Recycling arms difficult for Pentagon

June 18, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Pentagon efforts to recycle some Cold War weapons into arms for future conflicts are running into trouble, complicated by costly add-ons and dubious missions.

The Air Force, for example, wants to turn its B-1 nuclear warplane into a conventional bomber, capable of dropping dozens of bombs at a time. However, early tests revealed a major problem: The bomber could blow itself up while doing that.

And some Navy officials want to convert submarine-launched missiles into non-nuclear bunker-busting bombs that could burrow through six stories of solid concrete and kill Third World tyrants in hiding. However, the cost -- each missile runs about $50 million -- could prove daunting. "It's tough to sell Congress on $50 million bullets," one official said.

Facing further cuts in defense budgets, military officers are looking to the successful conversion of the "Star Wars" program for the inspiration to keep some Cold War relics alive.

Many defense officials agree that the Star Wars program has made the switch most seamlessly. Over the past three years, it has evolved from President Reagan's dream of an Astrodome-like missile shield over the United States to a modest mobile system that could erect protective shields over U.S. troops under attack.

Pentagon officials are trying to replicate Star Wars' success in several other systems:

* The Navy is trying to turn its newest crop of billion-dollar Aegis cruisers into floating Star Wars-like systems, capable of protecting shoreside troops from enemy missiles.

As originally designed, the Aegis can destroy ships and planes, but can't do a thing about incoming ballistic missiles, like the Scuds that Iraq used during the Gulf War. So the Navy wants to spend about $4 billion by 1998 to give these ships the ability to shoot down missiles.

However, the plans to restructure are meeting resistance.

"The quickest way to ruin the Aegis is to turn it into a coastal antiballistic missile pillbox," said Eugene Carroll Jr., a retired rear admiral and deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a study group critical of many Pentagon spending priorities.

"It'd make it vulnerable to all kinds of attacks," he said. Because its new mission would require it be closer to shore, the ship would be vulnerable to attacks from land-based missiles or enemy frogmen.

* The super-secret Air Force MILSTAR satellite program -- designed to allow U.S. commanders to communicate during nuclear war -- is 20 years old, but has yet to put its first satellite into orbit.

The Pentagon is redesigning its future MILSTAR satellites to include more powerful data-handling gear, capable of relaying detailed data to commanders in the field.

* The Navy has taken 10 of 80 warplanes off an aircraft carrier and replaced them with about 600 Marines. Some admirals believe the Marines' ability to storm trouble spots on a moment's notice makes the carrier more valuable in the post-Cold War world, but not everyone agrees.

"To put Marines on a carrier -- and take off airplanes -- is to me the height of insanity," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former carrier pilot. "I can hire a barge to carry the Marines instead of spending $3.5 billion to build a ship to carry them around -- it's just nuts!"

* The Navy is weighing a plan to turn its Trident nuclear missiles into non-nuclear, bunker-busting bombs to ensure that some future Saddam Hussein can't burrow beyond the reach of the U.S. military.

The Navy developed the missiles to destroy the Soviets' SS-18 land-based missile silos, which now are due to be eliminated under the proposed START 2 arms accord.

Navy officials estimate a tungsten-tipped non-nuclear Trident, traveling 7,000 mph, could penetrate 60 feet of concrete. "All we'd have to do is find out which bunker the bad guy's in," said one, recalling the frustration U.S. officials felt over their inability to target Mr. Saddam.

* The Air Force's B-1 bomber was largely designed for a superpower nuclear war. Now that the likelihood of that has evaporated, the Air Force is spending about $2.5 billion preparing the warplanes for non-nuclear missions.

So far, efforts to press the B-1 into conventional roles have not been crowning successes.

And the Air Force has had difficulty dropping non-nuclear bombs rapidly from the B-1. During B-1 bombing tests, one-third of the practice bombs smacked into each other as they fell from the plane, the General Accounting Office reported. Had the bombs been real, the B-1 and its crew could have been blown to bits.

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