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The Stealth bomber story you haven't heard; it doesn't work, and it'll probably crash.

The Stealth Bomber Story You Haven't Heard

It was star date 5027.4 when the Enterprise was suddenly surrounded by Romulan spacecraft that swooped in undetected by any of the Federation starship's sensors. Spock, of course, figured out how that happened: "I believe the Romulans have developed a cloaking device." Later, Spock and Captain Kirk were able to infiltrate the enemy commander's vessel and teleport the gadget back aboard. The plan was for the Enterprise to use it to slip away unnoticed. But the engineering officer, Lieutenant Commander Scott, soon discovered that this was easier said than done. After working feverishly, Scotty reported to Kirk, "I've got the device installed, but bless me if I know whether it's going to work. It's the biggest guess I've ever made. . . . I don't know whether our circuits can handle this alien contraption."

Well, thanks to cheap special effects, the thing worked perfectly and the Enterprise escaped undamaged. But Scotty was right--you wouldn't put much faith in such a revolutionary idea as "cloaking" without doing a lot of testing first.

And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Star Trek and the Pentagon.

In the past few years, the Defense Department's most elaborate attempt at cloaking, the B-2 stealth bomber, has certainly drawn plenty of attention for its price tag and the obscurity of its mission. In 1981, the Air Force estimated that a force of 133 B-2s could be procured for $32.7 billion. By mid-1989, that cost had grown to $70.2 billion. When in mid-1990 the Department of Defense (DOD) decided to acquire only 75 B-2s (10 have been funded thus far) it estimated the cost of that reduced purchase to be $62.8 billion. Last September, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that the total cost of buying and operating the 75 aircraft for their likely life span would be around $84 billion. That easily qualifies the B-2 as the second most expensive weapon in American history (first place: the Trident ballistic missile submarine). CIA director William Webster once said that developing the B-2's stealth technology "cost this country over $1 million an hour."

Originally the nuclear-armed B-2 was supposed to fly over its Soviet targets at a fairly high altitude, 20,000 feet or so. But only a few years into the project, the plane's wing was redesigned so that it could also fly the same sort of low-level flight profile that is currently used by our B-52s. The B-52s are down there because they can't evade radar detection at high altitude. But it's not clear why a truly stealthy bomber would have to be down on the deck. And in the mid-eighties, the joint chiefs of staff claimed that a clear advantage of the B-2 over land- or sub-based nuclear missiles was that it could locate and attack "strategic relocatable targets," such as mobile missiles. But now the Air Force admits that the plane can't do that without considerable additional investments in sensor technology. For now, the plane could be used only against stationary military targets like command centers and ICBM silos--if there were any left by the time the bombers got over them, several hours after our missiles had already done their work.

But for all the notice that's been paid to the B-2's cost and purpose, there has been remarkably little energy spent on something even more basic: Will the airplane actually be able to perform as advertised, and has the Pentagon or the contractor tried very hard to find that out? The sad answers to these essential questions are No and No. That's because in producing the B-2, the Pentagon and the contractor have committed every kind of deception--from intellectual dishonesty through cover-up all the way to criminal fraud.

Edsel in uniform

In 1984, an automated anti-aircraft gun made by Ford called DIVAD achieved a perverse distinction--it became one of the few weapons in the history of the U.S. military to get canceled after reaching the production stage. That rarity was accomplished only because of an extraordinarily phony testing program--or rather, because writer Gregg Easterbrook exposed that phoniness in several justly celebrated articles. The DIVAD, reported Easterbrook, "won" a "shootout" by scoring 10 fewer hits--at shorter range--than the competing machine, and managing to hit only helicopters--never airplanes. In one subsequent test, DIVAD's radar locked onto a latrine fan. In another, the gun first aimed at a reviewing stand full of top brass observers and then just blasted away into the ground, nowhere near the hovering target helicopter.

All this slipshod "research" ended up costing the taxpayers nearly $2 billion. If the DIVAD scandal had at least produced some lasting insight in the Pentagon about the importance of honest weapons testing, that $2 billion might have been a good investment. Guess again. The B-2 program proves that the defense world's institutional memory is less than six years. The true scandal of the stealth bomber is that it is the DIVAD testing fiasco writ large--in dollars, at least 10 times as large so far. Never before in the history of weapons has so much money been spent on so little performance.

