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CHENEY CONVINCED STEALTH BOMBER IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR _ DESPITE COST

SHARE CHENEY CONVINCED STEALTH BOMBER IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR _ DESPITE COST

The United States has spent more than $15 billion on the B2 "Stealth" bomber even though the first one has yet to fly, assuring the cost per plane will soar above $500 million, Pentagon officials said Saturday.

But despite the rising costs, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney has decided to champion the bomber rather than cancel it as his former procurement chief has recommended.The future of the B2 looms as one of Cheney's biggest procurement battles in Congress, as a growing number of lawmakers look for defense dollars to cut and question whether the United States needs such an expensive plane when Washington and Moscow are making strides toward mutual disarmament.

The Air Force had hoped to build a fleet of 132 Stealth bombers for about $68 billion - or about $515 million each, counting research and development costs. The first Stealth is expected to fly this summer. But the research and development costs alone have risen to between $15 billion and $20 billion, according to Pentagon officials, with high production bills still to come.

The soaring cost of the Stealth bomber and his lack of faith in the Northrop Corp.'s ability to do quality work prompted Robert B. Costello, the Pentagon's procurement chief until last month, to recommend canceling it.

Cheney deflected congressional criticism of the bomber earlier this year by declaring he needed more time to study the conflicting cost data and to educate himself on what the bomber could do if it were built. The Air Force has said the B2 would help deter war and, failing that, be able to evade Soviet defenses and knock out heavily fortified command posts and missiles that had not yet been fired at the United States.

Cheney said he went to the Northrop plant in Palmdale, Calif., last week to view the B2 and emerged convinced the bomber was worth fighting for, despite its rising cost. A Pentagon advisory board recently concluded the bomber is still worth buying.

A number of lawmakers are expected to contest that conclusion in the coming months.

In contrast to Air Force estimates that the B2 will end up costing about $515 million a copy, government accountants outside the Pentagon who have studied the program are predicting the bomber's price the tag will come out to $750 million to $1 billion.

Cheney, on the Cable News Network "Newsmaker Sunday" television program taped Saturday, tried to lessen sticker shock by comparing the Stealth bomber to the Trident missile submarine, which cost $1.1 billion a copy. This represented an abandonment of the Reagan administration argument that B1 and Stealth bomber costs would be comparable.

"My own personal view is that the B2 is a very important system," Cheney said. "It represents a whole new generation of aircraft. It's not just something with wings and a tail that you hang more bells and whistles on, sort of an evolution of aircraft. It's a revolutionary aircraft. I came away tremendously impressed" after viewing the bomber. "I think it's an enormously important capability. We ought to go ahead and procure it. A penetrating bomber is going to be very important to the United States," especially if ocean-spanning missiles are negotiated out of existence through arms control agreements.