Magazine article Insight on the News

Smart Planes Are Wasted If They Carry Dumb Bombs

Magazine article Insight on the News

Smart Planes Are Wasted If They Carry Dumb Bombs

Article excerpt

The United States is an aerospace power, uniquely dependent upon aviation and space for its national security. But that doesn't mean that Uncle Sam has to pay for everything with wings.

Case in point: the B-2 stealth bomber, some of whose advocates are starting to murmur, "Time for more." The standard and compelling argument against the B-2 is that no matter how impressive its capabilities, at more than $1.5 billion per copy (more than $800 million on the sticker, $1 billion more to operate it for 20 years), its simply too expensive. Many analysts doubt that it would be employed at all - when it's too expensive to lose, it's too expensive to use. And no one wants to see the day when a mechanical failure or a lucky shot drops all that technology into enemy hands.

These points alone should be sufficient to limit the buy to the 20 already authorized, or even fewer. But the B-2 also points toward a larger problem in defense planning: an unwillingness or inability to recognize that in the world as it is, what lands on the target is more important than the platform that launches it.

At the moment, the B-2 program is hardly in danger. According to Ed Smith, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp. (the prime contractor), five planes have been delivered to the Air Force. Six more have been built for testing purposes; five of those eventually will be refitted for operational use. Additional B-2s are rolling out at three per year, with the last due in early 1997. These planes have a fly-away cost of $837 million each. Last year, in response to an Air Force query, Northrop estimated that it could build 20 more for a fixed cost of about $570 million each; the lower price reflects the wider allocation of overhead. The Air Force currently estimates a fly-away cost of $630 million per plane for the next 20.

What do taxpayers get for their money? At the moment, they get stealth, a 10,000-mile range, excellent reliability - and the capacity to drop 20 tons of dumb bombs. Starting in 1997, they also have the ability to set 16 one-ton bombs on 16 different targets.

An awfully expensive way to move ordnance even if, in theory, the plane can go it alone with only a two-man crew and no need for expensive and vulnerable fighter escorts, electronic warfare Planes and radar busters.

But would the plane really be that way? In a Libya-style raid, perhaps. But in a major war, it's far more likely that enemy air-defense capabilities would be hit before the bombers were committed. In Desert Storm, F-117 stealth fighters flew through radar-free corridors. …

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