WASHINGTON — The experience of the Persian Gulf war has renewed concern over the future of the U.S. long-range bomber force, which has been shrinking for decades.
The Soviet Union's disintegration into a collection of impoverished and bickering republics has irreparably undermined the traditional primary rationale for maintaining a large fleet of intercontinental bombers. Bombers once primed and ready to deliver nuclear attacks deep inside the Soviet Union have been taken off of alert status; and the Air Force's Strategic Air Command is being folded, together with that service's far more extensive tactical combat aviation forces, into a new, larger, Air Combat Command.
Long before the Cold War's demise, however, budgetary difficulties and competition with ballistic missiles had begun to erode public, congressional and even Defense Department support for successive generations of ever more expensive bombers. A bomber force that peaked at more than 1,800 planes the late 1950s had by the late 1980s dwindled to fewer than 400, and is now slated to fall below 300 by the mid-1990s.
Repeated efforts to replace the B-52, the last politically successful bomber program (a total of 744 were built between 1954 and 1962), encouraged mounting resistance on the grounds of cost and mission persuasiveness. Since World War II the price of building a modern U.S. intercontinental bomber, even when adjusted for inflation, has risen more than 50-fold; and the putative imperative of sending relatively slow-moving bombers into the Soviet Union to ''mop-up'' stray targets that might survive precursory massive U.S. nuclear ballistic missile strikes became increasingly unconvincing.
The B-52's initial successor, the B-70, was canceled after production of only two prototypes; it died at the hands of unaffordability and vulnerability to new Soviet surface-to-air missiles. After the B-70 came the B-1A, also canceled (after four prototypes) because of cost, and a Carter administration conviction that cruise missiles, launched from aircraft staying well outside the reach of Soviet air defenses, offered a more cost-effective alternative to still another new bomber designed to penetrate those defenses.
President Reagan reversed Mr. Carter's decision, ordering production of 100 B-1Bs, an updated version of the B-1A. The B-1B, however, has been an embarrassment. Three have crashed and the remaining 97 have been repeatedly grounded because of mechanical troubles. And B-1Bs still lack the sophisticated electronic paraphernalia to assure survival inside the Soviet Union, admittedly a moot issue now.
Then, of course, came the revolutionary Stealth B-2 bomber program, which might have flourished had the Cold War continued and its manufacturer managed to hold its price down to less than $1 billion a copy. In 1990 the original 132-plane program was slashed by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to 75, and last January President Bush further capped the program a paltry 20 aircraft. The B-2's fate almost certainly lowers the final curtain on any further U.S. attempts to field a bomber force designed to survive the kind of dense and sophisticated air defenses once mounted by the Soviet Union.
And so it should. Exponential increases in the cost of assuring penetration were clearly driving bombers beyond a political willingness to pay for them in any but token numbers. More important, the need for a new penetrating bomber may perhaps be altogether eliminated by the Soviet Union's collapse and by the emergence of new, non-nuclear ''stand-off'' munitions, such as air-launched cruise missiles and guided bombs, that permit accurate bombing attacks without entering the enemy's airspace.
This, in turn, opens the door to reliance on delivery platforms that are asked to do little more than haul a large quantity of precision-guided stand-off munitions to a firing point, perhaps several hundred miles beyond the reach of enemy air defenses (and probably much closer against Third World adversaries, the potency of whose air defenses, like Iraq's in the Gulf War, may be significantly overrated).
Such platforms, not required to penetrate those defenses, could relatively cheap and might include converted large military transport aircraft, such as the existing C-5B and planned C-17, and even jumbo commercial planes. A stand-off bomber force of say, 100-200 planes, would provide a complement to, and eventually a replacement for, the current penetration force of 97 B-1Bs and 15 B-2s and whatever dwindling number of B-52s which might be so employed.
There is encouraging precedent for converting transport aircraft into combat systems. During both the Vietnam war and Operation Desert Storm, Air Force C-130 tactical airlifters were converted into deadly gunships and ''bombers'' designed to carry 15,000-pound ''blockbuster'' munitions.