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Stealth Fighters.

In 1994, Little, Brown published Skunk Works, "A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed" co-authored by Ben R. Rich, the engineer who had run Lockheed's Advanced Development Projects (a.k.a. "Skunk Works") from 1975 to 1991. Throughout the Cold War, that secret unit gave the U.S. government its most advanced aerodynamic assets: the U-2 spy plane, and then the super-speedy SR-71; and then, most dazzlingly the F-117 Stealth Fighter--a futuristic marvel, "virtually invisible to aircraft radar," that "has already revolutionized air warfare," as Richard Perle put it in his glowing New York Times review of Rich's (and Leo Janos's) "richly detailed, thoroughly absorbing account of one of the great chapters in the history of aircraft technology."

Perle's enthusiasm was in total harmony with Skunk Works, which also breathlessly extols the F-117 for the boldness of its weird design, the heroic resourcefulness of the devoted team who saw the project through, and--most important--the dreamlike flawlessness of its performance in the booming heavens over Baghdad back in 1991. Aside from the authorial plaudits (e.g., "stealth lived up to all our expectations and claims" on the first night of the war), the book is rife with similarly awestruck testimonials from various Air Force officers and Pentagon officials. "In the past, you would have been betting your hat, ass, and spats on a lot of wishful thinking to conceive a battle plan that would eliminate most of the highest-value enemy targets over the most heavily defended city on earth on the opening night of the war. But that's exactly what Ben Rich's airplane did on the first night of Desert Storm," says General Larry D. Welch (Air Force Chief of Staff, 1986--1990). "The F-117s made the job of our conventio nal aircraft infinitely safer and much easier," says William J. Perry, President Clinton's then-Secretary of Defense. "That stealth slit had really worked," says Colonel Barry Home, who flew stealth missions over Baghdad.

Thus Little, Brown, three years after the fact, helped bolster the consensus that had been so thrillingly created by the television spectacle of Desert Storm--a consensus that was quickly used for propaganda purposes. (In fact, the spectacle itself had been devised to serve those purposes, but that's another story.) "The American public got to see how well Stealth works every night on TV during the Persian Gulf War," said Senator J. James Exon (D.-Neb.) on August 1, 1991, in arguing for the B-2 Stealth Bomber, a larger and much costlier relation to the F-117--whose famed success in Desert Storm was also used to sell the Senate on investing billions in "Star Wars" technology (despite the fact that SDI and stealth are wholly unrelated).

That pitch re-echoed through the nineties, with Desert Storm repeatedly invoked to justify demands for still more spending on "defense," notwithstanding the collapse of Soviet communism. Indeed, that plea is actually the subtext--or the point--of Skunk Works, whose "epilogue" is a reverential trilogy of stout encomia by Perry, Harold Brown, and Caspar Weinberger. Naturally, the three Secretaries of Defense have their partisan differences--but on the facts of (a) the stellar record of the F-117, and (b) the need to keep on funding projects like it, all three men are perfectly agreed: Weinberger dreams aloud of "a president with the political courage to continue fielding a strong defense and fund it," while Perry vows that President Clinton is indeed committed to "our capability for rapid deployment of experimental aircraft," and will therefore "maintain [it] in the face of broad-scale defense cutbacks." Similarly Perle uses his review of Skunk Works to jeer mightily at "critics of defense spending." Perle end s by asserting that such nigglers, "who deplore 'black' programs that proceed in secret and who demand that we pile on even more rules, procedures and regulators to protect the public interest, should read 'Skunk Works' to see how well it can be done."

Thus Skunk Works, although packaged as "a personal memoir," was in fact a major salvo in a propaganda drive that has by now succeeded as impressively as Desert Storm itself. Through the publication and/or hyping of that book, the allied forces of Lockheed and Little, Brown (Time Warner), the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon, Richard Perle and the New York Times Book Review did much, albeit indirectly to help win funding for both "Star Wars" and the B-2 Stealth Bomber, both of which projects are still going strong, costing many billions even though their viability is doubtful. Even the apparent shootdown, by Serbian ground forces, of an F-117 in March of 1999 has somehow failed to weaken the supreme consensus that that stealth shit really works.

