Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.

Published Airpower Journal - Fall 1991

Author's note: This article was written entirely with unclassified sources. While every effort was made to ensure that information was the most current and accurate available, the secret nature of the subject matter leaves open the possibility that incomplete or inaccurate data was used in preparation of this article.




IN NOVEMBER 1988 a decade of secrecy was lifted from one of the most enigmatic aircraft projects of all time: the Lockheed F-117A stealth fighter. In the 10 years since the program was officially announced by the Carter administration, numerous reports have been published in both the technical and popular media about the aircraft. Now that the program has moved out of the "black" (secrecy) realm, it is possible to review the reports on the project, assess their accuracy, and discuss whether or not they compromised the aircraft's technology or operational capabilities.

Stealth before the F-117A

Stealth, or low-observable technologies, were in development long before thestealth fighter ever flew. The first stealth aircraft flew in the early 1900s--a German aircraft equipped with transparent wing coverings intended to make the airplane more difficult to spot from the ground.1 The Germans were also the first to incorporate radar absorbent material (RAM) into an aircraft. Production models of their Horten Ho IX were to incorporate charcoal and other primitive RAM. Only prototypes of the design were ever constructed, and these were not fitted with stealth features.2 At the conclusion of World War II, the United States developed RAM that was only marginally effective and very heavy. The added weight of the RAM, known as MX-410, was considered prohibitive, and the substance was never used operationally.3 The 1950s design specifications of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft included a preference for a low radar cross section, which is a fundamental stealth characteristic.4 Some experiments with a type of RAM known as Salisbury Screen were also conducted on the U-2.5 Considerable effort was put into making the U-2's successor, the SR-71, a stealthy aircraft. The SR-71 used blended body shaping as well as various types of RAM to make radar detection more difficult. Stealth was not, however, a primary design concern of either the U-2 or SR-71 programs.6

Interest in stealth technology increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s, partly in response to lessons learned from the B-52 bombing campaigns in the Vietnam War. Bomber losses were high, and the US Air Force needed to design its later bombers in a way that would reduce losses. (The B-70 Valkyrie bomber project was canceled before the B-52 raids and did not incorporate stealth technology.)

A variety of small, obscure experimental aircraft were tested to determine the feasibility of stealth features. Among these were modified sailplanes and a variant of the Windecker Eagle, which incorporated composite airframe materials as well as internal RAM tochnology.7

The results of these tests were never openly published. Whatever the final outcome was, it was sufficient to propel stealth technology into full development. In June 1975, the Defense Daily carried a report that a small stealth fighter was being developed for the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory.8 In an article on the genesis of the advanced tactical fighter (ATF) published in January 1976, Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that a high priority was being given to the incorporation of stealth technology into the fighter designs. The article further stated that Lockheed and Northrop (which went on to develop the F-117A and B-2 stealth aircraft) were being given funding for design studies on the inclusion of stealth characteristics in the ATF because of their experience with low-observable technologies in their stealth fighter programs already in progress at the time.9 In August 1976 Aviation Week & Space Technology carried a brief story that the development contract for the stealth fighter demonstrator had been won by Lockheed.10 The 1977-78 edition of Jane's All the World's. Aircraft marked the debut of the stealth fighter in that famous work. A one paragraph entry under the Lockheed Corporation mentioned that a "small" stealth fighter was being built and was expected to fly in 1977.11

In June 1977 Aviation Week & Space Technology published another brief article that listed additional details of the program. This article listed the engines of the prototype (General Electric J85 turbojets) and revealed that C. L. ("Kelly") Johnson, who had been the leading man in the U-2 and SR-71 programs, was involved with the project as a consultant. Like the Jane's entry, the article indicated that the first flight of the "Stealth Fighter Demonstrator" was to be conducted later in the year.12 Photographs and technical information on prototypes, known as "Have Blue," were finally declassified in April 1991.13

The Stealth Fighter
Hits the Spotlight

Stealth hit center stage--as many high--tech weapon systems often do--in the political arena in an election year. In some ways similar to the SR-71 before it, the Lockheed stealth fighter was destined to become a political football.

The military capability of the United States was a major issue of the 1980 presidential election. The "defeat" of the United States in Vietnam and the more recent feeling of the country being "pushed around" by nations such as Iran led many to believe that this country needed a larger defense budget and that the Carter administration was neglecting the matter. (President Jimmy Carter had canceled the B-1 bomber program in 1977.)

In August 1980, during the height of candidate mudslinging, word of stealth technology was leaked and immediately picked up in all the media, technical and popular alike. (Until then the popular media had ignored stealth.) The leaks and rhetoric that followed made an extremely muddled picture from which it is all but impossible to fully determine exactly what happened.

During the week of 10 August, Aviation Week & Space Technology, the Washington Post, and ABC News all carried stories about stealth. The items were based on information from unofficial sources and stated that stealth technology was being developed for a variety of aircraft (including bombers). The reports also explained what stealth technology was, what it might do, and vaguely described what such features would consist of: RAM and curved surfaces. (The latter, of course, proved to be entirely inaccurate with regard to the F-117A.)

On 22 August Secretary of Defense Harold Brown held a press conference to clarify the stealth "leak." At the conference, Brown confirmed the details published in the media. The purpose of confirming the leaks, Brown insisted, was to create a "firebreak" and prevent further information about the program being revealed. Unsurprisingly, official confirmation of a supposedly secret program was seized upon as an ideal political weapon by Republicans, who accused the Carter administration of revealing secret military technology to rebuff their own claim that President Carter had neglected defense matters.14

Gen Richard H. Ellis, then commander of the Strategic Air Command, said in a letter to Gen Lew Allen, Jr., USAF chief ofstaff at the time, that the release of such information, the announcement of a possible stealth bomber in particular, "brought the hair up on the back of my neck." He indicated that the reports gave the Soviets years of advance warning of the projects and time to prepare countermeasures that would greatly reduce the effectiveness of the systems.15 These remarks seemed to ignore the reports on stealth published in earlier years that gave more detailed information than was leaked in 1980. Given the emphasis placed on such technical media as Aviation Week & Space Technology in the aerospace community, as well as the ability of Soviet intelligence organizations to gain informationon other "black" programs, it seems unlikely that the Soviets first learned about the existence of stealth programs from the 1980 leaks.

