A Bomb of a Bomber?

Just how far out in front of the rest of the world, militarily, must the United States remain? That question lurks behind the long-running debate over production of the B-2 bomber.

The B-2, you may recall, is a much larger incarnation of the radar-evading stealth technology that got its first real test during the Gulf war. A relatively small number of F-117 stealth fighters scored a remarkable proportion of successful hits on Iraqi strategic targets.

The B-2, though it shares the batlike design of the smaller fighter, is a much different animal. For one thing, the stealth bombers currently cost $2 billion each. Their development has stretched over more than a decade, during which their initial cold-war mission of eluding Soviet radar detection to attack the Russian heartland evaporated.

During that development some king-sized glitches have surfaced. The latest of these came to light this week in a report by the General Accounting Office. The GAO underscored severe maintenance problems with the plane's high-tech, stealthy skin. The thermoplastics and other components are apparently very sensitive to moisture and temperature changes. Ergo, the B-2 needs to be stored in climate-controlled indoor facilities. So much for overseas basing.

Yet the B-2 retains its supporters. And they can make some reasonable points: The kinks will be ironed out, they say, and the US will have a long-range bomber almost invisible to radar that can thwart aggressors more resourceful than Saddam Hussein.

Which brings us back to the original question. The Northrup Grumman Corporation is already building 21 of the planes. Some B-2 boosters in Congress are gung-ho to up that number by another nine, supposedly to seal the US strategic edge.

At any time, increasing the purchase of B-2s would be dubious, given the plane's shaky start-up and cloudy mission. Doing so now, when fiscal discipline has become the creed in Washington - even at the Pentagon - would be, well, dumb.

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