TEXT ON SCREEN: August 22, 1980

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-22-80): FRANK REYNOLDS: A major technological advance of great military significance.

NARRATION: In 1980, the Pentagon caused a sensation by revealing a new futuristic aircraft technology called Stealth.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-22-80): ANCHOR: An aircraft which will be invisible to enemy radar

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-20-80): ANCHOR: The secret new material absorbs radar beams, making detection extremely difficult.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-20-80): ANCHOR: Only a few members of congress have been told about it.

NARRATION: The stealthy design of a series of top-secret fighter jets and bombers promised the U.S. the upper hand in its Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-22-88): EDWARD ALDRIDGE (SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE): Were not just rolling out Americas new strategic bomber, were ushering in a new age of strategic deterrents.

NARRATION: Today, while the Cold War may be over, Americas quest to push aviation technology to its limits continues. But has that quest caused the Pentagon to finally reach too far?

DANIELLE BRIAN (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT): Theres always this infatuation the newest, shiniest thing is always on the horizon.


LT. GENERAL CHRISTOPHER C. BOGDAN (PROGRAM EXECUTIVE OFFICER, F-35 LIGHTNING II JSF PROGRAM): In warfare, surprise has always been a key advantage. If you cant see me, you cant kill me and if you cant kill me you cant defend what Im trying to go after.

NARRATION: That idea has long been military aviations holy grail. Never more so than during the Cold War, when American defense contractors, including Lockheed Corporations secret skunkworks division, raced to develop jets and bombers that were unlike any that had come before.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-22-80):NEWS REPORT: Secretary of Defense Harold Brown said today that the stealth project alters the military balance significantly.HAROLD BROWN (SECRETARY OF DEFENSE): We are not aware of any comparable effort in the Soviet Union.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-20-80): NEWS REPORT: The new bomber is not only still secret, in the future it is hope that it and other U.S weapons will be almost invisible.

DANIELLE BRIAN: This was going to allow us to go across many, many miles, into the Soviet Union, without being detected.

NARRATION: What made stealth planes so newsworthy was not their speed, but their extremely low profile on radar.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-22-80): BOB ZELNICK: This so called flying wings made of expensive, non-metallic materials designed to absorb rather than reflect radar. No tail, no external engines, fuel tanks, weapons or antennas.

NARRATION: By the time stealth was used in battle, the Cold War had come and gone.

As Congress debated the programs massive cost, the Persian Gulf War gave Americas F-117 stealth jet a chance to lead a very public charge.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-10-91): ANCHOR: The F-117 repeatedly attacked targets in downtown Baghdad without losing a single plane.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-11-91): MAJOR GREG FEEST: Flew 1291 missions into Iraq, and not one bullet hole was any airplane.

LT. GENERAL CHRISTOPHER C. BOGDAN: By using the stealth technology of the 117 we were able to go after high-value targets. And because we got to them early, that war was a whole lot shorter than it could have been.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-11-91): GEORGE H.W. BUSH: There now is no question stealth works and its been proven in combat and it broke the Iraqis back and it saved precious American lives.

NARRATION: It took another conflict to see just how bulletproof stealth really was. In 1999, an American F-117 fighter was shot down over Serbia.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 9-14-99): DAVID MARTIN: Publicly the Pentagon claimed it didnt know how it happened. Secretly military officers knew it was not a lucky shot.

PIERRE SPREY (DEFENSE ANALYST AND CO-CREATOR OF THE F-16 FIGHTER JET): It turns out that very old-fashioned radar frequencies dating back to the battle of Britain are immune to stealth.

NARRATION: Because a planes stealthy design may not give it enough of an edge, radar jamming and smart piloting can be needed to prevent the worst case scenario.

GENERAL NORTON A. SCHWARTZ (FORMER U.S. AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF): Ideally, you would have, stealth that was like the Star Wars cloaking mechanism, but its not to be, at least not yet. The reality is that theres no such thing as absolute stealth.

NARRATION: And there was another issue From the aging B2 stealth Bomber

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-22-88):JOHN PIKE (FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS): The stealth bomber is not simply going to be a gold plated weapon but costs as much as if it was made of solid gold.

NARRATION: To the new F-22 stealth fighter coming off the assembly line..

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-9-97): PETER JENNINGS: The most expensive fighter plane ever built.

NARRATION: Critics still had a fundamental concern.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-9-97): PETER JENNINGS: It certainly raises questions about whether everything the Pentagon wants is worth the price.

NARRATION: In 2001, the Pentagon announced an ambitious new program meant to address just this complaint, while solving many of the technical issues that had dogged other stealth planes for decades.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-26-01): PETER JENNINGS: The richest contract in the history of the Pentagon finally awarded. The aerospace company Lockheed Martin have been chosen over Boeing to build a new fighter plane for the U.S. and Britain.

NARRATION: Called the F-35 Lightning, it was slated to tackle the decades-old objection that stealth was unaffordable by serving the divergent needs of three branches of the military.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-26-01): NEWS REPORT: A super-sonic fighter for the air force, a short take off and landing jet for navy aircraft carriers and a hovering vertical jump jet for the marines.

DANIELLE BRIAN: The original idea was this fabulous package, a sort of fancy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but as time went on, it turned out that that was just not functionally possible.

NARRATION: Building the Swiss army knife of stealth jets proved to be an astonishingly complex task.

PIERRE SPREY: You know, its like building a hammer thats also a great electric saw and an electric drill. A jack of all trades and master of none.

LT. GENERAL CHRISTOPHER C. BOGDAN: We tend to be overambitious about what we can fit into an airplane, in a certain time, in a certain amount of money. And we usually prove that our over ambition results in a longer time to develop and problems. We were trying to do, technologically, some really, really tough stuff.

NARRATION: Plans had to be scaled back from the jets acceleration rate to its maneuverability. At the same time, design flaws including to its engine caused expensive retrofits and lengthy delays.

Despite promises it would be more affordable, the F-35 was on its way to becoming the most expensive weapons program in American history. With critics calling it The Jet that Ate the Pentagon.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-14-13): LESTER HOLT: Were back now with our series the fleecing of America.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 7-14-13): LISA MEYERS: Price tag: a staggering 400 billion dollars.

ARCHIVAL (CBS, 60 MINUTES, 2-17-14):DAVID MARTIN: Thats about twice as much as it costs to put a man on the moon.

NARRATION: The F-35 is years behind schedule and, so far, has yet to fully deliver on one of its most unique features the high-tech integration of sensors and weapons. But the Defense Department insists that it will one day give both America and its allies who have also placed orders for the plane the edge they need in the skies.

LT. GENERAL CHRISTOPHER C. BOGDAN: Its too important to our partners. Its too important to our services who are looking at older airplanes that just cant keep pace with the threat. And Im going to get it out there as fast as I can.

NARRATION: But whos to say that the F-35 will really outperform the jets that have long been essential to Americas defense workhorses that are still proving their worth on battlefields today. In 2015, the Pentagon put an F-35 up against an aging F-16 fighter in a mock dogfight with disastrous results.

ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 7-15-15): NEWS REPORT: One popular military blog on its account of the mock dogfight went so far as to describe the F-35 as dead meat.

NARRATION: Lockheed says the results of the flight test have been blown out of proportion and that it was not intended to simulate a dogfight but merely test the F-35s maneuverability. Both Lockheed and the Pentagon continue to defend the jet, but critics remain unconvinced.

DANIELLE BRIAN: The technology is so complicated that were questioning whether this is ever going to actually work. And if it does work, it has all of these limitations because its just too complicated. How is this an advance from the old days? I dont see how it is.