For the last two decades, John Cashen has played a pivotal role in creating the top-secret Stealth technology that makes planes and missiles invisible to enemy radar. But last Friday, he quit his job as chief scientist at Northrop Corp.'s B-2 bomber plant in Pico Rivera and moved to Australia to work at a government defense laboratory.
Cashen, a brilliant and eccentric engineer known to colleagues as "Dr. Stealth," said he was leaving for personal reasons, citing job stress and the need to reinvigorate himself in a new culture.
"The stress I lived under for 20 years was going to bite me if I didn't take a break," Cashen said in a telephone interview from a beachside motel in Australia. "I was becoming testy and irritable. I wasn't becoming the kind of person I wanted to be at age 55."
Aerospace experts have no doubts that Cashen, the recipient of numerous government awards, will keep America's military secrets secure. Nonetheless, his departure--together with the recent retirements of other key Stealth experts--represents a significant loss to national defense and raises disturbing questions about the future of America's massive investment in Stealth technology.
The Pentagon already has spent tens of billions of dollars to make aircraft and missiles invisible to enemy radar--a capability that has become a cornerstone in America's arsenal. The B-2 Stealth bomber is still under development, but the F-117 fighter played a major role in the Persian Gulf War.
Even though defense budgets are rapidly falling, the Pentagon is intent on retaining the primacy of U.S. military technology, especially Stealth technology. But maintaining that expertise with less money and fewer key experts may be tough to do.
Cashen belonged to a dwindling inner circle of top-flight experts who possess detailed knowledge of the highly complex Stealth technology. Northrop's patent on the B-2 is held by Cashen, along with key engineers Irving Waaland and James Kinnu, both of whom have retired. Lockheed Corp., the nation's other Stealth powerhouse, has experienced its own brain drain with the retirements of Skunk Works President Ben Rich and Engineering Director Alan Brown.
Stealth technology is not contained in textbooks or within any university faculty. Rather, it is held by a select council of industry experts who pass along their knowledge like an arcane art form. Cashen and Rich are privy to some of the Pentagon's most coveted secrets.
Stealth technology embraces the use of supercomputers to shape and construct aircraft so that enemy radar signals are deflected at oblique angles, as well as the use of certain materials to absorb radar. The science applies to the smallest details of aircraft construction, as well as to the basic shape of aircraft. The result is that Stealth aircraft bear no resemblance to previous aircraft, or even to other Stealth planes.
Until his departure, Cashen was considered the high priest of Stealth--so famous in technical circles that he received 20 letters a week from fellow engineers asking for his autograph, says his former administrative assistant, Lavena LeDay.
"The industry is losing one of its great minds," said Brad Biegon, director of aeronautics policy at the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "But the real threat is that there is not enough money in the pipeline to keep this technology vibrant. The retirement of senior experts and layoffs of younger engineers raise the risk of breaking up the industry technology teams."
Kent Kresa, chairman of Los Angeles-based Northrop, praised Cashen as a genius. Although he says the company has a group of "new bright people" involved in Stealth research, he is concerned that federal budget cuts will mean fewer opportunities to advance Stealth technology.
"We should all be worried about how we are going to keep that spark alive," Kresa said. "It comes down to whether the funding will be there."
Over the years, top Stealth experts competed fiercely on aircraft programs, but they came to know and respect each other, Brown said. During a Stealth aircraft program in the late 1970s at the White Sands missile base, Northrop engineers worked on one side of a black curtain while Lockheed engineers worked on their competing version on the other side. An armed guard made sure nobody peeked, Brown recalled.
When the technology was in its infancy, a dozen experts at Lockheed and Northrop represented America's brain trust. Today, many more have advanced knowledge of the technology, but none have the experience and know-how of a Cashen or Rich.
Although young engineers could design Stealth aircraft on paper, it is the Cashens and Riches of the world who understand the pitfalls of building multibillion-dollar airplanes using the latest technology.