In matters of science and technology, secrecy is at best of limited effectiveness and is, more often, an obstacle to development. In the best of circumstances, secrecy can offer some degree of lead time over competitors who, sooner or later, are bound to duplicate or independently achieve the desired goal.
But even such lead time may be far less than would commonly be assumed. A distinguished Defense Science Board Task Force reported in 1970 that:
"It is unlikely that classified information will remain secure for periods as long as five years, and it is more reasonable to assume that it will become known by others in periods as short as one year through independent discovery, clandestine disclosure or other means."<1>
"Never in the past has it been possible to keep secret the truly important discoveries, such as the discovery that an atomic bomb can be made to work or that hypersonic flight is possible." "In spite of very elaborate and costly measures taken independently by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to preserve technical secrecy, neither the United Kingdom nor China was long delayed in developing hydrogen weapons."<2>
More importantly, secrecy tends to obstruct technological development by inhibiting communication of useful information, increasing costs, generating public mistrust, and, all too often, promoting fraud and abuse.
"Classification of technical information impedes its flow within our own system, and may easily do far more harm than good by stifling critical discussion and review or by engendering frustration. There are many cases in which the declassification of technical information within our system probably had a beneficial effect and its classification has had a deleterious one."<3>
Nevertheless, overclassification in military aerospace programs, among others, remains rampant. Secrecy extends so far beyond the legitimately classified details of sensitive technologies that one can only conclude that it is being used to protect controversial programs from public awareness more than from hostile intelligence services.
For years, the Pentagon refused to disclose projected costs of the B-2 bomber program, claiming that to do so "would provide information which might be of assistance to the Soviets." At the same time, some Pentagon officials privately acknowledged that such cost information would be of little use to the Soviet Union.<4> Obviously, it would be of even less use to Libya, Iraq, or North Korea.
Approximately 15% of the Defense Department budget for weapons acquisition is classified (or "black"). The way this money is spent is secret not only from the public, but even from the overwhelming majority of members of Congress. The so- called "special access" classification system imposes restrictions on access to information that go above and beyond the need-to-know requirements of the ordinary classification system.
Not surprisingly, abuses sometimes result from this practice, which prevents effective oversight. A number of program failures, cost overruns, and instances of fraud have been attributed to excessive secrecy in the defense budget.
It should be emphasized that the oversight process does not require disclosure of all technical details, many of which are likely to be properly classified. But the current system allows secrecy to envelop the cost of a program, its purpose, and even its very existence.
Special access has consistently presented such a temptation to fraud and abuse that in 1991 the House Armed Services Committee concluded that it "is now adversely affecting the national security it is intended to support."<5>
Thus, to take one recent example, special access was implicated in the collapse of the A-12 naval aircraft program, with the resulting loss to taxpayers of several billions of dollars. The House Committee observed that "special access restrictions on the A-12 program and the lack of appropriately cleared auditors... prevented the program from receiving adequate management control and oversight..." leading to its ultimate cancellation.<6>
The special access system effectively serves to undermine the most minimal level of independent oversight and accountability. A common perception is that "Approximately 80% of highly classified defense programs buried in the 'black world' are there primarily to avoid oversight, according to an aerospace industry executive. Most are 'pet projects' that would not survive if subjected to 'white world' scrutiny."<7>
In fact, it appears that many black aircraft programs are designed only to penetrate Congressional airspace. That is to say, wasteful, dangerous, or highly speculative programs will have a much higher chance of being funded by Congress if they are highly classified. A study by staff members of the House Armed Services Committee in 1990 revealed that only five to ten percent of all special access programs are actually reviewed in depth by Congress.<8> This is partially due to a shortage of cleared staff members, as well as false or inadequate reporting by the Executive Branch. And of course, the prospect of avoiding Congressional oversight serves as a further incentive for the Executive Branch to place even more programs in the special access category.
