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A Positive View of the Stealthy B-2

The Monitor's editorial "A Bomb of a Bomber?" (Aug. 28), assailing the B-2 bomber, was based on the fashionable but unfounded premise that the B-2 costs more than alternatives the government can pursue.

Your conclusion that "fiscal discipline" dictates terminating the program at 21 planes is all too typical of the prevailing approach to budgetary restraint in Washington.

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First of all, it is important to recognize that the $2 billion price tag attributed to each B-2 is calculated by adding up the costs of a two-decade development program and dividing the total by the 21 planes the Pentagon plans to buy. But that program was originally intended to yield over 100 planes. Moreover, almost all of the development costs for the B-2 have now been incurred, so the cost of building additional bombers is only a fraction of the amount you cite.

Second, the rate at which aircraft are produced has a lot to do with how much each one costs. Whether your plan to build 10 planes or 200, you still need the same range of skills, supplies, and tooling to produce a finished product. By building the B-2 at very low rates, we have assured that these fixed costs will drive the price of each plane to unnecessarily high levels.

Third, the cost of acquiring a plane is only one part of its "life-cycle costs." Once it leaves the factory, 20 or 30 years of operational service must still be funded - including fuel, maintenance, spare parts, upgrades, munitions, infrastructure, training, and so on. The B-2 was always expected to cost more up front because it was a revolutionary aircraft. But a key feature of its design was a huge reduction in operational costs made possible by stealth technology.

For example, the Air Force plans to equip older, non-stealthy bombers with cruise missiles instead of buying more B-2s. In the near term, that saves money. But air-launched cruise missiles cost $1 million each since they need their own propulsion to penetrate the air defenses that older bombers cannot. The B2 itself penetrates to the target and then drops equally precise glide bombs that cost about $13,000 each. If you multiply these prices by the 40,000 targets attacked in the Desert Storm air war, it turns out that the munitions costs alone of relying on the older bomber would come to $40 billion. The corresponding cost for relying on B-2s would be less than $1 billion.

Of course, the Pentagon says it wouldn't rely just on bombers in future wars; it would also employ hundreds of tactical aircraft operating from regional bases and aircraft carriers. But what if access to regional bases and littoral seas is denied? And even if it isn't, what will be the cost of all those planes, their bases, the aircraft carriers, and the like?

In other words, the near-term economies of terminating B-2 production may be completely overshadowed by the additional defense burdens imposed on future generations of Americans. Furthermore, the greatest burden of all may prove to be a military defeat precipitated by one generation's failure to adequately prepare for the challenges faced by the next.

Loren B. Thompson

Arlington, Va.

Alexis de Tocqueville Institution

Photos that helped win a Pulitzer

"Parting Shots: Photographer Norm Matheny Bids Adieu" (Aug. 13), neglected to mention that Mr. Matheny's work illustrated "Will Success Spoil the National Parks?" the series awarded the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for national news reporting. It's too bad this Pulitzer category doesn't specifically recognize photography. Norm's spectacular photos contributed immeasurably to the series' impact.

Norman has always brought sensitivity and artistry to his work along with the journalistic eye with which he captures just the right images. His courteous, friendly working habits have won many friends for the Monitor over the years.

Robert Cahn

Boulder, Colo.

Editor's note: Mr. Cahn wrote the Pulitzer-winning 1969 series.

Your letters are welcome. Letters should be mailed to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, faxed to 617-450-2317, or e-mailed to oped@csps.com

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