stealth bombers: invisible information?


Thursday, April 15, 1999
4:00 - 6:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab

20 Ames Street

Abstract

A recent cable television documentary described the development of the $2 billion B-2 bomber (and other stealth planes) now being used in the Balkans. Was the program adequate? What information does the American public get about such high tech weapons--or about scientific and technological information more generally? Must television always simplify complex information? Robert Zalisk, the writer and co-producer of the program, will screen his documentary and raise some disturbing questions about how his work was edited and "framed" by the cable channel that telecast it.


Speaker

Robert Zalisk, writer and co-producer of "Stealth: Flying Invisible," has produced programs for television, mainly PBS, for over a decade. An award-winning producer at NOVA for several years, he is a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Institute, and has also worked in radio and print.

Summary

Robert Zalisk: There have been arguments that we no longer need public television because we have so many other outlets for informing the public. While there are problems with public television, if you're trying to inform the broadest public in what you hope is a democratic society, then there are more problems with cable and other outlets. Rather than eliminate public television, we should work to have it become more of what it ought to be. I am particularly convinced of this by my experiences with producing the recent cable television documentary called Stealth: Flying Invisible. There are different kinds of problems with any project like this. First, there are instrumental problems, which are things like not having enough money or not getting certain people for interviews. Then there are systemic problems in most distribution channels available today that make the instrumental problems more likely to occur. This means that the final product will probably always be problematic in some way.

Stealth: Flying Invisible explains the history of stealth technology in the military and specifically focuses on three stealth planes built for the Air Force. Stealth is a physical property of reduced delectability by radar which is primarily achieved by using shapes for the surfaces of planes which scatter energy away from radar instead of back towards it. The film also discusses related issues such as surface coverings called composites which are construction materials made up of several things combined together which are structurally more desirable than metals and don't reflect radar waves as much.

  • The first stealth plane was the F-117 which first flew in 1981 and remained top secret for most of the 1980s. It had surfaces like a flattened pyramid with intersecting planes like the facets of a cut diamond. It was used to attack the Iraq centralized communications, command and control centers in the first minutes of the Gulf War in 1991. No missile was ever shot at the F-117 at that time, and it sustained no damage from enemy fire. During the rest of the Gulf War, it scored over 1600 direct hits with no losses.

  • The second stealth plane was the $2 billion B-2 Bomber which was approved in 1981 and first flew in 1989. The B-2 uses a newer way to achieve stealth called continuous curvature which also directed radar waves away from their source while more naturally supporting aerodynamic shapes. While the B-2 is four times larger than the F-117, its radar cross section is smaller. It can also reach anywhere on earth from the U.S. without refueling, carry heavy payload of 40,000 pounds and operate at 35,000 feet or 50 feet. The point is made that the Air Force expected to build 133 B-2 Bombers, but that was cut to 75 after the Cold War ended and to 20 in 1992.

  • A new fighter called the F-22 was initially approved in 1991, took its first flight in 1997, and will probably go into operation in 2002. It is designed to be stealthy, highly maneuverable, fast, and supersonic.

At the end of the film, there are a wide variety of view points expressed about the significance for military strategies enabled by the stealth air planes combined with precision guided weapons, and the film concludes with one analyst making the following claim:

This twenty-first century cloaking device gives hope to some analysts that, because it can be so devastatingly successful, it can deter and prevent conflict. If the United States is clearly seen to have the capability to arrive over any body's terrorist training camp, over any body's capital, over any body's nuclear power or chemical plant, whatever it may happen to be, at any time within an hour or two of provocation, unseen, unstoppable and certain to succeed, the majority of the people, the majority of the time are simply not going to do things to expose themselves to that kind of attack. This technological capability is largely backed by stealth precision and some other things produces a deterrent that has really never existed before.

Both the B-2 and the F-117 have recently been used in Kosovo where it appears that an F-117 has been shot down. I heard that the B2-Bomber had its baptism under two weeks ago, then about three or four days ago I heard that they've been using the B-2 continuously.

The funding for this project came from both the Discovery Channel and Aviation Week and Space Technology, and this resulted in two different versions of the film. One version is sold by Aviation Week. A different version was broadcast on the Discovery Channel framed in a series called The Insiders. We were supposed to deliver a fifty-one and half minute program with six minutes of possible cuts. We didn't realize that part of the bottom line of the contract with the Discovery Channel was that really had final cut. Depending on how many commercials they had, they would be able to choose the first possible cut or second and so forth. There were a couple of places where they made some cuts that were contrary to what we wanted. One of those cuts comes near the beginning of the film and it significantly affects the message of the program.

