B-2 fires back at the critics with a volley of friendly facts Air Force lifts cloak of mystery for reporters

September 13, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Let it be known: Water does not melt the B-2 bomber.

The Air Force went to great lengths yesterday to make that point about the $2 billion planes after an August report from the General Accounting Office concluded that moisture ruined the bomber's invisibility to radar.

Maintenance crews at the B-2s' home base soaked one of the exotic jets with hoses and scrubbed it as Air Force brass assured reporters that the plane is combat-ready.

"We're going to finish washing the plane today and it's going to come out and still be fully mission-capable," said Col. Bill Hood, logistics group commander at Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City, Mo.

The GAO, which is the investigatory arm of Congress, said in a report last month that the Northrop Grumman-built planes require extensive pampering and climate-controlled hangars to protect the surface materials that help them evade radar detection.

Air Force officials conceded yesterday that the planes are working through some early problems, but said much ground has been gained since the GAO gathered its data.

"We don't have any significant problems with the airplane," said Brig. Gen. Thomas B. Goslin Jr., commander of the 509th Bomb Wing that features the B-2s.

To prove their point, officials gave reporters unusual access to the Batman-styled plane, which is usually cordoned off at air shows and has worn a cloak of mystery since its first public appearance in 1988.

"This is unprecedented," said Capt. Matthew A. Kmon, as camera crews roamed behind, under and into the cockpit of one of the planes.

Goslin said nothing was declassified especially for the event, that the Air Force had simply decided that enough bad press was enough and it was time to spotlight the plane. "We believe the American public, through the news media, has been told a lot of things about the B-2 that are simply incorrect," Goslin said. "The B-2 is combat-ready and can do the mission it was designed to do."

The B-2 has been a magnet for criticism in part because of its tremendous cost. The Air Force had planned to buy 132 of the planes, but now has ordered a fleet of just 21. The Pentagon wants no more, saying it needs scarce dollars now to modernize the nation's fleet of fighter planes. But the House of Representatives has passed a defense budget that sets aside $330 million to keep Northrop Grumman's production lines lTC running with the aim of buying nine more B-2s.

The Senate, the president and the Pentagon all oppose the plan, and Air Force officials yesterday made clear that they were not pushing for more planes.

"Twenty-one is the right number," said Brig. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who oversees acquisition of Air Force combat gear. "It's a resource allocation question for the Air Force, that's all. There's just not enough money in the budget to do bombers and fighters at the same time."

Eight B-2s are operational at Whiteman, and only one of those has been upgraded to final operational status. The others are being upgraded on a fixed schedule, but officials said they are battle-ready even without the full complement of advanced equipment intended for them.

Each plane is housed in an individual hangar, which is heated during the winter both for the comfort of crews and to better

shelter the complex materials that help the plane avoid radar.

Rain can damage the tapes and composites that make up the skin of the plane, but not in a critical way, officials said.

"If you fly that airplane into a heavy rainstorm for an extended period of time, you're going to have additional maintenance on it when you land," Carlson said.

But he added that the problems don't affect the survivability of the plane and are little different from those that any plane would encounter in such conditions.

What's more, the Air Force has been working with Northrop Grumman to improve surface adhesives and sealants and cut down on such wear and tear.

The plane does require a huge amount of upkeep: about 119 man-hours of maintenance for every hour of flight. But that's down from 132 man-hours just in the past few months, Carlson said, and will continue to drop "dramatically."

He pointed out that the F-117 stealth fighter, a plane with similar advanced qualities, started out requiring a comparable amount of maintenance and now is on a par with ordinary Air Force planes -- about 30 man-hours per hour of flight.

The early problems in maintaining the B-2 have led the Air Force to delay overseas deployment, though Goslin announced yesterday that the first overseas exercise is scheduled for sometime before Christmas.

And strategists insist that what makes the B-2 special is that it can carry out its global missions from right here in Missouri.

Supporters tout that as a major justification for the cost of the B-2, pointing out that it would cost even more to mobilize troops and set up air bases for similar long-range missions.

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