In 1980, when Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and his undersecretary for R&D, William Perry, revealed the concept of stealth, Perry described it as a "technology that makes an aircraft invisible to radar." Soon enough, the papers were confirming that astonishing breakthrough. The New York Times was referring to "aircraft that, because of configuration and surface materials and paint patterns, would reflect almost no recognizable radar signals." And The Wall Street Journal said stealth allows "fast-moving objects to evade radar detection, giving weapons using it a tremendous ability for surprise attacks." Last summer, this near-invincible characterization was still going strong. General Larry Welch, at the time the senior officer in the Air Force, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the B-2's technology put its radar return in the "insect category."

There are a couple of things you'd want to know about the B-2 before you bought any of that. One, does it stay in the insect category from all angles and no matter what kind of radars are shined on it? Two, even if it does manage that feat, does it do so without sacrificing the aerodynamic performance--such as stability and range--we'd expect and demand from a nonstealthy strategic bomber?

The disaster of the B-2 is that these good questions have gone an awfully long and expensive time without being answered. And that's mostly because the classification of a "black" program creates such a dense wall between those most apt to ask such questions and those in the best position to answer them. More precisely, blackness is like shutters, with the Pentagon holding the only cord. If DOD has a test result it can present as favorable, it will publicize it. Otherwise, results are not released.

On the surface, it might seem as though these questions are not being overlooked. After all, the current budget authorization for the B-2 makes the release of funds for the procurement of additional aircraft contingent on the satisfaction of certain testing and performance "fences," as certified by the Defense Science Board (DSB). During last summer's debate on the defense bill, Senator James Exon expressed his satisfaction with the "fence" arrangement this way: "One of the major principles we have followed on this system is to fly before we buy, eliminating concurrency between the testing of developed systems and their production in quantity." But that concurrency is exactly what the B-2 program has spectacularly failed to eliminate. As Senator Dale Bumpers put it, "One of the big mistakes here is that we did not build a prototype." Although the TV and print ads for the B-2 that saturated the nation during the latest budget battle proclaimed that the plane is "America's most thoroughly tested bomber," after $26.7 billion spent over more than 10 years, we still have had no difinitive testing of a full-sized B-2 bomber for stealthiness or airworthiness. And it is currently estimated that the Air Force won't complete such testing until 1994--by which time we will probably have appropriated nearly $50 billion. Indeed, B-2 testing is being done so slowly that it will probably be finished 10 to 18 months after the warranties on the already-procured aircraft expire.

B-2 officials will tell you ad nauseum about all the tests they've run using scale models, computerization, and simulation, but when it comes to actually putting a real B-2 in the air, the litany isn't quite so impressive. Even though the first production B-2 was available for flight testing throughout fiscal 1990, that year passed without the fences being cleared. In the two years since the first B-2 rolled out of its hangar, it has flown 87 hours. During that time, the two flyable B-2s now available have together flown only a total of about 100 hours. That's just 3 percent of the test flight hours the plane is supposed to undergo before it can be deemed mission-capable. And the aircraft is only just now beginning to fly against radar--but not against operational radars of the sort our forces or the Soviets employ, merely against special test-range equipment. Flying against real-world detection and targeting equipment won't come for many more months. The GAO says that "if these current schedules are met, it will be at least three years before critical performance requirements have been fully tested. That is the point in testing where problems are typically discovered."

And check out the DSB before you figure it's going to let the chips fall where they may. "Go back and look at how many times the DSB signed off on the avionics on the B-1," suggests one Pentagon skeptic, referring to an electronic countermeasures system that nearly everyone now admits is a total failure. On the DSB sit such disinterested figures as executives of Martin Marietta, Rockwell, Hughes Aircraft, TRW, ITT, Lockheed, United Technologies, and Ford--the creator of DIVAD. There's Donald Hicks, former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and don't forget William Perry, who decided a decade ago that stealth makes airplanes "invisible," and who trumpeted his support for the B-2 in a print ad widely distributed by the plane's principal contractors during last year's budget debate.

