Washington — Did the Carter administration resort to political stealth in disclosing information about the hitherto secret "Stealth" aircraft? Republicans allege a sneak counterattack by Democrats against GOP charges that the administration has neglected the nation's military defenses.
"A shocking case of our defense secrets being revealed for political advantage," cries US House minority leader John J. Rhodes of Arizona in a speech to the chamber Sept. 4.
The previously classified program of Stealth aircraft, which have the potent military advantage of being undetectable by enemy radar, surfaced in a freshet of leaks that occurred, coincidentally or otherwise, during last month's Democratic National Convention.
The stories were subsequently confirmed at a well-publicized press conference at which Pentagon officials acknowledged that they were indeed developing such technology.
But Secretary of Defense Harold Brown denies any political motivation.
"The most sensitive and significant information about the characteristics of the Stealth program has been protected," he told a House subcommittee investigating the issue, in a prepared statement Sept. 4.
Terming the development "a major technological advance of great military significance," he said, "We retain the capability to explore this technology to its fullest and stay ahead of any Soviet effort to counter it."
Suspicions of election-year politics, however, have not been fully dispelled. They are shared even by one of the chief recipients of the private disclosures, editor Benjamin F. Schemmer of the privately owned Armed Forces Journal, who calls the release of information "a directed leak for political purposes."
But defense officials deny leaking any classified material, and the Defense Secretary says the Pentagon disclosed the existence of the program under conditions designed to stem any future flow of information.
"I decided that the only truthful and effective course of action would be to acknowledge what had already been disclosed to the Soviets in the leaks and to lay down strict new security guidelines to prevent any future disclosures," Mr. Brown told the House panel.
"By doing so we have, in effect, created a firebreak to prevent the spread of the technical details which, because they are at the heart of operational effectiveness, must remain highly classified."
Four Stealth test aircraft, it turns out, have been built and flown at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Nev.
They use technology that keeps any enemy radar beams that reach the planes from bouncing back to antenna and radar screens on the ground as an image for antiaircraft weapons to target.
The system is test-proved, according to the Defense Secretary, and available for the next generation of US bombers.