WASHINGTON -- A Pentagon decision yesterday to buy no more bat-winged B-2 "stealth" bombers prompts a question: Should the United States get out of the bomber-building business altogether?
The Defense Department decided that precision-guided missiles would be more cost-effective than the state-of-the-art stealth bombers, which are designed to elude detection by enemy radar. It will buy only the 20 bombers already on order.
The last of the B-2s is to be delivered in 1998. The first six B-2s are in service, four are being flight-tested and 10 are under production.
A Pentagon study, which used computerized "war games" covering various battlefield scenarios, showed that buying advanced precision weapons and upgrading the Air Force's bomber fleet of 66 B-52s, 95 B-1s and the B-2s made more sense than investing in 20 more B-2s at an estimated cost of $24.5 billion.
Defense industry officials said the phase-out of the B-2 program, if endorsed by Congress, could make the F-22 stealth fighter, being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, the favored platform for launching many of the sophisticated weapons systems now being developed.
The Institute for Defense Analysis, a Pentagon-backed research organization that conducted the B-2 study, will now turn its attention to whether bomber production lines should be closed or kept open for possible use after the turn of the century.
Congress appropriated $125 million last year to support the bomber industrial base, pending a decision on the B-2s. The money could be redirected to other defense projects if a decision is made to end bomber production.
The panel will make its recommendation on the future of the bomber industry to Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Congress in July.
"We do need . . . to see what it is we need to do with our underlying bomber industrial base," said Paul G. Kaminski, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology, who announced the B-2 decision at a Pentagon news briefing yesterday. Similar concerns have hung over the specialized production lines for submarines and tanks as the defense draw-down reduces weapons orders in the post-Cold War era.
Congress ordered what is known as "The Heavy Bomber Force Study" last year amid concerns -- fueled by the B-2 manufacturer, Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles -- that the Pentagon would not have enough bombers to fulfill its mission and that, without new orders, bomber production lines would be phased out.
"The results of the study didn't make the case for buying additional B-2s," Mr. Kaminski said, adding that the analysis showed that the Pentagon had enough bombers and other forces to fulfill its mandate of being able to fight two nearly simultaneous regional conflicts.
It also showed that a $24 billion outlay on new bombers would have virtually no effect on early efforts to halt an enemy advance during two simultaneous regional conflicts.
But, the study found, over the duration of the two conflicts, the additional bombers would reduce allied aircraft losses by an estimated 10 percent and the number of sorties flown by about 5 percent -- figures that could be more than matched by additional investment in the sort of smart weapons that made an impact in the Persian Gulf war.
"That is a more cost-effective expenditure than having more B-2s," Mr. Kaminski said.
Northrop Grumman issued a statement last night, saying: "We continue to believe that that B-2, with its inherent survivability, long range and precision weapons, offers the country the greatest leverage and flexibility in the crucial opening hours and days of conflict."
Supporters of the B-2 program in Congress questioned the study's findings, signaling that they still may fight to increase funding for the bombers, although one Republican aide acknowledged that it would be difficult to find money with the defense budget already squeezed.
Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, an influential pro-defense Democrat, said he was "disappointed" by the decision, and expressed "strong reservations" about the assumptions used in the study, including the funding for new munitions and the capabilities of the non-stealth bombers.
Mr. Nunn recalled that, in January, seven former secretaries of Defense wrote to President Clinton urging the purchase of 20 more B-2s. The seven -- Melvin Laird, James Schlesinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Harold Brown, Caspar Weinberger, Frank Carlucci and Dick Cheney -- wrote: "The B-2 remains the most cost-effective means of rapidly projecting force over great distances."
Rep. Floyd D. Spence of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the House National Security Committee, said his panel would review the study recommendation during the mark-up of the fiscal 1996 defense authorization bill.
"I have seen nothing that changes my personal view that an additional 10 to 20 B-2s might be a wise investment," he said.