Test anxiety

There are some respectable reasons to proceed slowly with testing. Safety is the one that immediately comes to mind. But there are less admirable reasons that have had more to do with the testing delay in the case of the B-2. First, there's the perverse idea that slowing things down while money continues to be spent (the budget fences restrict most spending for procurement of new planes, but they don't obstruct expenditures on testing and parts) helps the plane's survival by enhancing what is known around town as the "sunk cost" argument. If you have already spent $X billion, the reasoning goes, you might as well spend $X + Y billion. After all, you can't get the $X billion back by not spending more. In an official letter to Air Force Times, Air Force Brig. General William B. Davitte made the point quite baldly in defense of the B-2: "With almost one half of the total program cost already committed, it would make absolutely no sense to walk away from this revolutionary program now." Haven't these people ever heard of the distinction between good and bad money, as in throwing the former after the latter?

A related bad reason for footdragging is the fear that realistic and expedient tests would quickly produce bad news. The likelihood of adverse test results has been the B-2 nightmare for some time. Within weeks after stealth was proclaimed in 1980, Edward Teller, the inventor of the H-bomb, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "It is a good general rule to make all possible progress in military technology and to worry about countermeasures later. I firmly believe that the present case is an exception. At least one proposal for a countermeasure exists. This method appears obvious and does not even require any extraordinary technological effort in order to allow the Soviets to detect, locate, and destroy stealth bombers." Teller added that the rules of classification prevented him from describing this effective counter-measure. But they wouldn't prevent those in the stealth program from putting Teller's idea to the test. How is it then that a full decade later, we are still many months away from testing the B-2 against operational radars?

"They have adamantly refused to test it," says Tom Amlie, a Pentagon analyst with many years of experience in radar. There are some pretty fancy counterstealth tests the Pentagon could do but hasn't, such as flying the B-2 against "bi-static" radar, which tries to defeat the low radar signal a stealth plane sends back to the radar transmitter by placing the receiver at a second location, where it is likely to sample a larger return from the plane. Another potential counterstealth technique called "ultra wideband" USB) not only isn't being tested against the B-2, but last month the DOD inspector general began looking into charges that B-2 advocates in the Pentagon have actively discouraged UWB research altogether.

More important, there are also some straight-off-the-shelf technologies that DOD hasn't tried on the B-2. "I recommended that they use the Customs aircraft, which has an excellent radar on it," Amlie says. "I flew with them, and we were detecting low, slow, single-engine airplanes at 200 miles. The B-2 people don't want any part of it. And you could do it this week at no cost, because you have an FAA radar right next to Edwards Air Force Base"--where the B-2s are. "I don't believe it's stealthy, but I simply want to see an honest test. I'd like to see somebody besides the Air Force test it. I'd like to see [Senate Armed Services Committee chairman] Sam Nunn's aide standing by the radar when they do it."

I put these straightforward suggestions to Jack Krings, who was the director of DOD's office of operational test and evaluation during some of the crucial years of B-2 development. His answers give you some disturbing indications of what they mean by testing in the Pentagon. "Those radars are not calibrated," Krings replied. "You don't know what they're doing. If you're going to do something that's going to be a critical event, you'd sure like to know what all the players are really doing, so that when you get this amount of data and try to figure out who did what to whom you really know what in fact they were doing." Got that?

But Krings also has other worries. "The flight test airplane when it's put together to go out and do testing has thousands and thousands of devices to measure what it's doing. So consequently it doesn't reflect the configuration of a production airplane in terms of its [radar cross section]. . . . You would not want to test the observability of that airplane when you know that you've got things on it that are going to significantly contribute to its radar cross section--like four or five external antennas transmitting to the ground and also acting as a big radar signature. . . . So you have to take the first or second airplane and try to externally clean it up to the point that it really represents the 10th or 12th or 100th airplane. That's a very significant effort."

Krings's suggestion that having telemetry signals transmitted from a B-2 will artificially aid radar detection is misleading, because those signals are intentionally assigned to frequency bands that are very far away from those occupied by radar. And although it probably would take a little more effort to arrrange to have a test B-2 set up to minimize its radar profile, it's an effort well worth making right now since that's the whole point of the airplane. And how hard is it to do this anyway? Why not have one B-2 with antennas for those tests requiring the transmission of data back to the ground, and one without them for testing against radar? Or how about one plane with removable antennas?

