THE most expensive big-ticket items in the United States military budget are ``penetration bombers.'' A ``penetration'' bomber is a plane designed to be able to penetrate deep inside an enemy country. The US has two such planes under construction now: the B-1, which is a low-flying, conventional plane, and the ``Stealth,'' or B-2, which is supposed to be almost invisible to enemy radar.
Cutting out these two weapons would not balance the federal budget, but it would help - a lot.
And so the question is, why not scrap them?
Let us take the B-1 first. The third of these superplanes has just crashed. They are having trouble with the flying controls.
Something else is amiss. It has just been admitted that its ``counter-electronic-equipment'' is not working. To fix that equipment would cost an estimated $25 billion. But without the equipment the plane would be unable to penetrate enemy airspace, because that particular equipment is what should be able to let it avoid enemy detection.
One B-1 bomber costs roughly $250 million. If it is unable to ``penetrate'' enemy territory, it can still be used for flying outside the enemy defense barrier and launching unpiloted ``cruise'' missiles, which can zero in on any fixed enemy target just as well as a manned bomber can.
But the same cruise missiles could be launched as easily from an ordinary plane with sufficient flying range.
Obsolete passenger planes can be refitted at little expense. To use the B-1 at $1 billion a copy to ferry cruise missiles would make it ``the most expensive bus'' ever built.
The B-2 is the much-publicized Stealth bomber, which in theory presents so little surface-to-enemy-radar that presumably it can go where it pleases in enemy airspace. But it costs $500 million a copy, and has yet to fly.
Why spend this kind of money on ``penetration'' bombers? What could these do, if they ever got a chance to ``penetrate,'' which could not be done as well by an unpiloted cruise drone?
Two arguments are advanced for having a ``penetration'' bomber. One is that since it is manned by a living pilot, it can be called back up to the last moment if the high command changes its mind. The other is that the pilot could go chasing after mobile enemy missiles.
But the mobile enemy missiles could be launched as soon as the chase began, so what use is there in chasing the launcher once the missile is gone? And ballistic and cruise missiles can be fitted with self-destructing devices that could be used up to the time of reaching the target.
The fact that the US is building B-1s and is on the threshold of going into production on B-2s has probably caused the Soviets to spend a lot of money on improving their radar defenses. But that is hardly a sufficient reason to justify the hideous prices of these two weapons.
The real continuing reason for having long-range bombers capable, at least in theory, of penetrating enemy air defenses is to provide a continuing justification for maintaining a separate Air Force. Without a long-range bombing mission, what roles are left for the Air Force?
Army, Navy, and Marines all insist now on having their own tactical air support. The planes they have are capable of medium-range bombing. And ground technicians man the long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles. You don't need pilots capable of flying big bombers to pull the trigger on ground-launched missiles.
The big ``penetration'' bomber is the last justification for the separate Air Force.
Add that there has been a vast change in the Soviet-US relationship. Does the US really need the most expensive weapons ever designed for a war that will probably not occur, and to perform a military task that can be done for much less money by unmanned weapons of either the ballistic or cruise variety?
If President-elect George Bush wants to cut the military budget, here is a promising place to start.