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The B-2 Stealth bomber, barely off the drawing boards and still mostly on the assembly lines, had a lot riding on the gulf war.

The plane, a radar-eluding strategic bomber the Pentagon wants to base at Whiteman Air Force Base at Knob Noster, Mo., got a test of sorts in the war through the performance of its cousin, the F-117A Stealth fighter.But while the war showed the value of the stealth technology with the F-117A, it also raised questions about whether the B-2 is needed at all.

The combined capability of F-117As and Tomahawk missiles to score hard, accurate hits on targets "will convince Congress that the exorbitantly expensive B-2 is unnecessary," said Kevin Knobloch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group in the forefront of the B-2 opposition.Not everybody, of course, agrees.

"One lesson that's come through loud and clear out of the gulf conflict is the value of stealth technology," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said.

In the first hours of the war, 40 percent of all bombing missions were flown by 5 percent of U.S. planes -Stealth fighters.

Already, the stage is set this year for another divisive B-2 debate in Congress.

"The argument in favor of it is far better than before," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., whose district includes Whiteman AFB.

But Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kansas, a leading B-2 opponent, said the war only shows that "the mission of the B-2 becomes even more preposterous than before."

To date, Congress has authorized 15 B-2s and put about $31 billion into the program, a large share of which has been research and development. Overall, the Pentagon wants a fleet of 75 B-2s for about $65 billion. For next year, the Air Force wants $4.8 billion for four more planes.

While the B-2 debate this year will have a familiar ring, it will be waged against a new geo-political backdrop.

The euphoria over the end of the Cold War has subsided, with turmoil inside the Soviet Union creating an uncertainty about who will wield power and what Kremlin policy toward the West will be.

In presenting a proposal for multi-year cuts in defense spending, Cheney said he might have to revise his plan if events in the Soviet Union result in a chilling of U.S.-Soviet relations.

Skelton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said problems within the Soviet Union, as well as the F-117A's performance, should bolster the case for the B-2.

"You have chaos, you have possible civil war. Who owns their bombers? Who owns their strategic missiles?" he asked.

Skelton, however, recognizes that with a $4.8 billion request for next year, the B-2 still faces a tough battle in Congress and needs high-powered help. "The president is going to have to get deeply involved in this, and say, `This has to be in the (defense) bill.' "

One thing on which Skelton and opponents of the B-2 agree: The plane's cost will dominate the debate.

"Is the cost worth the improvement in your defense capability?" Slattery asked.


(Additional information)

They ain't cheap

B-2 $406 million

F117A $42.5 million

These are the "fly-away" costs, which means they don't include research and development and construction costs at Whiteman AFB.

When research and development costs are included, each B-2 today would cost about $800 million.