THOUGHT THE B-1 strategic bomber was dead, did you, just because the president decided and Congress agreed last year not to produce and deploy this successor to the old reliable B-52s, but to put cruise missiles on the B-52s instead? Silly you. What was killed last year was funds to build B-1 copies 7, 8, 9 and 10 --copies 1, 2, 3 and 4, prototypes, are already built. That leaves, you will note, 5 and 6. Congress appropriated $462 million for them the year before last. President Carter, the Senate agreeing, has wanted not to spend that money. But B-1 supporters in the House, invoking the anti-impoundment legislation a Democratic Congress thrust upon Richard Nixon, insist he spend it. The question exists as the lone rider on an otherwise uncontested supplemental appropriations bill, and it's due for a showdown vote in the House today.

Now, why, you may ask, would anyone wish to lay out nearly half a billion dollars, plus half as much again later for testing, to build copies of a bomber already rejected? Isn't that throwing most of a billion dollars down the drain? The "substantive" arguments are feeble. One is that the B-1 construction team should be kept alive in case the president changes his mind -- this ignores the fact that B-1 research will continue. Another is that the Russians are working on a hot new defense against cruise missiles -- as though, if the defense worked half as well as its flacks claim, the much bigger B-1s would not be an even fatter target. Political considerations explain the B-1's survival. A good number of Republicans would not be averse to embarrassing the president on the issue, and the contractor, Rockwell International, has been reminding members of the jobs a production decision could mean for their districts.

Let us make this point: After a long, full, fair and public debate -- in many ways, a model defense debate -- the political community decided last year that American strategic requirements would be served better by extending the use of B-52s with cruise missiles than by constructing B-1s. That cruise missiles, by being easy to hide and hard to verify, complicate arms control is more generally understood than it was. But that has not sparked any general challenge to the B-1 decision, and it seems to be no part at all of the diehard B-1 brief. In any event, given the progress of both technology and diplomacy, it is water over the dam. The B-1 brigade has had its day in court. It should stop worrying the issue. No more B-1s.