Krings says that the tests I want to do right now to see if the B-2 is stealthy in any interesting way "just don't have the confidence level and the data" needed. I'd put it this way: These tests probably couldn't prove that the B-2 is stealthy (although they might tend to confirm that) but they might prove that it isn't. Krings bristles at that suggestion. "That's not a level playing field. If you evaluate a certain caliber of judgment you evaluate it both positively and negatively. What you're saying is that I can use it to show that it isn't stealthy, but I can't use it to show that it is. That shows a bias. That would only satisfy people in the press." This is a surprising lapse in scientific reasoning for a man once entrusted with evaluating all the Pentagon's projects. If I'm told that a certain fabric is fire-resistant up to 5,000 degrees, it's not a waste of time to hold a lighted match to a piece of it. If the material doesn't burn, I have learned that it's at least resistant to fires of 1,740 degrees, and if it does, I've learned that it doesn't perform as advertised. When the fabric is going to cost $84 billion, you're a fool not to light that match.

Stealth: the TV show

One military man who understood the value of lighting matches was Chuck Myers. A combat pilot in World War II and Korea, Myers was the Pentagon's director of air warfare in the mid-seventies when he initiated the first stealth program--called "Project Harvey" after Elwood P. Dowd's invisible six-foot rabbit friend. For Myers, the starting point for studying radar evasion wasn't billions in R&D for revolutionary airframes, exotic materials, and whizbang avionics. He wanted to start by testing the tactical utility of planes that achieved very small radar return by . . . actually being very small. The advantage of this was that you could bypass the very expensive and sophisticated steps that planes like the B-2 get mired in and go directly to testing how stealthy planes could be used in combat against different radar setups, etc. And the real beauty was that the plane Myers knew would play this role perfectly--the Fowland Gnat--already existed, and was cheap. Myers figured he could have done all this initial tactical research for about $15 million. Needless to say, this was way too straightforward for the Pentagon--Myers's boss turned down his proposal.

Anthony Battista is an electronics expert who spent 15 years as a staff member for the House Armed Services Committee, finishing up as the staff director for the committee's R&D subcommittee. From the B-2's inception, Battista was cleared into the program and in that capacity, he was able to evaluate the work of the Air Force's project for looking at counterstealth technologies, the so-called "Red Team." He concluded that the Red Team was not making an aggressive effort to pursue its mission, ignoring all sorts of available or promising counter-measures. (A current Hill staff member confirms this, saying that the Red Team is "not that interested in finding defects" in the B-2.)

In the summer of 1989, after leaving government service, Battista wrote a letter to Rep. Ron Dellums in which he summed up some of the limitations on stealth he felt the Air Force wasn't taking seriously. "There are," he wrote, "[radar] technologies that have been around for over three decades that can detect objects with a cross section advertised by the Air Force [for the B-2] with more than adequate reaction time." (One congressional defense aide says that the B-2 can be detected by the radar on the SA-10, a widely deployed Soviet surface-to-air missile, at somewhere between 5 and 15 miles. An academic radar expert states that the Navy's top-of-the-line shipborne antiaircraft radar, the Aegis system, will detect a B-2 flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet at one-third the distance of an ordinary plane--still a distance of 66 miles.) Battista suggested that Congress "require the Air Force to fly an unaugmented B-2 against Soviet radar systems that we have or can acquire or even against some FAA radars." He also pointed out that jet plume emissions from military and commercial aircraft have been picked up on TV and FM radio stations. What this means, he explained, is that there are techniques available for finding airplanes "even if you had a zero airframe [radar] cross section." When Battista's considerations were brought to the attention of Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice, he brushed them off as "without technical foundation," wise-cracking that the Soviets probably didn't have TV and FM stations that could help detect the B-2. Battista responded that if the Air Force would return his security clearance for the B-2 program, he would defend his observations in detail before Dellums's Armed Services Subcommittee on Research and Development. The Air Force never took him up on that. Its "testing" of the B-2 proceeded as limply as before.

Further evidence of the Air Force's closemindedness about B-2 test ideas came last summer when Stanley Weiss, the chairman of Business Executives for National Security, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times recommending that the Air Force fly the B-2 against the Navy's Aegis cruiser. "Whichever system loses," wrote Weiss, "retires from the...game. And the real winner, of course, will be the taxpayer." The Air Force's reaction was a combination of highhandedness and obtuseness. Its official response letter quibbled with the system costs Weiss mentioned without saying what was wrong with his test proposal. In November there was a more hopeful sign. The Pentagon had agreed to the idea of investigating how well stealth planes perform against state-of-the-art radars like the Navy's Aegis and the Army's Patriot. But don't look for Sam Nunn's aide at the console any time soon. DOD had merely commissioned a classified three-year study beginning in 1991. What's more, as Weiss subsequently pointed out, the study will be conducted jointly by the Rand Corporation, which enjoys a long and close relationship with the Air Force, and by the Center for Naval Analyses, which is cozy with the Navy. Is it that hard to find qualified people in these matters who don't make their living off the Pentagon? Is it that hard to do something before star date 5027.4?

