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Defense Secretary Dick Cheney cut back the B-2 Stealth bomber program to 75 planes Thursday, reduced the size of the C-17 and A-12 programs and delayed the next generation of Air Force fighters.

Cheney's actions affected six major Pentagon aircraft programs. He said it would save $16.8 billion through fiscal 1994 and another $18 billion from 1995 to 1997. In the 1991 budget it would save $2.41 billion, he said.The announcement, which came after a four-month review of major aircraft programs, was closely watched by aircraft manufacturers and financial markets because of the potential impact of the billions of defense dollars involved. The research and production costs of the programs involved totaled about $250 billion, almost an entire year's defense budget.

In immediate terms, Cheney said he was cutting the B-2 purchase for 1991 from five planes down to two aircraft and reducing the C-17 request from six planes to two.

He said the time had not yet come when he could recommend killing off any of the programs, and he cautioned that the programs will provide the nation's defense two and three decades from now "for pilots yet unborn and presidents not yet old enough to vote."

Cuts are inevitable

As copies of his statement were made available at the Pentagon, Cheney headed to Capitol Hill to outline his decisions to the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

The two committees soon will be writing their versions of the defense budget, which even without the changes Cheney suggested are certain to be $6 billion to $8 billion under what Cheney wanted for 1991 spending and about $20 billion less than what he sought in long-term spending authority.

Cheney said his action was taken in response to changed world conditions and increasingly tight fiscal constraints. Despite cutting back the B-2 program from 132 operational planes to 75 - at a savings of $14.4 billion over the life of the program - Cheney repeated his strong support of the Northrop Corp.'s program. He said B-2 production should peak at 12 planes a year by 1994, rather than 24 a year by that time.

Additional proposals

-Buying 620 instead of a planned 858 of the Navy's new A-12 carrier plane. Production would begin this year and hit a peak production rate of 36 planes a year by fiscal 1994, a drop from 48 planes in 1995.

-Reducing the purchase of the C-17 from 210 planes to 120, with production peaking at 24 planes a year in 1995 rather than 29 a year in 1994.

-Deferring production of the Air Force version of the A-12 until beyond the six-year defense plan that ends in fiscal 1997. The Pentagon had planned to buy 400 of the planes, starting in fiscal 1993.

-Deferring production of the advanced tactical fighter until 1996, from a planned start in 1994. The size of the purchase would remain at 750 planes, but the production rate would come down from 72 to 48 planes a year.

-Cutting the purchase of the Navy's version fo the advanced tactical fighter from 618 planes to 546, with production starting in the year 2000 rather than in 1998. The production rate would remain unchanged at 48 per year.

Cheney said the assessments are preliminary since future developments could require changes.