former, OSD had sought to close down the F-15 line and fill the inventory with austerely equipped F-16s. The Air Force’s argument in behalf of versatile, high-performance aircraft prevailed. But the service failed in its attempt to elevate the KC-135 reengining program from an R&D to production status.

ê Latest intelligence reports indicate that large numbers of Soviet troops, including massive contingents of KGB forces, are poised for action along the USSR’s borders with Iran. The underlying intent is not entirely clear to US intelligence analysts.

ê While the Air Force, along with the other services, is allocating a large portion of its FY ’82 funding request to improve Operations and Maintenance as well as spares, it will take at least until FY ’84 before the most woeful deficiencies can be cured. Reason is the long lead time between ordering spares and other material and its production and delivery to the users.

ê The postmortem of the aborted, failed rescue mission that sought to snatch the American hostages from their Iranian captors last April led to a series of recommendations and constructive criticism of the operation. The so-called Special Operations Review Group, headed up by Adm. James L. Holloway, USN (Ret.), a past Chief of Naval Operations, found excessive security kept vital information from reaching the rescue party and that the number of helicopters probably was too small.

Among the review group’s key recommendations were the setting up of a Counter-Terrorist Joint Task Force as a field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the formation of a JCS Special Operations Advisory Panel, comprised of senior experts on special operations.