Sad state of the ARTS

If the Air Force is not exactly shining the harsh light of open inquiry on the B-2, neither is the plane's primary contractor, Northrop. And to this point it's been Northrop that's had custody of the plane and primary control of the testing process at its B-2 offices in Pico Rivera, California and its final assembly plant in Palmdale, California--the Air Force manages the program from Washington and Dayton, Ohio. Generally, there are only two Air Force people stationed at the California B-2 facilities. The program manager rarely comes in from Dayton, and when he does, he gives Northrop advance notice. And Northrop knows what to say when it's warned: "Shhhhh!"

According to one former Northrop B-2 employee--let's call him Bill Boniface--the credo of deception colors every aspect of life at the company's B-2 division. Right down to such nonstealthy items as office equipment. Every month, Northrop sends Washington a list of items on which it is charging depreciation to the government under the terms of its contracts. Boniface discovered that as much as 50 percent of the computers and other office items listed monthly as being in his department--some of them worth hundreds of thousands of dollars--were nowhere to be found. Boniface learned that many supplies were disappearing from the shipping and receiving department. "The classical joke throughout the building," he recalls, "was that the general manager had to order three wastebaskets to get one." Boniface reported these findings to management, but no corrective measures were taken. In fact, he says, very senior corporate officials covered up the discrepancies.

Well, lying about five- or six-figure sums must make it easier to lie about 10-figure ones. At least that's what Boniface observed. Consider what he discovered was going on with the B-2 component called the ZSR-62. As for the function of that piece of equipment, Boniface says that classification rules will permit him to say only that it's an electronic component not associated with flight controls that is essential to the airplane's success. Without it, the B-2 is nothing but an overpriced B-1. Suffice it to say that much of the B-2's advertised stealthiness is supposed to come from the ZSR-62. Well, the problem is that the ZSR-62 doesn't do what Northrop said it would--one insider says it "doesn't work worth a damn." Yet senior management--all the way up to the recently retired chairman Thomas V. Jones--did what it could to keep the Air Force in the dark for as long as possible. (In case you find it hard to believe that the CEO of a major corporation could engage in such wrongdoing, consider that during Watergate, Jones pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making an illegal $170,000 contribution to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign and admitted falsifying documents and lying to a grand jury and the FBI about it.) When a report revealing the ZSR's shortcomings was forwarded to top management, those in the know were ordered to keep quiet about the problem, and all copies of the report were retrieved and destroyed. "They made it very clear to me," says Boniface, "that the Air Force must not know these things." (Boniface thinks that the Air Force may have recently learned the truth and, as a result, canceled the component. If so, he says, "you'd be left with a cargo airplane.")

Another dark secret of the B-2 is that it's not very airworthy. In the attempt to gain stealth, the B-2 gave up two of the traditional sources of aerodynamic stability--a tail and horizontal stabilizers. The hopes for regaining that stability were pinned on a very complicated automatic flight control system called ARTS. Northrop learned a long time ago that ARTS may not be up to it. There are four ARTS units on each B-2, and they are intended to be "quad redundant," meaning that they are supposed to provide four layers of protection against flight control failure. ARTS is a critical flight safety item--if all four units were to fail, the plane would disintegrate in flight due to uncontrollable vibration. The big problem with ARTS is that instead of achieving quad redundancy, it's prone to "cascade failure": if any one of the units fails, each of the remaining three units takes on an increasing chance of failure, which makes a second failure even more likely, and so on, right down to in-flight oblivion. Robert Costello, who was the Pentagon's acquisition boss in the late eighties and who called for canceling the B-2 a week after he resigned from that post in May 1989, says that ARTS is "a major concern" and that for safe flight, the system "has to be 100 percent fail-safe--and no system has been." The system was designed to be like having three spare tires, but it ended up being like a car up on four poorly built jacks--the car could fall off one of them at any time and that would make it very likely to fall off them all.

