B-2 Folly: A Plane We Don't Need

The House Armed Services Committee's decision to delete production funds for the B-2 bomber in its version of the 1991 Defense Authorization bill is a big step forward in the battle to kill this billion-dollar boondoggle. The fight to terminate the B-2 now shifts to the Senate where the defense authorization bill for 1991 is debated by the full Senate this week. Unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the defense spending plan the Senate will consider and our new defense needs. The Senate Armed Services Committee made an important start in cutting $18 billion from the Pentagon's $306 billion budget request. However, there is much more that needs to be done. As we reshape our force structure to respond to the diminishing threat, we have a unique opportunity to make deeper cuts.

As Sen. Sam Nunn, the committee chairman, noted in his speeches on defense spending, the Pentagon provided us with a defense budget whose thinking is more than two years old. Before we can make significant changes in our approach to defense, someone needs to tell the Pentagon what the rest of the world now knows: The cold war is over.

A perfect example of the outdated thinking still emanating from the Pentagon is the desperate campaign to keep the B-2 ``stealth'' bomber alive. The Air Force has gone on the offensive, organizing strategy sessions, selectively releasing information, and even sending the F-117 A stealth fighter to Panama last December, despite its lack of significant air defenses.

Yet, support for this $860 million apiece folly (not to mention operating costs) has eroded as more information about the B-2 program is revealed. Beyond the sticker-price shock there are serious questions about what this plane contributes, if anything, to our overall military capability.

Our nuclear deterrent is robust without the B-2. We've just spent more than $27 billion to modernize the bomber leg of our nuclear triad, buying 100 fully capable B-1 bombers. Air Force Logistics Command says our fleet of B-52s can fly into the 2030s.

The argument that the B-2, with its potential radar-evading capability, will force the Soviets to invest vast sums to upgrade their air defenses flies in the face of reality. The Soviets can't divert funds to defense before responding to domestic needs.

The B-2 is a plane in search of a mission. Originally envisioned as a system to seek out Soviet mobile missiles in the unlikely event of a protracted nuclear war, Air Force officials have not backtracked, testifying to Congress that, ``attacking highly mobile targets is neither the reason for the B-2 nor is it likely to be accomplished with great efficiency in the near to mid-term future.''

Recent efforts to promote the B-2 for conventional missions such as sea surveillance aren't serious. Why risk a B-2 on a conventional mission?

I HAVE been troubled by statements of defense officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about an inability to support the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) without B-2. All too often we've had to promise the services a new weapon system in order to have their support for an arms reduction treaty. The irony of proceeding full speed ahead on nuclear modernization programs at a time we are striving to reduce nuclear arsenals is clear.

Without the B-2, we still have 8,000 nuclear warheads under the START treaty.

Over $30 billion has been invested in the B-2 program and the development of radar-evading stealth technology. What many fail to realize, however, is that the B-2 has yet to be tested against radar. We have no idea if this technology works! Even if one accepted the case for buying this plane, we would be violating one of the most basic tenets of defense procurement - ``fly before you buy.'' Production has been delayed for this very reason. The decision to buy two more B-2s before we know what this plane can and can't do is folly.

Secretary Cheney's decision earlier this year to scale back the B-2 program from 132 planes to 75 underscores the fact that we do not need the B-2 - not 132, not 75. The 15 planes now in production are enough.

The vast majority of funds for the B-2 program are spent in my state of California. If we are to change our way of operating in Washington, and stop treating the defense budget like a jobs program, we are going to have to make sacrifices, even at home.

It is incumbent upon us to reexamine our commitment to spend billions on weapons that may no longer be relevant. The Warsaw Pact is dead, but the behemoth bureaucracy at the Pentagon is making only a halfhearted attempt to reflect this reality.

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