When Northrop rolls out its B-2 stealth bomber in a formal ceremony Tuesday, it will expose to the world what has been the largest secret industrial effort since the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II.
Over the last decade, millions of aircraft parts have been surreptitiously produced at factories around the nation in a cloak-and-dagger world, ostensibly designed to withhold from Soviet spies the scientific details of the Air Force's revolutionary bomber.
As part of the secrecy, the B-2 parts were sometimes shipped to phony drop locations, then taken in unmarked trucks at night to Northrop's Pico Rivera plant, where the bomber was being developed. In many cases, subcontractors had no idea what they were producing--or for whom.
Executives who visited the plant avoided flying helicopters directly to the factory, going instead to a nearby heliport and driving to the plant to escape attention. Military officers working at the plant or visiting for the day wore civilian clothes for the same reason.
Even for the normally paranoid aerospace industry, the security measures imposed on the B-2 have been unprecedented. To this day, Northrop cannot tell its owners--the public shareholders--how much money it earns on the bomber even though the project accounted for about half of its 1987 sales of $6.1 billion.
The measures have imposed a stiff price: The government has paid untold millions of dollars to keep security tight on the huge project; industrial efficiency has suffered; many employees have paid emotionally for government and corporate browbeating over security; Wall Street investors with millions of dollars at stake were never certain what was happening on the big bomber.
The secrecy has fueled a raging curiosity about the bomber, making it an object of far greater interest than any military aircraft program in decades. Until recently, even many Northrop employees had no idea what the airplane looked like, though many tried hard to imagine.
"I would look at those tooling jigs (templates) every time I walked by them and try to figure out what the airplane looked like," a Northrop toolmaker said in an interview last week. "I must have guessed a hundred different designs. It drove me batty."
As is widely known by now, the B-2 stealth bomber is a flying wing--an airplane without a conventional fuselage or tail--designed to slip through enemy radar defense without being detected and then deliver up to 16 nuclear bombs.
The program to produce 132 B-2s is expected to cost $68 billion, or roughly $500 million per bomber, making it the most expensive mass-produced aircraft in history. Each B-2 will cost about the same as a fleet of 20 MD-80 passenger jetliners, or more than most skyscrapers.
By comparison, the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb cost $2 billion, which in today's inflated dollars would be equal to about $12 billion. Air Force officials have said in interviews that the stealth bomber is the biggest secret program since the Manhattan Project.
The Air Force started a full-scale program to develop the bomber in 1981 and had divulged almost nothing officially about the effort until this year, when some details were declassified.
Even then, it was sometimes grudging. When the Air Force released an artist's rendering of the bomber earlier this year, it was purposely inaccurate.
The decision to show the bomber publicly now was probably driven by the enormous future cost to do otherwise. The B-2 is expected to begin flying early next year, and if flight testing were to be conducted entirely in secret, it would take far longer and cost tens of millions of dollars more, a former top Pentagon official said.
Until now, the Air Force and Northrop have gone to great lengths to conceal the most minute details of the industrial effort, which involved tens of thousands of employees at major aerospace facilities all over the country.
For example, many of the B-2 production tools were secretly made in a plain, windowless building on Denker Road in Torrance and then trucked to Northrop's big production plant in Pico Rivera. Just before the tools were shipped, however, the serial numbers on them were removed and new numbers assigned.
"We were told that if somebody got the tool numbers, they'd know quite a bit about the sequencing of the production line," the toolmaker said. "But I had never seen anything like that before. This was wild stuff.
"I saw dozens of drawings for the skin (of the bomber), but I never saw a single diagram that showed where the fuselage started, and I could never figure out how big the airplane was going to be," he said. "I've been building airplane tools all my life, and I couldn't figure this airplane out."