President Carter was accused by the Republicans of jeopardizing national security for political gain when he disclosed the "invisible plane" program.
That may be overstating it a bit, but not by much. Despite protestations of innocence by Carter's people in the Pentagon, both the timing and the content of the "stealth technology" disclosure suggest political motivation.
Defense Secretary Harold Brown explained the need for public announcement in a strange way. He said it was to stop the growing number of leaks about the program. In other words, to protect the secret program, it was necessary to destroy its secrecy.
Military officials closely associated with the stealth technology, which could eventually thwart enemy radar detection of American planes, are furious at the Carter administration for confirming the press leaks and adding details and credibility to the earlier, unofficial reports.
The absurdity of the position this puts the program's leadership in was illustrated by retired Air Force General Tom Stafford, who ran the project unitl last year. "I still will not even acknowledge that the project exists," he told my associate Peter Grant. "But if it does, the president has blown the lid off some of the finest technology that exists."
Everyone agrees that the development of stealth technology is a major breakthrough in strategic weaponry. And no one seriously denies that the announcement, at a highly unusual news conference with full publicity fanfare, helped Carter counter claims by Ronald Reagan that the president has been weak on defense policy. It particularly weakens the Republican charge that Carter's cancellation of the B1 bomber damaged out nuclear strike capability. c
Until last month, knowledge of the program was limited to a few dozen key government officials. But after several news reports revealed bits and pieces of the project, Pentagon officials explained, it was decided to declassify certain portions "to keep the onion from peeling all the way."
But Defense Department insiders point out that Brown revealed far more about the state of the art than the unconfirmed press reports had. For instance, he said the Air Force had been making test flights of both manned and pilotless versions of the invisible plane since 1978. It was also disclosed that so far the concept had been applied only to tactical aircraft.
Blaming press leaks for the decision to disclose the program has a hollow ring to it, inasmuch as the first leaks had occurred as early as 1976. This lends credence to Republican suspicions that the dramatic revelation was politically inspired -- timed to come just at the start of a close election campaign.
As a matter of fact, the biggest pre-announcement leak of all came from the Carter administration earlier this year. When Congress was considering funds for a new manned bomber, which Carter opposed, the Pentagon dispatched its top scientist, William Perry, to Capitol Hill. He let key senators in on the Steath secret, and persuaded them to put off the manned-bomber decision.