The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.

Stealth Warplanes:
They can run, but they canít hide

This 4th of July, you may be dazzled by a fly-by by one of our nationís most sophisticated planes, the B-2 stealth bomber. If you are around the esplanade, they may announce this display with enthusiasm and pride. And while the plane has its aesthetic appeal, what they will not be mentioning is its two main drawbacks: it isnít all that stealthy and its pricetag. The military is planning to spend $280 billion dollars for the manufacture of two new stealth fighter planes, the F-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter. Since this is the taxpayers money being spent, the public should see a little more of the performance record than just an occasional fly-by demo come holiday time.

How stealthy is it?

With the computer eraís perpetual state of advance and the use of designed obsolescence by most all industries, we have grown used to the idea that we need to continually replace the old with the new and that new is always by definition superior. In the case of stealth technology, there is little or no evidence that the new and costly stealth developments are any kind of an advance.

The two main features of stealth design include a radar absorbing coating and overall aerodynamic design changes that reduce the reflection of radar. Both of these approaches create tremendous challenges. Stealth coatings need to be retreated after every flight in a special atmosphere controlled facility, currently only in Missouri, from which Stealth Bombers had to leave and return for each sortie in Yugoslavia. Then it was an additional 4-7 days before they could be ready for another flight. Further, the treatment requires the handling of toxic materials by workers. A lawsuit was filed in 1994 by five workers and the widows of two others alleging that the coating treatment caused the workerís illnesses.

It was claimed by the pentagon that stealth technology would make planes virtually invisible to enemy radar. The technology has not lived up to these promises, however, in that stealth aircraft fly with just as many radar signal jamming escort planes as conventional warplanes. During the Gulf war, much to the Pentagonís chagrin, F-117 Stealth light bombers were detected by the British and the Iraqis with antiquated radar systems. During the bombing of Kosovo, one F-117 was shot down by Yugoslav anti-aircraft with a Russian made missile of 1964 vintage. A second F-117, though not downed, was severely damaged during the conflict.

A big part of the radar visibility problem is that stealth technology was designed to hide planes from high frequency radar commonly used by the former Soviet Union, but stealth planes are readily spotted by low-frequency radar systems. Older radar technology was based on low-frequency and new radar systems include a broad range of both low and high frequency radar. These radar systems are buildable with off-the-shelf parts by virtually any engineering student. In other words, stealth technology is already obsolete.

A few hundred billion here or there?

We have been conditioned over the cold war decades to accept astronomical figures when it comes to the costs for new defense technology, but as the cold war has receded into the past and there is no new serious military threat on the horizon for decades to come, it is worth trying to put these defense numbers into perspective. The total National budget for FY 2000 is $1.76 trillion. This total budget includes trust-fund payouts such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare and other mandatory spending such as interest on the debt. The much discussed projected budget surplus is due to Social Security revenues exceeding pay-outs and does not indicate any reduction in government spending. The discretionary budget leaves out the trust funds like Social Security and mandatory payments and is therefore a more realistic gauge of the countryís available funds for government spending. The FY 2000 discretionary budget comes to only $591 billion. The Pentagon budget has accounted for roughly half of this spending each year since the Cold War ended. That means the other half has to be spread out to cover all remaining government expenditures such as international affairs(3%), health (5%), government administration & justice (8%), housing & income security (8%), environment, science, & agriculture(8%), education, training, employment & social services (9%), transportation, & community and regional development(9%). This means that no matter how hard we squeeze on programs like welfare (part of housing & income security) or education, deficit spending will not be curbed until we confront the excesses of military spending such as the $280 billion (roughly half of an entire years discretionary spending) slated for stealth fighters.

Now that the Cold War is over and there are no other countries, let alone enemies, spending any where near what the US is on military growth and expansion, the question arises as to whom exactly these planes are supposed to benefit. A hint is that one major recipient of this type of corporate welfare, Northrop Grumman, has subcontractors in 46 states and 383 out of 435 congressional districts. What congressperson would refuse a chance to have government dollars directed to his or her district, even if it is for a technology that is a complete flop? The economy is alleged to be at its strongest in decades. We have little to fear on the international political horizon and those security concerns that remain are not answered by this technology. If this is not the time to reduce military spending on ineffective technologies and high-risk gambles in order to focus more on creating economic justice for all citizens, then it seems that time will never come.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.