President Carter responded to the criticism by downplaying the degree of detail revealed and in turn criticized his opponents for not classifying stealth when the program entered development under the Ford administration. Carter claimed that stealth had been out in the open during public testimony for initial contract assignment until his administration classified the program in 1977. The leaking of information about the program was inevitable, he claimed, given that thousands of workers were involved with the projects.16

The breaking of stealth information drew attention from the House Armed Services Committee, which prepared a report that was released in early February 1981. The origin of the report is probably linked to the fact that the committee was specially briefed on stealth technology two days before the media revelations, was given less information than was later leaked, and was told that the matter was highly secret. The report questions the official executive branch explanation for revelation of stealth data. Of particular interest was testimony by Benjamin Schemmer, then editor of Armed Forces Journal, who withheld publication of an articleon stealth in 1978at the request of the Department of Defense. In August 1980, he was approached by Under Secretaryof Defense for Research and EngineeringWilliam J. Perry, who encouraged him to publish amodified version of the article no later than 21 August, one day before Secretary Brown's press conference on stealth.17

Further damaging testimony was given by Adm Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr.,former chief of naval operations. Zumwalt testified that the president had decided to deliberately leak information on the stealth program as an excuse to officially announce its existence and take credit for it. Furthermore, Zumwalt named the alleged leaker of the information: Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs David L. Aaron. Aaron filed an affidavit with the subcommittee which denied that he released any such information but he refused to testify before the committee under oath due to a dispute with the White House over executive privilege.18

Testimony given by Secretary Brown in which he explained his justification for the official announcement of stealth was deemed flimsy by the committee. Brown indicated that there were three options of dealing with the leaked information: the government could refuse comment on the leaks entirely, deny and discredit the story, or confirm the reports. The first option was discarded, Brown testified, because it would encourage media attention and additional leaks of possible technical information. (Given the predictability of the degree of attention paid to the program following its official announcement, this explanation seems unplausible.) The second option, discrediting the story, ran against the post-Watergate political climate of the time. Thus, the third option, official revelation, was chosen as a way of preventing further leaks. How focusing on the press conference about stealth technology would limit such attention on the matter was never fully explained by Secretary Brown. The committee also had difficulty in determining how this "damage-limiting tactic" was supposed to operate.19

The conclusions of the committee were cutting. Neglecting the fact that stealth technology had been written about in the technical media for several years, the report concluded that the official announcement did "serious damage...to the security of the United States and our ability to deter or to contain a potential Soviet threat." Similarly, the findings of the committee based on testimony given by Zumwalt and Schemmer, combined with a reluctance to testify by a key administration official and a flimsyexplanation by Secretary Brown, supported the belief that the official disclosure was undertaken, for political purposes by the Carter administrations.20

Not all of the media reporting of theevents was of sparkling quality. Newsweek ran a story in which stealth aircraft were described as being equipped with "electronic jamming devices to reduce `radar echo' aircraft normally give off." Such a system, of course, would be of an active electronic nature and would call more attention to the aircraft than its normal radar return. The article was accompanied by an artist's rendering from CBS News of what a stealth fighter would looklike. The aircraft depicted in the drawing bore no resemblance to what engineers theorized such an aircraft would look like at the time nor to the F-117A's actual configuration as we know it today. Instead, the rendering resembles an F-8 Crusader with the aircraft's engine intake atop the fuselage. Two oddly bent curved wings and a flat-tipped nose were also featured.21 If this report was one of the pieces that the government was so concerned about providing sensitive information to the Soviets, there was no cause for alarm.

The Stealth Fighter
in the Early
and Middle 1980s

The philosophy of the Reagan administration, which took the reins from the Carter administration in early 1981, had amuch more conservative slant. For stealth projects this meant moving them "into the black" where they did not officially exist. While this proved all but impossible for programs like the stealth fighter, which were publicly acknowledged before the transition of power, it wasdone nevertheless. Information available to the public on stealth technology all but dried up, but the technical media kept rather accurate track of the programs anyway, although detailswere lacking and were occasionally in error. Reports in the popular media about the aircraft usually surfaced when an accident occurred.

In 1981 considerable study was being undertaken by the Pentagon on the direction for the nation's strategicweapon programs. Proposalsfor revivingthe canceled B-1 as a stopgap measure until an advanced-technology stealth bomber could be designed were being scrutinized and the fundamental aspects of these programs were in public view. Questions of stealth technology applied to a new bomber led back to the stealth fighter.

A report in a June 1981 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology regarding bomber proposals mentioned some interesting facts about the stealth fighter. The report mentioned that the Lockheed demonstrator was currently flying against Soviet equipment, presumably in Nevada. The aircraft were described as physically "rounded." A Pentagon official, whowas not named, described the technology as working "better than we have a right to expect." The article also made reference to a fighter-sized stealth aircraft designed by Northrop that was expected to have its first flight "soon."22

It is not known if this aircraft was an attempt to compete with Lockheed for the production of the stealth fighterorif it wasan experimental demonstrator for testing stealth technology to be applied to the advanced-technology bomber (now the B-2) or the F-23 advanced-technology fighter then under development by Northrop. Given the differences in stealth design techniques in the F-117A and B-2 aircraft, the vehicle mentioned was probably a demonstrator. (Recent reports indicate that security was so tight during testing that teams from the various contractors were not allowed to view each other's aircraft for some time.)23