At the beginning of the version from Aviation Week there are a series of statements by five people over a period of 48 or 50 seconds. It is the kind of thing I generally try to do--someone says we needed something of this sort, someone else says we created a new technology, and that goes on to include someone who raises a contradiction. This early segment served two purposes. First, it is a general outline in which the comments represent points expanded during the rest of the film. It also serves to put many contending viewpoints up in front, including the one person who raises questions about the utility of stealth with respect to air power. Otherwise, he only comes at the very end after all the other heavy weights like the architect of the Gulf War and the people who designed the plane. Having him up front together with this other group of people was important for giving him the same weight so he wouldn't come across like this little dog snapping at people's ankles. Unfortunately, the segment with those statements at the beginning were cut out of the version shown on the Discovery Channel.

 
Discussion

Question: I am curious how the funding happened and how that influenced who you considered to be your audience?

Zalisk: We had a long standing relationship with Aviation Week, so they had confidence that we could do it. We put together a budget of $110,000, and then Aviation Week bumped the final budget up to $150,000. Then the Discovery Channel was supposed to fund 40% of the final project, so they put in $60,000. However, we only had about $100,000 dollars because McGraw Hill, which owns Aviation Week, put in $40,000 instead of 60% of the $150,000. That's very problematical. We basically had to satisfy Aviation Week first, since the Discovery Channel didn't come in until later. So the Airplane industry was the first audience and this was a perspective that was shared by both funders. In terms of our success, we've gotten nothing but praise from bothAviation Week and the Discovery Channel. The program did the best in the time slot. It began with roughly three quarters of a share for an audience when the hour began, and then after half an hour, it went up to roughly one share point, which is something over 1 million viewers, then it continued to hold that until the end of the program. From what I've heard, he Discovery Channel was virtually ecstatic because it probably got more of an audience than they were aiming for, and so far as I can tell, Aviation Week is selling the tapes.

Question: What do you see would have been different if it were done for PBS as a Nova or a Frontline program?

Zalisk: There would be less science and technology, it would be more understood that questions would be raised, and there probably would have been a little bit more of putting it in the context of history. There would just be more time and money. In this area, usually you talk about excellence, time and money--choose two. When you are working for cable, you can hope for one because of the nature of the way you have to produce on a breakneck schedule without enough money.

Question: Would you elaborate more about why the film doesn't include more interviews with critics? For example, you could find people who would tell you that the United States may be self-deterred by the B-2. Each one cost two billion dollars, so the Air Force is terrified of using them and losing one.

Zalisk: I wish I could give you a good answer to that. Basically, it didn't fit the profile. This was to be about how stealth developed, how it was achieved, and how was it was to be used. I agree with you, and particular with respect to the B-2. But the pressure was that the program was not about describing a debate or a policy. The little bit that comes up at the end was about as much as I could get in. In the first draft, there was an entire section about the theory of air power which included a discussion of whether air power alone would even be sufficient. The problem became where to put it so that it wouldn't break up the continuity. The reaction at Aviation Week was that explanation got in the way of the description and would cause people to forget where they were, so they felt I should leave it out or raise it at the end where I did. I'm not even sure Discovery Channel's decision to cut the brief reference early in the film was ideological. It may have been more that the person who had the power to make that decision didn't particularly like the way the person presented himself or something.  

Question: It strikes me that Aviation Week is sort of the National Inquirer of the defense industry. It is the legendary place that's actually full of embarrassing information about weapons tests that went wrong or over budget. I wonder, given that they sponsored the film, if they would have been open to more technical criticisms.

Zalisk: At Aviation Week, it came down to the personality of who we were dealing with on the project. Although we had the help of the editorial side, this was done by a marketing wing. That drove everything. The degree to which that was true was something I came to understand as I went through the process. There was an atmosphere in which I self censored and didn't realize it. This is what I found most debilitating and leaves me most frustrated. The driving thrust at Aviation Week was to get a tape that could be marketed and under the Christmas tree by the end of last year. At one point, we virtually had a go ahead, and then it was delayed. Then, not withstanding the fact that we had a three or four month delay, they refused to change the date of acceptance of the script. We still needed to finish everything within less than three months. We ended up having to say, "OK, sue us." We knew it wasn't possible, and they knew it, and we would just have to go to court over it. The effect that had was that there was a great deal of pressure over the potential that one of the world's largest publishers might sue us for a couple of million dollars. If we had one more day, I might have gotten in a comment. This is what I mean when I talk about systemic problems. I think that the fact that this was driven by money and wanting to have a product that is going to be sold amplified the problems and made it difficult to have something that was more than just the basic information.

