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The US Doesn't Need the Stealth Bomber

THE B-2 ``Stealth'' bomber program, recently given the green light by the Bush administration, is a textbook example of United States defense mistakes. It has no military justification; its specific missions are either redundant or actually harmful to US security. Instead of sound strategic thinking, the B-2 represents a triumph of Air Force and weapons-contractor politics. The analogy with the MX missile is irresistible. From the standpoint of deterrence, the MX makes no sense because its vulnerability tempts the Soviets to strike first, at the same time that its high ``lethality'' against Soviet silos pushes them to use their missiles before they are destroyed. But the Air Force wanted more bang for its bucks, so they and their industrial contractors eventually pestered Congress into the first 50 of the 10-warhead MXs, and they may yet get another 50.

The B-2 has yet more political punch. The Air Force likes bombers even more than missiles. Contractors stand to reap even more profits from this $70 billion program - a cool half-billion per airplane - than from the $20 billion MX program. And contractors have taken a lead from the politically successful B-1 bomber program, letting B-2 contracts in all but three states. One company official boasts he has a map of the US in his office, bristling with pins in virtually every congressional district, to show visiting lawmakers.

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The B-2's missions will be to penetrate Soviet airspace to deliver nuclear weapons against traditional targets such as military bases and industrial facilities, and secondly to seek out and destroy mobile Soviet missiles. The first mission, penetration, can be performed as well and more cheaply by cruise missiles launched from outside Soviet airspace by our B-52 and B-1 bombers.

The second mission, to destroy mobile missiles, is destabilizing. It is one more example of the fact that, although the Air Force talks a lot about ``deterrence,'' they do not really seem to believe in it. ``Deterrence'' refers to preventing nuclear war through the threat of retaliation, by either side, for an attack by the other side. In order for this to work, both sides must have forces capable of retaliating. So it makes no sense to build a bomber whose mission is to destroy the very missiles, namely mobile ones, that the Soviets built in order to preserve deterrence!

It was the MX (and the coming Trident II missile) that forced the Soviets into mobile deployments in the first place, because the MX makes fixed Soviet silos vulnerable. The Soviet decision to go to less vulnerable mobiles was admirable. It reinforces deterrence, and it supports the notion that they are not interested in first-strike threats against us, since silo-based missiles are much better for a first strike than are the less accurate and more expensive mobile missiles.

And now the Air Force, in its wisdom, wants to target Soviet mobiles, too. It is as though we were bound and determined to force the Soviets into a first-strike posture. Fortunately, the B-2 is not terribly threatening to Soviet mobiles; it will not be effective at destroying them, and the Soviets can choose to launch their remaining mobiles if the B-2 have some effect. But, to the extent that it is successful, the B-2 does more harm than good.

It is a further example of US strategic irrationality that we face a military problem, yet the B-2 makes this problem worse while absorbing the funds that could be used to solve the real problem. The real problem is the vulnerability of US MX and Minuteman missiles.

There are solutions: The mobile ``Midgetman'' missile (half as expensive as the B-2), the shell-game ``multiple-silos'' basing scheme, ``superhard'' silos, and getting rid of US land-based missiles altogether as part of an arms control deal with the Soviets. Any of these approaches makes eminent sense.

But what is the US doing? Going ahead with MXs and B-2s that fly in the face of everything we know and profess about the deterrence of nuclear war.

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