Why would an aircraft company still be singing the praises of a big, sleek bomber that Jimmy Carter shot out of the sky four years ago? Quite simply Rockwell International has never believed that its B-1 would be trundled off prematurely to an aviation museum like its predecessor, the B-70, scraped after a Soviet missile brought down Gary Powers and his U-2 in 1960, apparently sounding the death knell of high-altitude bombers.
Rockwell's faith in the swing-wing B-1, which can fly at more than twice the speed of sound, soon may be rewarded with humming production lines. According to informed congressional sources, the Reagan administration is expected to order the aircraft in one form or another to replace the nation's force of aging B-52 bombers.
Late last year Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported that the President-elect's defense advisers were urging him to order production of 100 B- 1s by 1985, which could earn Rockwell and its subconstractors $11 billion.
In a decision for which he was excoriated by Republicans, President Carter canceled planned production of the B-1 bomber on June 30, 1977, asserting that new air- launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) carried aboard B-52 bombers would stand a much better chance of penetrating Soviet air defenses than the B-1 -- and at much less cost. Assigning this "stand-off" role to the B-52G, the Carter administration allotted the task of penetrating heavily defended Soviet airspace to B-52Ds, B-52Hs and FB-111A bombers equipped with advanced avionics and such air-to-surface weaponry as short- range attack missiles (SRAMs).
William Perry, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has claimed that the penetration capability of the ALCM, which is scheduled to be deployed on a squadron of B-52Gs in December 1982, "will assure the effectiveness of the strategic bomber force into the future."
But many have their doubts. In a Heritage Foundation study released last August, analyst Jeffrey Barlow asserted that the Boeing ALCM "is not the wonder weapon that some . . . have been claiming it to be," pointing out that it has no electric countermeasures (ECM) equipment to conceal it from "look-down" radars aboard Soviet airborne warning and control aircraft. He adds that the B-52, is a high-altitude penetrator than can be readily spotted by Soviet radars. Its slow speed makes it a likely target for soviet fighters. At low altitudes the B-52 suffers from severe air turbulence, Mr. Barlow adds.
In deciding to produce the Rockwell International B-1, research and development for which already has cost $5.9 billion, Defense Secretary-designate Caspar Weinberger could choose the original aircraft; a B-1 strategic ALCM launcher, known s the B-1/SAL; or the b-1 strategic weapons launcher, known as the B-1/SWL. Of the three, the latter is thought to be the least attractive proposition, chiefly because it would lack a supersonic capability.
Last year the New York-based National Strategy Information Center suggested in a study that the B-1 could be built in several versions "with much common tooling and . . . savings on the common engines, wings . . . most of the fuselage, landing gear, and some of the avionics." Calling for prompt reinstatement of the B-1 program, it pointed out that a manned bomber is recallable, whereas intercontinental ballistic missiles are not.
In a report published last summer, a group of congressional defense staffers concluded that the B-1/SAL with its "high subsonic speeds at sea level and . . . supersonic capability at altitude" could make it "a preferred choice."
Hinting perhaps that the original B-1 might be less attractive today, the Republican Party platform calls for a manned bomber that builds on the B-1's technology. But Jeffrey Barlow favors the original aircraft.
The Air Force is divided on the B-1 issue. Strategic Air Command (SAC), which controls the nation's bomber force, along with the Air Force's Systems Command and Logistics Command favors the FB-111B/C, the designation for a "streched" version of General Dynamics's F-111 that would carry more fuel, weaponry, and ECM gear. SAC's commander, Gen. Richard Ellis, would like the aircraft because he feels it would be ready sooner and cost less than the B-1. He maintains that the cost of the "stretch" would be $5.5 billion, whereas a restarted B- 1 program would cost $12.5 billion. But the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Lew Allen, would far rather have the B-1. It is a better aircraft, he contends, besides offering "substantial conventional capability that would be important for force projection."
According to Mr. Barlow, the FB-111B/C would carry a smaller . . . payload than the B-1 and would lack some of its design advantages." Concedes an Air Force spokesman: "The FB-111B/C is an immediate, short- range fix."
The Pentagon is currently finishing a study on the best choice for a new strategic warplane requested by Congress, which called for the deployment of a "multirole bomber not later than 1987." All the options are being looked at, according to the Air Force, including the much-hullaballooed "Stealth" bomber. But the congressional deadline is thought to rule out the "invisible" wonder-weapon.
The new administration is not expected to make any decisions until it has mulled over the bomber report. Indeed, Mr. Weinberger is reportedly planning to deliberate on the B-1 and other decisions so he can assess their impact both on strategic programs generally and on SALT.
The overriding question concerning a manned, penetrating bomber for the 1980s is: Can it breach the Soviet Union's increasingly formidable air defenses?In a chaotic wartime situation it would probably stand a good chance, some observers feel. "Ground radars are going to have been attacked by the various ICBMs and SLBMs [submarine- launched ballistic missiles]," says an expert. "I think a number of piper cubs could get through in that situation."
But outgoing Defense Secretary Harold Brown still believes that the decision to proceed with cruise missiles rather than with the B-1 was "a correct one." He cautions that whatever bomber is chosen, it will "have to be able to penetrate well into the 21st century and that will require very special capabilities in the light of expected Soviet air defense capabilities."
Rockwell International, which built four B-1s and has never ceased to test them, is watching developments closely. It could resume B-1 work "immediately" says a spokesman.