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Congress and the Air Force, like a pair of heavyweight boxers looking for one last purse, are determined to square off in a high-stakes rematch over the B-2 Stealth bomber beginning late next month.

But Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice will be in for a fight more ferocious than the last one, congressional Democrats and Republicans agree. And last week, he appeared to be building a strategy, one that has less to do with adjusting to a changing Soviet military threat and more to do with protecting one of the most expensive programs in Pentagon history."I continue to see it as an essential program and one that we're going forward with," Rice said about plans to build 132 radar-evading, long-range nuclear bombers.

"The B-2 won't make it," countered Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The full program, officially estimated to cost at least $70.2 billion, or about $532 million per plane, will be pummeled by congressional budget-cutters and pressures to reduce the federal deficit, he predicts.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., suggested last week that fellow House Armed Services Committee members were likely to see the B-2 program as the Pentagon's last "cash cow" to divert funds to pork-barrel projects now that massive budget increases for the Strategic Defense Initiative appear to be a thing of the past.

During the fight over the fiscal 1990 defense budget, Congress sliced a $4.7 billion request for the B-2 by 9 percent, a kinder cut than the 20 percent advocated by the House last August. But the final action denied the Air Force one of three planned bombers and required officials to devise cheaper, alternative plans for 25 percent and 50 percent fewer planes.

Rice, gearing up for the battle ahead, told reporters at a breakfast meeting last week that Air Force officials had to "work harder than we've done" in the past "to make it clear that (it is) the major investment that the taxpayer is making here and that we're doing everything we can to hold down the cost of that program."

The military will also try to persuade Congress "that we expect to utilize that aircraft and all of its capabilities with due regard for trying to maximize the taxpayers' return on that investment."

On that score, the Air Force envisions a conventional, non-nuclear bombing mission for the B-2, alongside its strategic missions of delivering nuclear warheads deep inside Soviet airspace against fixed targets and mobile missiles, Rice said.

This idea already had been floated by Gen. Larry Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, who has argued that the two or three bombers dispatched from the United States could have done the job of 119 combat and support aircraft used in the 1986 raid on Libya. When the general told that to Congress last summer, Cohen responded, "It's the equivalent of saying we're going to send a Rolls Royce down into a combat zone to pick up groceries."

But Rice raised a new argument last week, saying the spread of sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses in the Third World could increase the need for the B-2 in conventional warfare.

"A point to note is that with these kinds of (air defense) technologies, whether surface-to-air missiles or advanced fighter planes . . . I think you're going to see in a post-START, post-CFE world quite sophisticated and quite lethal capabilities in the hands of much lesser nations," he said, referring to U.S.-Soviet strategic arms reduction talks and East-West negotiations on reducing conventional forces in Europe.

"That's part of the uncertainty we have to plan against."

While some air raids would be more suitable to B-52 or B-1B bombers that could stand outside enemy air defenses to launch cruise missiles, "we would obviously want to employ the B-2 where the Stealth characteristics offered a special advantage for the particular usage that was contemplated," Rice said. "That won't necessarily be all the time."

A military source said Friday that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Welch, have not raised at their meetings the possibility of new Third World air defense threats in the context of B-2 bomber deployment, although the source said it was possible that the Air Force was examining this matter internally.