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B-2 Fleet Could Be Cut by Half, Nunn Declares

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a new blow to President Bush’s plan to build 75 B-2 Stealth bombers as a keystone of American military power, influential Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said Sunday he now believes the nation requires only about half that number.

Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and formerly a leading advocate for Bush’s B-2 funding proposal, said the President’s call Friday night for deep cutbacks in nuclear weapons has reduced the strategic role of the $865-million bomber.

While the B-2’s conventional role may be expanded as a result of the collapse of Soviet communism, Nunn said that the Air Force needed to re-examine how many of the radar-evading warplanes, built by Northrop Corp. of Los Angeles, would be needed.

“I don’t think we can afford 75,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “My guess is it’ll be somewhere in the range of half of that, but they have to come up with what they really want the B-2 to do in this new world we’re talking about now after the President’s speech.”

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In another surprise, the Georgia Democrat said he had strong doubts about the future military role of the B-1 bomber and suggested it could be mothballed at a savings of $1 billion a year.

“I don’t think it’s going to have a strategic (nuclear) role,” Nunn said. “It has never had much of a conventional role. It doesn’t carry enough payload. So the real question is whether we should save money by just taking the B-1 and putting it in mothballs. We could get it back out later and save about a billion dollars a year in that respect.” Despite its history of flight problems, Nunn has never expressed such misgivings about the B-1, congressional aides said Sunday. In addition to flight problems, critics of the B-1 say it has never had a clear mission. It was not used in the Gulf War.

Nunn’s comments came as Senate and House negotiators neared major decisions on the fate of the B-2 and other weapons systems in concurrent conferences on defense authorization and appropriations bills.

In his dramatic speech on Friday, Bush specifically asked Congress to provide funds for four more B-2s next year to stay on the path to build a total of 75 of the advanced technology weapons.

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The House, however, has voted to halt B-2 production at 15, saving about $30 billion. In the Senate last week the controversial bomber barely survived--by three votes--another effort to limit production to 15.

Bush’s speech has changed the defense spending outlook, Nunn said, because the President said the nation no longer needs a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile mounted on rail cars, nor does it need short-range attack missiles designed to be carried by airplanes to attack far-off targets.

“The Senate conferees are not going to have the leverage we did,” Nunn said, referring to the conference between the House and Senate to settle differences over B-2 funding. Some congressional analysts speculated that Nunn’s new willingness to support a sharp reduction from the 75-plane figure he once backed was an effort to save as many of the planes as possible in view of rapidly declining support for the B-2 in both the House and Senate.

Before Bush sprang his defense cutback surprise Friday night, it had been expected that the Senate-House conference committee would keep the B-2 program alive, at least until a planned showdown vote next spring. But, in any case, immediate funding was not anticipated for the four additional planes sought by Bush. With the new fiscal year starting Tuesday, the conferees will be seeking to reconcile differences in defense spending bills that will not only affect the future of the B-2 program, but also such major initiatives as “Star Wars"--the Strategic Defense Initiative--and the now apparently doomed MX mobile missile program.

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In a related development, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said the Pentagon should save money by correcting flaws in the B-1 bomber rather than proceed with additional B-2 buys. The B-1s, she indicated, could be used for conventional warfare instead of purchasing the far more costly B-2.

“I think the B-2 will be in real trouble,” Schroeder, a B-2 foe, said on CNN’s “Newsmaker Sunday” program.

Schroeder also called for faster reductions in the number of American troops in Western Europe to bring defense outlays down even further.

Nunn also said the Navy should review the number of aircraft carriers and other warships it needs to keep at sea, suggesting that some of the vessels may be held in reserve if the Soviet naval threat is reduced.

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Meantime, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said the President’s new nuclear policy would raise defense costs slightly in the coming year but produce multibillion dollar savings in the longer term.

Unanticipated costs of destroying short-range nuclear weapons, canceling contracts and changing other weapons systems will raise outlays in the next 12-month period, Cheney said on ABC’s “This Week With David Brinkley.”

Nunn said he disagreed with those who predicted a large “peace dividend” as a result of the failed coup in the former Soviet Union.

“Most of the defense savings are going to have to go and try to meet the deficit, which is growing,” Nunn said.

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Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), however, said Nunn’s revised view on the number of B-2 bombers that should be bought may be a significant turning point in reducing the Pentagon’s budget.

“This could be a welcome sign that we might get defense spending under control and pay more attention to domestic needs such as education and environment,” Cranston said.


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