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  Unproven in War, B-2 May Miss Iraq

B-2 Bomber/Reuters File
Military officials are caught up in a bitter debate about deploying the B-2 bomber, sources said. (Reuters File Photo)
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 1998; Page A01

The B-2 bomber, at $2 billion per copy, is the most expensive airplane ever built and perhaps history's most intimidating combat aircraft. It's ready to fly in any upcoming air war against Iraq, but the U.S. military has revealed no plans for that. And therein lies a mystery that may reveal as much about internal Pentagon politics and budgetary tactics as military strategy, military and defense industry officials say.

Pentagon officials who favor the B-2's deployment in the Persian Gulf say some military officers are afraid that if the airplane does well, its success could reopen discussion about building more than the 21 B-2s on order, threatening billions destined for the Air Force's currently prized project, the F-22 fighter. A poor performance, on the other hand, could be a humiliating and costly failure.

"If it does badly, and it crashes, you'd have a $2 billion smoking hole in the desert, which could be a bit embarrassing," said one Air Force official. "Or if it does beautifully, there would be tremendous pressure to build more B-2s, and that undoubtedly would infringe on the budgets of other Air Force airplanes that we want to build."

The Air Force officially denies that such considerations have a role in the decision whether to deploy the colossal black, bat-winged aircraft. The service's formal position is that "the B-2 has been declared operational and is available to the war fighters should it be called upon," said Capt. Leo Devine, a spokesman for the service.

But inside the Air Force and the secure Pentagon vaults where war plans are drawn, a bitter debate is raging about the B-2's deployment, military officials said.

Its backers say the B-2 is a perfect weapon for an air war in which avoiding risks to pilots is a top concern, since the "stealthy" B-2 evades radar and stands little chance of being shot down. It can carry 16 2,000-pound bombs, or eight 5,000-pound bombs that can be used for "bunker-busting" of underground compounds.

Moreover, because any B-2 attack probably would involve a 36-hour round-trip flight from its home at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, its use wouldn't impose a burden on Persian Gulf allies skittish about hosting U.S. jets carrying out bombing raids that might inflame Arab countries.

But the B-2 continues to inspire more skepticism than awe among other Pentagon officials. Military planners are highly risk-averse, and vastly prefer to choose for dangerous missions aircraft that have been proven in war, military officials said. Nine years after its inaugural flight, the B-2 has never flown in combat. There are also some minor lingering questions about the reliability of stealth characteristics of the B-2's most recently upgraded version. Two years ago questions were raised when the B-2's radar-absorbing skin peeled back in the rain, but officials say that problem has been fixed in the new model. In any case, the B-1 bomber also has never flown in combat, and it is planned for deployment in the gulf.

The B-2's proponents inside and outside the Air Force cite a number of deeper reasons why they believe the plane is not in the U.S. order of battle. They said that its success would imperil funding for other projects, chiefly the $70 billion F-22 fighter program, the Air Force's top priority.

"The B-2 threatens the F-22 crown jewel," said one pro-B-2 Air Force targeting expert.

"There are folks at senior levels in the Air Force who are pushing for the B-2," including leaders of the service's Air Combat Command and air war planners at the U.S. Central Command, which is in charge of the attack, said one Air Force general. Asked if the B-2's $2 billion price makes it too risky to use, he replied, "we bought the goddamn thing. If you're not going to risk using them, send them to Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base in Arizona, where decommissioned warplanes are stored] and make sure nothing ever happens to them."

"The B-2 is absolutely perfect for this mission," added another Air Force general, who believes senior Defense Department and National Security Council officials have argued against its use because "if you demonstrate its great capabilities, it would reopen their decision to terminate the buy" at 21 aircraft. Eighteen of the planes have been built.

In the mid-1980s, the Pentagon planned to buy 132 B-2s, but then, with costs soaring at the contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp., the order was cut to 80, and then to 21 after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the approaching end of the Cold War. At a cost of $45 billion for 21 planes, many in Congress attacked the B-2 as a Cold War relic and "a flying Fort Knox." Under pressure from the Clinton administration, Air Force officials withdrew plans to push for more B-2s in order to guarantee funding for their F-22 fighter.

"It's possible the Air Force [by not pushing for the B-2's use over Iraq] doesn't want to give ammunition to B-2 proponents on Capitol Hill, and also possible they don't want an aircraft they walked away from to be fully vindicated in combat," said Loren Thompson, a B-2 promoter at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a defense think tank that has received Northrop funding.

"It's inconceivable they're not using the B-2," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who oversaw the air war in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and is now a Northrop Grumman consultant. "The administration may not want to advertise its utility because it didn't support the B-2."

The B-2 program has few promoters in the Pentagon, particularly since the Air Force is run mostly by former fighter pilots, not bomber pilots, several military officials said. Moreover, Northrop is weeks away from closing a deal to be purchased by Lockheed Martin Corp., builder of the F-22. "Nobody's head at Northrop is into pushing for more B-2s now," an industry executive said.

At a recent Capitol Hill meeting, B-2 promoters such as Reps. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) pressed Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Ryan unsuccessfully to explain why the B-2 wasn't in war plans, according to a congressional staff member.

Finally, there's always a possibility the B-2 would indeed be deployed over Iraq. "We may know soon enough," an Air Force official said.

Staff writer Barton Gellman contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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