The Phantom Menace

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 4 1999 3:30 AM

The Phantom Menace

The stealth bombers don't cause war. They just make it easy to go to war.

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The B-2 stealth bomber had barely touched down after its first ever combat mission last week when two of its most loyal allies staged a press conference to claim vindication. Standing before one of the sleek black aircraft on the tarmac at Missouri's Whitman Air Force Base, Democratic Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and Norm Dicks of Washington scorned skeptics who had doubted the $2 billion (each!) airplane. "We have seen this type of criticism on every major weapons system," said Dicks, "and when they go to war, they work."

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Inside the same media moment, footage of Serbian villagers frolicking beside the wreckage of a downed F-117 stealth fighter punctured the technology's invincibility--and rekindled the debate over U.S. reliance on high-tech weaponry. In 1981, at the dawn of the stealth era, James Fallows warned in National Defense that "airplanes, tanks, ships and missiles have grown too complex, expensive and delicate to be useful in warfare or credible for deterrent purposes." Fallows argued in vain that the United States should instead spend its defense budget on cheap and simple armaments, and the military pumped around $50 billion into stealth programs alone. Then, a decade ago, as the military redefined the B-2's mission from an H-bomb taxi to a deliverer of conventional bombs, a Republican senator from Maine articulated the silliness of the concept: "It's the equivalent of saying we're going to send a Rolls-Royce down into a combat zone to pick up groceries." Today, as secretary of defense, William Cohen sends the B-2 out on Balkans milk runs.

Although the B-2 stealth bomber, manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp., and the F-117 stealth fighter, built by Lockheed Martin, are based on different underlying technologies, their names conceal a little-appreciated similarity: They're bothbombers. The F-117 was originally imagined as an invisible dogfighter, but the Pentagon reframed the plane's mission when the geniuses at the aircraft skunkworks failed to push the technology far enough. While not a fighter, the $45 million F-117 ain't no sissy, either. It carries a pair of 2,000-pound bombs into combat, but it's slow and hard to maneuver. The 56-plane fleet only flies at night (which explains why it's painted black) because it has no air-to-air combat capabilities. If an enemy fighter spots and engages the F-117, it's toast. Very expensive black toast.

At least the stealth bomber begins to live up to its name. Designed as a long-range weapon that would penetrate deep into the Soviet Union to wage nuclear war, today it subsists on a no-nukes diet, carrying 16 satellite-guided, one-ton bombs (or eight 5,000-pounders) into battle. Editorial writers love to note that, ounce for ounce, the B-2 is five times pricier than gold. Its incredible cost stems from endless development snafus and such mind-bending design features as a surface smoothness measurable to 1/10,000th of an inch. The Air Force defends the cost by saying that one B-2, with its heavy payload, can do the work of several conventional bombers--risking fewer pilots in a safer plane. But even the hawks who considered the B-2's sticker price a bargain when the game was nuclear deterrence grudgingly admit that nobody would ever build such a device to drop conventional bombs on Serbian factories.

With its subtle curves, smooth surface, and intimidating bat wings, the B-2 is the cooler big brother of the two planes. But the smaller F-117's boxy and angular look gives it a nerdy cachet. The two designs represent different strategies for evading radar: The B-2 absorbs enemy radar waves; the F-117's awkward geometry mostly scatters them.

Neither design is flawless. It's commonly assumed that stealth planes are invisible to radar. They're not--they're just very difficult to see. And sometimes they're not hard to see at all. Stealth technology is vulnerable to older, long-wave radars and well-coordinated radar systems. Also, the planes are exponentially easier to spot when they open their bomb-bay doors, even during simple bank turns. For those reasons, the Pentagon has abandoned its original boasts that stealth planes would be truly "invisible."

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T he previous watershed for stealth technology was the 1991 Gulf War, in which the F-117 pounded Baghdad with impunity and apparent precision. The General Accounting Office, however, later downgraded by half the Pentagon's claim that stealth fighters had scored an 80 percent mission success rate. Naysayers continue to heap scorn on the two stealth bombers, insisting that the weapons have yet to be truly battle-tested because the Serbs and the Iraqis who have faced the technology have put up no more than a token resistance.

Even so, the anecdotal success of the Balkans adventure has refueled the high-tech crusade. Despite the B-2's piddling role over Serbia so far--two missions involving a total of four planes--the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot thumbed his nose last Friday at Democrats who had opposed the bomber, cracking wise about "B-2 Bill" and suggesting the Pentagon could use 40 more of the machines. The stealth war news comes at a critical moment for the Pentagon, which is pushing for the production of a new-generation stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. (This one really is a fighter.) The cost: About $60 billion to build more than 300 F-22s at $187 million apiece. That's nowhere near five times the F-22's weight in gold, but still 10 times dearer than an F-16.

The national love affair with stealthy weapons will endure for several reasons. Although decades old, the technology is perennially futuristic--it was the Romulans of Star Trek, after all, who first invented "cloaking"--and it advances the ethos of American can-doism. (Planes acquire an added allure whenever they're developed in secret: The military didn't even confirm the F-117's existence until 1988, after 40 were built and flying.) And then there's something perversely sexy about the vehicles' max-tech black sheen, something peeping-tom kinky about the planes' advertised invisibility, something magical about striking without being struck back.

Despite their technological limitations, stealth weapons appeal to us because they indulge our fear of commitment. And this is what ultimately makes them pose their own kind of stealthy threat to us. As we've seen, stealth weapons blind the risk-averse public and policy-makers to the genuine perils of combat in the opening days of any military engagement, turning war into an "out of sight, out of mind" proposition. They encourage the view that there's nothing--from Iraqi germ weapons programs to Serbian atrocities--that a few invisible planes can't fix. Enticing us into believing that wars can be won with Futurama technology and without American blood being shed, the seductive charms of stealth weapons ultimately evaporate into nothingness. We are left unfulfilled by their limitations and cheated by their costs.

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