Flak over B-1 bombers may serve as lesson for Rumsfeld

Senate opposition builds to proposed cutback of fleet, reminding defense secretary of need to build coalitions.

It is one of the most contentious weapons ever developed. More than three stories high, with a wingspan one-third the length of a football field, the B-1 bomber is one of the workhorses of the US nuclear arsenal.

But ever since it was first conceived during the Eisenhower administration, the huge aircraft has been alternatively supported and opposed by Congress.

Now, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's plans to reduce the B-1 fleet by one-third, it is again stirring a fundamental debate - this time over jobs versus weapons spending.

Opposition is building among several senators whose states would be most affected by the cutbacks. Their resistance symbolizes the type of tough decisions facing Rumsfeld as he tries to reorganize the military in an era of limited funding - and raises questions about his political style.

Indeed, one thing the defense secretary needs to do in the future, experts say, is take Congress into his confidence much earlier if he expects its support. And instead of zeroing in on just one weapons system, he should present a comprehensive plan that discusses all weapons cuts at once, putting them in the context of planned improvements. "Piecemeal cuts [like the B-1] are harder to sell than shared sacrifice," says military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

But even under the best of circumstances, major overhaul of the military, such as Rumsfeld is planning, will be a hard sell to Congress. Some existing weapons and military bases will be scrapped, with a consequent loss of jobs in many states and congressional districts. That doesn't include the question of the military wisdom of the proposed changes.

It seems fitting that the disagreement currently centers around the B-1, a weapon whose usefulness has been constantly debated. After President Carter killed the bomber in the late 1970s, President Reagan resuscitated it as a nuclear bomb-toting plane able to penetrate improved Soviet air defenses. It was something that the B-1's predecessor, the workhorse B-52, probably could no longer do.

Today the United States has 93 of the huge B-1 planes. But are they useful now that the Soviet Union is no longer around to menace America? Not for their original purpose of obliterating large areas around Soviet targets with powerful bombs.

But many B-1s have been, or can be, fitted with more varied weaponry. In addition, many military analysts believe that any future enemy would try to negate conventional airplane power by hitting nearby airbases. Under such circumstances, the thinking goes, the US would need bombers based many miles away, capable of delivering a lot of explosive power to targets. The B-1 fills that bill.

What makes it militarily controversial, however, is that it cannot carry as powerful an explosive load as the older B-52, but it is much more expensive to operate. It also lacks the radar-evading capabilities another land-based bomber, the B-2. "It's arguably the least useful aircraft in the bomber fleet," says Robert Martinage, senior defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Rumsfeld wants to save money by getting rid of 30 bombers, keeping the remaining 63 and reorganizing them on bases in only two states, rather than five.

Leading the opposition are senators from the three states that would lose B-1s - Georgia, Kansas and Idaho. These six are accused of objecting for political reasons, but they point out that the two states in which the B-1s would be concentrated are Texas and South Dakota - which happen to be the home states of the president and the Senate's majority leader.

The senators want the supplemental appropriations bill, now in Senate-House conference, to forbid Rumsfeld from transferring B-1s from their states. At their behest, the Senate added such a prohibition to its version of the bill, but it wasn't in the House version. If that effort fails, they vow to find another legislative vehicle.

Their campaign has another purpose as well: The senators want to send Rumsfeld a message about the importance of communicating with Congress. It's a lesson unlikely to be missed by the Pentagon, which has already admitted it erred in surprising the senators with the B-1 cutback.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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