B-1 program looks flak-proof now

The B-1 bomber is here to stay. After more than a decade of controversy that saw it rise from the ashes of a Carter-administration shoot-down and dodge the flak of congressional critics, the sleek new aircraft will blast into the 21st century - despite continuing questions about its cost and usefulness.

The Air Force brags that the B-1 program is running ''under cost and ahead of schedule.'' Indeed, the first operational B-1B will roll off the production line this year six months earlier than planned. With the 34 aircraft included in the Air Force budget for the coming year, more than half the total of 100 B-1s will have been purchased and 80 percent of total program costs (including development) committed, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr told a Senate panel this week.

The Reagan administration is sticking to its assertion that the total program will cost $20.5 billion. But this is in 1981 dollars, so the figure already has climbed nearly $8 billion due to inflation. And many - including the Congressional Budget Office - have said that the Air Force is leaving some costs out of its price tag and that the total could be nearly twice the claimed amount.

Still, it is highly unlikely that Congress will seriously target the B-1 for defense budget cuts, most observers believe.

The aircraft is a classic study in the skills of weapons promoters. With jobs related to the B-1 spread over 48 states, its political clout is impressive, even by the high standards of the so-called military-industrial complex. This is why liberals such as Sens. Alan Cranston (D) of California and Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio like it. Most of the airframe and engines are built in their states.

And because of multiyear contracts won from Congress by the Reagan administration, cutting back or stretching out B-1 production could increase costs due to penalty payments to contractors and less efficient production rates , officials assert.

Reducing the production rate from four aircraft a month to three, says the Air Force's vice-chief of staff, Gen. Lawrence Skantze, could increase program costs by $14 billion. ''With a one-year stretch-out, we'd break all the contracts,'' he said recently.

The perceived military need for a new manned bomber is increasing as well. While the B-52 carries the same weaponry and has had the most modern navigation systems bolted to its aging frame, it cannot penetrate new Soviet air defenses, since it presents a radar image 100 times larger than the B-1B.

With advanced airborne cruise missiles under development, the aircraft leg of the strategic triad (ballistic missiles, submarines, and bombers) will continue to be important. Aircraft are seen as more stable in the nuclear equation, since bombers can be called back once they have been launched on a mission. The Navy and Air Force also have agreed that bombers now will be used to help protect the fleet, so this will give the B-1 another role for its planned service life of 30 years.

In fact, some now are worried that the Air Force may want to build more than 100 B-1s at the expense of the Advanced Technology (''stealth'') Bomber. The new version of the B-1 (the B-1A prototype was halted in 1977 by the Carter administration) incorporates some stealth features that officials say makes it 10 times less ''radar observable'' than the B-1A.

While the stealth-bomber program is highly classified, its estimated total cost is $34 billion at this point, with $4 billion reportedly spent so far. The B-1B is scheduled to make its first test flights in about four years and become operational in 1991, about five years after the B-1.

As with any huge bureaucracy, there are program advocates in the Pentagon competing with one another for the attention and support of key decisionmakers, including members of Congress. And lawmakers have been known to be more enthusiastic about certain weapons than the military. Rep. Joseph P. Addabbo (D) of New York used his influence as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee to have more A-10 attack aircraft built - on Long Island - than the Air Force wanted.

General Skantze acknowledges that there are political problems with shutting down production lines, particularly when it is done abruptly. Forty-eight new B- 1s are planned for 1986, none the following year. And he says that there may be ''an Air Force officer here or there'' who is pushing for more than 100 B-1s.

But at a recent Pentagon briefing, General Skantze insisted that ''from an Air Force program point of view, we have no plans to buy more than 100 B-1Bs.'' And he said ''there is no change in support'' for the stealth bomber.

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