A demonstration of just how far the Reagan administration was willing togo with keeping stealth technology secret can be seen in statements by Air Force Secretary Verne Orr in July 1981. Contradicting what Secretary of Defense Harold Brown had stated the year before and disregarding reports of several years in the technical media, Orr called the stealth bomber a "paper airplane" and "wishful thinking." He also expressed doubt that American industry could handle such a "rush program," when in fact the F-117A was developed in record time.24

Aviation Week & Space Technology continued to obtain and print reports of the stealth fighter's progress despite the new official line of the aircraft's nonexistence. Nearly three months after Secretary Orr's denial, a report in the magazine's "Washington Roundup" stated that production for the stealth fighter had been funded with $1 billion for the 1983 fiscal year for 20 aircraft. The report also stated that the planes were to be C-5 transportable and had a planform similar to the space shuttle.25

A report in the Wall Street Journal in March 1982 revealed more details of the stealth fighter than had been done previously in the popular media. The report mentioned that the stealth fighter was due to go into production that year, was to be produced in small numbers, and would best be employed in the surprise attack role against heavily defended targets. It also discussed the stealth bomber and cruise missile projects. The report, while mostly factual, did include some pretentious statements. According to the author, one experiment performed by the United States Navy involved a missile boat coated with RAM, which made the vessel "undetectable by surface radar."26 This was almost certainly an exaggeration.

With the desire on the part of the Reagan administration to keep stealth black, little more was published about the stealth fighter until later in the decade. Even the 1984-85 edition of Jane's All the World's Aircraft, which included a very brief entry on the aircraft, made no new revelations about the aircraft except that it believed its designation was F-19.27 This designation was widely believed accurate for several years, although at least one report uncovered the fact that the designation was inaccurate.28

The Last Years of

The last years of the 1980s saw the stealth fighter move back into the popular and technical media spotlights. Crashes, missing documents on the aircraft, and, oddly enough, a plastic model kit all focused attention on the program. In fact, so much information about the airplane was leaking that some officials felt that there was little point in attempting to keep the aircraft completely concealed. The program was kept fully classified, however, at President Ronald Reagan's request.29

In 1985 the stealth fighter made headlines and national news in the form of a plastic model kit (which turned out to save almost nothing in common with the real thing). At the request of his boss, John Andrews at the Testers Corporation created a speculative model of what the "F-19" might look like. The design was well thought-out, complete with curved surfaces, inwardly canted rudders, and blended engine intakes. Technical data was obtained from unclassified sources such as those used in preparation of this article and a government study likely used in producing the F-117A, the Radar Cross Section Handbook. The only truly unusual source used was a thumbnail sketch by a pilot who claimed that he saw an unusual aircraft over the desert one day.30

Release of the model caused a political and media uproar. The kit was spread over newspapers and network news programs. An assembled copy of the kit was even passed around a hearing in the House investigating missing stealth documents. One representative demanded to know how a secret aircraft that even congressman were not allowed to see could be reproduced by a model company.31 The government was particularly disturbed by the fact that the kit was a best-seller, especially among Lockheed workers at Palmdale, California (where the F-117A was built), which seemed to lend credibility to the model's configuration.32

In the end, however, the model was merely an intelligent guess. In many ways, the Testors kit looks more like what a stealth fighter should look like than the F-117A does: its surfaces are gracefully curved and it has a forward fuselage resembling an SR-71. Only one of the kit's features was accurate: the triangular, wedge-shaped nose tip. The model designer knew this configuration was correct because he had connections to the contractor that manufactured them.33 In the final analysis, one can only imagine the frustration and perhaps amusement of top Lockheed and Pentagon officials who knew that the kit bore no resemblance to the real fighter but could not say so in public.

Congressional questioning about missing stealth documents during the same hearing in which the model was passed around were less amusing. In June 1986 two Lockheed employees working on the stealth fighter program brought to light that hundreds of documents, tapes, films, and photographs dealing with the aircraft were missing from the company's files. Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who later chaired an investigation into the problem, indicated that there was evidence that Lockheed had falsified audits to conceal the problem.34 In one instance, an employee allegedly removed blueprints of the aircraft in a rolled-up newspaper. The employee then supposedly showed them to his ex-wife and girlfriend, who turned him in.35 As a result of the lax document security, payments for the aircraft were withheld until the situation was corrected.36 Some officials complained that the hearings and publicity associated with them had led to the program being unnecessarily compromised.37

Further publicity about the stealth fighter resulted when one crashed in July 1986 in California on a night training mission. The drastic security measures taken during the incident attracted media attention.

The aircraft crashed at approximately 2 A.M. on a night training flight and started a fierce brushfire near Bakersfield, California. The fire was so severe that it took some 16 hours to extinguish.38 The crash site was proclaimed a national security area, which made overflights within five miles at altitudes less than 8,500 feet illegal. The ground area was also sealed off to the point that fire fighters were not allowed into the immediate area.39 While the Air Force refused to comment on what type of aircraft the pilot had been flying or where the flight originated, there was no doubt in anyone's mind what had crashed. Aviation Week & Space Technology ran detailed articles on the incident, including an analysis of local airways and military operations areas. The article revealed that the F-19 designation was incorrect but also stated that the aircraft used thrust vectoring, which it did not.40 A follow-up article the next week examined some of the operations that were taking place at the crash site, including the use of explosive charges to remove embedded aircraft sections.41 (Reports later declassified indicated that the crash was so severe that "structural breakup was almost absolute.")42

In a fashion typical of the popular media, Newsweek ran a story that contained several serious inaccuracies. The report indicated that over 72 stealth fighters were in operation and that any debris from the crash could be analyzed and information obtained that "the Kremlin would love to get its hands on." As a result of this, the article claimed, Pentagon officials "wondered if they'd have to keep the entire area cordoned off--forever."43

In fact, the area was not kept cordoned off forever but rather for several weeks. A television crew investigating the site after the Air Force departed found numerous aircraft fragments, the largest of which was about two and a half inches square. The pieces were turned over to the Air Force, which indicated that the remaining debris was not a security threat. Aviation author Bill Sweatman, when contacted about the scraps, indicated that they were probably unimportant.44 In his new book about the F-117A, Sweetman indicates that the Air Force scattered fragments of a wrecked F-101 Voodoo before leaving the crash site.45 This is most likely what was found.

