San Diego Union-Tribune

July 15, 2001

Clash over B-1B bomber fleet blunts prospects for reform


WASHINGTON -- In a year when major changes in defense strategy and forces were expected, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposal to retire one-third of the poorly performing and expensive B-1B bombers was seen broadly as both minor and reasonable.

But a furious counterattack by members of Congress from the three states affected by the proposed cut forced a hasty retreat that will delay and possibly kill the move.

It is a classic example of the narrowly focused, protective instincts of lawmakers that could prevent Rumsfeld from making any significant reforms, defense analysts contend.

The B-1 protest "is a sign the reforms are in trouble," said John Isaacs, a veteran analyst with the Council for a Livable World, an arms-control group. "Rumsfeld is talking about closing bases, cutting forces and perhaps killing weapons programs. He will face resistance no matter what he does."

"This is an early skirmish in a war that the Bush administration is likely to lose," said Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense think tank.

"The B-1 is symptomatic of the problem. Every weapon system, every base, every facility has some Congress member's support," said Paul Taibl of Business Executives for National Security, which champions efficiency in Pentagon business practices.

The B-1B seemed a prime candidate to get cut. A classic Cold War weapon, it was conceived in the 1960s as a high-speed, low-level nuclear bomber able to penetrate stiffening air defenses in the Soviet Union.

It was canceled by President Carter in 1977 as too expensive and already outdated, then resurrected by President Reagan in 1981 as a centerpiece of his massive arms buildup to confront Moscow.

The Air Force got 100 B-1s for $28 billion. The bombers quickly proved to be defect-ridden, maintenance nightmares that could not be used in combat because their electronic defensive systems did not work.

Despite spending an additional $4 billion to fix the problems, barely half of the B-1s are ready to fly at any time. Their only use in combat was a cameo appearance in the Kosovo conflict.

"The B-1 has been a huge disappointment to the Air Force. It's not stealthy, its electronic warfare capabilities have been deficient, it's extremely expensive to operate and its readiness numbers have been dismal," said Thompson, whose think tank is a noted champion of long-range bombers.

"I think the administration's advocacy of retiring a third of these bombers is analytically sound and politically correct."

Air Force Secretary James Roche told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that the B-1 fleet has a low level of readiness to fly and is unable to perform a variety of non-nuclear missions.

With a $2 billion backlog in needed maintenance and modifications, Roche said, he could not afford to fix the whole B-1 force.

Today there are 93 surviving B-1s scattered over five bases. The Pentagon proposed to retire 33 this year and consolidate the rest at two Air Force bases in Texas and South Dakota. The $165 million saved in the first year of the move would be used to help fix the other aircraft.

But that would mean eliminating the bombers operated by Air National Guard squadrons in Georgia and Kansas, which have nine B-1s each, and seven more at an active-duty squadron in Idaho.

Although the Air Force promised to find other missions for the personnel assigned to the targeted B-1s, the senators and representatives whose states would be affected by the proposed changes howled. They quickly added language to the defense supplemental money bill barring any action this fiscal

A leading protester, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he is not trying to stop the loss of jobs in his state, but wants to ensure that service members "are not jerked around and assets are moved only when it makes sense and when it is part of an overall plan."

Roche promised the protesting lawmakers he would delay the B-1 cuts into the next fiscal year and would work with them on the timing.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., said the delay would give the opponents time to hold hearings and get a General Accounting Office study of the cost effectiveness of keeping the B-1s with the Air Guard units.

"The goal is not to say they should not consolidate the B-1s . . . but to determine where they should go," she said.

But Thompson said: "Clearly, these members of Congress are putting the interests of their districts above the broader national interests. They're trying to protect jobs rather than national security."

That's not unusual, Isaacs said, because for members of Congress "the Pentagon budget is, in many ways, a jobs program. Lawmakers try to protect bases, contractors, jobs in their districts."

Some of the analysts suggested the lawmakers are worried that losing the B-1s will make their bases more vulnerable if Rumsfeld gets the base-closing
authority he has requested.

Congress has blocked an additional closure round because of President Clinton's political manipulation of the 1995 round, "but that rationale has gone away," said Chris Hellman with the Center for Defense Information.

Said Isaacs: "I think there was genuine hope there would be real changes. . . . Those hopes are fading."