Air Force Not Interested; Wants Stealth Bomber : Rockwell Offers Extra B-1Bs at Cut Rate

Times Staff Writer

Rockwell International, faced with the prospect of winding down its work on the B-1B bomber, has offered to sell the Air Force 48 additional aircraft for $195 million each--a price well below the current cost of $286 million apiece for the first 100, a company spokesman said Friday.

However, the Air Force made it clear that despite the lowered price, it had no interest in the proposal and still planned to proceed with the development and purchase of the more expensive advanced technology or "Stealth" airplane in its effort to modernize the nation's fleet of bombers.

The Rockwell proposal was made in a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger last month. Weinberger has been adamant in the past about halting the purchase after 100 B-1Bs have been delivered.

The offer was seen by the Air Force as a last-ditch effort by the giant defense contractor to keep alive its production line, fed by a web of subcontractors that reaches into 48 states.

Rockwell spokesman Don O'Neal acknowledged that the offer was unsolicited and said that Weinberger had not responded to it.

The 100-airplane limit placed on the B-1B has become a sensitive political issue, with some opponents of the Stealth bomber, being developed by Northrop Corp., arguing that the Pentagon should opt for a greater number of B-1Bs rather than spending money on the more expensive, newer airplane.

No Word on Cost

And, as work slows on the B-1B, threatening jobs, the question of building more of the Rockwell planes takes on added political significance.

The Pentagon has refused to disclose a specific cost for the Stealth, but Donald A. Hicks, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has estimated that it will be no more than 2% to 3% greater than the cost of the B-1B.

Spokesmen for the Air Force and for Weinberger agreed that the 100-airplane limit continued to apply to the B-1B, and a Pentagon spokesman said the defense secretary's delay in responding to the offer did not reflect any underlying interest in exploring it.

"Ever since 1981, our plan has been to build 100 B-1Bs as a complement to the B-52s and FB-111s, and an undisclosed number of Advanced Technology Bombers. There's nothing changed from that," said an Air Force officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He continued: "Rockwell has put out a good product. But they have been concerned for a couple of years (about) being left with a cold assembly line."

In addition, the officer said, some subcontractors supplying parts for the four-engine, swept-wing B-1B have been forced to begin laying off employees as their workload decreases.

Another Pentagon official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name, characterized the Rockwell offer as one intended to present to the Administration a proposal "it shouldn't refuse."

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