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This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The Pentagon's "black" budget for secret programs is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, taped up in a Wheaties box and locked in a safe that has then been built into a bridge abutment adjacent to the one containing the mortal remains of Jimmy Hoffa.
A Congressional Research Service report concluded that "there is no authoritative, unclassified, aggregate budget total for the black budget" and that the effectiveness of special-access program (SAP) oversight "is difficult to measure." That was in 1989. What has changed is that secret expenditures have grown much faster than the budget as a whole, while the process of declassification has slowed to a spasmodic crawl. Actually, "process" is a misnomer -- there are no rules, or even formal guidance, that cover disclosure of completed SAPs.
Neither has the level of congressional oversight changed much since 1989. The "big eight" -- the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate armed services committees and defense appropriations subcommittees -- have some access into defense SAPs, and a parallel process takes place on the intelligence side. A problem that was identified in the 1990s -- the fact that literally hundreds of SAPs are reviewed in a handful of closed hearings -- does not seem to have been addressed.
Militaries need to keep secrets. But secrets naturally elude oversight, and whenever decisions are immune to challenge, there may be a lack of balance. And there are very good reasons why over-classification is an imbalance that creates its own problems.
Secrecy shuts off debate. "Most of the best American strategic thinking has come from civilians, both inside and outside government," one long-time source says. "Today, with the most strategic portions of technology and acquisition off limits, strategic discussions and writings are largely vacuous." The same goes for budget discussions, because half the important R&D spending is black.
Black programs stifle competition. Within the industry, competitors may know only the basic details of a classified project, but they assume that the incumbent has that area locked up.
For example, the much-rumored existence of the stealthy Quartz UAV (see page DT4) froze all other work on stealth UAVs for about 15 years. Why invest in an area where somebody else has black magic that would make your work pointless?
The quasi-mystical secrecy surrounding stealth itself has a powerful influence on policy. In Canada, the government's final argument in favor of the Joint Strike Fighter is that it is the only aircraft that meets the air force's stealth requirements -- but the requirement itself is secret.
Stealth technology is less openly discussed today than in the early 1990s. That does not seem to make sense, given that the rest of the world has a good grasp on the technology, even if the U.S. retains a lead in its application. There is no Special Access Required stamp on Maxwell's equations.
JSF customers also like to hint that the fighter has other secret capabilities that guarantee victory in air combat. Many believe that this is a high-power microwave mode in the radar that is intended to barbecue the processors in an incoming air-to-air missile. That is not a technical impossibility, but such a weapon is not magic: It has limitations (range and rate of fire to name but two) that could make it less decisive than an advocate's simulation shows, and that should be part of a discussion. But they are not, because it's secret.
The Lockheed Blackbirds flew faster and higher than any known aircraft -- and were retired 20 years ago. To learn more about the Blackbirds, other projects you have heard of and some that you probably have not, click here to check out Bill Sweetman's Secret Projects interactive slide show.