Several detailed articles on the stealth fighter appeared in the popular media shortly after the accident. These pieces were more detailed and accurate than many previous reports published in either the technical or popular media and revealed data that made the further concealment of the program of questionable utility.

On 22 August 1986 the Washington Post, quoting "informed defense sources," wrote that approximately 50 aircraft were operational and combat-ready and listed the cost of the program as $7 billion. (Official figures eventually released specified the cost at $6.56 billion.) I report also specified that the F-19 designation was incorrect and described the aircraft's shape as " `ugly' because of its bulging, nontraditional shape." The article also discussed the operation of stealth technology as well as basing arrangements of the aircraft.46

The following day, the Sacramento Bee ran an article that described facilities at Tonopah, Nevada, where the F-117As were based. Operations at the base were divulged, including the daily transfer of technicians from Nellis Air Force Base. An account from a civilian pilot flying a restored P-51 Mustang who mistakenly landed at the base and was interrogated at length was published, as was a report by a charter pilot who intruded on the restricted airspace and was intercepted by an armed OV-10, which escorted him out of the area.47

In October 1987 another stealth fighter crashed, this time at Nellis. Because the accident occurred inside military territory, the extreme security measures that had called attention to the crash the previous year were not needed (this could be a reason for the later crash not being as publicized). A short item in Aviation Week & Space Technology called the aircraft a "Nighthawk" and listed the quantity of aircraft as approximately 50.48

A report in the Las Vegas Sun was more revealing, listing the accident location as a section of the heavily restricted nuclear proving ground. The account stated that the fire fighters employed at the test site were not permitted to respond to the crash. official statements were vague, as they were in previous accidents involving stealth aircraft. An Air Force spokesman would only indicate that the crash was under investigation and would not identify the type of aircraft involved in the accident. The article also stated that the crash occurred during Red Flag exercises but did not list a source for this information.49

Scarcely a month later, the stealth fighter was back in the media, this time from a peripheral perspective. An A-7D Corsair crashed into a hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana, killing 10 people. Media curiosity arose when it was discovered that the pilot of the A-7, Maj Bruce Teagarden, was assigned to the 4450th Tactical Training Group--the same unit that the pilot of 1986 Bakersfield crash had been assigned to. The report indicated that the unit probably did something unusual, as it operated the only remaining A-7Ds in the active forces.50

This information led to a wealth of speculation, much of it accurate. Theories put forth by various experts based on the information indicated that the A-7s were being used to sharpen daytime attack flying skills since the stealth aircraft were only flown at night to avoid detection. It was also suggested that the A-7s could be modified to carry some stealth avionics either in the existing aircraft or externally. (It is now known that the A-7s were not modified in any way.)51 Other analysts theorized that the A-7s were used as Soviet interceptor aircraft against which the stealth aircraft flew practice missions. The article carried one grossly inaccurate figure: the stealth fighters were specified as costing $150 million each.52

The F-117A Moves
Out of the Black

Little more was written about the stealth fighter prior to its official unveiling in late 1988. Hints of the aircraft being declassified began circulating in October of that year. With the stealthy B-2 and the ATF programs about to come under some public scrutiny, the incentive to continue to invest great amounts of effort and funding to keep the stealth fighter under wraps was lessening.

In mid-October, various news services announced that the Pentagon was about to reveal some information about the fighter, only to be contradicted by official sources who indicated that there were no plans to release any information for "the foreseeable future." Reports also indicated that consideration was being given to revealing the program by Pentagon sources rather than in upcoming court cases involving Lockheed employees who alleged that they had suffered injury while working on the aircraft.53

Perhaps the main reason for the delay in releasing information was the concern that doing so would be seen as a political ploy. Conceivably recalling the uproar caused in the 1980 election, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee requested that the release of information be delayed until after the November election. The delay was also used to assess the potential effects on arms negotiations and to brief US allies.54

The official unveiling finally happened on 10 November 1988. A single vague and hazy photograph of the aircraft was released, along with various details on the program including the aircraft's correct designation. Quantities of the F-117As in service and on order were given, and accidents involving the aircraft, most of which had been reported widely in the media over the years with considerable detail and accuracy, were briefly listed. No information was given, however, about the aircraft's measurements, performance, or cost.55

The photograph was run on the front page of nearly every major newspaper the following day and astounded most people in that the aircraft was not configured as most of the conjectural drawings had indicated. Apart from the configuration, however, the official announcement was a disappointment. It gave little new information.

Perhaps the story was most anticlimactic in Tonopah where the F-117As were based. The front page of the Tonopah Times-Bonanza proclaimed, "Surprise, surprise--it exists."56

While many of the media reports on the F-117A's unveiling were virtually identical due to the limited amount of information released, some reports included unofficial information obtained by other sources. U.S. News & World Report, for example, ran an accurate account of the unveiling, but also included accounts of security measures taken to ensure secrecy. The article also claimed that the F-117A had been flown near the Soviet border undetected and that the Joint Chiefs decided not to use the aircraft in the 1986 Libyan air strike for fear of the enemy gaining information about it.57

The article in the 14 November 1988 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology included more analysis than most other accounts. The standard information from the release was provided, along with technical explanations about the unique stealth-faceting contouring. Estimated dimensions were also provided.58

The indistinct nature of the single released photograph of the F-117A produced some interesting conjectural drawings of the aircraft. Even Jane's All the World's Aircraft, known for its accuracy even in speculation, fashioned a rendition that was incorrect. The F-117A pictured in a two-view drawing is compressed in length, being only slightly longer than the aircraft's wing span. The result is a squat, stubby airframe supported by a brawny landing gear. Curiously, however, the shape of the gear doors shown in this drawing are correct but were not shown in the initially released photograph.59 Either the individual who prepared the drawing made an intelligent guess or had access to some information not officially released.

