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Stealth bomber rolls out of shadows into spotlight

The dark, ominous-looking Stealth bomber, or B-2, was rolled into the light Tuesday after more than 10 years of secrecy-shrouded development. ``We can't afford to be without this program,'' Air Force Secretary Edward C. Aldridge Jr. declared to a select crowd of about 2,000 that included members of Congress, military brass, and the B-2 labor force.

Responding to critics who contend that the Stealth bomber is an expensive, unneeded weapons system that could destabilize arms control efforts, Mr. Aldridge said the boomerang-shaped B-2 is a key to compelling the Soviet Union to adhere to arms agreements.

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``This program is essential,'' Aldridge told reporters after the unveiling at the Mojave Desert plant where the B-1 bomber and the space shuttle are built. ``It's not destabilizing.''

He said the mission of the B-2, which is designed to slip past enemy radar defenses and drop nuclear bombs, is to make the Soviets realize they cannot protect their most precious assets, such as hardened command posts and movable missiles.

While the B-1B bomber is considered sufficient by the Air Force to meet the current Soviet threat, Aldridge insisted that the revolutionary technology of the B-2 is needed for the future.

The Stealth bomber is a subsonic, all-altitude flying wing formed from nonmetallic composite materials that are intended to absorb radar transmissions rather than reflect them. Its shape and lack of sharp angles also help make it nearly invisible to radar. Air Force officials say it makes about the same impression on a radar screen as a bird.

The plane steers with flaps on the rear of the wings rather than with a tail. At its unveiling, no one was allowed to see the B-2 from the rear, presumably because disclosing the design of its engine exhaust system might help enemy detection efforts.

Aldridge said even US radar systems cannot track the Stealth bomber and that the Pentagon believes the Soviets to be without any effective counter to it.

The bomber, built to accommodate a crew of two or three, has not yet flown. In the weeks ahead, it will undergo high-speed taxi tests and engine evaluations. Air Force officials declined to say when the B-2 would take to the air, saying it would fly, ``only when it is ready.''

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The budget arm of Congress, the General Accounting Office, has estimated potential program costs for a fleet of 132 Stealth bombers sought by the Air Force at $68.5 billion.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has called the B-2 a costly weapons system that could possibly panic the Soviets and cause the opposite of the desired deterrent effect. The Air Force has disputed this assertion, contending it is important for the Soviets to realize a weapon exists that could retaliate against their most prized assets.

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