The B1 bomber has returned to agitate the weapons selection process of another administration. Heavy bombers are expensive, even compared with most other strategic weapons. Compared with all others, they are even more expensive to operate. And the B1, of course, has a rival -- the higher technology Stealth bomber, about which we've heard a lot but don't know much. We can assume that it won't be available before the end of the decade, and many of us suspect that its debut lies at least another few years beyond that. The choice, it seems, is whether to shelve the B1 again and concentratre on Stealth, or to spend more and proceed with both airplanes. A variant of doing both would be to develop something cheaper and less capable than the original B1.
I hope Reagan decides to proceed with the B1, or a variant. Bombers have many virtues. A bomber force, unlike nuclear armed missiles, could be recalled from a rendezvous with history. Bombers, because they are slow as well as recallable, are unambiguously second-strike weapons. At a time when presumed capabiltiy to knock out components of the other's weaponry -- and some of that in a lightning first strike -- we would profit from a decision to bolster the heavy bomber profit from a decision to bolster the heavy bomber force, and sooner rather than later. Everyone including the other side, would see that we were keeping modern the one part of the triad of strategic forces that is least likely to acquire some preemptive, disarming capability. Given the importance of perceptions, it would be a useful signal to send. The heavy bombers also represent the one ares of strategic weapons in which our lead our the Soviet Union is clear and broad. That advantage should be sustained.
There are other attributes in favor of the bomber, not least its versatility. The weapons we want least to use, and are least likely to use, are nuclear bombs and warheads. Bombers, of course, can deliver conventional weapons is regional conflicts, a possibility that may on occasion be used to political advantage. A more modest version of the B1 could be useful in the European theater, especially if NATO's decision to strengthen theater nuclear forces were to collapse under the heavy political burden if carries in an environment benefit of SALT.
Although the costs are sobering, a new bomber would have no political liabilities. Almost any new strategic system, or basing platform will generate heavy costs, some of which may be political as well as financial. Take the land-mobile MX: the administrations of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and now Reagan have groped for some sensible and acceptable method of making land-based ICBMs less vulnerable tan they are judged to be in silos. The list of candidate methods is long and not very distinguished. Over the years, there have been more variants of the multiple silo-shell game option than most of us can remember. We've also heard about concealing missiles in swimming pools and a 3,000-mile-long trench that would have harbored missile-bearing trolleys; most recently, we've seen two versions of the multiple racetrack scheme, one involving circular loops of roadways, the other linear networks. Neither will survive its political liabilities. Even if adopted, any such scheme, after absorbing vast quantities of funds, would abort.
Let us also consider the Air Force, often the strongest of the services politically and custodian of two of the three legs of the triad. It is natural for the Air Force to have confidence in manned bombers. And there is a constituency for big air planes that supports the Air Force's commitment to them. A shadow of dobut about the reliability of missiles (and other utility), compared with manned bombers, has always influenced the Air Force's thinking. A decision to go forward with the B1 would buy years of relative peace with the Air Force and pay political dividends.
The Carter administration's decision to cancel the B1 had serious but wholly predictable effects. First -- and never mind why -- it legitimized the land-mobile MX, a system that the Air Force had some doubts about until deprived by the B1 decision of any other new system. The momentum for an MX deployed in some fugitive way was largely generated by the B1 decision. Second, the cancellation of the B1 did more harm to the SALT II agreement than any other of the Carter administration's actions. Carter canceled it after concluding that a new penetrating bomber would be less effective than long-range cruise missiles launched from airborne platforms. But his action was widely judged as betraying a lack of resolve about investing heavily in new strategic weapons. A number of senators, especially Republicans, who had mixed feelings about SALT, became more negative after the cancellation of the B1.
The land, because there is so much of it, is the natural strategic environment for the Soviet Union, but not for the United States. With our long coastlines and easy access to deep water, we deploy nuclear weapons most comfortably at sea. And we should probably have a larger proportion of our weapons there, though not all of them in ballistic missile submarines. The air itself is probably the next best environment for us. But for many reasons, some political and some strategic, we will continue in the foreseeable future to deploy ICBMs on land, where they may be vulnerable. Keeping them in silos is probably the most sensible alternative. And there are ways of lessening the vulnerability of silos without riviving the ABM, which would be a disaster. We could, for example, move a large number of our missile systems into silos located on the south sides of mountains, where incoming Soviet missiles couldn't strike them. It is a feasible idea, and it would cost a lot less than most schemes for protecting missile launchers that we hear about.
The budget for strategic weapons can be extended only so far. The B1, or some variant, should be built, if only because we don't know when the more exotic airplanes might be ready. But the costs of big-ticket items, such as bombers, would have to justified, at least in part, by sharp limits on spending for some other things, especially land-based missiles. The virtue of those weapons has always been their exceptional cost effectiveness. Their virtue shoud be protected.