Desperately Seeking An Attack Bomber

Fighter pilots get the glory, but the bomber is the heart of Navy aviation. A key mission of the ponderous carrier battle group, with its cruisers, destroyers, and long-range fighter planes, is to get its lethal attack bombers safely to their targets.

So the Navy's top brass was understandably stunned on Jan. 7, when Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney killed the A-12 bomber. The new attack plane was by far the Navy's top-priority weapon for the 1990s. The Navy was counting on the radar-evading A-12 Avenger to replace the venerable A-6, a Vietnam vetdesigned in the 1950s and first delivered in 1963.

NO BAILOUT. Not that the A-12 didn't have it coming. A year and a half behind schedule and at least $2.7 billion over its $4.8 billion development budget, the bomber program was flying wildly out of control. Cheney said that neither the Navy nor the plane's contractors--McDonnell Douglas Corp. and General Dynamics Corp.--could tell him how much in additional funds would be needed to keep the program going. The companies sought financial help from the government. But under such circumstances, Cheney said, "I do not believea bailout is in the national interest."

The crash of the A-12--the biggest program cancellation in Pentagon history--has already caused extensive casualties. McDonnell Douglas and General Dynamics have lost contracts for 620 planes that were expected to bring in $52 billion. The Justice Dept. is investigating whether the companies defrauded the government on work done so far. Two admirals and a captain have been censured and retired or reassigned, primarily because they failed to pass bad news on to their superiors. The most prominent victim: former Ford Motor Co. executive John A. Betti, who himself failed to tell the Secretary about the A-12's woes. Betti quit as the Pentagon's chief of acquisition after an embarrassed Cheney had to tell Congress he had unwittingly misled members about the program's progress.

But the biggest loser is the Navy, which is left scrambling for a plane that can fill the A-12's mission. An attack plane is key to the Navy's ability to project force into trouble spots around the globe. "If we're going to maintain carrier fleets into the next century, we're going to have to replace the A-6," says Gordon Adams, director of the liberal Defense Budget Project.

Just to keep the A-6 flying, the Navy is spending at least $800 million to outfit older planes with better wings. Still, one admiral estimates that the A-6 will have outlived its usefulness within three to five years. The slow, stubby plane is highly vulnerable to the ever-more-sophisticated missile systems proliferating around the world. The admiral, who asked not to be named, notes that Iraq boasts antiaircraft technology courtesy of the U. S., France, Italy, and the Soviet Union. "They are Third World," he says, "but they have first-class weapons."

STOPGAPS. What will replace the A-6? "Stealth technology will be required if attack aircraft are to elude advanced fighters and surface-to-air missiles in the future," Cheney says. That implies the Pentagon will either renegotiate with McDonnell-Douglas and General Dynamics or start over with a fresh A-12 design. In the latter case, some defense industry analysts believe Grumman Corp. and Northrop Corp. would have a leg up. The two companies bid on the A-12 in 1986 but came in about $1 billion above the winning proposal--a figure that obviously was more realistic than the winning bid. And Northrop, as prime contractor for the stealthy B-2 bomber, has extensive experience in engineering composite materials that help make a plane hard to spot on radar.

A new attack bomber would take at least five years and perhaps up to eight to develop. Meantime, the Navy faces a bomber gap. Many older A-6s suffer from metal fatigue, especially in the wings. An expanded A-6 life-extension program is likely, benefiting Boeing Co., which makes the new wings. Meanwhile, the Navy will look for ways to beef up two newer planes, the F-14 Tomcat and the F/A-18 Hornet, as stopgap bombers (table).

Between patching up the A-6, perhaps refitting the F-14 or F/A-18, and starting over on development of a new bomber, the Navy may well spend more in the long run than it would have on the A-12. But Cheney had an important point to make, and he made it boldly: In the post-cold-war world, even a badly needed weapon won't fly if the contractors and the armed services can't deliver on their promises.


A-6 INTRUDER Grumman's carrier-based bomber the A-12 was to replace. Navy brass thinks it can fulfill its main role only for another three to five years

F-14 TOMCAT A fighter also made by Grumman, built for air-to-air combat. Adding bomber capabilities would mean an ungainly compromise

F/A-18 HORNET McDonnell Douglas' fighter has some bomber capabilities. But even after a refit, it couldn't go nearly as far or carry as much as the A-6.