When Defense News signed me on as air warfare reporter in May 1988, there were eight major US military aircraft companies to cover. Just to be clear, these were manned-aircraft primes. The only mass-produced UAVs at the time were Israeli.
It was the heyday of the Reagan administration during what we all thought was still the height of the Cold War. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — aka Star Wars — was in full swing and the enemy was crystal clear. It wasn't China, North Korea or any of the terror organizations that have since sprung from the Middle East.
Back then, it was pretty much USSR, all the time. Trust, but verify, may have been Reagan's mantra of the day, but deep distrust permeated the security community and fueled US defense spending.
I remember my first Paris Air Show, in July 1989, when Mikoyan test pilot Anatoliy Kvochur punched out of his Mig-29 just seconds before the Fulcrum exploded into a furious fireball on the Le Bourget runway. We were all sure the pilot had perished, and were incredulous at the press conference held the following day when the man they trotted out — standing erect with only a small bandage above one eye – indeed turned out to be Kvochur.
The Soviets lost a frontline fighter at that show, but the global publicity gained for their life-saving Zvezda ejection seat surely covered the costs.
Two years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was back at Le Bourget; marveling at the many stories told by Russian Antonov crew members who, due to lack of budget, had to eat and sleep in the mammoth strategic transport for the duration of the show.
Relatively quickly, the eight US firms merged and mutated into six, then five and ultimately three. And thanks to founding editor Rick Barnard, who secured the necessary budgets to send his reporters out into their assigned areas of responsibility, I got to visit most of them.
I never made it to Grumman, which was primarily the purview of Rob Holzer, our Navy reporter at the time. Nor did I get to problem-plagued Rockwell before it was acquired by Boeing. But I did spend time with pilots and crews of Rockwell's swing-wing B-1B out at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and with program officials up at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
At Dallas-based LTV, I learned firsthand about FOD (foreign object damage) — an acronym I had not yet heard of. During a tour of their factory floor, they demonstrated a machine that actually overturned and shook the body of an upgraded A-7 Corsair they were working on for a foreign customer. Sure enough, out came a part of a sandwich someone had left behind, along with other random debris.
At McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, Calif., I witnessed the mating of the wings to the fuselage of the first C-17 airlifter. From their offices in St. Louis, I broke the news that the Israel Air Force was leaning toward the F-15I rather than the F-16 and F/A-18 candidates under discussion at the time.
At Boeing’s Seattle headquarters, program executives briefed me on E-3 AWACS sales to NATO and plans for a new aerial refueller; a program that 20 years later would become the KC-46A.
My first visit to Lockheed, in late 1989, focused on the ongoing demonstration/validation phase of the Pentagon’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), as the company’s YF-22 competed and ultimately won the bid against the Northrop-led YF-23.
Subsequent trips took me to Lockheed’s Skunk Works in Burbank, Calif., where I had an opportunity to interview the legendary Ben Rich about the newly declassified F-117A, the imminent retirement of the SR-71 and what technologies and trends would shape the future force.
I remember him lamenting how "overzealous" congressional oversight — led primarily by John Dingell, the powerful Michigan Democrat who chaired the House Oversight and Investigations Committee — was trampling his ability to abide by Kelly Johnson’s rules for success.
As for Northrop, another huge target for Dingell’s investigations, I must have written tens of thousands of words on development and funding issues associated with the B-2 bomber. The November 1988 rollout in Palmdale was exciting, but that was nothing compared to the week spent at Edwards Air Force Base the following July in anticipation of first flight.
The Air Force brought us out before dawn on July 10, and we waited. And waited. Finally, we witnessed the flying wing dramatically emerge from the hangar, power up its engines and proceed to taxi test. But no first flight. It was back to the Super 8 Motel for me for another two days until the whole process was repeated. Again, no first flight.
