The Pentagon, breaking a silence that has prevailed since the Jimmy Carter Administration, Thursday announced the existence of the stealth fighter jet and released a murky photo of the bat-like aircraft, which has flown for seven years under cover of darkness and amid official secrecy.
The Air Force confirmed that it has bought 52 of the science fiction-like craft, dubbed the F-117A, and acknowledged that three of the fighters have crashed since the first one flew in 1981.
The aircraft has been the subject of extensive speculation because, along with the counterpart stealth bomber, it features new radar-eluding technology that is considered key to future U.S. military airpower.
The unveiling was originally to have come last month, but was postponed when Democratic lawmakers objected that the timing was an overt ploy to boost Republican political fortunes in this week's election.
Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard said Thursday that the Pentagon chose to reveal the stealth fighter fleet officially so that the planes "can . . . be fully integrated into operational plans" for future military engagements.
Maj. Pat Mullaney, an Air Force spokesman, added that the program's new status would ease the service's relations with the families of servicemen involved in the program, as well as with communities surrounding Tonopah Test Range Airfield in Nevada, the F-117A's single operating base.
Howard said that the aircraft has won wide bipartisan support. A congressional source cautioned, however, that the Air Force has limited briefings on the secret program so far to lawmakers serving on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees and those in leadership positions.
Development of the stealth warplane was initiated in 1978 and the aircraft formally entered the nation's arsenal in 1983. The aircraft's manufacturer, the Lockheed Corp., is to build seven more F-117As between now and September, 1990, Mullaney said. The angular plane, whose chunky cockpit sits atop a boomerang-shaped flying wing, is flown by a single pilot. It is powered by two engines and has a V-shaped tail.
The fighter is designed to carry "smart weapons" that can be guided to targets by laser beams or television cameras. The plane would carry the weapons through or to the edge of air defenses to knock out such high-priority targets as command posts or radar complexes, according to informed officials.
The Pentagon would not reveal the plane's dimensions, citing concerns that such information would compromise information potentially valuable to U.S. adversaries. The photograph it released was very grainy and blurred.
While no official cost estimate has been released, financial analysts have estimated the warplanes' price at $85 million to $100 million each.
Controversy over the manufacture of the jets has drawn increasing public scrutiny. A group of workers at Lockheed's Burbank manufacturing facility has sued the corporation, charging that radar-eluding materials used in the jet have posed health hazards.
But Mullaney said that the Pentagon's decision to reveal the existence of the plane is "unrelated . . . totally" to the legal wrangling, that has drawn some details of the secret program into the open.
The three crashes of the F-117A have claimed the lives of two Air Force pilots. In July, 1986, a stealth fighter crashed in Bakersfield, killing Maj. Ross E. Mulhare. Another crashed in October, 1987, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, killing Maj. Michael C. Stewart. There was another crash involving the first production model of the plane, but the pilot, a Lockheed employee, survived.
The F-117A's bomber counterpart, the B-2, was publicly announced in August. The Air Force plans to unveil the stealth bomber Nov. 22 at the Palmdale, Calif., plant of the Northrop Corp., where the aircraft is being built.