The 30-year battle for the B-1 bomber

Wild Blue Yonder: Money, Politics, and the B-1 Bomber, by Nick Kotz. New York: Pantheon Books. 314 pp. $19.95. Nick Kotz's book on how the B-1 bomber survived a 30-year battle for funding and production seems especially topical in light of recent events at the Pentagon. It is fascinating, a bit scary because of what it says about the politicization of the military, and a ``must read'' for anyone who really wants to understand the pressures exerted on and by the defense establishment.

Kotz's book isn't an expos'e or another effort to slam the Pentagon. It's a serious but very readable description of a system that in his view is out of control. By describing the politics of the B-1, he shows not just what's wrong, but also how to fix it.

The book gives a detailed history of the B-1, which started out as the B-70 and was meant to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of B-52s. This effort began in the late 1950s, but President Eisenhower, who felt future wars would be fought with missiles, did not support it.

Instead of obeying their commander in chief, the military took their battle for the B-70 to Congress. For the next 30 years, they would pursue this strategy each time they were turned down by a president.

According to Kotz, this tended to occur more in Democratic than in Republican administrations, earning the B-1 a reputation as the ``Republican'' bomber. The Stealth bomber, which came before the public in the Carter administration, tended to be referred to as the ``Democratic'' bomber.

Throughout its history, the B-1 seemed to elicit an ambivalent response from Presidents. But when Ronald Reagan was elected, the plane found a willing supporter. Since then B-1 bombers have been produced - at far greater cost than expected - and have flown, but have been plagued with problems.

This is just a brief summary of what was a complex struggle on all sides, by people who were generally motivated by strongly held views on what would be best for American defense.

This study of generals under fire, politicians under pressure, and contractors jockeying for defense work at almost any price raises some important questions. Among them:

How can we predict what kind of weapons will be needed in the future and develop them before they become outmoded?

Should generals go above their commander in chief and take their battle for weapons to Congress if the president disagrees with them?

And particularly In light of recent events, how can the influence of contractors on Congress and the Pentagon be controlled?

How can bidding be truly competitive when only a few companies can perform the work?

How can congressmen and senators be encouraged to vote against bad weapons without jeopardizing their careers, especially if it means the loss of jobs in their areas?

This last point stems from a strategy pursued by those pushing a particular defense project. They make sure that as many states as possible are involved in it, because that makes a project much harder to stop.

For example, Kotz writes, ``During the seven years of construction, from 1982 through 1988, an average of about 40,000 workers kept busy on the B-1. Almost half of them were on the Rockwell payroll; the rest worked at several thousand companies in 48 states. In 1985, the peak production year, 60,000 persons worked on the bomber.''

There are no easy answers to the questions raised in this book. But Kotz argues intelligently for a less political and more rigorous approach to weapons development and procurement.

Rosalie E. Dunbar is a free-lance book reviewer.

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