There may be no such thing as a pretty bomb, but few munitions are as certifiably ugly as the Skipper, formally known as AGM-123A. In flight, it bucks and heaves in ungainly flutter; when fastened beneath a warplane, the 14-foot cylinder resembles a half-ton junkyard of spare parts, which is precisely what it is.

The $20,000 Skipper has three features, however, that make it beautiful in the eyes of the U.S. Navy: The bomb is cheap, it works and it triples the odds of survival for Navy attack pilots.

Skipper is a success story, a weapon that does what it's supposed to do and costs what it's supposed to cost. It also is a weapon that almost died half a dozen times -- near victim of an industry-backed rival bomb and a Pentagon bureaucracy perpetually attracted to the sleek, complex and expensive rather than the cheap, effective and homely.

Skipper, in fact, is an anomaly among Pentagon weapons, an ingeniously simple device kept alive by a band of underpaid engineers in the California desert, a Navy captain who put his career on the line, an annoyingly persistent congressional staffer and a Navy secretary who happens to be a reserve Navy flier.

The bomb's struggle for survival illustrates one of the paradoxes of the defense business -- that in the midst of building a $50 million warplane, scant attention may be given to inventing a $20,000 bomb capable of keeping the plane and its pilot out of harm's way.

Lacking the sexy sheen of a fighter plane or the muscle of a corporate patron, Skipper was delayed in reaching the fleet until February 1984, two months after a pair of U.S. warplanes were shot down during a bombing raid on Syrian forces outside Beirut.

Had Skipper been available for action, many believe, the military could have avoided those losses with different targets and tactics. For many targets, one senior Pentagon official said, "it would make a huge difference, the difference between flying into flak and not flying into it." Skipper's Birth

In a sense, Skipper was born in December 1979, when 40,000 Soviet troops stormed south into Afghanistan. The invasion -- and the uncertainty of Soviet intentions -- sent a wave of anxiety through American aircraft-carrier pilots alarmed at the prospect of squaring off against Soviet forces in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf.

"We figured we'd lose 90 percent of our pilots fighting against a Soviet cruiser," one experienced naval officer recalled. "As a Navy attack pilot, I had been mystified and chagrined that we'd not been able to put a new weapon into the fleet since I'd been a lieutenant commander in Vietnam in 1967. We'd improved our planes but not the weapons."

What the Navy pilots had in 1980 was an arsenal of 1960s-vintage bombs that had to be dropped from the perilously close range of a mile or so. What the pilots desperately wanted was a bomb that would allow them to "stand off" several miles away, firing their munitions from beyond the effective range of enemy anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

Pressure mounted on the Naval Weapons Center at China Lake to do something, and do it quickly. Austere and so remote that the Sears Roebuck and Co. catalog store here is the busiest in the West, "The Lake" is home to 1,800 scientists and engineers who collectively are credited with inventing 80 percent of the air-launched munitions used in Vietnam.

It's the kind of place that lures iconoclasts, mavericks who see themselves as clever underdogs capable of inventing weapons that stymie their better-paid counterparts in industry. An ancient dry lake bed named for 19th-century Chinese coolies who hunted for gold at night after toiling all day on the nearby railroad, China Lake became a Delaware-sized swatch of military reservation in 1943 when it was carved from the Mojave Desert.

In January 1980, a month after the Soviet invasion, technical director Burrell Hays summoned several of his engineering wizards and challenged them to come up with a new bomb. The Lake's engineers made five trips back to Hays' office with proposals. The first four times, he threw them out; on the fifth try, they suggested Skipper.

By April, drawings for the bomb were complete. In October, the first Skipper was dropped from an airplane.

The bomb was a tribute to American ingenuity in its off-the-shelf simplicity. Starting with a 1,000-pound bomb, the half-dozen inventors stuck a rocket motor on the tail. In the nose they attached a "seeker" capable of homing in on a target illuminated with a laser beam.

They used hack saws and a sand blaster to shave superfluous parts from the motor. The ignition system was salvaged from the pilot ejection system in an F104 warplane. Finally, the engineers tacked on a couple of matchbook-size pieces of metal worth 50 cents apiece to make the bomb spin during flight for stability.

"It's stupid in a way," one admirer said of the bomb. "Too stupid to do anything wrong."

Almost from its first tests, Skipper worked beautifully. Pilots could drop the bomb six miles from the target, guide it with a laser beam from a relatively safe distance and watch the target blow up.

The Lake's engineering resourcefulness, however, would pale beside the ingenuity necessary to shield Skipper from its corporate and political enemies. The New Commander

In the summer of 1981, a new commander arrived at China Lake, a St. Cloud, Minn., native named Capt. John Jude Lahr. With 230 combat missions in Vietnam behind him, Lahr didn't need much selling to become a Skipper enthusiast.

"I went charging off to Washington waving my Skipper banner, saying we're going to save the world or at least increase the survivability of our attack pilots," Lahr recalled. "I got various cold shoulders . . . . I was told I didn't have the big picture."

In fact, Skipper had a rival, and the rival had powerful friends. Under an Air Force contract, Texas Instruments Corp. had begun developing a weapon with a similar mission: the Low-Level Laser Guided Bomb, also known as the LLLGB or Triple L.

A successor to Texas Instrument's Paveway bombs used successfully in Vietnam, the Triple L was designed to allow greater standoff in the poor weather and intense defenses anticipated for European combat.

Because of its Texas heritage, the Triple L had a potent backer in then-Sen. John G. Tower (D-Tex.), who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said Texas Instruments' influence was so strong that the Skipper project office in the Pentagon "was totally dominated" by the company.

