Stifle the Stealth

IN an age of relatively cheap and incredibly accurate missiles, in an age of deficits gone ballistic, in an age of historic possibilities in superpower disarmament, does it make any sense at all for the United States to buy a half-billion dollar attack airplane of questionable purpose and unproven ability? On all counts - strategic doctrine and stability, program cost, and diplomacy - the short answer has to be no. The B-2 Stealth bomber costs too much, and its main job - preventing or carrying out major conflict - can be done by other weapons.

The United States already has plenty of very accurate and powerful ballistic missiles (especially those on submarines), plus ships and older bombers armed with low-flying nuclear cruise missiles, to respond with unacceptably deadly consequences to any Soviet attack. ``Mutual Assured Destruction'' is an awful thing to base national security on. But it's worked so far and will continue to work without the B-2 until true arms reduction is accomplished.

The world is moving into a paradoxical era when weaponry becomes highly sophisticated and extremely expensive while any wars are more likely to be ``low-intensity'' and ``unconventional'' rather than all-out. This makes it all the more difficult to justify a relatively slow-speed and cumbersome bomber like the B-2, even given all its high-tech goodies.

At the same time, the possibilities for radar-evading technology and the $22 billion investment already made argue against totally shooting down Stealth.

The worst thing, as Defense Secretary Richard Cheney says, is to stretch out the program. That shaves annual costs but wastes even more money in the long run.

Congressman John Kasich has a better idea: Build 13 B-2's instead of the 132 planned by the Air Force (enough ``to achieve a mature production line''), then put the plant in mothballs.

Assuming it continues to fly without mishap - flight test records for the F-19 Stealth fighter and B-1 bomber, which uses some stealth technology, are not that great - the B-2 could be used to develop radar-evading capabilities for cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft. And someday the bat-winged behemoth could be necessary to national security.

But $70 billion is far too much to spend on ``someday'' and ``could.'' Stealth needs to be stifled for now.

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