Like a phoenix that almost vanished four years ago, the B-1 bomber is rising again, with new design touches, a new, $200 million price tag, and powerful supporters. And this time, it almost certainly will fly.
Within the next two weeks the Reagan administration is expected to announce a decision on a new US Air Force bomber program, one that will include some form of the B-1, the plane that President Carter rejected as too costly in 1977.
The Air Force is making a strong pitch for the new bomber to replace the aging B- 52s, some of which are more than 20 years old. And the Air Force is seeking money to develop an even more advanced bomber, sometimes called "Stealth ," which could evade radar detection.
The new B-1 would have different wings and electronic equipment from the 1977 version and it would cost twice as much -- about $200 million apiece. Total expense for the B-1 and Stealth projects are estimated at $50 billion to $60 billion.
A spokesman said the Air Force is calling for a B-1 program that would put 15 bombers in service by 1986 and all 100 by 1988. Such a project would likely be unprecedented for a peacetime effort.
Meanwhile, the Air Force would continue to research Stealth technology, which is still on the drawing boards, and aim to put 110 of these advanced planes in the sky by the 1990s.
Both the House and Senate are pushing for some kind of new bomber program, and some Capitol Hill staffers say President Reagan will have little trouble winning approval for the spending. But doubts about the B-1 still linger.
Former Central Intelligence Agency chief Stansfield Turner has lambasted the B-1, calling it obsolete and comparing it with sailing ships that 19th century admirals preferred when they could have had a steam-driven warship.
Mr. Turner, a retired admiral, and other critics see the B-1 as a flying white elephant that would be unable to penetrate the Soviet Union's air space. It is contended by critics opposed to the plane that Soviet radar technology will be so advanced by 1990 that B-1s would have to be retired from "penetration" service and used instead as missile carriers that could launch weapons from remote locations. The Air Force does not dispute that the Soviets could make such radar advances, but contends that these could be countered by "black box" modifications that would once again render the B-1 usable as a penetrator.
Gen. Richard Ellis, who commands the Strategic Air Command, which would use the new bombers, has been an outspoken skeptic. In testimony last February before a congressional subcommittee, he said he preferred to have the advanced Stealth, which could sneak through enemy defenses.
General Ellis has pushed for building a stretched version of an existing Air Force plane, the FB-111, as a less-expensive replacement for the B-52s; but that plan apparently has been scrapped.
One of the B-1's most enthusiastic backers, US Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R) of California, said this week he would be "shocked" if the bomber is not built. The decision now is in its "fine-tuning" stage, said the congressman, in whose district Rockwell International would build most of the parts of the B-1
Mr. Dornan, a former Air Force pilot, flew one of the four prototypes of the B-1 on a six-hour trip and proclaims it "one of the most incredible planes I've ever flown." When the B-1 loses its ability to fly over enemy air space, it will make an excellent missile carrier, he says.
To charges that the bomber soon will be outdated, he pointed to the fact that the Navy wants to dust off its old battleships for service. "As we move into space and see technology go out into space, we can't throw away our basic defense systems," he says. "We still manufacture a rifle."
Some military specialists worry that if the Air Force commits itself to spending billions for the B-1, costs may go up and the budget may be tightened. Then there would be little left for developing the Stealth or for other programs , including the proposed MX missile program and the antiballistic missile system , which is showing some signs of making a comeback.
Dornan countered that he opposes the costly plan to base the MX missiles in the Utah desert. "It wouldn't be so bad to have Stealth three or four years later than planned," he said, since some of the Stealth technology can be applied to the B-1.
Perhaps by the 1990s, tensions will be eased and "maybe we wouldn't need so many Stealths," he said.