Air Force is a step closer to getting B-1

The B-1 bomber now looks certain to be emblazoned with the US Air Force insignia. The House of Representatives approved funds for the sleek, new aircraft when it passed a $197.4 billion defense appropriations bill Nov. 18. The Senate is expected to act in similar fashion this week.

By a 263-to-142 vote, the House scotched an attempt by Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D) of New York to cut out most of the $2.4 billion earmarked for the bomber. Built by Rockwell International, the plane can carry conventional and nuclear bombs as well as 30 cruise missiles.

Representative Addabbo, chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, argues that there is insufficient money to build the B-1 and the ''Stealth'' or advanced technology bomber (ATB) that eventually will replace it. Cost estimates for the B-1 program range from $20 billion by the Pentagon to $40 billion by the Congressional Budget Office.

Air Force chiefs long have wanted to replace the aging B-52 bombers with the B-1. But President Carter halted plans for the B-1's full-scale production in 1977. Instead, he chose to rely on ''standoff bombers'' - B-52Gs armed with long-range cruise missiles.

The crucial task facing any bomber pitted against the Soviet Union is the penetration of increasingly formidable air defenses - radars, missiles, and interceptor aircraft. US Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger claims the B-52 will be unable to penetrate that shield beyond the end of 1985.

But CIA analyst Robert M. Huffstutler told the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee Oct. 28 that ''there would be practically no difference'' in the ability of B-52s and B-1s to pierce Soviet air defenses.

The Pentagon promptly counterattacked, fearing its rationale for seeking 100 B-1 bombers would be destroyed. ''The CIA was talking about the wrong B-1,'' says Mr. Weinberger. The new aircraft, the B-1B, carries more advanced defenses than the original, the Pentagon insists - thus enabling it to reach Soviet targets more easily. Rockwell says the radar cross section of the B-1B will be one-tenth that of the B-1 and one-hundredth that of the B-52. Weinberger says the B-1B will be able to penetrate Soviet air defenses ''well into the 1990s.''

Jumping from the B-52 to the ATB would be risky in the Air Force's view because the ATB is in its research and development stages. Weinberger has said that the first ATB could be completed in 1989. Rockwell says it could have 100 B-1s in USAF livery by 1988.

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