"The strongest influence of the contractors in the project offices is the dazzling brochuremanship," Lehman said. "On Skipper, it was a question of the best being the enemy of the good -- the contractor's siren song, that they could produce what our lab had produced, and that it would be thicker, quicker and slicker, by God . . . and do it for less cost."

Skipper supporters were convinced that the Navy bureaucracy was deliberately slighting their bomb rather than challenge the Air Force Triple L. They also believed that Texas Instruments was lobbying against Skipper in the Pentagon and in Congress since it represented a threat to profits from the Triple L.

"We protected our program and the program we were trying to do. We're not so naive to think that our program goes through Congress without your telling people the facts," said William B. Mitchell, president of Texas Instruments' munitions-building division. "Absolutely not, in my opinion, did we try to kill Skipper."

By early 1982, nonetheless, Lahr and his engineers at The Lake were badly frustrated. The program was going nowhere, hamstrung by cash shortages.

Lahr broke an unwritten rule by seeking support outside his chain of command, a Navy sin that jeopardized his chances for promotion. When that didn't help, he twice plowed $250,000 into the bomb from his "discretionary funds" after asking his comptroller "to make sure I didn't go to jail."

Unable to win support in Washington for a weapon that officially didn't exist -- it lacked a "birth certificate" in the budget -- officials at China Lake tapped the military's remarkable gossip mill. Pilots in the fleet soon "understood there was a thing called Skipper," Lahr said.

In early summer of 1982, under pressure from Anthony R. Battista, an influential staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, the Air Force agreed to test Skipper and the Triple L head to head in a "flyoff" at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle.

The Air Force was running the flyoff, and Skipper's handlers believed the contest was rigged. The angle of attack designed by the Air Force was seen as so tailored to favor the Triple L that Lahr refused to participate until a three-star admiral ordered him to "take that frigging thing down there and drop it!"

"I know how to say 'aye-aye' when I'm talked to like that," Lahr said.

The scene at Eglin didn't make the China Lake engineers feel better, particularly when they saw Texas Instruments' officials buying drinks at the bar for the Air Force officers, according to Richard L. Rumpf, deputy assistant Navy secretary. Nevertheless, Rumpf said, he believed the Air Force was conducting a fair flyoff.

China Lake wasn't so sure. To hedge The Lake's bet, when dropping the two Skippers, the young Navy pilot dipped one wing slightly, a maneuver that imperceptibly flipped the bombs toward the target. Both were nearly direct hits.

"It sounds like we cheated, doesn't it?" Lahr asked. "But the odds were so far against us we felt that we had to do something to save the program."

What happened next is disputed. Skipper proponents contend that the Air Force and Texas Instruments rushed to dispatch messages to Washington alleging that Skipper had missed the target by more than 1,000 feet. In fact, the bombs had whistled within a few feet of the target before landing far downrange.

"If you were shot at by someone with a 30.06 deer rifle and the bullet nicked your ear before impacting in the ground a mile away, I don't think you'd claim it missed by a mile, would you?" Lahr said.

It took weeks for Lahr and his lieutenants to persuade their superiors in Washington that Skipper had done as well as the Triple L in the flyoff. Even then, official enthusiasm remained tepid. Strategists at The Lake decided to play their ace.

When Secretary Lehman reported to the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia for his two-week stint as a Navy reserve bombardier in the summer of 1983, he held a closed-door session -- as was his custom -- with other fliers. As they pleaded with Lehman for an effective standoff bomb, one officer who had been prompted by China Lake suddenly spoke of a bomb that worked but seemed to be an orphan in the Pentagon.

Lehman was intrigued. Suddenly, Skipper had a patron.

"In the bureaucracy there are maybe a hundred, or at least dozens, of flag officers admirals and high-ranking civilians who can say 'no' to a weapons system or an idea," Lahr said. "But I was unable to find anyone short of Secretary Lehman himself who could say 'yes' and make it happen. That is an indictment of the system, that one person can block the work of others."

In February 1984, China Lake engineer Dwight Weathersbee hauled the first Skippers to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy off Lebanon. A few hundred bombs now have been deployed on six carriers, and the Navy recently signed a contract with the Emerson Electric Co. to begin assembling 2,000 more.

As Skipper's fortunes improved, those of the Triple L soured. For a time, the bomb was beset with quality problems, and Texas Instruments voluntarily halted production to audit its techniques. By the time the contractor overcame its startup glitches, Congress and the Air Force had cut the number of Triple L's they were willing to buy, driving up the bomb's price. By early this year, each bomb cost more than $40,000, or twice Skipper's pricetag.

On Feb. 6, Air Force Secretary Verne Orr pulled the plug on Triple L, killing the program because of cost overruns. The brass at Texas Instruments learned of the decision when a reporter called the company for comment.

"We stomped around, kicked the wastepaper basket, kicked the cat," said Mitchell, the company executive.

If the Triple L is dead, however, Texas Instruments is hoping for a resurrection. After the company's pique subsided, Mitchell wrote the Air Force March 7, acknowledging "the concern over rising weapon system cost" and offering to build more than 31,000 bombs for $22,000 apiece. So far, the Air Force hasn't reconsidered.

As for the indefatigable Capt. Lahr, he left the Navy after 29 years, convinced that any chance for promotion had been quashed when he appealed Skipper's case over his superiors' heads.

"At that point, I'd just lost so much faith in the system that I didn't want to put any more time in," he said. "Essentially, I wanted to leave the Navy before I fell out of love with it."

And so he retired to Albuquerque, leading a life he describes as playing golf, "watching the sunsets in New Mexico and listening to 'Victory at Sea'."