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Past Failures Should Sound Alarms on 'Stealth' Funding

B-2, or no B-2 - that is the question.As Congress continues to debate further funding for the B-2 "Stealth" bomber, legislators should remember the 97 "stealth" bombers we've bought but have yet to see in action. It's the B-1B bomber that has proven to be the true Stealth - so stealthy that it could not be located anywhere near the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. The B-1B, it may be remembered, was last decade's darling of the military-industrial establishment. The B-1B's conspicuous absence from the Persian Gulf is a prime argument for skepticism about future multibillion-dollar weapons systems like this decade's darling, the B-2. The stealthiness of the B-1B in Desert Storm was not due to it's much-touted, radar-jamming, defensive avionics system, but to the latest in a seemingly endless series of accidents, mechanical failures, and technical problems that have plagued the $27 billion fleet since the first B-1B's were produced in 1985. Of course, the Air Force position is that the B-1B was absent from the Persian Gulf because it was not requested and was better off in the United States serving as a deterrent to a (presumably Soviet) nuclear attack. But there is probably more than a slight correlation between the decision not to send the bomber and the fact that bombs aimed at Baghdad might have blown up the B-1B itself. Two problems made the B-1B unsafe for Operation Desert Storm. The first was a defective fuse (FMU 139), responsible for detonating the 500-pound bombs that are the plane's main conventional armament. The fuse had a tendency to arm too early and once caused a bomb dropped by an F-16 to detonate under the plane's fuselage. This defect, which was first noticed in 1989, was not corrected in time for the B-1B to safely take part in the war. The other problem, which actually caused the grounding of the entire B-1B fleet last December, is with the plane's engine itself. The first-stage fan blades are weak and tend to break, in turn breaking the retainer rings that hold the rest of the fan blades. The defect has twice caused catastrophic engine failure, once involving the separation of the engine from the plane. Only after the Gulf war was a stronger retainer ring installed and peace-time flying reinstated. The Air Force is considering spendin g up to $12 million to redesign the front fan system. These very serious problems were the immediate causes of the B-1B's absence from the Gulf, but account was probably taken of the long-term deficiencies that have continuously plagued the plane. Since Congress bowed to the Reagan administration's 1981 proposal to resurrect the B-1, following three years of debate after President Carter's termination of the B-1A, the aircraft has consistently failed to meet even the most modest expectations. Hailed as a multi-purpose bomber that would be able to perform nu clear and non-nuclear missions, fire cruise missiles, and successfully penetrate Soviet airspace using its electronic countermeasures (ECM) system, the B-1B showed serious defects from the very beginning. The gravest long-term problem is with the ECM system, designed to detect and confuse enemy defenses. Early on, it was discovered that this ECM system could not come close to its promised capabilities due to a number of serious technical problems. Chances of achieving those capabilities are now practically nonexistent, so the Air Force has resorted to scaling down and "standardizing" the ECM system at capabilities far below what was planned. In the meantime, as a panel from the House Armed Services Commit tee put it, the B-1B's effectiveness and survivability as a manned penetrating bomber are seriously "degraded." Other problems in the B-1B's history have ranged from fires, fuel leaks, engine icing, and the downing of a plane by a pelican to longer-term problems with the flight control system that seriously limit the B-1B's range. Some of these problems have yet to be corrected, and new ones keep appearing. Recently, one-fifth of the fleet was grounded due to cracks near the wing. A version of Murphy's law applies here. If something can go wrong with the B-1B, it probably already did. The failures attributed to the B-1B, along with its absence from Operation Desert Storm, have dampened the Air Force's enthusiasm for the aircraft. No longer the "mother of all bombers," the B-1B is now referred to as a "transition" bomber to the B-2 Stealth, which will supposedly do all the things the B-1B failed to accomplish. If the B-1B fiasco has taught us anything, it is that this "transition" must be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. The problems that kept the B-1B out of the Gulf have shown, 10 years and $27 billion after production began, that the aircraft is still incapable of being effective for any period of time. Before billions of taxpayers' dollars are spent on another highly expensive and highly ambitious new weapons system like the B-2 bomber, we must look beyond the administration's lavish praise for the p lane to ensure we do not buy another dud like the B-1B - the original "Stealth."