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Congress needs to set defense-spending priorities

I was hurtling down Massachusetts Avenue in a taxi the other night, talking to some friends about the mechanical milk suckers that slurp dairy products from cows, when my thoughts turned to technology, society and -- tangentially -- the B-2 bomber.

Congress is about to flush this expensive new radar-evading aircraft down the toilet, and for once it has the right idea. Initially expected to cost half a billion dollars and be invisible to all Soviet radar, the B-2 was designed to serve primarily as a cold-war deterrent. Flying during a US first strike against the Soviets, or alternatively in a retaliatory second strike, the Northrup-designed B-2 would slip unnoticed over the North pole and perform a tactic known as a cookie cutter: the systematic destruction of Soviet nuclear silos using pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The B-2 gets lousy gas mileage, though, so pilots who fly to Russia would not have enough gas to get back. War stinks.

Here's the catch: The B-2 was never meant to fly. It was intended to be an economic weapon, forcing the Soviets to ruin their economy in an attempt to build a comparable aircraft. The B-2 did that, so why do we have to buy them?

Three B-2s have been built so far, two of them with cracked wings and radar-evasion problems. At $865 million a plane, Congress is split, with the House eager to dump the lumbering bird and Senate anxious to hold onto it. Initial administration hopes for a fleet of 132 aircraft have been reduced to desperate pleading for an arsenal of 75. The House has only approved funding for 15 of those, and the new budget includes a plan to terminate production of this year's aircraft pending a review of the aircraft's repair.

Sure, the B-2 is nifty, and it would perform its primary mission better than any other aircraft in the world today. Unfortunately, the B-2 can't do much else. It can't fly low, it can't fly high, it can't fly fast and sometimes can barely fly at all. It is detectable by Soviet fighter-jet radar, satellite radar and many ground-based systems. Alternative mission roles, including the destruction of mobile missile launchers, are variations on the same basic theme. The B-2 however, is supposed to be a replacement for the venerable B-52, a 30-year-old airplane with a 17,000 mile range and the capability of carrying everything from nukes to leaflets while simultaneously jamming and evading enemy radar. Whatever happened to the B-1? It was supposed to replace the B-52 in the late 70s, but couldn't fly too well either.

The B-2 is a great airplane, but the United States cannot afford to replace its bomber fleet, its tactical fighter fleet and its attack sub fleet, and at the same time finance the construction of a space station, a National AeroSpace Plane and a Superconducting Supercollider. Congress must draw the line somewhere:

1/3 Replacing the Air Force's inventory of fighter jets is a necessity. The United States has already sold its top-of-the-line aircraft, F-15s and F-16s, to practically every hostile nation on the planet at considerable profit. America must modernize its forces or it will fight itself in the next war.

1/3 The Seawolf attack submarine program has production problems of its own, and should be tabled until those problems are corrected.

1/3 The Space Station Freedom should be dumped. We would do better to spend money on unmanned activities than an expensive concept for an orbiting scientific platform whose components would fail before the station would ever be completed.

1/3 The Superconducting Supercollider, a plan for a Texas high-energy particle accelerator, is the cutting edge. If Congress kills it, the United States will lose its leap in high-energy physics.

1/3 We should keep NASP. An aircraft that would fly like an airplane into space (and back) is a great idea. Funds spent on encouraging exploration into new technologies for civilian flight and transportation are well spent. Nothing will help this depressed nation more than the growth of civilian technologies every industrialized country on the planet will want to buy. Defense companies could even help out.

1/3 As for the Stealth Bomber, Congress should buy no more than 15 of these lemons. The purchase of those should be conditional on a significant redesign of the present B-2. Northrup must prove not only that the B-2 works, but that the it can serve an alternative mission role, such as the reconnaissance or intelligence operations that the stealthy B-2 seems suited for. Short of this refitting, there is no reason to replace the B-52s now. Additionally, the B-2, unlike the B-52, has no civilian uses. While the B-52, U-2 and a host of other aircraft became excellent test vehicles for high altitude scientific studies, thoughts of a Stealth Airliner sound like little more than a hassle for air-traffic controllers.


Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore in the Department of Physics, is an opinion editor of The Tech.