The consensus seems especially marvellous when we recall, or learn, that the F-117 did not perform as advertised during Desert Storm--and that its several failures were reported, albeit too quietly and/or too late for any viewer of CNN to know about them. Contradicting Rich's claim that "stealth lived up to all our expectations and claims," for instance, the Guardian (U.K.) reported, on March 25, 1991, that three British destroyers had been able to "identify the $500 million Stealths as they crossed water, at up to 40 miles, despite a shape and metal alloy designed to deflect radar beams." It was not true that F-117s alone had "eliminated Iraq's ability to wage coordinated war" by swiftly taking out "Saddam's air defense system" (as Lockheed's brochures kept on putting it). In fact, the Stealths flew into enemy air-space only after several other, more conventional (and cheaper) types of aircraft had suppressed Iraqi radar--a fact reported early on by Barton Gellman of the Washington Post. (It was not reporte d in the Post, however, but in Aerospace Daily.) The Government Accounting Office came up with still more disappointing news when it issued a report in 1996--two years after Skunk Works had appeared, and yet it isn't likely that the plane's own top designer, corporate manufacturer, and bureaucratic sponsors had known nothing of such truths until the GAO revealed them: that the Stealth was often rendered wholly useless by "poor visibility" (clouds, fog, smoke), and that a mere 40% of its laser-guided bombs could be confirmed as hits--as opposed to the 80% claimed so exultantly by Lockheed and the Air Force. In Skunk Works, Rich asserts "a 75 percent direct-hit rate," concluding. "The direct-hit rate was almost as boggling as the no-casualty rate since laser-guided bombs are strictly line of sight, depending on good visibility, and the air war was conducted during some of the worst weather in the region in memory."

And so, whereas that plane was really no great shakes, this book is something truly marvellous, as was its warm reception. For anyone who knows the facts, reading Skunk Works, and then Perle's puff piece, is like entering another universe, where history as we know it has been cancelled--all incommensurable data tumbled "down the memory hole," as they put it in the Ministry of Truth. Although ours is surely not that sort of system, the blithe erasure of all contradiction is essentially the same, prompting the crucial question: How can such things be?

In this case, it would seem a rather simple matter of Big Money having called the tune; Richard Perle's involvement might suggest as much, since that enterprising hawk has made a lucrative career out of some bald conflicts of interest. As an Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security under Ronald Reagan, he got in some slight trouble when "he wrote a memorandum urging the department to consider buying equipment from a company that had paid him a $50,000 consulting fee" (as the the New York Times noted back in 1984). As chairman and CEO of Houinger Digital (owned by media titan Conrad Black), Perle maintains his close connections with the military industries. For example, as a non-executive director of Morgan Crucible, PLC (UK), which has done business with the Pentagon, he has an obvious vested interest in attacking "critics of defense spending"--and for certifying all that jive in Skunk Works. Likewise, those needy generals and engineers and Secretaries of Defense were no doubt influenced by the high allure of so much public money, although they may not all have been as cynical as Richard Perle. Their participation in the fraud--or self-delusion--may well have entailed what General Welch refers to as "a lot of wishful thinking."

However, such suppression of the inconvenient truth is not peculiar to the Pentagon's PR machine, nor is there often such a clearly mercenary impetus behind it. For such suppression--none dare call it "censorship"- is now routine; and it appears to be driven not so much by outright business interests as by the stubborn thrust of Cold War ideology Paradoxically, that bias seems to have grown steeper since the Cold War ended, making it all but impossible for many solid studies of our post-war history to get a fair and open hearing--or any hearing at all, outside of academic journals. Although published by entirely reputable houses, and despite their thorough scholarship, such books become at once officially invisible, like works of samizdat-as we shall see.

Mark Crispin Miller directs the Project on Media Ownership (Promo) at New York University, where he is also Professor of Media Ecology.
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Publication:Free Inquiry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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