B-2 Bomber Runs Into Turbulence

'Small flaw' adds to congressional doubts, seen in close Senate vote to continue program

AT $64 billion for a planned 75-plane program, no one has ever said the B-2 Stealth bomber was going to be cheap. But few questions have been raised about the bat-winged B-2's ability to slip unnoticed through searching radar waves - until now.What the Air Force says is a small technical flaw revealed in recent B-2 radar tests is becoming a major political problem for the Pentagon. Critics say the flaw is further evidence of why the B-2 is a bad buy in the post-cold war era. But the Air Force insists the test problem has been blown way out of proportion. Debate about the plane's future has intensified in Congress, while generals scurry to Capitol Hill for secret briefings and even sympathetic lawmakers say the controversy endangers the plane's funding. The United States Senate on Wednesday voted by a narrow margin - 51 to 48 - to continue work on the B-2 at least until next spring. Critics of the bomber program want to end production after 15 planes are built. It was the closest call so far in the Senate, which in August voted 57 to 42 to continue B-2 production. The US House has voted to terminate B-2 production after the 15 now on order are delivered. The B-2 "is the world's most capable bomber. It is the world's most survivable bomber," says Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, US Air Force Chief of Staff. Three early models of the B-2 are undergoing tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California. As part of this regimen, engineers are making hundreds of different kinds of measurements of the planes' observability on radar, according to Pentagon officials.

Radar snapshots taken Small radar snapshots of the B-2 are being taken from many different angles, for example. Different kinds of frequencies are being used to mimic the different kinds of radars the B-2 might run into - fire control radars, search radars, and the like. Computer simulation predicts what each one of these many measurements will be. The reported test failure occurred in July, when one measurement didn't improve as engineers thought it would after they had made some modifications to the airplane. It's the fact that they don't quite understand what happened, as much as the actual failure of the measurement, that concerns those involved in the testing. The Air Force moved quickly to defuse any controversy, explaining the problem to key legislators in closed sessions and providing knowledgeable officials to brief reporters in unclassified terms. But apparently conflicting statements coming from Defense Secretary Richard Cheney's office - spokesman Pete Williams at one point described the problem as potentially "major started political problems rolling. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, an influential former majority leader who has supported the Stealth bomber in the past, vowed to vote "no" on continued B-2 production when the 1992 military appropriations bill comes to the Senate floor for debate. Sen. Jim Exon (D) of Nebraska, a staunch B-2 proponent, complained that the appearance of a technical problem had eroded program support and that he wasn't sure the plane could be saved. Earlier this year, as part of its version of the 1992 defense authorization bill, the House voted to end B-2 production. The Senate, a stronghold of B-2 support, had, in its version of the legislation, approved the White House request for four more B-2s next year. The House and Senate are supposed to be meeting this month to hammer out their differences on defense authorization issues, but Senator Exon has used his position as a key member of the Senate negotiating team to defend the B-2. He wants President Bush or Secretary Cheney to push harder, publicly, for the bomber. The radar glitch hasn't been the only strike against the B-2 in Congress. Many lawmakers have felt that former Air Force executives misled them about the seriousness of technical problems encountered in the development of the B-1B, the B-2 predecessor. They don't want to go ahead and approve more planes, only to find this is just the first of a series of difficulties that will require yet more cash to fix. Meanwhile, the collapse of the Soviet military as a viable threat to the West has only increased pressures to further shrink the US military. These pressures "have really undercut a lot of the support for the B-2," says Michael Brower, an analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists and an opponent of the plane. "It's really a mood swing that is very clear."

New talking point One talking point B-2 proponents have been pushing in recent months is the bomber's conventional-weapon capability. The success of the F-117 in the Persian Gulf has pointed out the virtues of stealthiness, they say, and the B-2 would have some advantages over the F-117 in a conventional role. The bomber can carry a larger payload, has a longer range, and can fly attack runs at altitudes below 200 feet. "The Air Force is going to get smaller in the years ahead. We simply must hold these sorts of options open for presidents in the 21st century," says General McPeak. Use of the B-2 in any future conventional conflict would probably require more than the 15 planes already authorized for purchase by Congress. Without a larger number, the Air Force would likely be reluctant to remove any B-2 from its primary role of nuclear deterrence.

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