The Air Force, in a statement issued Monday, criticized a House proposal to kill all production money for the B-2 "stealth" bomber as "wasteful and unsound." A reference omitted from the Air Force statement in yesterday's editions may have left the service's position unclear. (Published 7/24/90)

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), adding a powerful voice to opponents of the Air Force's B-2 "stealth" bomber, yesterday proposed halting production of the $62.8 billion aircraft program.

"A unique and compelling mission for B-2 has not been established," Aspin said. "If we press ahead," he said, "we will spend additional tens of billions of dollars before we know if the B-2 will work, and before we know if it is really necessary."

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney has asked Congress to fund 75 planes, at a cost of about $840 million per craft, a reduction from the 132 bombers the Air Force originally wanted. Aspin, who previously supported continued B-2 production while asking the Air Force to find ways to reduce its cost, said yesterday that production should cease after the Air Force has finished building the 15 planes authorized by Congress.

The announcement adds momentum to a fast-rising tide of opposition to the aircraft in the year since the Air Force first revealed its cost. Details of the plane's high price tag, timed with the declining threat of superpower war and escalating budget deficits, have combined to make it the most visible target of this year's defense debate.

Aspin's decision is expected to clinch efforts to kill production of the B-2 in the House, but is likely to prompt a major clash with the Senate where the Armed Services Committee already has recommended authorizing two new bombers in the fiscal year 1991 budget.

"It sets up a real battle of the titans," said Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), who, along with Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), has led efforts to kill the bomber program. "You have the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman in diametric opposition."

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said yesterday, "The B-2 program already was in difficulty in Congress and Chairman Aspin's decision will make the fight to preserve the B-2 an uphill battle."

Nunn added that unless the White House and top military leaders galvanize their efforts to salvage the bomber program, "the Senate Armed Services Committee position is unlikely to prevail." Nunn said he believes Congress should "maintain the option for additional production until we see the results of the critical testing of the B-2's stealth capability later this year."

Cheney, speaking to reporters during a tour of the Fort Riley, Kan., Army post said, "It would be a mistake to stop the plane program." Cheney added, "There is no question the target base is reduced and that's one of the reasons I was able to cut the B-2 earlier this year to 75."

Cheney said he has no plans to single the B-2 program out for special attention in his lobbying efforts with Congress, but said, "We will work on it just as we are on other parts of the defense budget," such as the Strategic Defense Initiative and other weapons programs.

An Air Force spokesman said, "Stopping B-2 production means that the taxpayer would have invested over $35 billion without getting a return on that capital. It epitomizes all that is wrong with the defense acquisition process."

Aspin said his decision was based on "growing fiscal constraints on the defense budget," the steadily increasing costs of the B-2, and the failure of the Air Force to articulate its mission.

He said that the warming of relations with the Soviet Union and the crumbling of the Warsaw Pact are dramatically reducing the number of strategic targets for the B-2 bomber, and added that he is "skeptical about using our most advanced manned bomber against a second-rate power" in conventional bombing raids, as has been suggested by the Air Force.