Thorburn: Are you saying that the ground rules that Aviation Week set for the project precluded the possibility of even discussing the wisdom of trying to create horrendous weapons and all of the other moral questions embedded in the piece that were not confronted.

Zalisk: Essentially, yes, but wasn't written anywhere, and it was hardly said. It was the atmosphere. This is why it is so pernicious. You fall into it yourself. It's like being a journalist in 1973. No one ever told you that you can't talk about something, yet you know that if you are going to talk about it, you can only talk about it in a certain way. That is what I really came to appreciate personally, and I hope I am helping you to understand it too. For me, it is still a process of learning. When I look back, I really wish I understood this better. Aviation Week has a reputation for doing fairly sound journalism. They are very close to the industry, but they do raise questions and try to cover both sides in some measure. Now what often happens in journalism generally is that one source may give a single view, but there are thirty other different views. It is assumed that in the variety of sources of information that are available, the public will be well served anyway. Unfortunately, what we have is all this narrow casting that comes out to serve a particular purpose, and that purpose comes to be only a certain information and only up to a certain level. On the Discovery Channel, the audience was told that this it was the insiders view, so they were reminded that they were only getting one viewpoint, but I somehow suspect that there is not going to be a series called The Outsiders.

 
Question: You were dealing with something where only a tiny piece must have been declassified to allow you access. Did they just tell you what they wanted you to know and that was it, or were you were getting information and they censored what you weren't allowed to say?

Zalisk: It was definitely only limited by what was available, which you understand are tidbits. Here we had the advantage that Aviation Week has a large network of editors and reporters who have covered some of the tests or are in Washington, so we could evaluate the information that we were given by the military. I would write something and it would go to Bill Scott, who has covered stealth for the last six or seven years. It would also go to major editors at Aviation Week, and then I would also frequently call other people that I know.

It is also important to understand that we do know that if the radar signature of stealth planes is not literally down to a bumble bee, the signature is probably not much bigger than a pigeon. If you have some sense of the scale, it really isn't necessary to know exactly what it is. The same is true of precision weapons. We have seen in Kosovo that they do occasionally go astray, but that is vastly different from the end of W.W.II where 20,000 bombers and hundreds of planes would drop thousands of bombs on a city to hopefully hit a factory. Now we send in twenty or thirty planes with 10 times that many bombs. Even though we don't know the exact number that go astray, at least I'm reporting that there is a vast difference in scale. The last issue of the New Republic even has an editorial article praising the new technology because there is less physical and civilian destruction. Somehow, although fighting and war is not the preferred way, that's got to better than killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people when what you are really trying to do is knock out this one little factory on the corner.

Thorburn: That is true, but there are other perspectives having to do whether or not some super power should be this technological tyrant that controls the world by having stealth bombers that no one can go up against. That was the main thing I came away from this thinking. These military guys are talking about how we control the world! It terrified me that there might be some measure of truth in the degree to which, as the only super power, we are also the most dangerous culture that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Would Aviation Week have permitted you to question the congratulatory tone of those descriptions of technology and military achievement?

Zalisk: I don't want to believe that they would, because it reflects on my skill, foresight and awareness at a particular moment. However, when I step back and am out of the situation, I see that maybe with a little bit more time and a little bit less pressure, then I might have found a way to get it in other perspectives in a way that would have been acceptable. I don't think they were against raising a question at all. There may have been a way, but I didn't come up with it at that time and no one pushed it. That's my point. I know that if I had been at Nova or Frontline then the atmosphere would have been one that encouraged me to explore perspectives of the sort you are suggesting.

Thorburn: I want to conclude by saying that I am impressed by your openness to a discourse that is critical, and your willingness to second guess yourself and rethink things. This has been a much more illuminating session than it might have been because of a heroic willingness on your part to say "I didn't quite succeed here." That's a very rare quality, and I admire it.

Zalisk: Thank you. I believe we need an informed society, and the only way that can happen is if we inform ourselves. Its nothing less than a sacred responsibility of a journalist--the forth estate --to perform that function.  

   
Compiled by Mary Hopper