What, then, is to be made of the track record of the stealthy F-117? During the Gulf War it ventured into some of the world's heaviest air defenses on more than 1,250 missions and suffered not a single hit. At this writing, unexpectedly, the F-117 is one of two aircraft to be lost in combat over Yugoslavia. The Air Force has remained appropriately mum on the Nighthawk's downing, but the speculation is that the aircraft may have been sporadically illuminated by a series of ground-based radars as it made an attack over highly defended Belgrade, and was brought down by an unguided surface-to-air missile. Stealth (as we submariners have known for many years) does not mean absolute protection.
Indeed, the submarine mantra is that failing to continually decrease "observables" is to ensure the loss of stealth in a relative sense. The many nuclear powered attack and ballistic missile submarines (SSNs/SSBNs) decommissioned over the last several years left active service far quieter than they had been 30 or so years ago when commissioned. Within the 62 Los Angeles (SSN-688)-class submarines, for example, incremental enhancements made in quieting, sensors, and weapons were dramatic enough to form at least three flights of improved boats. In addition, major efforts have improved the stealth of the nation's newest submarines, the Seawolf (SSN-21) and Virginia classes.
It is not clear if a failure to maintain a stealthy margin led to the loss of the F-117 over Yugoslavia, but the lack of plans to continually improve aircraft stealth is troubling. Despite the recent recommendation of a congressionally directed panel to accomplish upgrades to the B-2's low observability, the 1999 Air Force "bomber roadmap" states that no signature improvements will be made to the B-2 until 2015. In recent Senate testimony, a senior Air Force general responsible for B-2 development noted that, given the unfolding threat, the Air Force intends to package the aircraft with other supporting airplanes rather than investing in stealth enhancements. This is akin to the Navy forgoing quieting improvements in its attack boats, and instead electing to operate its submarines on the surface in the middle of a battle group.
As the Department of Defense chooses between modernization and force structure, people will be seen as increasingly precious. That is not to say that zero-loss combat will be declared or expected. Studies have documented that the American public is willing to support U.S. objectives even when staying the course may result in casualties. The public also may accept a high rate of expenditure of national treasure. On the other hand, Americans will justifiably balk at the pointless squandering of American blood. When Congressmen are questioned about their votes favoring the seemingly expensive new attack submarine or advocating an upgrade to the B-2's low observability—the correct reply is that stealth saves lives.
Captain Patton served in seven submarines and commanded the Pargo (SSN-650).