The only thing elusive about more B-2 stealth bombers is the benefit to the American taxpayer. House and Senate conferees on the defense bill will soon have to decide whether to provide $331 million as the first installment in buying more of these outrageously expensive aircraft (averaging $1.5 billion per aircraft) that are designed to be difficult for enemy radar to detect. Should they do so, producing another nine bombers--in addition to the 21 planned and already authorized-could lead to future costs of about $27 billion to buy the aircraft and operate and support them for 20 years. The House favors providing the down payment, but the Clinton Administration and the Senate oppose it, believing that the planned force is sufficient. Making any funding for additional bombers invisible is the correct answer.

The B-2, with its stealth characteristics, was originally designed to penetrate sophisticated Soviet air defenses during a nuclear war. With the threat of nuclear war diminished after the Cold War, the Pentagon emphasized a role for the aircraft in striking heavily defended strategic targets early in a conventional war before enemy air defenses and command and communications had been destroyed. The B-2 would also have a role in destroying such vital enemy systems to make it safer for larger numbers of nonstealth aircraft to perform follow-on strikes. Yet, twenty-one B-2s--a “silver bullet capability”--is probably sufficient to provide such a “first day of the war” capability.

The United States is already awash in redundant military assets that can be used for the glamorous strike mission and more specifically for such a mission on the first day of the war. For the strike mission, the Air Force has B-1 and B-52 bombers, the F-117 stealth fighter, and other types of non-stealth tactical fighter aircraft; the Navy has varieties of carrier-based tactical fighter aircraft and Tomahawk missiles that can be fired from ships or submarines offshore; and the Army has the ATACMs missile. For strike missions on the first day, the F-117 and Tomahawk proved themselves in the Gulf War. Most first day strike weapons, however, tend to be expensive and are required only in limited numbers. Furthermore, strike missions using non-stealth aircraft can be made less vulnerable to enemy air defenses by providing escort aircraft to protect them or to electronically jam enemy radars in such defense systems. In addition, longer range precision strike weapons can be purchased for non-stealth aircraft so that they can launch missiles outside the range of those defenses. Although the proponents of the B-2 argue that fewer such weapons would need to be purchased if more of the bombers were produced, one could buy piles and piles of the relatively cheap precision weapons for the $27 billion required for the nine additional bombers.

A couple of years ago, the Department of Defense’s Heavy Bomber Force Study showed that buying additional B-2s would have little effect on the outcome of any conflict. The study concluded that the planned force was adequate against a wide range of potential threats.

Flying strike missions to any far flung theater of crisis from a base in the United States using long range B-2s is cost-effective only in certain circumstances: for limited and rapid punitive strikes (for example, the bombing of Libya in 1986) or for stopping the advancing army of an aggressor before the United States can get more efficient shorter range tactical fighter aircraft to the theater. Because of the great distances between U.S. bases and potential target areas, the crews of B-2s can only fly one mission every two-and-a-half days. Therefore, tactical aircraft operating from within the theater can drop more tons of ordnance in a shorter time than the B-2. Originally, the Air Force planned to improve the efficiency of the heavy bombers by moving them to bases in a theater when a conflict arose. But deploying the aircraft overseas now seems problematical. A recent report from the U.S. General Accounting Office states that the B-2-with its high technology skin that makes it hard for radars to detect the aircraft--is so sensitive to moisture and other climatic conditions that it requires 124 hours of maintenance after every flight in a special climate-controlled facility. Such heavy maintenance requirements--allowing the aircraft to be capable of completing its mission only a quarter of the time--raise questions about whether the aircraft can be efficient in delivering weapons even when operating from its U.S. base, let alone from overseas installations.

Twenty-one copies of such a fragile system that was originally designed for the Cold War are enough. The President should follow through on the threat to veto any defense bill containing money for additional B-2s. He should blow this flying pork out of the sky.