Opting for Stealth over reality

September 27, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- MAYBE IT'S the thick marble walls. Or the thick egos. But news seems to travel exceedingly slow into the inner sanctum of the United States Senate.

Remember the exciting stuff -- the Berlin Wall tumbling, the Soviet Union busting apart, the failed Moscow coup, a desperate Gorby panhandling for U.S. bucks?

Judged by its latest debate over building more ultra-expensive B-2 Stealth bombers, the Rip Van Winkles of the U.S. Senate must have snoozed while the world changed.

In the Senate time warp, the Cold War is alive and well. We're somewhere back in, oh, 1965. Is Brehznev still in charge?

Let's see, maybe there's logic to the Stealth bomber that's invisible to the naked eye.

The exotic, black, bat-winged plane was designed to mop up after a nuclear war, presumably bombing the rubble. But the targeted Soviet Union is now shattered into a jigsaw of brawling, near-poverty republics.

The plane was supposed to be invisible, "small as a caterpillar or a locust on Soviet radar," bragged the Pentagon. But oops, in a 1991 test it showed up like a burglar in a spotlight.

The Bush administration still lusts to build 75 of these 20th-century toys at $865 million apiece when the federal deficit is squeezing domestic spending.

So that's Stealth -- a plane that's unstealthy and unaffordable designed for a mission that no longer exists.

Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., tried to play the David whose slingshot would knock down the Stealth, or at least stop production at 15 bombers as the House voted.

"This plane is a Cold War relic," said Sasser, arguing that the country needed that $3.2 billion for schools, health, cities and roads.

Sasser had the White House worried. It sent Dan Quayle to

preside over the Senate and break a potential tie. Quayle listened impassively as Democrats riddled the Stealth with flak.

"This plane is appearing as the Soviet Union disappears," said Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "The greatest threat to the U.S. is red ink, not Red Square leaders."

"I've always been a hawk," confessed Bennett Johnston, D-La. "But for the life of me, I can't see why we need a bomber to penetrate Moldavia or Armenia or Azerbaijan."

"The Pentagon briefers no longer talk about Moscow, they talk about Baghdad or Tripoli," scorned Dale Bumpers, D-Ark. "We need a $865 million bomber to bomb Baghdad?'

Bumpers then delivered a line that convulsed balcony spectators.

"This plane," he said, "has had more missions than Elizabeth Taylor has had husbands."

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., one of Taylor's ex-husbands, did not respond. But Sam Nunn, D-Ga., in whose district the Stealth's missile is built, intoned that the bomber is needed to counter "the huge Soviet nuclear threat."

The final plea came from Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who noted, "The $865 million for one plane is more than we're going to spend on education. Do we need a Stealth bomber to attack Uzbekistan? Let the real world into this chamber."

But a few minutes later, Dan Quayle solemnly read the tally. By 51 to 48 votes, the Stealth bomber -- and Cold war myth -- stayed alive.

The vote to preserve the billion-buck Stealth shows how slowly the Washington establishment is reacting to post-Cold War reality. Oddly, it may be Saddam Hussein and the glow of Desert Storm that now fuels the pitch for high-cost weaponry.

At the moment Stealth was surviving, Gen. Colin Powell, head of the Chiefs of Staff, was telling a Congressional panel, "We're no longer oriented to fighting a global war with the Soviet Union. For 40 years we've been staring across barbed wire at each other. That's gone."

But Powell wants to keep 150,000 American troops in Europe for a threat he admits has vanished.

Outside analysts think the Pentagon and Congress are out of sync with the new world. "There's no rationale for what they're building," said Lawrence Kolb, Pentagon official in the Reagan years.

Two days before the Stealth vote, the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank whose report will probably be echoed by '92 Democratic candidates, called for a 50 percent defense cut over the next decade.

"The true test of the United States as a superpower," write Brookings authors William Kaufman and John Steinbruner, "will be whether it can arrive at a realistic balance between military and economic power."

They jab the Pentagon, which hopes to chip its budget only three percent a year, for conjuring up crises in "the same regions of the world."

Meanwhile, the Senate keeps pouring billions into Stealth bombers, Star Wars exotica and Seawolf submarines while American cities go bankrupt and Japanese win the war of high-tech consumer goods.

Maybe the news may yet penetrate the Senate's marble cloister: Hey, guys, the Cold War's over. It cost $12 trillion but we won.

The question is whether we'll wind up as a mirror image of the Soviets -- a broke, crumbling society encircled by glittering weapons like the B-2 bomber.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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