With the F-117A now flying during the day, stealth buffs and aviation photographers started making trips to Tonopah hoping to see the famed aircraft. Some succeeded, and in several cases their photographs were published in such publications as Aviation Week & Space Technology and Jane's Defence Weekly. In most cases the photos were taken from quite a distance and often showed only the aircraft's underside. Most of the photos were blurred by distance.

As the B-2 project began to encounter cost difficulties and was being thrust into the spotlight in attempts to gather public support, there were fewer and fewer reasons to keep the F-117A secluded. In early April 1990, the Air Force revealed a great deal more about the aircraft, including costs, dimensions, detailed color photographs, and motion picture footage. Aviation Week & Space Technology ran a highly detailed and technical article explaining the aircraft's history, workings, and operations.60

Despite these revelations and the aircraft's popularity at air shows, a fair degree of secrecy still shrouds the plane. Crews of KC-135Qs refueling F-117As on the first stage of their journeys to the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield were not given refueling data on the airplane.61

Did the Classification
Scheme Succeed?

With all the publicity given to the stealth fighter over the years, can it be said that attempts to keep the aircraft's existence secret succeeded? The exact objectives for keeping the program secret have never been publicly stated. In theory, success would mean keeping data that could have been used to counter or duplicate the F-117A secret, but what type of information would that be? That question has various answers depending on which presidential administration is examined.

As discussed previously, the amount of information considered acceptable for public consumption by the Carter administration was considerably greater than that released by the Reagan administration. Given the fact that the Carter administration announced the existence of stealth programs that the Reagan administration kept silent, reports published about the F-117A over the years that did not reveal sensitive aspects of the aircraft's operations or construction would likely have been deemed acceptable by that administration's standards. In fact, some believe that the F-117A would have been revealed to the public much sooner had Carter been reelected.62 Under these standards, then, the classification program can be considered a success.

The evaluation of the secrecy of the program is very different if viewed from the stance of the Reagan administration. As one author points out, the stealth fighter became a classic example of the more conservative approach of the administration: when in doubt, classify; if doubt remains, upgrade the classifications.63

If the goal of the administration was indeed to keep the aircraft's very existence completely secret, the classification program failed. By the tight standards applied to the program, each and every one of the reports discussed earlier in this article was damaging.

But was the objective to keep the aircraft completely secret? Given the degree of publicity surrounding the program before the Reagan administration clamped down on the subject, along with the continued reports in the technical media made by experts in the field as well as the difficulties with missing documentation of the aircraft, it seems unlikely that the objective was to keep the project completely hidden. Instead, it seems probable that the intention was to keep the quantity and depth of information revealed to minimal levels. A lack of official information on the aircraft also gave additional credence to rumors and reports of questionable accuracy that would have been discounted in the face of authoritative data. If viewed from this perspective, the world was indeed kept guessing about the aircraft. For every accurate report about the stealth fighter published, several inaccurate ones were produced, although seldom were any completely inaccurate. (This trend continues today despite the declassification of the program.)

The wild card variable in this analysis is the Soviet intelligence community. Given the thoroughness with which that machine penetrated other black programs (most notably the Rhyolite reconnaissance satellite program), combined with the fact that many documents on the F-117A program disappeared, suggests that the Soviets may have learned a great deal about the aircraft despite the extreme security measures which surrounded it.

Security concerns regarding the stealth fighter are not limited to the Soviet Union, however. as recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated. The tight security measures may not have kept the Soviets from learning about the aircraft, but other potential adversaries may well have been kept in the dark about the aircraft and how to defeat it.

There are other dimensions to the classification equation; these are not matters of national security but of domestic politics. Details of black programs like the F-117A are known only to select officials, thus making the projects less prone to political criticism and cancellation. Some critics have charged that the number of black programs under the Reagan administration wasexcessive and that the motivations formaking them black were to hide them from political rather than military adversaries. In 1982 San Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) headed an effort to bring more details of black programs, particularly costs, more into the open. Citing the problems with the B-1's integration into operational status, Senator Boxer indicated that better track needed to be kept of programs like the F-117A.64 This position was bolstered by a potential alarming increase in the number of black programs in the defense budget. In 1981 black programs made up .5 percent of the defense budget; by 1988 this number had risen to 7.3 percents.65 There seems to be little agreement on a balancing point between secrecy needed for national security and disclosure needed for public accountability.

Did Published Reports on
the Stealth Fighter
Compromise Its
Operational Capability?

Did all of the articles and books published about stealth technology over the years enable potential adversaries to interfere with the aircraft or copy it? This is doubtful for many reasons.

One of the primary features of stealth aircraft is their shape; configuration of the aircraft's surfaces determines the degree and direction of radar reflectivity. Knowing a stealth aircraft's shape can assist in detecting it.66 Until the official unveiling of the F-117A in November 1988, no accurate rendering had ever been published, although some accounts had indicated that the aircraft was not acurved, blended design as most reports had made it out to be. The closest guess came from yet another Testors model kit, this time of a hypothetical Soviet stealth fighter, the MiG-37. The kit marked the first public release of a faceted stealth designs.67 The precise configuration of the faceting of the F-117A, which had to be known in order to compute even a rough estimate of an aircraft's radar cross section, was neverrevealed. There is little evidence to support that even the release of that information would cause any real harm to the program. The US Air Force gave some of its analysts, who did not have any knowledge about the F-117A other than what had been revealed in the media, plan views of the aircraft and asked them to compute an estimate of its radar cross section. The resulting estimates were farhigher than the actual figure, and the conclusion was that the revelation of the aircraft's basic configurationwould not cause any significant harm.68

The external shape of the aircraft is only the beginning of the list of stealth features on the F-117A. Most reports on the aircraft, especially those of the popular media, emphasized only external configuration radar stealth features and ignored other aspects such as internal and external RAM and other low-observable technologies in areas such as visual and infrared masking.

