Defense Contractors Win, Pentagon Loses On Funding for B2

THE Air Force says ''no thank you'' to the multibillion-dollar weapons package.

Congress, however, apparently will insist on giving the service more of the new and costly B2 bombers, perhaps another 20 in addition to the 20 already approved and partially delivered.

The contractors are, of course, delighted and argue that the United States needs the extra bombers.

''The original 20 are all we need now,'' insists Major Clem Gaines, information officer for the Air Force.

The first 20 will cost at least $44.5 billion, including development funds, and the last one should be delivered by 1998. Another 20 could cost taxpayers around $22 billion more, estimates Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, a proponent of the extra 20.

By the end of this week or early next week, the House and the Senate are expected to pass a $243 billion defense bill that includes $493 million in seed money for three more B2s. The plan is to use the money for so-called ''long-lead'' parts, like engines, to be ordered for these three planes. The balance could be funded later.

President Clinton is expected to sign the $243 billion defense bill, although he has said he opposes any extra B2s. The bill includes a total of $6.6 billion more than the president's original defense request.

It's a Republican ''priority'' to build up the military, says a House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman. The $243 billion for 1996 is $400 million less than enacted in the 1995 defense budget, she says, with a reminder that Mr. Clinton had to ask Congress for an extra $25 billion for 1995.

Northrup Grumman Corp., a California firm, is the major B2 contractor. The political wisdom is that the president needs to support jobs in California if he is to win the state in 1996 - a state he needs for an electoral victory and another four years in office.

The Senate had not included funds for the three additional B2s in its defense measure, while the House did. A House-Senate conference committee decided last Friday night to include the funds in the combined bill.

Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, chairman of the House budget committee and an opponent of the extra bombers, lost an effort Sept. 7 to delete the $493 million. That vote was 213 to 210, with 147 Republicans and 66 Democrats voting against the Kasich measure.

''We've never had so many Republicans [82 supported Mr. Kasich] vote against a major weapons system, or so many Democrats [128] - especially liberals - vote for one,'' says Mike Lofgren, a Kasich aide. ''We have liberal Democrats voting for defense-industry jobs.''

Rep. Julian Dixon (D) of California, a member of the black caucus, for example, voted no on the effort to kill the plan, as did House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Air Force scaled back a plan for 132 B2s to 75. Budget restraints and changes in strategic thinking cut the plan to 20, says an official in the Defense Department. He says the three extra are a foot in the door for 17 more. The Air Force argues it may have to cancel other needed projects - including its coveted F22 fighter plane - if Congress continues to fund additional B2s, says the official in the office of the secretary of defense. He gives other reasons why the

military does not want more B2s:

* At least 18 months of further testing remain on the first order to determine how closely the planes come to original specifications, especially how stealthy (able to avoid radar detection) the planes truly are. Some of the first tests were disappointing.

* Stealth planes are especially expensive to maintain and could push up the B2's cost considerably.

* Advanced cruise missiles could be used on existing B1s and B52s, making these older and less expensive planes as effective as the B2s are expected to be.

* Using the cruise missiles on older but serviceable planes is safer for pilots, because they could hit targets from a great distance.

Representative Fazio, taking Northrup's position, argued in a House debate that the B2 can evade the world's most advanced air-defense systems, hit its targets with precision, and ''return safely home.''

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