• U.S.

The Stealth Takes Wing

5 minute read
Bruce Van Voorst

The B-2 Stealth bomber is designed to be virtually undetectable by enemy radar, but never in history was an aircraft’s first flight more visible. Before scores of television cameras and thousands of spectators, the bat- shaped flying wing lifted into the sunrise at Palmdale, Calif., last week for a 106-minute, slow-speed, wheels-down flight.

But even at the moment of its apparent success, the technologically revolutionary bomber faced a threat to its existence, not from hostile radar and missiles but from a newly skeptical Congress that has become increasingly alarmed over the plane’s horrendous cost. By the Air Force’s own calculations, each of the 132 B-2s it wants will cost more than $530 million, a total of $70.2 billion over the next decade. Already $23 billion has been spent on research and development. How, Congressmen wonder, can the most expensive weapons system ever built be reconciled with a shrinking defense budget?

The Air Force’s estimate of the B-2’s price tag, gargantuan as it is, may be far too low. In an exchange with Air Force Chief of Staff Larry Welch, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin warned that Congress would never go along with the Air Force’s plan to spend $8 billion annually — more than twice the current SDI budget — on the Stealth. At the more likely spending rate of $3 billion a year, said Aspin, the sticker price would soar to more than $1 billion for each plane.

Many Republicans not only agree with Aspin but are leading the assault on the Stealth. Says the committee’s ranking Republican member, William Dickinson of Alabama: “The B-2 program is in a lot of trouble, not for technical reasons but simply by price tag.” Declares Ohio Congressman John Kasich: “Nobody’s pushed harder for the ((Secretary of Defense Dick)) Cheney / defense budget than I, but America cannot afford the B-2.” To South Carolina Republican Arthur Ravenel Jr., cancellation of the B-2 is inevitable, “just like death and taxes.”

Until much more testing is completed, the debate cannot answer a very basic question: Is the B-2 capable of attacking targets in the Soviet Union without being detected? The initial flight proved only that the boomerang-shaped delta wing can fly. It remains to be seen whether the sleek aerodynamic design, composite-plastics fabrication and other tricks intended to evade radar will actually work.

Nor is there agreement on the strategic justification for the bomber. Cheney argues that the Stealth is needed to maintain “the effectiveness of the bomber leg of the strategic triad,” the mix of land- and sea-based missiles and nuclear weapons carried by aircraft on which U.S. deterrence has been based. Welch contends that bombers are regarded by both the U.S. and the Soviets as “the most stabilizing element of the triad.” Unlike missiles that can strike in 30 minutes or less, bombers need hours to reach their targets and hence do not represent a first-strike threat against the Soviets. Moreover, because they can take off and fly to safety when threatened, they can survive a Soviet attack.

Even conceding that bombers are stabilizing, however, does not clinch the case for the B-2. There are other, cheaper ways of achieving the goal. The Pentagon has just spent $28 billion to acquire 100 B-1 bombers, which despite all their failures should be capable of penetrating Soviet airspace for many years.

Critics contend that the Air Force has failed to define a realistic mission for the B-2. The traditional wartime assignment would be for the bombers to join a missile attack on such fixed targets in the Soviet Union as missile silos and command centers. In addition, the Air Force for a time suggested, the B-2 could locate and destroy a more elusive class of targets: new Soviet mobile missiles. But that now seems technically improbable. The Air Force has also proposed using the B-2 to carry conventional weapons to Third World targets such as Libya, a notion widely rejected as unnecessarily expensive.

Perhaps the most potent challenge to the B-2 comes from those who argue that in the missile age, there is no reason for a manned aircraft to penetrate Soviet air defenses. New “standoff” air-launched cruise missiles, with great range, extraordinary accuracy and the ability to evade detection by radar, – could be fired from outside the Soviet Union by the existing fleet of B-52Gs.

The fate of the B-2 will be the centerpiece of the military-budget debate in Congress this week. Cheney earlier agreed to cut $1 billion from the B-2s in the 1990 budget. But both the Senate and House Armed Services committees made further cuts, and amendments will be offered on the floor to suspend production or terminate the program. Last week the President and the Pentagon upped the ante, warning that unless the B-2 is built, the Joint Chiefs of Staff might oppose a new strategic arms reduction pact with the Soviets. Colorado democratic Senator Tim Wirth called it a in.very high-stakes poker game.” Indeed it was.


CREDIT: TIME Chart by Joe Lertola


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