Air Force accepts first B-2 bomber

December 18, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base, Va.Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Twelve years since its development began during the Cold War, the first of 20 B-2 Stealth bombers entered the Air Force combat fleet yesterday with an uncertain mission and a price tag so expensive that proven bombers will be mothballed to make room for the high-tech planes.

The Air Force, which fought hard to add the world's most sophisticated nuclear bomber to its arsenal, heralded the B-2's arrival at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri as the beginning of what the generals call a new era of "global reach, global power."

"The B-2 continues the finest traditions of our bomber fleet," Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, told 25,000 people at the base, 60 miles east of Kansas City. "It adds a revolution ary new dimension to air warfare . . . and promises to be a terrible enemy of anyone who seeks mortal combat with America."

4 Not everyone shares his high opinion of the B-2.

In an apparent snub, Defense Secretary Les Aspin -- who for years as a congressman criticized the program's tremendous cost and pressured the service to cut its purchases from 132 planes to only 20 -- canceled plans to attend yesterday's ceremony.

Mr. Aspin, who announced his resignation Wednesday, showed up instead at the Pentagon press office's Christmas party.

Critics say the dark, sinister-looking Stealth bomber has already lost its chief target with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, its integration into the bomber fleet will require drastic changes as the Air Force struggles to pay the $44.4 billion price for 20 B-2s and, at the same time, arm all its planes with non-nuclear precision-guided weapons for the post-Cold War era.

To underwrite those ambitious plans in a time of massive budget cuts, Air Force generals expect to transfer about 24 B-1B bombers to the reserves, deactivate an entire wing of B-1Bs and accelerate the retirement of the venerable B-52s beginning in 1994.

Even as they make room for the B-2, the generals are working to lower public expectations about what the bomber could do if a war broke out in Korea or some other hot spot in the next few years.

The B-2 that arrived at Whiteman will get a series of expensive upgrades because it is not yet capable of striking an enemy's targets with pin-point accuracy, nor can it carry non-nuclear bombs like the ones used during the Persian Gulf War, said Gen. John M. Loh, commander of the Air Combat Command, who personally flew the plane from California to Missouri yesterday.

Less capable

It also is less capable of evading air defense radars as the latest models now in production at a Northrop Corp. plant in California.

In fact, the plane isn't likely to be ready to fly combat missions until late 1995, and the first of two full eight-plane squadrons won't be ready before mid-1997, General Loh said. But if a crisis erupts, "I will be prepared to use the B-2 before that . . . to deliver conventional or for that matter a nuclear weapon."

The B-2 got its stealthy name because its revolutionary bat-wing shape, contours and skin are supposed to absorb, rather than deflect radar waves to reduce the plane's susceptibility to detection.

Because radars are the main sensor for most air defenses, the B-2's radar image or "signature" was designed to be very small, perhaps one-thousandth the size of a conventional bomber.

Not invisible

Air Force claims about the bomber's stealthiness have been challenged for more than two years, but service officials insist they have developed the hardest plane to find by radar, not one that's invisible.

They argue that spotting an incoming B-2 would not be enough to stop it because a successful air defense system must track and target the plane to guide missiles in for the kill.

The Air Force and its critics have been debating the B-2 bomber's future mission as well.

The B-2's main purpose -- slipping past the most advanced Soviet defenses to hunt down mobile nuclear missiles and launch retaliatory nuclear strikes -- is no longer relevant. So the Air Force has to come up with a new purpose.

An Air Force plan, called the "Bomber Road Map," proposed last year using the B-2 to "penetrate the heart of an enemy's defenses" on the first night of a conflict in much the same way that less-sophisticated F-117 Stealth fighters attacked Baghdad in the Persian Gulf war. Among those initial "high-value" targets would be the air defenses and enemy "nerve centers."

Carpet bombing role

Other missions might include attacking tanks and other mobile ground forces early in a war or laying sea mines. The first nine B-2 bombers may be given an even more fundamental assignment: carpet bombing in the style of B-52 attacks in Vietnam and Iraq, General Loh said.

He also said the first B-2 might be prepared "in some limited way" before 1997 to fire cruise missiles from a position outside the range of enemy air defenses.

"The B-2 is superfluous to our needs," said Carl Conetta, an analyst at the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Massachusetts-based research group.

"It looks like the Defense Department's gone kind of bomber happy. They want to emphasize B-2 bombers as silver bullets and then decide why not have big ones that can do virtually everything?"

B-2 STEALTH BOMBER

Length: 69 feet.

Wingspan: 172 feet.

Range: 6,000 miles, unrefueled.

Ceiling: 50,000 feet.

Speed: Subsonic 550 mph.

Crew: Two.

Armament: B83 nuclear bombs or MK-84 2,000-pound gravity bombs.

Total Program Cost (for development, procurement and upgrades) $44.4 billion.

Planned Inventory: 20.

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