Hour after hour, day after day, the sturdy B-52 bombers of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) thunder down their far-flung runways and roar into the skies -- as they have done now for over two decades. The bombers form the backbone of the air wing of the US strategic deterrent, along with land- based ICBMs and sea-launched missiles.* Now, the new Reagan administration argues that the warhorse B-52 are increasingly vulnerable to Soviet air defenses and that the US must immediately begin development of a new force of advanced (nuclear-bomb-carrying) long-range bombers that will be capable of penetrating Soviet air defenses right into the 21st century.
For the American public, the question of whether or not to develop a new manned bomber will involve costly -- and crucial -- military and political tradeoffs. The administration's initial request for $2.5 billion in the fiscal year 1982 budget would be only the tip of the budget wing in an enormous weapons program that could eventually reach well in excess of $18 billion by the mid- 1980's. These are monies that will be lost to budget-starved civilian programs, as well as to such needed Pentagon initiatives as upgrading manpower and recruitment benefits.
Nor must it be forgotten that the military traditionally wants all that it can get in the way of weaponry, whether the need be actual or illusive, and no matter how difficult it is to absorb the new hardware. The Spinney Report, for example, now being widely discussed in military circles (put out by a civillian analyst for the Defense Department) comes to the startling conclusion that the more the US spends on overly sophisticated weapons systems (aircraft in particular), the less able it is to wage effective warfare.
The reason for this is that such systems are subject to numerous technical "glitches" and thus are often out of service, tend to be more dependent on replacement parts, and require larger numbers of skilled operational manpower that can usually be recruited into a vounteer military establishment.
On the other hand, in the eyes of senior Pentagon officials; not to build a new bomber could endanger the nation's security in the next decade or so.
What alternatives do beleaguered American taxpayers face, as they attempt to wade their way through the crosscurrents of claims and counterclaims that will mark and intense congressional haggling over the bomber question? There are essentially five:
* Develop the B-1 bomber cancelled by President Carter in 1977 but kept alive over the years by federal research funding. Research and development costs of the B-1, which has a supersonic "dash" capability, have already come to almost $ 6 billion. Four prototypes of the B-1 have been built.
* Develop a less-costly "cut-down" subsonic derivative of the B-1 incoporating the technology of that original prototype.
*111 to fill a penetration bomber role.
* Develop the top-secret Stealth aircraft technology (designed to escape radar and other detection methods) as quickly as possible, with the hope of having Stealth bombers in operation by the late 1980's or early 1980's.* The cost of a full-scale program is not known, given the secrecy surrounding the technology. Nor is it certain that such aircraft could be operational by 1990, or sooner.
* Continue the Carter administration approach of modifying existing B-52 bombers to serve as a "standoff force" that would fly astride the borders of the Soviet Union (or other potential adversaries) equipped with air-launched cruise missiles (ALC,s). In other words, while many B-52s would still be assigned a "penetration-bomber" role, the primary emphasis would be on using the B- 52s as "carriers" of cruise missiles, which would then themselves adopt the "penetration" role.
While top Pentagon officials do not like to overly trumpet the fact -- given the growing political support for a new bomber -- they are in fact highly impressed with the continuing performance of the B-52 (which has been substantially modernized in recent years with a new wing, new avionics, and so on), and concede that it could serve adequately through the remainder of this century.
Although the above are the theoretical options facing US taxpayers and Congress, it must not be overlooked that in great part the alternatives are already being narrowed by political and economic considerations. While the administration has indicated it will not reach a decision on which bomber to go with until later this year, probably in June, the Pentagon has already suggested that it favors a B-1 subsonic variant or an adaptation of the FB-111. The B-1, for its part, is now incorporating an array of advanced technologies.
Stretching the FB-111, a course that has been favored by top officers of SAC, would easily be the least costly of these two alternatives in immediate dollar terms. The plane, as noted, already exists and could serve as the backup of the B-52 until the Stealth bomber comes into production in the 1990s. Estimates for refurbishing the aircraft run from $6 billion to $7 billion, compared to more than double that for the cheapest B-1 variant. The ultimate cost, including operating and tanker expenses, would likely be much more however, bringing total outlays close to the dollar projections for the B-1.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against the FB-111 is that given the huge outlays involved it might be economically sounder to commit funds directly either for the B-1 of Stealth. The FB-111, after all, is an "older" technology, a "child of the 1960s." The plane would also carry a smaller nuclear
One factor that lawmakers will want to weigh carefuly is whether the US has the "time" to await development of the more technologically advanced Stealth bomber. The answer seems in part to depend on the stability of the other two les of the US nuclear triad in the mid'80s. If a decision on the MX mobile missile is delayed, would the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad be "endangered"? Also, the Trident submarine program has been experiencing major problems, ranging from delays to structural difficulties.
If the ICBM or the submarine arms of the triad are in any way vulnerable or weakened, that would seem to provide justification for the US moving ahead as quickly as possible on either developing the FB-111 option, or going ahead with the B-1. At least one arm of the triad would remain unquestionably secure through this decade.
A potent bomber force would be a reasonable alternative to a vastly more costly (and highly questionable) land-based MX system. Moreover, it must be stressed that the nuclear-equipped bomber, unlike the land or sea-launcehd missile, provides maximum tactical flexibility. Besides carrying a wide assortment of weapons, the aircraft can be recalled from its target or redirected to a new target as a military situation develops.
Tget restraints, will lie in ensuring that its important manned bomber force has the precise mix of aircr aft.