By this time, speculation was rife that the contemporary brainchild of Jack Northrop, like his YB-49 prototypes of the late-1940s, was a death trap. I remember the wife of co-pilot Col. Richard Couch, who had tried to mask her growing anxiety. She said she had full confidence in the program and in her husband, but for added luck, Couch — a proud graduate of Texas A&M — was wearing his lucky Aggies boxer shorts. It took a full week at the Super 8 from taxi test to the moment that the majestic, most expensive aircraft ever built took at the time took off in the glorious southern California sun.
I never bothered to find out if Couch ever changed his lucky shorts in the interim.
But it was General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas, that had the greatest influence on my later years at Defense News. After one of my visits to their impressive F-16 production line, over dinner at the Stockyards, one of their senior executives told me of the work he was doing in Taiwan, assisting in development of the Ching-kuo Indigenous Defense Fighter. When I asked, half-jokingly, if he would facilitate a visit to Taipei’s close-held development authority, I was stunned by his response: "When can you fly out?"
Within a month, I was the first foreign reporter to be admitted to the Aero Industry Development Center (AIDC) factory floor. In an unforgettably surrealistic scene, a local TV crew was covering me trying to cover the intricate, geopolitical, technical and industrial story stemming from Washington’s repeated refusals to sell F-16s to what Beijing still considers a renegade Republic.
Barbara Opall-Rome says at the beginning of her career with Defense News, she never envisioned instant tweets, Facebook and WhatsApp updates that would allow journalists to remotely cover the news.
Photo Credit: Staff
With that visit, I transitioned from covering air warfare to US export licensing policy, US-Israel cooperation and East Asian security affairs. And that same GD executive proved a godsend in opening up doors elsewhere in the region.
In Malaysia, Defense Minister Najib tun Razak, now prime minister, spoke in admiring, yet envious tones about the strategic ties built up between rival Singapore and Israel. In Indonesia, B.J. Habibie, the pioneer of Indonesia’s aerospace industry who later went on to preside over the world’s most populous Muslim nation, candidly flagged the Jewish state as an example of the technological innovation he aspired to.
In the Philippines, the defense minister’s staff scheduled our interview in a favored Manilla karaoke bar, where — between songs by Elvis and The Platters — he spoke about plans to develop Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station following the American evacuation.
And in Thailand, the air vice marshal, who had agreed not only to a backpage feature in the paper but also to serve as point man for other interviews with colleagues from the Royal Thai General Staff, was unavailable by the time I touched down in Bangkok. Turned out that during my 16-hour flight, he was part of a failed coup and was being held rather securely as a ward of the state.
And then there was China. So smitten was I by the China bug that I began studying Mandarin Chinese twice a week at the US Department of Agriculture building in downtown DC. In between visits, I would practice on defense attachés from the People’s Republic and Taiwan until one day, the Taiwanese attaché blurted out, "Barbara, I can’t understand a word that you say. Your tones are all wrong!"
So much has changed in my nearly three decades at Defense News.
Not one of us in the Pentagon’s January 1991 Desert Storm briefing — having heard Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell talk about cutting off Saddam’s Army and then killing it — could have imagined the bloodshed and treasure expended over a quarter-century on morphing, militarized non-state enemies.
None of us forced to sit through congressional hearings from beginning to end envisioned instant tweets, Facebook and recorded WhatsApp updates that would allow us to cover the news in sweatpants from the comfort of our homes.
And all of us who were perpetually confounded by those acoustic muffs through which our copy screeched its way (if we were lucky) through terrestrial cables into newsrooms back home never dreamed we would be filing stories silently and ever so effortlessly by a mere touch of our smart cellular phone.
Having started this gig as a young woman in a man’s world, I’ve interviewed sources in girlie bars and had a top DoD official call me "baby cakes," even though I repeatedly told him the term was offensive. It’s been a privilege to witness the evolution in political correctness, but more importantly in equal opportunity, where a woman can be secretary of state, national security adviser, Air Force secretary, Lockheed CEO or — who knows? — perhaps in the near future even president and secretary of defense.
But as much as things have changed, some remain the same.
To this day, I can’t speak Mandarin for the life of me.
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.