The Case For Building The B 2 Bomber

Amid all the triumphs of high-tech weaponry, the Persian Gulf war taught the Air Force two lessons it really didn't want to learn: There's still a place for an airplane that can drop tons of dumb iron bombs on the enemy. And the only U. S. aircraft that can do the job now is the B-52, the newest of which rolled off the assembly line 29 years ago.

The Air Force insists that a more recent plane, Rockwell International Corp.'s B-1, was "capable of performing its wartime mission." But while B-52s were pounding Iraq's Republican Guard, the B-1 was grounded by engine problems. And even had it been flying, the B-1 couldn't have helped much in the gulf: It isn't equipped to carry most nonnuclear bombs. As the Air Force scrounges funds for the bomber fleet of the 21st century, Carter Administration Defense Secretary Harold Brown and others have a radical idea that makes sense: Scrap the B-1 as a waste of money and replace it with Northrop Corp.'s new B-2.

HUNGER FOR PORK. The 97 B-1s in the fleet cost at least $28 billion to buy. But they are so riddled with problems that they may never be fixed. For every repair made, it seems, another breakdown occurs. The far more capable B-2, meanwhile, faces extinction. Last year, the Bush Administration barely arm-twisted enough money from Congress to keep it alive. And on May 8, the House Armed Services Committee voted to kill further production of the B-2. Congress could cancel the program this year--leaving the B-1 as the nation's new workhorse bomber.

That would be a big mistake. President Carter axed the original B-1 in 1977, before it went into production. He knew that improved stealth technology would render the plane obsolete and was fed up with its cost overruns. But Ronald Reagan revived the bomber, despite the strong reservations of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Obsessed with the cold war, the Reagan Administration had the B-1 designed mainly to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviets. Flag-waving, plus some $14 billion in B-1 subcontracts, had the desired effect. A pork-hungry Congress licked its chops and went along.

The B-1, however, has never worked right. In 1987, three crew members died when a B-1 crashed after sucking a bird into its engine--a mishap that isn't supposed to down a plane. Another cracked up in 1988 after a fuel line ruptured. The plane's radar-jamming equipment is full of glitches that would make it a sitting duck against advanced radar. And faulty de-icing gear limits its cold-weather service.

Recently, the plane's General Electric Co. engines have started to fail. Last fall, a cracked fan blade caused a B-1's engine to disintegrate and fall off over the Colorado desert. In December, blade cracks totaled a second B-1 engine. From last Dec. 19 to Feb. 5, the B-1 fleet was grounded while devices were installed to keep broken blades from being sucked into the engines. The General Accounting Office says a permanent fix could cost $500 million. Meanwhile, each engine must be inspected for cracks with a flashlight and mirrors after every flight.

WISE BUY. Killing the B-1 would avoid throwing good money after bad. A recent Rand Corp. study says that retiring the plane would save $1.5 billion in repairs and upgrades needed to get the bomber battle-ready, plus $12 billion in operating and support costs over 15 years. Billions more could be saved by closing the B-1's four U. S. bases.

Those dollars would be better spent on the B-2. Admittedly, the plane costs a king's ransom. So far, Congress has approved $30 billion to buy 15 B-2s, at $2 billion each. With most research and development already paid for, the 60 additional B-2s the Air Force wants would cost $35 billion more, lowering the average cost to $865 million.

That's three times the B-1's price. But at least in test flights, the B-2 works. And it's a better plane. It's stealthy enough not to need the costly fighter and radar-jamming escorts the B-1 and B-52 need. The B-2 carries 40,000 pounds of bombs, the same as the B-1 if converted to conventional weapons. And the B-2 could fly the 7,000 miles from Diego Garcia to Baghdad and back without refueling. The B-1 would need three tanker planes.

The counterargument from congressional foes is that, with the Soviet threat fading, there's no need to break the bank for the B-2. Still, as the war on Iraq showed, the Air Force probably can't do without a big bomber--which would be the practical effect of letting the B-2 die. Boeing Co.'s B-52 might have suffered intolerable losses in the gulf had the Iraqis operated their air-defense system better. And in any case, it can't last forever.

That makes the B-2 the bomber of choice for the next few decades. Maybe it is overdesigned for jobs such as Iraq. But starting a more modest bomber now from scratch would cost more than building more B-2s. With money tight, it's time to admit that the B-1 was a costly mistake.

      DEPLOYED: 1985
      STRENGTHS: Fast, relatively new
      WEAKNESSES: Problems with engines, de-icing, and defensive avionics. It's only 
      semi-stealthy, and has a limited conventional bombing capability
      Two test planes
      STRENGTHS: Stealthy, designed for both nuclear and conventional bombing
      WEAKNESSES: Costs $865 million each*, three times the B-1. It's also unproven 
      in flight except for preliminary testing
      *Assuming purchase of 75 planes
      DATA: BW
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