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B-1 Bomber Is ‘Beacon’ to Soviet Radar, Sources Allege

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Times Staff Writer

The Air Force has discovered that the electronic countermeasures system on the new B-1B bomber, rather than thwarting radar detection, actually creates a “beacon effect” and makes it easier for the Soviets to spot the plane, congressional sources said Wednesday.

Because the costly and controversial bomber is specifically designed to penetrate to Soviet targets by avoiding radar detection, the discovery was described by one knowledgeable source as “the most dramatic yet” in the plane’s troubled history.

One source said that the Air Force already is attempting to correct the problem and that Pentagon officials are confident it will not derail the program, a cornerstone of the Reagan Administration’s military buildup.

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Could Provoke Congress

However, the flaw could make Congress more resistant to future Pentagon requests for new high technology weapons systems that go into production before testing is complete. About half the 100 B-1B bombers ordered have already been delivered.

The Times reported Jan. 9 that shortcomings in the bomber’s electronic radar-jamming system mean that it cannot safely fly over certain Soviet anti-aircraft sites as it was supposed to be able to do, requiring it to fly around them.

An Air Force spokesman declined immediate comment on the reported quirk in the bomber’s sophisticated “black boxes.” Sources said that the problem was discussed in secret by members of two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday after they received in public session a General Accounting Office report on other previously disclosed troubles with the plane, ranging from fuel leaks to navigational difficulties.

Air Force witnesses are to appear today before the House panels and are expected to defend the bomber against a rising chorus of congressional criticism.

‘Fantastic Flying Machine’

On Monday, Gen. John T. Chain Jr., commander-in-chief of the Strategic Air Command, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that the B-1B is a “fantastic flying machine” and “the best warplane in the world today.” And Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger last month called it “the most advanced bomber in the world” and said that suggestions it could not penetrate Soviet air space were “utter nonsense.”

Aspin Hints at Problem

Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the parent House committee who presided Wednesday at the opening session of what he said would be a “major review” of the B-1B, hinted at the new problem in his questioning of Frank C. Conahan, assistant comptroller general who heads the GAO’s national security division.

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Referring to “rumors I keep hearing,” Aspin asked Conahan whether the B-1B’s electronic countermeasures system “does the opposite” of what it was designed to do and actually “becomes a beacon for Soviet radar.”

Go Into Closed Session

Conahan, who had given the subcommittees a more extensive classified version of the report he delivered in open session, replied: “I can only comment on that in closed session.”

A short time later, the panels went into closed session and sources said afterwards that the “beacon effect” was one topic discussed.

“We don’t know how difficult it will be to fix,” one source said, “but right now it causes the B-1 to stand out like a lighthouse” on Soviet radar screens. “It may not be the most difficult or critical problem, but it is the most dramatic yet.”

The source would not give further details on the “beacon effect,” saying only that “it is a problem in the 100 or so black boxes” that make up the plane’s electronic countermeasures system.

Conahan, testifying on results of a six-month study by the congressional watchdog committee, asserted that the B-1B “can essentially proceed to its target, deliver its load and do its mission.”

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Criteria Set by Congress

But, he added, “it can’t do any of those things at its design capability,” the performance level set six years ago when Congress, at President Reagan’s urging, voted to build 100 of the planes at a cost of about $200 million each.

The B-1B is intended to bridge the gap in the nation’s nuclear arsenal between the aging B-52 bomber and the radar-elusive stealth bomber now under development.

About 50 B-1Bs have been delivered and the Air Force has asked for $800 million to repair and upgrade the craft, whose air frame is manufactured by Rockwell International. Conahan told the subcommittees that the fixes are expensive, but that Congress has little choice but to go ahead with the program because of the extensive investment already made.

However, he said, “What we need to do is learn some lessons for the future,” adding that most of the problems stem from “concurrency”--in effect manufacturing the plane while tests on critical systems are still under way.

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