WASHINGTON -- Northrop Corp. has been working in total secrecy for five years on a $15.1 billion program to develop the nation's most advanced stealth missile, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday.
The cruise missile, known as the tri-service stand-off attack missile, could be launched from the ground or air at heavily defended targets and is "stealthier than anything else that we have in the inventory," said Department of Defense spokesman Pete Williams.
PD Although the existence of the missile was disclosed, few details
about the program were released. But defense industry sources estimated that as many as several thousand workers are assigned to the program at Northrop's Hawthorne, Calif., location alone.
The Pentagon's announcement comes on the eve of a week-long effort to shore up support for costly "stealth" weaponry.
Although military officials hope the missile's unveiling will bolster support for the B-2 "stealth" bomber program, some experts said the cruise missile's ability to penetrate air defenses raises new questions about the need for the B-2.
Williams' announcement came as the Pentagon prepared for "Stealth Week," a week-long program of displays and briefings in Washington. The congressionally mandated celebration is being held to solicit support among lawmakers for costly equipment like the B-2, which is designed to sneak undetected past hostile air defenses.
The stealth missile will be on display in Washington next week, but only for lawmakers and government officials with ultra-top-secret security clearances. The Pentagon was unwilling to disclose the features of the missile or to release photographs.
"The timing is perfect to take advantage of the euphoria in this country about the effectiveness of smart weapons in the Persian Gulf war,"said Rear Adm. Gene LaRocque, director of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. "While the music of the marching bands is still fresh in our ears, this is a good time to hit up Congress for money."
The Air Force said that funding for the missile program already is contained in its budget request for the 1992 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, and in projected budgets for future years.
The new missile is designed to be launched from the Army's Multiple-Launch Rocket System; the Navy's A-6 fighter-bomber and FA-18 fighter-attack plane, and the Air Force's B-2 "stealth" bomber, B-52 bomber, and F-16 fighter, Williams said. Development of the weapon began in the mid-1980s.