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Rockwell Offers Pentagon B-1 Bombers at Cut Price

Times Staff Writer

Rockwell International said Tuesday that it is ready to sell more B-1 bombers to the Pentagon at a reduced price, a proposal that comes just as Congress is reeling from sticker shock on Northrop’s $530-million B-2 bomber.

In a statement, Rockwell said it could build 100 more B-1s for $190 million each. That cost does not include expected future inflation, whereas the B-2 cost does.

“Based on the B-1B’s demonstrated performance in a wide variety of operations, its flight history and capability, we believe that additional B-1Bs may be needed,” the statement said.

Although the Rockwell announcement did not explicitly refer to the price of the B-2, it made an indirect reference to the growing concern about the B-2’s affordability. “We have always felt that once the total program performance of the B-2 was understood . . . more B-1s might be needed,” the statement said.

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Northrop spokesman Tony Cantafio responded by noting recent testimony by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch in which he said: “The B-1 cannot match the capability of the B-2 in the long-term at any price.”

The B-1 and the B-2 were competitors in the early 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan decided to build the Rockwell plane and slowly develop the Northrop aircraft. Now that the Pentagon procurement boom has petered out, Northrop is having a hard time convincing Congress that the nation can afford the B-2.

The B-2, which began development in 1981 and made its maiden flight only Monday, has been touted as the “advanced technology bomber,” whereas the B-1 was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Moreover, after many B-1s were produced, it was disclosed that the aircraft’s electronic warfare system could not jam all Soviet antiaircraft missiles. The B-2 is designed to elude radar, though that feature has yet to be tested.

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While the company admits that it has not been encouraged by the Air Force or Congress, Rockwell Executive Vice President Sam Iacobellis, who ran the B-1 program, has repeatedly said he never gave up hope that Rockwell might one day sell more B-1s. It completed production with the 100th bomber in April, 1988, at an average price of $285 million per plane.

Over the past two decades, the B-1 has become known as the bomber that politically could not be shot down and ultimately survived a cancellation by President Jimmy Carter; it was revived by Reagan in a $28.5-billion program.

“The B-1 is still the Dracula of aircraft--you’d have to drive a silver stake through it before it will die,” said Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project, a watchdog group.

The Pentagon has committed $23 billion for development and the purchase of 15 B-2s. It needs approval to spend another $47 billion to get the rest of the 132 aircraft.

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