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The B-2 Shell Game

OVER the last several years, the Bush administration has devised a number of justifications for its B-2 Stealth bomber. None of them have been very successful, but as each rationale evaporates another appears in its place. Trying to find a valid reason for continuing with this program is like seeking the pea in a shell game. Now you see it, now you don't. At first we were told that the Stealth bomber was designed to attack mobile targets, especially missile launchers. That argument disappeared when it was acknowledged that we cannot provide the bombers with up-to-the-minute targeting information in time to complete that mission.

The Air Force's counterargument - that Stealth is the only system that has the potential, someday, to obtain the capability to destroy mobile targets - is a better argument for delaying production until that potential is realized. In any case, it won't carry much weight with taxpayers who will have to pay in real dollars.

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We also have been told that the Stealth is necessary to modernize our penetrating bomber forces. Soviet air defenses, it's said, will destroy the ability of current bombers to reach their targets. There are a number of problems here. First, the effectiveness of Soviet air defenses will be reduced drastically in the aftermath of an attack by thousands of missile warheads, which will strike before the bombers can arrive.

Second, no matter what air defenses they face, it seems likely that our new, stealthy advanced cruise missile will have an easier time penetrating than would the Stealth bomber. And third, it is difficult to imagine that there will be any targets worth hitting with gravity bombs after a nuclear missile exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Which leads to the next argument - that Stealth is needed to deter nuclear war. This argument is persuasive only if you believe that our other thousands of nuclear weapons, including those carried on newly deployed systems such as the Trident submarine, B1-B bomber, and MX missile, will not continue to deter Soviet attack. Building the Stealth bomber to gain that little bit of extra deterrence would be like insuring a house in Minneapolis against volcano damage.

The most original argument has been that we need the B-2 in order to carry out conventional missions, such as the air raid on Libya. Of course, the Navy successfully carried out that mission without the Stealth. And we would have to consider the potential for a Libyan intelligence bonanza if they happen to be fortunate enough to capture one. Finally, the 15 B-2 bombers already authorized are more than enough to carry out three simultaneous Libya-style raids. We don't need 132 aircraft for conventional missions.

The latest argument, however, is the most disingenuous. Administration and military officers have claimed that we must proceed with the B-2 because the special ``counting rules'' of the proposed strategic arms reduction treaty (START) favor aircraft carrying bombs over those equipped with missiles.

This position is correct as far as it goes. The counting rules would provide that each bomber, and its entire load of gravity bombs, be counted as one warhead, while cruise missiles would be counted either in their entirety or by half (depending on which country's proposal is adopted). Although the treaty would ``limit'' us and the Soviets to 6,000 strategic warheads, in fact we would be able to deploy 9,000 or more. We would not be cutting our arsenals in half, as advertised, but perhaps by one-third.

However, those counting rules are not cast in stone, except to the extent that the administration refuses to change them. The rules themselves were proposed by the US in order to allow expanded deployment of the B-2.

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Thus, according to the aircraft's supporters, we must have the B-2 because the treaty's provisions favor bombers, and we must have treaty provisions that favor bombers because the Air Force wants the B-2.

This is a textbook example of a circular argument. It ignores the fact that the US, not the Soviets, proposed the counting rules. It does not consider that the proposed treaty can be changed. And it assumes that Congress will accept manipulation of our arms control negotiating position in order to help the Air Force obtain a bomber it wants in any case.

The solution is simple. Terminate aircraft production, and follow up by changing the counting rules so that we account for every bomb and missile. Not only would this save us tens of billions of dollars, it would add a measure of honesty to the treaty negotiations. Otherwise, we will claim that 9,000 bombs are really only 6,000 bombs, and that a 30 percent reduction in nuclear weapons is actually a 50 percent cut.

The Bush administration, despite its best efforts, has consistently failed to devise a solid rationale for the B-2. It is time to end the shell game.

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