THE B-2 bomber may resemble a bat with serrated wings, but on Capitol Hill the radar-evading "stealth" aircraft seems more like the legendary phoenix rising from the ashes.
Doomed a year ago under the Clinton administration's post-cold-war blueprint for lower defense spending, the most sophisticated and expensive airplane ever built could receive a new lease on life.
A political battle is now under way over building more B-2s. At its core are two of the most contentious questions the United States faces with the end of the Soviet threat: How much of history's costliest and most advanced military industrial base should be dismantled; and can the US fight and win two near-simultaneous regional conflicts, as required by its post-cold-war defense strategy?
House Republicans and some minority Democrats say the US has too few bombers and that restarting idled B-2 production, with its highly advanced radar-absorbing materials, would cost more than keeping it active. Accordingly, the GOP-led House National Security Committee added $553 million to its version of the administration's fiscal 1996 defense budget for the start up of three new B-2s. Panel members want to eventually build 20 new aircraft, double the number now authorized.
The administration opposes the plan. It says the B-2 is too expensive, supporting its argument with a new independent study that concludes it would be more cost-effective to buy high-tech precision weapons - such as laser-guided bombs - and to upgrade existing B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers.
But B-2 supporters claim the study was flawed, and cite other studies that they contend endorse the need for more aircraft.
The administration counters that "Everybody would have liked more B-2s. "In fact our nearest-term problem for our bomber force is to get ... suitably equipped with conventional munitions," says Paul Kaminsky, the Pentagon acquisition chief, warning that the US would have to scrap all 95 of its B-1 bombers to pay for 20 more B-2s.
The House of Representatives is expected to preserve the new B-2 funds when it votes on the fiscal 1996 defense budget next week. But there are doubts that the funding will survive the Senate. Many Republican senators are giving top priority to deficit reduction and refuse to alter President Clinton's five-year plan for a 7 percent cut in defense spending. Even some GOP senators who want more defense money oppose the B-2, saying it's a cold-war weapon whose funds could be better invested.
The House-Senate differences will have to be reconciled in a conference committee. Those deliberations could prove volatile, underscoring the differences in fiscal philosophies in the GOP.
The US originally sought 132 B-2s for its nuclear attack force. The builder, Northrop Corporation, began work in 1981, spending $30 billion before the first aircraft rolled off its production line in Pomdale, Calif., in December 1993.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the Pentagon cut its planned B-2 buy to 75. The Clinton administration decided the US needed no more than 20 B-2s, costing a total of $44.6 billion. Thirteen of 20 have been built. The rest are under construction, and the last is to be delivered in 1998.
Northrop last year launched a lobbying campaign to sell the Pentagon 20 more B-2s. To encourage a deal, the firm offered the aircraft for a fixed price of $13 billion over 14 years. Opponents, however, say that operating the planes over 20 years would bring the total to $31 billion. Even so, Northrop's effort began paying off as lawmakers became unnerved over the looming closure of the B-2 production line. This because many subcontractors have already found other projects, and the B-2 work force has been halved to 20,000.
The B-2 is the only US bomber in production. Northrop estimates that if production ceases, taxpayers would have to pay up to $2.3 billion to restart it. Without new bomber funding, says Ralph Crosby Jr., the project general manager, "the US will start down the slippery slope of losing any capacity to produce a bomber at a remotely reasonable price ...."
The B-2's congressional defenders also undoubtedly see a political price in terminating the program: Most of its components are made in the key electoral states of California, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
B-2 supporters say the current US fleet of 100 combat-ready bombers is too small to fight two regional conflicts. Some military officers express similar doubts.
"We may not have enough bombers," Gen. Mike Loh, chief of the Air Combat Command, told congress in April. "The strategy of swinging bombers from one conflict to another is risky."
Bob Gaskin, an ex-fighter pilot now with the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, says that building 20 more B-2s would be cheaper than amassing the arsenal of precision missiles and bombs the Pentagon now seeks. "The cost of doing a 30-day campaign using a force of 100 bombers using stand-off precision munitions would be ... between $28 billion and $30 billion," he says.
A commission that recently made recommendations on the US military's future structure backed the administration decision against more B-2s, saying buying more precision munitions would be more cost-effective. But the Roles and Missions Commission said a final B-2 termination decision should await a study due in July on the bomber industrial base.
Curiously, an unreleased staff report to the commission on the B-2 favors the aircraft. "The motivation to terminate the B-2 line and restart if necessary would only appear cost-effective if it was a near certainty that America will never need more bombers," says a copy of the staff report obtained by the Monitor.