No one would dispute that advanced military technologies require some degree of protection. But it is clear that the secrecy surrounding classified aircraft programs has become self-defeating and even absurd. Thus, F-117A stealth fighters were not used in the 1986 air strike on Libya in part because "using them in the raid would have made denial of their existence more difficult."<9>
A final criticism is that some believe that economic health and/or dominance (rather than military) is increasingly the currency of international influence. US economic national security appears to be more at risk today than its military security. One way to slow or reverse this trend would be to release some of the secret technology already developed at taxpayer expense that may have beneficial commercial applications. A number of black world breakthroughs could have both military and commercial potential. One scientist experienced in black programs included these technologies:<10>
"Very sensitive infrared sensors that do not require cryogenic cooling. The research claimed that by reducing IR sensor thermal noise through electrostatic heat transfer techniques, today's best IR array could operate at sensitivities several orders of magnitude better than is possible with cryogenic cooling. Environmental monitoring satellites -- as well as strategic defense sensors on Brilliant Pebbles and Brilliant Eyes -- could use this technology to extend the on-orbit life of infrared sensors indefinitely.
Instantly altering the thermal equilibrium of a large optical lens or mirror through electrostatic bulk cooling methods. The result is analogous to that attained with phase conjugate optics in telescopes or imaging devices employing an elastic-type mirror. 'We spent a lot of money in the 1980s developing a micro processor interface to a high voltage power supply...to control optical arrays,' the scientist said. 'The results were absolutely astounding.'
Using random access memory (RAM) to detect or transmit low levels of near and far infrared energy. When incorporated into a feedback system for temperature stabilization, the RAM could be used as an esoteric IR detector that is simple and reliable, he claimed.
Low observable ceramics made from powdered, depleted uranium, the resulting dielectric material has approximately 92 percent the bulk density of depleted uranium, but is about 20 times harder.
Short pulse Doppler radar (SPDR) -- which may be the black world's term for ultra-wideband radar (UWB)....could detect air vehicles 2,500 nm away in all weather conditions....the capability of SPDR to also detect stealthy vehicles has kept the technology in limbo since the mid-1980s...any stealth technology stood out like a sore thumb when hit by short-pulse doppler."
The validity of these claims is difficult to assess given present classification procedures. But this is precisely the problem. Considerable funds have been expended in the development of highly classified technologies. Though many of these programs have probably produced little of relevance to the commercial world, the present level of secrecy makes it impossible to resolve these questions.
Secretary of Defense Cheney asserted that the changed world politico-military environment doesn't warrant a change in the policy to trap certain technologies in the black world. The need to maintain a technological edge over potential opponents, he said, "always will take precedence" over economic competitiveness issues.<11> Political rhetoric implies a continued role for black programs. President Bush's new post-Cold War production strategy will be to conduct fewer big-money production programs and concentrate on building prototypes of advanced-technology weapons.<12> This type of work is the forte of Lockheed's Skunk Works, and other companies' secret aerospace shops.
However, in light of the dramatic politico-military changes recently wrought by the end of the Cold War, it would seem appropriate to re-examine the need to keep defense programs in the black. Rep. Lee Hamilton, for one, has suggested that it is time to reduce the number of black defense programs.<13>
For the most part secrecy in technology is both ineffective over the long term and counterproductive. The diminished strategic threat to the U.S. and increasing budget pressures now dictate a new attitude of increased openness and accountability in the hyper-classified field of military aerospace.
<1> Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Secrecy, Frederick Seitz, Chairman, Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 1 July 1970, page 1.
<2> ibid., pages 4, 9.
<3> ibid., page 9.
<4> Michael R. Gordon, "Bomber Cost to Stay Secret Despite Congress's Requests," New York Times, March 15, 1986.
<5> "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993," House Armed Services Committee Report 102-60, page 101.
<6> ibid., page 135.
<7> Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 29, 1991, page 1
<8> described in "The Navy's A-12 Aircraft Program," House Armed Services Committee No. 101-84, December 10, 1990, page 67.
<9> Jim Cunningham, "Cracks in the Black Dike," Airpower Journal, Fall 1991, page 32.
<10> Scott, William, 'Black World Engineers, Scientists Encourage Using Highly Classified Technology for Civil Application," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 9 March 1992, page 67.
<12> Vartabedian, Ralph, "Skunk Works May Keep Exuding Smell of Success," Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1992, page B-5.
<13> Hamilton, Lee, "The Costs of Too Much Secrecy," The Washington Post, 13 April 1992, page A21.