The radar-avoiding Stealth bomber is still one of the Pentagon's best-kept secrets. No one without access to classified information really knows what it looks like, how it will perform - or whether it is a well-managed project. Some key members of Congress who do have access to secret data feel the Stealth program should be kept on a tighter leash. They want to head off the possibility of its being damaged by the poor management they feel has plagued another Air Force bomber, the newly operational B-1B.
For Stealth ``to be a complete success the lessons learned from the B-1B experience must be applied,'' Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argued in a speech last week.
Congressman Aspin says he thinks that competition between contractors might be one way to keep Stealth, known officailly as the Advanced Technology Bomber, on track. He and Rep. Samuel Stratton (D) of New York are sponsoring a provision in the defense authorization bill that would require the Air Force to figure out a method for introducing such competition into the Stealth program.
The provision suggests three possibilities Air Force planners could study: hiring of a large company such as Rockwell International to simply study how the main contractor, Northrop Corporation, is doing on the program; having an annual competition between contractors to win the rights to do final Stealth assembly and checkout; or, in the most drastic option, to try to interest another company besides Northrop in acquiring the equipment needed to produce the whole airplane.
Mr. Aspin and Mr. Stratton also want the Air Force to send Congress a number of annual reports detailing progress on the bomber.
The purpose of this move is to make sure lawmakers aren't surprised if something goes wrong, as many feel they were with the B-1B, which has run into troubles with its defensive electronics.
Gen. Larry Welch, Air Force chief of staff, says getting another company and some competition into the program is an idea worth looking at.
``The Air Force has had some good experience with contractor competition in other programs,'' he said at a May 1 breakfast meeting with reporters.
But he cautioned that the sorts of military products best produced by competing companies are those that are produced in relatively large quantities - as bombers are not. He also said it would be very expensive for another contractor to install the tooling necessary to become a second source for Stealth.
General Welch said the cost of developing the bomber has been greater than expected. He declined to confirm reports that these unexpected costs have run as high as $1 billion.
Welch said that these extra development costs will be earned back when the plane starts rolling off the factory line, because by spending the money now the Air Force has made production of the plane cheaper.
``There is no indication at this time of an increase in overall program costs,'' the general said.