In the 1970s, Lockheed Martin was working on the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter (fighter, yeah, right). They used faceted angles, and a Radar
Absorbent Material (RAM) coating made up of carbon fiber and glass. It wasn't highly effective, but it worked.
A defense contractor named Zoltek developed a new RAM coating using carbonized materials (no glass, just carbon fibers) that was easier to apply, and
through the ability to turn electromagnetic energy into heat, essentially made radar signals disappear. Zoltek went on to patent the process for
making the material, as well as the material.
In 1987, they received a letter from Northrop Grumman, who paid several thousand dollars to buy several samples of different resistivity, stating that
the product was unique, and they weren't aware of any other company that was capable of producing a similar material." The material was also used
on the F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005.
In 2007, after 11 years of litigation (the DoD spent billions of dollars on both programs, but paid nothing to Zoltek for their patent), the
government invoked the "secrecy privilege" to prevent them from finding out any information on copyright infringement with the B-2 RAM coating.
Earlier this year, they invoked it again in the case of the F-22.
Essentially they have told Zoltek that for them to prove their case in court, the government has to divulge information to them, and they're not
going to do that.
The secrecy privilege first came around in 1953, after the crash of a B-29 testing top secret electronics. The family members of some of the
civilians that were killed sued (US v Reynolds) to get access to the crash report, and survivor statements. The government claimed the aircraft
(which was flying over Waycross, GA) was on a mission vital to national security, and the court agreed. However, they went on to say that this should
be invoked very carefully, and only in select circumstances.
In 2000, the accident report from that crash was declassified, and it turned out that the aircraft wasn't doing anything top secret, the only
important thing was that it had top secret equipment on board (which had already been stated by the press at the time), and the crash was caused by an
Some of these smaller companies can develop game changing technologies, but no one is going to want to if they keep just taking it, and doing what
they will with it.
Small business has been the great incubator of technological innovation throughout most of U.S. industry. But not in the defense industry. One
reason is the normal rules of commercial contracts do not apply to defense contracting. The federal government can “take”—i.e. seize—whatever
technology it wants from a U.S. company, including patented technology, and it can hide behind the excuse of military secrecy in refusing to provide
constitutionally guaranteed “just compensation” for the public use of private property.
I know about this problem firsthand, as the founder and largest shareholder of a company denied monetary compensation for a significant contribution
to the success of two second-generation stealth aircraft—the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter.
Our patent (issued in 1988 and reissued in 1993) relates to the production of specifically designed carbon fibers as radar-absorbing material (RAM),
one of the key developments that made it possible to build large aircraft that are almost invisible to radar.