Radar signals bounce not only off the aircraft's surface skin but also off internal structures, most notably engine components. Reports published over the years occasionally mentioned these problems and listed various means of solving them by using a variety of techniques and materials. None, however, described how the interior of the stealth fighter is actually configured.

A variety of RAM is available to reduce radar signature, including such materials as Fibaloy, Kelvar 49, and Spectra-100 to name a few. No definite reports of which of any these are used in the F-117A were published. Without knowing which materials are used, an adversary would not know which radar frequencies the F-117A is vulnerable to (if any) and therefore would be restricted in attempts to counter the aircraft. To have the best chance of countering such technology, an adversary would have to make an attempt to cover every possibility: an exercise that would be a massive and expensive undertaking. In addition, the composition of subsequent stealth aircraft (which includes virtually all future fighter and bomber types) will probably differ considerably in types and quantities of RAM used, which will give them different characteristics.

Another radar reflectivity problem of a stealth aircraft is its onboard radar dish. The dish is by its nature a good reflector of radar energy and therefore greatly increases the stealth fighter's radar cross section. One solution to this problem would be to construct a radome transparent only to the stealth fighter's radar frequency. The weakness of this solution is that the aircraft would be vulnerable to detection in the frequency of its onboard radar, if an adversary knew what the frequency was. 69 Again, no official report has been released as to what type of radar, if any, the F-117A is equipped with.

If there is a threat of an adversary obtaining information about RAM, it is probably not from stealth aircraft programs. Information on RAM was and is available from a variety of sources other than stealth aircraft, if anyone chooses to research the subject. One example of RAM is manufactured by Rockwell International. Known as radar interference ghost eliminator (RIGEL), the material is used at airports to cover structures that cause clutter on radar screens.70 In Japan, bridges were coated with a ferrite-based RAM paint that allows operators on ships to detect other vessels in the water without the interference the bridge structures would cause.71

As already stated, little or nothing was ever published about thermal stealth technology. There was a great deal of information on the technology available (RAM, for example) from sources not related to stealth projects. Infrared masking and reduction systems, which come in a variety of forms, have been available and in service for a number of years on a variety of aircraft including helicopters and fixed-wing.

The greatest heat signature of an aircraft is created by its power plant. This can be reduced by covering the engines in special material and by cooling the exhaust plume of the airplane.

Substances used for encasing engines to reduce their heat signature include a variety of ceramics and carbon-carbon similar to that used on the space shuttle's exterior as thermal shielding. Many of these are also RAM.72 No definite reports on which substances are used or how they are arranged in the F-117A have been published.

Masking engine exhaust can also be accomplished with a variety of techniques. Primary methods involve using bypass air to cool down the hot airflow from the engines. The resulting mixture is cool enough to make acquisition by sensors sensitive to the infrared (IR) range a difficult prospect. This system is used on a variety of aircraft. Another system uses a series of baffles to cool the exhaust.73 A more recent development is the use of 2-D nozzles to mask the plume.74 Some reports erroneously indicated that this system was inuse on the stealth fighter. Full details of the exhaust system used on the F-117A have still not been revealed, but the system appears to use vanes in the exhaust nozzles to disperse the exhaust quickly over a widearea.75 None of the published reports have ever indicated what the aircraft's exhaust characteristic would be. An adversary would then have to estimate this value to optimize his chances of detecting the aircraft.

A thorough infrared masking would have to be taken to dampen the aircraft'soverall thermal signatureas well. One possible method of accomplishing this would be to use a "closed-loop" cooling system, which would divert excess heat to various segments of the aircraft where it could be bled off harmlessly. The SR-71 is said to have dissipated heat into its fuel to accomplish this.76 To date, no incontrovertible reportsthat the stealth fighter is equipped with such a system have been published.

In summation, none of the published reports on the aircraft seem to have compromised its operational capability. Popular reports emphasized concepts as configuration, quantity, cost, and the basics of the stealth fighter missionbut did not discuss any of the technical details an adversary would need to detect or duplicate the aircraft. Reports in the technical media went further than those in the popular media, but even these were largely speculatory and often contradictory. At best these reports gave clues as to the types of technologies that mighthave been incorporated into the aircraft. Photographs have revealed the F-117A's true appearance--oneof its key stealth features--but nearly all of the aircraft's other stealth features are internal and would require extensive examination and analysis to enable an adversary to counter or duplicate them.

The most damaging information revealed for military purposes gave the quantity of planes produced and alerted the Soviets that the United States had a weapon against which they had no adequate defense. Given the fact that stealth technology was being extensively researched for decades before the F-117A flew, this isinformation they likely already had, and their intelligence services may have very well obtained more. While exact details have yet to be published, preliminary results have indicated that the F-117A performed superbly in Operation Desert Storm against formidable air defenses of an enemy who was fully aware ofthe aircraft's existence, deployment, configuration, and capabilities.

The Price of Keeping
the Program Secret

The cost of keeping the F-117A a complete secret for nearly a decade must have been enormous in both human and financial dimensions. The entire facility at Tonopah, Nevada, where the F-117As are based until they are scheduled to be moved in 1992, was constructed for the stealth fighter program. Until the F-117As arrived, the only buildings there werethose of an old World War II training facility.77 Great expense was also incurred when Lockheed personnel commuted daily to the facility from the company's plant in Burbank, California.78 These are but a few of the types of expenses involved in keeping a major program under wraps.