Northrop's senior management was informed of the ARTS problem, but although substantial redesign was required--changes that might have meant a year's additional delay--only band-aid solutions were authorized. Boniface pressed very hard for additional tests on ARTS to try to produce a cascade failure on the ground. Although experiments to induce failures are normally allotted hundreds or thousands of hours, in the end only four hours of such testing were conducted before the B-2's first flight. The Air Force wasn't told about the cascade problem, and they weren't going to be clued in by a flight delay. Shades of Challenger! In fact, Boniface explicitly made the comparison in a meeting with senior Northrop B-2 officials almost a year before the first flight, when he referred to the ARTS situation as a "Thiokol ring problem." The vice president with responsibility for the system was irate that the troubles had been hidden from him, but nevertheless the decision was made to keep them hidden from the government. The ARTS problem was not included on the list of flight safety problems forwarded to the Air Force.

"They flew despite evidence of what you'd have to call instability," reports Boniface. "The flight controls are unpredictable and faulty and the tests showed it. But they flew anyway, putting the pilots at risk." The B-2 test pilots were kept as ignorant of the ARTS defects as the Challenger astronauts had been of O-ring problems.

Another aerospace source with long experience in black programs--call him Frank Pell--confirms Boniface's account. Northrop, he says, is "years behind meeting any of the objectives of the program."

Beyond confirming the ZSR-62 and ARTS failures, Pell says that the plane also has major structural problems. It was reported in the press that during early flight testing, the plane developed small cracks in some power unit cases. The Air Force gives the impression that this was a minor anomaly, but according to Pell it's just the tip of the iceberg. He says a lot of cracks have turned up in the fatigue tests they run on the "Iron Bird"--a full-scale nonflying model of the B-2 that Northrop uses for ground testing. And mechanics tell him that when they take the planes off the jacks in final assembly to bear their own weight, the windshields crack or pop out. "The damn things," Pell says, "are falling apart." The structural problems are so rampant that Northrop is undertaking a major redesign of the whole backbone of the aircraft.

The concerns about the flight controls and material fatigue have led to the B-2's extremely sluggish flight testing regime. The Air Force has used the phrase "scheduled layup" to denote what have in effect been long grounding periods--like the one that lasted from late 1989 to mid-1990. The two flyable planes are frequently grounded in mild crosswinds, a condition you'll find at any commercial airport much of the time. And this is at Edwards Air Force Base, a test facility chosen for its optimal flying conditions. Industry insiders reveal that the planes have often been towed back off the Edwards runway after unsuccessfully trying to start a test flight.

How likely is it that one of these planes will crash? "I'm expecting one," Pell replies. "And do you know what? They're expecting one too." "Anybody who thinks this airplane is safe," says Bill Boniface, "should be made to fly it."

Lord of the lies

With all these problems, it takes a little extra effort to keep Washington clueless. Northrop's organizational structure suppresses most freelance employee contact with the military officers who come out for their chart-filled "dog and pony show" briefings and lunches. The fear of being laid off for speaking out does the rest.

And the charts themselves are heavily edited. Bill Boniface recalls inserting accurate information on problems with the ZSR-62 and ARTS into presentations being prepared for visiting dignitaries, only to have it yanked out by his corporate superiors. All these doctored briefings create an extra problem--remembering which lies have been told to which visitors. But Northrop had a solution to that too: "There was one man in marketing," recalls Boniface, "whose job was to keep track of all the lies. His job was to make sure that whatever new chart they made up for Air Force officers and congressmen was consistent with the prior ones."

Boniface remembers that when then-Pentagon acquisition chief Robert Costello came out to the B-2 facilities, "his visit was choreographed by a team of 50 people for two months before he got there, so that he'd only be allowed to look at certain things. It was a staged play, not reality. It was planned so that if he were standing in a certain spot, he would only see certain thins, and they made sure he couldn't move to other spots. They wouldn't allow him to be in an area where he could question engineers on ARTS or the ZSR-62." Pell says that when then-Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci visited Palmdale in 1988, he was told that there was a working aircraft in the facility that was just about ready to roll out. This was false. But that didn't stop Northrop from pretending to have a working B-2. Workmen descended on one far-from-completed plane and hastily buttoned up all the loose wiring and open panels in its cockpit with cheap rivets. Nobody mentioned that the pilots' seats weren't even bolted down. And they lit the cockpit displays by running power cables out to a trailer. When Carlucci took his tour of the plant, he was allowed to stick his head in the aircraft. Imagine all the false beliefs planted in the Pentagon as a result of that trip.

