Defense Budget OKd but Panel Wants B-2 Test
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday approved President Bush’s $305.5-billion defense spending request for fiscal 1990 virtually untouched but stipulated that no new money can be spent on the controversial B-2 stealth bomber until it completes its first flight tests.
The committee’s bill, which soon will be presented to the full Senate, is a strong endorsement of the budget submitted to Congress by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who called for an expenditure of $4.8 billion on the stealth bomber while eliminating a number of other popular weapons, including the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey helicopter and the Navy’s F-14D jet fighter.
The Senate panel’s work also gives considerable impetus to Cheney’s request for full production of the B-2, which recently suffered an $800-million budget cut in the House Armed Services Committee. Some members of Congress are seeking to restore to the budget such items as the V-22 and the F-14 at the expense of the costly B-2 program.
Although the Senate committee trimmed $300 million from the Administration’s request for the B-2, Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said the cut would have no impact on the Pentagon’s plan to purchase 132 of the new bombers. He indicated that the committee had viewed the $300 million as padding in the Administration’s request.
Moreover, Nunn, whose opinion carries great weight on Capitol Hill, gave the B-2 program a strong personal endorsement. He said the new bomber is necessary because the current-generation B-1 bomber cannot penetrate Soviet air defenses, as some had hoped it would.
Nevertheless, Nunn acknowledged that he sympathizes with B-2 opponents who claim the aircraft is too expensive. “All of us are undergoing some ‘sticker shock’ here,” he said.
It is now estimated that the B-2 program will cost the government $70 billion by the time the 132nd one has been purchased, making it cost about $500 million per aircraft.
Nunn noted that much of the support for the B-2 hinges on the upcoming first flight test. Northrop Corp. is expected to fly the sophisticated, boomerang-shaped bomber for the first time within the next week, possibly as early as today.
“If that plane doesn’t fly, the debate is over,” Nunn joked. “It is far too expensive to be a stealth taxi.”
Although the committee rejected a proposal by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio)--a former test pilot and astronaut--to withhold 1990 funding for the B-2 until the flight testing has been completed, the panel agreed to a compromise “fly-before-you-buy” policy proposed by Nunn and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia.
The panel stated that none of the money contained within the 1990 budget for the B-2 could be spent until the bomber successfully completes its first flight tests, until it is certified airworthy by the Defense Science Board and other top officials and until Northrop has initiated testing of its capabilities for eluding radar detection.
In addition, no more than 25% of the money can be expended before the secretary of defense reports on the results of the testing of its ability to elude radar. And the panel specified that future production costs of the aircraft may not exceed $295 million per bomber.
The Pentagon already has spent a total of $23 billion on B-2 research and development.
Nunn acknowledged that B-2 supporters face “some real battles” in Congress later this year to protect the program against cuts proposed by supporters of other programs that were eliminated in this budget. “It’s going to be very difficult,” he said.
Senate committee members supported Cheney’s budget primarily because they were pleased with his willingness to eliminate some popular procurement programs, according to Nunn. He said it has been apparent for at least five years that such “hard choices” were necessary under the current budget restraints, but neither the Congress nor the Pentagon had been willing to make them.
“I think Secretary Cheney will be delighted with this action here,” he said.
Although the committee provided no procurement funds for the V-22, which is being developed by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing Helicopters, it did add $255 million in research and development funds to complete the flight testing of the craft. Nunn said this was done because the committee believes there is a commercial market for the combination helicopter-airplane.
The Senate panel also provided $4.5 billion for continued research on the “Star Wars” space-based missile defense system, or Strategic Defense Initiative, but that figure could be slashed by as much as $1 billion before the 1990 defense bill is enacted by Congress.
‘Star Wars’ Cuts
Indeed, the House Armed Services Committee cut SDI funding to $3.8 billion and the figure is likely to be trimmed even more on the House floor. In the Senate, Nunn noted that chamber has only narrowly defeated drastic cuts in SDI in the last several years.
Strong proponents of the program, such as Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), are fearful that supporters of the V-22, F-14 and other terminated programs will be trying to fund their programs by cutting SDI as well as the B-2.
The Administration requested $4.8 billion for SDI in fiscal 1990.
The Senate committee’s bill also places heavy emphasis on improving ordinary conventional equipment for American infantry soldiers, such as flashlights and electronic gear. Nunn said he has often heard from soldiers that their gear is not as good as the electronic equipment that can be purchased commercially.
As a result, Nunn said, the committee has instructed Pentagon officials to “occasionally stroll through Radio Shack and see what’s available in the commercial world.”
HIGH-TECH MEETS HYPE: Northrop and the Air Force are rallying to promote the stealth bomber’s first flight. Page 24.