Hush and Howl Surround B-2 Bomber Program

In the California desert, the quiet assembly of a `Tupperware Plane' - a letter from Palmdale

THE first thing you notice is the quiet. The usual sounds of aircraft building - the staccato bursts from rivet guns, the whir of grinders against metal, the crimping of aluminum wings - are absent. This is because much of the plane isn't metal but high-tech, radar-evading plastic - a fact that once earned it the nickname the ``Tupperware plane.''

The scene is Building 401 at a United States Air Force site in the high California desert, where Northrop Corporation does final work on the B-2 bomber, perhaps the most expensive and one of the most controversial planes ever built.

The Air Force and Northrop invited reporters in for a rare glimpse of the stealth bomber this week, not to impress them with the hush on the assembly floor but to try to still the noise outside.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are going through their annual ritual of drawing up a defense budget, and in an age of deficits and declining East-West tensions the B-2 bomber is one of the most contested of the Pentagon's new weapons systems. Critics contend the stingray-like planes, which could cost more than $860 million each, are an extravagance the country cannot afford. But supporters see the aircraft as essential to keeping the Soviets and their still-formidable nuclear arsenal at bay well into the next century.

With action on defense bills expected soon, the politicking has been picking up on both sides. Last week the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, began running anti-B-2 commercials on TV. Supporters tried to make points this week with their show-and-tell session here amid the Joshua trees and greasewood.

Actually, there was more telling than showing. Reporters were ushered into the one-million-square-foot building where final assembly on the B-2 is done. The vantage point was a balcony. It was a little like standing on an overlook at the Grand Canyon: The general landscape is visible, in this case four B-2s in varying states of assembly, but details are more difficult to make out.

At a briefing in another building, this one where B-2 engines are tested and nets hang from the ceiling to catch anything that might shake loose, Pentagon officials reiterated confidence in the plane's ability to foil Soviet radar.

They argued that the batwing design and special composite materials that make up the skin of the aircraft will absorb or deflect so much radar energy that even if the Soviets were to spot one they couldn't track it and shoot it down.

An element of faith, though, is involved in these assessments: They are based on tests, albeit 100,000 of them, of models and component parts of the plane. Radar won't be bounced off a full plane until this fall.

Still, after 10 years of trying, ``nobody has been able to develop an effective or affordable way to defeat Stealth,'' says Kent Kresa, Northrop's chief executive officer.

Officials sought to boost the bomber's image. Brig. Gen. William Davitte, Air Force special assistant for strategic modernization, compares the plane's versatility to Bo Jackson, the athlete. He says it could be used for strategic and conventional missions.

But he notes that there is only one real purpose for the plane: deterring nuclear war. The US's current fleet of bombers, he says, will not be able to penetrate the Soviet's air defense system by the turn of the century. As for the cost of the plane, officials cast it as an ``investment'' in long-term security.

The price tag of each B-2 will depend in part on how many are ultimately ordered. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recently proposed building 75 instead of 132 B-2 bombers. The Pentagon projects that will cost $62 billion, about $815 million a plane.

Some critics in Congress want to stop the program at 15, the number of B-2s currently under construction. Air Force officials counter that, with the money already invested, it would cost $35 billion to shut the program down early, resulting in both an ``ineffective'' and expensive bomber fleet ($2.4 billion per plane).

Supporters would rather talk about the program's technological advances and the performance of the one B-2 that has flown so far than about sticker shock. Northrop officials believe the manufacturing and technological breakthroughs involved in developing the plane will ``revolutionize defense capability'' and lift US aerospace competitiveness in general.

Some of the unusual techniques involved in making the plane are evident in Building 401. While workers scamper about the planes, hundreds of others sit quietly at computers on the production floor. They study configurations and track parts that have come in from 4,000 subcontractors in 46 states.

Commenting on the absence of typical factory-floor din, one observer says ``You could hear a phone ring in here.''

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