The extreme secrecy of the program had human costs as well. To keep the number of personnel assigned to the F-117A units as small as possible, pilots were made to carry out functions that otherwise would have been handled by a separate staff. Thiswas likely a leading cause of fatigue among pilots flying the aircraft, which led to accidents that otherwise might have been avoided. Additional contributing factors to fatigue and accidents included radio silence orders and the constraint of flying the aircraft only during night hours to avoid detection.79 One report by a retired Air Force general indicates that the pilots of F-117As were all but ordered to die with their aircraft if it became necessary to come down in any unsecured location: "If you can't bring it home, then you auger it in ... even if you have to go in with it."80 Pilots flying in Red Flag exercises at nearby Nellis were supposed to have been "forced down" if they got too close to a stealth aircraft and refused orders to move away.81

Secrecy restrictions had implications on the operational aspects of the aircraft as well. In 1986 the United States executed an air strike on Libya, a mission for which the F-117A would have been ideal. The reason the airplane was not used in that operation, reports indicate, was concern by the Joint Chiefs that the classified aspects of the aircraft might have been revealed whether or not any were shot down. Furthermore, using them in the raid would have made denial of their existence more difficult. Similar concerns canceled their use in a planned but unexecuted strike on Syria in 1983 and perhaps other missions.82

The Doctrine of Secrecy
and the F-117A

Were security restrictions of this magnitude necessary to keep the aircraft's successful operations from being compromised or to keep the Soviets from copying the technology? There is little evidence to support that the extreme measures taken were required. As has already been discussed, most key stealth technologies cannot be revealed without knowledge of the aircraft's interior components and configuration. Operating the aircraft during daylight hours would not have compromised any of these systems, nor would have conducting operations at Tonopah in a more open fashion.

The holding back of the F-117A in the Libya raid suggests that the degree of secrecy assigned to the aircraft impeded it from flying the types of missions it was designed to accomplish. If the very existence of the aircraft is to be protected at the expense of using it, what is the purpose for having such a weapon? The fear of the Soviets obtaining information from a downed stealth aircraft has been discounted by the Air Force itself, which has indicated that the Soviets would learn " `near zero' " about how to counter stealth by poring over a captured U.S. plane."83 The missing documents on the F-117A that disappeared may have done more damage than this.

The secrecy surrounding the F-117A appears to have been more of a philosophical than practical decision. Military benefits of keeping the program highly classified were outweighed by costs in some areas. As one writer hasnoted, theclassification is partly a matter of military tradition and a tradition in the highly successful management style practiced at the Lockheed "skunk works" where the aircraft was designed, developed, and produced in record time.84 The heavy classification also protected the aircraft from political fighting, which might have killed this successful program. Costs involved with the F-117A were so high that the number of aircraft ordered had to be diminished from 100 to only 59.85 General knowledge of this would have attracted political opponents like a magnet, and much unfounded criticism from uninformed individuals would have resulted.

More recently the Navy's A-12 attack aircraft program has provided an example of what excessive "blackness" of a program can do. Shortly after Secretary of Defense Richard ("Dick"] Cheney announced that the program was on course, contractors revealed that the program was behind schedule and over budget.86 Accusations were exchanged between government, military, and contractor personnel in placing blame, but, due to the program's "black" nature, such accusations were difficult to prove or disprove. In short, the extravagant classification measures eroded accountability.

To prevent this and other problems from developing in future programs, guidelines should be developed to help determine the degree of classification required independent of political considerations. The following questions should be addressed in the guidelines:

Projects that do not need to be completely hidden could then be allowed to exist in a "gray" status in which their existence and very general information would be revealed while aspects such as special technologies could be kept secret. The stealth fighter would have been an excellent candidate for a classification scheme of this type.

It will be some time before the entire story on the F-117A will be fully known. The aircraft is still a highly sensitive topic, and conducting research on the program is difficult. Reports and accounts, even those from well-respected sources, are often highly speculatory and contradictory. As a result, it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. Much of what was written about the stealth fighter over the years has proven to be erroneous, and in future years aspects of this article will doubtlessly take their place with them. Some observers will conceivable claim that this ambiguity speaks well for justifying military secrets, and others will claim that it demonstrates the danger of letting expensive and potentially dangerous programs run unchecked. The F-117A will become a case cited by both opponents and proponents of secret programs.


l. Jones, Stealth Technology: The Art of Black Magic (Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, Inc., 1989), 1.

2. Jay Miller, Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter (Arlington, Tex.: Aerofax, Inc., 1990), 3.

3. Jones, 43.

4. Bill Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft (Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1986), 14.

5. Dough Richardson, Stealth (New York: Orion Books, 1989), 44.

6. Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft, 19.

7. Ibid., 60.

8. "Pentagon Unveils Loockheed Stealth Fighter," Defense Daily, 14 November 1988, 66.

9. Barry Miller, "Advanced Tactical Fighter Studies Set," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 19 January 1976, 16-17.

10. "Lockheed California Co. Is Developing a Small Fighter Intended to Demonstrate Stealth, or Low Signature Technologies," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 August 1976, 11.

11. John W. R. Taylor, ed., Jane's All the World's Aircraft 1977-78 (London: Jane's Yearbooks, 1978), 326.

12. "First Flight of Lockheed's New Stealth Fighter Demonstrator Being Built by the Company's 'Skunk Works`," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 20 June 1977, 11.

13. "Declassified Photos Show `Have Blue' F-117A Predecessor," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 22 April 1991, 30.

14. Peter C. Stuart, "Stealth-an Invisible Aircraft with High Political Visibility," Christian Science Monitor, 5 September 1980, 5.

15. House Committee on Armed Services, Investigations Subcommittee, Leaks of Classified National Defense Information-Stealth Aircraft, 96th Cong., 2d sess., 1981, Committee Print 30, 7.

16. "Carter Clarifies Position on Stealth Aircraft Leaks," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 15 September 1980, 23.