Over the years, Northrop has conducted many other B-2 charadesin the same spirit. Often, when contract "milestones" approached, requiring the completion of some task or component before more money could be released, inspection

records would be stamped en masse--without the inspections actually being done. And frequently, testing software was rigged so taht if the performance level of the tested part--the voltage on an ARTS circuit, say--fell below acceptable levels, the actual value wouldn't appear on the printout--an acceptable reading would appear instead. Sometimes, says Pell, Northrop spent more money rigging the software than it did trying to make the tested component work. The Pentagon is very vulnerable to the jiggered software ploy because it has shifted its emphasis in weapons testing away from hands-on work and into computer monitoring and simulation.

When Northrop finally realizes that they have a serious problem with an essential component on the B-2 like the ZSR-62 or the ARTS, problems that can't be hidden indefinitely, the company does not at that point hold a come-to-Jesus meeting with the Air Force. Instead, that's when the company displays a knack for suggesting to the Air Force that the system needs to be "improved" because of some new "threat." Pell says that Northrop has now convinced the Air Force to fund the "next generation" ZSR-62 and ARTS. "That gets them the money and buys them the time to try to [fix] what was supposed to work in the first place."

In short, Northrop's B-2 program is infested with the same sorts of fraudulent testing that the company pleaded guilty to earlier this year when it admitted faking tests on stabilizing sensors for the Air Force' air-launched cruise missile and the Marines' Harrier jump jet--parts essential for safe and dependable operation. Frank Pell thinks the company's penchant for deception in weapons testing has deep historical roots. After World War II, the firm's founder, Jack Northrop, got a contract to mass-produce a plane called the "Flying Wing" as the main strategic bomber for the Air Force. Then abruptly, the Air Force canceled the contract and even made Northrop destroy the seven bombers it had already built. At the time, when questioned about this reversal by a congressional committee, Northrop denied that the Pentagon had done anything untoward i changing its mind. But 30 years later, in a television interview, Northrop admitted that he'd committed perjury when he said that. What really happened, he confessed, was that then-Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington had wanted Northrop to merge his company with another bomber manufacturer, Consolidated Vultee, and when Northrop refused, the government punished him by giving away his bomber contract to Consolidated. In the ensuing years Northrop dwindled down to a marginal defense contractor, handling many secondary contracts, but somehow always missing out on the big projects. All that time, says Pell, Northrop executives nurtured the hope that "someday, we're going to build a plane that the government wants so bad, we can take them to the cleaners and make up for all the past disappointments." Now you know what that plane is--and by the way, it looks an awful lot like the "Flying Wing."

No more stealth-service

To break free of such disastrous deceptions, which give us nothing but military weakness, we must transfer weapons testing from the defense contractors to truly independent outside evaluators. Surely, disinterested academic experts would be glad to serve this money-saving, nation-strengthening cause. Instead of slamming doors marked "Top Secret" in their faces, let's invite them in to help do some of the nation's most important work. And how about allowing more press coverage of weapons tests? Yes, this would meant hat our potential enemies could keep better track of our failures, but if the Pentagon knew its weapons tests were regularly covered, it wouldn't be so willing to coddle losers--so loosening press restrictions would actually strengthenour arsenal. And there are plenty of experts in uniform who can halp out too--if we use them creatively. The trick is to abide by one simple rule: No officer can evaluate his own service's weapon. In college football, Air Force's big games are not against some intramural squad called the "Red Team"--they're against Army and Navy. Let's try the same idea with weapons: By all means, let the Navy and the Army tell you how it would attack the Air Force and vice versa. Doing that will bring to bear the sort of tacticla realism that's too often missing from weapons testind today, while eliminating the service parochialism that has made it a sick joke.

Scott Shuger is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Patrick O'Rourke and Craig Weicker.

(*1) See "David," Gregg Easterbrook, The Atlantic, October 1982, and "Why Divad Wouldn't Die," Gregg Easterbrook, The Washington Monthly, November 1984.
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Author:Shugar, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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