Bomber's Future Hangs in Balance

Successful test flight doesn't comfort a Congress wary of B-2 program's $8 billion-a-year cost. STICKER SHOCK

IN recent months the B-2 bomber has developed a problem which has rocked the program: its price tag. Newly declassified B-2 ``Stealth'' cost data have been giving people sticker shock all over Washington. It's the main reason anti-B-2 sentiment has sprouted with surprising suddenness on Capitol Hill this budget season. The plane's first successful test flight Monday isn't likely to help: After the flight leading members of Congress welcomed the event but added that the plane still must clear the ``checkbook hurdle.''

Buying a bomber is not as straightforward as buying a dehumidifier. There are different ways of expressing the B-2's cost, resulting in a cacophonous and often confusing argument.

Consider the estimated price for one B-2. The Pentagon, which has an interest in making the plane look as cheap as possible, cites a figure known as ``flyaway cost.'' This reflects what it would cost to build one bomber once the production line is up and running.

Flyaway cost for a single Stealth bomber is $274 million, measured in today's dollars. The Air Force says this is comparable with other large modern airplanes. Flyaway cost for a B-1 is $228 million. A 747 jetliner costs about $140 million.

But B-2 opponents, who have an interest in making the plane look more expensive, say a different measure, ``total cost'', more accurately reflects the taxpayer burden of one B-2. Among other things, this adds the research and development costs it took to set up the B-2 production line in the first place. Because the plane is at the cutting edge of technology, these costs are considerable, totalling $22 billion to date.

The total cost of a single Stealth bomber is about $520 million. That unit cost is comparable not to airplanes, but to warships. It's about half the cost of a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

Current plans call for eventual purchase of 132 B-2s. ``Total program cost'' - the price of the whole B-2 fleet - is $70.2 billion.

But it isn't the cost per plane, or even the total $70 billion price of the program, that has most affected Congress. Because lawmakers wrangle over the defense budget every year, it's yet another figure, ``annual cost'', that they pay most attention to.

The Pentagon hopes to spend $7 billion to $8 billion a year on the program when the production line is in full swing in the mid-'90s. That would make the B-2 the biggest single line item ever in the defense budget.

``You just can't sell that,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Following the Monday's flight, he noted that while the bomber had begun the long process to answer technical questions, ``the B-2 has still another hurdle to clear - the checkbook hurdle.''

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are seeking to reduce the B-2 budget in 1990 by $800 million and $300 million respectively. Yet if Congress cuts spending for the program during full-production years, the total unit cost would skyrocket. Lowering the B-2 budget to $4 billion annually in the '90s would boost each plane's sticker price to $725 million, Mr. Aspin says.

The Pentagon replies that the B-2 will take a smaller slice of the defense budget than the B-1. During its acquisition, the B-1 took up 1.6 percent of military spending. The B-2 would take up 1.3 percent, according to the Air Force.

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