Costly stealth bomber can't go out in rain Radar-proof coatings deteriorate when wet, says GAO report

August 23, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, the problem with the Air Force's B-2 Stealth bombers, which cost $2 billion apiece, was that their radar could not tell a rain cloud from a mountainside.

Now the problem is that the B-2 cannot go out in the rain.

The investigative arm of Congress reported this week that the B-2, the world's most expensive aircraft, deteriorates in rain, heat and humidity. It "must be sheltered or exposed only to the most benign environments -- low humidity, no precipitation, moderate temperatures," said the report by the General Accounting Office.

The report said that the skin of the plane cannot handle the heat or the damp or the rain. That skin, made of thermoplastics and composites transparent to radar, is supposed to help give the bomber its "stealthy" qualities.

Without that stealthiness, the plane is less than the unique technological achievement the Air Force has claimed it to be. It has never been used in combat.

And with these problems the plane cannot be deployed overseas, where it would be needed in battle. The Air Force issued a statement yesterday saying that, for now, it will cancel plans to station the bombers overseas.

Northrop Grumman Corp. is building 21 of the planes at a cost of $44.7 billion. Some members of Congress want to keep the production lines open and build up to nine more of the planes, at a yet undetermined cost.

The B-2 was developed in the 1980s as a nuclear bomber. Its mission was to penetrate to the heart of the Soviet Union and drop missiles on Moscow. Its most striking technological feature was said to be its ability to evade detection by Soviet radars.

The report by the General Accounting Office said that the Air Force is working on the problem with the B-2's sensitive skin, but that it is unlikely that the problem "will ever be fully resolved." As a consequence, the plane requires climate-controlled shelters.

The bomber, which flies at sub-sonic speeds, like a normal commercial jet, is based at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. The Air Force had intended to deploy it at bases outside the United States to reduce the lengthy flying times.

But no climate-controlled shelters for the B-2 exist abroad, preventing the plane from being stationed overseas.

In the report made public this week, the accounting office said that during a year of tests ending in March, the B-2 bombers being tested were able to perform their missions only 26 percent of the time. The failures were in large part due to the fragility of the B-2's stealthy skin.

Pub Date: 8/23/97

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