IN the biggest US air attack since the F-117 Stealth fighter slipped into Panama and the F-111 lambasted Libya, Capitol Hill is under assault by the Air Force and Northrop Corporation - the prime contractor for the B-2 Stealth bomber. Last week, the Air Force and Northrop airlifted a squadron of Washington reporters to sunny Palmdale, California, where the B-2 bomber is being assembled. Reporters were appropriately awed and accounts of the tour of Building 401 were eerily similar. Both The Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times, for instance, noted the relative silence on the factory floor as four B-2s, which use advance adhesive seams rather than rivets, were being assembled down below.
The Palmdale junket, however, is only the latest in a series of efforts to woo public opinion and the Congress in favor of the controversial bomber currently estimated to cost $860 million a copy for 75 planes. Northrop and the Air Force have both been lobbying Capitol Hill offices extensively. Visitors to Washington can tell readily if their representative has been hit yet. The Stealth lobbyists leave behind a telltale trace - a mounted scale model of the black, bat-winged bomber.
One Midwestern congressman, as yet undecided about the B-2, glanced sheepishly at the model on his desk. ``I leave it out there so my son can play with it.'' Another target of the Northrop bombardment was even more embarrassed. He admitted receiving a bomber replica from Northrop lobbyists, but he quickly said, ``The model is in the closet.''
Rep. Jim Kolbe, a conservative Republican from Tucson, Arizona, has, like numerous members of Congress, been flown to Palmdale to look at the B-2. But, says Kolbe, ``they aren't too happy with me because I still oppose it anyway.'' Kolbe, a strong defense advocate says, ``the money involved ... isn't worth it.''
Conservative Republican, Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, is the sponsor of an amendment, along with Rep. Ron Dellums (D) of California, and John Rowland (R) of Connecticut, to cancel the B-2 after the 15 models currently underway are completed. Mr. Kasich goes further in criticizing the junkets to Palmdale. At a Capitol Hill press conference two weeks ago Kasich chuckled, ``They offered to fly me out to see the plane. But I told them that I would arrange it so they could fly in to see the Treasury building where they will have to print all the money to pay for it.''
The citizens' campaign against the B-2 has no junkets or trinkets - like a Northrop B-2 mug whose plane disappears when filled with hot coffee - but it has a good chance of beating the B-2 this year. Rep. Jim Slattery, a moderate Democrat who supported the B-2 last year, now spearheads the drive in Congress for the Kasich-Dellums-Rowland amendment.
Slattery has quoted fellow Kansan Dwight Eisenhower on the dangers of the military-industrial-complex, and said: ``I was wrong. I just didn't pay close enough attention last year.'' Now he is making for lost time. Slattery says he's button-holed over 245 members of Congress, urging them to oppose the B-2. And, he says, the Kasich-Dellums-Rowland amendment, which has 145 co-sponsors, is already close to majority support in the House.
So close, in fact, that Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a frequent and vocal defense critic, quipped, ``Northrop and the Air Force must be getting desperate. They even came to see me.''
Humor aside, the stakes in the B-2 battle are high. A single bomber costs more than the entire Head Start program. Northrop, unlike defense industry giants that have diversified, is heavily dependent on military contracts. Hence the B-2 lobbying blitz that recalls earlier notorious propaganda barrages by the Air Force and corporate contractors in favor of the antiballistic missile (ABM) in the late 60s and the B-1 bomber in the 1970s.
The Air Force does admit, however, that the B-2 is not capable of carrying out the mission for which it was originally designed - tracking down and destroying Soviet mobile missiles after the initial exchanges in a nuclear war. Furthermore, that scenario is increasingly unlikely, and disturbing, as the US and Soviets move toward improved relations.
In any case, the US already has a new penetrating bomber, the B-1, completed only a few years ago at a cost of $40 billion after a similar lobbying campaign. Ninety-seven of these sleek, needle-nosed bombers are on duty and will be able to evade Soviet air defenses until the end of the century. Then there is still the B-52 bomber, the venerable star of ``Dr. Strangelove,'' deployed in a number of versions that have been refurbished and usable until 2035. And, say critics of the B-2, both the B-1 and the B-52 can soon be fitted with advanced cruise missiles. They could attack the Soviet Union with accurate nuclear weapons without ever going near air defenses.
As for lesser missions, the Air Force now touts the B-2's ability to bomb countries like Libya. Critics respond that the B-2, like its smaller cousin the Air Force ``Hammer,'' is far too overpriced and blunt an instrument.
Given the Federal budget deficit, the B-2 is beginning instead to look like a candidate for museum missions. It could end up at Wright-Patterson Air Force base which houses the XB-70, another bomber that never got off the ground. Or it could be parked in the Air and Space Museum. Then reporters won't have to be flown in to file stories on how noisy a building full of tourists is compared to the awesome hush they covered at Palmdale, California.