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B-2 BOMBER LOOKS NO BIGGER THAN BUG ON RADAR, A.F. SAYS

The B-2 Stealth bomber is 69 feet long, 17 feet high and has a wingspan of 172 feet, but on a Soviet radar monitor the aircraft would appear to be an object no bigger than an insect.

The Air Force on Wednesday revealed the bomber's radar cross section as it continued its campaign to bolster diminishing congressional support for the bat-winged aircraft, priced at $815 million each."The B-2's significantly reduced radar cross section minimizes the detectability of the B-2 to the point it can operate with virtual impunity," the Air Force said in one of three detailed reports.

In testimony to a Senate Armed Services subcommittee, Air Force Secretary Donald Rice and Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch unveiled the reports to support arguments for the bomber, manufactured by the Northrop Corp.

An unclassified page in one report describing typical radar cross sections compared ships, aircraft, birds and three insects - the blue-winged locust, the honeybee and the alfalfa caterpillar butterfly.

Pressed to categorize the bomber, Welch responded, "It's in the insect category." He refused to elaborate.

The Air Force has repeatedly said the B-2 is not invisible and there are systems that sometimes can detect the aircraft. But Welch said the small cross section the aircraft would occupy on a radar screen would enhance its ability to operate without detection in Soviet air space.

Rice assured the Senate panel that if the plane fails low observability tests, scheduled to begin this fall, he would reconsider the program.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, citing both a diminished Soviet threat to the West and budget pressures, proposed on April 27 cutting the planned total B-2 purchase from 132 to 75.

In the $303 billion defense budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Cheney cut the number of Stealths to be bought from five to two.

Sen. James Exon, D-Neb., chairman of the Senate subcommittee on strategic forces and nuclear deterrence, heralded the testimony from Welch and Rice as "crucial to the continuation of the B-2 bomber program."

The Senate panel is expected to begin crafting a fiscal 1991 defense bill later this month.

But Exon, a B-2 supporter, immediately expressed frustration when Rice could not provide specific information on the reduced cost of the program in fiscal 1991 with the reduction in planned purchases.

"It's six weeks since the secretary himself indicated the reduced buy," Exon said. "Just not getting the information up to us indicates to me that there must be a lot of unanswered questions on the bottom side of that balance sheet over there."

Pressed by other lawmakers, Rice said the program in fiscal 1991 would cost about $4.5 billion, some $900 million less than originally proposed. He was unable to provide specifics on military construction costs, spare parts, advanced procurement and research and development.

The Air Force secretary added that the overall cost of the B-2 program would likely be slightly higher than the $61.1 billion Cheney estimated when the planned acquisition was reduced. Rice estimated $62 billion for a fleet of 75 planes.