17. House, Leaks of Classified National Defense Information, 2.

18. Ibid., 4.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., 6.

21. Melinda Beck, William J. Cook, and John J. Lindsay, "Unveiling a Ghost Plane," Newsweek, 1 September 1980, 23.

22. Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., "Bomber Choices Near," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 1 June 1981, 18, 22.

23. Bill Sweetman and James Goodall, Lockheed F-117A (Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1990), 27. As this article went to press, there were reports published in the 10 June 1991 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology (p. 20) about a Northrop tactical reconnaissance stealth aircraft, the TR-3A, which is believed to have first flown in 1981. The Northrop aircraft described in this article could very well have been prototype of the TR-3A.

24. Richard Halloran, "Air Force Chief Calls the Stealth a `Paper Plane Far From Reality'," New York Times, 23 July 1981, A1.

25. "Stealth Projects," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 12 October 1981, 17.

26. Walter S. Mossberg, "Pentagon May Use Stealth Technology in Several Weapons Besides Bomber," Wall Street Journal, 17 March 1982, 6.

27. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1984-85, 431.

28. George C. Wilson, "Air Force Plans to Hide Secret Fighter," Washington Post, 21 March 1987, A1.

29. Ibid., A6.

30. Paul Ciotti, "Tempest in a Toy Box," Los Angeles Times Magazine, 29 October 1986, 24.

31. Ibid., 27.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., 26.

34. "Lockheed Lost Secret Papers, Dingell Says," Los Angeles Times, 18June 1986, 2.

35. "Stealth Fighter Not Quite Invisible," Economist, 30 August 1986, 28.

36. George C. Wilson, "50 `Stealth' Fighters in Operation," Washington Post, 22 August 1986, B12.

37. Ibid.

38. "USAF Aircraft Destroyed In Crash Believed to Be Stealth Fighter," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 21 July 1986, 22.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 23.

41. "Security Restrictions Continue at California Crash Site," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 8 July 1986, 21.

42. Mark Thompson, "Fatigue, Disorientation Dog 'Stealth' Fliers,"St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch, 4 June 1989. (Located in NewsBank [Microform], International, 1989, 62:A7, fiche.)

43. John Barry, "A Top-Secret Jet Goes Down," Newsweek, 21 July 1986, 19.

44. David Holley, "TV Crew Finds Debris at AF Jet Crash Site," Los Angeles Times, 12 August 1986, 17.

45. Sweetman and Goodall, 82.

46. Wilson, "50 Stealth Fighter," B12.

47. Ted Bell, "Stealth's the Word for Desert Secret," Sacramento Bee, 23 August 1986. (Locate in NewsBank [Microform], International, 1986, 79:E13, fiche).

48. "Air Force Aircraft Crashes at Nellis," Aviation Weak & Space Technology, 26 October 1987, 25.

49. Mary Manning, "Nellis Pilot Dies in Crash of Stealth," Las Vegas Sun, 16 October 1987. (Located in NewsBank [Microform], International 1987, 168:C6, fiche).

50. David Remondini and George Stuteville, "Jet Used as a `Test Bed' for Stealth?" Indianapolis Star, 11 November 1987, (Located in NewsBank [Microform], International, 1987, 168:C7, fiche.)

51. Jay Miller, 10.

52. Remondini and Stuteville, C7.

53. John D. Morrocco, "USAF Unveils Stealth Fighter; Black Weapons Probe Likely," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 14 November 1988, 28.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Quoted in Mary Hynes, "Reaction to Stealth Fighter Difficult to See in Tonopah," Las Vegas Review Journal, 11 November 1989, D11-12. (Located in NewsBank [Microform], International, 1989, 99:D11-12, fiche.)

57. "Top of the Top Guns," U.S News & World Report, 28 November 1988, 25.

58. Morrocco, 29.

59. Jane's All the World's Aircraft, 1988-89, 435.

60. Michael Dornheim, "Fly-by-Wire Controls Key to Pure `Stealth'," Aviation Week $ Space Technology, 9 April 1990, 36.

61. Michael Dornheim, "F-117A Uses Conventional Refueling Techniques for Mideast Deployment," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 27 August 1990, 25.

62. Bill Sweetman, "What You Don't See Is What You Get," Washington Post, 18 May 1986, F1.

63. Ibid.

64. Wilson, "Air Force Plans to Hide Secret Fighter," A1.

65. Ibid.

66. "USAF Defends Stealth Programs," International Defense Review, May 1988, 518.

67. Richardson, 22.

68. Sweetman and Goodall, 67.

69. Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft, 57.

70. James Grambart, "The Stealth Secret," The Progressive, December 1980, 35.

71. Jones, 48.

72. Ibid., 24.

73. Ibid., 23.

74. Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft, 53.

75. Dornhein, 41.

76. Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft, 54.

77. Sweetman, "What You Don't See Is What You Get," F1.

78. Sweetman, Stealth Aircraft, 63.

79. Thompson, A7.

80. Jones, 74.

81. Sweetman and Goodall, 28.

82. Jay Miller, 11. The 10 June 1991 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology (p. 20) indicates that intelligence from the TR-3A during Operation Desert Storm was limited, possibly to keep the aircraft's existence secret.

83. David J. Lynch, "No Gain to Soviets from Captured B-2, Defense Week, 11 June 1990, 3.

84. Sweetman, "What You Don't See Is What You Get," F1.

85. Wilson, "Air Force Plans to Hide Secret Fighter," A6.

86. John Boatman, "A-12 Overruns, Delays Revealed," Janes's Defence Weekly, 6 October 1990, 613.


Jim Cunningham (BA, Northern Illinois University; MS, University of Illinois) is visiting reference librarian, Founders' Memorial Library, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He has previously served as research assistant, Arms Control, Disarmament, and Internaional Security Department, University of Illinois.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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