B-2 or Not To Be

October 16, 1991

More disturbing news about the costly B-2 bomber: it is not only less stealthy than originally advertised, but more vulnerable to enemy fighters equipped with advanced heat-seeking sensors. This information, disclosed by Sun Pentagon correspondent Richard H.P. Sia, should be sobering to House and Senate conferees as they contemplate the B-2's fate in shaping the new defense budget.

Within recent weeks, pressure to downsize the B-2 bomber program has come not only from Capitol Hill but from the White House and the military's top brass. President Bush, though an exponent of Air Force plans for a 75-plane armada costing $64.8 billion, undercut his own cause by scrapping new short-range attack missile development as part of unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Mr. Sia reported that these SRAMs would have been a key armament for the B-2 bombers.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., hitherto Congress' most influential B-2 supporter, greeted the president's decision by saying the Air Force will have to "come up with what they really want the B-2 to do in this new world we're talking about." He offered a guess that the 75-plane goal will probably be cut on half.

Similar notions were attributed to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, by authoritative Aviation Week magazine. Reporting that the Air Force was backtracking to a 54- to 60-plane force, the magazine said General Powell was thinking "in the thirties" (which would compatible with Senator Nunn's projection).

In light of the mood on Capitol Hill, however, even that may be over-optimistic. The House has voted to hold the B-2 program to the 15 planes already authorized. The Senate, by only three votes, approved continued production but then made this contingent on a second vote of approval next year. Now conferees have to work out their differences as Congress seeks deeper defense cuts in light of the Soviet collapse and the recession.

This newspaper believes there is no compelling rationale for continuing the B-2 program beyond the 15 planes already authorized. If a few more units are added, they can be justified only by the $33 billion the nation has already invested in the bat-winged stealth bomber. The U.S. strategic deterrent will rest more and more on submarine-launched missiles; conventional measures against rogue Third World powers can be carried out with less costly smart weaponry.

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