The Senate decisively defeated efforts to end or freeze production of the B-2 Stealth bomber Thursday after proponents seized on Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to bolster their case for the radar-eluding weapon.
"We needed (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein to give us that wake-up call," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) declared.
He and other B-2 supporters said that the sudden Middle East crisis demonstrated a potential new mission for the plane as well as the danger of slashing military spending in an unstable world.
Momentum had been building against the bat-wing bomber after the House Armed Services Committee voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to terminate production at 15 planes. But, in Congress, where events can swing moods widely, the Iraqi invasion appeared to give the B-2 a boost only hours before the Senate opened debate on a $289-billion defense authorization bill.
With Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), an influential B-2 supporter, moving quickly to force a showdown amid outcries over the invasion, the Senate voted, 56 to 43, to reject an amendment that would have killed B-2 production and saved up to $35 billion.
Specifically, the proposal by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and William S. Cohen (R-Me.) would have permitted completion of only six of the 15 planes now in the pipeline at Northrop Corp. in metropolitan Los Angeles.
The Senate then voted, 53 to 45, to scrap a fallback Cohen-Leahy amendment that would have suspended new production for a year pending further tests of the bomber's flying ability and revolutionary anti-radar technology. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) denounced the proposed delay as "but a fig leaf to kill this program."
Similar amendments last year attracted only 29 supporters.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) worked actively to kill the program. Even though 17,000 home-state workers are threatened, he said: "I am confident that the diverse California economy will make use of their highly transferable skills."
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who is running for governor, missed both votes Thursday but sent word that he supported continuing the B-2.
The vote "shows the importance the Senate attaches to long-term security issues versus politically seductive moods that would have killed or cut back the B-2 program," said Northrop spokesman Tony Cantafio from the aerospace giant's Century City offices.
The Senate actions mean the bill retains $1.8 billion to buy two more bombers in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, meeting President Bush's revised request. Bush originally sought five new planes, but last spring Defense Secretary Dick Cheney lowered total planned purchases to 75 from 132 in response to budget pressures and a reduced Soviet threat.
In vigorous debate on the B-2, Dole and others prominently mentioned the Iraqi invasion in pushing for continued production.
Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that the bomber would be ideal for use in Third World conflicts, even though it was designed as a strategic weapon to penetrate deep inside the Soviet Union in a nuclear war.
He said that the United States has no aircraft carrier based near Kuwait and suggested that the President, if he decided on a military response to the Iraqi invasion, "would have to rely primarily on long-range bombers with conventional weapons."
If B-2s had been used in the bombing of Libya four years ago, he continued, substantially fewer planes and crewmen would have been needed and the aircraft could have been deployed several days faster.
In the main, however, Nunn argued that the B-2 was one of the most effective deterrents against Soviet nuclear attack--a threat that he said still exists despite the collapse of the Warsaw Pact military alliance in Eastern Europe.
He acknowledged "sticker shock" over the plane's price. But, he added, although it will cost $36 billion to build the first 15 planes because of development expenses, it will cost only $27 billion to get 60 more.
Cohen and Leahy strongly dissented.
"The costs are elusive, the mission is at least questionable and the capability is yet unproven," Cohen said. He asserted that cruise missiles launched from B-1 or B-52 bombers outside the Soviet Union could do the same job.
Leahy said that "the B-2 bomber was devised by strategic planners when the Cold War was hot and the defense budget was bulging. Even President Bush has declared the Cold War over . . . . We cannot afford this plane and we do not need it."
But Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested that events like the Middle East crisis still could affect defense budget battles.
"Just because the Cold War is winding down doesn't mean the world is any less dangerous," he said. "We still need a full military capability, just a different one."