Why the B-1 didn't get off the ground four years ago

When Jimmy Carter canceled the B-1 bomber in 1977 he ignored the advice of his defense secretary, national security adviser, and budget director who strongly urged that the aircraft be produced.

This claim is made in a just-published Brookings Institution report on cruise missiles which suggests that the President's decision to equip B-52 bombers with the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), rather than proceed with the B-1 could have been prompted by political considerations.

According to Stephen E. Ockenden and Robert J. Art, co-authors of the report's chapter on the politics of cruise missile development, Defense Secretary Harold Brown ''recommended to the President that he continue production of the B-1.''

In fact, they maintain that Mr. Brown along with national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Budget Director Bert Lance ''strongly urged'' President -Carter to build 70 to 75 of the planes. Noting that the Air Force wanted 244 B- 1s, they observed that such ''curtailed'' production of the bomber would mean slower development of the B-1, a careful look at its costs and capability, as well as impose less-stringent requirements on it for penetration, speed, and range.

Reached at Johns Hopkins University here, where he is a visiting professor of national security affairs, Harold Brown denied he had recommended construction of any ''specific numbers'' of aircraft and called the Reagan administration's decision to resurrect the plane a ''mistake.''

According to a well-placed source, the former defense secretary showed initial interest in a ''stripped down'' version of the B-1, ''but when he realized there was not enough money, he came down clearly for the cruise missile , which is where he stands today.

According to Art and Ockenden, respectively dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., and legislative assistant to Sen. David F. Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, ''political and substantive factors'' lay behind the recommendation made by Brown, Brzezinski, and Lance.

Politically, the two authors observe, some sort of B-1 program would have strengthened President Carter's hand in selling a SALT II accord to the hard-liners in Congress, kept up the pressure on the Russians to negotiate, and lessened the pressure from the Air Force for the MX missile.

''Substantively, reservations about how well a long-range cruise missile would perform, when one had not yet been dropped out of a B-52 and when the guidance problems were still formidable, made total reliance on an unproved weapon look too risky,'' they observe.

A more modest B-1, built at a more modest rate,would have enabled Jimmy Carter ''to give the Air Force a new bomber, but also to say that he had kept his campaign promise (having) changed the program with respect to both cost and capability,'' the authors note. But the President's opposition to the B-1 ''had become the political symbol of his attitude toward defense spending,'' they observe. Indeed, the chief executive may even have had an ''ingrained dislike'' of the plane, they add. By contrast, he was ''impressed with the promised performance'' of the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).

On June 30, 1977 President Carter canceled production of the B-1 and ordered that development of the long-range ALCM be speeded up. ''Whether politics per se decided the fate of the B-1 remains unclear,'' write Art and Ockenden. ''What is clear is that the case between the long-range ALCM and the B-1 was so close that politics could have decided it.''

They add that none of the President's advisers recommended buying 244 B-1s at a cost of at least $30 billion. ''Each was highly skeptical of the Air Force's cost estimates and did not trust its assurances about the long-term ability of the B-1 to penetrate the likely improvements in Russian air defenses.''

Specifically they feared that the Soviets, using high-speed computers, might be able to triangulate the electromagnetic energy emitted by the B-1's electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment and pinpoint its location. According to one Pentagon source, who asked not to be identified, the Soviets currently have the ability to detect such electromagnetic energy, raising serious doubts about the B-1's ability to penetrate Soviet air defenses.

The 612-page Brookings Institution report in which Art and Ockenden make their claims asserts that US cruise missile policy is ''a bucket of worms.'' Observes its editor, Richard K. Betts: ''Neither the benefits nor the disadvantages of cruise missiles are as revolutionary or as simple as either advocates or opponents originally believed.''

In a press release accompanying publication of the report the Brookings Institution declares: ''Cruise missile programs are rushing forward without a well-defined conception of why some of the models are needed, without an understanding of their full significance, and without a clear assessment of whether other weapons systems might be better choices for performing some of the missions envisioned for cruise missiles.''

The Brookings Institution claims that ''no one knows for certain how many cruise missiles the United States should buy for military purposes or how many it should give up for political purposes.'' It asserts that US defense analysts must find answers to these questions ''if arms control is to be the 'giant step' President Reagan proclaimed in his (recent) speech.''

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